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08 October 2012

He showed me Heights I never saw—

He showed me Heights I never saw—
"Would'st Climb—" He said?
I said, "Not so"—
"With me—" He said—With me?”

He showed me secrets—Morning's Nest—
The Rope the Nights were put across—
And now, "Would'st have me for a Guest?"
I could not find my Yes –

And then, He brake His life—And lo,
A light, for me, did solemn glow,
The larger, as my face withdrew—
And could I further "No"?
                                                            F346 (1862)  446

Version sent to Sue:

I showed her Heights she never saw—
"Would'st Climb," I said?
She said—"Not so"—
"With me—" I said—With me?
I showed her Secrets—Morning's Nest—
The Rope the Nights were put across—
And now—"Would'st have me for a Guest?"
She could not find her Yes—
And then, I brake my life—And Lo,
A Light, for her, did solemn glow,
The larger, as her face withdrew—
And could she, further, "No"?
Emily wrote both of these versions about the same time—but we don’t know which came first! Did she write Sue’s version and then adopt it for a Christ-like figure, or vice versa? It’s very frustrating not to know! The “Her” version, was signed “Emily” and sent to her sister-in-law, Sue.  Let’s start with that one.
            The poem’s speaker describes a type of seduction. While the speaker is daring, poetical, and knowledgeable—she climbs mountains, makes sense of the Milky Way, and knows exactly where the sun comes up in the morning (or what it first shines on)—the object of desire is timid. She may want to see these wonders or climb the mountain, but she can’t quite “find her Yes,” a very nice and useful phrase. The imagery is quite sexual: the climb might refer to the mons veneris (mound of Venus) that a woman has, night’s rope and morning’s nest suggest a lifeline one can clutch and then the place of rest and safety.
Milky Way, roping across the night
            There is pathos here: the poet first shows her desired one “Heights,” whether those of a grand adventure or of sexual fulfilment. But the woman says “Not so.” She also apparently declines to have the speaker as a “Guest” despite having been shown the special “Secrets.” It is not until the speaker breaks her life that the woman shows any sign of awareness of what she rejected. As the speaker fades away (dying, perhaps), a “Light…did solemn glow” for the beloved. With all of this, how “could she, further, ‘No’?” Talk about too little too late!
            But there is another way of looking at this poem sent to Sue. Perhaps Dickinson is writing in the voice of Jesus (the “I”) and the poet herself is the “she.” In this case Dickinson is describing some visionary scenes. God shows her secrets and marvels, but she demurs. Finally, as Jesus’ human body is broken and the divine glow becomes larger as Christ withdraws to Heaven, the poet wonders if she could possibly continue to say “No.” This interpretation fits in with Dickinson’s known  refusal at a young age to be ‘saved.’ It is also consistent with her ongoing tenderness towards Jesus. The two conflicting trains of thought would certainly lead her to decline and decline—but then at last stumble over declining.

This latter interpretation holds for the first version of the poem above where the speaker is “He” and the desired object is “I.”  There are two Biblical parallels: the first is the answer to Job by God. Job has been complaining about all his undeserved suffering. God finally “shows” him all the wonderful things He has done and suggests he just keep his mouth shut and acquiesce in whatever life (or God) dish out to him. The second parallel is the temptation of Jesus by Satan. Jesus is fasting and praying, alone in the desert. Satan takes him to a high place and shares secrets of power and glory. But Jesus refuses to take advantage of what Satan might offer. 
            But neither of those parallel stories have the wonderful personal touch of the poems. Here a lover is wooing the beloved. The poems have more the feel of The Song of Solomon, a book of the Old Testament typically interpreted as a parable of the relationship between God and his chosen people. Both that book and these poems speak to the emotions of wonder, sharing, and passion.  


  1. Yes you are right of course, the Rope can refer to the Milky Way. But to define the metaphor is to reduce the language of lines 6 and seven to references, ignoring the amazing poetry which is surely a prime example of the sublime. As great poetry it gives a flavor of the vertiginous mystery, an encounter which the poem is all about. Your mention of sexual adventure is for me a completely jarring and reductive note. The sublime is only revealed by the meeting with the incarnated Christ, only then is the glow of transfer from divine to human accomplished, part of the sacrifice the divine offers in any such epiphany. How wonderful is the ambiguity of the final line, a surrender or a rueful limitation.

    1. Now that I re-read this poem I do regret the time I spent on "sexual adventure" and do appreciate the sublime – and the Mystery that is the light whose glow increases as the subject tries to withdraw until the 'No' is drawn out into its sad whisper - or nothingness -- the ambiguity, as you say. Thank you for contributing.

      Looking back I think I wrote this when reading a certain popular Dickinson book that emphasizes the Dickinson/Sue relationship

  2. The back/forth cadences of the dialogue, the dyadic he/I of the version in stanzas, and the "trinity" established by those three stanzas--all of these and more call to my mind Herbert's "Love III." It's as if Dickinson the religious skeptic "rewrites" Herbert's sublimely devout homecoming.