A little east of Jordan (59)

A little east of Jordan,
Evangelists record,
A gymnast and an angel
Did wrestle long and hard,

Till morning touching mountain--
And Jacob, waxing strong,
The Angel begged permission
To breakfast to return.

"Not so," said cunning Jacob!
"I will not let thee go
Except thou bless me"--Stranger!
The which acceded to,

"Peniel" hills beyond,
And the bewildered gymnast
Found he had worsted God!

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)]

An abcb off-rhyme the first publication date was in 1914. Based directly on Genesis 32:24-31 of a divine and human encounter.

(The) story depicts Jacob’s spiritual growth in the context of the ongoing struggle with his brother Esau. It opens with Jacob’s returning to his homeland from the house of his uncle Laban, to which he fled to escape Esau’s wrath. Upon learning that Esau is approaching with a small army, Jacob first tries to appease him by sending ahead gifts. Jacob then brings his wives, children, and possessions across the Yabbok River, and left alone, wrestles with the unknown adversary at Peniel, who is identified only as “a man” (Genesis 32:25). Through this encounter, Jacob matures to the point where he is able to confront Esau face to face and in a spirit of reconciliation.

Richard S. Ellis in Human-Divine Encounter in Dickinson and the Hebrew Bible

The dictionary available to Emily during her time would have been Webster's 1828 dictionary who used the religious senses of words in his entries up until the time he died in 1843. By looking up the meaning of the proper nouns in a good Bible dictionary, for example, in Hebrew "Peniel" refers to seeing the "face of God." This gives a clue in the interpretation of the poem. A little East of Jordan treats Jacob’s encounter with the unknown adversary at Peniel, reading Dickinson using the Hebrew Bible gives insights not readily available through the usual readings of the King James Version. Literary techniques such as paradox and wordplay are natural offsprings of the structure of this language and have important parallels in Dickinson’s poetry. It may be that the poet herself identified closely with Jacob, perceiving the struggle at Peniel as an archetype of the poet’s struggle to wrest meaning from a chaotic, unpredictable universe and the Bible was the book that, more than any other, helped make Dickinson a poet

The reference East of Jordan is directed at the concept of east of Eden (the region to which Adam and Eve were banished) and it is here that Dickinson sets the stage for Jacob’s struggle. By using the word Gymnast she removes Israel from Jacob as his name given and playfully turns the idea of a new less authoritative realtionship with God on it's head....Jacob tumbling between human and angelic realms. Dickinson celebrates Jacobs ascendancy by comically belittling the Angel, who “begged permission / To Breakfast - to return.” Using the familiar form of language, the word “permission” is an intrusion of hierarchy that signals Dickinson’s flipping of the traditional human-Divine hierarchy upside-down. The hierarchical versus and intimate perspectives that are so distinctly separated in the first stanza become ever so playfully intermingled. Obsessed until the struggle at Peniel with planning, anticipation, and manipulation, Jacob confronts the unknown adversary face to face/panim el panim, integrating in this struggle the hands of Esau and his own voice (Genesis 27:22). Jacob is then ready for the face to face encounter with his brother, which he executes elegantly and simply.

For a more detailed analysis and interesting comparative see: Richard S. Ellis in Human-Divine Encounter in Dickinson and the Hebrew Bible:


Public domain text taken from Representative Poetry Online:

For copyright information please see my write-up under Emily Dickinson.
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