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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.