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03 November 2012

He strained my faith—

He strained my faith—
Did he find it supple?
Shook my strong trust—
Did it then—yield?

Hurled my belief—
But—did he shatter—it?
Racked—with suspense—
Not a nerve failed!

Wrung me—with Anguish—
But I never doubted him—
'Tho' for what wrong
He did never say—

Stabbed—while I sued
His sweet forgiveness—
Jesus—it's your little "John"!
Don't you know—me?                                                                                        
                                                                F366 (1862)  497

This is the lament of the believer. Why does God test our faith? One corollary of belief in an all-powerful, all-knowing God is the awareness that all our trials and tribulations are countenanced if not caused by the Most High.
                  There is a tone of bitterness in the first stanza. It begins with the claim that “He” tested the poet’s faith. The “He” is significant: it wasn’t an event or tragedy or other occurrence, but God who “strained” her faith. She hopes he found it “supple” and resilient. Likewise, he “Shook” her trust. In the next stanza we see him hurling her belief, putting her on the rack with suspense. The torture continues in the third and fourth stanza he wrings her with anguish and stabs her. Notice the escalation: strained, shook hurled, racked, wrung, and stabbed. The poet, like Job, was tested to the extreme.
John is leaning lovingly into Jesus. I like all the little haloes
on the apostles while Jesus holds up a little wafer of bread for his
last talk with his disciples.
                  But the poet is saintly! Her faith is supple, does not yield, doesn’t shatter or fail, never doubts. And at the end, a bit of pathos. While “He” was stabbing her, she was asking for his “sweet forgiveness.” She calls out to him: “Jesus—it’s your little ‘John’!’ / Don’t you know—me?” What could be more pathetic? Little John, I take to mean a diminutive, feminine version of St. John, known as the Beloved Apostle, author of the Book of John and Revelations. He sat next to Jesus at the last supper. He was entrusted with the care of Mary, and the revelation was granted to him.
                  The question is eternal: Why? Why, God? Why me? Dickinson tries to wring as much emotion as possible out of this question. I think it’s an important question—perhaps the most important question when one contemplates the universe, the state of affairs, and the eternal human quest for fairness; but I also think she goes a bit over the top when she pulls the “little John” card.  


  1. It's a little girl's exclamation of disbelief and hurt, expressing her sense of betrayal while remaining undefended. What you call pathetic seems to me naked and guileless vulnerability.

    1. I guess I was playing of the root word, "Pathos" with my "pathetic" jab. I agree with your depiction -- which is consistent with pathos -- a direct appeal to the emotions, particularly pity and compassion. I also think there is an excess of pathos unbalanced by the bit of defiance or judgment that many of her other poems about god have.

  2. I guess I'm still, only 365 poems in to her collected, at a holy reverent stage, where ED is still Saint Emily, and her brilliant and eccentric use of metaphor and image so astounds me, I can't imagine taking a jab at her, pathetic or not. Maybe as I wade up past my eyeballs I will read with a more mature and even-handed eye and ear, not the idolatrous one of a bug-eyed boy I have now. And incidentally "jab" is the initials of my name.

    Thanks for the conversation.

    1. Some of her poems are so ferociously good that I want to reserve my unabashed gushing for them. There are so many that are in that category and in the 'incredibly insightful' and "unbelievably good imagry" category that a mildly critical note here and there actually feels a bit liberating.

  3. A couple of things strike me in this poem. First, the childlike voice that Emily Dickinson seems to have adopted in many of her poems we shouldn't confuse with the poet. I think it is a poetic device to get at truth--the child being father of man and all that. Second, there is an ironic twist at the end when she asks "Don't you know-me?", just as Peter denies the loving Christ, is he denying the loving John or the loving childlike speaker?

    1. I like that reference to Peter's denial. An interesting twist.

  4. Just consulted the ED Lexicon and what did I find?

    John (Little John), proper n3. [see John, proper n. above.]

    John Little of Derbyshire; giant bowman; loyal companion of Robin Hood; member of a green-clad forest band who robbed from the rich to feed the poor; [fig.] a legend; a fanciful story.

    from Wikipedia:

    Little John appears in the earliest recorded Robin Hood ballads and stories,[1] and in the earliest chronicle references to Robin Hood, by Andrew of Wyntoun in about 1420 and by Walter Bower in about 1440, neither of which refer to any other of the Merry Men.[citation needed] In the early tales, Little John is shown to be intelligent and highly capable. In A Gest of Robyn Hode, he captures the sorrowful knight and, when Robin Hood decides to pay the knight's mortgage for him, accompanies him as a servant.[2] In Robin Hood's Death, he is the only one of the Merry Men that Robin takes with him.[3] In the 15th-century ballad commonly called "Robin Hood and the Monk", Little John leaves in anger after a dispute with Robin. When Robin Hood is captured, it is Little John who plans his leader's rescue. In thanks, Robin offers Little John leadership of the band, but John refuses. Later depictions of Little John portray him as less cunning.

    The earliest ballads do not feature an origin story for this character; but according to a 17th-century ballad, he was a giant of a man (at least seven feet tall), and introduced when he tried to prevent Robin from crossing a narrow bridge, whereupon they fought with quarterstaves, and Robin was overcome. Despite having won the duel, John agreed to join his band and fight alongside him. He was then called Little John, in whimsical reference to his size and in a play that reversed his first and last names (as his proper name was John Little). This scene is almost always re-enacted in film and television versions of the story. In some modern film versions, Little John loses the duel to Robin.

    1. Cute, but the Lex. mentions only one poem for a "Little John" reference:
      "1 reference

      Fr408/J302 As Cinderella's Bays – / Or Little John – of Lincoln Green – / Or

      (Have you registered with the Lex. site? Once registered you get extra info such as a list of poems where the subject word is found.)