Search This Blog

28 July 2012

Alone, I cannot be —

Alone, I cannot be —

For Hosts — do visit me —

Recordless Company —

Who baffle Key —

They have no Robes, nor Names —

No Almanacs — nor Climes —

But general Homes

Like Gnomes —

Their Coming, may be known

By Couriers within —

Their going — is not —

For they've never gone —
                                                            F303 (1862)  298

This poem builds on the inner life and sensibilities of the previous poem (“It’s like the Light”) and the ones mentioned in its discussion. This time Dickinson describes an inner life filled with mysterious visitors—many mysterious visitors for there are “Hosts” of them. “Hosts” is used here in the old-fashioned sense of throngs or “hosts of angels.” They leave no record and baffle understanding: there is no “Key” to explain them.
            These hosts of folks residing within her are not like ghosts or spirits. They are not from a specific local and they are not identified by individual names. When Dickinson writes that they are “Like Gnomes,” she is doing more than looking for a good rhyme for “Homes.”  In her day gnomes were considered to be a sort of anti-fairy: not lovely and light and charming, but rather earth dwellers and mythically able to move through solid earth as easily as we move through air.  Thus, Dickinson’s spirits can reside rather magically anywhere.
            In the third stanza we see that she is attuned to their presence. When one comes and joins the rest her interior “Couriers” let her know. Perhaps this is her keen sensitivity that lends her poetry such power. Interestingly, these spirits never leave. It must be crowded inside Emily Dickinson. This may also explain why she felt no need to leave her house even to visit friends. Her interior life was alive with interactions with other beings.

The poem is written in iambic trimeter. In the first two stanzas she rhymes AABB, while the last is ABCA. The second and third stanza are linked by the slant rhyme of “Gnomes” and “known.


  1. Thanks, your analysis helped me a lot.

  2. Could she mean memories of friends/family that never leave her?

    1. Perhaps, but Dickinson says they have no names, so that argues against that in my mind.

  3. Your comments are very helpful to me and my poetry group.

  4. I've been looking for it. Thanks

  5. I was very confused when I first read this poem, too. Your comment about "Couriers within" made me imagine the heart galloping and the cupids being a possible candidate for who/what these "Hosts" are. Or they could be ideas in general, perhaps her constant poetic inspirations, I suppose. She was such a prolific poet.

  6. Franklin dates this poem early 1862, a time many ED biographers consider the apogee of a mental crisis that began about 1856, the year Susan Gibson’s married Austin Dickinson, and gradually resolved after 1862. In her second letter (!) to Thomas Higginson, dated April 26, 1862, she confessed “I had a terror since September, I could tell to none; and so I sing [write poems], as the boy does by the burying ground, because I am afraid.”. Confirming this, 1862 - 1863 were her most productive years: 522 poems.

    Causative or coincidental, Reverend Charles Wadsworth, her correspondent, confidant, and probably “Master”, began considering leaving his pastorate in Philadelphia for one in San Francisco about March 1861. ED and Wadsworth had been corresponding since about 1858, and he had visited her in Amherst in March 1860 and probably again in 1861. He accepted the California position on March 15, 1862, and debarked from New York with his family on May 1, 1862. In ED’s words, he “left the land”.

    When ED says, “Alone, I cannot be”, she means it literally. In 1869, she wrote Higginson, "You were not aware that you saved my Life." Again, she means it literally.

  7. An interpretation:

    Stanza (1). When I’m alone, invisible hordes visit me, nameless guests who sneak into my head without permission. (2). They wear no recognizable dress, nor do they have names, and they arrive unscheduled, regardless of the weather. They live together, like subterranean creatures. (3). I recognize their approach by premonitions in my brain, and once they get into my head, they never leave.

    Lengthy panic attacks? Migraines?