“Away from Home are some and I…” (821)
Emily Dickinson

Away from Home are some and I –
An Emigrant to be
In a Metropolis of Homes
Is easy, possibly –

The Habit of a Foreign Sky
We – difficult – acquire
As Children, who remain in Face
The more their Feet retire.

Comment:

“Home” only makes sense because it is a limitation, but that logic contains an unexpected problem. The obvious problem is that “dwelling in possibility” means leaving home. Fine. But actually leaving home (“away from home”) causes us to not account others properly (“some and I”), and the recognition of many other homes (“a Metropolis of Homes”) makes one wonder: is it really possible to leave home? Everything may be “home;” the whole of society is nothing but homes (“metro-polis:” “metro” is from the Greek word for Mother).

Dickinson’s speaker does not want to dwell on the impossibility of leaving home; she alludes to it (“An Emigrant to be”) but does not develop that theme. Of course some will think it is impossible to leave home, ignoring what Abraham, Socrates, Christ and many others have done physically and intellectually. What the poem wants to know is the linkage between a failure to account others – including those previously closest to one – and the recognition of a “Metropolis of Homes.” Somehow these are one complaint, and that makes no sense initially. Should we not be able to appreciate diversity better by seeing other sorts of homes?

The trouble is climate, perspective – “the habit of a foreign sky.” It is one thing to make incremental changes to one’s understanding; in fact, one could argue that incremental changes are no changes at all for the most part. The way rhetoric works is that it takes an image of a thing (not the thing itself) and changes it slightly. As you find that persuasive, it presents you with another slightly changed image following from the first changed image. Over time, you find yourself at quite a distance from the original image, let alone the object that was originally contemplated. This would seem to argue against “habits” of the understanding, but someone who does not show any consistency in how they approach issues is insane. Rhetoric is a necessary and critical part of intellectual life, not something that can be dismissed in favor of the truth simply.

So the issue is “foreign sky.” Maybe we’ve never left home – Dickinson herself never did – but something consequential about how we see anything has changed. To illustrate, Dickinson’s speaker gives us a simile (“as Children”). Given “some and I,” it is not clear where “we” comes from. Perhaps this is why she does not say “being Children.” In addition to “we” versus “some and I,” we readers note the contrast between “easy” and “difficult,” and the very sharp contrast between “possibly” (not even a verb) and “acquire.” The speaker does nothing in the first stanza; she is away, she is contemplating her being. “Acquire” is a loaded term: it is the decisive break between ancient and modern thought. Plato and Aristotle and Christ do not talk about acquisition in a positive light; Machiavelli and nearly every thinker after him are obsessed with property. What is difficult to acquire, “the habit of a foreign sky,” is “as Children” who always seem the same to parents (“Metropolis”) and those who have left home (how do you know who else is intellectually independent?). “The more their Feet retire” is cryptic enough: it not only seems to refer to the “children’s” motion away from any given home, but the parents’ ceasing to follow them, and even the children’s silent establishment of their own home. “Some and I” can result from purposeful limitation, an inability to understand others; the Metropolis is perpetual as long as there are people. Lovers of wisdom and everyone else are united in clamoring for independence, but only one group is concerned about the ironic consequences for independent thought.