Emily Dickinson’s “If those I loved were lost”

Emily Dickinson’s “If those I loved were lost” features two stanzas, each with two movements. The speaker’s musing targets how the speaker would react to both losing and finding loved ones. Her emotions and behaviors signal the importance of those loved ones to her. The value she places on these individuals can only be suggested and not directly stated.

If those I loved were lost

If those I loved were lost

The Crier’s voice would tell me —

If those I loved were found

The bells of Ghent would ring —

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Did those I loved repose

The Daisy would impel me.

Philip — when bewildered

Bore his riddle in!

This highly allusive poem takes readers from life in a small village to the world stage, on which famous bells herald momentous events. The allusions emphasize the significance the speaker places on those to whom she refers.

First Movement: An Important Announcement

If those I loved were lost

The Crier’s voice would tell me —

The speaker is speculating about her emotions and behaviors after having lost a loved one, and then she adds a speculative note about those emotions and behavior as she suddenly has found a beloved.

The first movement finds the speaker claiming that the loss of a loved one would herald a “Crier” to announce the event. In earlier times, a “town crier” was employed to spread local news events on the streets of small villages. His position was noticeable because of his manner and elaborate dress: such a crier might be adorned in bright colors, a coat of red and gold with white pants, a three-cornered hat (tricon), and black boots. He usually carried a bell that he would ring to attract attention of the citizens. He often would begin his announcement with the cry, “Oyez! Oyez! Oyez!”

By making this simple claim that a “crier” would be letting her know about the loss of a loved one, the speaker is elevating the importance of everyone she loves to the status of a noted official or famous name in the community.

Second Movement: The Significance of Loss

If those I loved were found

The bells of Ghent would ring —

The speaker then alludes to the famous Ghent Belfry, whose construction began in 1313 with ringing bells to announce religious events, later employed to signal other important occurrences. The inscription on the belfry tower indicates the historical and legendary important of the construction: “My name is Roland. When I toll there is fire. / When I ring there is victory in the land.”

Dickinson was likely aware of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s lines, “Till the bell of Ghent responded o’er lagoon and dike of sand, I am Roland! I am Roland! there is victory in the land!” Because the famous bells ring to herald important events, the speaker assigns great importance to the fact that she has found a loved one. Thus, the speaker has molded her losing and finding those she loves into great and momentous events.

Third Movement: Daisy and Death

Did those I loved repose

The Daisy would impel me.

The speaker then speculates about her reaction to the death of her loved ones. She refers to the flower, the “Daisy,” stating that it would “impel her.” The employment of the Daisy is likely prompted by the flower’s association with growing on graves as in Keats’ reference in the following excerpt from one of his letters to a friend: “I shall soon be laid in the quiet grave — thank God for the quiet grave — O! I can feel the cold earth upon me — the daisies growing over me — O for this quiet — it will be my first.” And, too, there is the old expression, “pushing up daisies,” of which Dickinson was, no doubt, aware.

The flower would drive her to some of kind reaction which she fails to describe but only hints at. Although she simply suggests her reaction, she leaves a significant clue in the next movement, as she alludes again to Ghent, this time the leader named Philip.

Fourth Movement: The Riddle of Loss

Philip — when bewildered

Bore his riddle in!

The speaker is then alluding to Philip van Artevelde (1340–82), who was a popular Flemish leader. He led a successful battle against the count of Flanders, but later met defeat and death. The Dickinson household library contained a book with a play that featured Philip’s last words before dying, “What have I done? Why such a death? Why thus?”

Thus the speaker makes it known that she would have many questions as she struggles with the death of a loved one. She would, like Philip, be overcome, having to bear such a “riddle.” The speaker has shown how important and necessary her loved ones are to her, and she has also demonstrated that their loss would be devastating, and she done all this through suggestions and hints, without any direct statement of pain and anguish. All the sorrow is merely suggested by the high level of importance she is assigning to her loved ones.

Emily Dickinson remains one of the most fascinating and widely researched poets in America. Much speculation abounds regarding some of the most known facts about her. For example, after the age of seventeen, she remained fairly cloistered in her father’s home, rarely moving from the house beyond the front gate. Yet she produced some of the wisest, deepest poetry ever created anywhere at any time.

Regardless of Emily’s personal reasons for living nun-like, readers have found much to admire, enjoy, and appreciate about her poems. Though they often baffle upon first encounter, they reward readers mightily who stay with each poem and dig out the nuggets of golden wisdom.

New England Family

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born December 10, 1830, in Amherst, MA, to Edward Dickinson and Emily Norcross Dickinson. Emily was the second child of three: Austin, her older brother who was born April 16, 1829, and Lavinia, her younger sister, born February 28, 1833. Emily died on May 15, 1886.

Emily’s New England heritage was strong and included her paternal grandfather, Samuel Dickinson, who was one of the founders of Amherst College. Emily’s father was a lawyer and also was elected to and served one term in the state legislature (1837-1839); later between 1852 and 1855, he served one term in the U.S. House of Representative as a representative of Massachusetts.


Emily attended the primary grades in a one room school until being sent to Amherst Academy, which became Amherst College. The school took pride in offering college level course in the sciences from astronomy to zoology. Emily enjoyed school, and her poems testify to the skill with which she mastered her academic lessons.

After her seven year stint at Amherst Academy, Emily then entered Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in the fall of 1847. Emily remained at the seminary for only one year. Much speculation has been offered regarding Emily’s early departure from formal education, from the atmosphere of religiosity of the school to the simple fact that the seminary offered nothing new for the sharp minded Emily to learn. She seemed quite content to leave in order to stay home. Likely her reclusiveness was beginning, and she felt the need to control her own learning and schedule her own life activities.

As a stay-at-home daughter in 19th century New England, Emily was expected to take on her share of domestic duties, including housework, likely to help prepare said daughters for handling their own homes after marriage. Possibly, Emily was convinced that her life would not be the traditional one of wife, mother, and householder; she has even stated as much: God keep me from what they call households.

Reclusiveness and Religion

In this householder-in-training position, Emily especially disdained the role a host to the many guests that her father’s community service required of his family. She found such entertaining mind-boggling, and all that time spent with others meant less time for her own creative efforts. By this time in her life, Emily was discovering the joy of soul-discovery through her art.

Although many have speculated that her dismissal of the current religious metaphor landed her in the atheist camp, Emily’s poems testify to a deep spiritual awareness that far exceeds the religious rhetoric of the period. In fact, Emily was likely discovering that her intuition about all things spiritual demonstrated an intellect that far exceeded any of her family’s and compatriots’ intelligence. Her focus became her poetry—her main interest in life.

Emily’s reclusiveness extended to her decision that she could keep the sabbath by staying home instead of attending church services. Her wonderful explication of the decision appears in her poem, “Some keep the Sabbath going to Church”:

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church —

I keep it, staying at Home —

With a Bobolink for a Chorister —

And an Orchard, for a Dome —

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice —

I just wear my Wings —

And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,

Our little Sexton — sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman —

And the sermon is never long,

So instead of getting to Heaven, at last —

I’m going, all along.


Very few of Emily’s poems appeared in print during her lifetime. And it was only after her death that her sister Vinnie discovered the bundles of poems, called fascicles, in Emily’s room. A total of 1775 individual poems have made their way to publication. The first publications of her works to appear, gathered and edited by Mabel Loomis Todd, a supposed paramour of Emily’s brother, and the editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson had been altered to the point of changing the meanings of her poems. The regularization of her technical achievements with grammar and punctuation obliterated the high achievement that the poet had so creatively accomplished.

Readers can thank Thomas H. Johnson, who in the mid 1950s went to work at restoring Emily’s poems to their, at least near, original. His doing so restored her many dashes, spacings, and other grammar/mechanical features that earlier editors had “corrected” for the poet—corrections that ultimately resulted in obliteration of the poetic achievement reached by Emily’s mystically brilliant talent.