Emily Dickinson’s “Exultation is the going” (c. 1859) is poem number 76 in the edition of the Complete Poems published by Thomas Johnson in 1955. It is number 143 in the Variorum edition of the poems published by Ralph W. Franklin in 1998. These two versions of the poem differ slightly because (a) this and most other Dickinson poems were not published in her lifetime and her handwritten manuscripts can be difficult to read and (b) she often wrote out different versions for herself or friends, just as the author of a twenty-first-century blog might save successive drafts of an entry before deciding to post it.
Here is the full text of the poem as published in the Johnson edition:
Exultation is the going
Of an inland soul to sea,
Past the houses—past the headlands—
Into deep Eternity—
Bred as we, among the mountains,
Can the sailor understand
The divine intoxication
Of the first league out from land?
Dickinson poems are often double-edged with irony, but this one is not. Dickinson often creates intentional dissonance by using imperfect, or slant, rhymes, but not here. In the first stanza, the three syllables of “soul to sea” are a perfect match for “Eternity” in both in sound and meaning. In the second stanza “understand” matches up equally well with “out from land?”
No veteran sailor, Dickinson suggests, can possibly understand the “divine intoxication” felt by a mountain-bred soul on its first venture out to sea. The officers and crew who will be sailing the Charles W. Morgan this summer will be feeling a certain professional kind of intoxication (they are all experienced in sailing tall ships powered only by wind in the sails, but none has ever sailed an actual whale ship of this vintage). But that will differ from the kind that is felt by those among the 38th Voyagers who have never experienced anything remotely close to what awaits us.
Dickinson’s poem is ostensibly about a first voyage out to sea. But it is the “soul,” not the “body,” that is doing the voyaging. For that reason, “Exultation is the going” is applicable to to any intoxicating spiritual transformation. Its governing words, without irony and available to all susceptible souls, are “Exultation,” “Eternity,” and “divine intoxication.”