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19 November 2011

Just lost, when I was saved!

Just lost, when I was saved!
Just felt the world go by!
Just girt me for the onset with Eternity,
When breath blew back,
And on the other side
I heard recede the disappointed tide!

Therefore, as One returned, I feel,
Odd secrets of the line to tell!
Some Sailor, skirting foreign shores—
Some pale Reporter, from the awful doors
Before the Seal!

Next time, to stay!
Next time, the things to see
By Ear unheard,
Unscrutinized by eye—

Next time, to tarry,
While the Ages steal—
Slow tramp the Centuries,
And the Cycles wheel!
                                                             - F132 (1860)  J160

A ship metaphor serves to describe a brush with death. The poet had just been preparing herself for the “onset with Eternity” when a lucky wind blew her boat back to safety. She begins the poem with the interesting contrast of “lost” with “saved” and here “lost” means loss of hope of living and “saved” means rescued. That would seem conventional enough until you stop to think that in the religious milieu of 1860 Amherst “lost” and “saved” have very particular meanings. To be saved is to be saved from eternal damnation and to be lost is to be lost from hope of heaven. Yet in this poem the poet in her little boat is saved from going to “foreign shores” that do not seem at all like the shores of hell. The shores seem more like Paradise and Paradise seems to want the poet, in fact is “disappointed” that she returns to earthly shores.
            The speaker has the lingering unearthly feeling expressed by many who have nearly died. She feels like a reporter come back with news of some amazing place, or a sailor who has glimpsed exotic lands. And although she experienced a sense of awe and maybe even dread by seeing “the awful doors” that guard the “Seal” between life and death, she is eager to meet death when her time comes.
            Like an intrepid explorer, she looks forward – in due time! – to experiencing something that eyes and ears have never encountered, to “tarry” there for “Ages” while the “Centuries” slowly “tramp” by. The wheeling “Cycles” might be a tip of the hat to the Eastern, Vedic, thought just making its way into American discourse via, among others, Emerson and Thoreau, both of whom Dickinson read deeply and frequently.
            Rather than employing a somber or reflective tone, Dickinson writes with the excitement of a great encounter. The first two words, “Just lost” are equally emphasized and function as an exclamation. The next two lines repeat the “Just …” construction to underscore the immediacy of the event. The poem is sprinkled with exclamation marks and rushes headlong through the account until the last stanza. There, the word “tarry” signals a tarrying and slowing down, certainly of time but also of poetic pace. “Slow tramp the Centuries” is a much slower line than, say, “Next time, to stay!” The pace picks up again in the last line where “Cycles wheel” as if time were a flock of seagulls swirling overhead.  


  1. The opening seems to echo "Amazing Grace" written in 1779 by John Newton, a seafarer and slave trader. I find it difficult to build a narrative around the poem and latch on to images like "awful doors" or "slow tramp the centuries" to try an extract meaning. It's as if I understand each line separately from the whole because I still struggle with the overall meaning. I sense the poet opens with her preparing for death when she is suddenly blown back to a shore -comes back from the "edge" -where she hears the waters sounding disappointed by the event. She is now returned from the edge and understands universal "secrets"like a sailor going from port to port or a reporter who has seen the door that leads to the other side. She seems to vow that the next time she is close to death, she will want to stay where the senses no longer are useful. She'll wait at the edge until centuries pass or the cycle of life turns. Once again she beautifully packs so much meaning into simple words. I marvel at her ability to write so compactly that I envy her talent. She truly is a master.

    1. Thank you -- all good points. I particularly like the Amazing Grace reference. In re-reading this poem I'm caught by all the repetitions of words and phrases. It gives the poem the feel of rocking on waves.

  2. Thank you for this amazing explanation. I was troubled because I couldn't find a way out and tomorrow is my exam. Finally found this. Thank you. ��

  3. I have a question about a different version of the first line of this poem. I thought that there was a version that began "Just lost when I was found / . . ." Can anyone confirm this, or did I just mis-memorize it? Thanks, Todd

    1. It's possible you saw a variant. I'm not aware of it. You can see the handwritten manuscript here:

      That doesn't mean another version doesn't exist -- but if it does I don't think the most respected editors (Johnson, Franklin) trusted it.

  4. The only surviving manuscript of F132 is Variant B, which ED copied and stitched into a fascicle. However, in 1891 Susan D published the lost Variant A in a local newspaper. Both modern editors, Johnson and Franklin, and the newspaper made one documented alteration – they converted ED’s six-line Stanza 2 into a five-line stanza. Lines 4-6, Stanza 2, in ED’s surviving manuscript read “Some pale Reporter, from the / Awful doors / Before the seal!”, capitalizing “Awful” and matching the six lines of Stanza 1. The arbitrary editorial change looks better in print, I suppose.

    Other differences between ED’s handwritten Variant B and the published Variant A, which ED had given to Susan D in 1860, are L2S1 “heard” changed to “felt”, L4S1 “drew” change to “blew”, L8S2 “Line” changed to “line”, L9S2 “novel” changed to “foreign”, L10S2 “reporter” changed to “Reporter”, and penultimate L19S4 “Tramp the slow Centuries” changed to “Slow tramp the Centuries”. Seven changes is a lot for two variants of an ED poem.

  5. The Prowling Bee focusses on enjoying the sound and sense of ED’s poetry, not diagnosing ED’s mental condition. Readers with all levels of knowledge about rhyme and rhythm appreciate the sound of her poems. Likewise, different readers sense disparate meanings of each poem, but we aren’t earning a grade based on a correct understanding. The Prowling Bee gives us a place to share thoughts and often receive insightful comments from our incredible blog Meister, Susan K.

    For me, ED’s poems have opened doors I would never have opened without The Prowling Bee. One of these has been learning about migraines. Aside from a fortunately rare (2 - 3 times a year) and mercifully short (10 - second), intensely sharp, simultaneous throbbing in my right temple and upper right arm, no other symptoms occur, but during those 10 seconds I wouldn’t mind dying. I’m 80 and this symptom spans more than 60 years. How anyone could endure a lifetime with the real McCoy escapes me.

    Classic symptoms of migraines include painful sensitivity to light, sound, or tight clothing, and a throbbing, incapacitating headache, usually in one side of the head, which may suggest dying. Recovery symptoms include euphoria, depression, or other mood swings (Comment 8 on ‘Heart, not so heavy as mine’, F88). Among ED’s 1800 poems are a few describing such experiences, for example: this poem, ‘Just lost, when I was saved’ (F132), ‘Dying! Dying in the night!’ (F222), ‘There’s a certain slant of light’ (F258), ‘It was not death, for I stood up’ (F322), ‘Before I got my eye put out’ (F336), ‘I heard a fly buzz when I died’ (F591), and ‘My cocoon tightens, colors tease’ (F1107).

    Thank you Susan.

    1. Thank YOU, Larry. You have added a lot of relevant research and context -- and some fascinating background info. It is tempting to read migraines into the various poems you mention. I think I explicated 'fly buzz' that way.

  6. Two numbering errors in my previous comment. The correct numbers are 'There’s a certain slant of light’ (F320) & ‘It was not death, for I stood up’ (F355).