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03 July 2019

That I did always love

That I did always love
I bring thee Proof
That till I loved
I never lived — Enough — *[I] did not live

That I shall love alway —
I argue thee * [I] offer
That love is life — *[love] be
And life hath Immortality —

This — dost thou doubt — Sweet —
Then have I
Nothing to show
But Calvary —
J549, Fr652 (1863)

Short as it is, the poem makes me think of Shakespearean sonnets. We have arguments for love that outlasts time, a potentially doubtful beloved, and plenty of Elizabethan thees and thous sprinkled throughout. We even have something that sounds a lot like a closing couplet.

L.W. Willingham

John Drury, in The Poetry Dictionary, writes that historically sonnets often present "an argument, perhaps a romantic plea in the guise of a legal brief." The first sonnets, Drury says, were composed and exchanged in the early 13th century by Sicilian notaries (lawyers of the day) and their Emperor, Frederick II. 

Granted, Dickinson is no lawyer, but she lived with lawyers. Granted, this poem is not fourteen lines nor are the lines in iambic pentameter. Consequently, the arguments are not well developed, but Dickinson cleverly presents only the line of argument rather than the argument itself, thus achieving her trademark compaction.

In the first stanza the speaker claims she always loved the elided (and assumed) You. Her proof? That until she loved she was never truly alive (or alive enough). This is a rather sophististic way of getting around all those years when the speaker did not "always love."  What the Beloved, and at least a few readers, really want, however, is some real Proof, but we suspect the speaker's assertions will have to suffice. Shakespeare would flesh this out a little, but Dickinson holds back.

Having claimed the past, the speaker next argues deductively that her love will always endure: since love is life and life "hath Immortality" her love will therefore be immortal (this would be a valid but perhaps not sound deductive argument, but her point is taken). The ED Lexicon helps us out by suggesting that Immortality in this poem means "Timelessness; an infinite dimension." Love, then, operates outside of time. As Shakespeare would have it, Love is not "Time's fool" (Sonnet 116).

In the final stanza the speaker addresses her beloved directly. It begins with "This" – a pronoun without a clear antecedent. Whether it refers to the argument immediately preceding or to both first and second stanzas is of little consequence. Should the Sweet beloved doubt, then the speaker has nothing else to show but pain and misery.

Overall, the arguments seem half hearted and unconvincing. And surely if the Beloved shows doubts after hearing them, the speaker has other recourse besides donning the anguish of Calvary.

And yet… I like the poem. It reads well and doesn't really call for logical rigor and abundant proofs. The claims make emotional sense and there are some fine lines and phrases. Dickinson weaves the poem together with love and life: four repetitions of "love" and three of some version of "live" or "life". It is another, more subliminal way of saying that love is life.


  1. Insightful discussion! You've persuaded me that she is thinking of sonnets, even if she doesn't reach 14 lines. It’s funny how easily the language of love and law imitate each other.

    The poem has the feel of a sonnet, not only with the tormented lover theme and the thees and doths, but also because the last quatrain feels like a volta-ish couplet to me. It can’t be spread out into an iambic pentameter couplet—I tried really hard to do it—but the effect is still there. She must be thinking of Shakespeare, just as you argue. Is she thinking of E. Browning, too, maybe? She was writing tributes to Browning this same year, and this has the flavor of the sweet, rather uncynical Sonnets from the Portuguese (though I have to admit, I only know those poems casually).

    The best part of the poem for me is that last stanza, which changes its tone and urgency. The lines become suddenly trochaic (and therefore pressing to my ear) and we get the dash after "This" for pause and emphasis. Do you read this quatrain as a question or an accusation? Is she wondering if her Beloved will doubt, or is she observing that he already has? (More lover's torment either way, of course.) And since these are the last lines of the whole fascicle (this is the last poem of Fascicle 31), I like the idea that the "Calvary" she is showing has been explored all throughout the previous poems, not just his one.

    Very glad to see you back, by the way! Love your blog!

    1. Thanks, Bleaney! I'm like you on E.Browning's sonnets -- read some years ago but not that familiar. It wouldn't be surprising if ED drew from her in this poem.

      That first line of the last stanza definitely, as you point out, changes the tone: not only the ponderous import of the trochees but the word-sound contrast between the diphthongs of 'thou doubt' and the lengthy long e of 'Sweet'.

      I think the last stanza (now that I think about it more) is something of a challenge and one presented in a rather manipulative way: If you doubt my love after these arguments, then there is nothing left for me but anguish. I wonder, though, if the poet doesn't mean that her anguish will be her third, back-up argument. "Well, if these arguments have failed to convince you of my love, I have only my misery left to offer as evidence.

    2. Your analysis is wonderful -- as usual! However, Calvary means more than "anguish" or "pain and misery". As ED would know, Calvary is the embodiment of love. The best known passage in the Bible is John 3:16: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." ED is comparing her love to God's love and her beloved's doubt to the doubt that is only resolved through faith in the unseen. I think she had this Bible passage in mind -- even as "everlasting life" in the Bible passage and compares with ED's "Immortality"

    3. Thank you, I'd never thought it through like that. Yet dying on the cross out of love for doubting humankind is a suitable metaphor for anguish over a doubting Beloved. The difference I think, is the emphasis -- you see the speaker offering herself in full measure even if the recipient doubts the sincerity or truth of the offering; when I wrote I was thinking more of the suffering the speaker was anticipating.

      I like the way you flesh it out.