An early variant, Fr145A, was published in The Single Hound by Martha Dickinson Bianchi in 1914:
A little over Jordan, As Genesis record, An Angel and a Wrestler Did wrestle long and hard. Till, morning touching mountain, And Jacob waxing strong, The Angel begged permission To breakfast and return. Not so, quoth wily Jacob, And girt his loins anew, “Until thou bless me, stranger!” The which acceded to: Light swung the silver fleeces Peniel hills among, And the astonished Wrestler Found he had worsted God!
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 – Light swung the silver fleeces “Peniel” Hills beyond, And the bewildered Gymnast Found he had worsted God!
The event referred to is in Genesis:
Genesis 32:22 During the night Jacob quickly took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream along with all his possessions. 24 So Jacob was left alone. Then a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he could not defeat Jacob, he struck the socket of his hip so the socket of Jacob’s hip was dislocated while he wrestled with him. 26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.” “I will not let you go,” Jacob replied, “unless you bless me.” 27 The man asked him, “What is your name?” He answered, “Jacob.” 28 “No longer will your name be Jacob,” the man told him, “but Israel, because you have fought with God and with men and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked, “Please tell me your name.” “Why do you ask my name?” the man replied. Then he blessed Jacob there. 30 So Jacob named the place Peniel, explaining, “Certainly I have seen God face to face and have survived.”
(NET Bible translation.)
“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.’” (Lometa)
“Here Jacob wrestled (Gen. 32:24-32) ‘with a man’ (‘the angel’, Hos. 12:4. Jacob says of him, ‘I have seen God face to face’) ‘till the break of day.’ / A town was afterwards built there (Judg. 8:8; 1 Kings 12:25). The men of this place refused to succour Gideon and his little army when they were in pursuit of the Midianites (Judg. 8:1-21).” (Wikipedia, Penuel)
Mari Smith comments “Line 13 reads ‘Light swung the silver fleeces.’ This is a reference to Gideon, also of the Bible. In his story, Gideon thought he heard God, but wanted proof. He put a fleece outside and asked God, if it were him, to miraculously have the fleece wet but the surrounding ground dry. It was done, but as more proof, Gideon asked for the opposite to be done the next morning, and it was.”
One of the nice features of this poem, which people perhaps forget after they've read it many, many times, is the slow nature of the reveal. At first, we hear about the Gymnast and wonder what this is about. Then we hear of Jacob. Similarly at the end, Jacob finds that the man was an angel; but as observers through Dickinson we have known that since the poem's third line. The change of Genesis to Evangelists may have been to help the gradual reveal as much as the increase in sense and euphony.
“Charlotte Brontë [...] (21 April 1816 – 31 March 1855) was a British novelist, the eldest of the three famous Brontë sisters whose novels have become standards of English literature. Charlotte Brontë, who used the pen name Currer Bell, is best known for Jane Eyre, one of the most famous of English novels. [...] Charlotte was interred in the family vault in The Church of St. Michael and All Angels, Haworth, West Yorkshire, England.” (Brontë). Fascicle 7 was written in about 1860, five years after Brontë's death, the topic of this poem.
The “Or —” is apparently a choice between using verses 1, 2, and 3, and verses 1, 4, and 5. Johnson chose the latter for his edition:
All overgrown by cunning moss, All interspersed with weed, The little cage of “Currer Bell” In quiet “Haworth” laid. Gathered from many wanderings — Gethsemane can tell Thro' what transporting anguish She reached the Asphodel! Soft falls the sounds of Eden Upon her puzzled ear — Oh what an afternoon for Heaven, When “Bronte” entered there!
The Emily Dickinson Lexicon says, for mead, “mead, n. [OE, see meadow, n.] / Tract of low land consisting of rich or alluvial soil.”
“In line 5, Dickinson does not mean that water-lilies have feet. She means feet as beautiful as water-lilies. In OED (s. v. lily 4d) it is explained that ‘lily-feet’ was a Chinese term of admiration for women with bound feet. Christina Rossetti uses the phrase ‘lily feet’ in line 7 of ‘the Convent Threshold’” (Pilgrimage and Literary Tradition, Philip Edwards, p.17)
Marcus Porcius Catō Uticensis, Cato the Younger, was a Roman statesman. “He is remembered for his legendary stubbornness and tenacity (especially in his lengthy conflict with Gaius Julius Caesar), as well as his immunity to bribes, his moral integrity, and his famous distaste for the ubiquitous corruption of the period.” (Wikipedia). His daughter was Portia Catonis, also known simply as Porcia. She was the second wife of Brutus, one of Caesar's assassins, and famously proved her strength to Brutus in order to have him confide the assassination plot in her.
Portia is a character in Shakespeare's Julius Cæsar.
The perjury in the final line refers to the act of saying “Father, thy will be done” — that it would be perjury to say it.
Eberwein constrasts this poem with J 895 “A Cloud”.
Urbain Le Verrier is the French mathematician who discovered Neptune “at the stroke of a pen”, calculating its location from perturbations in the orbit of Uranus in 1846. Le Verrier was still alive and well when Dickinson wrote this poem.
James Robert Guthrie, in Emily Dickinson's Vision (p. 64) contrasts this poem with J 210, from Fascicle 10:
The thought beneath so slight a film — Is more distinctly seen — As laces just reveal the surge — Or mists — the Apennine
Michael Allen comments that the “our” in the first stanza is a kind of royal we, an ironic hoity singular form.
One parallel noted by Marianne Noble is J 963:
A nearness to Tremendousness — An Agony procures — Affliction ranges Boundlessness — Vicinity to Laws Contentment's quiet Suburb — Affliction cannot stay In Acres — Its Location Is Illocality —
This poem seems somewhat to me the combination of J 148 (Brontë) with J 100 (Comparative Anatomy) applied to J 104 (Where I have lost) and J 149 (Less skillful than Le Verriere). The method of J 100 especially is used to transform J 104 into having a more optimistic ending than J 149.
The “Mansions” appear to be an allusion to John 14:2:
John 14:1 “Do not let your hearts be distressed. You believe in God; believe also in me. 2 There are many dwelling places in my Father’s house. Otherwise, I would have told you, because I am going away to make ready a place for you. 3 And if I go and make ready a place for you, I will come again and take you to be with me, so that where I am you may be too. 4 And you know the way where I am going.”
There's a variant of the last line in The Single Hound:
PAPA above! Regard a Mouse O'erpowered by the Cat; Reserve within thy kingdom A “mansion” for the Rat! Snug in seraphic cupboards To nibble all the day, While unsuspecting cycles Wheel pompously away.