Poetry Survey Series Post 1
Here is one of the more extraordinary poems of Emily Dickinson, numbered 480. My understanding is that the dash marks are breaths that interrupt the meter (Emily’s own exclusive technique.) It may interest readers to remember that Emily died a spinster and a near-recluse.
“Why do I love” You, Sir?
The Wind does not require the Grass
To answer—Wherefore when He pass
She cannot keep Her place.
Because He knows—and
Do not You—
And We know not—
Enough for Us
The Wisdom it be so—
The Lightning—never asked an Eye
Wherefore it shut—when He was by—
Because He knows it cannot speak—
And reasons not contained—
There be—preferred by Daintier Folk—
The Sunrise—Sire—compelleth Me—
Because He’s Sunrise—and I see—
I love Thee—
This poem exactly captures the feeling of the chaste woman in love, whose feelings are something like those of the worshipper.
In order to preserve the true spirit of the poem from misunderstanding, I want to speak briefly of possible misunderstandings involved in the poem.
Some people have misinterpreted this feeling as the expression of a social force that tries to subjugate the woman to the man. That interpretation ignores something subtle, but very important about this feeling. The woman who experiences these feelings does so because she feels herself worthy of the man she adores. You might say that most women (in a fairly natural and healthy condition) come stocked with these feelings, and go through the world looking for the man who is worthy of them. Her soul looks for a man whose goodness and tenderness are of such a scope that they match the magnitude of her capacity to appreciate and receive goodness and tenderness. The rapture of finding that man, and rendering to him these feelings (even secretly from him) is the summit of feminine experience. Woe betide the man who proves, on further acquaintance, unworthy of those feelings. Often then, unless her soul is tainted with some strain of addiction or infatuation, all idea of the second-class female who adores her man no matter what, is completely disproved. The fine-ness of her feeling judges him and she turns her back. It can be difficult, then, to ever give the same feelings to another man. (If a marriage has already been contracted, and the worthiness not too insurmountable, forgiveness, rehabilitation, and recognition of one’s own flaws, often tempers this judgment.)
Another misinterpretation of these feeling belongs to men who have been miseducated as well as the prudish women who become the enforcers in those sub-societies set up by such men. Here, this feeling is misinterpreted as lust, as appetite, as passion (in the imprudent, morality-dissipating sense.) Yet, I know of no other natural feeling that so disposes a woman to modesty, to profound stillness of perception, and to self-sacrifice. This was my unfortunate experience among the Baptist fundamentalists, who judged me a “Jezebel” despite the fact that I dressed only in loose-fitting skirts, was too socially simple to flirt (!) and remained profoundly virginal until I found my husband. My pure and innocent admiration was taken for something dirty.
This feeling, which I have described as both the most common feeling among women but, in its fulfillment, the summit of feminine experience, is only possible for women who are still capable of admiration. Women whose education has stripped them of that capacity (the pernicious effect of much modern education) and men whose education has instilled an unshakeable sense of shame for their masculine energy (the pernicious effect of both modernity and religious fundamentalism) will always look askance at this feeling.
I have described the delicate feeling of the pure and innocent woman in love. What is the masculine equivalent of this feeling? I would like to read a man’s account of that experience.
Although I have tried to describe the feeling, it is left to a poem to convert that feeling into an imaginative entity that can pass from mind to mind. Although, in the poem, we only experience the feeling in its imaginative equivalent, the power of thoughts is such that we can never remain wholly outside someone else’s mind when they open themselves in art like this.
Are you confused by the wording of the poem? I was confused at some points. Here is my best attempt at a prose translation.
“Why do I love” You, Sir? Because (the thing I do not say.)
The wind does not require the grass to answer – it simply acts upon it. For that reason, when he passes she cannot hold still.
So He knows—and don’t you know in the same way?
But we (the grass and I) don’t know. The wisdom of things being like this is enough for us.
The lightning never asked an eye why it shut when he was near, because He knows it cannot speak. Similarly, there are reasons that are not contained by speech and these reasons are preferred, as reasons, by Daintier Folk.
The Sunrise, my king, compels me, precisely because he is the sunrise, and I see.
So this alludes to the reason I love thee (which I have adroitly avoided directly saying.)
I think the quote marks in the first line around the words, “Why do I love?” but which do not extend to the whole line, indicate some occasion that is personal to Emily. Someone has asked her this question (or she is writing about the experience of being asked this question, for some other woman or for her imagined experience.)