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01 December 2019

'Tis true—They shut me in the Cold—

'Tis true—They shut me in the Cold—
But then—Themselves were warm
And could not know the feeling 'twas—                    [And] did
Forget it—Lord—of Them—                                         [it – ] Christ

Let not my Witness hinder Them                                [Witness] Them impair
In Heavenly esteem—
No Paradise could be—Conferred
Through Their beloved Blame—

The Harm They did—was short—And since               [was] brief
Myself—who bore it—do—
Forgive Them—Even as Myself—
Or else—forgive not me—                                                Else – Savior – banish Me –

                                                            Fr658 (1863)  J538

The poem is framed as a prayer where the speaker asks that the Lord forget and forgive how the beloveds, the 'They', shut the speaker out in the Cold. By this prayer the speaker becomes, ironically, the informant.

She makes the case that the shutting out was an understandable rather than a cruel act: the perpetrators' happiness made them unable to recognize or even understand sadness.

I'm not buying it. The beloveds were cads and the speaker doesn't really mind if you think so.
Arthur Rackham, The Lady
Enters the Forest
Judith Farr believes, as I do, that this poem is directed at Sue and Austin Dickinson, both of them beloved by Emily Dickinson. After their marriage, though, amid a growing family and growing social prominence, neither Sue nor Austin held Emily Dickinson quite so central to their lives as they had previously (The Passion of Emily Dickinson, pp. 155-6). So the shutting out might refer to a specific episode or to something that occurred over a period of time. At any rate, the speaker claims that the Harm was 'short' – but this might be another ironical deflection. It might have felt like an eternity to her.

About being an informer: It is quite possible to read the first line of the poem as suggesting that someone else or some cosmic awareness led the Almighty to know about the shutting out situation. The second stanza, however, makes it clear that the speaker knows she herself is the source. It is her 'Witness' that might complicate the beloveds' afterlife.

The speaker prays that it does not hinder them, for, in a continuation of the ironical mode, if it's her fault they don't make Paradise, they could blame her for it. And Paradise won't be "Conferred" on her if she is being blamed. Farr reads this as "I myself won't find Paradise by blaming them." I can't agree with that reading because the speaker indicates Paradise must be conferred rather than found.

The third stanza argues for forgiveness. This is quite a pivot from the forgetting prayed for earlier. It is one thing to tattle and then pray that the information is forgotten or ignored and quite another to ask that the informed-on behavior be forgiven. And should it be forgiven because the sinners are contrite or otherwise blameless or that the victim was at least partly to blame? No. the speaker argues that the beloveds should be forgiven because, besides the Harm being 'short', it was the speaker not the Lord who was shut out.  Further, she has forgiven them, so the Lord should, too. 
        The last line of the poem is more in the way of a demand than a prayer. 'If You, God, don't forgive Them, then don't forgive Me'.  The sentiment doesn't seem sincere. The prayer has included blame and then blame qualified. There is no sense of her own guilt about having given negative 'Witness'; no admission of even general sin for which she might wan to be forgiven. To reject forgiveness when there is not a felt need of it, is empty bravado.

I recognize that the poem can be read as heartfelt, its pathos a reflection of the sensibilities of the time. But I can't help thinking of Shakespeare's use of verbal irony – Antony, for example, proclaiming the nobility of Brutus in a way that conveyed the opposite opinion. I like the idea that Dickinson was able to sit down with her sense of grievance and put a twist on it.

As a proponent of the heartfelt pathos reading, Jane Donahue Eberwein includes this poem with those written in a 'childlike voice' and those where a little child might slip 'quiet from it's chair' into the grave, or meekly take the smallest room; where an adult is but a 'Drop that wrestles in the Sea', or is a Nobody (Dickinson: Strategies of Limitation By Jane Donahue Eberwein).

That makes sense, but I still feel the poem's scorn.


  1. Happy birthday, Emily Dickinson! I knew I had to come to my favorite ED website today to help celebrate it.

    About the poem. I like your points about irony. The tension between that reading and Eberwein's is intriguing. It's something that comes up again and again in Dickinson's poems: who is talking and what tone are they talking in? And just as important, what is the relationship between Dickinson and her speaker? I agree with you that Dickinson is ironically removed from the speaker, mostly because so many of her poems demonstrate that she loves putting on "masks" and personas. Her personal feelings might be there (the emotional slights has felt from Austin and Sue, for instance), but it turns into something else by the time she writes the poem. Our thoughts and feelings always look different in external form (here, the poem), and there's evidence here that Dickinson is gaining distance from her own thoughts and feelings. Of course, that doesn't negate the scorn you point out.

    Does anyone else hear a martyr's voice? The penultimate line echoes Christ's plea on the cross to the Father to forgive all of his persecutors because they didn't know what they were doing. Is the speaker a Christ figure (or a parody of one)?

    The image of being shut out and homeless is revealing too. Dickinson is clearly fascinated by homeless people (see poems 486 and 492, for instance), and there is a strong sense of the Romantic individual here: the poet shunned by society who sees past the illusions of that society. The speaker here even presumes to see the situation better than God. There's even a connection, perhaps, to knowledge and being locked out of "Paradise." Maybe?

    Anyway, happy 189th birthday, Emily Dickinson! And thanks, as always, for your terrific website, Susan!

  2. Thank you! I'm sooo glad you bring up Christ's plea for forgiveness. A light switched on. I think, once you mentioned it, that, yes, she is indeed referring to Calvary. The question of whether the speaker is a Christ figure or a parody of one might be – both! It may be that Calvary is a tool, employed perhaps ironically but also usefully to achieve the attitude she claims. I think it was Pascal who wrote, "People tend to become what they pretend to be." Pretending a martyr's willing surrender to suffering for the greater good, even if the stance is obviously superficial, may bring about a true acceptance.
    I'm not sure if my point is clear, even in my own mind, but I thank you for the (typically) insightful post.

  3. I love that you mentioned Antony and Brutus - this is like Antony producing the will and then pretending not to - “I do not mean to read” it because “I have o’ershot myself!” - praeteritio, it’s callled - the rhetoric of irony! She does irony well - more subtle than Antony was.

  4. “If they don’t have blueberry cobbler in Heaven, I don’t want to go” is a favorite answer if asked “Do you believe in God?”. Depending on the context, you can insert anything for “blueberry cobbler”.

    ED would substitute “Reverend Wadsworth”, which she does in disguise in ‘Tis true’. This is the first time she has forgiven him in a poem since he moved to San Francisco in May 1862 (a short 12+ months before she composed this poem) [brackets mine]:

    'Tis true—[Wadsworth] shut me in the Cold—
    But then—[He was] warm
    And could not know [how I felt]—
    [Forgive] it—Lord—of [Him]—

    Let not my Witness hinder [Him]
    In Heavenly esteem—
    No Paradise could be—Conferred
    Through [His] beloved Blame—

    The Harm [He] did—was short—And since
    Myself—who bore it—do—
    Forgive [Him]—Even as [I forgive] Myself—
    [Otherwise]—[I don’t want to go to Heaven]—

    Luke 23: 34, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

  5. If I thought the poem was about Austin and Sue being mean to poor Emily, I would dismiss it as a gross exaggeration. But suppose something really bad happened to Emily Dickinson.
    It seems to me that the speaker is reacting to something that has been said. Perhaps God Himself has brought the subject up. Emily answers, "Yes, it is true." Then she identifies with Jesus and prays that they be forgiven for they did not know what they were duing. After all, "Themselves were warm." Her "Witness" I understand as if her whole being, the damage that has been done to her, the suffering she had to endure bears witness. It is not about what she says or doesn't say, but about what she is. "The Harm They did—was short",sure, it lasted only a lifetime. The last two lines, I read as if she is saying "Forgive them, Lord, in spite of the fact that I am not able to forgive myself." At least that's what I thought before reading the commentaries, and it made sense. But as I am not a native speaker, I am not sure if this reading is possible.

    1. The word “martyr” originates from the Greek “μάρτυρας” (martyras), meaning “witness.” In its earliest uses, it referred to someone who witnessed a fact or event.