Emily Dickinson, “How well I knew Her not” (837)

for Hayley Withers – happy birthday

How well I knew Her not… (837)
Emily Dickinson

How well I knew Her not
Whom not to know has been
A Bounty in prospective, now
Next Door to mine the Pain.


The dramatic narrative (action) of the poem frames a situation. Does it establish an argument? It sounds like the speaker is a woman who has spent an awful lot of time thinking about another woman a prospective (former) lover had. Now they are both “next” to each other, as if each inhabited rooms dwelt in once.

Dickinson’s verbal mastery is on display throughout. The poem begins “how well,” ends with “pain.” “Knew her not” (simple past) is followed by “not to know,” which almost sounds like the present tense. “Has been” with its attendant colloquialism shatters the illusion the other woman can be simply ignored. But she was never known, of course: “A Bounty in prospective.” Inasmuch as she was not known, she fed a host of suspicions and imaginings. The few times she was completely ignored/forgotten by the speaker was also “a bounty in prospective.” But “now,” her pain not only sits next to our speaker, unknown and separate, but torments, as the two uses of “mine” (possessive adjective and verb) indicate.

Is there anything to be learned from all this cleverness? The soul, perhaps, is eros itself and denies it (cf. Plato, Phaedo: note the introductory paragraph to “Socrates’ Second Sailing”); every woman has been the other woman and fails to recognize herself. Truly admitting eros is denying finality, in one sense. There is no blame in this short poem, no mention of a beloved; quietly, the un-knowns of the first two lines drop out, and the speaker is even able to place her pain. Not hope – one doesn’t love for trivial reasons, jealousy and torment are necessitated – but something like resolve. The full irony of “A Bounty in prospective,” now.


  1. When I read the poem it felt like it was written for my late wife, whom I loved dearly and yet was a great mystery to me. I was surprised to learn it was about someone she had never met.

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