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15 July 2015

Her sweet Weight on my Heart a Night

Her sweet Weight on my Heart a Night
Had scarcely deigned to lie —
When, stirring, for Belief's delight,
My Bride had slipped away —

If 'twas a Dream — made solid — just
The Heaven to confirm —
Or if Myself were dreamed of Her —
The power to presume —

With Him remain — who unto Me —
Gave — even as to All —
A Fiction superseding Faith —
By so much — as 'twas real —
                                                            F611 (1863)  J518

The narrator suspects the bliss of sleeping with her beloved happened in a dream. She takes the disappearance of her "Bride" philosophically, however, for she has the God-given gift of making dreams seem as real as if they had truly happened. And who needs the complications of reality if dreaming makes it so?
            The nighttime experience raises the usual philosophical questions: how can we tell dream from reality? Could the dream have been enfolded in another's dream – in this case, was the narrator experiencing her beloved's dream?

            Dickinson resorts to God: he is the only one who can "confirm" what really happened. But in addition to being all-knowing, God gives the narrator / Dickinson / all of us the ability to experience "Fiction" so vividly as to seem real. This hyper-real Fiction supersedes Faith.
The Dickinson Lexicon defines "Faith" in this line as "Knowledge; sentiment based on concrete evidence" and this makes a commonsense reading: the imaginative world is potentially more real than the knowledge-based. In this case, the dream creation was more "solid" than the empty bed.
I take that last stanza as Dickinson broadly accounting for her powerful poetic imagination. Whether it is a lover, an Abyss, or death, she experiences it as truly – more truly – than a 'real' experience. Dickinson does concede that God gives this ability "to All", but this strikes me as an afterthought.
I am reminded of of Marianne Moore's famous "Ars Poetica" in which she writes that good poetry should have "imaginary gardens with real toads in them".  That is the landscape Dickinson inhabited, too.

Judith Farr argues convincingly that the poem is written with Sue in mind. In The Passion of Emily Dickinson, she has this to say: ""When Lavinia first gave [Sue] Emily's manuscripts, Sue marked them in pencil according to theme: Love, Nature, Death, and so on. She marked this poem with the initial 'S', appearing to acknowledge its relevancy to herself" (p.160).
            I don't think a biographical interpretation adds much to the poem, however. Certainly Dickinson spent no effort on fleshing out the beloved. She is just an exemplar of the poem's greater point about Fiction vs. Faith.



  1. The biographical interpretation allows to see the poem through another lens. If one posits Sue for "My Bride," then one must at least entertain Austin for "Him" in the third stanza. Austin then "[g]ave" Emily the "Fiction" of Sue. For Austin courted Sue, and in doing so he succeeded in bringing Sue to the Evergreens. Though he might have brought Sue for all in the family, it was Emily's "Fiction" that trumped the "Faith" that Austin and Sue had for one another (at least in this poem and in Emily's heart). Her power to presume makes this dream or fiction solid or more real than happenstance.

    1. That whole Sue / Emily / Austin triangle is fascinating. It's hard to imagine just how complicated and difficult things got when Austin took Mabel Loomis Todd as his lover.

      I wish ED had kept the notes and letters she received from Sue (and other correspondents).

      I think the shadow of Austin can be read into this poem. But the "Even as us all" is so broad as to be surely the provenance of God.

    2. I see your point.

      Some of ED's poetry is so general that it's difficult to posit a life event that inspired the poetry. The phrase "My Bride had slipped away -" can be interpreted as a euphemism for death. If one does accepts this interpretation and compares it the literal interpretation of a lover leaving a partner for another partner or an old one, it opens up the poem slightly for making an analogy between the Austin-Sue-Emily triangle to Father-Son-Holy Spirit trinity.

      The way I'm currently reading the last stanza is "she remains with him." (Sue remains with Austin). "Who unto Me -" can be interpreted in two ways: Austin (as godhead--father in holy trinity) gave everyone the ability to meet Sue by courting her; or, Sue (as a Jesus-like figure) gave ED a fiction. A fiction that ended up effecting all that were close to Sue or ED ("even as to All-." Or, one could consider this poem giving unto all the message of the love ED felt for Sue; thereby, ED immortalizes Sue.

  2. Wonderful blog! Thank you so much for your elucidations!