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.