Were Universe — one Rock —
And far I heard his silver Call
The other side the Block —
I'd tunnel — till my Groove
Pushed sudden thro' to his —
Then my face take her Recompense —
The looking in his Eyes —
But 'tis a single Hair —
A filament — a law —
A Cobweb — wove in Adamant —
A Battlement — of Straw —
A limit like the Veil
Unto the Lady's face —
But every Mesh — a Citadel —
And Dragons — in the Crease —
F554 (1863) J398
The lady hears her lover from the great divide that separates the living from the dead. Until then she hadn't minded the walls that this world represent, for the universe seemed of such solidity that it might have been "one Rock". But then she heard "his silver Call" from the other side. It seemed at first a simple if daunting task to reach him: she need only tunnel through until her "Groove" pushed through to the place beyond death where she might look in his eyes – which is all the "Recompense" she wants.
But love's impetuosity is never enough, especially with such little obstacles as death in the way. In a series of paradoxical metaphors and similes Dickinson then describes the nature of the barrier that she would have breached. It is only a "single Hair – / A filament" – yet that hair a law that cannot be broken. It is a fragile "Cobweb", but one woven of impermeable stone; a structure of straw, but an impregnable "Battlement" nonetheless. The final simile compares the "limit" of our earthly reach to that of a lady's veil. It might seem gauzy and flimsy; we may be able to see through it, though dimly, but every mesh of the veil is a fortress, and dragons lurk in every fold.
It's a dazzling series portraying the tantalizing but impenetrable translucency between this life and the one hereafter. All together, it is a beautiful poem of frustration. One could go mad trying to tear the veil that separates us from the call of a beloved, only to find dragons at every turn.
Dickinson would have been familiar with the Renaissance map (1504) marking unknown and dangerous territory as "hic sunt dracones": "Here be dragons". The unknown on these and following maps is marked by all kinds of monsters and mythical beasts. Dickinson draws from such imagery with its hint of magic. The poem, I think, reads as a romance. A prose analogy would be a tale from The One Thousand and One Arabian Nights where things are never as simple as they seem.
The magical and romantic tone is supported by the consistent metrics: Most of the lines are iambic trimeter – a meter useful for heightening drama through its regular beats and rhythm. The third line of each stanza is iambic tetrameter that adds a narrative feel. Many narrative poems are written in alternating tetrameter and iambic lines. Substituting a trimeter in the first line of each stanza where a tetrameter would usually goes quickens the pace and adds drama.
Another thing that impresses me about this poem is the number of concrete nouns of great visual interest. They push together crowding out even verbs – and among the few that Dickinson uses are the vigorous "tunnel" and "Pushed". But the rest of the poem doesn't need verbs being almost a slide show of images, each represented by a single noun that then metamorphoses with the next noun: filament / law; battlement / straw; mesh / citadel.
Scholar Rae Armantrout argues that his poem " envisions a subtle yet impassable barrier between the believer and the mind of God" * and I like that reading. It is appealing to think of the "silver call" as coming from God, and it makes Christian sense to find "Recompense" just by "The looking in his Eyes". I can't really argue against this reading, but I can't help but feel the poem recounts the narrator's heroic love for a man rather than her frustration in trying to fathom God's mind.
* From: The Emily Dickinson Journal Volume 15, Number 2, 2006
pp. 4-5; 10.1353/edj.2006.0000