Emily Dickinson’s Humanism? Or Is That Making This Too Complicated? On Poem 464, "The power to be true to You"

The power to be true to You… (464)
Emily Dickinson

The power to be true to You,
Until upon my face
The Judgment push his Picture —
Presumptuous of Your Place —

Of This — Could Man deprive Me —
Himself — the Heaven excel —
Whose invitation — Yours reduced
Until it showed too small —


This poem could be read, at first glance, as a simple statement of faith. Worries about the judgment of others, perhaps even about eternal judgment, can stem from the opinions of others. Such opinions “deprive” the speaker of the proper place of the Lord in her life, despite the fact that Heaven and its host have complete control over Man’s place in the cosmos, and his being invited to participate in the divine.

But let’s start with that superficial reading, ignoring the fact that a lot of the grammar actually used in the poem has to be smoothed out far too much to get there. There’s something being asked in that reading – whether man has such power to displace the divine. How could he have such power, and what is divinity anyway?

With those questions in mind, let us sort out the details: What is the power to be true to anyone? To be true requires faith in that person – that’s why speaking the truth about others, oftentimes, is far less effective than we think it to be. Most of us use the truth to destroy others: we use it as something over or against them. And then we wonder why we ever needed the truth, when lies might have been more effective for our purposes. But to “be true” is an involvement with the truth regarding another that is tied to what we want to be true – the dual implication is that we want the best and want to be better ourselves.

– I’m steering clear of the capitalized “You,” because while it can be taken to be an obvious reference to God, I think “power” can take us another direction, and that other direction is where I want to go ever so briefly. –

This “power” the speaker has lasts until something happens to her/his face. One wonders whether that happening is an external thing – is there a witnessing of something that changes the mind? Or maybe it is an internal thing – does the facial expression of the speaker change, signaling something happening within? – or maybe both these things are true simultaneously. The idea of “Judgment pushing” does not help this issue – the Judgment could be given to the speaker by others, or be the speaker displaying a judgment he/she has made which literally “pushes” the contours of the face into an expression.

“Judgment” has caused the displacing of something which gave the speaker “power,” and we noted above that such “power” is probably not a bad thing.

“Of This” begs the question, “This?” It could refer to anything in the previous stanza, almost. Most likely it is “power,” but it could also be “judgment,” and it could even be “Your Place,” as we noted in the “first glance” reading above. Whatever “This” is, it is something which man could cause the deprivation of. “Himself” is probably “Man,” as Heaven is indeed beyond him, but also can give him excellence. “Man” can be made better through what is divine, and divinity does stoop down to make others brilliant. “Whose” probably refers to “Himself,” but it could also be “Heaven,” and one has to wonder who could reduce an invitation for either Man or Heaven with their own invitation until “it showed too small.”

So there are a number of questions on the table. But there is a central theme uniting all of them – the faith of the speaker as regards another. Judgment of all sorts can make us doubt another, but should it be abandoned because of doubt? “This” has to be that central concern, that concern about keeping the faith, as judgment comes from two directions potentially in the first stanza, and “Your Place” is closely concerned with the “power to be true to You” anyway.

The opinions of others affecting the speaker’s faith through her judgment become the key. We can see the blame placed squarely on “others,” on Man as a whole, if we take the “power to be true” to be a natural power intrinsic to the speaker. There is good reason to understand it as a natural power. Heaven excels all Men, bequeathing to them what they say and are that is correct. And if there were a contest between the lover of the speaker and the others who object went head-to-head, that lover would far outshine them.

This is a love poem when all is said and done, I think. The issue of knowledge about those we love is a heavenly issue, because only God knows who we truly are. For everyone else, we need to have faith. And faith is more a suspension of judgment than anything else: in this world where we don’t know, we have to try to trust as it is more natural, even when it doesn’t feel exactly correct. For opinions are what artifice stems from, and all artifices dissolve in the light of the divine.

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