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19 June 2012

Why – do they shut Me out of Heaven?

Why – do they shut Me out of Heaven? 
Did I sing – too loud?
But – I can say a little "minor"
Timid as a Bird!

Wouldn't the Angels try me –
Just – once – more –
Just – see – if I troubled them –
But don't – shut the door!

Oh, if I – were the Gentleman
In the "White Robe" –
And they – were the little Hand – that knocked –
Could – I – forbid?
                                                            F268 (1861)  248

Dickinson writes now and again of feeling left out and this poem is a rather blatant example of that. Here, writing as if making a diary entry, the poet refers to herself as a timid bird, a seeker of Heaven, and “the little Hand – that knocked” so patiently and hopefully at the door. Clearly someone has made her feel unwelcome – or at least that is the effect the narrator leaves.
            The feeling isn’t uncommon – or else I’m just a pessimist. I know I’ve occasionally realized that my company wasn’t desired as much as I might have allowed myself to think. Or I realize that I really did offend so and so the other night.
            The narrator writes here as if she has someone in particular is in mind--or a household. “Look, guys,” she begins, "the Angels would give me a second chance to prove I can be a quiet little mouse, and so would that nice Gentleman in the White Robe. Why can’t you?” The "they" in the first line might very well refer to the popular Austin/Sue Dickinson household. Loving both Austin and Sue, she might have had her feelings hurt about something. Sue was cooling to her. Perhaps Dickinson wasn't invited one night when a favorite bigwig was invited. And although it's doubtful that the poet sang too loud and that is why she is shut out of heaven, it has been recorded that in the days when Dickinson did attend parties at her brother's house, she was indeed lively and fun.
            The poem presages one written forty years later by Folger McKinsey (the Bentztown Bard) titled, you guessed it, “A Little Knock.” This poem is a real tear jerker about a father mourning his dead child and wishing he had answered her little knocking at his study door while she was still alive.
Here is the first stanza:
A little hand came knocking on my door:
"Let me turn in: I won't be bad no more!"
A little voice in tearful murmur plead—
Somehow I wish that I had long been dead
Ere from her knocking I could turn away,
Ere to her pleading I could answer nay,
Or yet refuse to ope and let her in,
Who had so little done of guile or sin.
I think I prefer Dickinson’s version.


  1. I read this poem very differently. I think she meant some form of comparison to take place between the way it is interpreted above and my interpretation--but I can't say for sure.

    I read it as saying "why is it so hard to compose poetry (Why - do they shut me out of Heaven?)" I thought this way when you compare this poem to "They shut me up in prose" and "The Bumble of a Bee-" The second poem in particular lends support as the "Bee-" is the artist or source of inspiration. Also, are the angels upset at her composing "He - Doesn't - Weary." Despite her troubles, she'll compose a small poem, a minor one, and this time will be timid (not anger angels with things they might not like).

    The second stanza pleads with the angels to let her in again and compose poetry. If the roles were reversed, and she were the dude in the "White Robe" (her words), could she keep young souls (children-little Hands) that knocked at her door? Could, I, heaven forbid! She'd be taking them away from earth.

    1. Ruth Miller has an interpretation that is somewhat compatible with yours. She finds the poem to equate Eden with song (or, in this context, poetry). So perhaps the poet is suggesting that God and editors and angels be a bit more sympathetic to poets knocking and singing at the door.

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  3. I can see both interpretations, although I side with our hosts former take. In that regard, I like she refers to Austin and Sue as angels, which I'm sure they were not.

    The latter has its points too, but I do not see ED asking to allow her to write poetry again, but to accept what she has written already. Also if she were the gentleman in the white robe, or any robe, she would have a better chance of being accepted and published.

    But no, I like your take, Susan, better.

  4. I read this as Dickinson criticizing Christianity for not allowing her or giving her space to question things. When she says: “Did I sing”, I interpreted this as she putting her emotions out there, and the “too loud” as in when you question something, it is always going to be interpreted as “loud” by the person or thing that does not want to be questioned. The “White Robe” I saw as Jesus. At the end my takeaway of the poem was Dickinson questioning: What kind of Heaven is this where the door to enter is sentineled by these people (Christians at her time)?

  5. One of ED’s signature skills is her knack for writing multipurpose poems, as if she foresaw each of her fans searching for our own interpretation 150 years later. “The Queen of Ambiguity”, I call her; “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale Her infinite variety.” ED and Sue assigned Enobarbus’s description of Shakespeare’s Cleopatra to Sue, but whom do we fans fawn over now?