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31 October 2011

As Watchers hang upon the East -

As Watchers hang upon the East -
As Beggars revel at a feast
By savory fancy spread—
As Brooks in Deserts babble sweet
On Ear too far for the delight –
Heaven beguiles the tired.

As that same Watcher when the East
Opens the lid of Amethyst
And lets the morning go—
That Beggar, when an honored Guest,
Those thirsty lips to flagons pressed –
Heaven to us, if true.
                                                   - F120 (1859)  121

A wonderfully concise poem likening the longing for heaven to hunger, thirst, and a passion for beauty; and the fulfillment of heaven (“if true”!) to those needs being amply met. We meet the “Watchers” waiting for sunrise after a long, black night.  They “hang upon the East” as if their life depended on it. Eventually their long wait is over and the eastern sky “Opens the lid of Amethyst” and the pink and purple dawn spills out of the box of night. It’s a lovely image.
            We also see beggars coming to a feast, the realization that their long hunger and deprivation will soon be over making them almost delirious with excited expectation. The poet adds a second joy as the expectation is finally met and the beggar lifts the glass of wine to her lips: the beggar is “an honored Guest.” No need for furtiveness or shame. The host has extended a warm welcome and given the beggar honor.  The satisfied thirst here does double duty for the poor soul who is slowly dying of thirst in the desert, too far to reach the babbling brook, but not to far to hear it.
            At the end of the first stanza, Heaven is like that approaching sunrise, the feast, and the babbling brook: longed for but out of reach. It “beguiles” the tired, which is to say it casts a spell over them. The word implies a lovely fantasy or a seductive vision. At the end of the poem, Heaven will bring the joy and fulfillment of all those beguilements – but, and what an important but – “if true.” It’s a strange place to put a caveat and the placement calls attention to it, calling the whole premise into question. What if the watched-for sunset didn’t come, the beggar was not allowed to touch the feast? What then? That’s the question Dickinson leaves the reader and one wonders how much doubt she herself possessed.


  1. Wonderful insight into this poem, Susan.

    I love the onomatopoeic verb 'babble' describing the cool rush of the desert brook. The word suggests an indistinct and muffled, murmuring sound that conveys the distance between the stricken 'ear' and the water, which is desperately sought and only faintly heard.

    The verb 'beguiles' is an apt choice of word as it implies deception, foreseeing the clause of doubt ('if true') introduced at the end of the poem. The word suggests the elusiveness of heaven, the concept of which is perhaps a treacherous one after all.

    The richness and abundance of the supposed Heaven is contrasted with the impoverishment of earthly existence. Those that pertain to the latter realm ('us') are 'tired', famished and thirsty. Heaven, however, is represented as precious, with its 'lid of Amethyst', and plentiful, with its thirst-quenching rewards of 'flagons' of wine.

    It is interesting that the plural 'Watchers' and the 'Beggars' in the first stanza are reduced to single entities in the second stanza. We are therefore given the unsettling intimation that perhaps some failed, dying of hunger or thirst during their quest for the elusive Heaven. And, alternatively, if the Heaven referred to is interpreted as eternity or the afterlife, rather than some distant paradise on earth, then the 'Watcher' or the 'Beggar' would have perished in any case in order to finally access it (if they ever do).

    In the first stanza, the yawning abyss between Heaven and those that resolutely seek is evoked by the metrical distance between certain words. The placement of the 'Watchers' and 'Beggars' early in the stanza (in lines 1 and 2), separates them substantially from 'Heaven', which is not referred to until the final line of the stanza (line 6). This conveys the sense of a long, continuous journey to Heaven, which is heightened by the present tense verbs. And, as mentioned, the goal of this (potentially futile) journey, whether it some earthly paradise or posthumous eternity, may in fact be forever of reach.

  2. At a different level, “Watchers” may seek heaven closer than “Heaven”. For some, it’s capital H, for others lower case and “a hedge away” (F5, 1858). For some, Heavenly “Brooks … babble sweet”, for others, heaven sings “a different tune / herself to her a music / as bumble bee of June.” For some, “Heaven beguiles the tired”, for others she “deceives the butterfly”. For some, Heaven “Opens the lid of Amethyst / And lets the morning go”, for others heaven is a “single star / from out the wide night's numbers / Sue - forevermore!”

    Each stanza of ‘Watchers’ consists of two three-line repeats; each repeat consists of two lines of iambic tetrameter and one of iambic trimeter.

  3. An interpretation of ‘As Watchers hang upon the East’ (F120), based on Shakespeare’s ‘Antony and Cleopatra’

    As Antony hangs upon Cleopatra in the East and at her banquet imagines his desire for her will soon be satisfied, as mirages in deserts inspire hope in a traveler dying of thirst, Susan deludes tired Emily.

    Emily, when (and if) Susan opens her heart and reveals her affection, will be certain of love and press her thirsty lips to Susan’s, transporting them to heaven.

  4. I think the poem is about two different kinds of heaven. The first stanza describes the heaven that we imagine when thirsty, hungry, unhappy. In that situation we turn to religion for hope and consolation. This is the heaven that beguiles/deceives. In the second stanza all needs are fully satisfied, everything is perfect, the beggar is an honored guest (hardly ever happens in reality). If true, this is our heaven on earth.

    1. As she wrote to Samuel Bowles: God is not as wary as we, else he would give us no friends, lest we forget him! The Charms of the Heaven in the bush are superceded I fear, by the Heaven in the hand, occasionally.

    2. Thanks for this. What is the letter number/ID? I'd love to read it.