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01 March 2012

Tho' I get home how late – how late –

Tho' I get home how late – how late –
So I get home – 'twill compensate –
Better will be the Ecstasy
That they have done expecting me –
When Night – descending – dumb – and dark –
They hear my unexpected knock –
Transporting must the moment be –
Brewed from decades of Agony!

To think just how the fire will burn –
Just how long-cheated eyes will turn –
To wonder what myself will say,
And what itself, will say to me –
Beguiles the Centuries of way!
                                                            F199 (1861)  207 

This one is a head scratcher, primarily because we begin with a traveler seemingly anticipating a joyous reunion with loved ones he or she hasn’t seen in “decades.” The loved ones, who will have “Ecstasy” at the reunion after “decades of Agony,” are simply referred to as “they.” The puzzlement occurs in the penultimate line of the second stanza when the traveler wonders “what itself, will say to me – ”. ‘Scuse me? Itself? That mysterious line is followed by one equally mysterious: “Beguiles the Centuries of way!” In other words, the traveler has been killing time for centuries imagining what some reunion with either “them” or “it” will be like. It makes the reader start the poem over, this time casting aside preconceptions.
            The whole poem makes sense if we convert the “it” to “God” ( and even more sense if we convert “it” to the Devil!).  We have seen that Dickinson could be irreverent for her day and that she thinks independently in religion. It is conceivable, then, that she might toy with the notion that God may not have a gender as humans conceive gender. Let’s just go with that interpretation and see if everything hangs together: The narrator has been waiting for a long, long time in her grave. (We have seen this sort of conscious waiting within tombs in other poems.) When she finally gets “home” to heaven, those who had hoped to see her had given up, they had “done expecting me.” But finally when the Night of the world is falling, the narrator finally gets to go knock on the door of heaven. Because they will have given up hope (Dickinson did not take the Christian pledge as did her friends and family during a religious revival in Amherst; neither did she attend church. No doubt some people did worry about her soul finding its way to heaven), they are ecstatic to hear her knock. She herself will be transported with joy after all the agony of the tomb, but just getting to heaven, finally,” ‘twill compensate” for everything.
The prodigal son was wel-
comed back with feasts
and great joy. He'd been
given up for lost.
            There will be a cheery fire burning, just as a warm welcome on earth includes a warm fire if it is cold outside. Dickinson sometimes uses “fire” to indicate splendor and glory, so she may be sketching the glorious brilliance of heaven. She has been waiting for centuries for this moment, wondering what in the world she is going to say and what her Creator will say to her!
            Now if we take the view that “itself” refers to the Devil, several loose ends become tidied up: “dumb,” “dark” “Night” would be the blackness of descending to hell. The fires of hell are burning, but within there are people who have been expecting the poet. Finally, it is fitting to refer to the Devil as “it,” as it is degrading; it is also considered bad luck to say his name.
            But I reject that interpretation simply because there is too much ecstasy and beguilement going on.

The poem is written in iambic tetrameter and rhymed couplets. This adds to an essentially light-hearted touch to what otherwise might seem a very serious poem. 


  1. When I correct college essays the most irritating word is always "it"! The pronoun is incredibly vague - especially when there is no antecedent. Emily is guilty of the same in this poem, and when a word like God is substituted the poem's meaning seems less Emily's and more mine. The poem has a strange ending and carries an almost vindictive note. I prefer substituting Devil simply because of "fire" and my desire to see some people burn on the other side.

    1. It's about death as a long anticipated ecstatic release.

      It's about sex as a long anticipated ecstatic release.

      How is this at all fucking complicated?

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  4. Curious comma after “itself”. Perhaps “wonder what I will say and what that itself (whatever I say) will say (mean) to me”. This might fit with the interpretation relating to her lack of religious activity. How when she returns will she explain it to the others and what will that explanation mean for her. Like saying something that you know will be interpreted by others in a different way to how you interpret it, in order to be included while still maintaining your own private view of the truth.