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30 June 2014

For largest Woman's Heart I knew —

For largest Woman's Heart I knew —
'Tis little I can do —
And yet the largest Woman's Heart
Could hold an Arrow — too —
And so, instructed by my own,
I tenderer, turn Me to –
                       F542 (1863)  J309

Dickinson sent one copy of this poem to Sue, her sister-in-law and beloved (although at times estranged) friend. The short poem is full of mystery. Why is the first line in the past tense? What is it that the poet might want to do while seemingly regretting that there is "little" she can do? What sort of arrow is Dickinson envisioning: a Cupid's arrow of love or the sharp arrow of pain and grief? The heart can hold an arrow "too" – what else did it hold? And finally, how is one to complete the last thought?
Woman defending herself against Eros
by William Adophe Bouguereau (about 1880)

One reading might have Dickinson writing directly to and of Sue. She has the largest heart. Perhaps it is so large that Dickinson finds herself rattling around in it along with myriad others and there is not much she can do about it. Yet despite the (gossiped about) flirtatious nature of Sue, she could harbor Cupid's dart. Instructed by her own heart, the poet, feeling more sympathetic by this contemplation, turns herself to … perhaps to her own rich inner life or to a philosophical and generous understanding and acceptance of Sue.

I’m not sure what the honymic rhyme of "too" with "to" adds to the poem, but it doesn't seem accidental. 

Any comments on this poem are indeed welcome!


  1. Gilbert Dickinson died in 1863 at the age of eight.

    Ed wrote to Sue in a beautiful letter:

    "The Vision of Immortal Life has been fulfilled -- How simply at the last the Fathom comes! The Passenger and not the Sea we find, surprises us -- Gilbert rejoiced in secrets -- His Life was panting with them -- .With what menace of Light he cried "Dont tell, Aunt Emily!" Now my ascended Playmate must instruct me. Show us prattling Preceptor, but the way to thee! He knew no niggard moment -- His Life was full of Boon -- The Playthings of the Dervish were not so wild as his -- No crescent was this Creature -- He traveled from the Full -- Such soar, but never set -- I see him in the Star, and meet his sweet velocity in everything that flies -- His Life was like the Bugle, which winds itself away, his Elegy an echo --his Requiem ecstacy -- Dawn and Meridian in one. Wherefore would he wait, wronged only of night, which he left for us -- Without a speculation, our little Ajax spans the whole --

    Pass to thy Rendezvous of Light,
    Pangless except for us --
    Who slowly ford the Mystery
    Which thou has leaped across!"


    1. Incredible letter. The date of death is wrong, though -- The ED Museum has him born in 1875 and dead in 1883.

  2. Yes. I checked my book of ED's collected letters and the letter I quoted is from October 1883.

    That's what I get for relying in the internet!

  3. Before I say anything I must emphasize that I am far from qualified to have any firm opinion about this Dickinson's poetry. Nevertheless, I've been thinking about this poem for the past few days and here is my understanding:

    I don't think we shall read too much philosophical or biographical issues into this poem. Whatever the context or the occasion was, it has been clearly and cleverly removed from the poem. If we want to understand the poem, it is perhaps better to pay more attention to the poem as it is and rely on extra-textual facts minimally. One observation and a an alternative interpretation of the first line, as I explain below, can help us arrive at a simple (if not simplistic) interpretation.

    1- I noticed that in my Franklin edition, like yours, there is a dash at the end of the last line. Yet on the digital archive of manuscripts, at the end of the last line of the letter (F542A) there is something which resembles a dot rather than a dash. Both of the texts provided on the website (Franklin Variorum 1988 and Johnson 1955) too have a full stop at the end of poem. Therefore, I don’t think that the last thought is incomplete.

    2- I think “I knew” in the first line is not referring to “largest woman’s heart” but rather, is the main verb in the sentence. In other words, it is not “For [the] largest woman’s heart [that] I knew” but “I knew [that] for [the] largest woman’s heart”. Notice that “the” is missing in the first line and “the largest woman’s heart” which appears in the third line is not qualified. If so then we can interpret the first part as:

    The poet knew (from the moment she heard the news?) that she could do little for the largest woman’s heart, but she also knew that the largest woman’s heart can cope with an arrow (of pain, grief, love, etc.)…

    In the second part, as you suggest, “my own” means “my own heart”. Is it too much to suggest that “I turn to” is “I turn to an arrow”? The key is perhaps in the word “instructed”, the only heavy-weight word for a poem made of simple words. It could mean bout taught and commanded. Assuming that such an interpretation is acceptable the second part would mean:

    And so, without being asked, she turns herself into a “tenderer" arrow and come to you.

    "So, she is basically saying that even though I know that there is little that I can do for you and that my presence will not reduce the pain (or inconvenience) if not add to it, I will come to see you because I know that you can bear the original pain as well as the additional burden of me."

    I know that this might seem a simplistic interpretation, or alternatively, an over-sophisticated way of telling somebody you are paying them a visit, but as far as the elements of the poem are concerned, I think this is an adequate interpretation. First: it provides an explanation for “too” in the middle of poem: ED is an arrow like the pain or grief, but she is "tenderer" (in both adj. and adv. senses). Second, it gives us an indication of why "too" is rhyming with “to”: both arrows are targeting recipient’s heart. Third, it helps make sense of opening the letter in the past sense: it is not about a heart she used to know… but what she knew from the start.

    Also aesthetically, the first part of the poem contains a heart-warming message while the second part re-orders the first part and informs the recipients about the imminent visit. None of these reduces the mystery that surrounds the poem. If anything, it adds to it: perhaps ED was not actually going and this was a symbolic gesture of sentimental support; perhaps she wished she was an arrow and she could be sent swiftly to her friend like the letter. It is likely that we shall never know. Whatever the case, to me this little poem is both telegraphic and compassionate. Can anybody write an email like this?

    1. Fascinating -- and you build a strong argument. Led by it, I wonder if the poet is saying, "I can do little to make an impact on such a large heart. Although this used to make me bitter, my own heart counsels me on a tenderer path: make myself a dart of love -- after all, this capacious heart can easily accommodate it.

      You can see I've been convinced by your thoughtful comments -- except that on re-reading the poem in this new way it seems to be a love strategy poem rather than a consolation poem. But Dickinson's poems famously leave a lot of room for the reader.

      stop. Franklin and Johnson were conscientious and good scholars, though, so must have had some reason for noting it as a dash.

  4. Thank you Susan. I think the poem works both ways. In fact, you made me revisit another poem that you discussed some 2 years ago:

    "Going to Him! Happy letter!
    Tell Him –
    Tell Him the page I didn't write –
    Tell Him – I only said the Syntax –
    And left the Verb and the pronoun out..."

    Only this time, Dickinson is certainly more aware of her own craft and can write in a more minimalist style using more abstract (or metaphorical) terms.

    1. But I love the verve of the Happy Letter poem. I love its headlong rushes and its playfulness. Reading it reminds me of how happy Dickinson was when she was happy.

  5. But what of the versions that show the first line as "For Largest Woman's Hearth I knew-"

    1. I am not familiar with such versions but I did check ED's written manuscript photo and it shows 'Heart':