Category Archives: Böcklin, Arnold

Tho’ I get home how late – how late

The Homecoming, 1887, Arnold Böcklin
Background Image: The Homecoming, 1887, Arnold Böcklin

The most interesting moment in this poem is when she wonders “what myself will say” upon coming home and seeing everyone’s eyes “turn” towards her as she walks in the door. The rest of the poem is filled with longing and expectation, but just as she is about to feel the “fire” of her hearth, doubt creeps in.

You could say this is a road poem, written on the journey as the traveler makes their way home, perhaps by the same person as in “Went up a year this evening!” She could also be saying that home is not just her literal home – such as in Amherst – but home is the afterlife too.

But it is her unusual image of “descending – dumb – and dark” which is quite fascinating. “Descending” is not typically how we think of what happens in the after life when we ascend into heaven. Here she is “descending” which in one reading could be her stepping out of the carriage at night onto the carriage steps and then to the ground below, but it could also be read as “descending” into the underworld – the Greek word being Katabasis which means to descend and which has a long history in art.

In The Odyssey, Book 11, Odysseus descends into the underworld where the dead will only speak once they have drunk from the blood he has brought with him. Upon his arrival he sees that since he has been away on his voyage his mother has died,

Then appeared the ghost of my dead mother,
Anticleia, Autolycus’s child.
I’d left her still alive when I set off
for sacred Troy. Once I caught sight of her,
I wept, and I felt pity in my heart.
Nonetheless, in spite of my great sorrow,
I could not let her get too near the blood,
until I’d questioned blind Teiresias.

Odyssey, Book 11, 103-110

Thus in Emily’s poem when she says “To wonder what myself will say / And what itself, will say to me” she is, perhaps, alluding to Odysseus’ anxiety of speaking with the dead, his sorrow at seeing that someone he loved has died, and that the afterlife is not a cheerful place, but a place of darkness where the spirits are “dumb” until they are brought an offering of blood so that they then may speak.

In many of Emily’s poem, the voyage of life is compared with nautical imagery, such as in “On this wondrous sea – sailing silently“, “Whether my bark went down at sea” and “Adrift! A little boat adrift!” so she is part of that long tradition of writers going back to at least Homer who also see life’s voyage as a difficult ocean crossing. Thus as Emily is in her carriage or on her boat in this poem, she is filled with both the happy anticipation of arriving home which she describes with words such as “Extasy” (in her idiosyncratic spelling of this word), “expecting”, “Transporting”, and “fire” (as in the hearth fire of the home), but she is also filled with doubts which she alludes to with “late”, “dumb”, “done expecting”, “Agony”, “burn”, “long-cheated”, and “Beguiles”. She does not use these words in isolation, rather each of them can be read in a positive or a more pessimistic light which illustrates how the traveler who has been away too long – “how late” – will be filled with anxiety for the moment when they finally arrive and the fear of what they might find when they get there.