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11 September 2014

'Twas Love — not me —

'Twas Love — not me —
Oh punish — pray —
The Real one died for Thee —
Just Him — not me —

Such Guilt — to love Thee — most!
Doom it beyond the Rest —
Forgive it — last —
'Twas base as Jesus' — most!

Let Justice not mistake —
We Two — looked so alike —
Which was the Guilty Sake —
'Twas Love's — Now Strike!
                                                                F562 (1863)  J394

In this ironical poem, Dickinson lashes out at a lover who seems to have blamed her for loving him too much. In a neat rhetorical twist, she separates herself from the quality of Love. It's a courtroom drama, appropriate for a poet in a lawyerly family. The poet plaintiff begins by naming Love as the culprit, the one who "died for Thee". He, Love, is the "Real one". The poet, then, is the seemingly rational one who would never give over her life to someone.  

Perhaps the argument has a parallel to cases where the defendant blames the passion of the moment – rage, jealousy, fear – in seeking to avoid the severest penalty. Part of the poem's irony is that unlike those negative emotions, the speaker is trying to throw Love under the bus.
  The irony sharpens to heavy sarcasm in the second stanza: " Oh, and it was such guilt, wasn't it, to love you more than anything. Yes, that dooms it beyond anything else; love should be the last thing forgiven. Why, my Love was almost as base as Jesus'!" 
The poem concludes with a direct address to the Judge. The speaker and Love may seem like the same person, but which one is guilty? Which one had the most at stake? Why, it was love. Dickinson ends the poem with a farcical urging for "Justice" to "Strike" the guilty love right away. Since Dickinson introduced Jesus into the poem, it is hard not to remember that he, like poor love, suffered capital punishment.

It's a difficult, highly compressed poem. I may be reading it all wrong. David Preest shares this reading, but I read a first-page snippet from scholar Bernhard Frank in Explicator who said that the "thee" (addressee) and the "He" (referent) are God and Christ. That's all the snippet showed, so I am unable to follow the argument. I assume that in the first stanza Jesus is dying for his father, God.  
I'm sticking with Preest here. The speaker at the end is almost daring the judge/lover to strike down love. There's an impudent tone to it that seems fitting in a poem to a lover not wanting such intensity, perhaps, from the woman.


  1. "Difficult, highly compressed poem" is right!

    I agree with your interpretation (except for one line). The poem addresses unrequited love -- an appeal to the beloved -- using a central metaphor based on Christ's passion. The Christian conceives of Christ as two things -- son of man and son of god -- god (love) made flesh. It is the descent of god to mortality that makes god accessible and allows the redemption of man.

    Here, ED applies this split to her personal experience of love. My one disagreement with your essay is your view of the eighth line. I do not see this line as sarcasm. I think the poet in this stanza is saying she feels guilty to say "I love you most" -- that this expression of love is as base as Jesus' is most.

    The end rhymes in the poem are interesting (A,A,A,A) (me, pray, thee, me; most, rest, last, most; mistake, alike, sake, strike). The end rhymes of the last stanza in the context of a metaphor based on Christ's passion calls to mind Christ's anguished, human cry from the cross -- "why hast thou forsaken me". The word "forsake" -- unspoken -- is the central theme of the poem.

    1. I really want more detail.The redemption idea sidetracks me from the forsaken idea. Yes, Jesus, loving his heavenly father and humanity, dies out of that love, forsaken on a cross. The poem's speaker feels forsaken, her love rejected, and is making what seems a mocking apology. Her [heavenly, true] love died and what remains is a voice distancing itself through bitter rhetorical pilpul.

      What is it about Jesus that is base? How do you see an "appeal" rather than a jab? I admit having difficulties with this poem so am intrigued by what you wrote without fully understanding it.

  2. Jesus Christ is both human and divine on the cross. The human part crys out "Why have you forsaken me?" The divine part is a love that is willing to sacrifice itself -- and thereby redeem humanity. That is the central metaphor.

    The speaker of the poem is the human voice of the poet. She feels forsaken. She feels guilty to say her love is most -- particularly in comparison to god's love. But there is a pure love in her that drives her -- it is that love that is to blame for her bold statements that she loves the most. So, strike that love if you must! Crucify her!

    That is the best that I can do with this difficult poem.

    I do not see ED refering to Jesus' love as base -- because to read the line sarcastically you have to give no meaning to the word "most". I read the stanza to say "I feel guilty to say I love you most. Doom me longer than the rest for my impertinence. Forgive me last. My love is as small as Jesus' is great."

    1. You know, for some dyslexic reason or another I was reading that second "most" as "almost". Odd when I read the first 'most' as 'most'. Thanks for bringing me round.

  3. I agree w/ the elision of al- from the -most, but I can see ED delighted with the fact that we are so intently contemplating it and considering options!
    I also see the defiance in the first stanza, “love is the one who died for you - but I’m still standing! It won’t kill ME!”

  4. Susan, you nailed it in your explication, pilpul notwithstanding. My one added detail is the name of the lover, Charles Wadsworth:

    'Twas Love — not me —
    Oh punish Love — pray —
    Love died for Thee, Charles Wadsworth—
    Just Love — not me —

    Such Guilt — to love Thee more than God!
    Doom Love beyond the Rest —
    Forgive Love — last —
    'Twas base as Jesus' Love — almost!

    Let the Judge not mistake —
    My Love and I — looked so alike —
    Which was the Guilty, Love or me?
    'Twas Love's fault— Punish Love!