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25 July 2012

One Year ago—jots what?

One Year ago—jots what?
God—spell the word!  I—can't—
Was't Grace?  Not that—
Was't Glory?  That—will do—                                                [Glory] ''Twas just you –
Spell slower—Glory—

Such Anniversary shall be—
Sometimes—not often—in Eternity—
When farther Parted, than the Common Woe—                       [When] sharper
Look—feed upon each other’s faces—so—
In doubtful meal, if it be possible
Their Banquet’s true—                                                    

I tasted—careless—then—
I did not know the Wine
Came once a World—Did you?
Oh, had you told me so—
This Thirst would blister—easier—now—
You said it hurt you—most—
Mine—was an Acorn’s Breast—
And could not know how fondness grew
In Shaggier Vest—
Perhaps—I couldn’t—
But, had you looked in—
A Giant—eye to eye with you, had been—
No Acorn—then—

So—Twelve months ago—
We breathed—
Then dropped the Air—                                                        [Then] lost
Which bore it best?
Was this—the patientest—
Because it was a Child, you know—
And could not value—Air?

If to be “Elder”—mean most pain—
I’m old enough, today, I’m certain—then—
As old as thee—how soon?
One—Birthday more—or Ten?
Let me—choose!
Ah, Sir, None!
                                                            F301 (1862)  296    

Italicized notes on left are alternatives Dickinson indicated
on her manuscript. I use Cristanne Miller's Emily Dickinson's 
Poems As She Preserved Them for these side notes.

The intimate, head-long, confessional tone of this poem is way ahead of Dickinson’s time. So is Dickinson’s use of meter for emphasis and tone. The first stanza plunges the reader into a tempestuous reminiscence. Something happened a year ago—something that preceded a break-up with a lover or perhaps was the love affair itself. The lines are short, the punctuation strong, and the mood erratic. The first four lines end with spondees as the poet grasps at words: "jots what?,” “I—can’t,” “Not that,” “will do.” These starts and stops mirror the sense of rupture. The last line of the stanza slows the pace to a crawl. Dickenson wants the reader to focus: “Spell slower—Glory.” The first word of that line, “Spell,” benefits from both its meanings of “enchantment” and “speak it out” or “recite it slowly.” This, then, is an anniversary of something glorious. Dickinson milks the word for all it’s worth.
            The second stanza maintains a stately pace; the lines lengthen, and the meter evens into iambs—all of which support the poet’s reflection on the event and its meaning. She thinks that she and the man may get to celebrate this anniversary “Sometimes—not often” in an afterlife. They may be able to look at each other, “feed upon each other’s faces” if the notion of a heavenly “Banquet” is “true.” The stanza implies that they will not see each other in this life, at least not in the privacy where they might share such looks and love.
            Dickinson continues with feast imagery in the first line of the next stanza, but this time looking back in time instead of ahead: she tasted the “Wine” of a once-in-a-lifetime love, but was “careless—then.” She didn’t realize how rare it was. “Did you?” she asks the lover. She thinks he did but wishes he had somehow made her recognize it. Her pain would heal faster if she had appreciated the love (or experience) at the time. Dickinson phrases this as “Thirst” blistering, as if thirst were a a patch of skin rubbed raw and needing a blister to heal. “Thirst” and “blister” make an unusual metaphor—but one that works.  
            The next metaphor is Shakespearean in its fresh, compact visuality. The “Acorn’s Breast” conjures up an image of the acorn. It is breastlike and smooth. It shelters the oak seed. The image is that of the poet: her own breasts are young and firm; in her the poet and mature woman is just beginning to swell against its shell.
            Unlike the smooth acorn, though, her lover’s chest is hairy. Since she has no way to gage the “fondness” in his “Shaggier Vest,” she was not convinced by his claim that the affair hurt him more than it hurt her. If you had “looked in,” past the shell, she says, you would have seen “A Giant,” not just an acorn. We would have been “eye to eye.” This stanza is a subtle admission of guilt as well as expression of love and regret: the poet was careless, unappreciative of the rare love she was offered. She didn’t understand him, couldn’t understand how a man loves. And yet she wishes he would have seen past the acorn shell.
            The poem moves on with the wonderfully concise transition, “So—.” Dickinson doesn’t say anything more specific than that a year ago they “breathed— / Then dropped the Air.” The dropping of the affair is not like the dropping of a heavy weight through the air. It is the dropping of the air itself.  Dickinson voices another regret in this, the fourth, stanza—one more pointed: Maybe I was able to bear the loss better, or at least you think so, because I was just a “Child… / And could not value—Air?” That is why, perhaps, I seem to be “patientest.”
            The last stanza returns to the short questions and lines of the first. The poet attempts to equalize the relationship: She has aged in the last year and is “old enough” to be an “Elder” and feel an elder’s pain. She wonders when she’ll be as old emotionally as her lover: “One—Birthday more—or Ten?” Let me choose, she begs, for I want that now.
            There is an immediacy to the poem that still speaks. The variety of line length, sentence length, and meter; the reflection alternating with expostulation all keep the poem moving as if it were pouring out of the pen, the author torn by conflicting emotions. It reads in a natural if anguished voice, the poet confident in rendering both the specific sensuality of the acorn and in philosophizing over time and love.


  1. This is just to say (OK, a WCW echo) ho much I appreciate your work here. After an ED marathon reading at U of Saint Thomas this past April I decided to read one or two ED poems first thing every day, circumstance permitting. Through that I discovered Prowling Bee & consult it when particular poem cries out for more understanding (a blistering thirst). I've never been disappointed when I've consulted yr blog, have occasionally commented anonymously, but never really thanked you for this work. SO here is that expression of gratitude. Great work!

    1. Thank you! I've taken a break for the past couple of months from the blog -- storing up energy again -- and to hear from someone that's a valuable resource gives me motivation.

  2. It's all about community & continuities through "the Ages." Just ask Emily.

  3. I am wondering if the poem would lose much by dropping the second stanza?

    1. I don't value it because the poem's strength, to me, comes from its breathless and beautiful nostalgia. But I also think that the second stanza is important to the overall context -- both the Puritan and the romantic hopes.

  4. It is so nice to have a distraction on this inaugural date! What might've happened in Amherst in 1861 and who was Emily's master and leopard?

    1. Did you intend this comment for a different poem?

  5. Stanza 1 in ED's manuscript has a + sign in front of the word "jots", her signal for a possible alternative, and a + sign in front a final suggested phrase beside Line 5, "Twas just you", as shown below:

    One Year ago—+jots what?
    God—spell the word! I—can't—
    Was't Grace? Not that—
    Was't Glory? That—will do—
    Spell slower—Glory— +'Twas just you

    For some strange reasons, Johnson says there is no alternate given for Line 1, and Franklin thinks ED considered the alternate phrase as a replacement for "That - will do" in Line 4. Both editors are mistaken.

    I like their editorial decisions to reject the alternative in both cases, but the rejected alternative phrase gives readers important information: ED seriously considered telling us in Line 1 that this poem is about two people, the poet and "you".

    1. Thanks -- I decided to use Miller's scholarship so added the alternatives as she provides them. I didn't put in the '+' marks

    2. Sorry, "Anonymous" c'est moi.

  6. BYU’s ED lexicon lists first and second definitions of “jots” as “means” and “denotes”.

    Franklin, whose chronology is now considered the gold standard, dates this poem “about early 1862”. We have solid evidence that Reverend Wadsworth visited ED at her home about March 1860 and again in 1880 and “shadowy” evidence that he visited in 1861 (Whicher 1938, pp 104-105), which this poem implies with “anniversary” and “twelve months ago”. Whicher also reports that Wadsworth was considering moving to San Francisco as early as March 1861 and that he accepted the California position on March 15, 1862.

  7. Susan, thanks for adding ED’s first-stanza alternative, ‘Twas just you - . It confirms up front that ED’s poem concerns two people.

    After reading and commenting on ED’s first 300 poems, I’ve decided to 99.99% trust ED’s written intentions “As She Preserved Them” in her manuscripts, to quote Miller’s subtitle. In this case, ED’s manuscript very clearly reads exactly as I have shown in my Anonymous comment of May 1, 2023. Miller violates her book’s subtitle by accepting Franklin’s editorial decision to place the alternative beside Line 4. That is not to say I like ED’s alternative for Line 1, but to me it interrupts the logical flow of “Was't Glory? That—will do— / Spell slower—Glory—”.

    What were Franklin (and Miller) thinking???

    Incidentally, ED, Franklin, and Miller place an apostrophe, not a quote mark, in front of ‘Twas. In Miller’s book I had to use a magnifier for confirmation.

  8. Susan, your amazing prose and spot-on insights in this explication set a gold standard for other ED commentators, like a generous pour of ED’s once-in-a-lifetime wine. Thank you.

  9. Apologies for gushing, but . . . .

    I just reread ED's 'One Year ago—jots what' (F301) and your explication.

    It's like eavesdropping on a phone call between Heaven and Earth.

    How did you two do that?