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19 July 2013

We pray — to Heaven —

We pray — to Heaven —
We prate — of Heaven —
Relate — when Neighbors die —
At what o'clock to Heaven — they fled —
Who saw them — Wherefore fly?

Is Heaven a Place — a Sky — a Tree?
Location's narrow way is for Ourselves —
Unto the Dead
There's no Geography —

But State — Endowal — Focus —
Where — Omnipresence — fly?
                                                                               F476 (1862)  J489

Dickinson scoffs at the idea that the prayed-to, chattered-about heaven can be considered a specific place that our souls can fly off to. That, she says, is a "narrow way" to think, germane only to living people. We require places where our bodies can meet, survive and thrive; somewhere to put down a coffee cup. But for the dead, she points out, " There's no Geography."  Without a body what need for planet, cloud, or table? The freed soul's environment or milieu is no doubt much richer than one limited by bodily abilities. 
          Dickinson pictures it as a state of being – not cast adrift, but under some "endowal" or bestowal (which implies a Beneficence); there is "Focus," too, or unity of purpose and awareness. A state of being endowed with focus – If this sounds less like Christian doctrine than Eastern mysticism, it may well spring from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, both prominent Transcendentalists that Dickinson deeply admired – as well as from Thoreau and Margaret Fuller whose books she probably read. 
        Her final question parallels the first, "Wherefore fly?" That question asked to which destination the soul was headed – heaven or hell or elsewhere. The last line is about something else entirely. Where, if all is "Omnipresence" – or if even just the soul in question now enjoys omnipresence – or if God and his heaven are omnipresent, would a soul possibly fly? It would be, or at least be within, everything at once.

Dickinson wants the reader to work for meaning in these last lines. The elided words and dashes create a provocative sense of ambiguity and vagueness. Meaning seeps out as one thinks of the words in various combinations with those around it or in their unitary connotations. The meaning, like the soul, becomes diffuse and protean.
I used this picture with an earlier
Dickinson poem that featured"
a very geographic heaven
          In contrast, the first lines aim for clear meaning. Dickinson uses parallel structures, repeated and rhyming words, and simple diction. The second stanza complicates the breezy treatment of Christian death narratives. The poet builds an argument against the portrayal of Heaven (or Hell, etc.) as a unique place. The ponderous second line interrupts the quick flow of the surrounding lines and provides the key insight of the poem. The last two lines slow to a crawl. There's no way to skip through words like "Endowal" and "Omnipresence" – particularly if they are surrounded by dashes.

            Stop and think, people! it suggests. And that's odd from this poet who has written more than a few poems about the physical attributes of heaven and the saints and angels who inhabit it.


  1. Beautiful analysis.

    I particularly like the first stanza. The word "prate" is a shock and with "Relate -- when Neighbors die --" very concisely conveys a common conventional relationship (or non-relationship) with death and ultimate questions. We talk idly about death -- not feeling the power and truth of death, as ED unfailingly feels and expresses in her poetry. Or we engage in commerce and business and social events and "relate" to death only when neighbors die.

    There is a dismissiveness, a mocking contempt for convention in this poem. ED asks if Heaven is "a Sky", not the "the Sky" -- making us have to put a limit or border on open expanse to understand what "a Sky" might be. Then she asks if Heaven is "a Tree" -- focusing us on a specific thing to level of absurdity -- as if we were ants imagining what vastness could be with reference to the largest thing in our world.

  2. This poem is magisterial.

    I love: at what o'clock to Heaven-- they fled.

    Location's narrow way is for Ourselves reminds me of passing through the needle's eye, echoed both in vastness and in particular in the images of sky and tree (being in the northwest, I see a lone fir).

    And the lines: Unto the Dead
    There's no Geography

    So wonderful. Then to the elusive, abstract, ungraspable last couplet. Ah!

    1. I agree -- that second stanza is grand. Just the phrase "Location's narrow way" bears meditation.