On Choosing the Poems
Home is a pervasive subject for Dickinson. The Dickinson Lexicon lists 94 references for “home,” 93 for “house,” and 2 for “homeless.” Those numbers do not include related words. In her extensive study of this image, Jean McClure Mudge argues that Dickinson’s “characteristic return to motifs of enclosure and closure as seen in her poetics of house and home … seem to point beyond themselves to what may be a psychic spatial formula or unifying form,” what she calls an “inscape.” Mudge cites the five definitions Dickinson’s Webster’s offered for “home” and finds that Dickinson explores and often reverses “all but especially #5:”
1. A dwelling-house; the house or place in which one resides. He was not at home. Then the disciples went away again to their own home. John xx. Home is the sacred refuge of our life. Dryden.
2. One’s own country. Let affairs at home be well managed by the administration.
3. The place of constant residence; the seat. Flandria, by plenty, made the home of war. Prior.
4. The grave; death; or a future state. Man goeth to his long home. Eccles. xii.
5. The present state of existence. Whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord. 2 Cor. v. At home, at one’s own house or lodgings. To be at home, to be conversant with what is familiar.
Mudge goes on to examine four aspects of Dickinson’s inscape of home in her poetry: 1) her use of the literal architecture of the two houses she lived in; 2) her experience of home and familial relations; 3) her use of spatial motifs to represent femininity; and 4) her use of spatial poetry to illustrate her position as woman and artists.
Dickinson also wrote 2 poems with the word “emigrant” in them, in 1864 and 1865. The first one, “Away from home are they and I,” (F807A, J821), she included in a letter to Elizabeth Holland, the recipient of her description of the woes of moving to the Homestead in 1855, discussed earlier in the post. Again, the speaker puts herself in the position of the immigrant:
The Habit of a
We – difficult acquire
For this week’s gathering, we selected poems from 1862 that use the image of house or home in a variety of ways, all illustrating the powerful layering and associational effect of this image. We also include, at the end, one poem from 1864 which seems to sum up one aspect of the potent imagery of home.
Mudge, Jean McClure. Emily Dickinson and the Image of Home. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1975, 11, 21.
I felt my life with both
To see if it was there –
I held my spirit to the Glass,
To prove it possibler –
I turned my Being round
And paused at every pound
To ask the Owner's name –
For doubt, that I should
know the sound –
I judged my features – jarred
my hair –
I pushed my dimples by, and
If they – twinkled back –
Conviction might, of me –
I told myself, "Take Courage,
That – was a former time –
But we might learn to
like the Heaven,
As well as our Old Home"!
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Amherst Manuscript #fascicle 85 Amherst – asc:17632 – p. 9. Courtesy of Amherst College, Amherst, MA. First published in Bolts of Melody (1945), 145-46, with the first two words of line 8 as the last of line 7 and the last two words of line 10 as the first of line 11.
Dickinson copied this poem into Fascicle 17 in the 11th position around summer 1862. It is written in a regular 8686 syllable structure with some errant lineation (in the manuscript version) and a very loose form of rhyme, as if everything is coming apart. Except in the second stanza, in which the speaker is weighing her “Being,” which has a plethora of rhymes: round and round / pound / sound.
Dickinson used the opening phrase of this poem in the famous poem of dislocation, “I felt a funeral in my Brain” (F340A, J280) also from this period. It is important to note her emphasis on feeling, because it locates the reader in the body and in the world of sensation, not in abstract thought. Perhaps this fleshly anchor is necessary because this is one of her unsettling poems about the split self, about feelings of self-dispossession, in which the self looks at itself.
We might wonder what it means to “feel” one’s life with one’s hands? What exactly do they grasp and, perhaps more importantly, why does the speaker need to feel her life and weigh her Being, ask who the “Owner” is? Why does she fear she will not recognize this Owner? And why does she feel she is not the Owner of her own life? We might recall these resonant lines:
My Life had stood – a
Loaded Gun –
In Corners – till a Day
The Owner passed – identified –
And carried Me away – (F764A, J754)
The final lines of “I felt my life” offer another twist on this dispossession: that the speaker is dead and in Heaven, speaking posthumously, and has to learn to “like” it–not having a body and being saved with other Christians—“As well as our Old Home,” presumably on earth. The irony, of course, is having to learn to “like” Heaven better than Amherst.
Robert McClure Smith sees the speaker’s description of spirit in terms of body as Dickinson’s resistance to nineteenth-century gender ideology in which spirit was considered superior to body. Artist Lesley Dill took inspiration from this poem to create several powerful works of art: Poem Hands (1994), a relief of two pair of hands covered with the words of Dickinson’s poem and connected by a hanging string of cloth letters that spell out the opening two lines of the poem, and Poem Hands (Double) (1995), which reprises this imagery translated into Spanish.
Smith, Robert McClure. The Seductions of Emily Dickinson. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1996.
Guerra, Jonnie. “Dickinson Adaptations in the Arts and the Theater.” The Emily Dickinson Handbook. Eds. Gudrun Grabher, Roland Hagenbüchle, Cristanne Miller. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998, 385-407, 397.
Good Morning – Midnight –
I'm coming Home –
Day – got tired of Me –
How could I – of Him?
Sunshine was a sweet place –
I liked to stay –
But Morn – did'nt want me – now –
So – Good night – Day!
I can look – cant I –
When the East is Red?
The Hills – have a way – then –
That puts the Heart – abroad –
You – are not so fair – Midnight –
I chose – Day –
But – please take a little Girl –
He turned away!
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XXVII, Fascicle 19, Houghton Library – (144a). Includes 13 poems, written in ink, ca. 1862. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Further Poems (1929), 164.
Dickinson copied this poem into Fascicle 19 in the fourth place around autumn 1862. Its structure is quite loose: no two stanzas have the same numbers of syllables and though an alternating long line/short line structure predominates, stanza one is 5455 and stanza three is 5566 syllables. The rhymes are fairly regular with the first stanza’s rhyme of “Home” and “Him” conveying much of the poem’s story: a speaker choosing the “day” fails and is cast back, not just into nighttime but to “Midnight,” the nadir of night. These extremes of the day and seasons had important weight in Dickinson’s symbology. Just as noon and summer are moments of great promise, midnight and winter are the epitome of loss. The speaker’s witty greeting, to wish “Midnight” a “Good Morning” and in stanza two to wish Day “Good night,” puts us into a world of irony, reversal and pain. One thinks of the great Billy Holiday song, “Good Morning Heartache, here we go again.”
For, of course, Dickinson always complicates her imagery. “Day” is gendered male here and the masculine pronoun “Him” suggests the connection of day to God or some powerful, desired masculine figure, full of light. Why did this figure tire of the speaker? Why does the morning not want her? In the last stanza, the speaker directly rejects Midnight as “not so fair” and chooses day, but she is turned away and has to make her “home” somewhere else, in Midnight—a space of darkness, loss, separation from light, love and knowledge, perhaps of God or Nature. She calls herself “a little Girl” who comes to the border of a desired country and is prevented from entering, a refugee refused, an immigrant frustrated—forced into a home she does not want.
One need not be
a Chamber – to be
One need not
be a House –
The Brain has
Corridors – surpassing
+ Material Place –
Far safer, of a
Than it's interior
+ That cooler Host –
Far safer, through
an Abbey gallop,
The Stones a'chase –
one's a'self encounter –
In lonesome Place –
ourself, concealed –
Should startle most –
Assassin hid in
Be Horror's least –
+ The Body – borrows
a Revolver –
He bolts the Door –
superior spectre –
Or More –
+Corporeal +That Whiter Host. +The Prudent
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XIII, Mixed Fasciles, Houghton Library – (65a. Includes 27 poems, written in ink, ca. 1862. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Poems (1891), 214-15, from the fascicle (A), with the alternative for line 8 adopted.
Dickinson copied this poem into Fascicle 20 in the 12th position, about autumn 1862. It is a brilliant play on the tropes of the literary genre of the Gothic, with its haunted houses and doubling. Dickinson knew this genre well from her reading of English Gothic writers, especially the practitioners of what is called “the female Gothic” in novels like Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights as well as the American Gothic writers we explored in an earlier post under the name “the Azarian School,” Harriet Prescott Spofford and Rose Terry Cooke. Male writers of the time, like Hawthorne, also used these tropes. This is the dark side of Dickinson we can read along with Edgar Allan Poe.
One important element in Gothicism is setting, which often has allegorical implications, as in Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” in which the minutely detailed crumbling house is a figure for the protagonist’s disintegrating mind. In this poem, Dickinson uses the spooky setting of a haunted house, what Suzanne Juhasz calls “an architectural vocabulary,” as an analogy for the “Brain” in order to explore the darker side of consciousness, the mind wrestling with its demons and inner enemies, what Jean McClure Mudge calls the “civil war within.” As Sharon Leiter comments:
Sigmund Freud might well have used this poem as an epigraph to his writings on the subconscious.
It’s important to note how Dickinson acknowledges her debt to the Gothic genre here and surpasses it. Meeting ghosts of a midnight and galloping through abbeys chased by who knows what, the speaker says, is “Far safer” than “One’s self [to] encounter.” Meeting the “Assassin” within our own mind, a word with strong connotations of the political targeting of a public figure, is much more horrible, the poem asserts, than “a Superior Spectre – More near.”
The form of this poem also contributes to its uncanny and terrifying effect. Dickinson uses longer lines set off by very short lines as if to extend the horror, lead us into darkness and then cut us off from light, safety and sanity. We see this in the last line of the poem, “More near,” in which the speaker is reduced to two dreadful syllables.
Juhasz, Suzanne. The Undiscovered Continent: Emily Dickinson and the Space of the Mind. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983, 14, 16-17.
Leiter, Sharon. Critical Companion to Emily Dickinson: A Literary Reference to her Life and Work. New York: Facts on File, 2007, 159-160.
Mudge, Jean McClure. Emily Dickinson and the Image of Home. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1975, 220.
I never felt at Home – Below –
And in the Handsome skies
I shall not feel at Home -
I know –
I dont like Paradise –
Because it's Sunday – all the time –
And Recess – never comes –
And Eden'll be so lonesome
Bright Wednesday Afternoons –
If God could make a visit –
Or ever took a Nap –
So not to see us – but they
Himself – a Telescope
Perennial beholds us –
Myself would run away
From Him – and Holy Ghost – and all –
But there's the "Judgment Day"!
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XXVI, Fascicle 15 (part). Includes 8 poems, written in ink, dated ca. 1862. Houghton Library – (143a). Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Saturday Review of Literature, 5 (9 March 1929), 751, and Further Poems (1929), 43, from the fascicle (B), with stanza 1 in five lines (in later collections, as a quatrain).
Dickinson copied this poem into Fascicle 15 in the 15th place around autumn 1862. Its hymn measure is quite regular and the rhymes are only slightly slanted. Critics have treated this poem as one in which, as Barbara Mossberg notes, Dickinson creates a child’s voice and perspective to
deflect any reprisals for such unorthodox but “perfectly natural” thoughts.
Those thoughts revolve around the speaker’s feelings of complete homelessness, both “Below” on earth and in Heaven, because she doesn’t “like Paradise.” We saw this same attitude about Heaven in “I felt my life with both my hands,” but in that poem, at least the speaker evinces affection for her “Old Home,” though that phrase comes with quite a bit of irony. Still, in this quirky poem, the speaker feels dislocated in both these spaces—where does she feel “at home” if anywhere?
Paraic Finnerty finds a source for this poem in the character of Catherine, protagonist of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, who shares, with her soulmate Heathcliff, the freedom of childhood on the Yorkshire moors:
Dickinson evokes Catherine’s suggestion that heaven is an oppressive, formal, and dull place compared to the freedom of childhood.
Finnerty focuses on the gender-bending aspects of this figure, but in this poem, Dickinson’s little Girl is very much solo, an immigrant in life and afterlife, pursued by God’s scopic omnipotence (“Himself” as telescope), and fearing the final reckoning to come.
Finnerty, Paraic. “Transatlantic Women Writers.” Emily Dickinson in Context. Ed. Eliza Richards. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013, 109-118, 113.
Mossberg, Barbara. “Emily Dickinson’s Nursery Rhymes.” Feminist Critics read Emily Dickinson. Ed. Suzanne Juhasz. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983, 45-66, 48-49.
I – Years – had been – from
And now – before the Door –
I dared not open – lest a
I never saw before
Stare vacant into mine –
And ask my Business there –
My Business – just a Life
I left –
Was such – + still dwelling there?
I fumbled at my nerve –
I scanned the Windows o'er –
The Silence – like an Ocean
And + broke against my Ear –
I laughed a Wooden laugh –
That I – could fear a Door –
Who Danger – and the Dead -
had faced –
But never + shook – before –
I fitted to the Latch – my
With trembling Care –
Lest back the Awful Door
should spring –
And leave me – in the Floor –
I moved my fingers off, as
cautiously as Glass –
And held my Ears – and like a Thief
+ Stole – gasping – from the House.
+ Remaining there + smote +quaked +fled
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XXXIV, Fascicle 21. Includes 17 poems, written in ink, ca. 1862, Houghton Library – (181a). Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Poems (1891), 80-81, from the fascicle copy (A), with the alternatives for lines 16 and 23 adopted.
Dickinson copied this poem into Fascicle 21 in the first place about late 1862. It is written in short meter, 6686 rhyming loosely abcb, her second most frequently used form.
Jean McClure Mudge argues that this poem describes going back to the house on Pleasant Street, where Dickinson grew up and lived until the family’s removal back to the Homestead in 1855, where she had, in fact, been born. Mudge notes that
the drama enacted there takes place throughout before a front door, the auspicious place in Emily’s mind of Sue and eternity.
She compares the 1862 version of the poem and its revision in 1872, arguing that both describe an identity crisis in the form of
a longing to return to the other life she lived in the only house which she could truly call her home,
and express an increasing level of acceptance or renunciation of that fulfillment. But this literal scenario has larger, metaphysical implications:
So the poem re-presents an opportunity for changing the past, though only in the realm of fantasy, at the same moment that is alleviates anguish.
It is not coincidental that this attempt at mastery occurs around a house, with its many linked associations of space, time, body, mind, nature, death, and heaven.
Mudge, Jean McClure. Emily Dickinson and the Image of Home. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1975, 50, 78ff.
I learned – at least -
what Home could be –
How ignorant I had been
Of pretty ways of Covenant –
How awkward at the Hymn
Round our new Fireside -
but for this –
This pattern – of the way –
Whose Memory drowns
me, like the Dip
Of a Celestial Sea –
What Mornings in our
Garden – guessed –
What Bees – for us – to
With only + Birds to
The Ripple of our Theme –
And Task for Both -
When Play be done –
Your + Problem – of the
And mine – some
foolisher effect –
A + Ruffle – or a Tune –
The Afternoons – together
And Twilight – in the
Some ministry to poorer lives –
Seen poorest – thro' our gains –
And then Return – and
+Night – and Home –
And then away to You
to pass –
A new – diviner – Care –
Till Sunrise +take us
back to Scene –
Transmuted – Vivider –
This seems a Home -
And Home is not –
But what that Place
could be –
Afflicts me – as a
Setting Sun –
Where Dawn – knows
how to be –
+Bloom +Labor +Thimble + Trust +call
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Amherst Manuscript #set 91- They wont frown always – asc:11556 – p. 8. Courtesy of Amherst College, Amherst, MA. First published in Bolts of Melody (1945), 152-53, as seven quatrains, with the alternative adopted for line 24; line 22, treated alternatively, is omitted.
This poem, written sometime around 1864, seems to present a fantasy of an idealized middle class Victorian “home” that the speaker/Dickinson finally relinquishes. The tone of the opening line seems resigned or trying bravely to make this acceptance of loss a learning moment: in the face of pain “at least” she had a vision of what “home could be.” But the lesson is ambiguous; in the last stanza, the speaker describes it as an affliction compared to the setting of the sun, the loss of light and enlightenment, which itself is the antithesis of “dawn,” the returning of light, which “knows” or show the speaker “how to be.”
Nevertheless, many of us who read Dickinson’s work cannot imagine her in the domestic scenario she paints. Placid mornings in the garden with birds and bees (shades of Bowles?), evenings doing social ministry to the poor. We just don’t buy it. Especially stanza four in which the husband’s “task” is “Problem of the Brain” and the wife’s is “some foolisher effect – / A Ruffle – or a Tune.” He will think, she will sew. We know from Lavinia’s description of the Dickinson household that it was Emily’s job “to think.” Only if we understand “tune” as not just filling the home with lovely piano music, but writing poetry, can we imagine Dickinson happy in this home.