Our journey had advanced –
Our feet were almost come
To that odd Fork in Being’s
Eternity – by Term –
Our pace took sudden awe –
Our feet – reluctant – led –
Before – were Cities – but Between –
The Forest of the Dead –
Retreat – was out of Hope –
Behind – a Sealed Route –
Eternity’s +White Flag – +Before –
And God – at every Gate
+cool +in front –
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Packet XXXIV, Fascicle 21, ca. 1862. First published in Poems (1891), 206, as “The Journey,” with the alternatives not adopted. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.
Unlike the previous poem, which was an example of Dickinson’s free verse, this poem is a nearly perfect example of a hymn meter called “short meter,” a four line stanza of 6686 syllables rhyming abab, a form that Dickinson used frequently. Here, the regularity of the meter is a counterpoint to the references in the poem to disturbed rhythm: “Our pace took sudden awe / Our feet – reluctant – led” to the fork in “Being’s Road” that marks a change in existence and points to Eternity.
Is this poem, as Greg Johnson suggests, “an especially complex vision of the relationship between death and perception”? The poem takes on sterner tones when we note, as Virginia Oliver does, “the battle-field imagery” through which “Dickinson portrays death as a necessary transition.” She further suggests, “The poem can even be considered a gloss on her more famous poem, ‘Because I could not stop for Death.’”
Cristianne Miller reads the poem as a comfort for the war dead. She speculates that the poem “uses what maybe a soldier’s voice to hypothesize that” beyond the forests laced with the bodies of fallen soldiers lies “certain reward.” And though “Retreat” was not an option in life as in death, the “White Flag” of truce betokens the release of “Eternity” with “God – at every Gate,” welcoming the dead. She concludes that
reading Dickinson’s poems in concert with war poems published in widely circulated periodicals reveals that many of her poems adopt the vocabulary, tone or idiom of popular war poetry.
- Johnson, Greg. Emily Dickinson: Perception and the Poet’s Quest. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1985, 183-85.
- Miller, Cristanne. Reading in Time: Emily Dickinson in the Nineteenth Century. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012,172.
- Oliver, Virginia. Apocalypse of Green: A Study of Emily Dickinson’s Eschatology. American University Studies. Series 24: American Literature 4. New York; Lang, 1989, 87-88, 230-31.