As 2019 has come to a close, and a new decade is beginning, I have been thinking about a poem by Emily Dickinson – one of my favourites, for its enigmatic imagery and its expression of longing: ‘I did not reach Thee’. Here is the first stanza (you can read the whole thing here):

I did not reach Thee
But my feet slip nearer every day
Three Rivers and a Hill to cross
One Desert and a Sea
I shall not count the journey one
When I am telling thee.

Like a lot of Dickinson’s work, this poem doesn’t want to be understood easily. It teases us with its mysterious symbols, its unexpected metaphors, and its unnamed ‘Thee’. I love it for those reasons alone, but it also feels strangely pertinent for me personally at this point in time. It evokes a long, difficult journey with a destination which is veiled somehow, almost impossible to grasp. As I step into the year in which I plan to finish my doctorate and go on to – what? – that sense of the looming unknown is a familiar one.

It’s easy to be afraid at such a prospect. But Dickinson’s tone in describing this journey is neither overconfident nor fearful: the poem combines solemnity with joy. The last two lines of the stanza above often come to my mind, and hearten me whenever they do: ‘I shall not count the journey one / When I am telling thee’. I read them as a confident, joyful reaching ahead, to a time when one can look back on a difficult journey, of whatever kind, and tell it as a story, ‘counting as nothing’ the suffering and effort which it involved.

The precarious nature of much academic life in our times means that many of us will be facing long periods of uncertainty, whether because of a turning point in our careers or for other reasons. ‘I did not reach Thee’ reminds me of the hope of one day looking back and seeing each of these difficult journeys for what they are: a step nearer, no more or less. This kind of confident hope has been secured by Jesus for those who trust him: we will one day understand the whole story of our lives. And I think this includes our research too: the things we can’t see clearly now, abandoned or half-formed ideas, blind alleys and intractable problems – all may still prove to be steps nearer, part of the story.

What does the year ahead hold for you – if you can see it at all? How can you practise the kind of hope available to those who trust Jesus for the uncertain future?

Alicia Smith

Alicia Smith

Alicia has been blogging for Faith in Scholarship since 2016. She completed a doctorate on the prayer practices of medieval solitary recluses in 2020 and is now an early-career research fellow at the Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.