19th Century Poets: Dickinson and Longfellow and The Poetry of Life

W.F. Bellais II

 Poets use of allegory or metaphor and references to events or things unknown to the reader sometime seem baffling. Apparently the reader must have an experience similar to the poet in order to understand the poem’s meaning. For example, in her poem, “Going, all along,”[1] Emily Dickinson speaks of a Dome, a surplice, and a sexton. Here is that poem. 

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –

I keep it, staying at Home –

With a Bobolink for a Chorister –

And an Orchard, for a Dome –

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice –

I just wear my Wings –

And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,

Our little Sexton – sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman –

And the sermon is never long,

So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –

I’m going, all along.

Who is going and what is Emily writing about?

Apparently she is justifying her reasons for turning away from organized religion. If a bobolink does not need to go to church on Sunday, why should she. But what are those words she is using to describe religion?

I think everyone know that a chorister sings and some may know that the surplice is a large white flowing garment worn by the clergy, and some may generally know a sexton is one who keeps the church building neat and tidy, rings church bells, and digs the graves. However, I think many in today’s culture have no idea what the words mean. What about the Dome, what does that mean? The Dome possibly refers to the “dome of the sky,” a reflection of a dome that is over a church building, such as St. Peter’s in Rome or St. Paul’s in London.

Not only has Emily rejected religion but also social intercourse of any kind. She is often referred to as the Recluse of Amherst, so it is logical to a degree that she would prefer to stay at home especially on Sunday.

Like so many, Emily has reduced religion to its basest parts. God, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed are not part of the equation. The exterior of vestments, clergy, and church buildings define religion for her. The lengthy, boring, irrelevant sermon may be enough to drive anyone away; and probably has. But again neither the preacher nor the sermon defines religion. If that’s all the religion is, then I would recommend that everyone stay away.

Not long ago I came across a book by David Baldacci called Wish You Well[2] (I recommend it to everyone) in which he quotes a poem by Longfellow[3] in which we read,

Let us, then, be up and doing,

With a heart for any fate;

Still achieving, still pursuing,

Learn to labor and to wait.

Lives of great men all remind us

We can make our lives sublime,

And, departing, leave behind us

Footprints on the sands of time;

Footprints, that perhaps another,

Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,

A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,

Seeing, shall take heart again.

This poem is a stirring call to live. Unlike Emily Dickinson, Longfellow interested in living rather than dying drove his poetic motives. Many of Emily Dickinson’s poems speak of funereal things such as hearses carrying bodies to church yards and the endless bleakness of life. Longfellow reminds us that we are dust, but that being dust is not the goal of the soul:

Life is real! Life is earnest!

And the grave is not its goal;

Dust thou art, to dust returnest,

Was not spoken of the soul.

Longfellow also reminds us that living means doing. To be alive is to be a creature of action.

Let us, then, be up and doing,

With a heart for any fate;

Still achieving, still pursuing,

Learn to labor and to wait.

In the world’s broad field of battle,

In the bivouac of Life,

Be not like dumb, driven cattle!

Be a hero in the strife!

Particularly stirring for me are the words that end Longfellow’s poem,

Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!

Let the dead Past bury its dead!

Act, act in the living Present!

Heart within, and God o’erhead!

I am happier now that I found this poem by Longfellow. I have had a book of the complete poems by Longfellow in my personal library for over thirty years and had only glanced through it. Now I have read many more poems written by this great American literary genius.

[1] Emily Dickinson did not title her poems. This particular poem is cataloged as Poem 324.

[2] David Baldacci, Wish You Well, 2000, Grand Central Publishing, a division of Hachette Book Group USA

[3] H. W. Longfellow, “The Psalm of Life.”

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