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04 February 2014

It troubled me as once I was —

It troubled me as once I was —
For I was once a Child —
Concluding how an atom — fell —
And yet the Heavens — held —

The Heavens weighed the most — by far —
Yet Blue — and solid — stood —
Without a Bolt — that I could prove —
Would Giants — understand?

Life set me larger — problems —
Some I shall keep — to solve
Till Algebra is easier —
Or simpler proved — above —

Then — too — be comprehended —
What sorer — puzzled me —
Why Heaven did not break away —
And tumble — Blue — on me —

                                                                                F516 (1863)  J600

Dickinson is reflecting on a childhood mystery that becomes a deeper question as she ages. As a child she wondered why everything falls earthward except the blue skies of heaven. Overhead the sky seems heavy and "solid" and is not bolted to anything. Why shouldn't it fall? Ah well, she thought; grown-ups – "Giants" – understand this sort of stuff.
       That literal question wouldn't turn out to be too difficult for the poet who, after all, studied some astronomy. Plus she encountered "larger" problems than that of the distant sky. She knows that some of them won't be solved until that greater life beyond earth, where "Algebra is easier" or at least more easily proved. And if that be true, then surely she will learn why Heaven stays in its place and does not "tumble – Blue" on her.
       The difference, I think, between the childish question and the adult question is the difference between "Heavens" as the sky that we see above, a terrain as real and complex as that of the ground below, and "Heaven" as a symbol for the divine. While Dickinson's dearest friends and relations had all made deep and public commitments to Christianity during the religious revival that began to sweep New England in her youth, Dickinson herself held out. Although she could express conventional and loving sentiments towards the Christian Trinity and Heaven, she also probed deeply into the difficult questions involving an all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing deity presiding over a world of suffering. Why wouldn't Heaven crash down in its oceanic blueness on the head of one of its deepest questioners?

In Dickinson's probing moods, she penned poems such as "The nearest Dream recedes – unrealized –"  (F304) , where heaven invites us to pursue it but then evades us and mocks our efforts. Although we long for "steadfast Honey", the Bee (standing for God as in other poems) does not brew "that rare variety!" In other poems the dead may enter a sort of timelessness or eternity (as in "Because I would not stop for Death" [F479] or "Safe in their Alabaster Chambers"   [F124]) , but they do not experience the Pearly Gates Heaven. "Location's narrow way is for Ourselves" she writes in  F476 , "Unto the Dead / There's no Geography."

Having subverted its pillars, Dickinson is perhaps right to puzzle over why Heaven doesn't "break away" to fall on her.

The poem begins with a charming chiasmus – the reversal of grammatical structure in "as once I was" and "I was once" – that suggests a story or fable. Continuing the fable tone, Dickinson contrasts an atom with the Heavens – a dichotomy of the very smallest against the very largest. Adults are whimsically referred to as "Giants" and in another bit of humor, she suggests that Algebra won't become clear to her until she gets to heaven. (This notion that we will understand suffering and purpose after we die is treated with more bite in "I shall know why – when Time is over –"  [F215] where "Christ will explain each separate anguish / In the fair schoolroom of the sky".)
       The light tone is maintained throughout the poem. Heaven wouldn't conceivably crash, but rather tumble; it would be "Blue" rather than black or stormy; the "Bolt" is a fastener rather than a dangerous shaft of lightning; and she doesn't anguish, but rather puzzles over the existential question. I think the effect of this light tone is to soften the idea of heaven collapsing on her. Perhaps the idea wasn't terrifying so much as wondrous: a tumbling blue mass of heaven. 


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  2. I enjoy the 'June Bee' poem more, but this pretty interesting too.

    She writes in the past tense, indicating a partial resolution to her quandary. She ends the 'June Bee' poem with "Ah, the Bee flies not\\ That brews that rare variety." I think it's possible to read that line as saying "the bee has died"--maybe, swatted by the boy. It's a terrible thought. Instead, if we see it as saying the "Bee is no longer flying to let nectars on flowers sweeten," it's a slightly gentler thought. The 'Ah' in the second last line may indicated a realization on ED's part: almost like she's considering the 'June Bee's' fate.

    In this poem, as you write, she expresses puzzlement as to why heaven doesn't just tumble down on her. I see the past tense in the poem suggesting that this is a problem/puzzle she's just let be, like the 'June Bee,' giving his lover a rest after joyful teasing.

    1. In that last stanza she is looking ahead in the future where she will hopefully learn the answers to what puzzled her while alive on earth -- so I don't think we are meant to think that she has yet given up her puzzling.

      As to the June bee -- as a symbol for heaven (it is "like the June bee") it probably can't be swatted down by a boy. And Dickinson is very specific as to why it is no longer close to being in reach -- it has flown away as the boy watched.

      I do think that "Ah" expresses a realization, as you suggest. But I think she is realizing that heaven's honey is never going to be "steadfast" -- at least in the way that humans desire.

    2. I get your points--what makes me worry slightly for the "Bee" is that it's small, and the school boy is huge and comparison and presumably naughty. "Invites"--sounds like an invitation that shouldn't have been sent. In "Dips-evades-teases-deploys-" I see real danger. Once the bee lifts his boat to the sky, he's completely heedless of the boy. "Heedless" invites additional worry from the reader. It's not that he's far away from the boy, just that his sights are elsewhere. There is still danger here--at least, I think there is. "Mocking sky" can refer to both that it's unattainable to the bee, but that it's the only place safe away from the boy, but a place he can't go. To me, there is an Icarus feel to the poem.

      I don't think the 'Bee' dies at the end, but just that the possibility exists. "Flies not" also leaves it ambiguous. If the Bee has made it to the sky and is flying in the direction of the sky, how can it stop flying even temporarily, it would tumble down back to earth. If it makes it to the mocking sky, unlike Icarus, then it's made it to heaven, and no longer needs to fly. Either way, the possibility leads to death. The third option would be to fly on earth after a short respite not on a clover but just somwhere, but "flies not" does not clarify if this is the case. It leaves it open!

  3. Beautiful poem, beautifully explained.

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  5. I’m still confused about the bee - It seems there is no bee who brews “steadfast honey.” It doesn’t seem to be about a bee living or dying, but if he represents the “heaven we chase” then this “heaven we chase” cannot be the “steadfast honey” - so what IS the “steadfast honey”? The boy is the one homesick for it. He may think he wants Heaven (the bee), but he really wants the “steadfast honey” though he doesn’t know it.
    Whew! I want me some “steadfast honey!”

  6. “The poem begins with a charming chiasmus – the reversal of grammatical structure in "as once I was" and "I was once" – that suggests a story or fable.”

    Once I looked up “chiasmus”, chiasmus looked up me.

    The the beginning of this poem “suggests a fable”, it is one: ‘Henny Penny’, AKA ‘Chicken Little’, AKA ‘The Flight of the Beasts’ (Jataka Tale 322, circa 500 BCE):

    Once upon time when Brahmadatta reigned in Benares, the Bodhisatta came to life as a young lion. And when fully grown he lived in a wood. At this time there was near the Western Ocean a grove of palms mixed with vilva trees. A certain hare lived here beneath a palm sapling, at the foot of a vilva tree. One day this hare after feeding came and lay down beneath the young palm tree. And the thought struck him: "If this earth should be destroyed, what would become of me?" And at this very moment a ripe vilva fruit fell on a palm leaf.

    At the sound of it, the hare thought: "This solid earth is collapsing," and starting up he fled, without so much as looking behind him. Another hare saw him scampering off, as if frightened to death, and asked the cause of his panic flight. "Pray, don't ask me," he said. The other hare cried, "Pray, Sir, what is it? " and kept running after him.

    Then the hare stopped a moment and without looking back said, "The earth here is breaking up, . . . .", etc., etc..

    You can fill in the rest. ED’s in her heaven, chuckling “Gotcha”.