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02 June 2013

Our journey had advanced —

Our journey had advanced —
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

, but Dickinson here uses tetrameter only in the third line of the stanzas. This adds tension, for rather than flowing with a natural speech rhythm, the trimeter pace seems chopped as if starting and stopping.
        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.


  1. While the "Fork in Being's Road" leads to your reading of the poem, I don't hear emphasis in the poem on any conventional notion of hell (or heaven for that matter).

    And I don't hear any sense of "terror or dread" in the poem -- just "sudden awe". And the bifurcation is only in third line. There is a reference to "Cities" beyond the forest -- but not two cities. There are conventionally "Gates of Hell" and "Gates of Heaven" -- which maybe implies two cities -- but, again, it would be odd to see god at the gates of hell. And here, god is at every gate.

    ED sometimes uses white as an image of eternity and death -- "disks of snow", "white sustenance". For me, it is an image of nothingness or something beyond concept. And eternity here would apply to both heaven or hell -- if the emphasis were on heaven and hell. It seems odd for god to have the same white banner for both heaven and hell.

    So, I read "odd fork" as the split between life and death -- rather than heaven and hell. the "Forest of the Dead" is ahead of the travelers -- we are not there yet.

    And based on that reading -- "God -- at every Gate" sounds positively joyful -- as if there is one banner leading the way and no wrong turns.

    1. It is true that my reading depends on the "Fork in Being's Road," perhaps depending too much upon it. I like your reading -- and the more I think about it, the more I like the "God -- at every Gate" as an indication that there are, as you say, no wrong turns.
      You interpretation also makes more sense in terms of the cities. Yes, overall I quite think you have the better sense of it. Thank you.

    2. I added a note to the commentary directing readers to comments.

    3. If the path leads straight from life to death, there is no fork, just a single one-way path. But Dickinson definitely meets a fork at the point where she can't return to life. Not being able to return the way you have come does not constitute a fork. The fork is ahead of her: two possibilities after life (life at this stage is no longer a possibility).

      A fork that leads in either case to a joyful encounter with God seems a bit pointless. "It would be odd to see god at the gates of hell" - maybe not so odd for Dickinson.

    4. If you see the pronoun 'our' representing two individuals, then the life/death fork works well. In this case, the journey between two individuals (potentially friends) advances when one of them passes away, and the other stays behind (the fork in being's road is being alive or dead).

    5. Life is behind them, not before: "Retreat — was out of Hope — / Behind — a Sealed Route —". There is no indication that one person goes on and another goes back. Even if there were, this would not constitute a fork. A road does not fork simply because a traveller on it turns back. A fork offers a choice of two forward directions; in this instance, two ways of going, once life is no longer possible.

    6. Could "odd Fork" denote a fork with three tines (birth, life, death or life, sickness, death or life, purgatory, heaven?) instead of a "even Fork" with two tines? Or, "odd fork" denote a fork in a an unconventional sense?

  2. Dylan probably wasn't thinking of Dickinson, but this poem reminds me of Dylan's Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest.

    “I’m gonna start my pickin’ right now
    Just tell me where you’ll be”
    Judas pointed down the road
    And said, “Eternity!”

    “Eternity?” said Frankie Lee
    With a voice as cold as ice
    “That’s right,” said Judas Priest, “Eternity
    Though you might call it ‘Paradise’”

    Later, when Frankie goes there, it is described:

    He just stood there staring
    At that big house as bright as any sun
    With four and twenty windows
    And a woman’s face in ev’ry one

    The 24 earthly hours turning into windows in an eternal house as bright as the sun is something Dickinson might imagine. She probably wouldn't also imagine it in terms of a brothel with a woman's face in each of those windows, however. Or perhaps she might.

    1. Hadn't heard that song for a long time! I can see how the poem reminds you of it, with a woman in every window...
      :) Thanks!

    2. Yes, Dylan's image of the house resonates with Dickinson's in I dwell in Possibility, A fairer house than Prose.

  3. I also agree with Anonymous and your later comment, and see the point about the fork being about "Life/Death" instead of "Heaven/Hell."

    "Retreat - was out of Hope -" can be read in one of two ways: (1) as denial (someone who has recently experienced loss of a love one expresses denial and looks back at the life of that loved one--"out of hope" the individual gleams beautiful memories of a shared past; (2) "out of Hope-" the individual who has now passed on, and there is no hope of return (this works as the next line refers to a sealed route).

    It's slightly interesting that Emily Dickinson ends the second stanza on a dash. So, if you read

    Before — were Cities — but Between —
    The Forest of the Dead —

    as stating that "Before" the two individuals were separated between cities (or space), and then separated between "the forest of the Dead -" (between the space between the living and the dead?). She does not mention reunion. The stanza interrupted with a dash maybe suggests that something is yet to come (if between is read as a adjective relating to time instead of a space), but what is not written.

    1. I really like the idea of "Before" meaning a temporal before ... but then Dickinson says the route "behind" them was closed and sealed, and that Eternity is "before" them. Consequently I think she is using the term geographically.

  4. I think the fork in the road is most probably meant to simply indicate that fork which leads for some to death/eternity while others continue on with life. Although the City of God, or perhaps cities, lies ahead, humans must first pass through the wilderness of death. Here is where the poem gets most interesting to me. Suddenly, the metaphor shifts from one of travel to one of battle. The travelers (humankind) are cut off from the rear and cannot escape. Death is inevitable. The last two lines seem full of ambiguity. God seems almost the enemy, blocking (or guarding) every gate, omnipresent but in a rather sinister sense. And the White Flag of Eternity? That image is worth a whole essay. Can God both conquer and at the same time wave a white flag of surrender? That’s cause for thought.

    1. I recently got Cynthia Wolff's Emily Dickinson biography. She had this to say about this poem:"At first, the situation described in the poem appears clear; yet as soon as the reader attempts to formulate a coherent image of the event that is being described, the obstinate paradox of virtually every significant mapping element in the verse frustrates the most persistent effort." I would have to agree!

      As to the white flag, she makes, I think, an interesting point: The "term" attached to Eternity can't be a temporal one but rather a legal one. In this case the terms would have to do with the "covenant of faith" and being saved. Each person who has entered into this covenant must surrender before entering God's eternal cities. Wolff goes further: "It is a surrender that reiterates the loss of self first experienced in the act of conversion ... and its effects have begun to be seen in the hollow sameness of the creatures whose fateful 'journey' is traced in this poem, for an appalling erosion of human identity is already under way" (337-8). Grim, eh?

      You bring up an interesting point that I don't think I considered: the shift to battle terminology with the "retreat" and "white flags". Perhaps, in answer to your question and leaning on Wolff, there is no retreat from the surrender that surely lies ahead.

      All that being said, I want to read the poem the way Anonymous did with the white banners signifying nothing more than eternity and God being at every gate cause for joy.

  5. Thank you for your further thoughts. So enriching to read all these individual journeys into the poems. I don’t see, though, a ‘hollow sameness’ or ‘erosion of identity’ in the poem, unless the ‘forest of the dead’ is where she finds this. I haven’t really integrated that line into my reading of the poem. Clearly, Dickinson prized mystery. The wonderful thing about poetic images is that they keep working on you. I’ve been living with the White Flag of Eternity for the last two days. I no longer find anything sinister in those last images. But I don’t find joy either. Maybe just awe at the mystery. I am now wondering if the triumph/surrender co-existence is meant to describe Eternity or the traveler or both. Was not death for Dickinson both triumph and surrender?

    1. As to the "hollow sameness" Wolff writes, "all have experienced the same nightmare, paradoxically isolated while they move in undifferentiated unison... . They have provided no company for one another, offered no comfort or reassurance to one another, neither rejoiced with others nor sorrowed for others. ... and "mute anonymity of this ghostly group that moves toward doom in dumb accord, like a row of puppets."

      Wolff, a prominent Am. Lit. scholar and Prof. of Humanities at MIT, shows here how much excavating one can do...

      I've been thinking of this poem, too, lately. The second line says the group has 'almost' come to the fork. From there they can see distant cities, but to get there they have to cross the Forest of the Dead. It is sounding to me as if it were a reflection as one draws near the end of life. You have to cross through the land of the dead (literally, perhaps, cemeteries; but perhaps also just the fact of being dead -- as in those poems where the dead remain in their tombs or coffins for eons).

      I wonder if the white flags aren't symbols of purity and eternity. God being at every gate is a reminder that some divine presence surrounds -- but can never be known from this side of the fork.

    2. The idea of the poem talking about approaching death appeals to me. The way behind is sealed because you cannot go back in time. You can approach death with a companion but sooner or later you will reach a fork in the road and each must die their own death. In contrast to ED’s ideas of eternal union in other poems, here there seems no guarantee that the companions will make it to the same city on the other side of the forest of the dead.

  6. ED gives no description of the second path. Her poem leads us through death to the Cities where god is at every Gate, an image if rapture, not at all frightening, beautiful and ineffable. The undescribed path, where does that lead? Maybe by an absence of describing it ED is intimating that it leads to a vanishing.

  7. The images of this poem are very evocative of Dante - cities and gates and paths of retreat cut off - and even the various gates in hell are navigable by god ( or god’s emissaries), b/c they were created by god. Maybe there are no forks in the path at this point - Dante had no choice but to go through hell (with god’s help) in order to reach paradise. Both Dante and ED would seem to suggest god is running the whole show regardless.