"You Left Me," a Discussion of the Poem by Emily Dickinson


You left me, sweet, two legacies, –

A legacy of love

A Heavenly Father would content,

Had He the offer of;

You left me boundaries of pain

Capacious as the sea,

Between eternity and time,

Your consciousness and me.

“You Left Me” is an amazingly concise poem. It communicates two immense ideas in the short space of two four-line stanzas.

Clearly, Emily Dickinson wrote the poem about somebody that was dear to her. It’s not clear whether the poem is about somebody who is far away or is about somebody who has died. Both were common in her life. The enduring nature of the poem is such that its meaning is consistent with either case and also consistent with additional cases where there is a physical or emotional separation between two people.

Chronologically, the poem was probably written in 1862, during the period of Dickinson’s most intense writing. In 1862 she wrote about 366 poems.

Her dear friend, Reverend Charles Wadsworth, left for San Francisco in 1862, and he is most likely the subject of the poem. Dickinson met him in Philadelphia in 1855 and only met him in person on two other occasions, including his visit to see her just before he left for San Francisco. However, her emotional attachment to Wadsworth remained strong for the rest of her life and she wrote him many letters. She called him her “dearest earthly friend.” Unfortunately, most of her letters to Wadsworth have not survived, and his letters to her were burned, at her request, after her death.

The first stanza of the poem, “You Left Me,” tells of being left with a deep love, one that even the Heavenly Father would be content with. That’s an impressive statement and makes any further description unnecessary.

The second stanza talks about an emptiness that has been left. It’s obviously a huge pain, as big as the sea and compared to eternity. This legacy stands as a significant contrast to the legacy described in the first stanza.

A third stanza to tie everything together into a conclusion was not written. The last line of the second stanza, “Your consciousness and me,” seems to sufficiently bring the reader back from the two huge ideas just presented to the groundedness of the consciousness of two real people.

The stanzas are written very formally with a ballad meter, iambic tetrameter followed by iambic trimeter. The rhyme is also very precise in the second and fourth lines of each stanza. There are no near rhymes in this poem. Also, the use of anaphora, the repetition of “You left me” to start each stanza, helps to create a very formally designed poem.

As a result of these poetic features, Dickinson was able to create an easily understandable yet highly meaningful short poem. The skill and the insights are both impressive.

Garry Gamber