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01 March 2012

Tho' I get home how late – how late –

Tho' I get home how late – how late –
So I get home – 'twill compensate –
Better will be the Ecstasy
That they have done expecting me –
When Night – descending – dumb – and dark –
They hear my unexpected knock –
Transporting must the moment be –
Brewed from decades of Agony!

To think just how the fire will burn –
Just how long-cheated eyes will turn –
To wonder what myself will say,
And what itself, will say to me –
Beguiles the Centuries of way!
                                                            F199 (1861)  207 

This one is a head scratcher, primarily because we begin with a traveler seemingly anticipating a joyous reunion with loved ones he or she hasn’t seen in “decades.” The loved ones, who will have “Ecstasy” at the reunion after “decades of Agony,” are simply referred to as “they.” The puzzlement occurs in the penultimate line of the second stanza when the traveler wonders “what itself, will say to me – ”. ‘Scuse me? Itself? That mysterious line is followed by one equally mysterious: “Beguiles the Centuries of way!” In other words, the traveler has been killing time for centuries imagining what some reunion with either “them” or “it” will be like. It makes the reader start the poem over, this time casting aside preconceptions.
            The whole poem makes sense if we convert the “it” to “God” ( and even more sense if we convert “it” to the Devil!).  We have seen that Dickinson could be irreverent for her day and that she thinks independently in religion. It is conceivable, then, that she might toy with the notion that God may not have a gender as humans conceive gender. Let’s just go with that interpretation and see if everything hangs together: The narrator has been waiting for a long, long time in her grave. (We have seen this sort of conscious waiting within tombs in other poems.) When she finally gets “home” to heaven, those who had hoped to see her had given up, they had “done expecting me.” But finally when the Night of the world is falling, the narrator finally gets to go knock on the door of heaven. Because they will have given up hope (Dickinson did not take the Christian pledge as did her friends and family during a religious revival in Amherst; neither did she attend church. No doubt some people did worry about her soul finding its way to heaven), they are ecstatic to hear her knock. She herself will be transported with joy after all the agony of the tomb, but just getting to heaven, finally,” ‘twill compensate” for everything.
The prodigal son was wel-
comed back with feasts
and great joy. He'd been
given up for lost.
            There will be a cheery fire burning, just as a warm welcome on earth includes a warm fire if it is cold outside. Dickinson sometimes uses “fire” to indicate splendor and glory, so she may be sketching the glorious brilliance of heaven. She has been waiting for centuries for this moment, wondering what in the world she is going to say and what her Creator will say to her!
            Now if we take the view that “itself” refers to the Devil, several loose ends become tidied up: “dumb,” “dark” “Night” would be the blackness of descending to hell. The fires of hell are burning, but within there are people who have been expecting the poet. Finally, it is fitting to refer to the Devil as “it,” as it is degrading; it is also considered bad luck to say his name.
            But I reject that interpretation simply because there is too much ecstasy and beguilement going on.

The poem is written in iambic tetrameter and rhymed couplets. This adds to an essentially light-hearted touch to what otherwise might seem a very serious poem. 


  1. When I correct college essays the most irritating word is always "it"! The pronoun is incredibly vague - especially when there is no antecedent. Emily is guilty of the same in this poem, and when a word like God is substituted the poem's meaning seems less Emily's and more mine. The poem has a strange ending and carries an almost vindictive note. I prefer substituting Devil simply because of "fire" and my desire to see some people burn on the other side.

    1. It's about death as a long anticipated ecstatic release.

      It's about sex as a long anticipated ecstatic release.

      How is this at all fucking complicated?

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  4. Curious comma after “itself”. Perhaps “wonder what I will say and what that itself (whatever I say) will say (mean) to me”. This might fit with the interpretation relating to her lack of religious activity. How when she returns will she explain it to the others and what will that explanation mean for her. Like saying something that you know will be interpreted by others in a different way to how you interpret it, in order to be included while still maintaining your own private view of the truth.

  5. The striking aspect to me is the attitude in the poem. There is a firm conviction of getting there and the description is of speculations on reactions evoked in people already there. Extasy, transport, release from agony are all their emotions not her own. She is merrily thinking what she would say and (agreeing with Robin above) what her speech will really mean to herself: how come she is there and what took her so long. Irreverence combined with gaiety.

  6. The year 1861 was tough for ED. Her only trusted critic, close friend, and former lover, Susan, was pregnant with Edward (b. June 19, 1861), leaving a large hole in ED’s emotional life. Her friendship with Sam Bowles, which had begun on a high note in 1858 when she met him at Susan and Austin’s home, had cooled and was headed into a 12-year rupture that never fully healed. Her mother suffered unexplained illness(es), leaving ED and Lavinia to care for her, manage meals, and handle the house. If her poetry feels disjointed or needy, there are real reasons.

    Here's my interpretation of ‘Tho' I get home how late – how late – ’, which reflects these circumstances:

    “Though it takes a long time to reconnect with Sue,
    To regain her love will compensate for all we missed
    And more.
    Though she may stop expecting me,
    Some night, sinking, silent, and sad,
    She’ll hear my unexpected knock,
    Which will transport her to ecstasy,
    Brewed during decades of pain!

    “To imagine the warmth rekindled,
    To see her yearning eyes turn to me,
    Wondering what I will say to her,
    And what she will say to me,
    Makes time pass faster until then.”

  7. I also agree that it is about Emily’s arrival into heaven (home) after a long delay, unexpected by others perhaps because she stopped following the traditional way of praising God (attending church) and developing her own intimate relationship with God through her gardening, poetry, and solitary life. Many of her poems are about God, heaven and dying and this is no exception. Not sure if there was really a delay as the Bible informs us God’s time is not like our time, paraphrasing, a thousand years are like a watch in the night. Could that be the “Night” in the poem? I believe Emily knew her Bible.

  8. So many poems by Emily Dickinson are about longing, anticipation. That’s certainly true of this one. That’s really as far as I can go. The poem floats among so many specific possibilities: that she will finally find fulfillment? that, despite her skepticism, she will find herself in heaven, as all her family and associates seem to worry that she won’t?; that someday her poetry will be read and appreciated for its brilliance? So many possibilities, so much confusion on my part. Why do I keep thinking about “Success is counted sweetest/To those who ne’er succeed”?