Emily Dickinson, “The power to be true to You” (464)

Incoherence can result from perfect logic. For example, take faithfulness. If you’re faithful, it’s like you only know one object. Maybe someone would take this sentiment and craft it into a command: if you love me, you cannot possibly know anything else. Creepy and domineering as that is, that’s “the power to be true to you,” with “you” capitalized, not so subtly invoking loyalty to divinity:

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 —

The first stanza is quite the logical lament. I have “the power to be true to you,” until I am given no less than a revelation, new eyes with which to see: “Until upon my face / The Judgment push his Picture.” This new vision is “presumptuous of your place,” pushing my loyalty away.

The religious language shapes a specific scenario. “The power to be true to You” — faith, loyalty — is undone by the power itself. Beginning in faith, one prepares for the possibility of “Judgment,” that moment when belief becomes knowledge, when all can be truly seen, the end of faith. Unfortunately, why one initially devotes oneself to a religion does not match God’s own ends. On the Day of Judgment, we are told many who think they merit salvation will cry out to Christ, asking when He was in their lives, when they could have tended to Him.

None of this makes the first stanza a lament, though. The religious concern only fleshes out “the power to be true to you” — this is a love poem. Dickinson started in faithfulness toward a beloved, then judged him. That judgment, born of concern for him, all too neatly rejects him. I wonder to what degree her overly grand language and themes are an extended joke. Instead of saying “now I know who you really are, I’m dumping your dumb ass,” she wonders about her erotic love and to what degree it reflects her deepest belief.

We might be tempted to dismiss such musing, arguing that there is a hierarchy of loves. Sensual love doesn’t matter as much as charity blah blah blah. The trouble with any supposed hierarchy is that they seem to resemble contrivances meant either to dodge or overvalue the fact people have sex, just like the birds and the bees. It is no surprise, then, that Dickinson’s second stanza turns into the mad jumble that it does, losing nearly all coherence:

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

Only with some additional context can sense be coaxed out of these lines. Otherwise, it just sounds like ranting about “Man,” “Heaven,” and “You,” it being horribly unclear whether these are the same. I hold “Of This” establishes that she’s wondering about her own loyalty, her own willpower. Demonstrating a fierce independence, she’s almost angry that whatever clod she had a crush on has caused her “power to be true” to fail. “Could Man deprive Me?… Himself – the Heaven excel[?]” — her faith in him, she concedes, created an unrealistic but beautiful image, one which may have excelled Heaven. That image invited her; in fact, it gave her the grandest of invitations. Unfortunately, the real crush could not match it, not even close. One need not fire off snark with eggplant emojis on twitter in order to see, um, the crush did not meet expectations: “Yours reduced / Until it showed too small.”

There is a serious point in the mixture of high and low, sacred and crude. The religious language helped her identify that her sexual love was governed not just by expectations, but by a deeper sense of belief. When her beloved is no longer a consideration, she’s back to the question of how and why she believes anything. Men being inadequate is the more trivial concern. The more fundamental one is whether an assertion of expectations means getting lost in one’s own imagination, not realizing what one actually wants or what could plausibly be had. Incoherence can result from perfect logic because the real question is not whether one’s premises form a coherent picture, but why that picture was wanted in the first place. The poem sets up a further inquiry, one near and dear to Dickinson’s heart, regarding how conventional her desires truly are. The lack of description of the beloved brings to mind the word the kids use nowadays, “basic.”

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