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31 July 2012

What if I say I shall not wait!

What if I say I shall not wait!
What if I burst the fleshly Gate—
And pass Escaped—to thee!

What if I file this Mortal—off—
See where it hurt me—That's enough—
And wade in Liberty!

They cannot take me—any more!
Dungeons can call—and Guns implore
Unmeaning—now—to me—

As laughter—was—an hour ago—
Or Laces—or a Travelling Show—
Or who died—yesterday!
                                                           F 305 (1862)  277

Dickinson does a tip of the hat here to Hamlet who was considering suicide. Hamlet was torn between dying and living but ultimately persuaded himself to live rather than explore the “undiscover’d country from whose bourn / No traveler returns.” Dickinson’s reference to Hamlet’s famous soliloquy is a bit of shorthand: “What if I file this Mortal—off,” which should remind us of Hamlet’s “mortal coil.”  Shakespeare’s pertinent passage reads as follows:
Hamlet was a bit more fearful of what
lay after death than the speaker of this poem

To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause… (Hamlet 3:1)

The poem’s speaker, however, takes no pause to think it over. She is excited to “burst the fleshly Gate” and escape. Mortal life is painful—“See where it hurt me,” she asks. “That’s enough.” But unlike Hamlet who fears “what dreams may come,” the speaker is confident that she will “wade in Liberty!”
            The third stanza is full of rhetorical excess: once she is dead, she cannot be put in “Dungeons” or hurt by guns. Dickinson was probably the last person in the U.S.—Union or Confederacy—to worry about guns and dungeons. It’s possible that this is a reference to the Civil War tearing the country apart as she wrote, and that the stanza reflects the point of view of a conscripted soldier who didn’t want to fight. The last stanza, however, with its references to “Laces,” is surely from a woman’s point of view.
            The thrust of the poem is the idea of gate-crashing heaven. The speaker gleefully imagines bursting through without waiting for her appointed time. She’ll take her own life, filing off her mortality. The central question of the poem, though, is who the “thee” is that she so much wants to escape to. It might be God or Jesus, or it might be some beloved person who died. After the first stanza the “thee” disappears. The primary attraction of death is that the freedom from the pains of life and even such mundane interests as laughter, clothes, circuses, or the daily obituaries.

The sense of unthinking enthusiasm that permeates the poem is accomplished by rhyme and meter as well as from by the words themselves. The dactylic phrases “What if I say/burst/file” are followed by iambs, as is the line beginning “Dungeons can call.” The dactyls give a rather headlong gallop which is further emphasized by the rhyme scheme: AAB CCB DDB EEB. The poem itself feels ready to gallop off the page.


  1. 12 July 2014

    Dear Susan (I am using Johnson’s edition)

    1862 is a crucial year. It is Dickinson’s most productive period (she averaged a poem a day). And it is not just the sheer quantity that fascinates us: she was writing the best poetry of her life!

    It is interesting to note that this period coincides with a very traumatic experience/s that she seemed to be undergoing. Her poetry, here, suggests, compellingly, that her affliction/s were intense and severe: “It struck me everyday” (362), “There is a pain so utter” (599) and “The whole of it came not at once – ” (762).

    It is also interesting that you allude to the Civil War which was into its second year and, also, at its most intense. (“tearing the country apart”) . Clearly, the poem is operating on two levels: there is a raging North-South war on all the major battlefields (Dickinson’s correspondence records that she shared the trauma of her fellow countrymen). On the other, deeper level, the poem is concerned with the battle that is raging within the tormented poet’s mind. It is for this reason, I believe, that she adopts the stylistic device of the double persona. We hear, thus, the alternating voices of the tormented poet and the anguished soldier.

    This clever use of the double persona is a stylistic device that recurs throughout her poetry. This is not surprising. She was a recluse and extremely guarded about her private life. The use of the double persona, then, afforded her a valuable outlet through which she was able to express herself without the fear of compromise.

    Your discussion of the soldier invites further discussion. The images of the gun and the laces are beautifully juxtaposed. This opens up so many interesting avenues of meaning. Both are diametrically opposed entities: the gun represents violence whilst the laces are suggestive of the tenderness associated with femininity. The gun, on a deeper level, may be seen to echo the intensity of the violent emotions which assail the young lady.

    There is so much more to this poem... The last line, however, is deliberately ambiguous (yet another recurring stylistic feature). It could, on one hand, refer to the “travelling show” and the happy times (as a result of the war) which are no more. Or, could it refer to someone very close to her who has just died? The deliberate use of the pronoun “who” seems to point alluringly towards this possibility. The desire for a death wish, then, is the central theme of the poem.

    Thank you again, Susan for setting up this forum.

    Ivan P. Pillay

    1. Thank you, Ivan. In re-reading this poem in light of your comments I was struck by the phrase "an hour ago". To me that makes three essential mysteries in the poem: Who is the 'thee' she thinks of escaping to; what was it that happened an hour ago, after which nothing has meaning anymore; and was there a particular person who died yesterday or is that simply a continuation of her list of examples of things no longer meaningful?

      The poem may 'simply' be a letter to Jesus, a response to the lists of war dead and a desire to be far away from all the violence. I'm not convinced by this, however, because of that 'hour ago' and because she points to her pain: "See where [this mortal coil] hurts me".

  2. Thanks again for this forum. I find this poem's Proximity to"One Year ago--jots what?" powerful incentive to associate the speaker's longing for a missing love (not both poems' use of "ago"), a looking back & I agree with your hunch that it might be someone more fleshly than Jesus. (I deliberately repeat the word "fleshly" here). And the idea that there is a 2nd voice here, a soldier's, is a bit too creative. Cannot a woman imagine Dungeons and Guns. Ask Anna Akhmatova.

    1. In re-reading the poem I am struck at how excited the poet is. She has sprung out of the deep melancholy of "One Year ago" into what seems an ecstatic suicidal mania. It seems unlikely that this sudden burst of energy would come from meditating upon God in his heaven, but rather upon the presence of a departed beloved.

      Thanks for the Anna Akhmatova reference. Is there a specific poem you had in mind?

  3. I have only a beginners perspective but the only person i would seek reunion with in heaven would be my own deceased child. There are two problems tho: Dickinson has written previously of dead infants but not nearly so poignantly and two, she doesn't really seem to be aspiring to heaven in this poem, just "liberty". Something very traumatic occurred my job will be to see how she got herself through it and how it might apply to the rest of us.

  4. ED suggested alternative words in almost every poem, either for her own or posterity’s use. Editors decide to use the alternatives, or not. In Line 6 all editors including Mabel Todd replaced ED’s “step” with its alternative, “wade”. “Wade in Liberty” sounds sloshy to me; I would much prefer “step”, meaning “walk in Liberty”.

    In Line 7 all editors except Todd have rejected replacing “me” with “us”. Their decision works best, but ED’s alternative, “us”, implies she was also thinking about not just one, but two people filing off their chains. (ED and “thee”?)

    Line 8 has a toss-up between “can” and “may”. Modern editors reject ED’s alternative, “may”, perhaps to preserve the alliteration of “Dungeons can call”.

  5. This poem’s last line really puzzles me. Franklin dates F305 “about early 1862”. On March 14, 1862, Austin’s close friend and college roommate, Frazer Stearns died in the Battle of New Bern. Stearns was also ED’s friend, and the two of them had enjoyed many parties, club meetings, and Shakespeare soirees together. Either ED’s mental crisis had muddied her memory or the poem predates news of Frazer’s death.

  6. 1. What if I say I shall not wait! What if I burst the Gates of heaven and escape, to join you!

    2. What if I file off this chain of mortal life (see the sores it caused! That’s enough!) and walk in Liberty.

    4. The pain and sorrow of this world can’t hurt me anymore! An hour ago, laughter, laces, a traveling show, and who died yesterday meant nothing to me.

    3. Today, prisons and guns of war also mean nothing.