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Emily Dickinson's "'Why do I love' You, Sir?"

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 - Commemorative Stamp

Introduction and Text of "'Why do I love' You, Sir?"

Emily Dickinson’s poem begins with the following oddly punctuated first line: "Why do I love" You, Sir?

Dickinson’s Editors

When analyzing Dickinson’s poems, it is useful to remember that she did not work with an editor for the purpose of publishing. Her poems were edited after her death by Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd, but their reworking often smoothed out Dickinson’s quirky use of language to the point of crushing the innovation and nuances that made her the unique poet she was.

Therefore, Thomas H. Johnson restored her poems to the originals as found in the bundles of poem written in her own handwriting. Thus, the reader must be aware that Dickinson might have been persuaded to alter some of her quirks for publication, if she had been assured that her meaning would not be changed but instead made clearer by the changes.

The odd punctuation of this poem, especially the first line, is an example of a Dickinsonian quirk which, no doubt, would have been altered by an editor after close consultation with the poet. Indeed, it would be fascinating to hear Dickinson’s explanation for placing "Why do I love" in quotation marks, making it appear as a unit of thought that seems to address the second person "You."

Readers cannot know for certain what significance that odd punctuation might have had for Dickinson; therefore, modern readers must simply omit the quotation marks as they begin the poem.

The poem features four stanzas; the first two are innovative cinquains, the third is an innovative sestet, and the fourth is a Dickinsonian quatrain. The poem dramatizes the theme of God’s love as mystery.

"Why do I love" You, Sir?

"Why do I love" You, Sir?
Because —
The Wind does not require the Grass
To answer — Wherefore when He pass
She cannot keep Her place.

Because He knows — and
Do not You —
And We know not —
Enough for Us
The Wisdom it be so —

The Lightning — never asked an Eye
Wherefore it shut — when He was by —
Because He knows it cannot speak —
And reasons not contained —
— Of Talk —
There be — preferred by Daintier Folk —

The Sunrise — Sire — compelleth Me —
Because He's Sunrise — and I see —
Therefore — Then —
I love Thee —

Commentary

The speaker of Dickinson's oddly punctuated poem uses logic to demonstrate the reasoning that leads the created soul to love for its Creator.

First Stanza: Unavoidable Love

"Why do I love" You, Sir?
Because —
The Wind does not require the Grass
To answer — Wherefore when He pass
She cannot keep Her place.

The speaker seems to be talking to God, calling Him "Sir," and questioning Him as to why she loves Him. Then the speaker replies with her own answer, "Because— / The Wind does not require the Grass / To answer."

However, in order to completely respond to this amazing mystery, the speaker finds it necessary to compare her feelings with phenomena of nature. She decides to compare her love to the act of love the grass possesses.

The grass simply cannot prevent itself from undergoing its waving motion after the wind has blown through it. The speaker's love for her Creator God is just simply natural. There can be no questioning it. Of course, she will continue to question and answer. That's just the way she rolls!

Second Stanza: The Wisdom of Love

Because He knows — and
Do not You —
And We know not —
Enough for Us
The Wisdom it be so —

In the second stanza , the speaker avers that God as Father, and Christ, along with all she knows about anything, hold the "Wisdom" motivating the love in the soul of the created children for their Creator. Nothing more is necessary, because everything is enfolded in that love and wisdom.

Third Stanza: Why Remains Irrelevant

The Lightning — never asked an Eye
Wherefore it shut — when He was by —
Because He knows it cannot speak —
And reasons not contained —
— Of Talk —
There be — preferred by Daintier Folk —

In the third stanza, the speaker returns to describing phenomena of nature to explicate the "why": she reveals that that love eruption is akin to lightning striking the eye. The eye will stop to ask why as it closes from the onslaught of light's brilliance.

Intimately coalescing occurrences do not motivate one to ask why. They just are. Or it is so obvious that no one has ever in history bothered to question it. The speaker is nevertheless still aware that human minds crave reasons for things and events.

The human mind wants to discuss and declaim about the ineffable, even though the ineffable will never be "contained— / —Of Talk." The mind may be likened to "Daintier Folk," who wish everything to be clarified in words, despite the fact that words often cannot perform that feat.

Fourth Stanza: The Logic of Loving One's Creator

The Sunrise — Sire — compelleth Me —
Because He's Sunrise — and I see —
Therefore — Then —
I love Thee —

The love of God, for this speaker, remains quite uncomplicated: as the sun rises, her eyes perceive light. As the Creator creates, the speaker loves. To her mind, only the completely daft can question the logic of loving one's Creator.

Emily Dickinson

Life Sketch of Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson remains one of the most fascinating and widely researched poets in America. Much speculation abounds regarding some of the most known facts about her. For example, after the age of seventeen, she remained fairly cloistered in her father's home, rarely moving from the house beyond the front gate. Yet she produced some of the wisest, deepest poetry ever created anywhere at any time.

Regardless of Emily's personal reasons for living nun-like, readers have found much to admire, enjoy, and appreciate about her poems. Though they often baffle upon first encounter, they reward readers mightily who stay with each poem and dig out the nuggets of golden wisdom.

New England Family

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born December 10, 1830, in Amherst, MA, to Edward Dickinson and Emily Norcross Dickinson. Emily was the second child of three: Austin, her older brother who was born April 16, 1829, and Lavinia, her younger sister, born February 28, 1833. Emily died on May 15, 1886.

Emily's New England heritage was strong and included her paternal grandfather, Samuel Dickinson, who was one of the founders of Amherst College. Emily's father was a lawyer and also was elected to and served one term in the state legislature (1837-1839); later between 1852 and 1855, he served one term in the U.S. House of Representative as a representative of Massachusetts.

Education

Emily attended the primary grades in a one room school until being sent to Amherst Academy, which became Amherst College. The school took pride in offering college level course in the sciences from astronomy to zoology. Emily enjoyed school, and her poems testify to the skill with which she mastered her academic lessons.

After her seven year stint at Amherst Academy, Emily then entered Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in the fall of 1847. Emily remained at the seminary for only one year. Much speculation has been offered regarding Emily's early departure from formal education, from the atmosphere of religiosity of the school to the simple fact that the seminary offered nothing new for the sharp minded Emily to learn. She seemed quite content to leave in order to stay home. Likely her reclusiveness was beginning, and she felt the need to control her own learning and schedule her own life activities.

As a stay-at-home daughter in 19th century New England, Emily was expected to take on her share of domestic duties, including housework, likely to help prepare said daughters for handling their own homes after marriage. Possibly, Emily was convinced that her life would not be the traditional one of wife, mother, and householder; she has even stated as much: God keep me from what they call households.

Reclusiveness and Religion

In this householder-in-training position, Emily especially disdained the role a host to the many guests that her father's community service required of his family. She found such entertaining mind-boggling, and all that time spent with others meant less time for her own creative efforts. By this time in her life, Emily was discovering the joy of soul-discovery through her art.

Although many have speculated that her dismissal of the current religious metaphor landed her in the atheist camp, Emily's poems testify to a deep spiritual awareness that far exceeds the religious rhetoric of the period. In fact, Emily was likely discovering that her intuition about all things spiritual demonstrated an intellect that far exceeded any of her family's and compatriots' intelligence. Her focus became her poetry—her main interest in life.

Emily's reclusiveness extended to her decision that she could keep the sabbath by staying home instead of attending church services. Her wonderful explication of the decision appears in her poem, "Some keep the Sabbath going to Church":

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church —
I keep it, staying at Home —
With a Bobolink for a Chorister —
And an Orchard, for a Dome —

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice —
I just wear my Wings —
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton — sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman —
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last —
I'm going, all along.

Publication

Very few of Emily's poems appeared in print during her lifetime. And it was only after her death the her sister Vinnie discovered the bundles of poems, called fascicles, in Emily's room. A total of 1775 individual poems have made their way to publication. The first publicans of her works to appear, gathered and edited by Mabel Loomis Todd, a supposed paramour of Emily's brother, and the editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson had been altered to the point of changing the meanings of her poems. The regularization of her technical achievements with grammar and punctuation obliterated the high achievement that the poet had so creatively accomplished.

Readers can thank Thomas H. Johnson, who in the mid 1950s went to work at restoring Emily's poems to their, at least near, original. His doing so restored her many dashes, spacings, and other grammar/mechanical features that earlier editors had "corrected" for the poet—corrections that ultimately resulted in obliteration of the poetic achievement reached by Emily's mystically brilliant talent.

The text I use for the commentaries

The text I use for the commentaries

Questions & Answers

Question: Why does the poem have such an odd title?

Answer: Readers cannot know for certain what significance that odd punctuation might have had for Dickinson; therefore, modern readers must simply omit the quotation marks as they begin the poem.

Question: What is the theme of Emily Dickinson's "'Why do I love' You, Sir?"?

Answer: The poem dramatizes the theme of God’s love as a mystery.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes