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31 October 2011

As Watchers hang upon the East -

As Watchers hang upon the East -
As Beggars revel at a feast
By savory fancy spread—
As Brooks in Deserts babble sweet
On Ear too far for the delight –
Heaven beguiles the tired.

As that same Watcher when the East
Opens the lid of Amethyst
And lets the morning go—
That Beggar, when an honored Guest,
Those thirsty lips to flagons pressed –
Heaven to us, if true.
                                                   - F120 (1859)  121

A wonderfully concise poem likening the longing for heaven to hunger, thirst, and a passion for beauty; and the fulfillment of heaven (“if true”!) to those needs being amply met. We meet the “Watchers” waiting for sunrise after a long, black night.  They “hang upon the East” as if their life depended on it. Eventually their long wait is over and the eastern sky “Opens the lid of Amethyst” and the pink and purple dawn spills out of the box of night. It’s a lovely image.
            We also see beggars coming to a feast, the realization that their long hunger and deprivation will soon be over making them almost delirious with excited expectation. The poet adds a second joy as the expectation is finally met and the beggar lifts the glass of wine to her lips: the beggar is “an honored Guest.” No need for furtiveness or shame. The host has extended a warm welcome and given the beggar honor.  The satisfied thirst here does double duty for the poor soul who is slowly dying of thirst in the desert, too far to reach the babbling brook, but not to far to hear it.
            At the end of the first stanza, Heaven is like that approaching sunrise, the feast, and the babbling brook: longed for but out of reach. It “beguiles” the tired, which is to say it casts a spell over them. The word implies a lovely fantasy or a seductive vision. At the end of the poem, Heaven will bring the joy and fulfillment of all those beguilements – but, and what an important but – “if true.” It’s a strange place to put a caveat and the placement calls attention to it, calling the whole premise into question. What if the watched-for sunset didn’t come, the beggar was not allowed to touch the feast? What then? That’s the question Dickinson leaves the reader and one wonders how much doubt she herself possessed.

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