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02 July 2011

The feet of people walking home

The feet of people walking home
With gayer sandals go—
The Crocus— til she rises
The Vassal of the snow—

The lips at Hallelujah

Long years of practise bore
Til bye and bye these Bargemen
Walked singing on the shore.

Pearls are the Diver's farthings
Extorted from the Sea—
Pinions— the Seraph's wagon
Pedestrian once— as we—

Night is the morning's Canvas

Larceny— legacy—
Death, but our rapt attention
To Immortality.

My figures fail to tell me

How far the Village lies—
Whose peasants are the Angels—
Whose Cantons dot the skies—
My Classics veil their faces—
My faith that Dark adores—
Which from its solemn abbeys
Such resurrection pours.
                                                           J7, Fr 16 (1858

Dickinson parades epigrams here -- two in the first stanza, two in the third, three in the fourth. Each reveals a transforming emergence or energy: gayer sandals on the way home, the crocus emerging from the vassalage of snow into its early spring flowering, pearls from the ocean become wealth, pedestrian seraphs now carried by their wings, night becomes a dawn painting, wealth from larceny becomes inheritance, death a portal to immortality.
     The "Larceny--legacy" epigram is particularly concise and clever. And I like the image of night as 'morning's Canvas.' The turning point comes with Death introduced as 'our rapt attention / to Immortality.'  I'm not sure that particular epigram holds up to close scrutiny, but it closes the list and turns our attention to the afterlife -- Paradise -- that is the transformation Dickinson argues comes from faith. 
     She doesn't know where Paradise is, "How far the Village lies," and classic texts aren't any help, either. Instead, her faith is concentrated in "that Dark" unknown. In fact, her faith 'adores' the mystery, the unknowableness--the Dark. And the final transformation is presented in the very last lines: from the unfathomed Dark that lies beyond our intellectual ability to know, comes a new and transformed life. That is the essence of faith--to trust in that paradisical Village despite the Dark. The closest analogy is with night: in its darkness lie the clouds and sky and mountains that are transformed into living colors once dawn has come.  
     The parallels of night / death and dawn / resurrection are common enough. What I think makes this poem interesting is the light and clever tone that pivots into a declaration of faith phrased as adoration of  the potentiality of Dark.


  1. Susan, I am delighted to have found your blog; I'm writing my first book, a memoir of change with bits of Emily interspersed throughout. I look forward to continuing to hear your thoughts!

    1. Thanks! I think gem mining in Dickinson poems is a delightful and absorbing pasttime. Best wishes for your progress, and thanks again for the compliment!

  2. I'm brazilian and you are helping me a lot to understand the poetry of Emily. In this particular case, of this poem, i lvoe the idea of potencialities. I see potencialities in things, in persons, in everything

  3. Doesn’t she seem to be skeptical of the Incarnation and Resurrection?

    1. I'd be interested in hearing your argument on that. As I re-read the poem I find myself once again a bit puzzled by the last stanza. Do you think she is suggesting that she finds the idea of eternal Dark to be a more likely afterlife than, say, the crocus flowering at touch of spring?

    2. I take no credit for the thesis. My source is p. 148 of Cynthia Wolff’s -Emily Dickinson-. Note the physical v. metaphysical in the poem. The poet trusts one but cannot know the other. Hence, she is skeptical. So, my reading is derivative but not original.

    3. Thanks for the reference. I see the 'bitter irony' Wolff sees. Yet despite that, the poet writes that she adores that Dark -- the absence of god/light -- because 'faith' would have it as the source of rebirth into paradise. The stanza is ironical, has, yes, a twinge of bitterness, but it is the essence of faith -- to trust in the unseen as dark and unlikely as it might seem.

    4. I think the poet agonized over her lack of faith.

    5. I think so, too; but only at times. Other times Dickinson seems to revel in an antagonistic approach to a distant, unapproachable, and silent Divinity.

    6. Yes! The agon (Greek for struggle or conflict) is at the heart of her faith. Note how that Greek root works it’s way into our words: antagonist, protagonist, agony. Her faith and agony are such compelling parts of her poetry. By the way, I very much enjoy your blog and your focus on Emily Dickinson. Once upon a time, when I dared to teach Dickinson’s poems to intro to lit students, I wish I could have relied upon your blog postings to help me.

    7. Thanks! I got seriously drawn to her works when teaching a Lit. and Critical Thinking class. At some point I decided I should read all of her poems. Then it seemed natural to try to explicate them. It has been a real challenge!

  4. Susan,

    The Prowling Bee, an oasis on the internet, found me after a temerous resolution to read ED in Franklin order until the curtain falls (80 and reading Fr 16). As of 2021 you're at Fr 680. I'll race you to the finish, winner take all, no rush!

    Larry B.

    PS. A Ukrainian friend told me that overuse of exclamation marks is a symptom of insanity! So be it!

    1. Worthy endeavor! I've had to be working long hours last couple of years... hope to pick up the explications again before this year is out. I miss the challenge of each poem. Thanks for all your comments here!

    2. Glad to hear you may continue!

  5. ‘The feet of people walking home’ (F16) professes unquestioning faith, which is unusual for ED, that Heaven in some Dark form awaits believers. No one, including ED, knows how far away Heaven lies but her faith adores that Darkness from whose “solemn abbeys” resurrection pours. In more prosaic form, death is a dark curtain that falls, and what’s behind it no one knows (cf. 26 March 2022 comment, below), except by faith.

    She is not saying she believes that Heaven’s streets are paved with gold or that our resurrected souls sit on the right hand of God.

  6. Resurrection of the structure of this poem is difficult. There are two variants. The original structure (Variant 1) is a letter in ED’s handwriting that is missing its third page, including the poem’s final two lines and ED’s signature. In that letter all stanzas are quatrains. When ED copied the letter for Fascicle 1, she combined the last two quatrains into an octarine. I prefer the six-stanza structure of Variant 1 and suspect omission of the stanza break was unintentional.

    After ED’s 1886 death and before publishing her poems and letters, Austin Dickinson and Mabel Todd, his mistress, censored (mutilated or omitted) all evidence of intimate affection between ED and Susan D. Perhaps the salutation “Darling” was too affectionate so the letter’s third page with ED’s signature was “lost”.

  7. Hi Susan, I wonder how we might compare and contrast this poem to J974, The soul’s distinct connection? The latter poem seems so bleak in its metaphors that the only secondary meaning I can draw from it is that we should enjoy our days of natural delights on earth as they are the closest thing to heaven and immortality we may see. This poem, The feet…, definitely has a more hopeful tone. I haven’t thanked you in awhile so, I much appreciate how you have brought many of us closer to Emily’s poems and you haven’t definitely lightened my “interpretive despair”.

    1. You HAVE lightened, I say!!!

    2. Thank you for your kind words and for directing me to this wonderful poem – which I find illuminating and awe-ful rather than bleak. I also find it a much more skillful poem than this current one, but then J974 was written around 950 poems later.

      The 'Sheets of Place' (a phrase I love almost as much as I love 'miles of Stare' [from 'I've known a Heaven, like a Tent –']) strike me as illuminations available to us only in moments of mortal danger. I see the heavens opening up to the vast and often cosmic landscapes Dickinson writes about in other poems. Although these can overpowering (as in 'I saw no Way — The Heavens were stitched —') they are often rich with music and life.

      Although Dickinson's poetry sometimes has folks moldering in their graves, I don't see any hint of that in the sudden illuminations of the soul's link to immortality in this poem.

      But I sense you've thought about this poem more than I have (having just read it for the first time -- what joy!), so I would be very interested in hearing more about your reading.
      For ease of other readers, here is J974:

      The Soul's distinct connection
      With immortality
      Is best disclosed by Danger
      Or quick Calamity—

      As Lightning on a Landscape
      Exhibits Sheets of Place—
      Not yet suspected—but for Flash—
      And Click—and Suddenness.