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27 November 2011

"Houses"—so the Wise Men tell me—

"Houses"—so the Wise Men tell me—
"Mansions"! Mansions must be warm!
Mansions cannot let the tears in,
Mansions must exclude the storm!

"Many Mansions," by "his Father,"
I don't know him; snugly built!
Could the Children find the way there—
Some, would even trudge tonight!
                                                              - F139 (1860)  127

Dickinson quit attending church, preferring as would John Muir some decades later the temple of Nature. Her Bee might stand in for a preacher or even for God. Birds would sing the hymns and psalms. In this poem the “Wise Men” of the church have preached sermons on something Jesus told his disciples in the Book of John: “In my Father’s house are many mansions.”
            Her dismissal of the word “Houses” for the grander-sounding “Mansions” indicates a couple of things: first, that even in her own house, her home in which she cocooned herself for the last half of her life, was not a place of simple peace and joy, for “tears” might find their way inside. But in a mansion, “snugly built” there would surely be an everlasting peace and security.
            With some humility the poet admits she doesn’t know Jesus’ Father, but she holds on to the belief that there would surely be mansions in Heaven, for Jesus had said so. Alas, no one living can find there way there – or some, the downhearted and weary who must “trudge” would go there.
            It’s a sad poem with its mix of hope, doubt, and  resignation.  


  1. This was my understanding of the poem, but I didn't know about her pulling away from church, which would have been a brave thing to do for the 19th Century. However, for someone who was about to pull away from all outside contact, a necessary thing. How did her family, especially her father take her quitting going to church?

    1. If I recall correctly, they were concerned but supportive. A minister came to assess her spiritual health and concluded she was perfectly sound. That probably helped.


  2. This is one of those Dickinson poems that seems hopeful when you first read it (on purpose?), and then doubtful upon a second go. It's hard to understand why she often makes this move. Maybe she does it that way to hide her doubt beyond a facade of belief? Maybe she includes both possibilities because she feels both simultaneously?

    Anyway those exclamation points come across as exclaiming doubt, as sarcasm, especially after getting to the line "I don't know him; snugly built!" The snugness is more like a snub, if you are the poor outside in the storm, in which the poet seems to be.

    In my father's house are many mansions. Book of John. One both deeply yearns and deeply doubts those mansions here. Perhaps even deeply rejects. I mean mansions are pretty garish.

    1. In rereading it after seeing your interesting comment, I find a bit of cynicism. She curtly dismisses the Father: "I don't know him". And what good are those mansions in heaven for needy children on earth?

  3. ED’s cynicism about mid-19th century Christianity seems warranted, especially concerning children. However, her letters of the 1850s and 1860s reveal typical upper-class prejudice against Irish street urchins and their parents, who in were arriving in Amherst daily on her father’s railroad. Time softened her attitude, but ED had absorbed her social strata’s sense of entitlement growing up in Amherst and in 1860 probably did not extend her sympathy to Irish kids.