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04 December 2011

A little East of Jordan

A little East of Jordan,
Evangelists record,
A Gymnast and an Angel
Did wrestle long and hard—

Till morning touching mountain—
And Jacob, waxing strong,
The Angel begged permission
To Breakfast—to return!

Not so, said cunning Jacob!
"I will not let thee go
Except thou bless me"—Stranger!
The which acceded to—

Light swung the silver fleeces
"Peniel" Hills beyond,
And the bewildered Gymnast
Found he had worsted God!
                                                                                  - F145 (1860)  59

The poem refers to the story in Genesis 32 of Jacob wrestling the angel of God. Jacob prevailed over the angel and not only received a blessing but was rechristened with the name Israel – and obviously his name as progenitor of the Jews is still highly current. Now this wrestling match was years after Jacob had tricked his older twin, Esau, into selling Jacob his inheritance for a bowl of porridge. Jacob had moved away but now was headed back for his father’s funeral – and to claim his ill-gotten estate, no doubt. He had told Esau and Esau was coming after him with a large posse.
            The first stanza sets the scene, the main difference between the poem and the bible verses being that instead of Jacob being identified as the wrestler, the poet calls him “A Gymnast.” Perhaps that is because Jacob could squirm out of some pretty tight corners – and also perhaps because he was able to wrestle the angel.
Joseph and Angel
by Delacroix
            They wrestled all night until dawn was “touching mountain” and the Angel “begged permission” to stop. This is how Jacob was able to secure his blessing. When the blessing is given (3rd stanza) then the heavens flare with light, swinging the clouds beyond the spot on “’Peniel’ Hills” where wrestling match took place. It suddenly became very clear to Gymnast Jacob that he had been wrestling with the Divine.
            Interestingly, we typically say we “bested” someone if we beat them; here the poet says the Gymnast “worsted God.”  But I think the meaning is the same.
            Also interesting in this poem is how the first three stanzas gallop along in iambic trimeter, ballad form and pace: you could easily read them aloud as a story. The fourth stanza, however, switches to trochees and the pace suddenly slows down. This stanza contains two great themes from Dickinson: light and battling with God. It works, with this in mind, that Jacob has been transformed into a gymnast, for  everyone must battle with God. Those who can keep their strength over the long haul will earn their blessing and the skies will open for them. Others may not prevail and might receive “heavenly hurt” (F320)  from the divine light of God.


  1. Dickinson's imagination thrived on two massive taproots -- Shakespeare and the King James Bible, and she could recite from both, chapter and verse. What follows are only my limited speculations and readings (in English) from the source texts, but I sense that she felt an intestinal connection to the "Jacob/Angel" story for many reasons. Like Jacob, she wrestled long and hard and alone -- and over more nights than she could count -- to wrest poetry from night oil, ink and paper, often at the cost of her nervous system. Those nights were followed by the drudgery of household chores, caring for her disabled mother, and stuffing her pockets with hurriedly-written bits of paper to capture poetic surprises that went on throughout her day. As for the biblical story, Jacob's name itself means "He takes by the heel" or "he who supplants" because he was born after his twin-brother Esau while gripping his older brother's heel, also because he was a man who exploited his own wily intelligence, his command of magical practices and patience, to realize divine favor and went on to embody a nation. The subcurrents of the story, in more contemporary terms, are xenophobia (his mother's fear of him marrying "a heathen woman" and how her actions drive the story); racism (how his wild and hirsute hunter-brother Esau is a caricature of the "dumb" Edomites who were subjugated by Israel during the reign of David); exploitation (Laban, the uncle of Jacob and how he used and disrespected his son-in-law); and the wrestling between polytheistic household gods and the supposedly all-powerful El or Yahweh -- a wrestling that leaves Jacob with a permanently damaged hip and a wife Rachel who is carrying the polytheistic infection back to Jacob's homeland in the form of the household gods that she had stolen from her father. The collision of "Peniel" and "Hills" captures a conflict that one could simply formulize as "faces of God." Your recap of the immediate context of the night of wrestling is accurate, except for where you stated that Jacob was returning home for his father's funeral. According to Genesis 31:3. Jacob returned home when he could no longer endure the exploitation of his Uncle Laban and El essentially told him it was time to go home. In the domestic sphere in which she found herself, Dickinson had far fewer options, though Jacob's heroic quest for wealth, love, progeny, and independence were all realized by Dickinson in the much quieter -- but no less consecrated – zone of her night desk.

    1. Thank you so much for this (which I missed when you posted in 2016!). It adds so much information, insight, and depth to my sketchy discussion.

  2. Jacob’s night-long wrestling match with God ended when God said, “Let me go, for the day breaketh.” Jacob replied, “I will not let thee go, except thou bless me” (Genesis 32:26, KJV).

    This 230-word tale of Jacob’s one-night struggle summarizes ED’s lifelong fray with God. Explicitly addressed first in ‘A little East of Jordan’ (F145) and last revisited in a letter to Thomas Higginson a month before her death on 5/15/1886. During those 26-years, she had reversed Jacob’s demand for God’s blessing, closing her letter with “…said Jacob to [God] ‘I will not let thee go except I bless thee’-Pugilist and Poet, Jacob was correct.” (L1042).

    Said another way (F876.1864):

    To be alive is power,
    Existence in itself,
    Without a further function,
    Omnipotence enough.

    To be alive and Will–
    'Tis able as a God!
    The Further of ourselves be what–
    Such being Finitude?

  3. I admire the playfulness, bordering on irreverence. Jacob is, after all, the supreme comic character (in both senses of comedy—funny and all coming out well) in the Bible.