Emily Dickinson, “Escaping backward to perceive…” (867)

“Escaping backward to perceive…” (867)
Emily Dickinson

Escaping backward to perceive
The Sea upon our place –
Escaping forward, to confront
His glittering Embrace –

Retreating up, a Billow’s height
Retreating blinded down
Our undermining feet to meet
Instructs to the Divine.


Earth is a strange place: “here,” in fact, is not a place. “Our place” was taken by the Sea; our motion of escape backwards is useless for rest. Perception into the past proves a chaos. Motion forward proves blinding: we hesitate before the “glittering Embrace,” perhaps hoping to understand it first. It seems the only reason we are on earth is to escape it – perpetually in motion, the struggle to understand is an attempt to be at rest.

Part of the struggle may be that perception and confrontation are not necessarily rational. Doubt is more a feeling than an articulate skepticism. In any case, we switch from “escaping” to “retreating,” with unmistakable parallels between “Sea” and “Billow’s height,” as well as the aforementioned “blinding” and “glittering Embrace.” The martial metaphor becomes significant (“escaping” to “retreating”) as we are getting ready to fight another day: we have accepted the finality of life. So now we are like the wave (“billow”), and disorder is to our advantage, marshaled somehow. We can only reach so far, and we do not know where we will crash (“blinded down”).

But the key is that we’re not really waves. We’re just a bit more accepting of the situation. That makes the “feet” “undermining,” “meet.” They are fitting in that they propel us forward and downward. This is not as bleak as it first seems: riches discovered within the Earth last. The Divine is not the fact of death, nor its acceptance. It is that we insist on order. The proper place of things is our concern, and the Sea is upon our place inasmuch it is fruitful. As said before on this blog: lovers cross oceans for each other every day.

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