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28 June 2014

The Test of Love — is Death —

The Test of Love — is Death —
Our Lord — "so loved" — it saith —
What Largest Lover — hath
Another — doth —

If smaller Patience — be —
Through less Infinity —
If Bravo, sometimes swerve —
Through fainter Nerve —

Accept it's Most —
And overlook — the Dust —
Last — Least —
The Cross' — Request —
                                                     F541 (1863)  J543

 Readers in Dickinson's devout Protestant community would have been quite familiar with the Bible; consequently they could easily flesh out the well-known New Testament verses this poem draws from. Without these verses the poem seems sketchy; with them, we find the poet asking for toleration and perhaps forgiveness in the name of love.
The first line about the "Test of Love" draws on John 3:16: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." Another relevant New Testament text is John 15:13 – "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."
Having established that the willingness to die – or have the "only begotten Son" die – proves Love, Dickinson claims that what God or Jesus, the "Largest Lover", has done, a person can do as well. She hastens to qualify this, however. A human has "smaller Patience" simply because human lives are short (a nice insight); we have less courage because of "fainter Nerve". So although we might think we would do everything for another, even to the point of death, our human frailties get in the way.
Soul of the Sunflower, 1870, Elihu Vedder

The last stanza seems to me to switch from a general discussion of divine versus human to a direct request. A paraphrase of the first two lines might read: Accept that humans can be mostly (but not perfectly) loving, patient and brave; "Overlook" human frailty. So far so good. But what of the last two lines? Here Dickinson refers to other New Testament teachings. "Least" draws from Matthew 25:40, where Jesus claims, in a parable about helping the neediest people, that "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me."  
        The cross' request, perhaps the "Last" thing that Jesus said, would be one of the seven  sayings  that Jesus reportedly made as he was being crucified. Of these, only one can be considered a true request: from Luke 23:34 – "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do." Dickinson may be exhorting her readers to be more tolerant, loving, and forgiving; but to my ear it sounds as if she is asking for a bit of forgiveness herself. Perhaps her patience faltered and she lacked a bit of courage. I am one of the least, she says; I've failed in some way, but I would still die for you. Remember the lessons of the New Testament. Understand, forgive, and still love me.
        I struggled with this poem until reading it as a personal plea from the poet. As a general discussion it seems disjointed, even annoying. As a heartfelt plea, though, I find it moving and even beautiful. The last line calls out in the name of the cross of crucifixion – which might have been schmaltzy but with the bareness of the lines, the number of words and phrases left out, it has more poignancy than pathos.

Each line in the first stanza ends in a slant rhyme of "Death" – a quiet sound that contrasts with the abundance of "L" sounds: Love, Lord, loved, Largest, Lover". The contrast of a complex even difficult sound (the "L", dropped or missing from many languages and language variants, seems unfinished, the tongue poised behind the upper teeth as if ready to spring into a new sound) with the long, quiet fricative "th", emphasizes the end words. "Death" casts a shadow over the entire first stanza until the final word, "doth."
        The second stanza trips by more quickly with an AABB scheme and the fast perfect rhyme of "swerve" with "Nerve". The third stanza reverts to the AAAA slant-rhyme pattern of the first. Once again the end words are emphasized, not only by rhyme but by the decisive sibilance of the "st" sounds. The final word, "Request," which I argue is the point of the poem, is doubly emphasized in picking up both the long "e" of "Least" as well as the slant rhyme with "Most" and "Dust."


  1. A clear and compelling biblical and poetic explication. Thank you Susan.

    You ask purists’ forgiveness for “reading it as a personal plea from the poet”; many of ED’s poems make more sense when read that way. Your amazing technical tidbits of the last two paragraphs resurrect you from Poetry Purgatory, or worse.

    ED was a Jesus fan despite his Father. John 3:16 tells us “Lord” and “Largest Lover” of Lines 2 & 3 refer to God the Father, but I think Line 4’s “Another [Lover]— doth —” refers to Jesus, who did the dying.

    Stanzas 2 & 3 may refer to ED asking forgiveness for her own timerity, but given the poem’s first line, “The Test of Love — is Death —”, and Frazar Stern’s ultimate sacrifice in March 1862, ED may be coming to terms with Austin’s avoiding the draft by paying a substitute “commutation” fee.

    The Enrollment Act of 1863 set the fee at $300 per year, the equivalent of $5,000 in 2018 dollars.

    ( )

    1. Thank you Larry. If ED is thinking of Austin's paying for a substitute soldier, the last two lines of the second stanza take on a real sting-- albeit one ameliorated by the last stanza.