Poems, by Emily Dickinson

I. Life.



[Published in “A Masque of Poets” at the request of “H.H.,” the author’s fellow-townswoman and friend.]

Success is counted sweetest

By those who ne’er succeed.

To comprehend a nectar

Requires sorest need.

Not one of all the purple host

Who took the flag today

Can tell the definition,

So clear, of victory,

As he, defeated, dying,

On whose forbidden ear

The distant strains of triumph

Break, agonized and clear!


Our share of night to bear,

Our share of morning,

Our blank in bliss to fill,

Our blank in scorning.

Here a star, and there a star,

Some lose their way.

Here a mist, and there a mist,

Afterwards — day!


Rouge Et Noir.

Soul, wilt thou toss again?

By just such a hazard

Hundreds have lost, indeed,

But tens have won an all.

Angels’ breathless ballot

Lingers to record thee;

Imps in eager caucus

Raffle for my soul.


Rouge Gagne.

’T is so much joy! ’T is so much joy!

If I should fail, what poverty!

And yet, as poor as I

Have ventured all upon a throw;

Have gained! Yes! Hesitated so

This side the victory!

Life is but life, and death but death!

Bliss is but bliss, and breath but breath!

And if, indeed, I fail,

At least to know the worst is sweet.

Defeat means nothing but defeat,

No drearier can prevail!

And if I gain, — oh, gun at sea,

Oh, bells that in the steeples be,

At first repeat it slow!

For heaven is a different thing

Conjectured, and waked sudden in,

And might o’erwhelm me so!


Glee! The great storm is over!

Four have recovered the land;

Forty gone down together

Into the boiling sand.

Ring, for the scant salvation!

Toll, for the bonnie souls, —

Neighbor and friend and bridegroom,

Spinning upon the shoals!

How they will tell the shipwreck

When winter shakes the door,

Till the children ask, “But the forty?

Did they come back no more?”

Then a silence suffuses the story,

And a softness the teller’s eye;

And the children no further question,

And only the waves reply.


If I can stop one heart from breaking,

I shall not live in vain;

If I can ease one life the aching,

Or cool one pain,

Or help one fainting robin

Unto his nest again,

I shall not live in vain.



Within my reach!

I could have touched!

I might have chanced that way!

Soft sauntered through the village,

Sauntered as soft away!

So unsuspected violets

Within the fields lie low,

Too late for striving fingers

That passed, an hour ago.


A wounded deer leaps highest,

I’ve heard the hunter tell;

’T is but the ecstasy of death,

And then the brake is still.

The smitten rock that gushes,

The trampled steel that springs;

A cheek is always redder

Just where the hectic stings!

Mirth is the mail of anguish,

In which it cautions arm,

Lest anybody spy the blood

And “You’re hurt” exclaim!


The heart asks pleasure first,

And then, excuse from pain;

And then, those little anodynes

That deaden suffering;

And then, to go to sleep;

And then, if it should be

The will of its Inquisitor,

The liberty to die.


In a Library.

A precious, mouldering pleasure ’t is

To meet an antique book,

In just the dress his century wore;

A privilege, I think,

His venerable hand to take,

And warming in our own,

A passage back, or two, to make

To times when he was young.

His quaint opinions to inspect,

His knowledge to unfold

On what concerns our mutual mind,

The literature of old;

What interested scholars most,

What competitions ran

When Plato was a certainty.

And Sophocles a man;

When Sappho was a living girl,

And Beatrice wore

The gown that Dante deified.

Facts, centuries before,

He traverses familiar,

As one should come to town

And tell you all your dreams were true;

He lived where dreams were sown.

His presence is enchantment,

You beg him not to go;

Old volumes shake their vellum heads

And tantalize, just so.


Much madness is divinest sense

To a discerning eye;

Much sense the starkest madness.

’T is the majority

In this, as all, prevails.

Assent, and you are sane;

Demur, — you’re straightway dangerous,

And handled with a chain.


I asked no other thing,

No other was denied.

I offered Being for it;

The mighty merchant smiled.

Brazil? He twirled a button,

Without a glance my way:

“But, madam, is there nothing else

That we can show today?”



The soul selects her own society,

Then shuts the door;

On her divine majority

Obtrude no more.

Unmoved, she notes the chariot’s pausing

At her low gate;

Unmoved, an emperor is kneeling

Upon her mat.

I’ve known her from an ample nation

Choose one;

Then close the valves of her attention

Like stone.


The Secret.

Some things that fly there be, —

Birds, hours, the bumble-bee:

Of these no elegy.

Some things that stay there be, —

Grief, hills, eternity:

Nor this behooveth me.

There are, that resting, rise.

Can I expound the skies?

How still the riddle lies!


The Lonely House.

I know some lonely houses off the road

A robber ’d like the look of, —

Wooden barred,

And windows hanging low,

Inviting to

A portico,

Where two could creep:

One hand the tools,

The other peep

To make sure all’s asleep.

Old-fashioned eyes,

Not easy to surprise!

How orderly the kitchen ’d look by night,

With just a clock, —

But they could gag the tick,

And mice won’t bark;

And so the walls don’t tell,

None will.

A pair of spectacles ajar just stir —

An almanac’s aware.

Was it the mat winked,

Or a nervous star?

The moon slides down the stair

To see who’s there.

There’s plunder, — where?

Tankard, or spoon,

Earring, or stone,

A watch, some ancient brooch

To match the grandmamma,

Staid sleeping there.

Day rattles, too,

Stealth’s slow;

The sun has got as far

As the third sycamore.

Screams chanticleer,

“Who’s there?”

And echoes, trains away,

Sneer — “Where?”

While the old couple, just astir,

Fancy the sunrise left the door ajar!


To fight aloud is very brave,

But gallanter, I know,

Who charge within the bosom,

The cavalry of woe.

Who win, and nations do not see,

Who fall, and none observe,

Whose dying eyes no country

Regards with patriot love.

We trust, in plumed procession,

For such the angels go,

Rank after rank, with even feet

And uniforms of snow.



When night is almost done,

And sunrise grows so near

That we can touch the spaces,

It ’s time to smooth the hair

And get the dimples ready,

And wonder we could care

For that old faded midnight

That frightened but an hour.


The Book of Martyrs.

Read, sweet, how others strove,

Till we are stouter;

What they renounced,

Till we are less afraid;

How many times they bore

The faithful witness,

Till we are helped,

As if a kingdom cared!

Read then of faith

That shone above the fagot;

Clear strains of hymn

The river could not drown;

Brave names of men

And celestial women,

Passed out of record

Into renown!


The Mystery of Pain.

Pain has an element of blank;

It cannot recollect

When it began, or if there were

A day when it was not.

It has no future but itself,

Its infinite realms contain

Its past, enlightened to perceive

New periods of pain.


I taste a liquor never brewed,

From tankards scooped in pearl;

Not all the vats upon the Rhine

Yield such an alcohol!

Inebriate of air am I,

And debauchee of dew,

Reeling, through endless summer days,

From inns of molten blue.

When landlords turn the drunken bee

Out of the foxglove’s door,

When butterflies renounce their drams,

I shall but drink the more!

Till seraphs swing their snowy hats,

And saints to windows run,

To see the little tippler

Leaning against the sun!


A Book.

He ate and drank the precious words,

His spirit grew robust;

He knew no more that he was poor,

Nor that his frame was dust.

He danced along the dingy days,

And this bequest of wings

Was but a book. What liberty

A loosened spirit brings!


I had no time to hate, because

The grave would hinder me,

And life was not so ample I

Could finish enmity.

Nor had I time to love; but since

Some industry must be,

The little toil of love, I thought,

Was large enough for me.



’T was such a little, little boat

That toddled down the bay!

’T was such a gallant, gallant sea

That beckoned it away!

’T was such a greedy, greedy wave

That licked it from the coast;

Nor ever guessed the stately sails

My little craft was lost!


Whether my bark went down at sea,

Whether she met with gales,

Whether to isles enchanted

She bent her docile sails;

By what mystic mooring

She is held today, —

This is the errand of the eye

Out upon the bay.


Belshazzar had a letter, —

He never had but one;

Belshazzar’s correspondent

Concluded and begun

In that immortal copy

The conscience of us all

Can read without its glasses

On revelation’s wall.


The brain within its groove

Runs evenly and true;

But let a splinter swerve,

’T were easier for you

To put the water back

When floods have slit the hills,

And scooped a turnpike for themselves,

And blotted out the mills!


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53