Emily Dickinson, “We knew not that we were to live” (1462)

We knew not that we were to live (1462)
Emily Dickinson

We knew not that we were to live –
Nor when – we are to die –
Our ignorance – our cuirass is –
We wear Mortality
As lightly as an Option Gown
Till asked to take it off –
By his intrusion, God is known –
It is the same with Life –


Ignorance is a “cuirass:” a breastplate usually cavalrymen wear. Nobility and mobility – “riding high” – are a defense of sorts. But a defense against what? We knew not that we were to live – Nor when – we are to die does seem awful, and we do tend to forget that our coming into the world doesn’t seem to have any particular necessity, to say nothing of death. But that very specific lack of knowledge about our coming into being and the date of our death can itself be characterized as ignorance.

Another outstanding curiosity: “that we were to live” is a different issue from “when” we are to live. Both, in turn, are entirely distinct from “when – we are to die.” The entire fact of life seems to be equated with the mere date of one’s death at this point in the poem.

Our speaker changes the imagery from warfare to sensuality (perhaps the cuirass is about the defense of the heart?). The theme of knowledge of death still informs our interpretation. My first instinct is to think “Option Gown” the same thing as “clothing optional,” except that “Mortality” is worn as “lightly” as it and God makes Himself known through his “intrusion” – at first glance, the end of our being, the shedding of this mortal coil.

I’m not sure how playful or cynical the poem is. For Biblical reasons one has to think that what we consider shameful – nakedness, sexuality – belong to a providential order. And unity with God emphasizing the vulnerability of death would be the sort of knowledge we get when armor fails. The armor was destined to fail as it was mere ignorance. The description of knowing here seems to involve a theme I commonly employ: “Isn’t there a lust for knowledge? Wouldn’t we say love of wisdom, in that case, was erotic?”

In any case, we know God through the “intrusion.” God could be the union of soul with the supernatural that ends mortality. But God’s intrusion might also be the possibility we don’t have to die. “God” here is a question of life and the afterlife. The poem began with the speaker wondering about the fact of life and when it ends. These are pre-life considerations. If God recasts sensuality in another light, then “Life” intruded on the armor of our not knowing the necessity or duration of our life. We created honor and even a sense of freedom from that ignorance. We were moved to think about what we truly wear – our mortality, our sensual being – which is the fact of choice. We only truly choose what we love.


  1. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

    I will fear no evil: for thou art with me;
    thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
    5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:

    thou anointest my head with oil;
    my cup runneth over.

  2. The poem is not cynical. For once the meaning is balanced exactly between enigma and clarity, enigma because our lives are an enigma, based to a very large extent on chance. If your parents had not had sex at that particular moment, I would not be here. I often think that my father was an unsuitable husband and that my mother would have been better off with another man, but if she had not married the wrong man, again, I would not be here. This is the eternal mystery for me: why do I feel that I am I?

    People die like flies all over the world, yet circumstances have kept me more or less intact. For many, for example, the USA far right a life, an “I” dying in the gutter has no worth, and that “I” could have been me, and may still be me, considering the latest desperate struggles of unbridled capitalism.

    These reflections may seem irrelevant, but they aren’t. Emily Dickinson sums up the surreal vulnerability of our individuality. the ‘cuirass’ has nothing to do anymore with nobility, but is a poetic image for our thick skins, our self-protection.

    We wear Mortality
    As lightly as an Option Gown
    Till asked to take it off –

    This sums it all up in simple, sober words. In the eyes of eternity our consciousness is as light as an option gown and yet, for the brief moment we are here, life may seem like an eternity. God is known by his intrusion. I’d say Fate is known by its intrusion, unless we believe we wll be angels playing harps in white robes, or, more likely boiling in hell.

  3. I like the last 2 lines and how they make the poem seem kind of circular
    “By his intrusion, God is known –
    It is the same with Life -”
    “We knew not that we were to live -”
    could just as easily follow this as start the poem.

    Oh, and I glanced at the title and thought, now I know she didn’t live in 1461… ugh. durr.

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