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06 April 2013

I never felt at Home – Below –

I never felt at Home – Below –
And in the Handsome Skies
I shall not feel at Home – I know –
I don't like Paradise –

Because it's Sunday – all the time –

And Recess – never comes –
And Eden'll be so lonesome
Bright Wednesday Afternoons –

If God could make a visit –

Or ever took a Nap –
So not to see us – but they say
Himself – a Telescope 

Perennial beholds us –

Myself would run away
From Him – and Holy Ghost – and All –
But there's the "Judgement Day"!
                                                                              F437 (1862)  J413

I particularly like this poem if only for the poet’s hope that if she ends up in Paradise, with its endless Sundays, that God would at least take a nap from time to time. But she figures that this would be a vain hope for God can’t lie down and shut his eyes. He is a giant eye – a telescope that “Perennial beholds us.” And like a naughty child, the speaker would just as soon run away from God, the Holy Ghost – and the whole heavenly gang. Except, she adds, there’s “‘Judgement Day.”’ Wouldn’t want things to go wrong there …

The Panopticon "is the diagram of a mechanism of power
reduced to its ideal form (Michel Foucault, 1977)
In “What is – ‘Paradise’” Dickinson used a similar impish, childish voice to question the Sunday School God and Heaven: “You are sure there’s such a person / As ‘a Father’ – in the sky,” she asks (F241). Here she almost shudders at the thought of an omnipresent, all-seeing, omniscient deity. For a reclusive person such as Dickinson the idea must have been particularly alarming. 
    Dickinson’s poems cover a wide range of responses to God and the divine. I sense that though she might fawn or rage or question or scorn or tease, she is always engaged with the Almighty, always teasing out the thought that there is something out there, something beyond this life, even if it may only be a long sleep as “Worlds scoop their Arcs – / And firmaments – row” (F124).

         The first stanza of this poem makes it clear that while she “shall not feel at Home” in Paradise, neither does she feel at home on earth. Despite the childish and wry humor Dickinson employs, there is the existential question of where “home”  is, of where we can run when we run away from God. I think of Jonah who tried to escape God only to end up in a whale’s belly. I think of all the authority figures, especially the patriarchal ones, from whom there is no running away. Just as Dickinson could not escape her austere, Calvinistic father (“His Heart was pure and terrible…” [letter to Higginson 1874]), she knows there is no running away from the final Judgment where souls will be sifted into heaven or hell.
         The “Handsome Skies” that sounds so winsome at first ends up seeming a terrible and eternal trap, a sort of Panopticon as designed by Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century where all the prisoners can be observed at all times by a central observer – whom the prisoners can never see.


  1. You probably have the best reading of this.

    The only thing that slows me down is the odd use of the tenses in the first stanza. "I never felt at Home -- Below" is delivered by the speaker from the perspective of heaven -- looking down in the past tense at her life "Below". Then "I shall not feel at Home -- I know -- I don't like Paradise" is delivered in the future tense -- by a speaker who is not in heaven.

    So, where is the speaker? It occurred to me that "there's the Judgement Day" might be where the speaker stands. But I haven't convinced myself. It seems the word
    "But" in the last line makes your interpretation the better one.

    Not her best poem -- but with some fun words "Handsome Skies", God as a "Telescope".

    1. In the bardo - between death and destination.

  2. I like Panopticon, by the way!

    1. Thanks - when I had the Panopticon image it recast the poem in a very different light to me.
      btw, I just updated the post to include the paragraph I somehow left out during the cut and paste part.

  3. I like very much your insight that this is written in an 'impish, childish voice'. I also liked the visual image you chose. The panoptican image adds a modern twist to the poem. Thank you.

  4. She's wrestling with the whole theology bequeathed to her, able to free herself from some of its holds in various poems, but, ultimately unable to step out of the ring. Except from the dwelling place of no place many of her poems express the insights from, which, beside her own poetry, she had no other theology to describe it.


  5. Every stanza of ‘I never felt at Home – Below’, especially Stanza 4, reassures us that ED can crack jokes about God:

    Stanza 1: “I don’t like Paradise”
    Stanza 2: “Recess – never comes –“
    Stanza 3: “If God ever . . . took a nap”
    Stanza 4:

    “Myself would run away
    From Him – and Holy Ghost – and All –
    But there's the "Judgement Day"!

    That final line feigns serious, but in context screams “Facetious! I’m joking!”

    Indeed, she has made clear in the last few poems she’s inurned to the possibility that at end of life the lights go out “And there, the Matter Ends –”:

    “Might some one else – so learned – be –
    And leave me – just my A – B – C –
    Himself – could have the Skies–”


    So go your Way [to Heaven]– and I'll go Mine –
    [There’s] No fear you'll miss the Road.


    “I made my soul familiar – with her extremity –
    That at the last, it should not be a novel Agony –
    But she, and Death, acquainted –
    Meet tranquilly, as friends –
    Salute, and pass, without a Hint –
    And there, the Matter Ends –”

    Unlike Hamlet, ED sounds doubtful she'll ever roast in infidel Hell.

  6. Apologies again, it's the excitement : Larry B