What Inn is this

Vieja Friendo Huevos, 1618, Diego Velázquez
Background Image: Vieja Friendo Huevos, 1618, Diego Velázquez

In her poem “On this wondrous sea – sailing silently” the traveler voyages across the sea that connects life and the afterlife and during a threatening storm she meets a guide who helps her to the shores of (perhaps) heaven. In this poem, however, whatever happens after death is more like a prison (or a Hotel California) and the guide is a Necromancer who rules over the guests. She paints a much more sinister image than she previously has and this shift speaks to her imagination.

While she does not say in the poem that the “Peculiar Traveler” is in hell, there are a few clues which might lead us to believe that’s what she had in mind. For example, the word “Peculiar” does not necessarily mean odd or strange, it also can refer to someone who is distinguished but, more importantly, it has a New England regional definition meaning “a district or piece of land not (yet) incorporated in or as a town”. Thus we could read “Peculiar Traveler” as a traveler who has journeyed to a peculiar land – land which is not attached to the mortal realm or perhaps heaven. And though “peculiar” in this sense is obsolete, it was current up until 1815 and probably remained in common / spoken usage when Emily was writing.

Another very unusual word is “Necromancer”. Obviously we think of someone who communes with the dead, but a necromancer is also a name for a chafing-dish which is a vessel that keeps food warm until it is served. And how could these things possibly be related? Well perhaps this “Peculiar” place Emily is writing about is sort of a way-station – an “Inn” – where the dead are kept warm enough until they can continue on their way to better accommodations. However, we could get even more morbid and look at the word “Necromancer” in relation to the empty “tankards” and the cold “hearth” as meaning that this particular “Traveler” is about to be feasted upon in this “Inn”. In other words, there is a slight reference to a sort of cannibalism where the “Landlord” will feast upon the dead and this activity will fill the “tankards” and light the “hearth”. There is even a possible allusion to the sacrament of the Eucharist which by eating the body of Christ has sometimes been viewed as consuming someone’s body to prolong life – though in the case of Christianity it is to partake of Christ’s everlasting promise of life after this one.

However, if we reign in that imagery to not be so gruesome, she could also be referring to the body of a corpse. The word “hearth” shares a relationship with ‘heart’ thus the traveler’s heart here has stopped (they are dead) and the “tankards” could refer to the blood of the body. In other words, she could be talking about a morgue where all the bodies are like travelers at an “Inn” but the “Landlord” is the mortician who prepares the body to make it’s final journey to their final home with the rest who are “below”. And since the dead do not need to eat there is no need for “maids” nor for “brimming tankards” nor for “ruddy fires on the hearth”.