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The tone in the first stanza is of joyousness and excitement, as people make their way to heaven. Dickinson uses the words “gayer,” “hallelujah,” and “singing” to emphasize the uplifting feeling here. It could be argued that this is the point in the humans’ lives (or deaths, or afterlives, depending on how one looks at it) when they reach the pinnacle of happiness, for they have finally entered heaven. The humans, now dead, would then acquire wings, immortality, and an angelic status that rises far above that of humans. Much like Dickinson’s other poems, this one uses metaphors to represent similar things, such as “home,” which represents “heaven,” “snow,” which represents the “clouds” on which heaven resides, and “vassals,” which represents the “angels” who serve God.
The second stanza shares a relation to the first, but it could be described as being completely opposite in tone. Dickinson uses the words “extorted,” “larceny,” and “death” to emphasize the crime that is personified here. Dickinson uses more metaphors in this stanza to compare the onrush of people entering heaven to divers who take pearls from the sea. In both cases, a sense of “value” is diminished, or perhaps even lost. Referring back to the first stanza, Dickinson subtly states that the status of angels would no longer be as honorable or magnificent as it is now if everyone were to acquire wings, achieve immortality, and enter heaven.
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The third stanza continues by combining the previous two, as well as taking into consideration the feelings of the angels, whom Dickinson believes are enraged at the “extortion” of their honor and magnificence. Dickinson metaphorically describes the angels’ method of keeping people out by saying that the angels (including Dickinson’s ancestors) “veil their faces” so that humans cannot easily find their way to heaven (line 21). (Though it is true that each of Franklin’s versions regarding this poem, as well as the original manuscripts, contain the word “vail,” Dickinson has proven in at least one of her letters that she has a tendency to misspell words, including “veil.” Taken in context, “veil” seems more appropriate.) Wolff makes a note that “concealment” is a recurring motif in Dickinson’s poems when she says, “Rage is entirely separated from ‘my father, Edward Dickinson’: it finds expression only in the poetry, directed toward a ‘Father’ in Heaven Whose face we never see and Whose voice we never hear” (64). Could it be, then, that the phrase “My Classics” roughly translates to “My Father” (line 21)? It is interesting to note here that Dickinson loved her father dearly, but that love was not reciprocal. Shortly after her father’s death, Emily Dickinson writes in one of her letters, “I am glad there is Immortality – but would have tested it myself – before entrusting him” (Wolff 64). Despite her love and respect for her father, she perhaps feared the possibility that her father would make efforts after his own death to prevent her from entering heaven.
It seems, then, that one’s interest for this poem is twofold. The first interest is the purpose for the poem’s duplication. A possible motive can be brought to light with a quick look at the original manuscripts, at the end of which there is a snippet of another poem. Perhaps the duplication process was enacted merely to separate “The feet of people walking home” from the other, much shorter poem. If this is the case, the duplication may be of no significance at all. The second interest, the poem’s meaning, is undoubtedly the most interesting of the two. The poem could be about Emily Dickinson’s thoughts regarding an unloving father. Yet, with Dickinson’s multitude of metaphors, any meaning can be interpreted for this poem.
Franklin, R.W. The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1981.
Franklin, R.W. The Poems of Emily Dickinson, Variorium Edition. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998.
Johnson, Thomas H. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Boston, Massachusetts: Little, Brown and Company, 1961.
Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. Emily Dickinson. Reading, Massachusetts: Perseus Books, 1988.