I took my Power in my Hand –
And went against the
‘Twas not so much as
David – had –
But I – was twice as bold –
I aimed my Pebble – but
Was all the one that fell –
Was it Goliah – was too
Or was myself – too small?
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XVII, Mixed Fasciles, ca. 1862. First published in Poems (1891), 56. Courtesy of the Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.
This poem links genius with the boldness we saw in “It was given to me by the gods” (F455A, J454) but evokes a much more qualified experience of that power. The speaker takes the Biblical story of David and Goliath from 1 Samuel 17:23-50 as a conceit for her own small resistance to the much larger world of convention and androcentrism. In the Biblical story, David calls on God to help him defeat the giant Goliath, thereby showing that Saul, who has refused to face Goliath, does not deserve to be king of the Israelites, while David does. David is also the singer of the Psalms, a connection to the poem’s speaker’s vocation.
While the speaker says she does not have “so much as David – had,” she also says she “was twice as bold¬” and dared more. But she finds the pebble she releases from her slingshot hits and fells “Myself.” She wonders, was the giant she faced “too large” or was “myself – too small?” In appropriating a parable about male courage and daring, Dickinson places herself in the line of ancient kings and divinely inspired singers. This story inverts the usual terms of martial combat: it is not sheer physical strength, but moral conviction and dependence on the divine, something larger and outside of oneself, that wins the day. Or is this a parable about hubris, about overreaching? Vivian Pollak argues:
Out of this self-critical dialogue between arrogance and humility, a third voice emerges: the voice of the poet mediating this conflict through language which calls attention to the instability of its ironic mode.
Pollak, Vivian. “The Second Act: Emily Dickinson’s Orphaned Persona.” Nineteenth-Century Women Writers of the English-Speaking World. Ed. Rhoda B. Nathan. Contributions to Women’s Studies, no. 69. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986, 159-69, 163.