You're right – "the way is narrow" –
And "difficult the Gate" –
And "few there be" – Correct again –
That "enter in – thereat" –
'Tis Costly – So are purples!
'Tis just the price of Breath –
With but the "Discount" of the Grave –
Termed by the Brokers – "Death"!
And after that – there's Heaven –
The Good Man's – "Dividend" –
And Bad Men – "go to Jail" –
I guess –
F249 (1861) 234
Dickinson discusses the road to Heaven with either a religious person or perhaps even Jesus himself. Referring to a sermon Jesus reportedly gave,* she agrees that the way to Heaven is narrow and difficult, but seems to stop short of concurring that there is any punishment – Hell – for those who aren’t good enough to stay on the right road. Her tone is breezy and dismissive, even sarcastic. She adopts the language of commerce, as if life is an investment aided by brokers and paying off with dividends. The price of life, or “Breath,” is costly – but, hey, there is this great Death discount! You won’t have to pay forever!
|I feel sorry for the people on the wrong narrow path. Maybe|
they are heretics. They are cruelly disppointed to end up
in the same nasty place as the great throng of sinners.
The dismissive sarcastic tone begins with the aside, “Correct again.” Today we might say, “Yep, it’s a tough road and that gate’s a toughie. Check. And you say that hardly anyone makes it in? Bingo.” Why is Dickinson so dismissive here? It seems she is skeptical of the ultimate destination and purpose. Life itself is “Costly,” she implies – like buying the sort of clothes royalty might wear with its expensive purple dyes. Just being born incurs the cost of living, “the price” – again the financial lingo – “of Breath.” The “Brokers” – those men who claim knowledge and authority – are the clergy who dispense their knowledge. It is again sarcasm when she notes that another word for their “Discount” on the cost of life’s difficult investment is “Death.”
The last stanza summarily dismisses the dual destinations of Heaven, a “Dividend” for the good, and Hell, or “Jail” where the “Bad men” go, with a shrug: “I guess.” “Yeah, whatever,” we might say. Sure.
The poem sounds to me like a response to a sermon where the clergyman made the extended analogy she discusses: life as a costly investment, heaven as a dividend, and a punitive place for the miscreants.
As far as meter, the poem hums along in iambic trimeter with the third line of each stanza iambic tetrameter. But then to add emphasis, the last line, “I guess – ,” that retrospectively embues the whole poem with such irony, is separated from the line before. Without this emphatic separation, the line would have been another 3rd line iambic tetrameter. There is a “missing” last line, a purposeful omission that leaves the doubt hanging midair. The poet is unresolved on the issue and so is the poem.
* ‘Enter ye in by the narrow gate: for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there be that enter in thereby. For narrow is the gate and straitened is the way that leadeth into life, and few be they that find it” (Matthew 7:13-14).