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03 April 2013

Not in this World to see his face –

Not in this World to see his face –
Sounds long – until I read the place
Where this – is said to be
But just the Primer – to a life –
Unopened – rare – Upon the Shelf –
Clasped yet – to Him – and Me – 

And yet – My Primer suits me so

I would not choose – a Book to know
Than that – be sweeter wise –
Might some one else – so learned – be –
And leave me – just my A – B – C –
Himself – could have the Skies –
                                                                       F435 (1862)  J418

Dickinson uses a bookish metaphor to compare earthly life without a beloved “him” to eternal life with him: her life on earth is an A-B-C primer, while the life hereafter is a book “Unopened – rare” that is up on a shelf clasped shut.

         The first stanza depicts “this World” as a place where she cannot “see his face.” While this “Sounds long,” she realizes that it isn’t – it’s “just the Primer” to eternal life. What that eternal life might be is unknown: unlike the Primer of everyday life, it is the unopened, locked-shut book up on the shelf. That is, it is locked “to Him  and Me.”
         The second stanza depicts earthly life as so desirable that the poet would rather be alive here, enjoying her ABCs, than in that place of the rare and locked book. The Primer, she says, “suits me so,” that she would not choose that other book. Instead, she suggests that “some one else,” some “learned” man should take that rare book and “have the Skies” himself, leaving her to the ABCs. It’s a playful suggestion, and the tone of the poem overall is playful. The first stanza sets the reader up to expect another bit of sadness about a dead lover, but then Dickinson turns the table and says, “Nope, I’m happy here on earth; he can have the whole sky.”

The identity of the Him is, to me, the central question. It might be a beloved man, it might be God or Jesus, or it might be two male figures. I don’t know, but I’m tempted to read it as two male figures. Stanza one is about a beloved man who is either dead or unavailable for her in this life. The book of eternity is “Clasped” to them. Stanza two, with its gentle sarcasm, may well be about the preacher who carries on and on about the joys of heaven. That guy can “have the Skies,” as long as he leaves her alone!

If anyone else has thoughts on this poem, please share them!

Supporting the playful tone of the poem is its structure. Both 6-line stanzas have a very regular meter: all iambic and structured as two tetrameter lines, a trimeter, tetrameter, and trimeter. The rhymes are AABCCB. The regularity of the poem makes it fly by, unlike the more serious and solemn poems where Dickinson weaves in halts and starts and other devices to emphasize meaning and nuance.


  1. Thanks for this.

    The "primer" puts this poem in the category of poems where ED speaks of herself as a child. She is humble and innocent, but also "sweeter wise".

    A primer is an introduction, but once she has read it, ED is not in a hurry to get past the introduction stage. Her poem opens with a suggestion that the wait "sounds long". But then she gains patience when she "reads the place" -- this world -- even though she understands that that it supposed to be just the primer to a hidden book, clasped, unopened on the shelf.

    As a child, being in the present is enough for her -- it "suits her so".

    I like how she is generous and uncritical of "some one else -- so learned" who chooses a different path. ED will take the earth, and he "could have the Skies".

    Wonderful last line.

  2. My reading is just slightly different from the two above - but essentially the same. I read the whole first verse as stating what she has been told by tradition, the Church, etc. "It sounds so long until I can see my beloved's face until I read (am told!) that this is just the Primer to a greater LIfe, etc." . The second stanza then shifts with the words 'and yet'. It is the two words 'sweeter wise' that confuse me a little. Does 'sweeter wise' refer to the Book of Heaven as opposed to her primer? Or to the Primer? I can't figure this out. Sweeter makes me think it is the Primer. Thanks for explaining 'clasped' as locked. The photo you chose is perfect.

  3. Reading it again I think that the line that confused me should be read, "I would not choose another book over my primer , even were it sweeter and wiser than my primer." I think she uses 'be' as the subjunctive 'were' in other poems.

  4. I see this poem as an abstract version of Some Keep the Sabbath. The book clasped upon the shelf could very well refer to her Bible, a gift from her father that had a clasp. The learned men are, of course, the clergy and the a,b,c's the natural world around her.

  5. “The identity of the Him is, to me, the central question. It might be a beloved man, it might be God or Jesus, or it might be two male figures. I don’t know, but I’m tempted to read it as two male figures.” (SK)

    The ”two male figures” is one man. On May 1, 1862, when Wadsworth sailed from NY bound for SF, ED thought she would never again see his face in this world. But, per their prenup agreement (in her mind; see F194, ‘Title divine, is mine’ & F325, ‘There came a Day—at Summer's full’), she did expect to meet and marry him in Heaven,

    “. . . a life –
    Unopened – rare – Upon the Shelf –
    Clasped yet – to Him – and Me –”

    However, when Wadsworth “left the land”, ED’s doubts about traditional Christianity was likely an unsettled disagreement between them. The first months after he left were painful, but when she thought about their theological differences, she tried to convince herself that she would rather stick with her own understanding of the King James Bible, than argue esoteric theology with the “learned” Rev. Wadsworth in Heaven.

    If he insisted on having theology his way, “Himself – could have the Skies” and “. . . leave me – just my A – B – C –”.