Recently I dreamed that the Devil was erasing my words as quickly as I wrote them. I could see a line of type running across the surface of my eyes and my own hand inscribing them. Before I could grasp the words, they dissolved and evaporated like the morning fog.
Here is what Emily said:
#1287, c. 1873
In this short Life
That only lasts an hour
How much — how little — is
Within our power
In the dream, I tried several times to remember and write the closing couplet of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116: “If this be error and upon me proved, / I never writ, nor no man ever loved.” Whenever I wrote “never writ” the typeface began to disappear.
The first 12 lines of the sonnet did not appear for some reason. The Devil assumed we knew it already and didn’t need to have it spelled out: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds” . . . yadda, yadda, yadda . . . “It is an ever-fixed mark,” etc., etc. No, we telescoped into the last couplet.
Something that has always troubled me about those last two lines is the double negative: “nor no man ever loved.” If he had written what we expected: “nor any man ever loved,” the iambic pentameter would have gone off beat. He needed a single syllable there. Okay, fine. But then taken literally the double negative cancels itself out. First, he asserts that if love is not the “ever-fixed mark” then he “never writ.” Well, here we are reading his poem, so that is the written proof that his statement about love is true. Then he adds the twist at the end: nor no man. That means if he has loved men then his claims about love are false.
Verily the Devil doth play at tricky grammar! The poet reveals in the end, by way of this fiendish turnabout, that everything he claimed about love in the previous lines is false. Or at least that he has never experienced the idealized love that everyone craves. He tells us that his love for various men is nothing like the vision of unswerving devotion he describes—the marriage of true minds. Instead, we can assume that his love is the more commonplace, crazy-making, erratic philandering that never makes anyone happy. I experience the ambiguity in that last flourish as snarky. It is a bitter and sly denunciation of love’s false promise, masquerading as a tribute to love’s lasting truth.
I am left with only one question: Why does the Devil want to make these words disappear from my mind?
Emily, being perhaps the more gentle soul, hovers over the exquisite dividing line: “How much — how little” The only thing that saves her little poem from the Hallmark dungeon of clichés is the balancing phrase “how little”. There she allows that the truth stands in the paradox of feeling powerful and knowing your own powerlessness at the same time. Being both gigantic and insignificant all at once. Be amazed by yourself! Get over yourself—no one’s looking. Write an extraordinary poem. Throw it in the trash—there are enough poems. Both are true.
Every time you write something, let it disappear. Now there’s an interesting experiment. Why this mania for making an ever-fixed mark? And then demanding recognition. Really? What does that serve?
Emily’s poem brings us back to the central question and abiding mystery of her life and her work, which is that she left behind a lengthy record of her extraordinary artistic vision. That she intended for no one. Nor no man ever to read.