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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.