~~Dickinson Homestead, Amherst, Massachusetts
In this narrative poem, Emily Dickinson seems to have a real destination in mind. Yet she focuses almost entirely on her internal fears and consternation. What’s going on? My comments follow.
I Years had been from Home
And now before the Door
I dared not enter, lest a Face
I never saw before
Stare stolid into mine
And ask my Business there –
“My Business but a Life I left
Was such remaining there?”
I leaned upon the Awe –
I lingered with Before –
The Second like an Ocean rolled
And broke against my ear –
I laughed a crumbling Laugh
That I could fear a Door
Who Consternation compassed
And never winced before.
I fitted to the Latch
My Hand, with trembling care
Lest back the awful Door should spring
And leave me in the Floor –
Then moved my Fingers off
As cautiously as Glass
And held my ears, and like a Thief
Fled gasping from the House –
from an 1862 version
Emily Dickinson Poems, Edited by Brenda Hillman
Shambhala Pocket Classics, Shambhala 1995
Emily doesn’t tell us precisely why she’s going Home. She’s been away for Years, and seems to have left something there–“a Life I left.” What might that mean? Perhaps she means she’s moved on and doesn’t want to become entangled in her old life. Or maybe she’s looking for something missing. I don’t know. She doesn’t get that far.
Instead, she describes the gripping, painful internal storm that erupts as she approaches the front door, prepared to ask her leading question. It’s as though she suddenly realizes the importance of this event—what it might cost her. Perhaps this wasn’t such a good idea.
Emily’s poem reminded me of an experience I had several years ago. Though the circumstances differ, the experience raised similar feelings in me.
I was in Savannah for Dad’s memorial service. That afternoon a number of family members drove out of the city to my favorite childhood home, the scene of happy and unhappy memories. The old colonial-style house looked out over a tide-water river that still beckons to me.
Hoping for a glimpse inside the house, a few of my younger relatives went up to knock on the door and ring the bell. My heart froze with a feeling I can’t even name. What would I say if someone came to the door? I felt fear, confusion and consternation.
No one came to the door. I breathed a sigh of relief, yet still felt strange until we got in our cars and drove away. Though I loved seeing the river and the outside yard, I had no desire to meet the new owners or see the inside of this house. It contained too many convoluted memories and secrets.
Emily begins by calling her destination Home. By the time we get to the end of the poem, this Home has become a House. No longer the place it was, and not a place she needs to revisit.
The ending might sound comical if it weren’t for the magnitude of her fear. Fear, it seems, that she or her life might get high jacked in the process. And so she flees like a thief.
I’m left wondering whether something was stolen from Emily in that House she first called Home. Or perhaps she left that life behind and doesn’t want to lose the life she now has. Either way, I applaud her courage.
© Elouise Renich Fraser, 2 January 2017
Photo of Dickinson Homestead found at wickipedia.org