Our feet were almost come
To that odd Fork in Being's Road —
Eternity — by Term —
Our pace took sudden awe —
Our feet — reluctant — led —
Before — were Cities — but Between —
The Forest of the Dead —
Retreat — was out of Hope —
Behind — a Sealed Route —
Eternity's White Flag — Before —
And God — at every Gate —
F453 (1862) J615
The poem begins in good Victorian narrative style: we have a dramatic opening that promises a tale. The meter is based on traditional ballad style (quatrains that alternate iambic tetrameter with iambic trimeter)
|"Abandon All Hope ye who enter here"
Gustave Dore's illustration for Dante's Inferno
Of course, this is exactly what is being described. The narrator, along with unspecified companions, is leaving the land of the living. They advance and then they stop and then they continue very slowly.
The reader must picture the lay of the land: they had journeyed through life until at death they faced “that odd Fork in Being’s Road” – eternity – looming ahead. But the fork is not one where Life continues one way and Death/Eternity goes the other. No, there is no “Retreat” back to life. That way was “Sealed.” They must move forward. The fork instead, as I read it, leads to the different “Cities” with their gates. One thinks of the great and dread Judgment Day where God points the dead to either the gates of Heaven or Hell.
So the pilgrims are standing in terror and dread at that fork. Their feet are then “led” reluctantly forward. They can see the fabled cities in the distance, but first they must pass through the “Forest of the Dead.” I don’t think Dickinson is imagining a wailing thicket of ghosts, spectres, or vampires here, but rather a cemetery. In earlier Dickinson poems we’ve seen the dead waiting in their granite tombs. Sometimes they seem to wait forever (in other of her poems, however, a dead person prances about in no time with a crown, on grassy meadows, or with grand and solemn angels).
The last two lines should signal the sort of joy a lost sailor would feel upon seeing a lighthouse showing the way to harbour. But instead they seem fearful. “Eternity’s White Flag” suggests surrender, as if eternity is a place of surrendered will. Sure enough, God is at “every Gate.” The mise-en-scène turns grim. One fork surely leads to the torments of hell, the other to the bliss of heaven. But God stands everywhere before them with nary a word or glance of welcome. He is, rather, a conquerer figure before whom the eternal cities have surrendered – as must the pilgrims.
**NOTE: Please read comments for another, and I think probably better, interpretation of this poem.