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24 November 2012

'Twas the old—road—through pain—

'Twas the old—road—through pain—
That unfrequented—One—
With many a turn—and thorn—
That stops—at Heaven—

This—was the Town—she passed—
There—where she—rested—last—
Then—stepped more fast—
The little tracks—close prest—
Then—not so swift—
Slow—slow—as feet did weary—grow—
Then—stopped—no other track!

Wait!  Look!  Her little Book—
The leaf—at love—turned back—
Her very Hat—
And this worn shoe just fits the track—

Another bed—a short one—
Women make—tonight—
In Chambers bright—
Too out of sight—though—
For our hoarse Good Night—
To touch her Head!
                                                                                          F376  (1862)  344

I can’t say this poem holds much fascination, although it is pleasant enough. Dickinson begins with a conventional enough metaphor: life as a road that twists and turns on its way to Heaven. Of course, the road whose destination is heaven is “That unfrequented—One.” The road to hell, no doubt, has more travellers.
                  The second stanza describes a bit of the journey: the town she lived in, the house where she died. We see the passage of time through her footprints—running at first, then slower with age until finally stopped entirely.
                  But then Dickinson changes voice. The quiet, deathbed voice changes to a bit of wonder. The mourners seize upon a few things in the room. There is a book, a page on love marked by a folded corner. Maybe it was a book of poems or perhaps the Bible—which does have passages here and there about love. And then they remark on the hat and the shoes. Very sentimental.

                  The final stanza sees the dead woman up in heaven where heavenly hands prepare her bed. She’s now too far away for the mourners’ “Good Night” to reach her.
                  These death poems were popular in Dickinson’s day. Indeed, one of Dickinson’s central concerns was that liminal space between life, death, and what comes—or does not come—next. This poem doesn’t rank among her most searching or original, but no doubt it was passed on to friends or acquaintances who enjoyed it.

Longfellow, alive and famous during Dickinson's lifetime, wrote the famous line "Footprints on the sands of time," in his poem "A Psalm of Life."  Here's the verse the line is taken from that poem:

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time


  1. literature student who desperately needs an analysis, if anyone sees this please comment your thoughts on the poem, any thoughts at all.

    1. I learned in my Lit class that this poem suggests she had regrets in life, because of how simple her summary of her life was. Also it one of her only poems that were like the women of her time.

  2. Do you think that in this poem the rhythm works like the walk to Heaven, considering the dashes?

    1. What an interesting idea. I don't really know, but if I try it, I like it. Thanks for posting!

    2. Thanks for the reply. I love your blog!

  3. Regarding Giovanna's observation; yes, I hear it. In fact, it's almost like a little rap. It's fun to say over and over. It would be fun to memorize it and take it ON an actual walk, rap it over the beat of the feet. It gives you a sense of how much Emily paid attention to sound dynamics, like the surprise of that "fled" in the flow (after all those est, ite and ack sounds) and the way she immediately picks the "ed" sound back up with "bed" coming early in the last stanza, and then picks it up again at the end of the last stanza with "head". It's almost addictive this one, so satisfying is the rhythm and consonance. And the weirdness too is wonderful, the women making their "short beds" in chambers bright, and the hoarse good night.

    Then these lines can stand alone

    Wait! Look! Her little Book—
    The leaf—at love—turned back—
    Her very Hat—
    And this worn shoe just fits the track—
    I can't help but think these lines sum up the poems in a way, where the leaf is turned back to love are the poems, almost stemming out of Emily's childhood herbarium, which I have always thought of as her first book. (see ) And "her very hat" could be referring back to the book too. Her hat is her poetry. That's what she wears on her head. And her worn shoe? The "feet" in these poems, well worn by now. Herself? FLED!

  4. May 1886

    Little Cousins,
    Called back.


    A poet describes her death:

    'Twas the old road of life, a painful road,
    One less traveled by, poetry,
    With many a heartache – and headache -
    A road that stops at Heaven’s Gate.

    She lived in Amherst,
    She rested last at Homestead,
    Her poems came faster,
    One right after another,
    Then slowed.
    She grew weary,
    Her poems stopped.

    Wait! Look! Her fascicles,
    Opened to a poem of love,
    This very poem,
    This last letter, just fits her,
    Herself – though - “Called Back!”!

    A coffin – a short one,
    Susan dressed her body
    In Homestead’s bright parlor-
    But she is too far out of sight –
    For our hoarse Good Night—
    To reach her now.