Like Eyes that looked on Wastes (F693A, J458)

Like Eyes that looked on Wastes –
Incredulous of Ought
But Blank – and steady Wilderness –
Diversified by Night –

Just Infinites of Nought –
As far as it could see –
So looked the face I looked opon –
So looked itself – on Me –

I offered it no Help –
Because the Cause was Mine –
The Misery a Compact
As hopeless – as divine –

Neither – would be absolved –
Neither would be a Queen
Without the Other – Therefore –
We perish – tho’ We reign –

Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Packet XL, Fascicle 32, ca. 1862 [though Franklin dates it to the second half of 1863]. Houghton Library – (127c). First published in Bolts of Melody (1945), 111, from a transcript of A (a tr515). Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

Judith Farr places this poem at “the crux of the Sue story.” It recounts the effects of a face-to-face encounter, and may help to explain why Dickinson had begun to avoid them. In other poems about the lost or absent lover, Dickinson longs for a mutual ocular feeding that feels sacramental, as in “One Year ago–Jots what” (F 301A, J 296):

Such anniversary shall be –
Sometimes – not often – in Eternity –
When +farther Parted, than the                  + sharper
common Wo –
Look – feed opon each other’s
faces – so –
In doubtful meal, if it be possible
Their Banquet’s +real –                                +True

In “Like eyes” we get the opposite scnario: looking into another’s face and seeing a nothingness that is rendered in grimly multiplying and expanding terms: Wastes, Ought, Wilderness, Infinites of Nought. This is an existential landscape so “blank” that it can be “diversified by Night,” itself already a steady, unbroken darkness. We should also note that this bleakness is further distanced by simile: the eyes looking on wastes serve as a figure for how the faces looked to each other and to themselves. For this poem also belongs to the category of “split self” poems.

This scenario, according to Farr, resembles other literary examples of passionate or narcissistic looking; the metaphysical poet John Donne’s lovers in “The Ecstasy” with their “eyebeams twisted,” for example. More specifically, she notes its symbology for lesbian attachment:

Their reciprocal gaze describes that mirror by which many nineteenth-century painters portrayed Sapphic love.

Clementina Maude, photography by Lady Clementina Hawarden, about 1862-3. Museum no. PH.457:230-1968, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The mirror is an apt image for this extraordinary poem: Gone is the power differential and struggle between the speaker and her beloved. Rather, they are both Queens manqué, joined by an equally felt “Misery” in “a Compact/ As hopeless – as divine.”


Farr, Judith. The Passion of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1992, 160-63.

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