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Emily Dickinson's "If those I loved were lost"

Emily Dickinson's poems remain a vital part of my poet worldview. 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 "If those I loved were lost"

Emily Dickinson's "If those I loved were lost" features two stanzas, each with two movements. The speaker's musing targets the possible reaction the speaker would take after both losing and finding loved ones. Her emotions and behaviors signal the importance of those loved ones to her. The value she places on these individuals can only be suggested and not directly stated.

If those I loved were lost

If those I loved were lost
The Crier's voice would tell me –
If those I loved were found
The bells of Ghent would ring –

Did those I loved repose
The Daisy would impel me.
Philip – when bewildered
Bore his riddle in!

Reading of "If those I loved were lost"

Commentary

Dickinson’s highly allusive poem takes readers from life in a small village to the world stage, on which famous bells herald momentous events. The allusions emphasize the significance the speaker places on those to whom she refers.

First Movement: An Important Announcement

If those I loved were lost
The Crier's voice would tell me –

The speaker is speculating about her emotions and behavior after having lost a loved one, and then she adds a speculative note about those emotions and behavior as she suddenly has found a beloved.

The first movement finds the speaker claiming that the loss of a loved one would herald a "Crier" to announce the event. In earlier times, a "town crier" was employed to spread local news events on the streets of small villages.

The town crier’s position was noticeable because of his manner and elaborate dress: such a crier might be adorned in bright colors, a coat of red and gold with white pants, a three-cornered hat (tricon), and black boots. He usually carried a bell that he would ring to attract attention of the citizens. He often would begin his announcement with the cry, "Oyez! Oyez! Oyez!"

By making this simple claim that a "crier" would be letting her know about the loss of a loved one, the speaker is elevating the importance of everyone she loves to the status of a noted official or famous name in the community.

Second Movement: The Significance of Loss

If those I loved were found
The bells of Ghent would ring –

The speaker then alludes to the famous Ghent Belfry, whose construction began in 1313 with ringing bells to announce religious events, later employed to signal other important occurrences. The inscription on the belfry tower indicates the historical and legendary important of the construction: "My name is Roland. When I toll there is fire. / When I ring there is victory in the land."

Dickinson was likely aware of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's lines, "Till the bell of Ghent responded o'er lagoon and dike of sand, I am Roland! I am Roland! there is victory in the land!"

Because those famous belfry bells ring to herald important events, the speaker assigns great importance to the fact that she has found a loved one. Thus, the speaker has molded her losing and finding those she loves into great and momentous events.

Third Movement: The Daisy and Death

Did those I loved repose
The Daisy would impel me.

The speaker then speculates about her reaction to the death of her loved ones. She refers to the flower, the "Daisy," stating that it would "impel her." The employment of the Daisy is likely prompted by the flower's association with growing on graves as in Keats' reference in the following excerpt from one of his letters to his friend, Joseph Severn:

I shall soon be laid in the quiet grave—thank God for the quiet grave—O! I can feel the cold earth upon me—the daisies growing over me —O for this quiet—it will be my first.

And, too, there is the old expression, "pushing up daisies," of which Dickinson was, no doubt, aware. The flower would drive her to some of kind reaction which she fails to describe but only hints at. Although she simply suggests her reaction, she leaves a significant clue in the next movement, as she alludes again to Ghent, this time the leader named Philip.

Fourth Movement: The Riddle of Loss

Philip – when bewildered
Bore his riddle in!

The speaker is then alluding to Philip van Artevelde (1340–82), who was a popular Flemish leader. He led a successful battle against the count of Flanders, but later met defeat and death. The Dickinson household library contained a book with Sir Henry Taylor’s play that featured Philip's last words before dying, "What have I done? Why such a death? Why thus?"

Thus, the speaker makes it known that she would have many questions as she struggles with the death of a loved one. She would, like Philip, be overcome, having to bear such a "riddle."

The speaker has shown how important and necessary her loved ones are to her. She has also demonstrated that their loss would be devastating, and she done all this through suggestions and hints, without any direct statement of pain and anguish. All the sorrow is merely suggested by the high level of importance she is assigning to her loved ones.

The text I use for Dickinson poem commentaries

The text I use for Dickinson poem commentaries

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Linda Sue Grimes

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