It troubled me as once I was —
For I was once a Child —
Concluding how an atom — fell —
And yet the Heavens — held —
The Heavens weighed the most — by far —
Yet Blue — and solid — stood —
Without a Bolt — that I could prove —
Would Giants — understand?
Life set me larger — problems —
Some I shall keep — to solve
Till Algebra is easier —
Or simpler proved — above —
Then — too — be comprehended —
What sorer — puzzled me —
Why Heaven did not break away —
And tumble — Blue — on me —
F516 (1863) J600
Dickinson is reflecting on a childhood mystery that becomes a deeper question as she ages. As a child she wondered why everything falls earthward except the blue skies of heaven. Overhead the sky seems heavy and "solid" and is not bolted to anything. Why shouldn't it fall? Ah well, she thought; grown-ups – "Giants" – understand this sort of stuff.
That literal question wouldn't turn out to be too difficult for the poet who, after all, studied some astronomy. Plus she encountered "larger" problems than that of the distant sky. She knows that some of them won't be solved until that greater life beyond earth, where "Algebra is easier" or at least more easily proved. And if that be true, then surely she will learn why Heaven stays in its place and does not "tumble – Blue" on her.
The difference, I think, between the childish question and the adult question is the difference between "Heavens" as the sky that we see above, a terrain as real and complex as that of the ground below, and "Heaven" as a symbol for the divine. While Dickinson's dearest friends and relations had all made deep and public commitments to Christianity during the religious revival that began to sweep New England in her youth, Dickinson herself held out. Although she could express conventional and loving sentiments towards the Christian Trinity and Heaven, she also probed deeply into the difficult questions involving an all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing deity presiding over a world of suffering. Why wouldn't Heaven crash down in its oceanic blueness on the head of one of its deepest questioners?
In Dickinson's probing moods, she penned poems such as "The nearest Dream recedes – unrealized –"
, where heaven invites us to pursue it but then evades us and mocks our efforts. Although we long for "steadfast Honey", the Bee (standing for God as in other poems) does not brew "that rare variety!" In other poems the dead may enter a sort of timelessness or eternity (as in "Because I would not stop for Death" [F479] or "Safe in their Alabaster Chambers"
, but they do not experience the Pearly Gates Heaven. "Location's narrow way is for Ourselves" she writes in
, "Unto the Dead / There's no Geography."
Having subverted its pillars, Dickinson is perhaps right to puzzle over why Heaven doesn't "break away" to fall on her.
The poem begins with a charming chiasmus – the reversal of grammatical structure in "as once I was" and "I was once" – that suggests a story or fable. Continuing the fable tone, Dickinson contrasts an atom with the Heavens – a dichotomy of the very smallest against the very largest. Adults are whimsically referred to as "Giants" and in another bit of humor, she suggests that Algebra won't become clear to her until she gets to heaven. (This notion that we will understand suffering and purpose after we die is treated with more bite in "I shall know why – when Time is over –"
where "Christ will explain each separate anguish / In the fair schoolroom of the sky".)
The light tone is maintained throughout the poem. Heaven wouldn't conceivably crash, but rather tumble; it would be "Blue" rather than black or stormy; the "Bolt" is a fastener rather than a dangerous shaft of lightning; and she doesn't anguish, but rather puzzles over the existential question. I think the effect of this light tone is to soften the idea of heaven collapsing on her. Perhaps the idea wasn't terrifying so much as wondrous: a tumbling blue mass of heaven.