From Many, One: Love in Emily Dickinson’s Poem “Love LII”

Ophelia, Paul Albert Steck, 1895

Love lasts longer than any relationship because true love changes the lover. When two persons, even for a moment, let their selves dissolve into each other, like ‘minor streams’ coming to rest in a single ‘sea’, the streams which flow out the other side cannot be the same as those that entered. In her “Love Poem LII”, Emily Dickinson restricts herself to capturing this aspect of love, the aspect felt only after loving truly.

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Even in the first line, Dickinson evokes a momentary past lingering in the on-going present: ‘He touched me, so I live to know …’. The words’ sounds affect its definition. These words ‘touched’ and ‘know’, by their tenses, do not only create a past and present respectively, but their sounds tell us what kinds of past and presents. They share an ‘o’ sound, but the ‘o’ sound of ‘touched’ is short, over before it’s begun, the ‘o’ of ‘know’ lingers on. ‘Touched’ is like the touch itself, affecting, vanishing as soon it begins, while the air forming the word ‘know’ is not forced to a stop by a consonant, just as the present state of mind of knowing how the touch’s effects endures. In the first line, the reader knows, even if only subconsciously, that this romance in the past was brief, but its effects live after it.

True love has an aftermath not because it is an intense feeling, but because true love, truly felt, changes the lovers. Love is not two people coming together; love is two people pouring themselves into each other. Even when separated, you gave some of yourself to that person, and you received some of them, so you cannot walk away as you were. This is why the narrator is ‘different from before / As if [she] breathed superior air’. She does not say, ‘As if I breathe superior air’. The lover is gone. He is no longer there to electrify the air, and yet, having once electrified the air the narrator breathed, the narrator cannot forget the air she breathed, cannot be unchanged by that air.

Although this poem appears in Dickinson’s love poems, I would not be surprised if it was a religious poem, for, even as a love poem, the form of the love resembles a mystic’s vision of the perfect love of God, a self-annulling union with God. Remembering how she ‘groped upon his breast’, our narrator thinks:

It was a boundless place to me
And silenced, as the awful sea
Puts minor streams to rest.

How can a minor stream be put to rest by a sea other than by flowing into it? It rests because it, as its individual self, ceases. By union it becomes they, plural and singular. For the mystic, this would be the enlightened flowing into God. For the narrator, this is the lover flowing into the union she shares with her lover.

Beyond images, on the level of syntax, this blending of selves is evoked. ‘And silenced’ is ambiguous: who does the ‘silenced’ attach to? Is it an adjective, like ‘boundless’, attaching it to the male lover? Then the ‘minor streams’ put ‘to rest’ is the male lover in the ‘awful sea’ of our narrator. Or is ‘silenced’ a transitive verb, with its object poetically omitted? ‘It was a boundless place to me / And silenced [me]’. Our narrator loses herself in the ‘awful sea’ of the male lover. It would only diminish the poem to say which reading is true. Both are true, but rather than state them separately, the poem has them exist simultaneously, like the spirits of the two lovers existing in the same space.

Losing oneself in a larger whole is both intoxicating and terrifying, which is why so many lay people view the goals of mystic, their goal of self-annulling, as unattractive. The phrase ‘awful sea’ captures this enchantment and repulsion from the perspective of the lover who has experienced this self-diminishing union. The archaic use of ‘awful’ is ‘full of awe’, a fitting label for the majesty of God or love. When Dickinson was writing, however, the word had already acquired its negative meaning, ‘horrible’. Becoming one with the ‘awful sea’ is both awe-inspiring and terrifying.

The fear is justified. Their love is in the past. Our narrator, like a ‘minor stream’ has passed into the ‘sea’, has become the ‘sea’, and now has passed out. Just as you cannot step into the same river twice, the waters that flowed from the sea into individual streams cannot be the same waters that entered. Yet, although, our narrator is ‘different from before’, she is not less. The poem is bittersweet, not negative. Our narrator was transfigured by her relationship, and she is still ‘transfigured now / To tenderer renown’.