Search This Blog

13 June 2012

Just so – Christ – raps –

Just so – Christ – raps –
He – doesn't weary –
First – at the Knocker –
And then – at the Bell –
Then – on Divinest tiptoe standing –
Might He but spy the hiding soul!

When He – retires –
Chilled – or weary –
It will be ample time for me –
Patient – upon the steps – until then –
Heart – I am knocking low
At thee!
                                                            F263 (1861) 317

The poem begins with a string of accented syllables – spondees – that mimic the sound of Christ rapping quietly at the door. We can hear the rhythm: tap…tap…tap…tap. This noise goes on for some time, for Jesus “doesn’t weary.” And a good thing! If Jesus can save your soul from damnation we would hope he wouldn’t give up easily! He starts, politely, at the knocker than moves to the louder and more insistent doorbell. When there is still no answer, he stands on his divine toes to peer in through the small window in the door to “spy the hiding soul.” Don’t you hate it when unwanted guests do that? And there you are slinking by the kitchen door waiting for them to go away.
            Jesus does finally give up. He gets “Chilled – or weary.” That’s a direct contradiction to the first stanza where “He – doesn’t weary,” but some folks are just hard cases. Best to move on. After all, no one will be saved against their will. Ah, but waiting in the bushes has been the patient narrator of the poem. Her patience rewarded, she takes her turn at the door. The main difference between her and the departing Christ is that unlike him, she is knocking at her beloved’s heart. In the last two lines she calls out to it: “Heart – I am knocking low [softly] / At thee!” Her patient persistence is contrasted to Christ’s: she, one infers, loves the occupant of the house more than Jesus. And unlike him, she is not going to go spying.
            The image is very pictorial. Many people in Christian lands have seen various pictures of Jesus knocking at the door. One of the earliest was painted by William Holman Hunt in 1851 and so Dickinson may well have seen it. Judith Farr makes this point in The Passion of Emily Dickinson, discussing the intense interest and controversy surrounding this painting when it was shown in New York and Boston in 1857. She adds that this poem “was probably written for Sue (Dickinson's beloved best friend [for years, though not always] and sister-in-law), to whom it was addressed and sent.”


  1. Sue was a committed Christian, which makes the "hiding soul" of Stanza 1 unlikely to be her. The person famous for hiding from people at the door and also not committing herself to Christ was ED, my candidate for the hiding soul. But then Stanza 2 tells us the speaker has been "Patient – upon the steps" until Jesus leaves. Is she on the steps or in the house, she can't have it both ways, Anybody have a clue?

  2. Franklin (Work Metadata) tells us ED wrote two variants of ‘Just so – Christ – raps’ that differ in informative ways. Variant B (above), consists of two 6-line stanzas, Variant A of one with eleven lines. ED sent Sue Variant A “about the second half of 1861”. Variant B is an edited version for the fascicles.

    CAPS indicate changed words and [brackets] deleted dashes and exclamation mark. ED converted Variant A’s last line into two lines and added an exclamation mark after “thee”.

    Variant A, Sent to Sue

    Just so - JESUS - raps -
    He - doesn't weary -
    LAST - at the Knocker -
    And FIRST - at the Bell.
    Then - on divinest tiptoe [-] standing -
    Might He but spy the LADY’S soul -
    When He - retires -
    Chilled - or weary -
    It will be ample time for [-] me -
    Patient - upon the steps - until then -
    Heart[!] I am knocking [–] low [/] at thee.

    These changes suggest that Sue returned an edited version of Variant A to ED, who then copied the edited poem into her fascicle. An analysis of the changes may be of interest,


  3. Continuing the poet/editor scenario, ED, the religious skeptic, imagined Jesus (his human name, Variant A) in Hunt’s painting; Sue, the believer, saw Christ (a divine redeemer, Variant B).

    As for the knocker and the bell, ED, the poet, cared less about reversed numerical order but customary procedure (bang the knocker last, ring the bell first) than she cared about the rhythm of her poem’s cadence. Rational Sue, the math teacher, preferred a numerically correct but procedurally strange order (first bang the knocker, then ring the bell).

    Finally, ED identified the gender of the obviously hiding “lady’s soul”, while Sue deleted the gender and replaced it with the obviously redundant “hiding soul”.

    If this poet/editor scenario is correct, ED must have had some compelling reason for accepting the bad advice. Was she fluffing Sue’s feathers?

  4. Both variants of F263 are consistent with a female soul hiding in the house (Variant A: “Might He but spy the lady’s soul” and Variant B: “Might He but spy the hiding soul!”).

    Further, my comment that “The person famous for hiding from people at the door and also not committing herself to Christ was ED, my candidate for the hiding soul” is consistent with Variant A of F295, which begins:

    “Savior! I've no one else to tell—
    And so I trouble thee.
    I am the one forgot thee so—
    Dost thou remember me?

    Given the confused logic of the bell and knocker AND ED's being in the house and on the steps simultaneously, my vote is F265, “Just so – Christ – raps –”, is fatally flawed. I hope someone can devise a way out of my labyrinth. Does ED get her own rules of logic??

  5. Perhaps it is ED alone in the house patiently waiting for Christ to leave. She is the one chilled and weary by the time Christ leaves. Until then she is knocking softly at her heart, struggling with her beliefs.