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03 December 2011

Exultation is the going

Exultation is the going
Of an inland soul to sea,
Past the houses –
Past the headlands –
Into deep Eternity –

Bred as we, among the mountains,
Can the sailor understand
The divine intoxication
Of the first league out from Land?

                                                                                  - F143 (1860)  76

This is one of my favorite Dickinson poems, probably because of the first two lines. It speaks, I think, of the “Exultation” the poet imagines the soul would feel when finally set free from its mortal coils. But I also think it speaks to anyone who ventures into unknown territory or takes on an entirely new way of life. There is a certain exultation as the familiar landmarks are left behind.
            In the mountains mentioned in the second stanza, it is hard to see the sea. The horizon is constrained by the peaks and hills – unlike the dome of the sky one sees when out on the ocean. But the sailor doesn’t know that feeling of constraint anymore than the angels could understand the joy of the newly liberated soul.
            The poem mixes iambs with trochees to good effect. The trochees of “Past the” emphasize the movement, and the first-syllable emphasis on “Exultation” starts the poem off with a feeling of  expansion.


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  2. I like your second take on the poem, and I like to think that ED had the same idea, as not every thought she had in her young life was about death and the afterlife.

  3. So well said, there’s nothing else to say, except - Thank you Susan!

  4. Never say never. 😊

    Steiner (1981) convinces me of a third level of meaning of ‘Exultation is the going’ (F143). In addition to its levels of religious/spiritual belief or everyday travel metaphor, she sees the poem as summing up the basic dilemma of a 19th century woman-poet in the contrasting pictures of "inland soul," "houses," "headlands," and "mountains," on the one hand and "sea," "sailor," and "Eternity" on the other. [In a metaphorical sense,] the experience of going abroad, which is quite normal to the sailor [male poet], is in the eyes of the woman-[poet]-in-captivity one of "divine intoxication"”.

    Steiner, Dorothea. 1981. Emily Dickinson: Image Patterns and the Female Imagination. Arbeiten aus Anglistik und Amerikanistik, 6(1): 57-71.

  5. I always remember ED’s cousin report of a visit. Dickinson took her to her room, shut and locked the door and said, “Oh, Mattie, here is freedom!”