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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.