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18 April 2014

We learned the Whole of Love —

We learned the Whole of Love —
The Alphabet — the Words —
A Chapter — then the mighty Book —
Then — Revelation closed —

But in Each Other's eyes
An Ignorance beheld —
Diviner than the Childhood's —
And each to each, a Child —

Attempted to expound
What neither — understood —
Alas, that Wisdom is so large —
And Truth — so manifold!
                                                                F531 (1863)  J568

Dickinson begins this graceful and difficult poem as if telling a story. Two young people fell in love, indeed, learn "the Whole of Love", exploring each other and revealing themselves in stages as children learn to read. She separates each stage by dashes, slowing the poem's pace so that we linger over the words: Alphabet, Words, Chapter, Book. We imagine looks, gestures, confidences, touches, tears, and laughter. The last line of the first stanza is wistfully final. The book finished, "Revelation closed". 
Engraving by Pierre A. Cot
        As if expelled from an easy Eden, they are now on difficult terrain. No longer entwined, they see "Ignorance" in each other's eyes– but it is a "Diviner" ignorance than that of their youth, one not based in innocence and inexperience but perhaps in the awareness of otherness, of unbridgeable holy difference. 
        They try to make sense of it, talking as children do, or talking to the other as if she were a child (the poem is ambiguous here), but thought and speech no longer suffice. Neither understands.

Among other things, Dickinson reveals the pitfalls of language. Philosopher and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva refers to the "enclosure of language" and its impediment to meaning making. The semiotic realm, to which pre-articulate children, poets, and artists have access, offers by contrast a "heterogeneity of meaning"* – a "manifold" quality of truth. Dickinson writes elsewhere of interiority "Where the Meanings, are" (F320). Even after experiencing the "Whole of Love", the lovers cannot explain themselves either to themselves or to each other. 
        In a plaintive closing aphorism, Dickinson alludes to the limit of knowledge as well as language: "Wisdom is so large – / And Truth – so manifold".  How can we hope to explore all of wisdom's vast domain? And if truth is multiple and diverse, how can we ever hope to congeal it into words? 

* Kristeva, "The Subject in Process", 1998.


  1. Beautiful analysis. I love "unbridgable holy difference".

    I wonder about this poem. The notion of divine ignorance, I find cryptic. The ignorance is seen in "Each Other's" eyes -- and ignorance seen is not ignorance.

    The poem begins with "we". And the first stanza speaks of young love as a sharing -- as a book might be shared. It is a good book. But it is a book that ends.

    The second stanza moves to "I" -- an individual perspective that is not a shared experience, although it is spoken of as someting "each" experiences.

    In the last stanza, the attempt is to communicate something that "neither understood". With "And each to each, a Child -- . . . " through to the end of the poem we change from "we" to an omnicient observer.

    I find the different descriptions of wisdom and truth in the last lines interesting.

    Overall, I find this difficult poem. Your description of language as obscuring understanding is helpful and ties in with a theme of a book being transcended -- but I still struggle with this poem.

    1. One of the most difficult so far, I think. It led me to the Tao, Genesis, and finally Kristeva. I am still wondering about how Love can be learned in its wholeness, but not Wisdom and Truth. I am still wondering what was seen in each other's eyes and what it was they tried to "expound".

      The contrast between Revelation and Ignorance is worthy of further exploration. And is this Revelation related to epiphany or revealing? And is it meant to recall the End Times of the Biblical book of Revelation?

      I see the whole poem as written in first person plural. I read "we" and "us" within the lines throughout.

      But the mood seems marvelously, masterfully, dreamily wistful. I understand it inarticulately. The few paragraphs I wrote took hours and hours. It's one of Dickinson's most subterranean poems, I think.

  2. What a beautiful piece! And very helpful commentary, as always.It reminded me of the last lines of Keats's 'Ode to Grecian Urn'. I think it is fair enough if we understand it inarticulately: a "Wisdom is so large —And Truth — so manifold".
    I agree with Susan that 'we' is present throughout. I think we can, to speak metaphorically, open the door a little bit more by reading across the stanzas as well. Much of it is implicit in Susan's analysis but I try to spell it out more fully:
    "Then revelation was closed, but in each others' eyes"
    As if love itself was a revelation (a medium of communication) that was handed down to us (in another world, an Eden, perhaps) but was taken away only eyes to be excepted. (After all, it was the eyes who read the alphabet, the words, etc.) They could speak the language of love. And yet...
    "[…]in Each Other's eyes, An Ignorance beheld…"
    Despite all the learnings, we had 'innocence in our eyes'. I don't think they saw ignorance in each other (surely not as lovers blaming each other)., ignorance beheld in 'their eyes'. Simply as if, like children they had forgot all that was learned (and was there).
    "And each to each, [like] a Child, Attempted to expound what neither understood". But a wisdom so large and truth so manifold was lost forever...
    I think the poem can be read as an account of the Fall, but here the main regret is that all the transcendental qualities and signs of love are Lost.

    1. Thank you for this. I like reading the poem as echoing the Fall. Much was learned (oh those lovely fruits) and something lost; what remains, though, is somehow 'diviner'. The knowledge gained, as you suggest, the ability to "speak the language of love, was lost or shed, but something deeper, subarticulate, remains.

  3. Gosh I thought the whole poem was directed at our---her--- relationship to the Bible itself, in which the Whole of Love can be learned through the Word. And then how we bring this literary learning into the realms of each other's eyes shows our ignorance.

    1. It is clever and well done how Dickinson uses Revelation in its dual meanings: as the final book of the Bible, and as discoveries in Love.

  4. I love how you delineated this piece. As I get more familiar with Dickinson, I can identify a lot of her writing qualities, and what and why she uses them. I am psyched to be following you, because I will get to know more and more

    1. thank you! On re-reading this poem I am reminded of how much I like it. Layered depth is what comes to mind.

  5. I'm studying English at UC Berkeley, and this is the poem I'm doing a short essay on for the term. I'll likely do my actual thesis on her poems surrounding this theme, and all of these comments are wonderful and really thought provoking ways of better unpacking this poem.

    There are some great literary things going on -- those dashes, which she loves so much, are isolating words and adding depth to her statements, and on an auditory level, they're forcing us to slow down. Unlike many of her 'love' poems, there aren't many contrastive stresses here; contrastive stresses are found when lines come just before pronouns. Think of the Beatles: "you say goodbye, and I say hello" -- those pronouns are emphasized. Dickinson loves to do this. I was surprised to find this poem didn't have any!

    My question: is this a poem about love, or a poem about religion? She works with religion much of the time as a huge metaphor. I have a hard time telling the difference some days.

    1. What a great poem for your essay! As to the dashes and slowing, I find the effect cumulative, leading to the wistful quality that I think pervades the poem.

      As to love vs. religion: I find the poem all about love. Dickinson deepens the scope of her ruminations by drawing on the sacred: the revelations of the Bible, a divine Ignorance, the manifold nature of truth. Love, like wisdom and truth, goes beyond Revelation.

  6. The motif of the inadequacy of words to fully express truth is also found in Hesse’s Siddhartha, whose understanding of the river and timelessness leads him to enlightenment. He tells his companion that words, of necessity, lie because they only contain part of the truth, unable to convey the unity of the concept they are endeavoring to encapsulate. All words/concepts contain simultaneously their opposites - full truth must also acknowledge its dialectical opposite (nod to Hegel) and words are only one sided. Thus the “manifold”! ED was so profound, in 2 lines she can explain Buddhist unity, Hesse and Hegel.

    1. Yes, thanks. Using words to express or find truth is one-handed at best. I suppose that is why even our scientists rely on metaphor -- it's the closest we can get to reaching our own epiphanies at the side of the river.

  7. I read it as describing a love relationship in which, despite the intimacy, you discover that you actually don’t know each other and, having become aware of that, you can’t even explain who you are to the other and be understood.