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13 April 2013

I Years had been from Home



I Years had been from Home
And now before the Door
I dared not enter, lest a Face
I never saw before

Stare solid into mine
And ask my Business there —
"My Business but a Life I left
Was such remaining there?"

I leaned upon the Awe —
I lingered with Before —
The Second like an Ocean rolled
And broke against my ear —

I laughed a crumbling Laugh
That I could fear a Door
Who Consternation compassed
And never winced before.

I fitted to the Latch
My Hand, with trembling care
Lest back the awful Door should spring
And leave me in the Floor —

Then moved my Fingers off
As cautiously as Glass
And held my ears, and like a Thief
Fled gasping from the House —
                         F440 (1862)  J609

I can’t help but read this poem as a bit of a Gothic send-up. Rather than a ghost story it is seems like a ghost’s story. (I admit that this is a rather loose and idiosyncratic reading, but Dickinson has adopted this hushed, scary narrative style before.) We begin with what might seem a traditional homecoming: the narrator has been away for “Years.” But this turns out to be no nostalgic visit, no triumphal return, no happy reunion. Instead we soon realize that many years have passed and that the speaker is not a simple visitor wanting a glimpse of a place she once lived.
         Instead, as a ghost, her “Business” is what still lingers of her life in that place. But instead of simply entering the house – and no doubt frightening any occupants out of their wits – she is afraid of them. They might “Stare” at her and ask her business. 
        At first she dawdles: she leans “upon the Awe” – her apprehension and terror; she lingers with the “Before,” that former time when she was at home here. This reflection takes but a “Second,” but what a second! Like an ocean, it rolled in to crash against her senses. It’s an amazing image of time: powerful, dangerous, inexorable. The living more typically conceive of time in terms of drops and sand. 
        The “crumbling Laugh,” the ghost-narrator’s response to this onslaught of awe, is familiar to us from ghost stories. But while it sounds evil and spooky in those stories, here it is the sound of debilitating fear. But Dickinson, in addition to more existential questions  is having some fun. After the build-up of Awe, Before, oceans breaking, and laughs crumbling, the narrator confesses that she’s simply mocking her own fear of a door that never did her any harm
        The poem continues in the tone of a tale told to a breathless audience. We see her fit her hand to the door “with trembling care”: she’s afraid the “awful Door” will be yanked open and pull her in so suddenly she’d fall. It’s a rather comical image. The visual imagery continues as we see her carefully let go of the latch and place her hands over her ears to run away “gasping.” Emily, the timid ghost.

The poem works on other levels, of course. How would it feel to revisit yourself as you were years ago? It might be like staring at a stranger. How would it feel if you have moved so beyond the day-to-day concerns of the family that when you come down from your small, poetry-infested room, you want to flee “like a Thief”?  Dickinson delved so deeply into the great existential questions that at times she must have truly felt transformed. Time might seem an Ocean; Home an “awful Door.”


7 comments:

  1. The phrase "cautiously as Glass" is beautiful and fresh. The meaning comes through with great precision -- but is entirely from the connotations of the words.

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    1. I agree - a beautiful phrase; it rather caps the poem which is throughout so very visual.

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  2. This poem evoked for me the image of someone returning to church after a long absence. I like that 'Awe' becomes 'awful Door', a double meaning which is consonant with the ambivalent feelings Dickinson had about church. I like all the possibilities you suggest as well. It is wonderful when poems work on so many levels.

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    1. That's interesting about "Awe" and "awful Door". Later Dickinson will write, "Circumference, thou Bride of Awe" – a line I am still hoping to grasp. At any rate, it is a masculine quality – if she has the same sense of it here that she does later. It is clever to link the awe with the awful: at first the door stands for the terrible awe she feels. Later, as in the Home/House difference you identify below, it simply becomes an 'awful door'.

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  3. I wonder if it is significant that in the first line it is a 'Home' and in the last line it is only a 'House'. In the short space of the poem, she has realized that she 'can't go home again'.

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    1. I hadn't caught that but I agree -- it does seem significant. She comes to the home and yearns but fears to enter. She flees from the house, no longer a home. Thanks!

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  4. I see her as a spirit knocking on the womb's door to gain entrance and getting overwhelmed by the possibility of another incarnation , fleeing the scene to remain disembodied. Somewhat the way ED lived in her world in 19th century Amherst, not quite fully there yet endowed with a free spirit.

    In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition it is said that a soon to be incarnating human watches from the spirit realm their embodied parents copulating and the gender the spirit is disgusted by is the gender, once it enters the womb, it will become.

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