Some Words on Emily Dickinson’s “#478, I HAD NO TIME TO HATE”

I can’t lie.  For years I avoided Dickinson’s poetry, viewed her cult status as a little undeserving, and found myself–whenever I did venture into her poetry–plodding through the same poems I’d grown accustomed to and headbutting against the same interpretive problems I’d initially run into.   I was, to say the least, not a fan.

But I continued to read, and to read more than just the famous poems, and I started to understand the fascination surrounding her poetry.  As a poet of abstractions, meter, and frequently contorted (or broken) syntax, it took me a while to arrive at the poems on their own terms.  That is to say: I had to get over my preconceived notions about what a poem could/should offer.  And so I started to think about her poetry more like little logic puzzles with words.  “#478, I HAD NO TIME TO HATE” shows the mind at work, weighing the emotions of love and hate against each other:

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The opening declarations for each stanza reveal how the mind of the speaker is eschewing both love and hate at seemingly equal degrees.  Hate, the voice determines, must be avoided simply because life is too short to follow hate through to fruition.  It’s funny here that the justification for avoiding hate is not that it allows hate to dwell and fester and overwhelm the hater, but that there’s just not enough time in life for her to do hate the true justice it deserves.

But then, as I mentioned earlier, she sets up the same device with love in the second stanza.  Because of the repetition, I’m expecting some kind of similar rhetorical move, where the voice will somehow justify an avoidance for love.  I expect, after the first line of the second stanza, for the voice to again reference a lack of time.  However, the “industry” and the “toil” that the voice mentions, suggests a focus on keeping busy in order for time not to stand too still.

So the voice refuses to hate (or so claims) because there’s not enough time, but cannot love because there is too much of it.  These oppositions almost seem to balance each other out in order for the voice to turn toward love, in an almost pleading tone.

The poem’s simple, but that’s part of the reason I like it.  The poem’s devoid of image (except for maybe “The Grave”) and relies on logical twisting, turning, and connections in order to arrive at a seemingly epiphanic pleading for love.   It doesn’t shun the reader or push them away.  It’s an easy concept to grasp, and the language is complicated enough to be satisfying without being so overly complex that it warps the thought.  The closing rhyme satisfies my ear, and seems so genuinely sweet on a tonal register I want to cry out: I love you, Emily!  But more than anything, I love how this poem encourages me to look at life from a perspective of love rather than hate, to live in gratitude rather than lack.

So my gratitude goes out to Emily, in her 19th-c. room in Amherst, furiously writing her way into centuries she never saw.

Taylor Collier
3/6/2016

3 Comments

  1. I love your take on why Ms. Dickinson doesn’t hate—life is too short to do it justice! Then she loves because, having to choose one, she does have time for the toil of love. Priceless!

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