Poems of my Father — #1
There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing poetry —
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll —
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human Soul —
— Emily Dickinson (1830–1886)
When I was young, our family found ourselves in Amherst, Massachusetts for a family event. We had some free time and we were delighted to discover that Emily Dickinson’s house, the house she rarely left and where she spent most of her time, was a short walk from where we were staying. Alas, we arrived only to discover it was closed that day. Returning to where we were staying, one of the guests asked us where we had been. Oh, said my dad as if talking about an old friend, we went to visit Emily Dickinson, but Emily wasn’t home.
Emily was rarely home. She lived in her own world, far from home, and books (and her own poetry) were her most reliable form of transportation. In the first two lines of the poem, she compares a book to a frigate — a sea-going vessel. In the next two lines, she uses a different metaphor, comparing poetry to horses. In the next two lines, she tells us that reading is essentially free [without oppress of toil] so that even the poorest person can make the journey.
The first six lines are lovely. But then Emily takes it up a notch. In the last two lines, Emily adds yet another metaphor, that of a chariot, which conveys royalty and wealth. It’s an ironic choice, because in the last two lines she is repeating the idea that money isn’t necessary for the imaginary travel that books and poems provide. But I think she is saying that books and poems are more than flights of fancy. Books and poems are at the heart of the inner journey that all of us experience that is this life. The image of a chariot bearing the human soul conveys the richness of the inner experience available to all of us if we open ourselves to books.