Search This Blog

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!