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25 November 2015

To love thee Year by Year —

To love thee Year by Year —
May less appear
Than sacrifice, and cease —
However, dear,
Forever might be short, I thought to show —
And so I pieced it, with a flower, now.
                                      F618 (1863)  J434

Dickinson borrows from the sonnet form here, and perhaps from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's most quoted poem, "How Do I Love Thee?" (Sonnet 43). One Dickinson scholar I read, Judith Farr, believes this is a poem for Sue, a response to Sue's rejection of or inability to return Emily's love on Emily's terms. The diction is so abbreviated that it could be read in various ways, but this is how I (finally) came to paraphrase it: "After years, my love seems less like love than sacrifice, and so I may give up. But, dear, if  "Forever"  is to be cut short, I want to show the love I still have now – and so I send this flower to prolong it even if just for a bit."   
Piecework: adding and extending

        The flower is a symbol of the ephemeral, serving as a reminder of how people and love change over time. It can also be a symbol or even a memorial of true and eternal love. Dickinson's flower can be seen in both ways.       

The sonnet form is traditionally a vehicle for love poetry, and although this is a short poem, the first four lines could be read as two iambic pentameter lines (sonnet meter). The last two lines make a rhymed couplet suitable for a love sonnet. By dividing the first lines, Dickinson is able to emphasize what would otherwise be internal rhymes: Year, appear, and dear. 
        The division also allows the important third line to stand alone. The sibilence of 'sacrifice' and 'cease' create a sense of melancholy and dwindling. 'Cease' is the only unrhymed line ending in the poem. Placed as it is in the center of the poem, it also provides a foreshadowed ending. We see the lover looking ahead to what seems a natural end to a rather one-sided relationship. Yet with the following 'However', we see the flower as a love gesture. Yes, things will change, but not right now. I'm pretty sure Dickinson used the word 'pieced' not only to suggest an extension added on but to hearken back to its slant rhyme 'cease'. While the year-after-year love might cease, it can still be pieced bit by bit.
        If Dickinson sent this poem with a flower to Sue, it must have been a poignant, almost bittersweet remembrance.


  1. This certainly is a poem sent as a gift with a flower. She is such a master even with a single reader as her audience. I expect the audience was Sue.

    The poem is a little cryptic, as EDs poems often are. Some of this is intentional, some of it the result of the compression that characterizes EDs poetry and some of it is caused by syntax changes for purposes of sound ("less appear" rather than "appear less"). I read the poem a little differently -- as a poem of love that is in the moment -- renewed and in contrast to the cliché that I will "love you forever" or that "you are my life".

    She opens with a love that is extended "year by year" -- like a lease or a patchwork. She says this may appear less than a love that is expressed through great sacrifice -- as lover who gives his life for her beloved or who promises love until death do us part. Then she says that "forever might be short". Our lives are uncertain; to love someone forever -- for all our life -- might be only until next week. This amount of time might be too short to show the depth of the love ED feels for her beloved (Sue). And so, she "pieced it" (a beautiful phrase) with a flower now.

    There is so much to like about this poem. The rhymes are beautiful -- as you point out. I particularly love the off rhyme "sacrifice" and "cease" and the internal rhyme "however" and "forever".

    1. I like your reading and it certainly fits. It is also consistent with Dickinson's frequent choice of legal diction. And thank you for pointing out the 'however' and forever'.

      How does the 'and cease' fit into this reading?

    2. I read "cease" to mean death.

  2. Gerda Lerner, the great historian of feminism, has written about how Dickinson used the domestic imagery of what was in her time the feminine sphere of activity, and authorized herself to address the most fundamental questions that face us all - love, death, immortality, fear, pain, etc. I never would have comprehended what "pieced" signifies here.

    1. One of my favorites among the domestic imagery poems is F583, "You cannot put a fire out". In this poem, per the previous commenter's suggestion about love as an extendable lease, Dickinson begins with the law and ends with the spindle.

  3. Your comments, Susan, together with anonymous help a lot. I agree with the 11/29/comment about cease, but would add that it may mean heroic death (especially with the Civil War still raging) rather than just the end of life. Romantic literature is replete with that trope. So it probably is accompanying a flower to Sue, but not as an alternative to ceasing to love her. That flower becomes another instance of sustained (year by year) love, its faithfulness and durability, in stead of sacrificial love, even death (ceasing). Hard to imagine ED ever giving up on her love of someone; ceasing, in that sense, not an option for her.

  4. A love poem, so beautiful, so simple, yet so difficult to decipher--yep, must be from Emily Dickinson! :)

  5. I'm not sure I'd describe a forever love with words like sacrifice and cease, so I am going to agree with Sue. Ive not spent years studying ED but I have noticed that she has a way of bringing opposites together.

  6. I so love observing her sly dialecticals, and the “forever” and “now” is so satisfying!

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  8. I agree with Pp about ED's sly dialecticals. There's a shade of "forever is composed of nows" in this one. This almost feels like a "break-up" poem to me, telling a lover, "I can't love you forever, for eventually I will give away to sacrifice (to death, or salvation, or poetry, or God, or Master, or to whatever IT is that Emily marries herself in her white dress) and cease. She does say in a later poem that she has stopped being "theirs". Perhaps this is alluding to that future moment?

    The second stanza is so beautifully heartbreaking in the light of this future "loss". I believe she is saying, "in just a short time (i.e. the time we have before sacrifice) forever can be felt in this moment,

    "However, dear,
    Forever might be short, I thought to show —"

    and the way I'm going to show this will be symbolized in this flower,

    "And so I pieced it, with a flower, now."

    That forever is represented here by the flower itself, which is real, first and foremost, but also functions as a symbol of beauty and renewal. It is a "piece" of the eternal, and in this way it represents a moment in time between lovers. It also seems to function here as a piece that stitches together now and forever, since the flower is both ephemeral and eternal, like the love itself.

  9. Two respected historians, Sewall and Habegger, report that on October 5, 1883, the night of Gib Dickinson’s death, ED visited the Evergreens for the first time in 15 years (1868-1883). And yet, “about 1877” (Franklin 1998), ED could write:

    “To own a Susan of my own
    Is of itself a Bliss —
    Whatever Realm I forfeit, Lord,
    Continue me in this!”


    We’re left scratching our heads. Supposedly, there’s a rift between ED and Sue, yet the two continue exchanging notes and poems, and Sue’s children serve as their couriers.

    From the days of their early friendship sharing Shakespeare, the two referred to their relationship as Antony (ED) and Cleopatra (Sue). About 1891, five years after ED’s death, Susan wrote a poem, ‘Minstrel of the passing days’, that cryptically describes their long relationship:

    “Minstrel of the passing days
    Sing me the song of all the ways
    That snare the soul in the red haze
    Song of the dark glory of the hills
    When dyes are frightened to dull hues
    Of all the gaudy shameless tints
    That fire the passions of the prince
    Strangling vines clasping their Cleopatras
    Closer than Antony's embrace
    Whole rims of haze in pink
    Horizons be as if new worlds hew
    Shaping off our common quest.”

    Note especially Sue’s Lines 8-9: “Strangling vines clasping their Cleopatra / Closer than Antony’s embrace”. One could infer that about 1868 Sue asked ED to “continue our correspondence, but please don't visit.”