You left me, sweet, two legacies,
A legacy of love
A Heavenly Father would be happy,
I had the offer of;
You left me limits of pain
Capable as the sea,
Between eternity and time
Your conscience and me.
“You Left Me” is a surprisingly concise poem. It communicates two huge ideas in the short space of two four-line stanzas.
Clearly, Emily Dickinson wrote the poem about someone who was dear to her. It is not clear if the poem is about someone who is far away or about someone who has died. Both were common in his life. The enduring nature of the poem is such that its meaning is consistent with any of the cases and also with additional cases where there is a physical or emotional separation between two people.
Chronologically, the poem was probably written in 1862, during Dickinson’s most intense writing period. In 1862 he wrote some 366 poems.
His dear friend, the Reverend Charles Wadsworth, left for San Francisco in 1862 and is probably 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 leaving for San Francisco. However, his emotional attachment to Wadsworth remained strong for the rest of his life and he wrote many letters to her. She called him her “dearest earthly friend.” Unfortunately, most of her letters to Wadsworth have not survived, and the letters he sent her were burned, at her request, after her death.
The first stanza of the poem, “You Left Me,” speaks of being left with a deep love, one that even Heavenly Father would be content with. That is an impressive statement and makes any additional description unnecessary.
The second stanza speaks of a void that has been left. Obviously it is a great pain, as great as the sea and compared to eternity. This legacy stands out as a significant contrast to the legacy described in the first stanza.
A third stanza was not written to tie everything together in one conclusion. The last line of the second stanza, “Your Conscience and I,” seems to bring the reader back from the two great ideas that we have just presented to the foundation 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 accurate in the second and fourth lines of each verse. There are no close rhymes in this poem. In addition, the use of anaphora, the repetition of “You left me” to begin each stanza, helps to create a very formal design poem.
As a result of these poetic characteristics, Dickinson was able to create an easily understandable but highly meaningful short poem. The skill and the perceptions are impressive.