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11 July 2014

I prayed, at first, a little Girl

I prayed, at first, a little Girl,
Because they told me to —
But stopped, when qualified to guess
How prayer would feel — to me —

If I believed God looked around,
Each time my Childish eye
Fixed full, and steady, on his own
In Childish honesty —

And told him what I'd like, today,
And parts of his far plan
That baffled me —
The mingled side
Of his Divinity —

And often since, in Danger,
I count the force 'twould be
To have a God so strong as that
To hold my life for me

Till I could take the Balance
That tips so frequent, now,
It takes me all the while to poise —
And then — it doesn't stay —
                                                                F546 (1863)  J576

Dickinson's earlier poems sometimes adopt a scoffing even bitter tone about prayer. In  "At least – to pray – is left – is left –" [F377] the poet is "knocking – everywhere" but not finding "Jesus – in the Air." Prayer, what is left, seems hollow. Similarly, in "My period had come for Prayer (F525), God couldn't even be found when wanted. Dickinson concludes that poem by choosing to worship rather than pray, an important distinction that pertains to this poem.
        Bitterness comes out in "I should have been too glad, I see" [F283]. The speaker in that poem sarcastically complains that had she been too "glad" or her "Fear too dim", she couldn't pray as Jesus prayed as he was crucified, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" The gist of that poem is that misery in life begets the sense of fear and defeat that underlies faith and prayer.

This poem lacks the bite of those poems, adopting instead a philosophical wistfulness.

As a young girl, the poet prayed as she was taught – until she considered God's point of view. At that, she quit praying, seemingly out of consideration. Perhaps this god wouldn't feel particularly happy about confronting the "Childish honesty" of children who have needs and wants – and questions about his intentions and inherent contradictions. Perhaps he has many more important things to attend to. But then again, perhaps his "Infinitude", his "Silence" amid the "Vast Prairies of Air" (F525) is simply of a different order and magnitude than our mortal concerns. It would be like calling down a whirlwind to clear the patio of fallen blossoms. This is where Dickinson decides to worship rather than pray.
As an adult, the poet sometimes wishes the god of her youth existed, or that that he does exist and she could call on him – the poem can be read both ways – to give her a helping hand. In the last stanza, among Dickinson's most poignant, she explains she needs a steadier "Balance" in life as if she is on a rickety plank or her legs unsteady. Her precariousness is a "Danger", particularly since her balance "tips so frequent now". It's all she can do to achieve "poise". This reminds me of poem Fr508 where she is poised between Heaven and a fearful Pit. In the current poem, the moment of balance and equilibrium, finally achieved, "doesn't stay".
This existential tension fuels many Dickinson poems. Like many of our best poets, she doesn't shy away from personal truth. Dickinson once ended a letter to her young cousins by saying, ‘Good-night. Let Emily sing for you because she cannot pray.' That is what poems such as this do.

In thinking about Dickinson's poetry in this way I am reminded of one of my favorite Rilke poems:

Mountains of the heart
Rainer Maria Rilke
Exposed on the mountains of the heart. See, how small there,
see: the last hamlet of words, and higher,
and yet so small, a last
homestead of feeling. Do you recognize it?
Exposed on the mountains of the heart. Rocky earth
under the hands. But something will
flower here; out of the mute abyss
flowers an unknowing herb in song.
But the knowing? Ah, that you who began to understand
and are silent now, exposed on the mountains of the heart.
Yet many an awareness still whole wanders there,
many a self-confident mountain animal
passes through and remains. And that great protected bird
circles about the peaks of pure denial. But
unprotected, here on the mountains of the heart.


  1. Dear Susan

    I only discovered this site on Friday 11 July 2014. I am still feeling my way around the vast storehouse of treasure you are putting together here. My knowledge of computers and the internet (and all the techno mumbo-jumbo that goes with it) is primitive so it's taking time to navigate my way around and get a feel of the place.

    I submitted a post on July 12, responding to "What I say I shall not wait!" (J 277). I shall share my thoughts on "I prayed, at first, a little girl".soon.

    Ivan P. Pillay

  2. To me, the childish honesty of this poem is striking. In fact Dickinson never poses as a grown-up in this poem: she merely feels "qualified to guess") and then she only "counts" which to me is still a childish way of saying I reckon or I think or I ponder. Moreover, I think the penultimate stanza and at least the first two lines of the last stanza can be read together: "I count the force 'twould hold my life till I could take the balance [on my own]". A balance "that tips so frequent now".

    In this reading, "now" can mean after childhood, but also in this world. As you suggest, if "I count" + "would be" could mean 'I look for', 'I hope for' or 'I esteem the thought of'; then, in grown-ups' terms, she is saying: "In danger, I consider the possibility of a deity so strong that would hold me (save me) till I can ascertain for myself (know for sure) [the answers to my doubts]. As you can see, by the end of sentence, the material life-world danger becomes an existential afterlife issue (salvation, heaven and pit in your analysis). Thus just as she finds a way of thinking about God she becomes entangled in another set of questions. If she wanted to paraphrase Descartes, it would be something like: "I fear, therefore is there anyone to help?"

    This makes the last two lines even more striking: first, she is still a child: it is as if she is trying to stand still on a rope and she can't and therefore she is nagging that no matter how much effort she puts in it, her balance tips. Second, although the sentence is clearly about her balance in life, it can also be about her attempts to address her childish questions about "the mingled side of His divinity" in this poem: despite all the efforts she has put in and just as she thinks she has "got it", it flies away. Is there a better way to finish this poem?!

    1. Thank you for this - the childish persona is quite effective in portraying doubts and fears, particularly in regards to a patriarchal Father god. In thinking about your comments on the last lines, I have to agree. The childish questions and concern about God's 'mingled side' do indeed contribute to the poet's lack of balance. If this god were more reliably a true strong father/protector, she wouldn't be falling off that rope so often.

  3. “The mingled side” - do you suppose this is the idea of Jesus’ nature as both god and man? Or the trinity? Or the idea that he would split his attention between his divine duties and the child’s supplication?

    1. I think it the god/man idea. A fascinating dichotomy to contemplate, particularly for children, philosophers, and poets.

    2. EDL: mingled, verbal adj.
      A. Inconsistent; capricious; variable; [fig.] puzzling; confusing.
      B. Mixed; uneven; [fig.] on tiptoe.

  4. The poet feels embarrassed that as “a little girl” she wasted God’s time with childish asks, and so she stopped asking. But now her adult mind “tips so frequently”, and she asks God for a little help to hold her life together til she can “take the balance”, but

    “It takes me all the while to poise —
    And then — it doesn't stay —”.

    What good is a God like that?

    In 1963 I arranged an interview of Dr. Dietrich Ritschl for myself and three college friends. Dr. Ritschl, a Swiss theologian famed for his vision of an approachable God, despite first-hand experience of war-end horrors of Allied bombing of German cities, answered our all theological questions except one.

    Khrushchev and Kennedy were in their Cuban Brink-of-Nuclear-War, and I asked Dr. Ritschl if a loving God would allow us to destroy ourselves and his creation with atomic Armageddon. He gazed at me quietly and remained silent. That was answer enough.

  5. If we are religious, the way we experience our relationship to God is to a considerable degree influenced by our early relationships with our parents. I think ED tells us here, maybe unwittingly, about what she needed and didn't get from her mother (second stanza) and father (third stanza). Compare this with what she told Higginsonwhen when they met in 1870:
    "I never had a mother. I SUPPOSE a mother is one to whom you hurry when you are troubled."
    "I never knew how to tell time by the clock till I was 15. My father thought he had taught me but I did not understand & I was afraid to say I did not & afraid to ask anyone else lest he should know." 
    She stopped praying because it didn't work. Emily GUESSED what prayer should feel like to her if God really cared about her, realized that something was wrong, and gave it up. This would not be a problem. The problem is that, similarly, she probably gave up on her relationship with parents who were unwilling or unable to give her what she needed. She didn't feel, when she was little and saw her parents as omnipotent godlike figures, that they loved her and held her life together for her. No wonder her balance tips so frequently now.
    We all need those good early experiences with our parents; they give us strength to deal with difficulties for the rest of our lives. John Bowlby emphasized secure attachment, and Erick Ericson wrote about basic trust.