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30 July 2012

The nearest Dream recedes—unrealized—

The nearest Dream recedes—unrealized—
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 / variety
The whole poem reads fluidly and reflects the thought units: slow when reflective and dancing when motion is described 


  1. "Surely it [Heaven] should be doing everything it can to help us find our way there."

    Where does this entitlement comes from? Heaven doesn't owe anything to anybody.

    "“Heaven” may just be standing in for our hearts’ desires. That makes the poem a bit more negative. There is no steadfast joy."

    That also makes the poem a bit more positive. There is no steadfast sorrow.

    1. Siddhartha’s conundrum of time - there is no time. Once one realizes that, then each moment -joy or sorrow - is but a moment in time, like trying to hold to a point in the river - you can’t.

    2. Thank you (a few years late), Anonymous. I agree with your second point and find the first one very engaging. Can heaven be heaven if it cares not? Or would heaven be so desirable if so?

    3. Pp - Yes. Each moment, each forever poetic forever, that June bee happens, both close and far. Each moment it escapes us.

  2. I found this discussion so helpful. Thank you.

    1. No problem Laura King it was nice talking to you about this lovely poem.

  3. To me your Emily Dickenson blog is one of the great redeeming features of the internet. I love it so much

  4. I read this as an accurate depiction of the fear of success. We might want something - our goal or dream (“Heaven”) - and work hard for it, but certain acts of self sabotage (conscious or otherwise) keep the dream always just out of reach. ED might have experienced this regarding publishing her work.

    1. Thinking more about it, the poem could also simply refer to a dream that exceeds the grasp of our talents. ED clearly had no shortage of talent, though perhaps she worried about that.

    2. Maybe, except that the June Bee/Heaven seems to have its own intent and motivations.

    3. Perhaps it only seems that way. In the case of fear of success, we can be the ones subconsciously pushing it away. Thank you for your work - so much insight here. This is my first stop after reading any ED poem.

  5. As an alternative to heavenly/philosophical/psychological spins, here’s an earthly take on ‘The nearest Dream recedes’:

    My dream recedes over the horizon, a dream I’ve chased like a naïve boy chases a bee that lures him by landing on an attractive bait, then dips, evades, teases, and vanishes into distant clouds in a ship bound for San Francisco, heedless of my heart. I stand, staring into a mocking sky.

    I’m starved for dependable love, but no bee exists that brews what I need.