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26 May 2014

I could die — to know —

I could die — to know —
'Tis a trifling knowledge —
News-Boys salute the Door —
Carts — joggle by —
Morning's bold face — stares in the window —
Were but mine — the Charter of the least Fly —

Houses hunch the House
With their Brick Shoulders —
Coals — from a Rolling Load — rattle — how — near —
To the very Square — His foot is passing —
Possibly, this moment —
While I — dream — Here —
                                              F537 (1863)  J570

Mornings are busy at the Dickinson Homestead. The paper boys "salute" the door (is this a droll way of saying they throw the paper against the door just as they do today?) with the morning news, carts "joggle" by with their loads, coals rattle on and off their conveyance. Meanwhile the morning sun stares in the poet's window and neighboring houses hunch against hers as if hemming her in. 
Coal carts being loaded for delivery

      Amid all this daily hustle and bustle our poet is dreaming of her beloved. She is dying to know where he is right now – trifling knowledge indeed since he is probably on his way to work. She is particularly frustrated because even the "least Fly" could buzz around and find him if it wanted. Alas, as a Victorian woman, she must content herself with dreams. Fortunately this quaint habit of female rectitude has long gone by the wayside. 
      But Dickinson often prefers to imagine and dream rather than dive into the real. She refused to see Samuel Bowles once when he came calling, despite her likely deep affection for him – and her copious output of letters and poems directed to him. She refused to marry Judge Lord despite a similar deep affection for him. In several previous poems she writes of deferring love and union until some afterlife. (Other times, she admits skepticism that such union would ever take place.) Perhaps most strikingly, she went for about thirteen years without visiting her childhood best friend, sister-in-law, and next door neighbor Sue –a dear beloved despite their fallings out and estrangements – all the while sending her notes and writing poems to and about her. 

This is a delightfully vivid poem and Dickinson writes with a light touch. We have the busy-ness of carts and paperboys contrasted with the staring sun and hunching houses with their marvelous "Brick Shoulders". Is the speaker going to go out in the world or hunker down with the hunching and staring? The last line, "While I – dream – Here ¬–" is a clear indication she is going to stay home. The line is drawn out with dashes and long vowels. It is a dreamy, staying-put line, wistful but not unhappy. 


  1. The words in this poem are quintessentially Dickinson -- vivid and surprising.

    But what strikes me here is the rhythm. Dickinson has entirely abandoned the verse of poems like "We learned the Whole of Love" and many others -- where she employs an iambic, even line -- with occaisional breaks that are notable and powerful because of the consistency of the rhythm of the rest of the poem and the expectations that it sets up.

    This verse is completely free, very modern. This poem takes Dickinson out of the realm of the conventional -- even for Dickinson. It is astonishing.

    1. The jostling world is depicted with a percussion of rhythms: spondees such as Brick Should(ers), bold face, how – near, Carts – jog(gle); nestled among anapests such as "from a Roll(ing), To the ver(y), in the win(dow). And then there is the quiet phrase "His foot is passing" followed by the very slow complex sound of "Possibly, this moment". The last line in its slow dreaminess contrasts the speaker with the clashing bustle of the world.

      Yes, very modern. The first line tells you it's not your typical Victorian or Romantic poet. It's breathless and arch at the same time and completely fresh.

      Thanks for pointing this out.
      I also like the alliteration of "Houses hunch the House".

  2. The scene depicted sounds more like a cityscape than small town Amherst. The activity, the traffic, the houses hunching brick-shouldered houses (the Homestead was on several acres of land surrounded by gardens, barns and a meadow with only the Evergreens as neighbor, and they hardly hunched near each other.) It all leads me to believe that this poem was written in Boston, not Amherst. I am speculating that it was either written in Boston, or inspired by her observations in Boston while she boarded there for medical treatment in the year associated with this poem.
    The line that reveals that there is a beloved going about his business not so far away could arouse much more speculation – about his identity. But that issue has been covered, volume upon volume of coverage, by far better historical detectives than I !
    Lee Silverwood

    1. Thanks, Lee. Thinking about your comment makes me give the poem a different reading. Dickinson's Boston stay for her eyes was in 1864, so if Franklin dates the poem correctly she had only made a brief visit there. But that would be enough! I wonder if this poem isn't written from the vantage of one of her 'imagined persons' -- in this case a lovelorn woman. Perhaps she even knew a person that recounted a time of her life like this. The poem does indeed seem to describe a Boston sort of locale.

  3. I think she could easily be dreaming about Sam Bowles walking to work as he usually did. He was a man of the world and news was his game.