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02 August 2011

Through lane it lay—through bramble—

Through lane it lay—thro'  bramble—
Through clearing and thro' wood—
Banditti often passed us
Upon the lonely road.

The wolf came peering curious—
The owl looked puzzled down—
The serpent's satin figure
Glid stealthily along—

The tempests touched our garments—
The lightning's poinards gleamed—
Fierce from the Crag above us
The hungry Vulture screamed—

The satyrs fingers beckoned—
The valley murmured "Come"—
These were the mates—
This was the road
Those children fluttered home.

                                                                                                 J9,  Fr43 (1858)

When we think of life as a journey on a lonely road we often insert the figures Dickinson uses here: brambles, wolves, tempests, lightning and so forth. One could go through the poem looking at each little setting--clearing, wood, valley, etc.--and make a little story. We could even be unkind enough to think that surely Dickinson's own life was not so beset, indulged as she was within her small family, circle of friends, and quiet New England Village to live life as she chose to live it. We wonder if she ever sensed the wolf peering at her or the gleaming poinards of lightning threatening her safety.
     Yet Dickinson did, even at this date--she was 28, have experiences that were difficult, even traumatic, and trying. She lost a close friend and cousin earlier and suffered intensely. Her first mentor, a young principal at the Amherst Academy, died suddenly, leaving her again bereft. Her mother had subsided into chronic pain and needed someone with her at all times--a role Emily accepted for as long as her mother lived. 
     What I find notable about this poem is the absence of either any real earthly delights: no vale of pleasure, no berry-picking time, no song of the lark; and likewise, the absence of any actual struggle: the wolf is simply curious, the wise owl puzzled, the lightning just flashes and the tempests only touch the clothes.  It is almost like a story book where the dangers are experienced vicariously. Christian teaching at the time emphasized that the path to Heaven is a safe one but danger and evil lurk all along its length.
     The poem ends on a chilling note, however. It is children, not battle scarred oldsters, who are on this road. And they flutter home. It's a poignant image: small children fluttering past wolf and satyr and 'hungry Vulture' to get home, called by the murmuring valley.

I personally don't sense the poet's heart in this poem, but perhaps there is more to it than I see, and perhaps it is because It seems much less fresh than most of her other work.


  1. It is funny that you should mention that this could be a story, as that is exactly what I am doing with it. Sometimes our road is less melodramatic, and like you said, there are all of these dangers, but if we stay on our path, we will be okay. I always thought that "fluttered" was odd here. Thank you for your input.

  2. After reading What Inn is This? today, I googled to find commentary...and I found your blog. What a great resource.

    I agree w/ you that this poem ends on a "chilling" & "poignant" note. I don't think "home" means back to where the children started their day. I think by "home," ED means they are moving forward in life...into their future...into the unknown...following the enticing & magical advice and call of the valley and the satyrs, which represent the rich & mysterious world out there.

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  4. This poem, written in 1858 by the 28--year-old poet, may reflect what she felt in August, 1847, as her father, Edward Dickinson, drove a frightened, shy, and naïve 16-year-old to Mt Holyoke Female Seminary. Amherst Road, a narrow country lane, ran 10 miles from Amherst to Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary, including a 2-mile stretch that threaded through a narrow notch ( between Bare Mountain ( and The Devil’s Garden ( in the wilderness of the Mt. Holyoke range.

    He “left [her] there alone for the first time in her life out in the strange, wide world; the Holyoke range shutting her away from all the geography of her previous existence more obdurately than any remote distance of modem latitude and longitude could devise.” (Bianchi 1924. The Life and Letters of Emily Dickinson, Page 21.)

    Although she professed to be happy in her many letters to family and friends, she was not. In fact the founder and headmistress, Mary Lyon, repeatedly humiliated her in the presence of her classmates because she would not, literally, stand up for Jesus in the required weekly hour of Christian advice. The headmistress separated her girls into three religious categories: those who were "established Christians," those who "expressed hope," and those "without hope"; Emily Dickinson was the only one “without hope”. Finally, a few weeks before the end of the spring semester, she wrote her father and asked him to come get her. He sent Austin to bring her home.

    Dickinson had a powerful role model in her refusal to accept Christ as her savior. Until she was 20 years old, when their minister held communion her father would stand up and walk out of church with his three children, leaving his wife alone in the pew.

    The first three stanzas of “Through lane it lay” seem transparent enough; Emily is scared to death, especially when they passed through the notch, with towering rocky hills on either side. But then the poem suddenly goes suddenly darkly sexual: ‘The satyrs fingers beckoned—The valley murmured "Come”—‘. Given that satyrs were often depicted in paintings as horny half goat, half man creatures, sometimes with enormous erections, I wonder what else happened at Mt Holyoke beside the weekly psychological abuse.

    The final three lines remind us of what Dickinson apparently felt had happened at Holyoke: these were her classmates, this was the road, those were mere children who fluttered home like butterflies, quickly and quietly,

    1. Thank you -- puts an interesting spin on the poem 'story'

  5. Letter [L30] from Emily Dickinson to Jane Humphrey. ED met Jane at Amherst Academy, which ED attended for 7 years, 1840-1847.

    “23 January 1850

    "Dear Jane.


    "Oh ugly time - and space - and boarding-school contemptible that tries to keep us apart - laugh now if you will - but you shall howl hereafter! Eight weeks with their bony fingers still poking me away - how I hate them - and would love to do them harm! Is it wicked to talk so Jane - what can I say that isnt? Out of a wicked heart cometh wicked words –

    Very sincerly yrs-
    Emily E. Dickinson.”

    After finishing her final term at the [Amherst] Academy on August 10, 1847, Dickinson began attending Mount Holyoke Female Seminary [a boarding school] (which later became Mount Holyoke College) in South Hadley, about ten miles (16 km) from Amherst. She stayed at the seminary for only ten months [August 1847-May 1848]. Although she liked the girls at Holyoke, Dickinson made no lasting friendships there.