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13 April 2013

I Years had been from Home

I Years had been from Home
And now before the Door
I dared not enter, lest a Face
I never saw before

Stare solid into mine
And ask my Business there —
"My Business but a Life I left
Was such remaining there?"

I leaned upon the Awe —
I lingered with Before —
The Second like an Ocean rolled
And broke against my ear —

I laughed a crumbling Laugh
That I could fear a Door
Who Consternation compassed
And never winced before.

I fitted to the Latch
My Hand, with trembling care
Lest back the awful Door should spring
And leave me in the Floor —

Then moved my Fingers off
As cautiously as Glass
And held my ears, and like a Thief
Fled gasping from the House —
                         F440 (1862)  J609

I can’t help but read this poem as a bit of a Gothic send-up. Rather than a ghost story it is seems like a ghost’s story. (I admit that this is a rather loose and idiosyncratic reading, but Dickinson has adopted this hushed, scary narrative style before.) We begin with what might seem a traditional homecoming: the narrator has been away for “Years.” But this turns out to be no nostalgic visit, no triumphal return, no happy reunion. Instead we soon realize that many years have passed and that the speaker is not a simple visitor wanting a glimpse of a place she once lived.
         Instead, as a ghost, her “Business” is what still lingers of her life in that place. But instead of simply entering the house – and no doubt frightening any occupants out of their wits – she is afraid of them. They might “Stare” at her and ask her business. 
        At first she dawdles: she leans “upon the Awe” – her apprehension and terror; she lingers with the “Before,” that former time when she was at home here. This reflection takes but a “Second,” but what a second! Like an ocean, it rolled in to crash against her senses. It’s an amazing image of time: powerful, dangerous, inexorable. The living more typically conceive of time in terms of drops and sand. 
        The “crumbling Laugh,” the ghost-narrator’s response to this onslaught of awe, is familiar to us from ghost stories. But while it sounds evil and spooky in those stories, here it is the sound of debilitating fear. But Dickinson, in addition to more existential questions  is having some fun. After the build-up of Awe, Before, oceans breaking, and laughs crumbling, the narrator confesses that she’s simply mocking her own fear of a door that never did her any harm
        The poem continues in the tone of a tale told to a breathless audience. We see her fit her hand to the door “with trembling care”: she’s afraid the “awful Door” will be yanked open and pull her in so suddenly she’d fall. It’s a rather comical image. The visual imagery continues as we see her carefully let go of the latch and place her hands over her ears to run away “gasping.” Emily, the timid ghost.

The poem works on other levels, of course. How would it feel to revisit yourself as you were years ago? It might be like staring at a stranger. How would it feel if you have moved so beyond the day-to-day concerns of the family that when you come down from your small, poetry-infested room, you want to flee “like a Thief”?  Dickinson delved so deeply into the great existential questions that at times she must have truly felt transformed. Time might seem an Ocean; Home an “awful Door.”


  1. The phrase "cautiously as Glass" is beautiful and fresh. The meaning comes through with great precision -- but is entirely from the connotations of the words.

    1. I agree - a beautiful phrase; it rather caps the poem which is throughout so very visual.

  2. This poem evoked for me the image of someone returning to church after a long absence. I like that 'Awe' becomes 'awful Door', a double meaning which is consonant with the ambivalent feelings Dickinson had about church. I like all the possibilities you suggest as well. It is wonderful when poems work on so many levels.

    1. That's interesting about "Awe" and "awful Door". Later Dickinson will write, "Circumference, thou Bride of Awe" – a line I am still hoping to grasp. At any rate, it is a masculine quality – if she has the same sense of it here that she does later. It is clever to link the awe with the awful: at first the door stands for the terrible awe she feels. Later, as in the Home/House difference you identify below, it simply becomes an 'awful door'.

    2. Though ‘awful’ meant ‘awe-inspiring’ rather than its modern meaning (see ED dictionary).

  3. I wonder if it is significant that in the first line it is a 'Home' and in the last line it is only a 'House'. In the short space of the poem, she has realized that she 'can't go home again'.

    1. I hadn't caught that but I agree -- it does seem significant. She comes to the home and yearns but fears to enter. She flees from the house, no longer a home. Thanks!

  4. I see her as a spirit knocking on the womb's door to gain entrance and getting overwhelmed by the possibility of another incarnation , fleeing the scene to remain disembodied. Somewhat the way ED lived in her world in 19th century Amherst, not quite fully there yet endowed with a free spirit.

    In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition it is said that a soon to be incarnating human watches from the spirit realm their embodied parents copulating and the gender the spirit is disgusted by is the gender, once it enters the womb, it will become.

  5. I am diving into Emily Dickinson and enjoying your commentary...thank you for your thoughts and investment! She feeds my soul and spirit like few others do. The phrase "leaned upon the Awe" moves me deeply. This poem, for me, captures the worlds that can move inside of a person in just a moment. She captures this so beautifully.

  6. I love this poem so much because to me it speaks from the perspective of a runaway returning home after so long, possibly having left under terrible circumstances such as being kicked out or leaving by choice for a better life. I see it this way because in the second stanza, she isn’t sure as to who is going to be in that House anymore as if she hadn’t kept in touch at all, not normal for a person who leaves home for many years to not know whether their family still resides there or not. I would have thought someone who left under friendly terms would still keep in touch if that was their previous “life”.
    The person seems to be having extreme anxiety and a genuine fear of who or what is behind that door, as someone who had been kicked out and misses home so much but knows they can’t return would feel. And it just saddens me even more that this person was so afraid but obviously missing their previous life, but in the end fear got the better and it seems they can never return home.
    It would be a similar feeling, I imagine, if someone were to leave home in order to survive if they were experiencing abuse, domestic violence, maltreatment or anything negatively affecting their being. I don’t think this person stopped loving or missing home and their old life, but that House is a place they can never return to for the best perhaps.

    I’ve known and loved this poem since I read it in a book in 6th grade. I’m 32 now and always think about it still! Haha I love your blogspot, thank you for providing a place for Emily Dickinson lovers!

    1. It seems strange to me now that I didn't include this reading in my discussion. Thank you for providing it so beautifully.

  7. This poem does truly open itself up to almost any narrative of being kept out of some place that once felt like home after being away for a long time, something most of us have felt in one way or another. Because my brother is going through a divorce, I felt the poem for him. I felt the horror of it.

    I don't know about the send-up part, but the image of falling to the floor IS comical (if not also terrible). This line does betray a distance from the drama, which gives relief. A kind of door OUT if you will. The phrase "like a thief" functions that way too. You would think the narrator would feel like something was stolen from her, but the thief-like person is the narrator herself.

    By the way, there is another version of this poem, which I see in the Miller collection, which is a bit different. There the line "The Second like an Ocean rolled/ And broke against my ear" is changed to "The Silence -- like an Ocean rolled --/
    And broke against my ear --"

    The first is good, but the second is sublime.

  8. But the other version doesn't have "I leaned upon the Awe --/ I lingered with -Before -- ", which I like better than the alternative, "I fumbled at my nerve -- / I scanned the Windows o'er".

    If one were allowed to mix and match (and why not?) you might have,

    I leaned upon the Awe --
    I lingered with Before --
    The Silence -- like an Ocean rolled --
    And broke against my ear --"

    Another notable difference between the two versions is that "crumbling laugh" becomes "wooden laugh". Both good, but crumbling is great.

    "Who Consternation compassed
    And never winced before."


    ""Who Danger -- and the Dead -- had faced --
    But never shook --before"

    which hits me much harder. The narrator has faced Danger and the Dead, but it is only in being kept out of this "home" that she is truly afraid.

    Here is the fascicle page for the other version.

    1. Thanks for referencing the Miller version. Her book wasn't out when I wrote about this poem. I depend upon it now. Very interesting differences. To your own comments, I'll add that the Miller version has the imagined occupant's face "Stare vacant into mine" vs. Franklin's "Stare solid into mine". 'Vacant' would be dismaying or disorienting, whereas 'Stare' seems challenging. The dynamics in the poem change significantly, but both are good. I completely agree that 'Silence' rolling and breaking like an Ocean not only is richer (and more relevant) than 'Second', but creates an oceanic sibilance.

  9. Line 5 of both ED's 1872 manuscript Variant B and Franklin's Variorum (1998) Variant B reads "Stare stolid into mine", not "Stare solid into mine".

  10. “I wonder if it is significant that in the first line it is a 'Home' and in the last line it is only a 'House'. In the short space of the poem, [ED] has realized that she 'can't go home again'.” (Riverwoman, May 27, 2014 comment. Thomas Wolfe took the title of his novel from a conversation of its characters (Wikipedia, 'You Can't Go Home Again').

    “I Years had been from Home
    And now before the Door
    I dared not enter . . . ”

    Riverwoman is right, after “Seven years of troth” (‘Rearrange a "Wife's" Affection!’, F267), ED has realized she “can’t go home again:

    “Seven years of troth have taught [me] –
    More than Wifehood ever may”

  11. Thomas H. Johnson, editor of ED’s complete poems, editor of ED’s letters, and author of one of her biographies explains why ED tries to return “home”, that is, to her childhood, but can’t bring herself to open the latch of the “house”:

    “The crisis in Emily Dickinson’s life seems to have been precipitated by Wadsworth’s acceptance of a call to the Calvary Church in San Francisco in January, 1862. One can believe that he casually mentioned, as long before as September, 1861, that he was considering such a call. It is a plausible conjecture usually set forth to explain two sentences in her second letter to Higginson [April 25, 1862]. Having spoken of losing the friend who taught her immortality [Benjamin Newton], she goes on to say: “When I found one more—but he was not contented I be his scholar—so he left the Land.” And she gave as the primary reason for writing poetry at all: “I had a terror—since September—I could tell to none—and so I sing, as the Boy does by the Burying Ground— because I am afraid.”

    “To Emily Dickinson, Wadsworth’s removal was heart-rending. The distance was so appallingly vast that his absence—a permanent one so far as she knew —seemed to be a living entombment. It is at this time that she began to dress entirely in white, adopting, as she calls it, her “white election.” The name Calvary now first appears in her poems. In 1862 she used it nine times, always in verses charged with intense emotion. She speaks of herself as “Queen” of Calvary. In the poem “Title Divine is mine,” as “Empress ol Calvary” she is “Born—Bridalled—Shrouded—in a Day.” Once in 1863 it is introduced in the poem beginning “Where Thou art—that is Home/Cashmere or Calvary—the Same . . ./So I may Come.” No other place name is comparably used or anywhere nearly so often.”

    Like it or not, ED had become an adult; there was no turning back.

    (Johnson, Thomas H., April 1955, ‘The Great Love in the Life of Emily Dickinson’, American Heritage, Vol. 6 Issue 3, p. 52-55.)

  12. Apologies, again. Larry B.