I felt the Columns close —
The Earth reversed her Hemispheres —
I touched the Universe —
And back it slid — and I alone —
A Speck upon a Ball —
Went out upon Circumference —
Beyond the Dip of Bell —
Fr633 (1863) J378
This abstract and provocative poem is difficult. At first I was tempted to read it, as Sharon Cameron suggests ("Dickinson's Fascicles", The Emily Dickinson Handbook), as the rather apocalyptic consequence of the previous poem – To lose One's faith – surpass' – where the loss of Faith results in 'Being's Beggary –'. Both Cameron and Helen Vendler (Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries) interpret this poem as a spiritual crisis where the speaker has somehow ventured beyond Christian salvation.
Yet the more I read it the more I hear an epiphany told with wonder and awe.
In the first two lines we see the Heavens 'stitched', reminiscent of the vanishing circus tent in 'I've known a Heaven, like a Tent –' (Fr 257). The very columns of the sky have closed. The speaker feels them close – a more visceral sense of denial than had she merely watched. In addition to this utter barrior to heaven, Earth itself reverses her hemispheres. What was north becomes disorientingly south; east becomes west.
The speaker reaches out, then, to touch the Universe. It is almost a whispered moment in the poem: The stanza break after 'I touched the Universe –', along with the dash, gives a visual and reading pause before the majestic, even magical, 'And back it slid –'. Unlike the closing of the heavens and the shifting of the earth, the Universe slides open as if it were a door and she had triggered a secret latch.
In the epiphany that follows, the speaker finds herself a 'Speck upon a Ball', alone in unfathomable space. This perspective may seem familiar to us, conversant as we are with a cosmology that emphasizes the smallness of our blue-marble earth against the great emptiness of space, but to experience such vast, displacing loneliness in a feeling way, not an intellectual way, would be compelling, if not profoundly terrifying, to anyone.
The speaker, though, is fearless or enthralled or perhaps both. She doesn't quail, but ventures out on Circumference – the liminal edge between the familiar and the transcendent, far beyond the call of church bells. This may be what it takes to be a great poet or philosopher or mystic: the willingness to see, to go beyond limits and the bonds of church and home, and then to tell – using parable, equation, or poetry when quotidian language fails.