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Emily Dickinson's "The feet of people walking home"

Emily Dickinson's poems inform my own worldview as a poet and scholar. They dramatize the human spirit via deep attention to life's details.

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson

Introduction and Text of "The feet of people walking home"

Emily Dickinson's "The feet of people walking home" plays out its little drama in three octaves or eight-line stanzas. Instead of the literal meaning of the word, "home," this poem employs the figurative meaning as in the old hymn lyric, "This World Is Not My Home."

This Dickinson poem features highly symbolic imagery, while at times seeming to point to things of this physical world. Every image works in service of supporting the claim that each human soul wears "gayer sandals" as it strides toward its permanent "home" in the abode of the Divine Creator. Again, the Dickinsonian mysticism provides the poet's speaker with an abundance of mystic meaning garnered from that "Bird" of hers that ventures out and returns with new melodies.

The feet of people walking home

The feet of people walking home
With gayer sandals go –
The Crocus – till she rises
The Vassal of the snow –
The lips at Hallelujah
Long years of practise bore
Till bye and bye these Bargemen
Walked singing on the shore.

Pearls are the Diver's farthings
Extorted from the Sea –
Pinions – the Seraph's wagon
Pedestrian once – as we –
Night is the morning's Canvas
Larceny – legacy –
Death, but our rapt attention
To Immortality.

My figures fail to tell me
How far the Village lies –
Whose peasants are the angels –
Whose Cantons dot the skies –
My Classics vail their faces –
My faith that Dark adores –
Which from its solemn abbeys
Such resurrection pours.

Reading of "The feet of people walking home"

Commentary

In a uniquely dramatic way, Dickinson's speaker reveals the simple truth that people are happier when they are on their way home.

First Stanza: Happier on the Way Home

The feet of people walking home
With gayer sandals go –
The Crocus – till she rises
The Vassal of the snow –
The lips at Hallelujah
Long years of practise bore
Till bye and bye these Bargemen
Walked singing on the shore.

A paraphrase of the first two lines of Dickinson's "The feet of people walking home" might be: People are happier when they are on their way back to the abode of the Divine Creator. The physical earthly place called "home" serves as a metaphor for Heaven or the Divine Place where the belovèd Lord resides.

That "Divine Place" is ineffable, and therefore has no earthly counterpart, but for most human beings and especially for Emily Dickinson, home is the nearest thing on earth, that is, in this world to the spiritual level of being known as "Heaven." So according to this speaker even the shoes of people who are on their way "home" are "gayer," happier, more peaceful, filled with delight.

The speaker then begins to offer support for her claim: the flower exemplified by the "Crocus" is restrained by the "snow" until it pushes up through the ground and displays it marvelous colors. Similarly, the human soul remains restrained by mayic delusion until it pushes up through the dirt of this world to reveal its true colors in God.

Those who have practiced meditating on the name of the Divine for many years ultimately find themselves walking and "singing on the shore" like "Bargemen," who have come ashore after a long haul of work.

Second Stanza: The Value of Commodities

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Pearls are the Diver's farthings
Extorted from the Sea –
Pinions – the Seraph's wagon
Pedestrian once – as we –
Night is the morning's Canvas
Larceny – legacy –
Death, but our rapt attention
To Immortality.

Further examples of those who are going "home" are divers for pearls who are able to "extort" those valuable commodities "from the sea." Again, highly symbolic is the act of diving for pearls. The meditating devotee is diving for the pearls of love and wisdom that only the Blessed Creator provides his striving children.

This image is comparable to the line in the chant by Paramahansa Yogananda, "Today My Mind Has Dived": "Today my mind has dived deep in Thee / for They pearls of love from my depthless sea." The metaphoric diving for pearls enlivens and strengthens the message regarding the spiritual seeker’s search for God’s wisdom and love. In both discourses, the "sea" serves as a metaphor for the Divine.

The "Seraph" before getting his wings once was confined to walking, not riding in a wagon. His wings or pinions now serve him as a useful vehicle to alleviate his need to take the shoe-leather express.

"Night" serves the "morning" as a "canvas" on which can be painted taking and giving. If in dreams, the poet can see herself as a channel for providing mystic truths, she will be leaving a "legacy," but if she has envisioned only selfish wish fulfillment, she will be committing "larceny."

Therefore, as night serves morning, morning serves the soul as it allows expression to blossom. "Death" is not the end of life, not the life of the soul, because the soul is immortal; therefore, the only purpose for death is to focus the human being's mind on the ultimate fact of "Immortality." Without the duality of death vs immortality, the latter could not be grasped in the physical world on the material plane.

Third Stanza: Ultimate Home in Heaven

My figures fail to tell me
How far the Village lies –
Whose peasants are the angels –
Whose Cantons dot the skies –
My Classics vail their faces –
My faith that Dark adores –
Which from its solemn abbeys
Such resurrection pours.

The speaker now admits that she has no idea how far away the "Village" is, that is, how far or how long it will take to reach her Ultimate Home in Heaven. But she then makes sure that her listeners/readers know that she is indeed referring to Heaven when she asserts that Heaven's "peasants are the angels." The souls that have already entered that Kingdom of Ineffable Reality have joined the angels. The speaker then refers to the stars calling them "Cantons" that "dot the skies."

The speaker is implying that the "Village" she speaks of is full of light, and the only earthly comparison is the stars in the sky. The speaker reports that her old, established expressions have hidden themselves as her faith remains cloistered and "solemn," but from those "abbeys" of her faith, she senses that the "resurrection" of her soul is certain, as the pouring out of sunshine from a dark cloud that divides to reveal those marvelous, warm rays.

Dickinson’s Grammar/Spelling Errors

Some of Dickinson's poems contain grammatical or spelling errors, for example, in line 6 of "The feet of people walking home," "Long years of practise bore," she uses the British spelling verb form instead of the noun form,"practice," which is actually required in this phrase. Interestingly, while American English uses "practice" for both noun and verb, the British forms use "practice" to function as a noun and "practise" as a verb.

It remains unclear why editor Thomas H. Johnson did not quietly correct that error, because he reports in the introduction to his The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, "I have silently corrected obvious misspelling (witheld, visiter, etc), and misplaced apostrophes (does’nt)." However, those errors do tend to give her work a human flavor that perfection would not have rendered.

The Metaphor of Divinity

The impossibility of expressing the ineffable has scooped up poets of all ages. The poet who intuits that only the Divine exists and that all Creation is simply a plethora of manifestations emanating from that Ultimate Reality has always been motivated to express that intuition. But putting into words that which is beyond words remains a daunting task.

Because Emily Dickinson was blessed with a mystic's vision, she was able to express metaphorically her intuition that the soul of the human being is eternal and immortal, even though her sometimes awkward expressions seem to lurch forward in fits and starts. But many of her best efforts feature the divine drama, which she often plays out in her poems.

 Commemorative Stamp

Commemorative Stamp

The text I use for commentaries

The text I use for commentaries

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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