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23 June 2018

A Secret told —

A Secret told —
Ceases to be a Secret — then —
A Secret — kept —
That — can appall but One —

Better of it — continual be afraid —
Than it —
And Whom you told it to — beside —

              Fr643 (1863)  J381

It feels good to get something off your chest, to share some heavy secret with a sympathetic and friendly listener. But, Reader – have you ever done this and then regretted it? I certainly have and can think of several reasons why I regret it.
1) It was a secret for a reason: either because of someone else's wishes or best interests or else because of my own personal reasons.
2) There is no honor in telling secrets
3) If I couldn't hold the secret, why should the confidant?
4) Worry: The confidant knows something she isn't supposed to know. How will that affect her? What will it mean?

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Dickinson boils all this down. A kept secret may upset – even frighten –  and depress its keeper. But if the secret holder tries to get support or share some of that burden by revealing the secret, she makes her trouble worse. Now she has whatever fear she had to begin with in addition to worrying about the one she blabbed to.

It is very tempting to guess at the category of secret Dickinson is referring to here; tempting to assume she is talking about some secret of her own. Is it a love relationship? Is it something about her father or other family member? Is it her poetry? Her religious inclinations, her health?

Reader, we must, in addition to the delicious guesswork we might undertake, acknowledge that the poet may simply be writing a truism as a poem. Think of it as an advice poem rather than a Hint.

Dickinson, however, is a great one for secrets. There are the passionate Master letters – we don't even know who Master is. Dickinson's best friends and family either didn't know or didn't agree. Why does she stay home, wear white, and hide from even dear friends? We don't know.

Tolstoy once wrote in his Diary, "Art is a microscope which the artist fixes on the secrets of his soul, and shows to people these secrets which are common to all." I think this is true. Dickinson's poetry reveals deep secrets but with such ambiguity that they must be interpreted 'in common' rather than in a specific way. 


  1. I like the way you explain ED's poems..please post them more frequently if possible.

  2. What is fascinating to me about these kinds of poems is that they seem to be giving advice, but to whom? Is ED writing this for herself, as a kind of reminder? Or is it for somebody specific? (If it's for somebody specific, then they must both be in on the secret alluded to.) Or is this, as it seems to be, for a general audience? Who did ED imagine her readers to be? Did she just have faith, when she was sewing together her little books, that her exquisitely crafted poems would make it out into the world someday? She must've, because otherwise why go through the bother? It was quite a leap of faith, but it paid off in spades.

    In this light I see a parallel with William Blake, who wrote many of these aphoristic types of poems, but also had very few readers during his lifetime.

  3. Hard to imagine, but ED may have done all that composition and construction for her own satisfaction of doing something well, just as she did with her early herbarium. She gave Vinnie no instructions concerning her poems. If Vinnie found the poems and ensured their publication after ED died, that was fine with her. If Vinnie burned the poems, that was also fine with her. While she lived, ED kept her poems, but apparently their final fate was left up to Vinnie.

    She did ask Vinnie to burn her letters. By not burning the letters herself, she took a chance of hurting many people. She must have trusted Vinnie totally. If so, we have wonder what secrets ED told Vinnie.

  4. “There is no firm evidence that Dickinson sanctioned the appearance of any of the ten poems published in her lifetime.”

    Habegger, Alfred. 2001. My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson (p. 800). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.