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

Updated on April 14, 2018
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Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.

Emily Dickinson Commemorative Stamp

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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."

The entire poem features highly symbolic imagery, while at times seeming to point to things of this 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.

0007. 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"

Emily Dickinson

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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 the poet named 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 practised meditating on the name of the Divine for many years eventually 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

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 wisdom that only the Blessed Creator provides his striving children. 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 this world.

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 to reach her Ultimate Home in Heaven. But she then makes sure that her listeners/readers know 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.

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 just a little concentration from the reader will reveal the divine drama that plays out in her poems.

Note: Some of Dickinson's poems contain grammatical errors, for example, in line 6 of "The feet of people walking home," "Long years of practise bore," she uses the verb form instead of the noun form,"practice," which is actually required in this phrase. 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.

Dickinson's Titles


Emily Dickinson did not provide titles to her 1,775 poems; therefore, each poem's first line becomes the title. According to the MLA Style Manuel:

"When the first line of a poem serves as the title of the poem, reproduce the line exactly as it appears in the text."

APA does not address this issue.

Life Sketch of Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson remains one of the most fascinating and widely researched poets in America. Much speculation abounds regarding some of the most known facts about her. For example, after the age of seventeen, she remained fairly cloistered in her father's home, rarely moving from the house beyond the front gate. Yet she produced some of the wisest, deepest poetry ever created anywhere at any time.

Regardless of Emily's personal reasons for living nun-like, readers have found much to admire, enjoy, and appreciate about her poems. Though they often baffle upon first encounter, they reward readers mightily who stay with each poem and dig out the nuggets of golden wisdom.

New England Family

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born December 10, 1830, in Amherst, MA, to Edward Dickinson and Emily Norcross Dickinson. Emily was the second child of three: Austin, her older brother who was born April 16, 1829, and Lavinia, her younger sister, born February 28, 1833. Emily died on May 15, 1886.

Emily's New England heritage was strong and included her paternal grandfather, Samuel Dickinson, who was one of the founders of Amherst College. Emily's father was a lawyer and also was elected to and served one term in the state legislature (1837-1839); later between 1852 and 1855, he served one term in the U.S. House of Representative as a representative of Massachusetts.

Education

Emily attended the primary grades in a one room school until being sent to Amherst Academy, which became Amherst College. The school took pride in offering college level course in the sciences from astronomy to zoology. Emily enjoyed school, and her poems testify to the skill with which she mastered her academic lessons.

After her seven year stint at Amherst Academy, Emily then entered Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in the fall of 1847. Emily remained at the seminary for only one year. Much speculation has been offered regarding Emily's early departure from formal education, from the atmosphere of religiosity of the school to the simple fact that the seminary offered nothing new for the sharp minded Emily to learn. She seemed quite content to leave in order to stay home. Likely her reclusiveness was beginning, and she felt the need to control her own learning and schedule her own life activities.

As a stay-at-home daughter in 19th century New England, Emily was expected to take on her share of domestic duties, including housework, likely to help prepare said daughters for handling their own homes after marriage. Possibly, Emily was convinced that her life would not be the traditional one of wife, mother, and householder; she has even stated as much: God keep me from what they call households.

In this householder-in-training position, Emily especially disdained the role a host to the many guests that her father's community service required of his family. She found such entertaining mind-boggling, and all that time spent with others meant less time for her own creative efforts. By this time in her life, Emily was discovering the joy of soul-discovery through her art.

Although many have speculated that her dismissal of the current religious metaphor landed her in the atheist camp, Emily's poems testify to a deep spiritual awareness that far exceeds the religious rhetoric of the period. In fact, Emily was likely discovering that her intuition about all things spiritual demonstrated an intellect that far exceeded any of her family's and compatriots' intelligence. Her focus became her poetry—her main interest in life.

Publication

Very few of Emily's poems appeared in print during her lifetime. And it was only after her death the her sister Vinnie discovered the bundles of poems, called fascicles, in Emily's room. A total of 1775 individual poems have made their way to publication. The first publicans of her works to appear, gathered and edited by Mabel Loomis Todd, a supposed paramour of Emily's brother, and the editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson had been altered to the point of changing the meanings of her poems. The regularization of her technical achievements with grammar and punctuation obliterated the high achievement that the poet had so creatively accomplished.

Readers can thank Thomas H. Johnson, who in the mid 1950s went to work at restoring Emily's poems to their, at least near, original. His doing so restored her many dashes, spacings, and other grammar/mechanical features that earlier editors had "corrected" for the poet—corrections that ultimately resulted in obliteration of the poetic achievement reached by Emily's mystically brilliant talent.

Thomas H. Johnson's The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson

The text I use for commentaries
The text I use for commentaries | Source

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    © 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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