Search This Blog

13 June 2013

"Why do I love" You, Sir?

"Why do I love" You, Sir?
Because —
The Wind does not require the Grass
To answer — Wherefore when He pass
She cannot keep Her place.

Because He knows — and
Do not You —
And We know not —
Enough for Us
The Wisdom it be so —

The Lightning — never asked an Eye
Wherefore it shut — when He was by —
Because He knows it cannot speak —
And reasons not contained —
— Of Talk —
There be — preferred by Daintier Folk —

The Sunrise — Sire — compelleth Me —
Because He's Sunrise — and I see —
Therefore — Then —
I love Thee —
                                                            F459 (1862)  J479

Is Dickinson paying an homage to Elizabeth Barrett Browning here? Browning's sonnet “How do I love thee?” might very well have caught Emily’s eye. Dickinson would also have been familiar with King Lear’s daughters and their answers to Lear’s question about how much they love him. But here Dickinson addresses a more interesting question: Why do I love you? Her answer is … because he is such a force of nature, like wind and lightning and sunrise, that there is no question of not loving.
Cordelia (Diana Rigg) in a frustrating
exchange with King Lear (Paul Scofield)
    The poem is written as if in answer to a specific question from the beloved man in question. Why do you love me, he seems to have asked. Dickinson takes a droll tone and adds a bit of an edge to it. It has none of the stately hyperbole of Browning’s poem, and none of the saccharine flattery of Lear’s daughters Goneril and Regan. If anything, Dickinson channels a bit of Cordelia who replies with some frustration that she loves her father as is “fit” but that she “cannot heave [her] heart into [her] mouth.”
         Similarly Dickinson begins her answer by saying that although the wind blows the grass the wind doesn’t require the grass to explain why it is swaying. The wind is quite aware of why the grass moves. Likewise, the man surely knows why the poet loves him. It is beyond the wisdom of woman and grass, to understand. It is enough for them to have the “Wisdom” to recognize the power of the force that moves them.
            In the same vein, the Lightning has no need to ask an eye why it shut while lightning flashed. It knows full well that eyes can’t talk; neither can folks “Daintier” than the lightning put their reasons into words: they cannot heave their hearts into their mouths.
            In the last stanza, Dickinson adopts the first-person voice and makes the poem personal. The Sunrise compels me, sir, she says, because … well, “He’s Sunrise” and I have eyes in my head to see it. That’s the reason I love thee. You are my sunrise. Please don’t ask me any more questions! 


  1. I wonder what the second stanza means -- what it adds to the poem.

  2. I take to be where the poet gives a little fond dig at Sir: The Wind understands its power over the little grass and so knows why it quivers. It consequently, and appropriately, does not make the grass explain itself. Then: YOU KNOW, TOO (so why do you ask me). The grass and I (small little things) don't know; that's just the way it is and the grass and I have the wisdom to know it.

    It sounds teasing to me. The last stanza softens the teasing and brings it back to loving and fond.

  3. so well said. I just want to say that there's someone out there (me) who considers the second stanza some of the most beautiful poetry she or anyone else has written. teasing, yes, and intimating, leading, the strange hanging "and" of the first line sounding like someone proceeding with love's trepidation and anticipation. So freaking gorgeous.

  4. You are a relief! There are some astonishingly bad readings of this in the blogs, so thank you.

  5. So comforting this is to me. Who in hell really knows where their heart is? Or the heart of their lover? Our hearts float in the sky, and nobody knows their destinations, including us. Only time will tell.

  6. As Sewall suggested in the previous poem, ‘She dealt her pretty words like Blades ‘, my inclination is to replace “Sir” and “Sire” in ‘Why do I love You. Sir?’ with the name “Sue”. ED’s at her gender switching best. Whether Sue or Sire, Browning or Shakespeare, ED penned a love poem for the ages.