Emily Dickinson, “Exultation is the going” (76)

From Jane Hirshfield’s “Pyracantha and Plum” I do receive a certain confidence. One can acknowledge the past, think through it, and find something worth saying to another. Perhaps, on that last point, many of us have become cynical. I know a few people who will simply assert what happened to them as if they’re telling the truth (they’re not) and as if the moral lesson is clear and usable by everyone (it isn’t). In the face of this false confidence, it can be hard to see how to build genuine self-esteem. Nervously trying to get the truth, we might start thinking too much, isolating ourselves, not taking the risk of engaging others without appropriate shame.

What if we’re just tired of dealing with anxiety, responding to it continually with care? What if we wanted to declare ourselves joyful no matter what? Dickinson, in the poem below, seems to want to prove herself no less than exultant. Exultation—a leaping above, a joy so powerful it characterizes a blessed afterlife—is the going of an inland soul to sea:

Exultation is the going (76)
Emily Dickinson

Exultation is the going
Of an inland soul to sea,
Past the houses — past the headlands —
Into deep Eternity —

Bred as we, among the mountains,
Can the sailor understand
The divine intoxication
Of the first league out from land?

On the one hand, this poem gives a distinct impression on a cursory reading. There’s a joy beyond all joys few can have; only a select, poet and audience among them, can understand this. On the other hand, Dickinson builds a context for that notion and then wholly undermines it. To be sure, “exultation” does not come from naiveté or willful ignorance. It is something we, bred… among the mountains want. We see past the houses — past the headlands — into deep Eternity from a distance; we do glimpse the sea. Our desire is for our vision, our words, to meet confirmation each step of the way. Our desire is for experience.

Still, one can’t help but be a bit suspicious about the experience wanted. The equivalence of “deep Eternity” with the everyday, earthly sea; the isolated heights implied by mountains; the “we” that wants exultation, a “we” crafted by sharing in poetic expectations—this is a quiet critique of faith. I don’t know if Dickinson knows it, but Machiavelli spoke of fortresses atop mountains as bad political strategy. Machiavelli implies that rule from above, at a time when the Church held massive political power, is hopelessly removed, impersonal. While it is striking that “exultation” in this poem is a descent, that does not necessarily change the audience Dickinson engages. We’re here, reading together, quietly wanting control over our own lives through these words. We know how we want to feel compared to others: Can the sailor understand the divine intoxication of the first league out from land? The sailor is not us, as he experiences the sea every single day. He does not feel “divine intoxication”—he has a job to do and does it.

Does this mean we shouldn’t “exult?” The poem is a sly comment about poetry itself being a siren song. It almost feels, for a second, like everyone reading the poem was entirely serious about going past the houses, past the headlands, reaching the sea. Like one atop a mountain wasn’t having a reverie. The question which remains is about what sort of experience and knowledge reading, imagining, and trying to understand constitute. There are no easy answers to this. Some of the most destructive I know, those tearing the world apart, are fantastic readers with a deep appreciation for authors and their intent. Yet I suspect there is something to the life of the mind that can help one escape one’s worst tendencies if utilized correctly. I will be the first to admit that this is a matter of belief.

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