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14 April 2012

What is – "Paradise" –

What is –  "Paradise" –
Who live there –
Are they "Farmers" –
Do they "hoe" –
Do they know that this is "Amherst" –
And that I –  am coming –  too –

Do they wear "new shoes" –  in "Eden" –
Is it always pleasant –  there –
Won't they scold us –  when we're hungry –
Or tell God –  how cross we are –

You are sure there's such a person
As "a Father" –  in the sky –
So if I get lost –  there –  ever –
Or do what the Nurse calls "die" –

I shan't walk the "Jasper" –  barefoot –
Ransomed folks –  won't laugh at me –
Maybe –  "Eden" a'n't so lonesome
As New England used to be!
                                                            F241 (1861)  215

We learn here that Dickinson found New England “lonesome.” Her letters and her biographical material indicate that she was very social when young but increasingly withdrew.  She had few peers. Sue was once her dear friend and peer but the relationship soured (although ended on friendly terms). So perhaps she did feel lonesome.  Once we work backwards in the poem from there we see other glimpses of things the poet might find in Amherst but hopes she won’t find in “Paradise”: old shoes (probably standing in for old clothing in general), bad weather, people getting cross because they’re hungry, and – perhaps most interesting – people who laugh at her (implied ‘you’).
This child may also be
wondering if Eden is less
lonely and more pleasant
            Dickinson uses as child’s voice, worrying about being scolded or getting lost, and being not quite sure about the word “die.” She begins by asking a set of childish questions – leading to a very serious one: do the heavenly folk know that the speaker is coming? This question is at the heart of much Christian and theological debate: are we pre-ordained to be saved or to make the choices that lead us – or not – to Heaven? Do we have the ability as mortals to change direction so that even if you’re not expected there you can still make your way to Paradise?
            In the third stanza a hypothetical “You” is introduced. Another important question is directed at this you: Are you sure “there’s such a person / as ‘a Father.’”  For if there is no Father then what happens once you die? You might get lost in some post-mortal limbo.
            The poem is written in common ballad or hymn form: four-line stanzas in alternating tetrameter and trimeter.  In the first stanza, Dickinson has subdivided the first tetrameter and trimeter lines into two shorter lines. Although ballad form is usually iambic, Dickinson makes generous use of trochees. This gives the force of insistent questioning: What is… Who live… Do they…Is it, etc. The tone is a bit pushier than if it were phrased iambically (e.g., “Do Farmers live there”).  


  1. You're right, this makes me think that Dickinson didn't enjoy life in Amherst when she wrote it. Are ransomed folks the ones who've been saved and why are they laughing at anyone, especially her? Also, is jasper a symbol for walking barefoot through the flames of hell?

    1. Jasper is a heavenly building stone:

      Revelation 21:18-19King James Version (KJV)

      18 And the building of the wall of it was of jasper: and the city was pure gold, like unto clear glass.

      19 And the foundations of the wall of the city were garnished with all manner of precious stones. The first foundation was jasper; the second, sapphire; the third, a chalcedony; the fourth, an emerald;

    2. Truly a inspiring poem -ajh

  2. How do you divide the lines that have 5 syllables? For exemple line 1?is that an trochaic tetrameter

    1. If you take the first two lines and count them as one, it is in iambic. If you take the first line by itself, it would be dimeter (two feet) with a feminine ending -- an extra syllable left hanging at the end.

  3. In ‘What is – "Paradise" – ‘, the 30-year-old poet assumes a child’s persona, asking question after question, seeking a trusted adult’s certainty of “Paradise”, AKA “Eden”. “You” is the child’s trusted sage who leads off Stanza 3: “You are sure there's such a person”, and, similarly, the understood beginning of Stanza 4: [You are sure] “I shan’t walk the “Jasper” - barefoot” - .

    Line 2 Stanza 4 continues: [You are sure] “Ransomed folks – won't laugh at me –“. Finally, the poet optimistically conjectures: “Maybe – “Eden” a’n’t so lonesome / As New England used to be !”

    My only imagined or actual recipient of this poem is Sue, who firmly kept her faith in Christian dogma throughout her life.

    One question: Why past tense at the end of the poem? The poet isn’t dead yet.

  4. I woke this morning with an answer to yesterday’s question:

    The poet is dead, imagining herself at the “Gates of Heaven”:

    Revelation 21:9-15, KJV

    “9 And there came unto me one of the seven angels which had the seven vials full of the seven last plagues, and talked with me, saying, Come hither, I will shew thee the bride, the Lamb's wife.

    “10 And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and shewed me that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God,

    “11 Having the glory of God: and her light was like unto a stone most precious, even like a jasper stone, clear as crystal;

    “12 And had a wall great and high, and had twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and names written thereon, which are the names of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel:

    “13 On the east three gates; on the north three gates; on the south three gates; and on the west three gates.

    “14 And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and in them the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.

    “15 And he that talked with me had a golden reed to measure the city, and the gates thereof, and the wall thereof.”

    But that answer raises another question: Who is “he that talked to me”?

    We’ve been told “one of the seven angels which had the seven vials full of the seven last plagues”, but the child continues: Which angel?

    Matthew 16:18-19”, King James Version

    “18 And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

    “19 And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

    “A’n’t” Google wonnerfull?

  5. Second thoughts about the “You” of this poem. The childlike tone of ‘What is – "Paradise"’ reminded me of something ED wrote, Master Letter 3 (about early 1862).

    Here are the closing lines of ML3, which I believe was sent, or intended to be sent, to Rev. Charles Wadsworth (See my TPB comments on ‘Title divine, is mine’, F194):

    “Master -open your life wide, and take me in forever, I will never be tired - I will never be noisy when you want to be still. I will be [glad] [as the] your best little girl - nobody else will see me, but you - but that is enough- I shall not want any more - ………”

    Rev. Charles Wadsworth is my candidate for “You” and for the recipient of this poem.