The Heaven we chase,
Like the June Bee—before the School Boy,
Invites the Race—
Stoops—to an easy Clover—
Then—to the Royal Clouds
Lifts his light Pinnace—
Heedless of the Boy—
Staring—bewildered—at the mocking sky –
Homesick for steadfast Honey—
Ah, the Bee flies not
That brews that rare variety!
F304 (1862) 319
Dickinson is not primarily religious in her poetic searchings although she explores themes of death and metaphysics. She occasionally, as noted in some previous poems, skewers the Calvinist doctrines of her time—sometimes bitterly and sometimes almost playfully. In this poem, one of my favourites, Heaven teases us like a bee that we think we might catch. It evades us and then mocks our futile efforts.
The poem begins by declaring that our most important “Dream,” the one “nearest” our heart, is always receding, just out of our reach. The second line clarifies that this dream is heaven. We “chase” heaven through our religious practices: going to church, praying, reading sacred texts, and imagining we were there.
Dickinson makes the analogy of heaven as a bee (we have seen her use the bee as a symbol for God before) and heaven-seekers as school boys trying to capture it.
Our dream—that heaven is “steadfast” like the honey that remains amber and sweet in its jar—will forever torment us by being unobtainable. That bee does not make that honey. Or if there is honey, it cannot be relied upon.
As Dickinson sees it, heaven intends this frustration. It “Invites the Race” then “evades—teases” and disappears in its pinnace (light, seaworthy sailboat) into the clouds (recall some other recent poems where Dickinson reverses the sea and sky: here, here, and here, for example) Lest there be any doubt of intentionality, the sky mocks our failure to catch the bee. It mocks as we stare “bewildered” up at the heavens.
It’s not a very flattering picture of heaven. Surely it should be doing everything it can to help us find our way there. But that’s not the wisdom Dickinson is sharing with us. If we are looking to capture an alluring bee, if we are wanting a constant—“steadfast”—source of sweet goodness, we will be disappointed. If we chase it, the Dream will always recede. Sounds a bit Zen-ish, no?
It’s possible that Dickinson isn’t limiting the Dream to heaven in the Christian sense. “Heaven” may just be standing in for our hearts’ desires. That makes the poem a bit more negative. There is no steadfast joy. There is no chasing after and catching our dreams. We must instead be content to watch them dart and swoop about always teasing us.
The poem begins in a stately iambic pentameter lengthened by the long “e” sounds: nearest, Dream, recedes, unrealized. Subsequent lines fall into whatever meter suits the poet. The third line emphasizes the opponents by long-vowel spondees: “June Bee” and “School Boy.” The pace picks up to mimic the darting bee with the dancing verbs: Stoops, dips, evades, teases, deploys.
Dickinson uses only one perfect rhyme, “chase” with “Race.” Throughout the rest of the poem she experiments with sounds that link to each other more than rhyme:
Boy / deploys / Boy / sky
chase / Race / Pinnace
Clover / Clouds
Boy / sky / Honey / varietyThe whole poem reads fluidly and reflects the thought units: slow when reflective and dancing when motion is described