This poem is filled with religious imagery, although it may not seem like it on the surface. Its main difficulty comes from the fact that it is hard to interpret allusions originating from various parts of the Bible. It’s possible that Dickinson was thinking about the journey of the Israelites into Israel/Palestine, the story of Moses, Abraham, or Jesus. There is various evidence for these storylines and more within Dickinson’s text.
It is also possible to interpret the poem without considering the religious allusions. Instead, focusing on themes like determination and perseverance and the speaker’s optimistic attitude throughout.
I did not reach Thee Emily Dickinson I did not reach Thee But my feet slip nearer every day Three Rivers and a Hill to cross One Desert and a Sea I shall not count the journey one When I am telling thee. Two deserts, but the Year is cold So that will help the sand One desert crossed— The second one Will feel as cool as land Sahara is too little price To pay for thy Right hand. The Sea comes last—Step merry, feet, So short we have to go— To play together we are prone, But we must labor now, The last shall be the lightest load That we have had to draw. The Sun goes crooked— That is Night Before he makes the bend. We must have passed the Middle Sea— Almost we wish the End Were further off— Too great it seems So near the Whole to stand. We step like Plush, We stand like snow, The waters murmur new. Three rivers and the Hill are passed— Two deserts and the sea! Now Death usurps my Premium And gets the look at Thee.
Explore I did not reach Thee
‘I did not reach Thee’ by Emily Dickinson is an allusion-dense poem that suggests a speaker’s journey through life and towards God.
In the first part of the poem, Dickinson explains that her speaker is on a journey toward God. The following lines outline various obstacles she’s had to contend with throughout her life. The speaker sometimes expresses excitement and hesitancy as she draws closer to death. Ultimately, it’s clear that she doesn’t die and that death gets in the way of her standing at God’s right hand.
Structure and Form
‘I did not reach Thee’ by Emily Dickinson is a five-stanza poem divided into alternating stanzas of six and seven lines. The first, third, and fifth stanzas have six lines, and the second and fourth stanzas have seven. The poem does not follow a specific rhyme scheme, but there are examples of repetitive rhyme throughout. For instance, “Thee,” “Sea,” and “thee” in stanza one and “sand,” “hand,” and “land” in stanza two.
Throughout this poem, Dickinson makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Repetition: The use of the same literary device in multiple lines. For example, the poet returns multiple times to the obstacles she has to cross, like hills and rivers.
- Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “price” and “pay” in the last two lines of the second stanza.
- Imagery: the use of particularly interesting descriptions that should inspire the reader’s senses. For example, “We step like Plush, / We stand like snow, / The waters murmur new.”
- Anaphora: the repetition of the same word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “I” which begins many lines throughout the text.
- Personification: occurs when the poet imbues something non-human with human characteristics. For example, the poet suggests that the water murmurs in this poem.
I did not reach Thee
But my feet slip nearer every day
Three Rivers and a Hill to cross
One Desert and a Sea
I shall not count the journey one
When I am telling thee.
In the first stanza of the poem, the speaker begins by addressing “you.” The intended listener is someone the speaker cares a great deal about. Dickinson likely considered “thee” to be God, especially considering that the first “Thee” is capitalized. But it’s also possible that she was thinking about a significant other.
When she speaks about not reaching “Thee,” or you, she’s setting the scene and letting readers know from the beginning that the journey they’re on is unsuccessful. She, and the others referenced in the poem, may have physically arrived where they wanted to be, but they didn’t see “Thee” or God there. It’s important to also consider the use of “Thee” at the end of the poem.
Despite her attempts, she did not reach this person immediately. But, her feet grew nearer every day. There appears to be some hope that, eventually, she’ll get where she’s trying to go.
She still has to go, including three rivers and a hill. There’s also a desert and a sea between her and “you.” She determines that she will not treat the journey as a single outing when she finally gets to tell “you” about it.
Dickinson spends much of this poem discussing obstacles, like rivers and hills. Water is a common symbol in poetry, often relating to rebirth or change. While she spends much of the poem talking to “you.”
Two deserts, but the Year is cold
So that will help the sand
One desert crossed—
The second one
Will feel as cool as land
Sahara is too little price
To pay for thy Right hand.
The speaker continues her slightly optimistic tone in the second stanza. She notes that the cool weather this year will help one of the deserts she has to cross feel easier. And the second, she says, will feel as “cool as land,” an example of a simile.
In the final line, the speaker alludes to the fact that she’d be willing to endure far more to reach you. She feels that crossing the Sahara was too easy compared to the massive reward of being with you. This is one of the clearest allusions to the speaker’s destination—God. She wants to be at God’s “right hand,” in contrast to the left (which is generally associated with Hell).
The Sea comes last—Step merry, feet,
So short we have to go—
To play together we are prone,
But we must labor now,
The last shall be the lightest load
That we have had to draw.
The boundary she needs to cross before reaching God is the sea. The speaker addresses her own feet, an example of an apostrophe, telling them that they only have a short ways to go. It’s important to remain focused; she continues so she doesn’t get distracted in this last leg of her journey. Here is the best example of the speaker’s more optimistic tone.
She also notes that the final part of the journey will be the easiest. It will be the “lightest load” of the trip because she has less time and fewer life obstacles to navigate.
It’s clear Dickinson is trying to convey a determined attitude in the face of hardship. By using optimistic-sounding language, she lightens the tone and doesn’t allow the burden of her various obstacles to overwhelm her.
The Sun goes crooked—
That is Night
Before he makes the bend.
We must have passed the Middle Sea—
Almost we wish the End
Were further off—
Too great it seems
So near the Whole to stand.
In the fourth stanza, the speaker describes the setting of the sun and the appearance of the moon. This suggests that she’s traveling night and day to reach her objective.
She explains that she has to pass the “middle sea,” and this will be the last part of her journey. Mostly, she’s been able to maintain an optimistic attitude throughout. She expresses the wish for the end at times, but when she’s getting closer, she starts to feel more hesitant.
In the second to last line, “Too great it seems,” she is saying that it is too hard or too overwhelming to be so close to the end.
We step like Plush,
We stand like snow,
The waters murmur new.
Three rivers and the Hill are passed—
Two deserts and the sea!
Now Death usurps my Premium
And gets the look at Thee.
The poet uses two more similes in the fifth stanza describing walking on soft, snow-like material. Plus is soft and luxurious, suggesting that something is inviting and comforting in the speaker’s future. She stands “like snow” is an unusual message but still feels positive alongside “Plush.”
The water around her speaks (an example of personification), and life seems new and beautiful. It’s possible that Dickinson was thinking about baptism in these lines. There have also been some suggestions that “new” used to read as “now.”
The poet reiterates that her speaker has passed “Three rivers and the Hill” on her journey as well as the two deserts and the “sea.” The use of an exclamation mark at the end of the third to last line suggests the speaker’s excitement and surprise that she’s so close to the end.
But, in the final two lines, the poet introduces “Death.” Her reward or “Premium” was removed from the speaker at the poem’s end. It took away her ability to see God (meaning that the speaker hasn’t died).
The speaker in these lines is unknown. They go unnamed throughout but are commonly considered to be Emily Dickinson herself. She may have been considering her own journey through life and what it was going to be like to step into death and to God’s side.
The tone is confident and optimistic in part, seen through Dickinson’s speaker’s determination. In other sections of the poem, the speaker is more hesitant or feels out of control. The latter is seen more clearly in the first stanza when she describes slipping out of control. Her hesitance is seen through the speaker’s willingness to break the journey into parts. She isn’t in a rush.
The meaning is that a journey through life is not easy, and even when one reaches the last stages of their life, they still have to navigate obstacles. The speaker is getting closer to death and feels excited to be near God but has yet to pass away.
The poem is about a journey through life. The speaker addresses God throughout and varies from feeling hesitant about dying and excited about being at God’s right hand.
Emily Dickinson wrote ‘I did not reach Thee.’ It is one of her less-commonly read poems and not usually considered one of her best. This is due to the difficult-to-interpret Biblical allusions throughout and her use of complicated diction.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Emily Dickinson poems. For example:
- ‘He ate and drank the precious words’ – an uplifting poem. It celebrates the joys of reading by describing one man’s experience.
- ‘Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –’ – features the poet’s growing disbelief regarding the customary Christian rituals and her intention to seek salvation without resorting to conventional means.
- ‘The Letter’ – is a sweet love poem. It is told from the perceptive of a love letter.