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22 August 2014

A House upon the Height —

A House upon the Height —
That Wagon never reached —
No Dead, were ever carried down —
No Peddler's Cart — approached —

Whose Chimney never smoked —
Whose Windows — Night and Morn —
Caught Sunrise first — and Sunset — last —
Then — held an Empty Pane —

Whose fate — Conjecture knew —
No other neighbor — did —
And what it was — we never lisped —
Because He — never told —
                                F555 (1863)  J399

The poem sets a Gothic scene suggestive of a tale. Unfortunately we will never know the tale because only Conjecture knows what happened there on the hill and why the house is deserted – and Conjecture isn't talking.
Dickinson takes us into the scene with breathy 'h' sounds and then launches into a series of spooky details. The poem is written in the same meter as the previous one, a predominately trimeter whose choppy lines contribute to the drama of the scene. 

What might have happened – or what kind of house might this be that wagons and peddlers never approached, where no dead were ever brought down, where the chimney never smoked? We can picture the house in its gloomy isolation, its window panes reflecting both sunrise and sunset – and dark and empty at night. But then the poem ends with the mystery: the 'we" – the townspeople or at least the children – never told its story because they never knew. I suspect plenty of stories were made up, though.

One could try to shoehorn in some sort of metaphor for a hillside crypt here, the repository of the dead (hence, the dead were never carried out), but wouldn't that mean that wagons did in fact reach it to deliver the dead? No, unless someone has a better story for this poem I'm sticking with the spooky mystery house idea.


  1. Spooky poem indeed! I agree with the mystery house image because there is nothing in the poem to redirect us convincingly towards a more "serious" topic. The "Empty Pane" and the "lisp"ing which is almost whispered in the ear are the bits I like the most.

    A couple of could-be-related points may be interesting:
    1- Apparently, a well known Irish blessing at the time was "intended and regarded as curse" because of its supposed capacity to attract "evil eye". It read:

    "May your portion of cows be white cows, may your house be a house upon the height, and may your wife be a fine woman."

    "Here the real wish of the speaker is that the conspicuous color of the cattle, the prominent position of the house upon a hill, and the pleasing qualities of the wife, may attract the attention of the evil eye to the possessor."
    James Mooney, Irish Medical Mythology. Read before the American Philosophical Society, April 15, 1887.

    Could ED's "wife" poems be relevant here?

    2- Another possible route is to consider the mystery house as the House of God: upon the "Height", no Wagon (like those of the Greek Gods) going in-between, first to catch sunrise and sunset but otherwise empty (Sky?) and "no other neighbor" but only conjecture may know anything...because "He", [Himself] never told anybody. And "we" dare not look or talk.
    It may be a long shot but still...

    1. I like both your points. As to the Irish blessing, it seems feasible that Dickinson would have heard it and used the phrasing. It's ironic because certainly the house on the hill did not result in any good fortune. One can only conjecture about the cow and wife. I don't personally see any linkage to other wife poems.

      I tried to work in the idea of House of God, but always felt balked by the Empty Pane and the fact that it met a "fate". But the way you present it makes some sense. But like you I agree that it's probably a simply spooky house poem.

  2. The last verse reminds me of "The reticent volcano keeps", specially the stanza that begins with "If nature will not tell the tale". Maybe the house's mystery is similar to nature's in that poem: "god" made nature mute and its silence is its mystery, unattainable (for us) as immortality. It might be rather far-fetched but I couldn't help commenting it.

  3. It sounds to me a description of her own seclusion, the heart of it.

  4. This poem brings to mind the Poe story, "Fall of the House of Usher". Could Emily have been familiar with that tale? This would have been a great prologue for it.

  5. “Dickinson takes us into the scene with breathy 'h' sounds and then launches into a series of spooky details.” Susan K

    The breathy “h” sounds clue us toward “Heaven”, God’s real estate, and the spooky details reflect ED’s low opinion, at this period of her life, of its owner, capital “He” in Line 12.

    The “Empty Pane” between sunrise and sunset tells us nobody’s home in Heaven, and the reason we “neighbors” (humans) “never lisped” “what it was” was because “He (God) — never told” us, at least not in a way that convinced ED.

    By this time, she had given up on God and replaced “Him” with Wadsworth (Period 2, Sherwood, W.R., 1968, Circumference and Circumstance, p. 230.; see Comment #1 on 11/22/2023, F549, ‘The One that could repeat the Summer Day’).

    1. All this makes sense (aside from my lack of enthusiasm for the Wadsworth bit).