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23 March 2014

My period had come for Prayer —

My period had come for Prayer —
No other Art — would do —
My Tactics missed a rudiment —
Creator — Was it you?

God grows above — so those who pray
Horizons — must ascend —
And so I stepped upon the North
To see this Curious Friend —

His House was not — no sign had He —
By Chimney — nor by Door
Could I infer his Residence —
Vast Prairies of Air

Unbroken by a Settler —
Were all that I could see —
Infinitude — Had'st Thou no Face
That I might look on Thee?

The Silence condescended —
Creation stopped — for Me —
But awed beyond my errand —
I worshipped — did not "pray" —
                               F525 (1863)  J564

In astronomy, a subject Dickinson studied and enjoyed throughout her life, the term "period" refers to the length of time it takes an object to complete one revolution of its orbit or one complete rotation on its axis. In this poem, Dickinson has reached a point in her life's orbit where she felt the need to pray – nothing else "would do". And so she ventures out in astronomical space, for "those who pray / … – must ascend" to the realms above where "God grows". By "north" Dickinson is probably hearkening back to the Bible.  In the book of Job (37:22), she would have read "Out of the north he comes in golden splendor; God comes in awesome majesty." 
The poem begins with a lighthearted tone despite the speaker's urgent need to pray. Clearly frustrated in her attempt, she blames her "Tactics" for missing a "rudiment" of prayer. She then drolly asks God, her "Curious Friend", if this "rudiment" might be him. That's a bit cheeky!   

The speaker consequently embarks on her search for God, and the next three stanzas offer some details of her journey – still in the bantering tone. "His House was not – no sign had He" is a sing-songy bit of chiasmus, and the sketch of the poet going about the heavens looking for a door or chimney is humorous. 
Throughout her search, all the poet sees are "Vast Prairies of Air". She finally addresses God as "Infinitude" – a deepening of respect and awe. While looking for a friendly face, perhaps the grandfatherly god of much Christian art, she finds infinity instead.
The last stanza pivots to epiphany. The silence of unbroken infinity is suddenly open to her; "Creation" stops "– for Me–" she adds in amazement. The realization that she herself is axis, is at the heart of Creation, fills her with such awe that prayer and petition were forgotten in the exaltation of worship.
It is a larger sense of the divine, I think, that to reverence a Deity who listens to prayers as if a parent.

The poem is written in common ballad form except the last stanza which is all in iambic trimeter. That stanza is given additional emphasis by the alliteration of "condescended" and "Creation". The "stopped" followed by a dash really does stop the poem. It's the key moment as the poet finally gives up tactics for Silence and Infinitude.


  1. Great analysis -- I even learned a new word: chiasmus.

    The poem, as you note, moves from a conventional (a Buddhist might say dualistic) conception of god to a view that is non-conceptual, infinite. There is a similar halting and expansion into the ineffable here that we find in "I felt a funeral in my Brain".

    The metaphor of "Vast Prairies of Air" is lovely just standing alone. But the image also evokes the frontier. The parts of the "House" of god -- the chimney and the door call to mind a prairie homestead built of sod -- where the door and chimney are all that mark the house from the prairie. The notion of frontier also calls to mind the strange and beautiful idea of god growing -- as a nation expands and discovers new lands. It anticipates the notion in physics of an active, dynamic, expanding universe.

    The phrase "awed beyond by errand" in the last stanza is striking -- the sounds tied the phrase together and the entire sense of infinity compared with the ordinary that is the subject of the poem is contained in these four words.

  2. I'm late to the party- but I also thought it was interesting how Dickinson refers to God as a curious friend. This is especially given the religious tones at the time, where god was much more likely to be an angered dictator than a personal friend. Might be why she dropped out of seminary? Thoughts?

  3. Homestead faces south, downslope. Amherst’s Main Street runs east-west in front of the house and a Dickinson hay meadow was on the other side of Main Street. “North” was the upsloping backyard of Homestead (ED Lexicon), which is why ED “stepped upon the North/To see this Curious Friend”.

    In 2015, archaeologists located “buried sections of a pathway that once connected the east side of the Homestead to the rose-entwined summerhouse and larger 19th-century flower and vegetable beds” to the east. Sue and Austin lived at “Evergreen”, 100 yards west of Homestead.

    ( ).

    ED tells us there was no sign of God or his House behind Homestead, just “Vast Prairies of Air”. In fact, God sneered at ED, “The Silence condescended”, by not having the curtesy to show up: . To be honest, ED had long since given up on a loving God who cared for humans. Here she’s just rubbing it in.

    Susan K quoted for us four poems ago (F521), "If we realize that behind much of the humility of her poetry lies egotism and that one of the principal functions of the religious elements in it is to express the poet's sense of her own exclusiveness, we will not be surprised by the absence of any expression of profound religious conviction in her early life.
    Emily Dickinson's conduct at Mount Holyoke was that of the 'hold-out,' not that of the devout believer."

    William Sherwood, 1968, Circumference and Circumstance: Stages in the Mind and Art of Emily Dickinson, p. 10.

  4. ED’s “errand” was to pray in hopes she might find God “above”, on the upslope “North” of her backyard, but that prayer went unanswered (as she expected).

    Instead of finding God, she found Nature’s “Vast Prairies of Air”, which inspired worship:

    “But awed beyond my errand —
    I worshipped — did not ‘pray’ —"