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06 July 2012

I should have been too glad, I see –

I should have been too glad, I see –
Too lifted – for the scant degree
Of Life's penurious Round –
My little Circuit would have shamed
This new Circumference – have blamed –
The homelier time behind –

I should have been too saved – I see –
Too rescued – Fear too dim to me
That I could spell the Prayer
I knew so perfect – yesterday –
That Scalding One – Sabachthani –
Recited fluent – here –

Earth would have been too much – I see –
And Heaven – not enough for me –
I should have had the Joy
Without the Fear – to justify –
The Palm – without the Calvary –
So Savior – Crucify –

Defeat whets Victory – they say –
The Reefs in old Gethsemane
Endear the Coast beyond –
'Tis Beggars – Banquets best define –
'Tis Parching – vitalizes Wine –
Faith bleats to understand!
                                                                                    F283 (1862)  313

In a tone of heavy sarcasm the poet pretends she is glad she didn’t get something she desperately wanted. It’s just as well, she sneers, that the wonderful thing never happened. Otherwise, 1) she would have been “too glad” and “Too lifted” above the “little Circuit” of her normal life; 2) she would have been “too saved … / “Too rescued” to pray with suitable humble agony; 3) Earth would have become more wonderful than Heaven; and 4) she would have “had the Joy” without the fear or pain or failure that characterize the normal human condition. Does this sound a bit bitter?
            We saw something similar in an earlier poem, “Victory comes late,” where the poet rails against a God who provides too little too late. Victory was awarded someone just moments after he died. “How sweet it would have tasted” earlier, she writes. “Just a Drop / Was God so economical?” His “Table's spread too high for Us,” she complains.
             In this current poem she scornfully notes “the scant degree / Of Life’s penurious Round.” God is stingy, she’s saying. We’re supposed to keep within our little circle and not rise beyond our station, avoid being “too lifted.”
            The second stanza is particularly harsh. Can one be “too saved”? “Too rescued”? Yes, Dickinson says, for if we aren’t worried about salvation, if the fear is “too dim,” we wouldn’t call out as Jesus did as he was dying on a cross, “Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani?"    "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" [Mark 15:34]. If this sense of anguished betrayal is good enough for Jesus, well it’s good enough for her. The sense of betrayal in this prayer is so intense it is “Scalding.” Please God, the poet is saying,  “keep me in fear of my soul so I can still recite it fluently.”
            The third stanza continues in this vein. The great happiness the narrator had hoped for would have made Earth too wonderful. That’s wrong! Heaven should be more wonderful and Earth a place of sorrow and patient misery. What if she had “had the Joy / Without the Fear”? That would have been bad, too. It’s the fear that justifies the triumphal palm fronds. The narrator is (sarcastically) concerned that she would have had the Joy and triumph without the messy death on the cross.  
            She sums it all up in the last stanza. Those shipwrecked on the bloody crosses of Gethsemane will certainly have a greater appreciation of Heaven, “The Coast beyond,” than those who had an easier life. “Beggars” know how to take advantage of a banquet, and if one is dying of thirst, wine tastes really really good.
            The final line employs the metaphor of Christians as dumb sheep by the use of the verb “bleat.” Reason and logic might suggest a loving God would not ensure that happiness is thwarted or that beggars go hungry. But it is and they do. Faith stands in the pasture bleating. Not a pretty picture, but a fitting and remarkable end to this very bitter poem.

**NOTE** A commenter has a different interpretation of this poem -- and I think he is right. The tone is not bitter but rather contemplative and thoughtful as Dickinson considers the smaller life she would have had without the pain, hungers, and defeats.


  1. I should have been TOO glad, I see now, had I caved in back then and joined The Flock in being 'too glad,'too saved,' 'too lifted,' 'too rescued.'I was a child and had not experienced much of life, life being much too short as it is. Had I not held out and had I followed my Home instead (my Father, Mother, Brother, Sister and my dear Sue)I would now chide myself for being naive.My Fears had been a child's fears. Yesterday I could spell'Sabacthini'perfectly.Now I know what it means. We too must face up to our abandonments and 'crucifixions.'I see now, to have both Heaven and our beautiful Earth would have overwhelmed me - and to give up this Earth at the End? Never!The Flocks' Joy is untested, unearned. To earn it we must face our fears, our defeats,our hungers and our Deaths.It's the only Joy worth having.The Sheep don't get it.

    1. Now that I re-read the poem and think about your gloss, I see that my take was narrow and missed the mark by calling Dickinson's tone bitter. She is, as you point out, concluding that without the defeats, hungers, and pain her "Circumference" would have been but a little "circuit."
      Thanks for commenting.

  2. I don't sense "heavy sarcasm", although the poem has a sarcastic undertone. I do sense dissatisfaction, a characteristic of a number of her poems. The "should haves" and the "would haves" reveal a kind of displeasure with her stingy "little circuit". Not even faith can spare her disappointment with the contraries of living.

  3. I am beginning to read "The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson." I appreciate your blog. It is helping me understand her work. Thanks so much for providing your thoughts.

  4. The perfection of knowledge isn’t possible with merely faith - faith doesn’t “get” paradox and the experiences like “water is taught by thirst” (93) that make our understanding so much the richer. It just jumps straight to the end without having read the book.

    1. Thank you for the comment. So true. I'm loving this poem on re-reading it. Very powerful. I'd write about it differently today.

  5. Same message as 284! “Eclipses - Suns - imply - “

  6. Assuming Comment 7, previous poem, ‘We play at Paste –‘ (F282):

    Composing this poem, ED felt conflict. Loss of lover, on Earth and/or in Heaven, pissed her off, and she fired her familiar firearm, sarcasm. At the same time, she saw what winning would have cost and she’s glad she lost.

    But between sarcasm and self-congratulation lies a whiff of rationalizing. A survivor, she makes the best of life’s twist, turns loss to win.

  7. As evidence that Sue’s opinion on poems was important to ED, the third word in Stanza 4 Line 3 of Variant, which ED first sent Sue, was “shore”. However, at the bottom of the page ED listed “Coast” as an alternative. Also at the bottom of the page, ED suggested “faints” as an alternative to “bleats” in the last line.

    Apparently, Sue liked the first suggestion, but not the second. ED made a copy of the last stanza with the single change and sent it to Sue to confirm the poem’s final form (above).

  8. Sentence 1 of the preceding comment should read "...Variant A, which...."

  9. Nine months later . . .

    ED begins her puzzle poem with Line 1, a conditional sentence without a stated condition (X). She challenges us to infer that condition and, in the solving, feel what she feels and why she feels that way:

    Stanza 1

    If X had happened, I would have been too glad, too lifted for life’s ordinary cycle (birth, death). My little life would have blemished my new existence (Circumference), X, because it was so homely, ordinary.

    Stanza 2

    If X had happened, I would have been too saved, too rescued, too sheltered to understand that scalding prayer, Sabachthani, that I fluently recite in this poem, “Wadsworth, Wadsworth, why have you abandoned me?”

    Stanza 3

    If X had happened, Earth would have been too much and Heaven not enough for me. I would have experienced Joy without the Fear required to justify a triumphal crown of palm and without the agony caused by Wadsworth’s removal to Calvary Presbyterian Church. So, Wadsworth, crucify me.

    Stanza 4

    Defeat makes Victory taste better. The agony of Wadsworth leaving me gives me more appreciation of our coming marriage in heaven. Beggars best define Banquets; thirst makes wine taste better. But Christian faith in life after death makes such paradoxes incomprehensible.

    X is ED’s imagined life if she and Wadsworth had been able to marry here on Earth.

  10. She seems to be taking us on a journey….revealing her inmost feelings of what might have been if earthly success and happiness had been her own. This suffering has taken her deeper than “the palm without the Calvary “. So she invites crucifixion! And by this defeat and thirsting and penury can point the way to the shores beyond, the banquets and the wine. This is her mystery which Faith can’t reach. A life of normal faith may have led to happiness. But she has been able to reveal deeper and often more mysterious aspects which obviously resonate with us all!