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05 August 2012

"Heaven"—is what I cannot reach!

"Heaven"—is what I cannot reach!
The Apple on the Tree—
Provided it do hopeless—hang—
That—"Heaven" is—to Me!

The Color, on the Cruising Cloud—
The interdicted Land—
Behind the Hill—the House behind—
There—Paradise—is found!

Her teasing Purples—Afternoons—
The credulous—decoy—
Enamored—of the Conjuror—
That spurned us—Yesterday!
                                                                            F310 (1862)  239

Heaven is that apple hanging hopelessly out of reach, the color of a distant cloud, the taboo land where a house is hidden behind a hill. It teases us, like the June bee of an earlier poem, with its beautiful purple afternoons until we forget that just yesterday it “spurned” us. That’s again like the mocking sky of the June bee poem (The nearest Dream recedes—unrealized—).
            It is possible, however, that Dickinson is doing something quite different here. Perhaps she is talking about her old passion for her friend and sister-in-law Sue (or some other woman). Via David Preest (p. 75):
“Paula Bennett convincingly suggests that the heaven out of reach is the unobtainable Sue. ‘Purple’ is a suitable colour for Sue, who has such a rich personality that, even when she ‘spurned [Emily] yesterday,’ she easily by her magic decoys Emily into remaining enamoured of her. Bennett is prepared to believe that the hill which guards the house of Paradise is Sue’s mons Veneris.
            “If we could know that Emily had read translations of Sappho’s poems, some support for Bennett’s theory would be given by the fact that ‘the unreachable apple’
was a metaphor first used by the lesbian poet Sappho for the untouched maiden who
hung like an apple on the topmost branch of the tree ‘by harvester….not reached.’”


  1. 12 July 2014
    Dear Susan

    “Heaven” – is what I cannot reach! (239 THJ)

    Emily is the one poet who touches my heart and soul, in a way I am simply unable to describe. I only discovered this page a few minutes ago and I dropped everything to respond to your blog. So here’s my hastily put-together offering.

    I belong to the school that vehemently opposes Queer theory readings of her poetry. To me, “Heaven” will always refer to the attainment of poetic bliss which Emily strove for. Her paradise is her house (to be more specific, her room wherein her poetic genius was engendered, where it crystalized and finally evolved). She loved writing in the afternoons Nature is the raw material for poetic inspiration: the apple tree, the “color on the cruising cloud”. The “interdicted land” (poetry, considered to be the exclusive domain of males in 1861) alludes to the deep sense of restriction and inhibition which she feels. Her specific reference to the “apple” echoes with the idea of forbidden knowledge in a patriarchal setting.

    Consolidating her rightly place as a poet is akin to being in Heaven. The “purples” resonate with the idea of royalty – (poetry for Emily is a heavenly art – the most supreme of all). Emily wrestles with her conceptions of God, nature and the universe. She struggles for answers about the meaning of life which is elusive. The creator is perceived, at times, to be like a conjuror – weaving magical patterns in nature yet teasing us about its truest meanings (Emily had difficulty in coming to terms with conventional religion). God, “spurned” Man after the fall. He had originally (“Yesterday”) intended for Man to know everything. Emily yearns to find the meaning of life through her poetry. She lives for ultimate poetic fulfillment. This is her paradise.

    I know that Queer theorist will shoot me down in mid air. I care not. What I care about is expressing my thoughts. I thank you for affording me this opportunity.

    Bless you..

    Ivan Pillay
    KwaZulu Natal
    South Africa

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful response! I must admit that two hundred essays after this one I have a different view of Dickinson's heaven than I did here. I probably wouldn't include the Paula Bennet material if I were writing this afresh. I was pretty excited about the Sue angle for quite a while, but have learned that Dickinson never has just one meaning. Sometimes every word resonates on several levels. One commenter on another poem said it's sometimes best to just let her words 'rattle around' in your head for a while. A lot of meaning[s] sift out.

      I particularly like your thoughts about Dickinson's perceptions of the creater as a conjuror. I'm not sure I would go so far as to say heaven is "always" poetic bliss for Dickinson. Nor would I assume this poem is about poetic fulfillment.

      On consideration I think Dickinson is expressing her fascination and frustration with what lies beyond earthly knowledge. Her poet's eye and heart see farther than most of ours; she also sees that much is a tease, "magical patterns" as you so aptly put it. Sometimes fascination and wonder dominate; sometimes frustration -- and even bitterness.

      I hope to hear from you on other poems!! I gained an insight from your comments (besides the general ones discussed earlier) that I missed: the apple tree! Of course that apple is fraught with meaning. I'm glad you mentioned it!

  2. 12 July 2014
    Dear Susan

    Thank you for your response. Yes, I endorse your view that “Dickinson is expressing her fascination and frustration with what lies beyond earthly knowledge”. This is a recurring motif in several of her other poems. In a broader context, this fascination and frustration is linked to her quest for poetic fulfillment (you are correct in pointing out that there is no explicit reference to this in the poem).

    I am excited about your blog. I shall write again soon and share my meditations on the other poems. My favourite book on Dickinson is Roger Lundin’s eye-opening, “Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief”. It was this work which became my gateway into Emily Dickinson country.

    Ivan P. Pillay

  3. Echoes of Plato - perfection can only occur in the mind and imagination, in the “form” - for the “real”
    is always messy and inconsistent, and ultimately disappointing.

  4. There is a 40-foot-high hill 200 yards northwest of ED’s backyard in Amherst.

    On May 1, 1862, Reverend Wadsworth and family debarked from New York, headed west to a pastorate in San Francisco.

    1. Marriage to Wadsworth is beyond my reach, like an apple on a tree. If, on Earth, it hangs hopelessly high, it waits for me in Heaven!

    2. The purple, cruising, western cloud, the continent between, beyond the hill behind our house, there paradise is found!

    3. Her teasing afternoon color entices me to believe he’s waiting. I love the conjurer who spurned me, Yesterday!

  5. Ooops. That would be "sailed", not "debarked".