Search This Blog

27 December 2014

It was a quiet way —

It was a quiet way —
He asked if I was his —
I made no answer of the Tongue
But answer of the Eyes —
And then He bore me on
Before this mortal noise
With swiftness, as of Chariots
And distance, as of Wheels – 
This World did drop away
As Acres from the feet
Of one that leaneth from Balloon
Upon an Ether street.
The Gulf behind was not,
The Continents were new —
Eternity it was before
Eternity was due.
No Seasons were to us —
It was not Night nor Morn —
But Sunrise stopped upon the place
And fastened it in Dawn.
                                      F573 (1863)  J1053

Dickinson is one of our foremost imaginers of death. Sometimes she imagines fading through the centuries in a grave or tucked into the "mysterious Drawers" of earth (F417); sometimes she fancies a glorious and royal Heaven; sometimes she conceives of death as a journey crossing a sea or traversing the "Forest of the Dead" (F453). This poem falls into the journey category and reminds me of "Because I could not stop for Death" (F479). In that famous poem a kindly gentleman caller, Death himself, takes the narrator on an otherworldly carriage ride where she learns only gradually that the carriage horses' heads "Were toward Eternity".  This poem also has a male companion or guide who ushers the narrator into eternity before she realizes it.
  The experience begins – and continues – quietly. Someone asks the speaker if she is his. At first we think he may be a lover and that the narrator is shyly agreeing to an assignation, answering only with her eyes. Eyes are the windows to the soul and the lover sees "yes". When he takes her in his arms and bears her "Before this mortal noise", we know it is an immortal lover, perhaps Jesus. Their journey together sounds marvelous: he carries her as swiftly as if driving a chariot, its wheels carrying them aloft. The narrator seems to enjoy the view, looking down as the world drops away as if they were traveling in the basket of a hot-air balloon. This is an idyllic abduction, a seduction from life. 
        But instead of seeing the familiar landmarks of her life pass before her, as did the narrator in "Because I could not stop for Death," everything she sees is new: there is no more shore line, no more curve of Cape Cod; the land itself is unfamiliar as if she were traversing an entirely different continent. 
At this point she realizes that she is in that "undiscovered country" of eternity, compactly noting that hers was a too-early death: "Eternity it was before / Eternity was due". By having "before" as the last word in the first line, Dickinson creates a nice ambiguity. We first read the line "Eternity it was before us" as if she were looking at an immeasurable vista. But reading on we discover that "before" belongs with the next line: they had reached eternity before it was due. She thinks she has died prematurely. But maybe eternity always seems premature.
        The eternity in this poem is no crumbling granite tomb, no sward of green or boulevard filled with stately angels. Instead, the narrator and her companion become transfixed in one "Place" where it is never winter or summer, never night or morning, but always and forever sunrise. Dickinson portrays it rather dramatically by saying that the sun "stopped upon the place / And fastened it in Dawn". The couple sees the sun about to rise and usher in a new day. Instead, it stops its routine to fasten the place where they wait in eternal dawn as if buttoned together a tableau.
        Dickinson often uses dawn as a metaphor for rebirth or resurrection. But here it is stasis. The rebirth turns out to be the symbol of itself; a constant new day with all the promise that can be no promise. There is no day ahead in which to do things. 
        I cannot tell if Dickinson means the image to be one of cheer or one of diminishment. "Fastened" is rather neutral; it doesn't suggest a joyous state, but neither is it harsh by Dickinsonian standards (think "riveted" or "stapled" – fastening verbs of choice in other poems). It certainly implies a lack of freedom. We fasten something so that it cannot move or go beyond a limited area. We also fasten something to us because we want it always. In that way eternity would be a constant state of awakening.

One could read this poem as if it were an assignation. It is Juliet wanting to fix time forever at daybreak with her Romeo. But perhaps it is a mystic union with the man/god where at the apex all becomes radiantly new in one entire, timeless moment pregnant always with possibility.


  1. I love "As Acres from the feet; Of one that leaneth from Balloon; Upon an Ether street".

    There is a tension between the thought of Eternity and the notion of Eternity being grounded in precise time -- Eternity being "before" or being "due". The poem moves from being grounded in time and space -- where movement takes place with the swiftness of chariots and the distance of wheels -- to being without reference point in time or space.

    1. Yes, and I was also wondering about a Dawn without Day.
      Without motion time stops. Perhaps to an observer such a situation would be like Dawn: An awakened cosmos it a state of eternal potentiality.

  2. If you've ever been in a balloon there is the feeling of exquisite stillness, weightlessness except when the fire blasts. I think she is getting at that feeling.

  3. "An awakened cosmos it a state of eternal potentiality."

    It also sounds cold to me. The sunrise stopped. The regeneration was halted in semi darkness. It was neither night or noon, she says. She was left hanging in a state of suspension. I guess it could be a state of eternal potentiality or, on the other hand, eternal stasis or stagnation.

    I just can't get too uplifted about being fastened in dawn.

    1. You would need a deep appreciation of dawn, for sure.

  4. As always, I agree with your literal and metaphoric interpretations . As representative of love, this poem could describe a situation in which a new love or romance has formed but cannot develop and into a complete relationship. Stasis. If an assignation occurred, I think she wanted something more.

  5. Thank you, Susan, for your comment: “One could read this poem as if it were an assignation. It is Juliet wanting to fix time forever at daybreak with her Romeo.”

    Wilt thou be gone? It is not yet near day.
    It was the nightingale, and not the lark,
    That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear.
    . . . .

    It was the lark, the herald of the morn,
    No nightingale. Look, love, what envious streaks
    Do lace the severing clouds in yonder east.
    . . . .

    Yon light is not daylight, I know it
    . . . .
    Therefore stay yet. Thou need’st not to be gone.”

    Two poems ago:

    “Two butterflies went out at Noon
    And waltzed upon a Farm —
    And then espied [Eternity]
    And caught a ride with him –
    Then lost themselves and found themselves
    In [Love].”

    Here, in F573:

    “He asked if I was his —
    I made no answer of the Tongue
    But answer of the Eyes —”

    Time stopped for these lovers:

    “It was not Night nor Morn —
    But Sunrise stopped upon the place
    And fastened it in Dawn.”

    ED’s “White Heat” imagination could forge two metals with one stone, one silver, the other gold.