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08 September 2020

Take your Heaven further on —

Take your Heaven further on —
This — to Heaven divine Has gone —
Had You earlier blundered in
Possibly, e'en You had seen
An Eternity — put on —
Now — to ring a Door beyond
Is the utmost of Your Hand —
To the Skies — apologize —
Nearer to Your Courtesies
Than this Sufferer polite —
Dressed to meet You —
See — in White!

Fr672 (1863)  J388

Judith Farr (The Passion of Emily Dickinson, p.34-35) glosses that "the speaker regards herself as a sufferer who has put on Eternity and whose 'white' signifies renunciation and retirement from society." Along comes a caller looking for love's heaven and the speaker, 'like some modern Beatrice', informs him that he is too late; she is already there and unavailable for his 'profane purpose'.
Dickinson scholar David Preest takes this interpretation a bit farther and more specifically, suggesting that the poem is directed to Samuel Bowles. When the speaker scornfully tells him to 'ring a door beyond', she means him to go next door to the Evergreens where Austin and Sue Dickinson lived. Samuel Bowles was the distinguished owner/editor of the Springfield Republican and a lifelong friend of Austin (Emily's brother) and his wife, Sue (who shared a lifelong up-and-down often passionate friendship with Emily). Bowles was one of Dickinson's most significant friends; he is thought by many to have been a love interest despite his marriage.
Preest links this poem, as does Farr, to an 1863 letter from Bowles to Austin where Bowles snarks, "To the Queen Recluse my especial sympathy – that she has 'overcome the world' (a reference to I John 5:4-5). With such a comment in mind, it is satisfying to imagine Emily thumping out this poem to him.

Yet, plausible as these readings are, I see a corpse rather than a renunciate in the poem. I picture some poor fool blundering in too late at a death watch for a woman who clearly expected him to be present when she put on Eternity.
Having missed the critical moment, however, there is nothing left for him but to beat at the doors of heaven, the 'utmost' his tardy, mortal hand can reach. While he's at it, he should apologize to the Skies since they are closer to him and his 'Courtesies' than the dear departed.

The first line sets the scornful tone. The speaker dismissively tells the subject to move along, take his heaven later: the one he hoped for has died. That 'Take' is significant. The subject is not one to search or spend countless hours in prayer and supplication. He's a taker. Having missed this chance for heaven, he will have to grasp at another. Dickinson pointedly distinguishes between his heaven, a sort of prize, and that of the 'Sufferer polite' who has gone to 'Heaven divine'.
Her scorn deepens. Even with a timely arrival, he would have 'blundered in' like some boorish and uncouth swain. The following 'Possibly, e'en You had seen' the Sufferer don the heavenly mantle of Eternity implies the subject lacks the spiritual discernment expected at such a moment. Her comments about ringing 'a Door beyond' and apologizing to the skies are mocking.

To Farr and Preest the last lines suggest the speaker to be Dickinson herself – the poet, the Sufferer polite, dressed to meet him. The 'White!' emphasizes she is meeting him in purity and renunciation. He is too late for the more of-this-world Emily or even the Emily in transition. And now he should gather up his uncouth yearnings and leave.

I read the ending as the conclusion of the speaker's chastisement of the tardy boor. The dead woman had been waiting for him, maybe for weeks or even months. But now he shows up and the speaker tells him, "See, she's dressed to meet you. In White." That's an accusation. At best he failed to honor the solemnity of the death bed by taking his place amid the witness and company of friends and family. At worst, he himself contributed to the Sufferer's pain, perhaps even her death.

Fading Away, Henry Peach Robinson, 1858
Although Dickinson was adopting white dress by the time of this poem, that in itself doesn't make a strong case that she is the Sufferer. White was a common if not traditional color for deathbed and burial gowns.

Dickinson uses trochaic tetrameter meter throughout the poem giving it an emphatic almost theatrical quality. The unstressed syllable at the end of the lines is dropped, emphasizing the end rhymes. This is particularly noticeable in the first two lines with 'on' and 'gone'. You can almost see the speaker standing over the dead woman's bed, gesturing. The last line has been divided for emphasis – and again I see the theatrics. It's a big reveal – and a major guilt trip.


  1. I love both conceptions of this poem, Preest's and yours. The white dress could be threefold; the dress of the renunciate, the funeral dress, and the wedding dress. So at the end the late-comer is either meeting with a renunciate, or perhaps a corpse, but either way, "See -- in White" seems to imply that though the dress be white, it is not the wedding dress that was first hoped for. Too late for you. You do get a sliver of a clue here though as to the depth of meaning of the "white dress" to ED.

  2. Talk about unloading in anger, ED just let Wadsworth have it with both barrels. Bowles was definitely not some blundering, boorish, uncouth swain, nor was he a “taker”, nor would ED dress in white for the worldly Bowles. Wadsworth was shy and not socially adept.

    Having read this poem, F672, after commenting on F671, I’d like to go back and take Susan out of the crossfire of F671. ED has reached the anger stage of grief recovery, and she aims her anger at Wadsworth, yet she still loves him. As evidence of her enduring love for Wadsworth and his for her , here is a late poem and a comment:

    “In her last “Calvary” poem (F1485, 1879), ED affirms her enduring concern and love for Wadsworth in a sweet quatrain, ‘Spurn the temerity —':

    “Spurn the temerity —
    Rashness of Calvary —
    Gay were Gethsemane
    Knew we of Thee —

    “It would not surprise me if she mailed F1485 to Wadsworth in 1879, though we have no evidence that happened. At any rate, during summer 1880, he showed up unannounced at her front door (a 500-mile roundtrip from Philadelphia to visit Charles Clark in Northampton and ED in Amherst), as she described to Charles Clark in L1040, April 15, 1886, exactly one month before she died.:

    "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.”