Beyond Time and Place: On Emily Dickinson’s "Love – is anterior to Life…" (917)

Special thanks to Heloise Musset for her thoughts, reflected in the comment below.

“Love – is anterior to Life…” (917)
Emily Dickinson

Love – is anterior to Life –
Posterior – to Death –
Initial of Creation, and
The Exponent of Earth –


1. “Anterior” and “posterior” can refer to both place and time. That means, on the one hand, Life can be thought of as a span of time, and Death a moment. It also means we can think of Life as being/becoming and Death as not-being.

2. The temporal reading is very strange: Love is temporally prior to Life? This makes sense if we assume there is a God, and we will need to continue assuming God’s existence in order to make any sense of Love existing beyond Death. But the complications continue: “Initial of Creation?” Love is before the beginning and now also the moment of Creation? Perhaps the first thing created?

To make things almost fatal for an interpretation: “Exponent” can be someone who advocates or interprets. I need not inform you how large a gap there is between those two definitions.

3. If we consider Love to be outside of being and not-being, then what is it? We cannot say for sure it is divine: accidents* can be purely potential. But if Love is an accident, in what does it inhere? It would seem that Love would have to define what is “Initial of Creation” and “the Exponent of Earth,” and that first being in his origination would be an advocate and interpreter of Love.

It is too simple to posit “Man” as the first being. Creation’s end is Man, the only creature in the cosmos who can choose how he moves. Creation properly speaking starts with Light.

4. Human reason more than human nature places Man in the realm of becoming. A perfected human nature that is wholly rational is in the realm of being. But being reasonable is what we aspire to, not what we are always. And our self-awareness is what allows us to see our own nature in the first place, and see the steps we have to take for completion.

Heloise has pointed out how there is an “intense relation” in this poem where love is omnipotent, moving the course of time. I think that sense of totality is what we need to bring this poem’s spatial and temporal readings together. We understand Love as discrete moments, devoid of content, but residing in divinity. We also understand it as an attribute describing what is within Life and what is without. Nowhere is the idea that Love is essential stated.

And that’s Dickinson’s point exactly. A totality can not be substance merely, as Spinoza understood full well. The totality has to be common to all opinions, fundamental to thought. Whether that thought is of Providence, where God rules over Time, or concerns a more sensual notion of being, where Light shining upon bodies allows for one to be an “exponent,” it is clear why this poem is truly as celebratory as its tone. Some things never change, because they aren’t things, strictly speaking.

*I have to look up this “accident”/”essence” thing to make sure I’m using the words correctly. It’s been a long while since I played with this distinction.


  1. always good to hear you play with emily :)

    and, yes, it’s pretty obvious to me, too, that this is a poem about the totality of love.

    btw, i’d say it has a – geometrical feel to it …

    a quick comment. you say

    “Love is temporally prior to Life? This makes sense if we assume there is a God, and we will need to continue assuming God’s existence in order to make any sense of Love existing beyond Death.”

    i don’t quite see how in order to make sense of it we need to assume there is a god. the simplest alternative would be to posit love (as a platonic idea, perhaps?) as outside/superseding time and space, perhaps placing it in a similar realm where many people place god but that doesn’t equate it with god. (who/whatever that is :)

    good to come back to your blog, btw.

  2. Thanks for posting this. The comment above has me thinking. It’s difficult for me to see how we can place love outside the realm of time and space without giving it deity status.

    I suppose to an athiest, who I would imagine doesn’t believe in Creation, this poem could be talking about love as a human emotion, being the inspiration of human conception, what our loved ones feel for us after our passing, and what will keep us from destroying ourselves and the earth [assuming “exponent” means advocate]. In that sense, though, love doesn’t really supercede space and time, in that all our loved ones eventually die also, and the love for us is eventually forgotten. Maybe my supposition of atheism is wrong.

  3. There is a feeling, well, in me, that what she says is true: love is eternal, omnipresent and by “exponent” I assumed she meant some growth/multiplying factor, (My first thought was entirely too narrow- hey, love is why some people have kids?), but essentially the workings of the universe. Love is how the world operates.

    “Love” is a fascinating topic. Whatever it is- it’s universal and people are often totally wrapped up in it. It exists and as mentioned, I have a “feeling” that it is this eternal thing Emily talks about.

    And ultimately, it sounds like… God. I don’t think you have to be a theist, though to recognize it. I think those of us who are attribute that quality to God while atheists… I’m with Bluerose, I don’t know exactly how they view it. I’ve been trying to get one to tell me lately, but have had little luck…

  4. For my AS year I am writing about Emily: Love and Passion

    Can someone please explain what this peom means or is implying Thankyou

  5. Wikisource has “Breath,” but I don’t know where they’re getting that from. My printed versions have “Earth.” I’ll check Johnson & Franklin when the library is open.

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