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02 May 2016

Forget! The lady with the Amulet

Forget! The lady with the Amulet
Forget she wore it at her Heart
Because she breathed against
Was Treason twixt?

Deny! Did Rose her Bee —
For Privilege of Play
Or Wile of Butterfly
Or Opportunity — Her Lord away?

The lady with the Amulet — will fade —
The Bee — in Mausoleum laid —
Discard his Bride —
But longer than the little Rill —
That cooled the Forehead of the Hill —
While Other — went the Sea to fill —
And Other — went to turn the Mill —
I'll do thy Will —
                                    F625 (1863)  J438

Much of this poem is ambiguous, but here is what is clear: the poem strives to assure a beloved that the speaker will always be faithful, will always "do thy Will". Most of the ambiguity involves who the speaker is and who the accuser is. Is the speaker accusing a beloved – or denying accusations? I've written and discarded many words of commentary arguing for first the one and then the other.
        But! I am going to take the simplest route because it is simplest and therefore has some traditional claim to credibility. Besides, the fun (if you could call it that) of the poem lies not in the theme of constancy but in the riot of rhyme. For sake of argument, I'll assume the poem is structured to contrast the speaker's constancy with that of a fickle lady and a fickle Rose.

First the explication.
        The speaker adopts a tone of shock and disbelief. The Amulet lady claims to have forgotten the love token at her breast because it had been there against her breath so long she forgot it. Will the next step be some treasonous infidelity against the giver of the amulet? Or has she already committed some treason because the Amulet (and thus its giver) has been so taken for granted?
        The second stanza continues the speaker's show of outrage. Here the Rose has denied her Bee Lord her constancy because she wanted to Play, or she was seduced by some rascal Butterfly, or just because there was some Opportunity while the Lord was out of town (while the Bee's away the Rose will play).
Popular in both men''s and women's jewelry in Victorian
times, the mustard seed symbolized religious faith
    Dickinson compresses what might have been two stanzas into one for the third stanza.  In it we find that while the forgetful, possibly treasonous lady will fade and the Bee at last discard his over-playful Bride (who might well be the lady with the Amulet), the speaker will be faithful to her own beloved longer than streams keep running. The last line, "I'll do thy Will" recalls the line from the Lord's Prayer, "Thy will be done", and is such a turn in point of view from third person to second that the entire poem might be re-read as a letter to God. The Amulet might well contain a mustard seed – symbol of faith; the Bee the same life-giving pollinator Dickinson uses for God in earlier poems.

And now the rhyme!
The first line's rhyme of "Forget!" with "Amulet" is just fun. The ticking "t's" also underscore the playful tone – which undermines any sense of real outrage or sarcasm: Forget, amulet, forget, it, Heart, against, Treason, twixt. "Treason twixt" is particularly fun. "Twixt" is just fun to look at, let alone say.
        You can claim the first stanza as all in slant rhyme, although the argument would rest rather tenuously upon the final 't' sound. But in the second stanza there is no arguing against Bee, Play, Butterfly, and away. The first word of the stanza, "Deny" sets this up, and the longest word, "Opportunity", reinforces it.
        The next three lines features fade, laid, and Bride as rhymes, adding to that the long 'a' of 'lady. Dickinson also uses an alliterative 'l' in: lady, Amulet, Mausoleum, and laid. The final five lines end in very simple true rhymes: Rill, Hill, fill, Mill, and Will.

Find what meaning you will in the poem, I found it, in order, maddening, playful, interesting, earnest, and maddening.