Just so – Christ – raps –
He – doesn't weary –
First – at the Knocker –
And then – at the Bell –
Then – on Divinest tiptoe standing –
Might He but spy the hiding soul!
When He – retires –
Chilled – or weary –
It will be ample time for me –
Patient – upon the steps – until then –
Heart – I am knocking low
F263 (1861) 317
The poem begins with a string of accented syllables – spondees – that mimic the sound of Christ rapping quietly at the door. We can hear the rhythm: tap…tap…tap…tap. This noise goes on for some time, for Jesus “doesn’t weary.” And a good thing! If Jesus can save your soul from damnation we would hope he wouldn’t give up easily! He starts, politely, at the knocker than moves to the louder and more insistent doorbell. When there is still no answer, he stands on his divine toes to peer in through the small window in the door to “spy the hiding soul.” Don’t you hate it when unwanted guests do that? And there you are slinking by the kitchen door waiting for them to go away.
Jesus does finally give up. He gets “Chilled – or weary.” That’s a direct contradiction to the first stanza where “He – doesn’t weary,” but some folks are just hard cases. Best to move on. After all, no one will be saved against their will. Ah, but waiting in the bushes has been the patient narrator of the poem. Her patience rewarded, she takes her turn at the door. The main difference between her and the departing Christ is that unlike him, she is knocking at her beloved’s heart. In the last two lines she calls out to it: “Heart – I am knocking low [softly] / At thee!” Her patient persistence is contrasted to Christ’s: she, one infers, loves the occupant of the house more than Jesus. And unlike him, she is not going to go spying.
The image is very pictorial. Many people in Christian lands have seen various pictures of Jesus knocking at the door. One of the earliest was painted by William Holman Hunt in 1851 and so Dickinson may well have seen it. Judith Farr makes this point in The Passion of Emily Dickinson, discussing the intense interest and controversy surrounding this painting when it was shown in New York and Boston in 1857. She adds that this poem “was probably written for Sue (Dickinson's beloved best friend [for years, though not always] and sister-in-law), to whom it was addressed and sent.”