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10 February 2012

I met a King this afternoon!

I met a King this afternoon!
He had not on a Crown indeed,
A little Palm leaf Hat was all,
And he was barefoot, I'm afraid!

But sure I am he Ermine wore
Beneath his faded Jacket's blue –
And sure I am, the crest he bore
Within that Jacket's pocket too!

For 'twas too stately for an Earl –
A Marquis would not go so grand!
'Twas possibly a Czar petite –
A Pope, or something of that kind!

If I must tell you, of a Horse
My freckled Monarch held the rein –
Doubtless an estimable Beast,
But not at all disposed to run!

And such a wagon! While I live
Dare I presume to see
Another such a vehicle
As then transported me!

Two other ragged Princes
His royal state partook!
Doubtless the first excursion
These sovereigns ever took!

I question if the Royal Coach
Round which the Footmen wait
Has the significance, on high,
Of this Barefoot Estate!
                                                            - F 183 (1860) 

The poet seems to have met a raggedy and tattered man with his two boys traveling in an old wagon pulled by an old horse. But something about the pride or dignity in the man’s bearing must have struck her for he was “too stately for an Earl” and “A Marquis would not go so grand.”  Consider, though, the difference in the way Whitman describes a rustic man in  a lovely passage of “I Sing the Body Electric”:

I knew a man, a common farmer, the father of five sons,
And in them the fathers of sons, and in them the fathers of sons.

This man was a wonderful vigor, calmness, beauty of person,
The shape of his head, the pale yellow and white of his hair and
     beard, the immeasurable meaning of his black eyes, the richness
     and breadth of his manners,
When he went with his five sons and many grand-sons to hunt or fish,
     you would pick him out as the most beautiful and vigorous of
     the gang,
You would wish long and long to be with him, you would wish to sit
     by him in the boat that you and he might touch each other.

While Whitman is writing a tribute (and writing at about the same time as Dicknson), Dickinson seems to be making light of a poor man’s proud demeanor as she tosses out that he was “possibly a Czar petite – / A Pope, or something of that kind!” King, Czar, Pope – whatever. One pictures the poet smiling behind her hand and then running home to write a description down.
Modern Amherst citizens
might laugh at this man, too
            Here’s the picture: a barefoot freckled man with a rustic palm-leaf hat, a faded blue jacket, two ragged young sons who had seemingly never ventured far from home before, a dilapidated wagon, and an old horse “not at all disposed to run.” When she claims she was “transported” by the “vehicle” she is making a play on the double meanings of “conveyed” and “delighted.”
            I leave it to other readers to each determine whether or not she was writing in admiration of something she saw in the traveler or in mockery (as the raggedy group were probably out of place in the byways of tidy, prosperous Amherst). Nonetheless, she ends by saying that in Heaven this man and his family will have probably even more significance that a real king. And that is a very democratic thing to say so we will forgive Dickinson the giggles here.


  1. The riders in the chariot, shades of Elijah himself! A dabble with the visionary.
    This man is a palmer, a pilgrim returning from the holy land, one who has made this high journey. She seems his great stature in terms of royalty but mocks her imaginative tendency to do so with the oddness and extravagance of the titles given. For his true worth is beyond appearances. His humble station and poverty are the badge of his high estate. No patronising of the picturesque here. But a display of the transporting power of imagination. Beyond literal or symbolic or moral connotation. An affirmation of the sovereign worth of the inner perception.

    1. Thank you for this, particularly for the 'palmer' insight. I'm almost convinced but still find the tone a bit flippant.

  2. Not sure how to interpret, but Emily would never make fun of someone of low station.

    1. I surely agree.
      Emily was compassionate and kind. She would never do such a thing.

    2. Maybe in the largest, truest sense. But her letter show she likes to have a giggle about foibles. She pokes a bit of fun at ladies at lunch and about town in their fine clothes (can't remember which poem off the top of my head). But I'd like to give her the benefit of the doubt on this one.

  3. During the 1830s and 40s most of Edward Dickinson’s hired help were Negros, but that changed about 1850 when the potato famine drove Irish migration to America, providing a cheap labor pool for wealthy New Englanders. Early comments in ED’s letters about “common folk” varied from condescending to prejudiced, but during the 1850s she developed a close relationship with the family's Irish maid, Maggie, As ED neared death in 1886, she asked that all her pallbearers be Irish hired help, a request that was honored by the family so long as an honorary group of American pallbearers walked behind the coffin.

    We can only guess whether ED’s 1860 words of esteem for the “King” are real, but if her claim of accepting a ride in the wagon is true, then Susan K’s inclination toward “benefit of the doubt” seems reasonable.

  4. Rereading F102 (1859), ‘In rags mysterious as these’, convinces me ED imagines the barefoot driver and dilapidated wagon as Mary on her mule, Joseph beside, entering Bethlehem, searching for an inn but finding only a manger where Jesus was born:

    “In rags mysterious as these
    The shining Courtiers go—
    Veiling the purple, and the plumes—
    Veiling the ermine so.

    “Smiling, as they request an alms—
    At some imposing door!
    Smiling when we walk barefoot
    Upon their golden floor!”

    Perhaps ED remembered her earlier poem and smiled whimsically as she wrote

    “I met a King this afternoon!
    He had not on a Crown indeed,
    A little Palm leaf Hat was all,
    And he was barefoot, I'm afraid!”

    But she ends dead serious

    “I question if the Royal Coach
    Round which the Footmen wait
    Has the significance, on high,
    Of this Barefoot Estate!”

  5. ‘I met a King this afternoon’ still has me conflicted. On the one hand, ED’s last stanza sounds democratic enough, if only in the grave, and at the same time, I’m inclined to trust Susan K’s initial instinct that an undercurrent of grinning insincerity runs through the poem. Some surfing uncovered a compelling 27-page essay, ‘Emily Dickinson and Class’ (Erkkila, 1992), in American Literary History, a respected journal. Erkkila concludes with this paragraph:

    “If on the level of language Dickinson might be celebrated as a kind of literary terrorist-a "loaded Gun" and dancing "Bomb"-who blew up the social and symbolic orders of patriarchal language, it is also important we recognize that her poetic revolution was grounded in the privilege of her class position in a conservative Whig household whose elitist, antidemocratic values were at the very center of her work.”

    Perhaps ED believed, intellectually, that all men are equal in death, as she says in this poem and F102, but before death she’d just as soon THEY would avoid sullying her comfortable, elite existence.

    Emily Dickinson and Class.1992. Betsy Erkkila. American Literary History , Spring, 1992, Vol. 4, No. 1 pp. 1-27