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19 August 2014

I had not minded — Walls —

I had not minded — Walls —
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


  1. I agree. The separation and longing is between a woman and a man. "[M]y face take her recompense" is beautiful -- establishing the poet as a woman and with a connotation of the separation being a difficult but surrmountable boundary and love being requited.

    If only the separation were tangible and solid, then no matter how difficult it could be overcome. But it is not. Because the veil is a veil beyond time -- it is indestructible. A mountain, no matter how large, can be destroyed. But no explosive can destroy space -- it is indestructible.

    The sentiment of this poem is the sentiment that ED expresses when at the end of Higginson's visit to her he says that he would see her again "sometime" -- she with her characteristic intensity and and focus replies -- rather say "a long time" because it will be sooner. A long time is tangible and has an end -- sometime, like death that ends time, is not.

    1. Yes, well said. One can tunnel, though it take years; but one just cannot cross that veil.
      I like your point about the veil being beyond time -- and that it is death that ends time.

  2. This was a mystery poem for me; one that I skipped over because I could not connect the lines in the first stanza. Your explanation opened a lot of knots and made me want to read more around it. Thank you.

    Having read around, I feel that yours is the best explanation and one that I feel most close too. I can see both the love aspect and the divine aspect and there is no need to chose one interpretation over the other. Still, I wanted to point at a few undertones that I feel may be worthy of notice:

    The main difficulty of Dickinson's poems is perhaps her practice of leaving "[out]" grammatically important words. Therefore solution often comes in the form of inserted verbs, pronouns, etc. Here, your explanation adds "Untill" to the third line and reorders the lines to make the meaning clear. The popular Cliffnotes reference makes a different modification:

    (first line, complete sentence anticipating the condition in the second)
    "I would have not minded the walls."

    (If added to second line)
    "If the universe were one rock /and I had heard his silver call/ from its (rock's) other side/ I would tunnel through."

    I don't think the first line can be a full sentence. But I think if we add "if" to the beginning of the poem it may find a new lucidity:

    "If I had not minded the Walls/ [and] Were Universe — one Rock/ And I heard his silver Call from afar/ -The other side the Block- / I would [have] tunneled — till my Groove/ Pushed sudden thro' to his..."

    In this arrangement, as always for me, there is real material sense to the words along with a metaphysical/spiritual one: Dickinson is actually aware of the wall-in-between and observant of the "laws" which cannot be broken.

    This interpretation opens two new vistas in the poem: 1) there is a real sense of funeral undertaking in the poem: the rock, the groove (tunnel/pit/grave) and the veil all carry images of a woman leaving a loved one under the ground. The wall-in-between is lying on the ground. This would also clarify why the tunnel would link her groove to his [grave]."The place beyond death" in your sentence above is right there, under the gravestone. 2) one can also read a suicidal thought between the lines: not that it was ever serious but if lovers can chose to join each other in the afterlife, why continue to live here (eg. Anthony and Cleopatra or Romeo and Juliet). But here the law (of nature and of religion/society) intervenes. It requires a very small cut, but it goes against so much. So it is as if she can see through death, but she cannot pass through, just like a veil.

    This leads to my third and last point: you are right to point out that dragons were found on maps marking the unknown territory, but I think there might be a source which is closer to Dickinson's home (in every sense of the word). The general language of poem does not have geographical connotations, but rather religious ones (as explained)*. Dickinson, as we know, knew Latin and had read Aeneid. My research shows that dragons (AKA serpents) enter the "citadel" (apparently, the temple of Minerva [Athena]) in the famous battle of Troy**. Could Dickinson have had this image in mind? The dragons in that story, as much as I can make sense without having read the whole thing, are defenders of the citadel and especially punish offenders to a statue of Athena). Thus the image of grave/tomb/temple reaches the furthest territories of imagination. If so, then while the overall sense of "dangerous unknown" is present in the poem, there is a closer link between citadel, dragons and the grave.

    * However, see New England Landscape History in American Poetry by Roger Sedarat (Cambria Press, 2011) for an interpretation of this poem as a statement by a female speaker "dispossessed of property due to the lack of a bargaining position”!!!

    ** Dragons, Serpents, and Slayers in the Classical and Early Christian Worlds: A Sourcebook by Daniel Ogden, Oxford University Press, 2013.

    1. I hadn't picked up the funeral aspect -- but it is a very plausible read and I like it. Your examination of the [dropped] words in the first stanza had me writing out a paraphrase. I agree that the 'if' insertion makes more sense than the 'until' implied in my earlier commentary. Here's my modified take:
      I hadn't minded when walls were between me and my beloved. And even if this gravestone that separates us now were the size of the entire universe, if I heard him call me from the other side, I would tunnel through. …

      The next two stanzas then pivot from the image of a universe-sized rock that could conceivably be tunnelled through, to the impermeable barrier of a single hair – which she renames as filament, cobweb, and straw – and is a paradoxical metaphor for law (renamed as stone, and fortress). This barrier she cannot pass.

      The final stanza is a simile likening the hair/law to a gauzy veil. The hair functions as a 'limit': we can have no access to what follows death. Similarly, the veil guards the secrets in a lady's face. This particular veil, however, is guarded by the citadels and dragons woven into its mesh.

      Having ventured this far I now wonder if Dickinson doesn't bring in the lady's face with its terrible veil as a way of depicting the grieving woman. To raise the veil and glimpse her grief or perhaps even rage* would be dangerous indeed. The image also speaks to how Dickinson had to veil so much of herself. These last thoughts, however, are not central to the poem.

      Anyway – thank you for your as always thoughtful and insightful commentary. It certainly deepened my appreciation and gave me new joy in re-reading the poem.

      * maybe because of the property issues? lol

    2. Thank you Susan! and sorry if sometimes my comments are too long. Dickinson's poem, as you surely know, "grow on you". Or shall I say "grow on" YOU: your blog is the tree from which I pick Dickinson's poems, revelation after revelation...

    3. Thank you, I'm pleased beyond measure that this blog can provide a bit of a forum. I'm glad you're here!

  3. ...and my heartfelt thanks to [you] both! What a wonderful read this one was!

  4. As so often happens, Susan K’s intuition for human love, expressed in her last explication sentence, gets to the earthy pith of this poem:

    “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.”

    This poem, ‘I had not minded — Walls’, paints a pathologically lovesick poet. ED rationally knows that Wadsworth is a married man with a wife and two children, and he has moved to the opposite coast of a large continent.

    She saw his face first in March 1855 when she attended his sermon in Philadelphia, second when he visited her in Amherst in March, 1860 (Habegger 2002), and third on “a Day— at Summer's full” (F325), summer “solstice”, June 21, 1861. (Hypothesis; see Wicher, G., 1938, ‘This was a Poet’, p. 324, and Habegger, A., 2002. ‘My Wars Are Laid Away in Books, “I Am So Far from Land”, p.508, Kindle Edition.

    Stanza 1:

    “Block” = North American continent

    Stanza 2:

    “tunnel” = crack this “Rock”
    “The looking in his Eyes —”: ‘Not in this World to see his face’ (F435)

    Stanza 3

    “Hair”, “filament”, “Cobweb”, “Straw” = Wadsworth’s marriage.
    “Adamant”, “Battlement” = Wadsworth's legal marriage certificate.

    Stanza 4

    “But every Mesh — a Citadel —
    And Dragons — in the Crease —”

    ED knows that her irrational emotional longing to see Wadsworth's face will never be satisfied in this life.

    But she was wrong about that, in summer 1880 he showed up unannounced at her front door (L1040):

    "To Mr. C. H. Clark
    April 15, 1886

    Thank you, dear friend, I am better. The velocity of the ill, however, is like that of the snail. I am glad of your father’s tranquility, and of your own courage. Fear makes us all martial.

    I could hardly have thought it possible that the scholarly stranger [Clark] to whom my father introduced me, could have mentioned my friend [Wadsworth], almost itself a vision, or have still left a legend to relate his name. With the exception of —— …your name alone remains.

    “Going home,” was he not an aborigine of the sky?

    The last time he came in life I was with my lilies and heliotropes. Said my sister to me, “The gentleman with the deep voice wants to see you, Emily”—hearing him ask of the servant.

    “Where did you come from?” I said, for he spoke like an apparition. “I stepped from my pulpit to the train,” was his simple reply; and, when I asked, “how long?”—“twenty years,” said he, with inscrutable roguery.

    But the loved voice has ceased; and to some one who heard him “going home” it was sweet to speak…. Thank you for each circumstance, and tell me all you love to say….

    Excuse me for the voice, this moment immortal.

    E. Dickinson