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11 February 2024

'Twas a long Parting — but the time

'Twas a long Parting — but the time
For Interview — had Come —
Before the Judgment Seat of God —
The last — and second time

These Fleshless Lovers met —
A Heaven in a Gaze —
A Heaven of Heavens — the Privilege
Of one another's Eyes —

No Lifetime — on Them —
Appareled as the new
Unborn — except They had beheld —
Born infiniter — now —

Was Bridal — e'er like This?
A Paradise — the Host —
And Cherubim — and Seraphim —
The unobtrusive Guest —

F691, J625, Fascicle 32, 1863

Before saying anything else about this poem, I want to focus on the line “Born infiniter — now —". This line, following on the heels of the previous poem, “Forever is composed of Nows”, has the potential to usher you into the eternal moment of which all of the mystics speak. Both lines move from the infinite to the present. In this one, you are born MORE infinite in the present as you gaze into the eyes of another. To be infiniter is a kind of joke, since it is impossible to have more infinity. But, you can, perhaps, become more aligned with the infinite, become infiniter, when you fully enter into the moment, because in that moment you are letting go of the past and future, and therefore of time. You are parting from time. This might be especially true while gazing into a lover's eyes. 

Now onto the rest of the poem. The first line of the poem, “'Twas a long Parting — but the time” is full of potential meaning. In a poem about the infinite and the now, we already see the idea of time and the leaving of it. And in a poem about lovers, we have introduced the idea of parting. Before we even go on to the next line we are given much to think about. It would be something to try to map out and diagram every thought you had while reading a Dickinson poem. There have been, I would guess, at least a thousand thoughts engendered in my mind so far by this one poem. All of this thought adds up to a “take”, though the complexity of the individual nuances of that take involve each and every one of those thoughts. What I’m trying to say is that with a Dickinson poem, and especially one of this sort, you can try to map out the route, and you can try to include a “general” reading of the poem, but in the end it’s nigh impossible. This is part of the reason why I’m so taken with Susan Kornfeld’s essays on this blog. She’s able to come to a relatively general conclusion that doesn’t subsume or overpower the reader’s own intimate and unique take on it.

That said, I will try to give what I see as the surface reading of this poem: 

It was a slow death, but finally the time for the interview to get into heaven had come. Before the judgment seat of God stood two fleshless lovers. It was the second time these lovers had met. They gazed at each other and heaven itself was in that gaze, the heaven of heavens. Looking into one another’s eyes was a privilege. The bodies are newly unborn, or rather they are born more infinite each moment they look at one another. Was there ever a wedding in the flesh that could compare with this? In this moment, as the host becomes paradise, the lovers welcome the angels, as long they don’t bother them that is.

I'm doing a lot of damage to that third stanza in this summary. There is so much sliding syntax in that stanza that you could punctuate it in several ways. For instance, would a period go after "now" or does "now" modify the first word of the next line, "Unborn"? It's almost as if Dickinson has to break the logic of language in order to get through to something some ineffable truth.

Aside from just the slippery syntax, this poem is weird in other ways. First of all, why was it a slow parting? (Perhaps it felt slow because the lover wanted to get to heaven to meet again with the beloved?) Why was it the second time they met? Is it the second time they’ve met at all, or the second time they've met without flesh? Is this someone the narrator has only met once before? If it’s only the second time they've met as fleshless lovers, when was the first time? If the lovers are before the judgment seat of God, why are they looking at each other instead of God? The way the syntax of this poem is set up, it appears at first as if God could be the lover in question. (This idea is repeated and bolstered in the poem, since the lover’s eyes are heaven.) If God is the lover, then is God the beloved or is the beloved God? And either way, why is the beloved a judge? What is judgment even doing in this poem? Also, how would you have eyes if there was no "Lifetime" on them? (One way would be as a reader because when we read Dickinson’s poems it does feel a bit as if we are gazing deep into her fleshless eyes.) And maybe the most obvious question is: what's up with imagining life after death?

The questions abound, and I'd be curious to know if any of you have a good answer to any of them.  But if I put those questions aside, put my logical sensibility aside, what I’m left with is something beyond mere logic, an exhilarating impression of the True Wonder of staring into someone’s eyes, the absolute privilege of it, the intense nowness of it, the disembodied forever feeling in it, the wedded bliss inherent, like paradise, like heaven, like the heaven OF heavens. When we gaze into one another’s eyes it is as if we are the newly unborn, born infiniter. (What a way to say it!) This poem must be one of the most romantic poems ever written. I'll remember it the next time I stare into someone's eyes.

-/)dam Wade l)eGraff

Portrait of Emily as a child. The eyes have it.


  1. I recently read „Long Shadow: Emily Dickinson's Tragic Poetry“ by Clark Griffith and about the poem in question he writes:
    „the speaker's struggle is one of looking beyond the love that time has ruined to a vision of love as an immortal principle. Convinced now that all earthly kinships must perish, she yearns for a "distant heaven" where human attachments can be everlasting and "fleshless lovers" will need to abide no further separations.“

    1. Thanks for the comment. You could see this as a longing for the future, but when read after the sense in "Forever is composed of Nows", the poem just preceding it in the fascicle, and taking into account that the "now" in this poem is set off between dashes, I start to see it as a reaching toward a potential present state, rather than only a future one. BUT looking forward a few poems, to F693, in which there is a sense of the infinite nothingness of not having the gaze of the beloved in the present moment, Griffith's take of looking forward to heaven makes sense too.

  2. My take on this poem -- and it is a tentative one -- is that this is not a meeting of earthly lovers but rather a returning, a coming home of the soul to God.

    The subject is the same as the poem: "A wife -- at daybreak I shall be --". The "long Parting" is time spent on earth. Judgment is the second meeting: "Savior -- I've seen the face -- before".

    1. Just coming to it now, I notice that "A Wife at daybreak" appears 8 poems after this one, in the same fascicle, which gives credence to your idea here. Oddly Franklin dates it much earlier. Maybe she wrote an earlier version of it and added it to fascicle later. Who knows. But the fact that they are close to each other in fascicle is significant I think.

  3. This reading makes sense, and is a beautiful idea. The connection here to F185 here is very helpful, and quite persuasive. (Though looks like it is "Master" not "Savior"?) It's hard to reconcile this reading though with Emily's maturing acceptance of hopelessness (see commentary on F693), but I suppose she is too large not to contradict herself. Perhaps this poem updates that one by setting the second meeting in the past rather than the future? (And therefore rooting it more firmly in the now.)

  4. Period placement is also a puzzle in Stanzas 1-2. Are Stanzas 1 & 2 each a complete thought with a comma after "God" (Line 3) and a period after “time” (Line 4)? That punctuation would imply one lover died first and sat before the Judgement Seat, and later the second lover died and sat before the Judgment Seat. That would be the “second time” one of them had sat before the Judgement Seat. If so, then Stanza 2 means:

    “These [now] Fleshless Lovers met [after each had passed the Judgement test],
    A Heaven in a [their] Gaze,
    A Heaven of Heavens, the Privilege
    Of one another’s Eyes.”

    That reading makes more sense to me than placing a period after “God” and a comma after “Eyes” in Stanza 1.

    Of course, ED is imagining her meeting with Wadsworth in Heaven, per her understanding of their pre-nuptial agreement, which probably dates from their documented March 1860 rendezvous at Homestead in Amherst. However, several of her poems imply a summer meeting also happened, which implies an undocumented rendezvous in 1861 (“at summer’s full”, F325), as Whicher (1938) proposed. Wadsworth and family sailed to San Francisco May 1862, suggesting his understanding of their prenup was different from ED’s.

    See comments on F687, F688, and especially F686.