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18 February 2012

Through the Straight Pass of Suffering –

Through the Straight Pass of Suffering –
The Martyrs even trod.
Their feet upon Temptation –
Their faces – upon God –

A Stately – Shriven – Company –
Convulsion playing round –
Harmless – as Streaks of Meteor –
Upon a Planet's Bond –

Their faith the Everlasting Troth –
Their Expectation – fair –
The Needle – to the North Degree
Wades – so – through Polar Air!
                                                            - F187  (1861)  792

Interestingly, this poem was included as part of a letter to Samuel Bowles. The prose part of the letter is as follows:
Dear friend
If you doubted my Snow _ for a moment _ you never will _ again _ I know _
Because I could not say it _ I fixed it in the Verse _ for you to read _ when your
thought wavers, for such a foot as mine _

What makes this interesting is Dickinson’s use of the word “Snow.” Dickinson makes use of the word in various poems and letters giving it a range of meanings centered around virtue. In at least one poem it seems to indicate virginity. In others it means purity or moral fibre. Some scholars feel that she also used “Snow” to signify her poems.
            The poem itself doesn’t mention snow, but it is implied in the Martyrs’ Polar destination. And in the letter, when Dickinson suggests Bowles might have “doubted [her] Snow,” she may be referring to her steadiness.  Bowles had expressed concern that Dickinson would regret not pursuing publication of her poems and so it may be that she hopes this poem will show that  although she is tempted by the thought of fame as a poet she intends to keep her face “upon God.” She may also be alluding to passion, for there are plenty of indications that she indeed loved Bowles in such a way. So, like the Martyrs in their steady and “even” pace towards heaven, she, too, will not be swayed by “Streaks of Meteor” or the “Convulsion” of pain or emotion.
Meteorite streaks (NASA photo)
            But even without looking into the personal history that might provide a specific context, the poem has its independent heft and merit. The first stanza has a stately, dignified tread. The two accented syllables, the spondee, of “Straight Pass” embedded in iambic meter signal seriousness – as well it should for the martyrs will soon be killed for their faith. Images of both feet and air add breadth and depth: the feet are “upon Temptation,” the needle “Wades” to its North point. In contrast we have faces turned toward heaven and God, we have celestial upheavals in the Meteors, and the Polar region is signified by “Polar Air.”
            The Martyrs with their unwavering focus as they face death are likened to the compass which unwaveringly points north. True north, magnetic north, has long been a symbol of constancy and truth, and so is a fitting symbol for the Martyrs. “Stately” and “Shriven” – purified, their torment and death will be as harmless to them as a meteor is to Earth’s orbital path. Earth is bonded to the sun just as the martyrs are bonded to God.


  1. In August, 1847, Edward Dickinson, drove his frightened, shy, and naïve 16-year-old daughter to Mt Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley. The buggy trip was only 10 miles along a narrow country lane, but it included a 2-mile stretch that threaded a narrow pass called Devil’s Garden through the Holyoke Mountain range:


    Photo (

    In 1858 ED immortalized the terrifying trip and school in her inimitable way:

    ‘’Through lane it lay—thro' bramble’ (F43, last stanza)

    “The satyrs fingers beckoned—
    The valley murmured "Come"—
    These were the mates—
    This was the road
    Those children fluttered home.”

    Based on that poem and her experience (See F43 comments, The Prowling Bee), here is an interpretation of F187, ‘Through the Straight Pass of Suffering’:

    Through the Devil’s Garden Pass -
    ED and her Holyoke classmates walk,
    Suspended between sexual urges -
    And religious beliefs -

    Honorable – Confessed – Classmates -
    Involuntary lapses randomly happening -
    Harmless – as streaks of light -
    Across a Christian universe -

    Their faith, the Christian Promise -
    Their hope - eternal life -
    Their compass - to Heaven
    Struggles - through icy air!

    For some reason, ED’s turning (volta) in the final line brings to mind another poem:

    “Some say the world will end in fire,
    Some say in ice.
    From what I’ve tasted of desire
    I hold with those who favor fire.
    But if it had to perish twice,
    I think I know enough of hate
    To say that for destruction ice
    Is also great
    And would suffice.”

    Robert Frost, Harper’s, 1920

  2. Thanks again for the commentary!
    I am still unsure why the word Wade is used. A needle does not really face any resistance in turning north. Also, how is “Polar air” related to the Martyrs?

  3. As in the Frost poem, ice is a metaphor for an emotionally cold place (Holyoke Female Seminary) or person (HFS's headmistress):

    "Their compass - to Heaven
    Struggles - through icy air!"

  4. The Martyrs are the schoolgirls who "trod" through the Devil's Garden Pass ('Through the Straight Pass of Suffering') on their way to Holyoke Female Seminary.