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25 August 2012

The lonesome for they know not What—

The lonesome for they know not What—
The Eastern Exiles—be—
Who strayed beyond the Amber line
Some madder Holiday—

And ever since—the purple Moat
They strive to climb—in vain—
As Birds—that tumble from the clouds
Do fumble at the strain—

The Blessed Ether—taught them—
Some Transatlantic Morn—
When Heaven—was too common—to miss—
Too sure—to dote upon!
                                                            F326 (1862)  262

There’s an addictiveness involved as the “Eastern Exiles” struggle to once more experience something they knew from some “madder Holiday.” Dickinson purposely leaves the nature of what the experience was and who the exiles might be to the reader’s imagination. Even they are not sure of what it is they long for: they are “lonesome” for something, but “they know not What.”
            Today we might think of hallucinogens or opiates that take the drug user beyond the “Amber line” that signals the breaking of dawn in the East. They travel to a place not available to the rest of us. But there were no hallucinogens that Dickinson would have been familiar with, though she probably knew about opium. More likely she is suggesting the altered state that the mystic or the poet or the mad might enter when caught up in vision.
            Once having tasted this “honeydew,” as Coleridge referred to it in his famous poem, “Kublai Khan,” they try “in vain” to recapture the experience. Alas, to do so is to be like birds who fly too high and then “tumble from the clouds.”
At Buddha's death, he enters Parinirvana--
the Final Nirvana of 
transcendent being.
            The last stanza reinforces the idea of a vision state. The exiles, “Some Transatlantic Morn,” were part of the “Ether” – that invisible matterless substance that was once believed to permeate the cosmos, or, alternatively, the divine spirit. Either way, once they were within it they found heaven everywhere, “too common—to miss” and so real that they felt no need for worship or to “dote upon” it. The experience, however, may never be repeated. The poor exiles now live in a state of loneliness for that place. “Ever since,” they have tried to climb “the purple Moat” of the night sky back to the land where sunrise comes from.
            Dickinson read and admired (and even met, much to her joy) Ralph Waldo Emerson. One of the philosopher’s most famous essays is “The Oversoul,” published in 1841. In this contemplation of the human soul, Emerson explores both Eastern philosophy and Plato. In one passage he writes,
within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related, the eternal ONE. And this deep power in which we exist and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one. We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are shining parts, is the soul.
The infusion of Eastern thought, the sense of a unifying ether in which “every part and particle is equally related,” might well underlie Dickinson’s poem with its own reference to the east. To see and experience it would certainly bring a sense of enlightenment or joy—or poetic power—that one would forever be trying to recapture.


  1. Eastern Exiles is probably reference to Adam and Eve who were expelled east of Eden.

    1. Ah... that makes sense, though surely they knew what they were lonesome for. Thank you.

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  3. I like the Edenic interpretation, although there is another as well. "The East" was a popular trope for the resurrection after death at the time. This may be another proleptic poem.

  4. I know it’s not what she meant, but in a queer reading, it’s like the experience of the joy of a accepting yourself and being accepted by other exiles, then only to face loneliness. Every circuit party seems filled with eastern exiles trying to recapture a long lost moment of bliss.

    1. That is sad and I can see it in the poem. Thank you.