As the poem begins, its speaker is making a journey toward a beloved "Thee" ("You") who's terribly far away. The past tense phrase "did not reach" in line 1 implies that the speaker is journeying toward someone they tried and failed to "reach" earlier. They've got a long way still to go: the speaker must cross "Three Rivers," "a Hill," "One desert and a Sea." Still, the speaker finds that their "feet slip nearer every day" to the person they're looking for.
What's more, the journey has a destination that makes long, hard travel worth it:
I shall not count the journey one
When I am telling thee
Once they've found the person they're addressing, in other words, the journey that got them there will seem like nothing at all. This beloved is worth any trek.
All the language here suggests that this is not just the story of someone going to visit a faraway friend:
- Consider those slipping feet: the landscape the speaker describes, an imposing wilderness of rocks and hills and sands and waters, isn't one that it would seem all that easy to "slip" over. But somehow, the speaker's journey happens almost involuntarily.
- The capitalized "Three Rivers," "a Hill," "One desert and a Sea" further hint that this is an archetypal landscape rather than a literal one.
- This journey, then, might be the metaphorical journey that everyone makes "every day" whether they like it or not: the slippery, unstoppable journey through life toward death.
More specifically, this long journey through life's wilderness toward an all-desirable but hard-to-reach beloved represents the speaker making their way toward God. The speaker's humble admission that "I did not reach thee" suggests that a mere mortal can't necessarily get as close to God as they'd like in life. But the speaker trusts that life will carry them toward God nonetheless—and that, once they've "slip[ped]" their way to the divine, the rewards will be so great that the difficult journey will seem like nothing.
Read aloud, and this poem sounds like it's written in Dickinson’s go-to rhythm, common meter: lines of alternating iambic tetrameter (four iambs, metrical feet with a da-DUM rhythm) and iambic trimeter (just three iambs). Take lines 5-6:
I shall | not count | the jour- | ney one
When I | am tell- | ing thee
On the page, though, the poem looks more complicated. Take lines 1 and 2. While this doesn't look like common meter, it sounds like it when spoken. Line 1 is enjambed, meaning that the phrase stretches smoothly across the line break without pause. Out loud, the poem falls into the expected rhythm:
I did | not reach | Thee / But | my feet |
slip near- | er eve- | ry day
By breaking that common-meter rhythm in irregular places across unpredictable numbers of lines, Dickinson gives the poem a halting, breathless shape that reflects the speaker’s difficult journey and gives dramatic moments plenty of space. Beneath that odd, broken form, the iambic meter pulses, steady as the speaker's faith.