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27 February 2024

Why make it doubt—it hurts it so—

Why make it doubt—it hurts it so—
So sick—to guess—
So strong—to know—
So brave—upon its little Bed
To tell the very last They said
Unto Itself—and smile—And shake—
For that dear—distant—dangerous—Sake—
But—the Instead—the Pinching fear
That Something—it did do—or dare—
Offend the Vision—and it flee—
And They no more remember me—
Nor ever turn to tell me why—
Oh, Master, This is Misery—

   -F697, J462, Fascicle 32, 1863

What is missing from this poem?

1. Perhaps the most conspicuous thing about this poem is what is not there. The first thing I notice is how bare it is. There is no beautiful imagery. It is devoid of the kind of sensory splendor Dickinson can do so breathtakingly well. If we look at the last few poems in Fascicle 32 we can see plenty of gorgeous imagery, like an “impalpable Array that swaggers on the eye like Cleopatra’s Company Repeated in the sky” (F696). This array is missing here.

2. There are no names, and nary a gendered pronoun. There is only “me” and “master, “they” and “it”. Significantly, “it” is presented to us 3 times in the very line of this poem. There are 7 in total.

We’ve met this kind of Dickinson poem before, notably a few poems back in “Like Eyes that looked on Wastes…Just infinites of Nought as far as it could see” (F693). The “it” there refers to a face. A face is just a thing when there is no soul to animate it. I’ve noticed that Emily often uses the “it” this way, to call attention to a part of the body which is dead in itself and needs the spirit to animate it. That’s what I think is going on here, with the dead thing being the heart.

But maybe to call “it” merely a heart would be to de-infinitize it. On one hand the word “it” refers to “thingness”, but on the other hand “it” is vague enough to take on many possibilities.

The reason I think the it refers to a heart is because there appears to be a romantic situation here. In boring prose, this scenario reads, “Why make me doubt. It hurts my heart so. It makes me so sick to have to guess your feelings. But it would make me so strong to know them (whether they say yes or no). My heart is so brave though. I’m in bed, telling myself the last thing you said to me and smiling, and then shaking with emotion for the sake of you, dear, so distant from me. It’s dangerous to my well being. My heart feels a pinching fear that something I dared to say offended you, causing you to leave. And I’m afraid that you’ll forget me and I’ll never know why. Master (of my heart), this is miserable.”

This is a lover who has put everything, her very being, on the line, who has dared to bare her soul. And you just know that Emily was like this. We love her for this. And yet, what if you were the object of this love? If you read through Emily’s love letters to Sue, you can just imagine how intense it must have been to be on the other side of them. It must have been a LOT. As Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote to his wife shortly after meeting Emily for the first time: “I never was with any one who drained my nerve power so much. Without touching me, she drew from me. I am glad not to live near her.” I can easily imagine Emily’s daring being overbearing. And yet, a love letter from Emily? Who could resist such overbearingness? Wadsworth perhaps, Higginson too, but not Sue, not in the long run, as she was still around at the end to help Bury her friend.

I think one of the things that we love about Emily so much is her fierce all-consuming ability to love. But it IS intense. Sometimes it feels like I’m looking directly into the sun when I read Dickinson. Lucky Sue though. And lucky us. The poems, somehow, love us too. I wish I had the ability and courage to love that deeply.

3. A third thing noticeably missing in this poem is stanzas. It is one long stanza. There isn’t the breathing room of line breaks. It’s one long breathless plea.

This poem, given a contemporary title, might be called “The Plea of the Ghosted”. It so well sums up the horrible feeling so many of us have felt when ghosted by someone we love.

If you happen to be the Master in a relationship, then this poem is for you too. It’s telling you that it is far kinder to be clear, so the one you are leaving can be “ strong to know” instead of “sick to guess”. Don’t be a ghoster!

4. The final thing missing from this poem is a perfect end rhyme. All the couplet rhymes leading up to the last one are perfect, or nearly perfect, but the final one upsets the harmony and turns that “I” sound of “why” into a pained “ee” sound of “misery”, which sonically hearkens back to “me”. It's also worth noting that there is another poem in this fascicle that ends in "misery", F686

5. The absences in this poem signal absence itself.

-/)dam Wade l)eGraff

*Note Emily’s early use of the pronoun “they” for the singular “Master”. She was ahead of her time!


  1. In F1334 ED seems to be saying quite the opposite.

    Whether they have forgotten
    Or are forgetting now
    Or never remembered—
    Safer not to know—

    Miseries of conjecture
    Are a softer woe
    Than a Fact of Iron
    Hardened with I know—

    1. Great find, thank you. That is a terrific contrast, and an interesting development in character.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. F1334, “about 1874” (Franklin), in pencil on a scrap of stationary, reflects 11 years of ED getting over her 1863 infatuation with Wadsworth

  2. Translating pronouns, except the honest “me” in Lines 11 & 12 and “Master” in Line 13:

    “Why make [me] doubt—it hurts [me] so—
    So sick—to guess—
    So strong—to know—
    So brave—upon [my] little Bed
    To tell the very last [He] said
    Unto [my]self—and smile—And shake—
    For that dear—distant—dangerous—Sake—
    But—the Instead—the Pinching fear
    That Something—[I] did do—or dare—
    Offend the Vision—and [I fled]—
    And [He] no more remember me—
    Nor ever turn to tell me why—
    Oh, Master, This is Misery—