Emily Dickinson, “Doom is the House without the Door” (475)

Because you think something, you’re trapped; because I think, I’m trapped. One traps oneself in the same way light enters a house without a door: Doom is the House without the Door — ‘Tis entered from the Sun. Light, “from the Sun,” has the ability to enter an enclosed space in an almost immaterial way. This seems grand, but is it possible to find a way out? The poem tells us we are “doomed,” fatefully stuck.

How can one “doom” oneself from a mere thought? Perhaps far more than one thought is operative, but the safe assumption is that whatever dooms us is near imperceptible. Still, the poem as a whole plays with the idea that whatever space we’ve entered, we imagine the rest of reality from:

Doom is the House without the Door (475)
Emily Dickinson 

Doom is the House without the Door —
'Tis entered from the Sun —
And then the Ladder's thrown away,
Because Escape — is done —
 
'Tis varied by the Dream
Of what they do outside —
Where Squirrels play — and Berries die —
And Hemlocks — bow — to God — 

How does one doom oneself from a mere thought? I myself might be doing this all the time—I get “hung up” on how I feel, think I have found some great insight, then start trying to apply it to everything around me. I guess I had better admit the Ladder’s thrown away, / Because Escape — is done.

The Biblical overtones of “Ladder,” though, hint at a grander delusion or more fundamental problem. Not just any supposed insight is at stake, as this concerns wrestling with God. If you think you have an insight that could serve as revelation, surely you are doomed. Doomed if you’re wrong, for obvious reasons. But also doomed if you’re right, because you’ve chosen the only fate possible.

Sometimes, when we feel downcast, we play the part of prophet a bit too much. This poem hits hardest when one realizes one could be right and the insight wouldn’t be helpful. Instead of going outside, I’d simply Dream / of what they do outside. “They” is purposely vague, as if I’ve ceased to communicate with people who actually exist. I’ve unfortunately known quite a few people who were more wed to their thoughts of what others were like because they could not deal with real people.

Outside is Where Squirrels play — and Berries die — / And Hemlocks — bow — to God. I wonder. I can see myself both jealous and charmed at the idea animals can simply play. It’s a delusion, of course. We’ve all seen how much pain animals endure, physical and emotional. I can also see myself muttering about how everything will cease to be. Some species of berries do not come back. “Hemlocks” is the trickier item. It implies Socrates, who famously did not bow. The problem is this: if one’s insight dooms one, causing one to be bitter, should we consider it wise?

“Hemlocks — bow — to God” suggests Dickinson thinks this doom the death of reason. I’m inclined to agree, but there’s a problem still outstanding. How do we know when a thought is acting like a revelation? How do we know when we’ve silently decided we’re some kind of Cassandra? The only sure answer is when we look back at how we’ve acted and thought, summing up years of our lives in some cases with a mere “Oh.”

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