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24 November 2012

'Twas the old—road—through pain—


'Twas the old—road—through pain—
That unfrequented—One—
With many a turn—and thorn—
That stops—at Heaven—

This—was the Town—she passed—
There—where she—rested—last—
Then—stepped more fast—
The little tracks—close prest—
Then—not so swift—
Slow—slow—as feet did weary—grow—
Then—stopped—no other track!

Wait!  Look!  Her little Book—
The leaf—at love—turned back—
Her very Hat—
And this worn shoe just fits the track—
Herself—though—fled!

Another bed—a short one—
Women make—tonight—
In Chambers bright—
Too out of sight—though—
For our hoarse Good Night—
To touch her Head!
                                                                                          F376  (1862)  344

I can’t say this poem holds much fascination, although it is pleasant enough. Dickinson begins with a conventional enough metaphor: life as a road that twists and turns on its way to Heaven. Of course, the road whose destination is heaven is “That unfrequented—One.” The road to hell, no doubt, has more travellers.
                  The second stanza describes a bit of the journey: the town she lived in, the house where she died. We see the passage of time through her footprints—running at first, then slower with age until finally stopped entirely.
                  But then Dickinson changes voice. The quiet, deathbed voice changes to a bit of wonder. The mourners seize upon a few things in the room. There is a book, a page on love marked by a folded corner. Maybe it was a book of poems or perhaps the Bible—which does have passages here and there about love. And then they remark on the hat and the shoes. Very sentimental.

                  The final stanza sees the dead woman up in heaven where heavenly hands prepare her bed. She’s now too far away for the mourners’ “Good Night” to reach her.
                  These death poems were popular in Dickinson’s day. Indeed, one of Dickinson’s central concerns was that liminal space between life, death, and what comes—or does not come—next. This poem doesn’t rank among her most searching or original, but no doubt it was passed on to friends or acquaintances who enjoyed it.

Longfellow, alive and famous during Dickinson's lifetime, wrote the famous line "Footprints on the sands of time," in his poem "A Psalm of Life."  Here's the verse the line is taken from that poem:

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time

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