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25 August 2012

The lonesome for they know not What—

The lonesome for they know not What—
The Eastern Exiles—be—
Who strayed beyond the Amber line
Some madder Holiday—

And ever since—the purple Moat
They strive to climb—in vain—
As Birds—that tumble from the clouds
Do fumble at the strain—

The Blessed Ether—taught them—
Some Transatlantic Morn—
When Heaven—was too common—to miss—
Too sure—to dote upon!
                                                            F326 (1862)  262

There’s an addictiveness involved as the “Eastern Exiles” struggle to once more experience something they knew from some “madder Holiday.” Dickinson purposely leaves the nature of what the experience was and who the exiles might be to the reader’s imagination. Even they are not sure of what it is they long for: they are “lonesome” for something, but “they know not What.”
            Today we might think of hallucinogens or opiates that take the drug user beyond the “Amber line” that signals the breaking of dawn in the East. They travel to a place not available to the rest of us. But there were no hallucinogens that Dickinson would have been familiar with, though she probably knew about opium. More likely she is suggesting the altered state that the mystic or the poet or the mad might enter when caught up in vision.
            Once having tasted this “honeydew,” as Coleridge referred to it in his famous poem, “Kublai Khan,” they try “in vain” to recapture the experience. Alas, to do so is to be like birds who fly too high and then “tumble from the clouds.”
At Buddha's death, he enters Parinirvana--
the Final Nirvana of 
transcendent being.
            The last stanza reinforces the idea of a vision state. The exiles, “Some Transatlantic Morn,” were part of the “Ether” – that invisible matterless substance that was once believed to permeate the cosmos, or, alternatively, the divine spirit. Either way, once they were within it they found heaven everywhere, “too common—to miss” and so real that they felt no need for worship or to “dote upon” it. The experience, however, may never be repeated. The poor exiles now live in a state of loneliness for that place. “Ever since,” they have tried to climb “the purple Moat” of the night sky back to the land where sunrise comes from.
            Dickinson read and admired (and even met, much to her joy) Ralph Waldo Emerson. One of the philosopher’s most famous essays is “The Oversoul,” published in 1841. In this contemplation of the human soul, Emerson explores both Eastern philosophy and Plato. In one passage he writes,
within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related, the eternal ONE. And this deep power in which we exist and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one. We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are shining parts, is the soul.
The infusion of Eastern thought, the sense of a unifying ether in which “every part and particle is equally related,” might well underlie Dickinson’s poem with its own reference to the east. To see and experience it would certainly bring a sense of enlightenment or joy—or poetic power—that one would forever be trying to recapture.


  1. Eastern Exiles is probably reference to Adam and Eve who were expelled east of Eden.

    1. Ah... that makes sense, though surely they knew what they were lonesome for. Thank you.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. I like the Edenic interpretation, although there is another as well. "The East" was a popular trope for the resurrection after death at the time. This may be another proleptic poem.

  4. I know it’s not what she meant, but in a queer reading, it’s like the experience of the joy of a accepting yourself and being accepted by other exiles, then only to face loneliness. Every circuit party seems filled with eastern exiles trying to recapture a long lost moment of bliss.

    1. That is sad and I can see it in the poem. Thank you.

  5. After a third reading of ‘The lonesome for they know not What’, I knew I was in deep water. ED has done it again, dropped a poem there is no way to imagine coming, especially not on the heels of ‘There came a Day—at Summer's full’. Truly, like Cleopatra, “She makes hungry / Where most she satisfies / The holy priests Bless her when she is riggish”. She guarantees good sleep tonight. Ready, set, here we go, again!

  6. “I know it’s not what she meant, but in a queer reading, it’s like the experience of the joy of accepting yourself . . . , then only to face loneliness. Every circuit party seems filled with eastern exiles trying to recapture a long lost moment of bliss.” Comment by “bendelee”, July 10, 2020.

    Actually, I think it is what she meant. Yes, she had the hots, in a religious way, for Reverend Charles Wadsworth (see comments F325), but he “left the land” for San Francisco on June 1, 1862. And she had two other male mentors before Wadsworth, Leonard Humphrey (1825-1850) and Benjamin F. Newton (1830-1852), but these were not romantic interests.
    ED’s only real romantic interest was the young Susan Gilbert, whom she first met in 1847 when both were 16. It’s a long story, but many ED fans, including myself, think their love included a physical lesbian relationship. That ended when Susan, with ED’s initial encouragement, married ED’s brother, Austin, on July 1, 1856. There is credible evidence that ED referred to Sue as “Sweet” in seven poems (see my Comment #5, on F323):

    F323 About early 1862
    F470 About late 1862
    F652 About second half 1863
    F661 About second half 1863
    F734 About the second half 1863
    F816 About 1864 (A) and about 1865 (B)
    F1061 About 1865

  7. Not saying the physical lesbian relationship continued after Sue's marriage, but stay tuned for future comments. Sue and Austin had three children, but apparently something was missing sexually from their marriage. It's hard to believe and Sue wasn't happy about it, but in 1882 Austin began a long sexual relationship with Mabel Todd, wife of an Amherst College professor. This ménage à trois continued until Austin's death in 1895. Amherst wasn't amused but publicly accepted the breach of Victorian PCness because the Dickinson family had been civic leaders for three generations.

  8. Continuing the slant of Bendelee’s insightful comment sends me dashing back to an early ED poem, which, interpreted as Bendelee suggests, sheds a lesbian light on ED’s vision of Heaven. Conscious or subconscious, her hints cannot be ignored.

    Note shared words and ideas in F13 and F326, especially the birds of Lines 10 and 7, respectively.

    J24, Fr13 (1858)

    There is a morn by men unseen—
    Whose maids upon remoter green
    Keep their Seraphic May—
    And all day long, with dance and game,
    And gambol I may never name—
    Employ their holiday.

    Here to light measure, move the feet
    Which walk no more the village street—
    Nor by the wood are found—
    Here are the birds that sought the sun
    When last year's distaff idle hung
    And summer's brows were bound.

    Ne'er saw I such a wondrous scene—
    Ne'er such a ring on such a green—
    Nor so serene array—
    As if the stars some summer night
    Should swing their cups of Chrysolite—
    And revel till the day—

    Like thee to dance—like thee to sing—
    People upon the mystic green—
    I ask, each new May Morn.
    I wait thy far, fantastic bells—
    Announcing me in other dells –
    Unto the different dawn!

  9. Stanza 1 of F218 (1861), ‘You love me – you are sure’:

    You love me – you are sure –
    I shall not fear mistake –
    I shall not cheated wake –
    Some grinning morn –
    To find the Sunrise left –
    And Orchards – unbereft –
    And Dollie – gone!

    ED imagines waking “Some grinning morn” and finding that Dollie has vanished from their bed. Not a smoking gun, but this verse sure suggests an insecure lesbian’s nightmare to me. Bendelee’s "sad" queer reading is spot on.

    Johnson (1958) adds a note to his “Work Metadata” annotation: "Dollie was a pet name for Sue, to whom a copy now lost was probably sent."