Read, Sweet, How Others Strove

    Read-Sweet-how others-strove-
    Till we-are stouter-
    What they-renounced-
    Till we-are less afraid-
    How many times they-bore the faithful witness-
    Till we-are helped-
    As if a Kingdom-cared!

    Read then-of faith-
    That shone above the fagot-
    Clear strains of Hymn
    The River could not drown-
    Brave names of Men-
    And Celestial Women-
    Passed out-of Record
    -Emily Dickinson (1830–1886)

Emily composed this piece around 1861 and it was first published in 1924 in a collection called Poems under the subheading of “Part One: Life: The book of martyrs.” In the original composition her dashes are frequently tiny enough to look like dots. The poems of 1860-1863 are chaotic in her use of the dash, both in terms of its stand in for nearly-every-other-spot-of-punctuation and in its assignment between just about every one of the parts of speech.

Dickinson’s poems are referred to in two ways. One is to simply use the first line of the poem and the other is with a Johnson Number, "...first assigned by Thomas H. Johnson in 1955, in an attempt to identify the order in which the poems were composed." While several of his findings have been outdated by later research, it still characterizes the most widespread classification system amid Dickinson researchers.

Jim Tinsley of the Project Gutenberg project explains, "As is well documented, Emily Dickinson's poems were edited in these early editions by her friends, better to fit the conventions of the times. In particular, her dashes, often small enough to appear as dots, became commas and semi-colons." Dickinson’s beliefs were founded in Calvinism and in her Read-Sweet-how others-strove- Dickinson incitites the reader of the Bible to re-examine their fidelity to God. By infusing the opening stanza with all-powerful and universal doubts she brings into focus the trinity found in Christian faith. "Till we- are stouter; Till we- are less afraid; Till we- are helped-"

Emily was a woman obsessed with the meanings of words and their symbolism and perhaps to her to dash was also "to strike with violence so as to break into fragments; to drive impetuously forth or out… (and) to draw a pen vigorously through writing so as to erase it."

Critics complain of Dickinson's punctuation and those who preserve it equally remark on its acoustic and cadenced achievement. One composer Ronald Leich set this poem to music in 1947. He notes, "A friend of Emily Dickinson, Kate Anthon, claimed to have heard Emily Dickinson at the piano accompanying herself while singing her own settings of her poems..." No doubt there is an energy that lives in the interaction between the words flanked by the poet and her words. "In this intensely prolific period," writes Kamilla Denman in Emily Dickinson’s Volcanic Punctuation, "Dickinson's excessive use of dashes has been interpreted variously as the result of great stress and intense emotion, as the indication of a mental breakdown, and as a mere idiosyncratic, female habit. Though these speculations are all subject to debate, it is clear that in the early 1860s Dickinson conducted her most intense exploration of language and used punctuation to disrupt conventional linguistic relations, whether in an attempt to express inexpressible psychological states or purely to vivify language." She was woman beleaguered by self-inflicted condemnation and wholly comprehended the dichotomies and dual oppositions that her views presented. A woman before her time Emily chose to experience her life (and death) as a non-conformist.

Focusing on a couple of her word choices there may be a small glimpse into this admonishment. Within the context of the poem one could reasonably guess that Emily picked the following definition of a "fagot" out of the dictionaries of her era as a, "person hired to appear at musters in a company not full and hide the deficiency." (Webster 1928). Her implicit reference of martyrs may be about those who are holding the place for the momentary doubters of the faith, no matter how long that moment may be.

Another interesting word choice in the first stanza is "stouter." Webster 1928 offers several definitions and perhaps Emily was thinking of this one, "Strong; firm; as a stout vessel," because the Bible does mention Christians being a vessel of the Lord when Paul likens the human body to a vessel in his encouragements to the Thessalonians, "That every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honor."( 1 Thessalonians 4:4 -KJV)

Dickinson littered her poetry with conflicts that appear as choruses of disapproval designed with a deliberate dramatic effect. For example her "What does a Kingdom care!" She infers that readers must be sacrificial victims to the Bible until they understand the true meaning of the omnipotent power of personal faith. Finally, by underlining a true spiritual connection to faith, the "brave men" and "celestial women," the martyrs, infuse the Christian traditions into the daily lives of people. Cast in this light, the perceptible church takes a prominent back seat to the imperceptible church.


Denman, Kamilla, Emily Dickinson’s Volcanic Punctuation. The Emily Dickinson Journal 1993.
Accessed February 28, 2006.

The Gutenberg Project:
Accessed February 28, 2006.

Accessed February 28, 2006.

Poems by Emily Dickinson:
Accessed February 28, 2006.

Read, Sweet, How Others Strove:
Accessed February 28, 2006.

Webster's 1828 Dictionary, Electronic Version by Christian Technologies, Inc.:
Accessed February 28, 2006.

Without a title - Title:
Accessed February 28, 2006.

CST Approved.

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