In the poem, “As Watchers Hang Upon the East –” Dickinson writes about heaven’s role in our lives. Based upon ambiguities created by syntax and punctuation, as well as weighted words that carry many meanings, the poem produces numerous different readings. Three dominant interpretations conflict with one another: Heaven as a good place, heaven as a good but not accessible place, and heaven as an accessible yet disappointing entity.
Heaven as a perfect place where God resides or as a state of supreme happiness that proves real and accessible stands as the surface reading of the poem. In this form, the repetition of “As” indicates a comparison of Heaven to the situations. “Watcher” (Dickinson 1) represents someone waiting for morning, as a sentinel from the Bible whose job it is to guard the town through the night, waiting for the safety of morning. The word could also indicate a person watching through the night over someone suffering from an illness. For either position, the night equates to a job, and the morning would bring rest and safety. “East” indicates the place where the sun rises in this sense, and “hang” refers to a dependence upon the morning, finding support in it. The Beggars who “revel” at the feast are partaking in a joyous and playful action, and the “fancy” that spreads the feast indicates that the feast was spread to their liking. “By” in line 3 can be a preposition of means, confirming the idea that the Beggars’ preference determines what the feast contains. The Brook stands for a stream within a desert, an arid, dry place that is void of life, offering sweet hope to whoever hears it because he knows something good waits for him should he persevere through his present situation. When Heaven “beguiles the tired”, “beguiles” indicates that Heaven is eluding the bad things with the pleasing idea of itself, so the Watchers, Beggars, and person passing through the dry place—the tired—can endure the moment with some sense of hopeful pleasure. Heaven’s presence comforts the subjects of the first stanza.
In the second stanza, “the lid of Amethyst” is a covering upon an indication of sunrise, purple royalty, and good things. The opening of it releases the morning—letting out the good things, or even releasing and sending away a mourning. This line shows a transition from the duties, weariness, and mourning that occurs at night, into the rest, pleasantries, and illumination of the daytime. The next line supports this acquirement of pleasures, for the juxtaposition of “when an honored Guest” next to “Beggar” (10), as well as the capitalization of the two nouns, suggests that the Beggar abandons his previous post and becomes an “honored Guest,” thus fulfilling his desires and thirsts with flagons. This is what Heaven is; if it is true—it is a place that fulfills desires and offers rest and good things. While on Earth, Heaven provides comfort to those in difficult circumstances hoping for a better place that in the end it offers to the faithful.
The second reading of the poem takes the repetition of “As” in the sense of “at the same time as” instead of in its comparative sense. At the same time that the guardians of the city or the sick wait for daybreak, Heaven tantalizes them with thoughts of daybreak that is out of their reach, offering no aid or rest. When the “Beggars revel at a feast”—with revel in the sense that “they draw back at” it (Dickinson’s Webster)—the preposition “By” could change to a preposition of position, indicating that the Beggars stand by a feast, but not necessarily one of which they can partake. The Beggar draws back because something he deeply desires stands in front of him yet remains inaccessible. Heaven teases them with an intangible reality, offering no substance. At the same time that streaming water in the desert sounds to the thirsty ear, the thought of it makes the dry mouth dryer, the water too far away to offer any relief. While Heaven remains something good, it becomes inaccessible, worsening the present reality of the moment because it presents ideas of better circumstances without any present aid.
The next stanza changes the direction of the reading. It indicates that should Heaven be true, it is like the Watcher that finally finds relief in the morning and the Beggar who can finally satiate his thirst. The shift in tone makes Heaven a place that offers no aid, but upon morning—enlightenment or the place where death and mourning are “let go”, as in, permitted to abandon—it finally proves to satisfy. In this state, it offers rest and good things. This reading creates a cruel tension between how the idea of Heaven only worsens the moments in need of aid, but, to those who have struggled through no longer need help, it offers a sweet reward. Within this reading, Dickinson warns us to not focus on perfection as an escape during difficult circumstances because it worsens the situation. Should we focus on the present, tangible reality, we will endure more easily, and another better reality will eventually become tangible as well.
The third possible reading distorts the pleasantness of the “Heaven”. The meaning of “hang” can also stand for holding onto something while lacking grounded support and foundation. Dickinson’s word choice creates a sense of hopelessness as the Watcher expects an end to his weary task—the likelihood of daybreak becoming minuscule. The idea of “Watcher” can also mean someone who watches happenings in nature. The watcher of nature at night would be a stargazer, something especially associated with Eastern culture. In this sense of the word, the Watcher is again placing meaning on something unfounded, hanging meaning upon the Eastern sky—he stands deceived. The word “fancy” would again indicate something imagined. The feast that the Beggars revel at is something intangible and inaccessible; however, they find unfounded pleasure in a fantasy that will never come to a realization. With this change of tone, the babbling Brooks becomes tantalizing and unattainable to the person in the desert. “Beguiles” takes on its other connotation of deception and crafty elusion. This reading makes Heaven an entity that, whether it has the good things and refuses to share them or whether it lacks them entirely and acts as if it has them, deceiving everyone into thinking something better awaits them while never offering any reality to that hope.
This idea continues into the second stanza as the morning comes. Should we abide by the reading of “Watchers” as those waiting for morning, the opening of the “lid of Amethyst” indicates enlightenment. “Lid” can mean a protective covering, and taking that protection off of the beautiful, purple, precious stone or color means removing the protection from the beautiful hope or idea. The mindset in fantasy becomes susceptible to reality upon enlightenment. This moment becomes Eden-like upon the eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, for the gain in understanding leads to destruction. Furthermore, “let[ting] the morning go” can mean permitting the morning to leave, as in permitting the hope that comes with daybreak to abandon them. When morning dawns upon the Watcher who looks to the Eastern night sky for meaning, the stars that hold that meaning fade. Reality takes those unfounded ideas away as morning offers an understanding. The commas surrounding “when an honored Guest -” as well as the lack of pronouns within the clause, indicate an ambiguity as to whom “Guest” belongs. Is the Beggar a guest, or is someone else taking the position he desires? Within this disappointing reading, the Beggar experiences the crash of his “fancy”—his hopeful, deceptive fantasy—as someone else presses his lips to the desired flagons that he himself will never experience. The enlightened understanding reveals the reality that Heaven does not fulfill desire—it, in its powerful and divine position, destroys the hope of fulfilling those desires.
These three readings can easily blend into one another, with one-word deviant or punctuation ambiguity supporting more than one interpretative theory. Dickinson offers loaded words and ambiguities of descriptions in order to question the idea of Heaven. She seems to care little about the reality of it, showing no effort to prove its existence. Instead, she offers the mere condition and basic assumption of, if the idea of Heaven is true, these various readings are the possible implications. What Dickinson questions in poem 120 is the romantic idea of Heaven and its benefits, hinting at and drawing out the disappointing and almost destructive effect it can have. She then leaves it as a theory, and not as a fact, that Heaven might not be “true”, to indicate the lack of foundation for the idea of this perfect place. The very fact that the initial reading can destabilize so extensively as to indicate an entirely different meaning supports her point of an unstable Heaven. The original manuscript of this poem has no variants within the text. Dickinson was sure of what she wanted to say, and she crafted it with loaded words and specific, purposeful ambiguities in order to convey her opinions on how Heaven affects her society. She focuses on the problems that it creates, whether it be a place where God resides or a state of perfect happiness, and warns of the disappointment, or even destruction, that can occur should we “hang” upon the idea of it with dependence.
Dickinson, Emily. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. R. W. Franklin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1999. Print.
"Emily Dickinson Lexicon." Emily Dickinson Lexicon. Brigham Young University. Web. 22 Feb. 2011. <http://edl.byu.edu/webster>.