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03 July 2014

"Heaven" has different Signs — to me —

"Heaven" has different Signs — to me —
Sometimes, I think that Noon
Is but a symbol of the Place —
And when again, at Dawn,

A mighty look runs round the World
And settles in the Hills —
An Awe if it should be like that
Upon the Ignorance steals —

The Orchard, when the Sun is on —
The Triumph of the Birds
When they together Victory make —
Some Carnivals of Clouds —

The Rapture of a finished Day —
Returning to the West —
All these — remind us of the place
That Men call "Paradise" —

Itself be fairer — we suppose —
But how Ourself, shall be
Adorned, for a Superior Grace —
Not yet, our eyes can see —
                                    F544 (1863)  J575

It's no surprise by now to find that when Emily Dickinson thinks of heaven she thinks in terms of all the delights she finds around her every day. She is not one to longingly wait for her release from this world of woe. Her earthly heaven includes such marvels as "The Triumph of the Birds" and "Carnivals of Clouds". There is even "The Rapture of a finished Day". 
  Perhaps of more significance, she senses a Presence in this world – and this alone piques her interest in the afterlife. If whatever is behind the "mighty look" that comes with Dawn is part of Heaven, that would be "Awe"some. Her "Awe" shadows her lack of knowledge of heaven; it "steals" upon it in fascination as if the profound mystery that attracts her each day might be magnified in the afterlife. 
But then she returns to the triumphs and carnivals and raptures of life here below.
She concludes, almost grudgingly, that "we suppose" heaven will be "fairer" than earth. I can't help but find that "we suppose" to be a very pointed qualifier. She's pretty enamored of life (at least in the meadows, woods, and orchards of Amherst). But, for sake of argument, she grants Heaven the advantage. Then, with almost a wink, she then seems to ask, "Okay, so earth can be improved on; but how are people going to be spiffed up enough to encounter some "Superior Grace"? That's a thornier question involving questions of resurrection, bodies, and souls. There is no answer to that question, at least "Not yet" while we are still alive.
I find this a thoughtful and lovely poem. Each stanza is a gem, each image worth dwelling on. Dickinson finds her "Signs" of heaven in each part of the day. She begins with noon, its ripe fullness the "symbol of the Place" – and then backtracks to dawn to move forward chronologically. Dawn is when the Presence casts its eye "round the World" before settling down like a watchful cat in its hills. Later, "when the Sun is on" – a nice metaphor as if the sun were a lamp, or perhaps as if it were a trinket donned by Day – the orchard fills with birdsong. Together, the birds make "Victory" over dark and, it follows, over death. 
        As the day progresses the clouds cavort overhead as if in a carnival. The "finished Day" ends in "Rapture" as it returns to the West, and this is the direction of the setting sun, of the Hesperides – a mythical garden in some distant west where nymphs tend Hera's golden apple trees, and in general the direction of death and immortality, for this is where the sun sinks at the end of day.


  1. Thanks, Ans -- nice to hear from you. I see you are getting a nice long list of translations!

  2. Could it be that the last stanza is just a nicer (more hopeful?) way of saying what she said in an earlier poem? Heaven is just "too difficult a Grace to justify the Dream."