I => You


I have no life but this,
To lead it here;
Nor any death, but lest
Dispelled from there;

Nor tie to earths to come,
Nor action new,
Except through this extent,
The realm of you.

~Emily Dickinson

This reads like a classic description of an obsessive love. Without the beloved, the speaker is nothing, has nothing, not life, not death, not anything after that. The beloved is an entire realm through which the speaker experiences everything. This definitely seems like a new love and not a relationship that’s well-established.

One of the interesting things about this poem, to me, is that unlike other Dickinson love poems, this one doesn’t convey a clear emotion–rather, a state. We don’t get a sense of whether or not the speaker views any of this as good or bad–it simply is, without judgment.

This is also not Dickinson’s typical “Yellow Rose of Texas” meter. The lines are shorter than her usual ones, and every even-numbered line is shorter than the one before it.

What I like most about this poem, though, is the cleverness of its construction. It begins with “I” and ends with “you,” demonstrating through its very language and structure how the lover has become subsumed into the beloved.

A taxonomy of love poems

~Emily Dickinson

For some reason I could not get this poem to format no matter what I tried; thus, the picture. It seems appropriate–this poem seems to defy conventional formatting in a number of ways.

It’s a strange little poem, but then, that seems to be par for the course here. I’m not sure what’s going on with the sudden use of Scots dialect in the third line. Like many (most?) of Dickinson’s poems, though, it ends with an image of decay/death, so that’s not unexpected.

The poem seems pretty straightforward, as many of her love poems do. As we work our way through this month of love poems, I’m starting to think that all Emily Dickinson love poems fall into one or more of several categories:

  • love poems that address her little heart;
  • love poems about being married that sound vaguely ominous;
  • love poems that depict passion in terms of cold rather than heat;
  • love poems that rely on some pretty obvious metaphorical language about bees and flowers;
  • love poems that end in death;
  • love poems with a rhythm/rhyme scheme that somehow feels vaguely embarrassing to read;
  • love poems about the inaccessibility of the beloved; and
  • love poems that may or may not be love poems, but somebody decided to anthologize them as such.

We’re almost halfway through this short month of Emily Dickinson love poems, and there’s much more to read, so we’ll see if we need to add to this list as we go along. Perhaps we can create a taxonomy of Dickinsonian love poetry…



ELYSIUM is as far as to
The very nearest room,
If in that room a friend await
Felicity or doom.

What fortitude the soul contains,
That it can so endure
The accent of a coming foot,
The opening of a door!

~Emily Dickinson

Pam: Elysium can be really near if there’s a friend in it?

Brenna: This one is small yet fascinating. I don’t know what to make of this, but it’s interesting to me that the speaker poses two possibilities for the friend–“felicity or doom”–but only one for what that means to the speaker herself–“elysium.” What if the friend meets doom? This is the Schrodinger’s cat of Emily Dickinson poems–as long as you don’t know whether the friend is meeting felicity or doom, the room contains heaven. And doom. But heaven!

Pam: The speaker is in heaven because there’s a friend nearby. But there’s little regard for the friend’s situation.

Brenna: And how that affects the speaker. So very Emily. Heaven can be in the next room if the friend’s fate turns out well. But if not….she doesn’t offer the alternative. Perhaps it is too painful to consider.

Pam: And the second stanza seems to switch. Now it’s the friend enduring as they’re waiting for the door to open.

Brenna: Oh, I see how you’re reading it–if a friend is nearby, that’s heaven.

Pam: Yes! How do you read it?

Brenna: I read it as, “My friend is in the next room awaiting their fate. Heaven is possibly in that room–if all turns out well for them.” And I read the fortitude as hers while she waits to find out what will happen to the friend.

Pam: Oh, I see! Elysium is friend A going to comfort friend B, who is awaiting fate! That makes far more sense.

Brenna: I hate to say it, but either way she comes across as a bit of a jerk. It’s all about her.

Pam: She does! She’s fond of these tricky constructions, isn’t she?

Brenna: She does love her some convolution in tiny spaces. It’s very pat-myself-on-the-back. Humblebrag!! Emily mastered it long before social media. Reading an Emily Dickinson poem is like crawling around in a very tiny cave.

Pam: See, I read the fortitude as the friend’s awaiting the speaker.

Brenna: Oh, I read it as her waiting to find out–did the friend meet felicity or doom?

Pam: I love how we have such different readings for this short poem. That’s the magic of poetry. We get out what we put in. It can mean what we need it to mean.

Brenna: Yes! Either way you read it, though, she really doesn’t come across so well, does she? “My friend is in an agony of waiting for their own doom but THIS IS ABOUT ME.”

Pam: It is SO HARD when my friend is worrying.

Brenna: You’re having a bad day and that is so rough on me. But maybe I’m totally misreading. What if the elysium, too, is the friend’s perspective? “There could be heaven or hell in this room for my friend.” And then the second stanza, as you were saying, also makes sense from the friend’s perspective. She really does not exactly specify whose perspective this even is. EMILY. Is this poem about her wait, or her friend’s? Is it confusing on purpose? Does she mean for it to be read both ways?? Is the poem, perhaps, saying that when a friend suffers, we suffer, too, and so she actually confuses us as to perspective to create the illusion of being actually IN that situation?? Is she that meta??

What do you think?



MY river runs to thee:
Blue sea, wilt welcome me?

My river waits reply.
Oh sea, look graciously!

I’ll fetch thee brooks
From spotted nooks,—

Say, sea,
Take me!

~Emily Dickinson

We had fun discussing this weird little poem, but our conversation took a number of twists and turns, including a digression in the direction of The Golden Girls, so instead of that conversation, we’re offering you a prompt born of our discussion.

As we make our way through Emily Dickinson’s poems, we often find ourselves wondering about her life. Why write poems if you never want anyone to read them? Why write poems to the beloved if you never intend to deliver them?

And so, today’s prompt: Write a love poem that reads like no one is intended to read it, and then share it with the world! Preferably via the comments section below. 😉

“Pale sustenance”

I cannot live with You –
It would be Life –
And Life is over there –
Behind the Shelf

The Sexton keeps the Key to –
Putting up
Our Life – His Porcelain –
Like a Cup –

Discarded of the Housewife –
Quaint – or Broke –
A newer Sevres pleases –
Old Ones crack –

I could not die – with You –
For One must wait
To shut the Other’s Gaze down –
You – could not –

And I – could I stand by
And see You – freeze –
Without my Right of Frost –
Death’s privilege?

Nor could I rise – with You –
Because Your Face
Would put out Jesus’ –
That New Grace

Glow plain – and foreign
On my homesick Eye –
Except that You than He
Shone closer by –

They’d judge Us – How –
For You – served Heaven – You know,
Or sought to –
I could not –

Because You saturated Sight –
And I had no more Eyes
For sordid excellence
As Paradise

And were You lost, I would be –
Though My Name
Rang loudest
On the Heavenly fame –

And were You – saved –
And I – condemned to be
Where You were not –
That self – were Hell to Me –

So We must meet apart –
You there – I – here –
With just the Door ajar
That Oceans are – and Prayer –
And that White Sustenance –
Despair –

~Emily Dickinson

The only way this poem could be more Emily Dickinson would be if it had a bird and some flowers in it. Otherwise, it seems to hit all of what I am coming to think of as the Dickinson notes: pathos, unanswered questions, metaphors galore, paradox, passion depicted in terms of cold rather than heat, and a healthy helping of blasphemy.

This poem devastates from the first line–“I cannot live with you”–and then piles on the sorrow. Life is behind a locked shelf, but “our” life, her life, is locked in that shelf. Despite being locked in, it is old, weak, unpleasing. The beloved could not wait for her, and the speaker could not rise with the beloved–this just gets more and more tragic, in that quiet, Dickinsonian way.

This brings us to the really fun part. The reason the speaker cannot rise with the beloved is that, to her, Jesus would pale in comparison. The beloved served heaven–or tried to, she qualifies–but she could not. She even suggests that she would cast off heaven to follow him into hell. She takes this a step further to say that she would become hell to herself if not near him after death.

Then comes the paradox–“So we must meet apart”–with only a door ajar between them, a space wide as oceans. After all the blaspheming, she then suggests that prayer connects them, and finally ends, in peak Emily style, on the word “despair.”

It’s a gut-wrenching poem, but also meticulously executed. There’s much to examine here, and I’ve only touched on a few of the points that fascinate me. Of the poems we’ve read so far this year, this one strikes me as perhaps the most emblematic of Dickinson’s brave and passionate style. What do you think?



AS if some little Arctic flower,
Upon the polar hem,
Went wandering down the latitudes,
Until it puzzled came

To continents of summer,
To firmaments of sun,
To strange, bright crowds of flowers,
And birds of foreign tongue!

I say, as if this little flower
To Eden wandered in—
What then? Why, nothing, only
Your inference therefrom!

~Emily Dickinson

Brenna: Things I love about this poem:

1) Personification of little wandering flower = adorable.

2) There is not a complete sentence in the entire poem–no completed thought–which works really, really well, since the whole point of the poem is to not tell the reader exactly what she’s thinking–to not complete her own thought, but imply it. This brings me to

3) Emily is SO VERY flirty. This is the kind of poem that makes me think she didn’t get married because she just didn’t want to. Girlfriend must have been able to flirt with the best of them. She is so coy.

Pam: I love your second point! Yes. Having the unfinished sentences makes sense if you are trying to obscure the meaning. However, I do not see the flirting at all.

Brenna: It’s the elusiveness.

Pam: I am immediately thrown by how off the meter feels, especially in that last line. I feel like I need to go over this with a ruler and count out syllables and stresses.

Brenna: The “I have something to say but I’m not going to tell you, you have to guess” aspect of it.

Pam: “your inference therefrom” breaks the entire meter from every previous line. Emily.

Brenna: Apparently she could be quite the flirt, and sent Valentines to young men at her father’s office. I could see this being the text of some nineteenth-century Valentine.

Brenna: She breaks meter maybe because she’s breaking her train of thought.

Pam: Yes, because in this line, she’s addressing “you”!

Brenna: Yes!

Pam: So perhaps we’ve switched from flower poem traipsing around to talking to the subject of her affections?

Brenna: Yes. I think she’s saying that meeting him (whoever) is like being a little Arctic flower (small, plain, pale) traveling to exotic locales, winding up in Eden and seeing–oooh, she can’t say “him,” that’s just way too forward.

Brenna: I think Miss Always-Wears-White is the little Arctic flower. My working theory now is that for Emily, cold = passion.

Pam: The idea of an Arctic flower is just so Mary Sue to me. I love it. “I know flowers don’t usually grow in the Arctic, but THIS ONE does, and it’s special, and this shows how determined it is.”

Brenna: But there are Arctic flowers, right? During the spring/summer? Things bloom there. Of course, they’re more ephemeral. And rare. Because DEATH. And because nobody is quite like Emily.

Brenna: It’s a little bit vain, in an oddly closeted way. EMILY HUMBLEBRAG.

Pam: Apparently, there are Arctic flowers! Shows you what I know about different climates. And she would have known this, I’m sure, as an avid gardener. Aside: look up Arctic cotton grass. It is ADORABLE

Brenna: Okay, that is an adorable plant.

Pam: I want to squeeze it. I’m wondering now which plant she was imagining as her Arctic flower.

Brenna: It’s like a tiny Muppet on a stalk! And I would bet you cash money it’s a white one.

Pam: Well, if the “bright crowds of flowers” are strange, I bet you’re right.
The little white Arctic flower descending down to see the colorful, common flowers!

Brenna: It’s a perfect metaphor for the agoraphobic. All of us introverts are wallflowers when thrown into a room of gorgeous, gaudy people.

Pam: There’s such a lovely sentiment at the end, too. Being in this unknown person’s presence is like a flower wandering back to Eden.

Brenna: Yes! It’s as if she’s found her original habitat, her true home.

Pam: Yes! You can absolutely feel the “I don’t belong here” vibe.

Brenna: And the birds. Always with the birds, this one.

Pam: Which ties in even more to the broken meter at the end. It goes completely passive. The stresses just disappear.

Brenna: Because her stress melts away in the presence of this mystery-person. That might be going a bit far…. I am apparently feeling quite literal today.

Pam: Ha, or she loses personality or authority! It’s like having a big speech prepared and then seeing a cute guy and then you mumble, “Hey, hi, hello,” and scutter off.

Brenna: If I had an Arctic cotton grass for every time that’s happened…

A month of love poems

This is a family heirloom–
a vintage Valentine–
that says nothing of love–
or asks you if you’ll be mine.
Would Emily approve 
of such utter lack of words? 
Perhaps–at least–if nothing else–
she would enjoy the birds?

For the month of February, we’ve decided to focus on love poems. Emily Dickinson wrote quite a lot of them. Many of them are about death (surprise!!!). Many are not. Here’s a definition of love to get us started:

LOVE is anterior to life,
Posterior to death,
Initial of creation, and
The exponent of breath.

~Emily Dickinson

This one seems fairly straightforward to me. Love exists before life and persists after death (oh, look, death! She worked it in. Go, Emily, go! Way to stay on brand!). Love is at the beginning of creation–is the cause of creation–and issues forth on our last breaths. Love=eternal. This tiny poem has the feel of an epigram, a wise saying encapsulated in a few well-chosen words. This seems like a good place to start–by defining our terms.