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11 November 2011

Going to Heaven!

Going to Heaven!
I don't know when –
Pray do not ask me how!
Indeed I'm too astonished
To think of answering you!
Going to Heaven!
How dim it sounds!
And yet it will be done
As sure as flocks go home at night
Unto the Shepherd's arm!

Perhaps you're going too!
Who knows?
If you should get there first
Save just a little space for me
Close to the two I lost –
The smallest "Robe" will fit me
And just a bit of "Crown" –
For you know we do not mind our dress
When we are going home –

I'm glad I don't believe it
For it would stop my breath –
And I'd like to look a little more
At such a curious Earth!
I'm glad they did believe it
Whom I have never found
Since the mighty Autumn afternoon
I left them in the ground.
                                                      - F128 (1859) 79

In poem F39, “I never lost as much but twice,” Dickinson wrote about two deaths that devastated her. In this poem she refers to them again. In talking about Heaven she implies it must be a rather crowded and structured place, for she asks the person she is speaking with to “Save just a little space for me” by “the two I lost.” Perhaps like at an opera one must have named seats to go in.
            The poem begins as if someone asked her if she thought she were going to Heaven. As Dickinson never made the commitment to being saved as did her friends, family, and village, it might have been a real question she was asked. She unravels the answer here, diverting her rather ambivalent response with reference to her two beloved dead. Her first line of response is to be “astonished” at being asked – which is the sort of response one makes to someone who asks an intrusive question such as “How much did that cost?” or “How old are you?” Dear Abbey counseled her millions of readers that the appropriate answer to these types of question is, “I’m surprised you’re interested. Why do you ask?”
            And then the poet continues as if musing on the question. The idea of Heaven is so distant it seems “dim.” “Dim” also implies a lack of light and is quite opposite the idea of something glimmering in the distance. It is a surprising choice of word to describe the radiance that is supposed to characterize Heaven. Yet the poet says that for her to go to heaven is as certain to eventually happen as that flocks go home at night. How certain is that? Fairly certain, yes, but not a definitive “yes.”
            Then she lobs the question back to her interlocutor with a wry jab: “Who knows?” She puts the nosy person cleverly in her place, and indicates that certainty about being saved is misplaced certainty. At the end of the second stanza, however, she claims that Heaven is “home” and consequently she won’t require the sort of royal dress that others might require.
            But just when you think that, okay, she is not only counting on going to heaven but that heaven is her true home, the last stanza reveals a rather shocking revelation. She doesn’t believe she is headed to heaven – or perhaps in the idea of heaven at all – and that she is “glad” she doesn’t. The belief might stop her breath, and the implication is that she would die right then and there to go. And since she still has a lot of curiosity about Earth, she is not at all ready to make that journey.
            Dickinson ends the poem with the lost loved ones. Since they did die, she’s glad they were believers. The last three lines take an entirely different tone than the rather flippant remarks she makes in response to the question about going to heaven. The lines roll solemnly off the tongue, with the murmur of “m” sounds: Whom, mighty, Autumn, them; and the round sounds of “found” and “ground.” Those two rhyming words are emphasized not only because they are important to the poem but because they are the only true rhymes it contains. The only other rhymes are the identical rhymes of  “me” and “it.” And so the poem ends with the sober reflection that once the dead are planted in the ground, they are completely beyond the reach of the living.


  1. Not that poets need fret over facts, but F39, composed 1858, says the poet lost two best friends in the past and now (?) a third has died. ED left no list, but likely candidates are Sophia Holland (died April 29, 1844), Emily Lavinia Norcross (July 2, 1852), and Benjamin Franklin Newton (March 24, 1853), none in “mighty Autumn” (Comment 5, F39, Prowling Bee).

    Either we have no idea of the identity of “the two I lost”, or Line 5, Stanza 2 and Line 7, Stanza 3 in F128 are poetic license, intentional or not.

  2. The directness of ED’s statement of disbelief in Christian dogma stunned me, as it probably did her readers after Mabel Todd published this poem in 1891. ED, Queen of Ambiguity, casts caution aside and tells us in no uncertain terms that she doesn’t buy into Christian dogma. At the very least she’s agnostic, but for her to say so definitively, “I'm glad I don't believe it” shocked me, as it did Susan K, especially given the milieu ED endured. She sent the first copy (Variant 1) to Sue and signed it “Emilie”, evidence of their mutual trust.

    Unpredictable surprises like this are why I love this amazing poet. And she has the temerity to think of Susan as Cleopatra!

  3. “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
    Her infinite variety. Other poets cloy
    The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry
    Where most she satisfies …..”

    Apologies to WS (Act 2, Scene 2)

  4. When someone we love dies, we hope for some sort of sign (even searching desperately) from the loved one in nature, in a dream, somehow…and if it never happens, we despair that the heaven of even a sense of that kindred soul is lost forever.

  5. The combination of flippancy and deep grief in this poem is, in itself, startling. I once lost a child, and—like the person in the poem asking about Heaven—I had not one, not two, but three different people trot out their “God needed another angel.” Oh, grief—-and resentment.