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Emily Dickinson's "He touched me, so I live to know"

Emily Dickinson's poems inform my own worldview as a poet and scholar. They dramatize the human spirit via deep attention to life's details.

Emily Dickinson - This daguerreotype is likely the only extant, authentic image of the poet.

Emily Dickinson - This daguerreotype is likely the only extant, authentic image of the poet.

Introduction and Text of "He touched me, so I live to know"

Emily Dickinson’s many experiences in mystical union with the Divine Spiritual Reality reveal that the poet was working from an advanced state of awareness. Often interpreted and examined as madness or extreme idiosyncrasy, Dickinson’s mystical proclivities more easily and thoroughly explain her elliptical writings than total reliance on the physical and mental levels of being.

While Dickinson must be perceived primarily as an accomplished poet and not an avatar of perfect knowledge, her mystical proclivities are difficult to deny. For example, superficial observers of this poem are wont to report that the speaker is describing her happy experience of engaging in a physical tryst with a lover.

But the "lover" trope is often used by those who experience the mystical union with the Divine, for example, Saint Terese of Ávila’s ecstasy is metaphorically expressed as similar to "erotic intensity." Instead of physical bodies uniting, however, the mystical experience is the uniting of the individual soul and the Divine Creator or God.

Because the physical union offers intense pleasure, it makes a useful metaphor for the even more intense pleasure experienced during mystical union. While understanding the union metaphorically is perfectly acceptable and logical, it is absurd to misunderstand and think those two very different experiences are identical. It should be remembered that a metaphor is useful in that it likens two very different entities.

The purpose of the physical, sexual union exists for procreation, that is, the continuation of the generations of humanity, while the mystical union remains the true goal of each human soul. Paramahansa Yogananda and the avatars all of faiths have taught that the true purpose of life is to find and unite the individual soul with the Over-Soul, Divine Reality, or God.

He touched me, so I live to know

He touched me, so I live to know
That such a day, permitted so,
I groped upon his breast —
It was a boundless place to me
And silenced, as the awful sea
Puts minor streams to rest.

And now, I'm different from before,
As if I breathed superior air —
Or brushed a Royal Gown —
My feet, too, that had wandered so —
My Gypsy face — transfigured now —
To tenderer Renown —

Into this Port, if I might come,
Rebecca, to Jerusalem,
Would not so ravished turn —
Nor Persian, baffled at her shrine
Lift such a sign
To her imperial Sun.

Reading of "He touched me, so I live to know"

Commentary

The speaker is describing the mystical experience that has transfigured her mind, her heart, even her entire life. Likely, this poem was the poet’s first attempt to delve into that particular theme that had such a profound influence on her ability to compose poetry.

First Stanza: The Visitation

He touched me, so I live to know
That such a day, permitted so,
I groped upon his breast —
It was a boundless place to me
And silenced, as the awful sea
Puts minor streams to rest.

The speaker begins by announcing that she has been visited by the Divine Reality. Her union with the Mystical Creative Force caused her to feel that her living is now more intense and vital than it had ever been before this momentous realization.

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The speaker now is aware that such a soul-realizing event can actually happen to mere mortals. The reality of His presence makes her feel that during this visitation she was "groping" upon an enormous entity. Her consciousness has become unbounded by her heretofore mental and physicals encasements.

Because God’s body remains inside and outside of creation, that Entity in human terms is a vast area of space and matter, and as the individual human soul unites with that Entity it experiences the enormity of that Form.

The speaker then likens the experience to a "minor stream" such as a river that flows into the ocean. Paramahansa Yogananda likens the little human body to a "bubble" and the God to the ocean, and in his chant he commands the Divine Reality: "I am the bubble, make me the sea."

The speaker in Dickinson’s "He touched me, so I live to know" is experiencing a time that God had made her the sea; she was a tiny bubble, and for a time, she experienced being the sea.

Second Stanza: The Transformation

And now, I'm different from before,
As if I breathed superior air —
Or brushed a Royal Gown —
My feet, too, that had wandered so —
My Gypsy face — transfigured now —
To tenderer Renown —

After her mystical experience, the speaker now realizes that she is "different"; she has been transformed and feels that now even her breathing has been clarified and elevated. She also likens her new awareness to touching a "Royal Gown."

The speaker is describing an event that, in fact, cannot be translated into language; thus, she must metaphorically compare the ineffable to physical things and experiences that come closest to expressing her experience.

She then reports that her feet now seem more firmly planted, as before they had remained roaming in delusion. Her face also has been transformed from a roaming, inquisitive face of to something kind, pleasant, and staid.

Third Stanza: The Reality of Permanence

Into this Port, if I might come,
Rebecca, to Jerusalem,
Would not so ravished turn —
Nor Persian, baffled at her shrine
Lift such a sign
To her imperial Sun.

The speaker then contrasts her journey along with its destination to the biblical character, Rebekah, who traveled to the home of Isaac to become his wife, and to some nameless "Persian" whose prayerful pleadings remained somewhat superficial. Instead of such worldly experiences, this speaker insists that she has become aware of the permanence bestowed by this amazing event that has captured her.

Her port, if she understands if correctly, leads to the immortality upon which she has long mused and upon which she strongly insists is a reality. Her mystical experience has now confirmed for her that the Afterlife is real and that she has visited and now knows in her soul that the Creator of the Cosmos is directing and guarding her

© 2021 Linda Sue Grimes

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