We'll look first at "definition
poems". The definition (!) of a definition poem is one
which seeks to capture and communicate wholly its subject. Dickinson's
ideas translate very directly into images - metaphor rather
than simile- and this leads to an impact & directness of
communication very suitable to this kind of attempt at encapsulation.
"That love is all there is..."(p.3)
is one of these. It is short and pithy, and what it says about
balance and commensurateness (look it up) -
"It is enough, the freight should be proportioned
to the groove"
- is born out in the balance of the opening two lines, each
of 6 syllables centring around the words love, is & all.
The capitals stress the importance of Love.
The image of the last couplet is of a cargo - "freight"-
running along a track which is appropriate & adequate to
it. If the freight were too heavy, the track would break. Perhaps
this image is being used to suggest that we know all about love
that we can take; our capacity to understand is "the
groove" and the fact that "love
is all there is " is the freight. This poem could
usefully be compared with "Speech..."(p.28)
in its use of this freight metaphor.
is another definition poem. This uses the image of exploration
to convey the sense of freedom implied by the term exultation.
This reeks of the sublime to me - there's that same sense of
extreme emotion; on this case the words "divine intoxication"
are used. This sea voyage of exploration is an emblem of life,
which is similarly a journey through the familiar - "past
the houses- past the headlands- " into the "deep
Eternity-" of the unknown. The dash after "Eternity-"
implies an ongoing, unfinished, unresolved journey. This journey
through life, presumably towards death, is exciting. There are
links with the gothic here; the familiar context must be abandoned
in order for the "divine intoxication" to be achieved.
The second verse raises some problems of interpretation; is
"the sailor" "bred
as we, among the mountains" & therefore like
us, or is he unable to understand those who are "bred
as we, among the mountains"? Are we all sailors,
bred among the mountains, for whom life is a journey out of
the familiar into the unknown, which we cannot fully understand
with the intellect, but the exultation of which we feel with
the heart in all its "divine intoxication"? The more
I think about it, the more I am convinced that this is the answer.
"There is a pain.."(p.26)
seems to me to be an attempt by ED to explain her experience
of nihilism She describes a pain "so
utter" that it first makes her feel as if she ceases
to be, as if she has fallen down an "Abyss", then
encases her in a protective "Trance"
so that she does not have to confront this pain -
"so Memory can step Around, across - upon
This trance is a safety measure, as full recognition of the
truth of this experience of nihilism would destroy her utterly
- "Bone by Bone"
so that no fibre of her being would be left. The capitalisation
of the "B" s isolates the words & the stages of
the process of destruction. "Speech.."
(p.28)defines its subject - the response of the grieving heart
- by reference to what it isn't; speech & tears may be just
acting or mechanical - a "prank" or a "trick".
Sincere feeling may have no outward expression - as the saying
goes empty vessels make no noise.
The last line of the poem is heavy & dragging, as if the
heart were unable to move as is -almost- the line itself. There
is in this poem a sense of distilled & suppressed feeling,
which fits with what we know of ED's isolated life. The use
of the freight metaphor can be compared to "That
Love is all there is..."
is another poem which deals with the nihilism experience discussed
in the introduction to your text. This poem uses the image of
a shadow to represent the poet's awareness of the inevitable
coming of that experience of "Darkness" which is described
elsewhere in her poetry, for example in "There
is a pain..." The reference to suns going down recognises
the existence of pleasure but sees this as inevitably accompanied
by pain. As I have said, I see this poem as specifically to
do with ED's particular life experience, but this idea of pleasure
& pain as being two sides of the same coin is expounded
in a more general sense in the poetry of Keats, a Romantic precursor
The fact that the shadow appears on the lawn - a cultivated
area - is indicative of the fact that there is no area of safety.
The Darkness passes but leaves the memory; even in happiness,
on either side of the Darkness the poet is aware of the existence
of the alternative.
Moving away from definition poems, but sticking with the experience
of nihilism, we take a look at "After
great pain..", a poem which I feel deals with the
aftermath of this experience of "great
pain" as "Presentiment..."
deals with the prelude to it.
The words "formal feeling"
convey a sense of stiffness and numbness. The effect of the
alliteration isolates and emphasises the words, heightening
that sense of stiffness. We are told that the nerves, which
keep the physical body in touch with the mind, are lifeless,
in limbo, and that the heart, the seat of emotion, is disorientated
by trauma. The second verse shows the body going through the
motions, regardless of all around it. The big problem comes
with the last verse; what, exactly, is "the
hour of lead"? Is it the nihilism experience itself,
or is it the aftermath? The consensus of opinion seems to be
that "the hour of lead"
is that tune when the victim comes to, as it were, after the
experience. If the victim manages to come to terms with having
had this experience, to "outlive" it & subsequently
remember it, that process of remembering is like that of a person
who has been frozen recollecting that process. The stages are,
in both cases, "First - Chill - then Stupor - then the
letting go" I think (& Pm prepared to be shouted down
on this) that the first of these stages can be equated to the
& "There is a pain".
Another problem is whether "the
letting go" refers to abandonment to the experience
of desolation, or a moving out of that experience into freedom.
I feel that there is a definite sense of personal experience
coming out of this poem; she really knew what she was talking
"The Brain - is wider than the
Oops! Back to definition poems; I missed it out on the first
The first two verses compare the brain to two things which are,
physically, much larger than it, but which it is able to "contain"
or "absorb" as concepts. In that sense, therefore,
it is "wider" & "deeper" than those
things. The third verse seems to me to be making very serious
claims about man in relation to God; the poet seems to me to
be claiming equality with God in her claim that "The Brain
is just the weight of God-", & to be questioning whether
there is, in fact, any difference in their powers -
"And they will differ - if they do
As Syllable from Sound-"
I find myself unable to differentiate between syllable &
sound, which may be exactly the point. I know I'm in a minority
here however, & that Katherine's valid view that syllable
is only part of sound & that "just"
implies only just, is the preferred reading of the group. In
this reading, the claim being made falls short of divinity in
(wo)mankind, but still acknowledges the idea of man made in
the image of God.
I would suggest that, as often in her poems, E.D. isn't entirely
sure herself; "if they do-" and the lack of final
punctuation both reinforce this suspicion of mine.
Now, back to nihilism & trauma (isn't this fun?)
"I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,"(p.6)
deals with an experience of total loss of identity & sense
of self. It deals with an individual overwhelmed by sensation
to the point at which reason & thought is totally destroyed.
This struggle between reason and sensation (Sense) is first
raised in verse 1 when we read that it seemed "that Sense
was breaking through-" (into reason), & continued in
verse 2 with reference to the poet's mind "going numb-"
The extended metaphor of a funeral service is used, maybe to
convey the denial of life involved in this chaos experience.
A strong sense of pounding is conveyed by the repetition of
"treading" & "beating", creating a feeling
of oppression. In all of this the poet is passive & helpless.
Her vulnerability is suggested by the reference to the "Boots
of Lead" crossing her Soul.
This experience takes on universal significance; it seems
to be all that is happening. The line "space-began
to toll" communicates this, as does
"And all the Heavens were a Bell"
(tolling the death knell of reason in the poet.) The poet's
mind is by now wholly irrelevant; all that has any significance
is feeling - "Being, but an Ear".
Then, suddenly, the poet seems isolated even from this experience,
& marooned alone with silence. It is at this point that
the mind finally goes as
"a Plank in Reason broke "
(for a link with this plank idea, see "There
is a pain"(p.26)) & the poet finishes "knowing".
The poem is unfinished; what happens, once you lose your grip
on rationality? Obviously the poem can go no further, as there
is no rational mind to relate the experience, if we're sharing
the immediacy of it. (I know that she must have come out of
it to write the rest of the poem, but I think she's trying to
remove any sense of distance & draw the reader into the
Quite to the contrary, it seems to me that in "It
was not death"(p.20) distance is deliberately being
created by the rather wry humour or the tone in the opening
verse. This poem attempts to define (!) an experience by reference
to what it is not. She lists a set of things which this experience
was not, but was like.
The idea of distance arises again as the poet seems to be viewing
her life as being like a corpse laid out for burial. She is
helpless & restricted -"fitted to a frame".
In the fifth verse the tense shifts from past to present. It
is as if the poet is no longer able to retain the sense of distance
she has created, & we are plunged into the chaos experience.
There is a feeling of timelessness and hanging incompleteness,
as if time has stopped, or at least slowed down massively; the
increased number of dashes helps to create this effect, as does
the clock reference in
"When everything that ticked - has stopped-"
The last verse describes a total void, a situation so bad
that even despair would be hopeful!
Now for Katherine's erotic poem about goblins.
Twas like a maelstrom
is, surprisingly enough, another of those nihilism poems.
This time the experience is described as if it has happened
to someone else. Maybe this is the poet's way of trying to get
some distance on the experience; we mentioned in discussion
the fact that she writes about this in a variety of ways, maybe
in an attempt to define it for herself As in "It
was not death,"(p.20) the poet uses a variety of
analogies to try to describe this experience, maybe because
none of them is wholly satisfactory.
The first image used is that of a spiraling whirlwind which
is moving inexorably towards its victim. The use of the word
maelstrom suggests the violence and intensity of the experience,
& the idea of the notch conveys the sense that this trauma
The second verse suggests that the victim has been sent into
a state of near madness or delirium by the expectation of this
agony, and yet it is possible (Katherine!) to read a frisson
of pleasurable excitement into the anticipation - the idea of
the hem of the victim's garment being toyed with coolly can
be seen as erotic. The reference to something breaking, in this
verse, is reminiscent of "I felt
a funeral,"(p.6) and the Plank in Reason.
The third verse reinforces the idea that this experience is
inescapable; the image of the Goblin with a Gauge who is measuring
the Hours suggests that this is destined to happen. The victim's
utter helplessness is also stressed in this verse.
This sense of helplessness is continued in the next verse;
the victim has neither physical nor mental control
"And not a Sinew - stirred - could help
And sense was setting numb-"
Here again is a connection with I felt a funeral, in which we
read that the poet's mind was going numb.
Now let's get theological, (does that sound to you strangely
like an Olivia Newton John song?) Does God forget her, or does
she forget God? / think that God forgets her, leaving her totally
in the control of this malign goblin. I don't want to go too
deeply into what this suggests about a God who leaves pans to
boil over, except to insist that, biblically,
"He watching over Israel slumbers not nor
sleeps" (Psalm 121 v.3&4)
When God does resume control, it is almost too late; her sentence
has already been pronounced & she is as good as dead. Interestingly,
it is not God but the Creature that pronounces the reprieve,
and we are left with a question as to whether this is mercy
or continued torture -
"Which Anguish was the utterest - then-
To perish, or to live?"
The use of the question mark is interesting. From what we know of ED. we would
have expected a dash. Maybe the fact that she has described
this experience, & therefore this question, as belonging
to someone else has something to do with it.
Now two short ones, as a kind of light relief
"If what we could" (p.15)
is an incoherent poem about the impossibility of real communication.
That being the case, the fact that the poem is obscure and grammatically
unsound only serves to heighten its message that real communication
is unattainable, that "What we would" & "What
we could" never match up, & that
"// is the Ultimate of Talk-The impotence
No matter how much we talk, we never really tell.
"It's such a little thing" (p.5)
is a satirical poem about the disproportionate significance
people put on the accoutrements & trimmings of love; sighs
& tears are meaningless in real terms, & yet people,
& ED includes herself by saying We men & women die,
set huge store by them. I am reminded of "Speech"
(p.28), another poem in which a cynical view of tears is expressed.
The reference to Trades uses the image of Trade winds. Perhaps
sighs & tears are seen as the means by which the trade or
commerce of love & relationships is carried on.
I can avoid it no longer; it's time for the definitive fudge
the whole meaning of which continues to elude me. The first
two verses set out the poet's understanding of volcanoes as
something usually externally placid seeming, but having the
capacity for great destruction. Verse 3 establishes a connection
between this idea & that of a person concealing great anguish
beneath a calm external appearance. So far, so good.
The next verse begins with an if clause which is never resolved
(surprise, surprise) & ends with a question mark. We are
left asking What if at length
the smouldering anguish
Will not overcome ?
Maybe that's the point, & we're meant to be left with that
The next verse does the same thing, & totally loses me
I'm afraid. I think it's to do with the need for love; is Pompeii
somehow redeemed on Resumption morn by the love of the Antiquary?
Is the anguished individual somehow redeemed by the love of
another? Your guess is as good as mine, and, in this case, possibly
a great deal better. "An awful
Tempest"(p.4) deals with the nihilistic experience
so frequently described in E.D's poetry. Here it is conveyed
by the use of the metaphor of a storm, or awful tempest. The
experience is obviously one of complete isolation, since both
Heaven and Earth were hidden from view. The creatures around
her seem hostile and as if they are enjoying her discomfiture;
"The creatures chuckled on the Roofs-"
In the final verse the pace slows down and the tone changes.
This is the calm after the storm, when it has blown itself out.
By analogy, it can be seen as representing the peace which descends
upon E.D. when this experience of nihilism passes -
"The Monster's faded eyes
Turned slowly to his native coast-
And peace - was Paradise!"
N.B. that poem, unlike most of her work, has a final piece
of punctuation, probably indicating that this experience is
now over. The use of the exclamation mark conveys to me a huge
sense of relief that this is so, and carries more weight than
it would from another writer since she is so sparing with such
"Safe in their Alabaster Chambers"
is a poem of ultimate perspective; it is about death and time,
and how death makes time irrelevant. The "meek members
of the Resurrection" are the dead awaiting Judgement Day,
and the "Alabaster Chambers"
are then- tombs. These tombs are presented as being rather attractive
places, places of safety with "Rafter of Satin"
The second verse describes how, out in the living world, tune
goes on, but we see that the grand movements of Years, Worlds
and Firmaments (heavens) are unable to touch the safe dead.
The alliterative Unking of "Diadems"
(crowns) and "Dogs"
brings together both high and low; they are as important or
trivial as one another, in the ultimate perspective of death,
to which all must ultimately "surrender".
An alternative version gives "Doges" instead of "Dogs"
and suggests that both political and mercantile power must fail;
the Doges were once rulers of Venice, a wealthy trading port.
"A Clock stopped" (p.7)
is also about death. Here, the metaphor is used of a person's
life being like a Swiss clock which has now broken. The person
himself is like a "puppet" or small figure on such
a clock. The use of this word suggests a hand somewhere pulling
the strings, the implication being that we are not hi control
of our own destinies.
The use of the word "Trinket"
in the next verse suggests that this life is not especially
The third verse deals with the impossibility of the mechanism
working again; the doctors cannot restore the life, the shopman
cannot restore the clock(?), but the dead person is beyond caring;
"cool - concernless No-"
is the response. I have some trouble with the last 3 lines,
but I think what is being said is that the life of this puppet
has been decades of arrogance towards "Him" - presumably
God. We are left to wonder what the consequence of this arrogance
will be now that the clock has stopped, but the punctuation
indicates that we have no way of knowing; again the story is
unfinished and unresolved.
"How the old Mountains drip with Sunset" (p.8)
is a recognition that some of the world's beauty is just too
intense for expression. The poet seems to be watching the progress
of a sunset from burning flame to absolute blackness. The language
is vivid and the descriptions are very visual. The reference
to the steeples handing the scarlet may be a way of depicting
the passage of the sun through the steeples to the earth, as
if they were a kind of funnel. The significance of flamingos
escapes me utterly.
A flambeau is a burning torch. The reference to no men carrying
it may just describe a blackness so intense that only the torchlight
may be seen, not the carriers. Any other explanation introduces
a supernatural element which I don't feel fits with this poem.
The night is so black that the wood seems to have completely
vanished into an abyss.
Reni, Guide (1575-1642), Italian painter of popular religious
works and critically acclaimed mythological scenes.
Titian (c. 1477-1576), the greatest 16th-century Venetian
painter and the shaper of the Venetian colouristic and painterly
tradition. He is one of the key figures in the history of Western
Domenichino, real name Domenico Zampieri (1581-1641), Italian
painter, born in Bologna. He studied at the Carracci Academy
in Bologna under Lodovico Carracci and in 1602 worked with Lodovico's
cousin, Annibale Carracci, on the fresco decoration in the gallery
of the Farnese Palace in Rome.
Clearly E.D. felt that these artists were exceptionally talented,
but that it was beyond even them to give expression to the sublime(!)
beauty of nature; indeed, this beauty was paralysing in its
"The Soul selects her own Society"(p.9)
expresses E.D's transcendentalist understanding of the supremacy
and self-sufficiency of the individual soul, which may, however,
choose a single companion before sealing out the company of
all others. Biographical evidence suggests that the poet herself
did something like this. The image used is of a society electing
members to join it, only this soul reverses the process, being
the chooser rather than the chosen. Once the choice is made,
no farther discussion is possible; she will
"close the Valves of her attention-Like
Wealth and power have no relevance to the soul's choice, as
is shown by the disregard shown for chariots and kneeling emperors.
"The Murmur of a Bee" (p.9)
is another poem appreciative of nature. The poet describes
herself as being subject to the enchantment of a bee in a way
which she cannot explain. The second verse describes the way
in which the beauty of a sunset - "The
Red upon the Hill" - can rob her of power and self-determination
-"Taketh away my will".
In the third verse we learn that daybreak in some mystical and
inexplicable way adds to the spirit and stature of the poet-
"The Breaking of the Day Addeth to my Degree-".
So nature takes her will from her, but in doing so gives her
something which she did not have before. All of this is down
to God; "Artist-who drew me so-Must tell!" The final
punctuation here suggests that God will be able to give an answer,
and so this is an issue which is capable of resolution.
"The Wind - tapped like a tired Man"-(p. 15)
seems to be a poem about the wind, in which the wind is personified.
Why the wind should be a tired man eludes me. I know that you
are seeking a deeper meaning lurking behind this, but I'm not
convinced. It is characteristic of E.D. in its unconventional
punctuation & its use of imagery.
I died for Beauty-(p. 17)
is reminiscent of Keats in its equating of truth & beauty;
"Themself are One-".
The poet dies "for Beauty-"
but has hardly had time to adjust to being dead when another
corpse is laid in the next tomb. They discuss how they came
to die, & decide that they are "Brethren",
because they died for essentially the same cause. The use of
the idea of death as failure is interesting; E.D. often sees
death as a positive thing, but clearly not in this case. The
idea of waiting after death, as discussed in "Alabaster
Chambers"(p.5) recurs here, as the dead converse
until overtaken by the consequences of the passing of time-
the obliteration of their names & memories. Maybe the poem
is questioning the value of martyrdom, since the effect is not
a lasting one. Maybe not.
"The Red - Blaze - is the Morning-"(p. 18)
is a vibrantly colourful poem about the sky at various times
of day, & very nice it is too.
"A Solemn thing within the Soul"(p. 18)
deals with a person's anticipation of death. Death is seen
as something which happens when a person is ready, or ripe for
it. The use of the phrase "chance
in Harvest" presents this positive aspect of death.
This is quite a non-threatening notion, yet there is still a
feeling of relief when the soul realises it still has some tune
to go, since "The Maker"
is still turning it towards the sun for further ripening. There
is also a kind of pleasure in contemplating the fact that other
beings are falling first, though this is not a malicious pleasure.
The metaphor of the poem is that life is an orchard in which
each soul is a fruit tended by God, the heavenly horticulturalist.
This is not a God who leaves pans to boil over; unlike in '"Twas
like a Maelstrom" God does not forget. There is
the same sense of inevitability though, of a tightening &
closing circle, since "Your chance in Harvest moves A little
nearer - Every Sun The Single - to some lives."
Interestingly this poem comes complete with final punctuation,
suggesting that this at least is certain and resolved; we will
"Civilisation - spurns - the Leopard!"(p. 19)
seems to me to be an anti zoo poem. The poet suggests that
leopards, in then- natural environment, are beautiful &
free, and would scorn the need for a keeper. Once captured,
the leopard is tortured by memories "of
Palm" or pleasure, which cannot be drugged or soothed
"This World is not Conclusion."(p.20)
begins with confidence that, whatever else is the case, we
can be sure that there is something beyond death. It is an incomprehensible
something, however, which defies reason. Even so, it is a compelling
something for which people are prepared to suffer. Orthodox
faith is not seen as being the way to come to an understanding
of it, since the faithful (whose faith is not constant anyway)
are depicted as plucking at "a
twig of Evidence", perhaps the 19th century equivalent
of clutching at straws. Conventional preaching is described
in a tone which is indefinably contemptuous; I can't put my
finger on it, but Fm sure the poet is not impressed by the gestures
& hallelujahs, which may be the "narcotics"
which fail to satisfy niggling doubts.
"The Soul has Bandaged moments-"(P.21)
is another poem about E.D.'s nihilistic experiences. It begins
by describing the frozen & paralysing fear of the experience
in language akin to that used in 'Twas
like a Maelstrom"(p. 14). The goblin is described
as taking intimate liberties with the frozen victim such as
even her lover deemed himself unworthy of. A strong sense of
violation is conveyed in this second verse.
Verse 3 introduces a more positive experience, one of escape
& freedom, in which the pleasure of this freedom is heightened
by its previous absence. This verse is characterised by the
energy & movement of the language. A comparison is drawn
between the bee & the soul. This fails however since the
bee remains free, knowing no more "But
Noon, & Paradise-" whereas the soul is recaptured
& brought back to "The Horror" for another dose
of torment. This experience is so awful as to be beyond description,
as the victim knows what is to come. The suggestion may be that
the informed expectation of the horror is even worse than the
"Departed - to the Judgement-"(p.22)
is a poem about death. It suggests that the isolation of the
poet will continue in death as in life, once the novelty has
worn off & the "Audiences"
"I think the Hemlock"(p.22)
loses me almost entirely.
"I tried to think a lonelier Thing"(p.23)
is a poem about isolation & wanting to be understood.
The poet is trying to believe that somewhere there is another
like herself, even though she knows it will be only a "Haggard
Comfort" to know that she isn't the only creature
"Of Heavenly Love - forgot-" (this idea of the forgetful
God occurs in 'Twas like a Maelstrom
"(p. 14) but is challenged in A
Solemn thing(p. 18) The word creature suggests the low
esteem the poet holds herself in, or alternatively the desperation
she feels in that she isn't even insisting on a human companion.
The poet tries to break through the barrier between herself
& this soul mate, yet this is a self destructive act since
the being she is trying to reach is Horror's Twin. This also
reinforces the idea of her low self esteem; if the other being
is Horror's Twin, the she herself must be Horror. As in many
of her poems, there is a sense of imprisonment conveyed by the
words "opposing cells".
In the last verse we see the yearning of the poet for pity &
understanding; the thought that she might herself be pitied,
as she pities, is a luxury to her.
This gives a contrasting perspective on her isolation to that
provided by The Soul selects her own
Society (p.9) in which she is almost defiant about her
"The Heart asks Pleasure - first-"(p.23)
deals with the ever decreasing demands people make on life
as their expectations of what it can provide diminish. It is
a poem which could either be described as cynical or realistic,
depending on one's point of view. The naive & new heart
dares ask for pleasure, but soon realises that lack of pain
might be the best that can be expected. Failing that, pain relieving
drugs or experiences are sought, then the oblivion of sleep,
till the final privilege of death is sought. The use of the
word inquisitor, with its connotations of torture, is interesting;
it suggests God as tormentor & life as the instrument of
"I fear a Man of frugal Speech-" (p.24)
is similar in its sentiments to Speech(p.28) The poet expresses
the suspicion that a person who is sparing with his words has
far more to offer than the Haranguer or Babbler. These two she
feels competent to deal with, unlike theSilent Man.
"There's a certain Slant of light,"(p.5)
is another poem which deals with the poet's recurring experience
of nihilism. The first verse uses vocabulary which communicates
a sense of weight - "Oppresses"
& "Heft" - but
a weight which is spiritual rather than physical -
"like the Heft/ Of Cathedral Tunes-"
It leaves a pain which is spiritual -"Heavenly"
- & also maybe strangely pleasurable. (I say this because
of "Heavenly", but am wary because it does not seem
to be upheld in any of the other nihilism poems - unless of
course you agree with Katherine about the eroticism of goblins!)
This pain leaves no external mark but makes a difference inside
the person, perhaps where thoughts & attitudes are formed
"Where the Meanings, are-"
(incidentally, what do you make of that strangely positioned
This experience is not something which can be taught or learnt;
rather it is something which is given. The word "imperial"
suggests the power & control of the giver over the sufferer
of the "affliction"
The last verse conveys a sense of waiting - the same stillness
as is found in "He fumbles at your
Soul" (p.ll). There is a sense of the whole of creation
being suspended by this experience- "the
Landscape listens-" and even "Shadows
- hold their breath-"this same sense of cosmic involvement
is to be found in "I felt a Funeral"
(p.6) The last couplet is the most tricky.
"What is "the Distance
On the look of Death-"
like? Could it convey a sense of the inevitability of return?
Death is distant, but still there & still looking. Dunno,
"That after Horror - that 'twas us-"
is ever so hard, and this is by no means a definitive analysis!
The poem seems to be to do with a narrow escape from something
unspeakably awful. Now I wonder what that could be (& I
wish there was an irony key on this keyboard). The poet &
her companion passed by the place of collapse just a second
before the ultimate fall would have plunged them into unfathomable
depths. The use of the religious language (not only "Savior"
but also "Fisherman"
-1 will make you fishers of men etc) (Have you noticed
that in using words like "ultimate fall" I'm adopting
religious language myself? Maybe this is catching!) suggests
that this is more than a poem about death or nihilism, but is
also dealing with the possibility of the loss of salvation,
a thought which is so unthinkable that even its profile - its
side view- numbs the mind and memory. Confronting it head on
would be impossible.
The possibility of passing unheralded & instantaneously
-"Without a Moment's Bell"
- into the unknown "Conjecture's
presence-" is like being confronted with something
malign and unpenetrable which can be neither escaped nor understood.
Death will be experienced. We are left with a sense that the
"Horror " has been
postponed rather than avoided, because "Death"
will ultimately welcome the poet, come what may. The relief
is only temporary.
"I heard a Fly buzz-" (p.17)
is unusual in that it is directly inspired by her reading
of contemporary literature. This is taken from an incident described
in chapter 18 of The House of the Seven
Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne. It is also unusual hi
that it is written from a position beyond death - the final
frontier. The scene is set for a death which is suitably solemn:
the room is still with the stillness of the lull between two
storms; the mourners are gathered; bequests have been made;
all is reverent & dignified, when it is interrupted by an
intrusive fly. This seems (to me) to undermine the dignity of
the whole occasion, & possibly the ultimate significance
of life & death itself, if all that is left at the end is
a blueness & a buzzing. The last verse can be read as a
metaphor; is "the light" life? If so, is the fly real,
or is it a representation of the experience of dying? Given
how many of her other poems have been concerned with the mind
& reason, it seems possible that for her a moving out of
life could be characterised by a moving away from clarity &
certainty such as might be described as an "uncertain stumbling
Buzz". Of course, this is all disgracefully speculative
& a very subjective reading. At the end of the poem all
vision fails & the answer to what is beyond is still not
given - unless the answer is that she is deprived of vision
& so deprived of the ultimate answer-
"It knew no lapse, nor Diminution-" (p.25)
Might we be talking comets here? Clearly it's something stellar,
or the phrase "these Planetary
forces" would not be used. I think she's seen something
like a comet which has burnt steadily, with no fading or shrinkage
until it dissolved & was seen no more. It's "death"
has not been prolonged & pitiful, but proud. The poet finds
herself unable to believe that such magnificence has ceased
to be, but wonders instead if it has merely moved to what we
might call a parallel dimension. (Now Sara, about that theory
of yours that she was abducted by aliens...)
"A still - Volcano - Life-" (p.26)
Oh dear! Well, it may be about her poetry, & the difficulty
of it Allow me to explain(!) Is the volcano her poetry bubbling
within her yet hidden from the rest of the world, perhaps because
of its potency? Would it erase sight if let loose upon an unsuspecting
world? It certainly was not well received or understood by her
contemporaries who may be the dark here referred to.
Is it her idiosyncratic poetical style which is referred to
in the second verse, which obscures the subtle meanings from
Whatever it is, it is both solemn & torrid, unfailingly
truthful & having power over nature & civilisation -
Corals & Cities. The use of the word "symbol"
directs me towards the written word.
If it is a poem about her understanding of her poetry &
its reception by those around her, it seems to take a very high
view of the poetry & a very low one of her contemporaries.
I may, of course, be totally wide of the mark. What do you make
"One need not be a Chamber - to be Haunted-" (p.27)
takes the idea that to encounter a ghost in the normal sense
of the word is far less frightening than encountering one's
own self unexpectedly. The suggestion is that we really do not
know ourselves, our own potential, & the poem hints that
this potential is something to be feared - it should startle
us. Words of violence like assassin, horror & revolver are
used, all highlighting this sense of threat. Maybe there are
connections here with "I tried
to think a lonelier Thing"(p.23) in which the poet
refers to herself as horror's twin.
Note the use of gothic imagery in the gallop over the Abbey
stones. This poem internalises the whole gothic experience,
so that all the threats come from within oneself rather than
from Italian baddies with big capes & twirly moustaches.
I find E.D.'s idea far more frightening.
"The Soul that hath a Guest"(p.27)
is another poem like "The soul
selects" (p.9) It reads as being outrageously arrogant;
she is saying that if you are happy with your own company, why
look elsewhere? Fair" enough, but the use of the phrase
diviner crowd at home almost deifies the individual, which seems
a bit steep. In the second verse she claims that it would be
rude to go out gadding when visited by an emperor; the suggestion
is that the soul is that emperor. This seems to me to be transcendentalism
"I'll send the feather from my Hat!" (p.28)
Who is her sovereign*! I`d go for God. She seems to see this
sovereign as lacking in compassion, needing something to provoke
mercy. She hopes that the feather from her hat, in its very
trivial insignificance, will move his unyielding heart. She
sees herself as powerless yet defiant, like the faded Child
still clinging to her trinkets. I don't like this God that she's
projecting here; he seems to be more of a tormentor than the
father figure of conventional Christian understanding - but
when was she ever conventional? This is another poem which deals
with her understanding of God. I think its related to her death
poems & her nihilism poems in that a God this hard would
be the only sort capable of putting her through these experiences;
God has to be like this for her life to make any sense. (It's
late, I'm getting subjective, speculative & excessively
philosophical - & I can't even type straight! I still think
what I'm saying is true, though)
"Victory comes late-"(p.29)
Now you see what I mean? She just doesn't like God here! The
God she presents is miserly with pleasure so that when we finally
get it a) we're in no fit state to enjoy it & b) too much
will kill us. There is almost a sense of God being deliberately
out of reach - God as tormentor again. The reference to a spread
table echoes the 23rd Psalm
"You spread a table before me in the presence
of my enemies"
only in this case the table is spread before God. Am I taking
it too far if I say God is being seen as the enemy? The reference
to sparrows echoes the promise that not a sparrow falls without
God knowing about it. Is she saying that know is all he does?
Note the frost & freezing imagery - cf. "After
great pain" (p. 12) I hate this poem. God isn't
"I sometimes drop it, for a Quick-" (p.29)
reflects the poet's love of life, come what may. She claims
that the awareness of being alive is enough to console a person
for the most awful suffering, & that death is not an option
to be considered. Persons close to death escape the contemplation
of it by escaping into sleep or delirium. Sometimes death creeps
up unawares - this is merciful. Maybe this last verse is using
metaphor; the sailor is the individual & the brittle line
is that individual's life. Brittle suggests the transience of
"Because I could not stop for Death"(p.30)
presents Death as a courteous gentleman giving the poet a
ride in his carriage. He is not a bully or a figure to be feared.
Nevertheless, there is still a sense of inevitability ; the
poet cannot avoid the ride by not stopping, since Death comes
looking for her. The second verse conveys a sense of unhurried
The third verse may represent stages in her growing up - childhood,
maturity & old age.
The fourth verse takes us out of the usual rules of space
& time, as the sun passes them. The poet's vulnerability
& unpreparedness for this journey becomes apparent. The
house of verse 5 is her grave. (What's the betting it's sweet
& safe?) Verse 6 suggests that the experience of being dead
is timeless & eternal at once. This is reminiscent of "Safe
in their Alabaster Chambers" (p.5)The poem deals
with the realisation of the inevitability of death & the
acceptance of it as a gateway to Eternity.
"The Mushroom is the Elf of Plants-" (p. 10)
in its detail expresses E.D.'s love of nature. I'm not really
convinced that it's saying anything hugely deep. The mushroom
is a plant which seems to appear out of nowhere, quite unpredictably
and magically, then vanishes as quickly as it came.
Although the poem describes the mushroom as "an
apostate" - one who has abandoned his faith - there
is a tone of admiration in the voice of the poet, besides which,
the grass seems "pleased" to have the mushroom break
in through "Summer's circumspect."
Maybe this is suggesting subversion on the part of the grass;
it doesn't want everything carefully pre-ordained & mapped
out for it so circumspectly. Since we have a note of admiration
for this rebel of the plant world, can we assume a trace of
rebelliousness, or at least an admiration of that quality in
"He fumbles at your Soul" (p. 11)
could either be about death, suggesting that all of life is
merely a preparation for death, or it could be about E.D.'s
nihilistic experience (again!). If it is death who "fumbles",
"stuns", & "prepares"
then the "Ethereal Blow"
& the "imperial-Thunderbolt-"
must be read as death itself. This reading sees death as almost
desirable in its "Cool" & "still" nature.
I am inclined to see the poem being about nihilsm though,
because of its vocabulary connection with "Twas
like a Maelstrom"(p. 15). This poem also uses the
idea of a helpless soul at the mercy of "Paws", with
the crucial moment closing slowly but inexorably in. This reading
also connects the poem with "Presentiment"
(p.33) in which the poet has advance warning of the coming trauma.
The stillness at the end of the poem connects with the "paradise"
at the end of "An awful Tempest"
(p.4). All these three poems are nihilism poems, thus strengthening
my belief that "He fumbles"
"I'll tell you how the sun rose-"(p. 11)
is just too horrible to contemplate, so I won't. I suppose
it expresses her love of nature, but it's too sugar coated for
"I dreaded that first Robin"(p. 12)
speaks of the poet's unwillingness to face life, regarding
the various elements of nature she describes as potentially
damaging to her; she anticipates pain from the encounters, as
we are shown by the use of such words as "hurts",
"mangle" & "pierce".
If we are to connect her work with her life, this poem might
be seen as giving an insight into the reasons far her reclusiveness,.
It also provides an alternative perspective to "The
Soul selects"(p.9) in which isolation is a matter
of choice rather that a forced retreat as a result of fear.
The imagery of bereavement is used, maybe connecting the poem
with "I felt a Funeral"
(p.6). If this is so, maybe the poet is unable to face life
because she is still recovering from the type of experience
described there, whose aftermath is charted in "After
great pain" (p.12)
"I went to Heaven-"(p.13)
provides a very fragmented dream sequence type poem, full
of images of fragility, softness & perfection. Despite all
of this perfection, however, the poet is still only "Almost
- contented-". The implication is that somehow conventional
ideas of Heaven are not enough. I'm speculating wildly here,
but mightn't this be because it's not really life, as she knows
& loves it? It all seems a bit bland somehow. ,
"I saw no Way-"(p.14)
describes an encounter with ultimate perspective; in it E.D.
sees herself as moving from being closed in and imprisoned to
standing alone on the edge of the universe. The phrase "The
Heavens were stitched" implies that she is being
excluded from that conventional understanding of the beyond.
The feeling is conveyed that the alternative offered to her,
though isolating, is also pioneering and positive, a challenge
and reward rather than a punishment. If this is a nihilism poem
then it takes a very different standpoint to the others we have
"The Months have ends-" (p.15)
takes a dim view both of life -"A
Skein of Misery" - and the hope of rest afterwards.
It seems to be saying that even death is not the end, but that,
like clothes put away in a drawer for future use, the dead will
be required again. The image of a skein of wool is used, possibly
to convey a sense of the long lasting nature of this miserable
life which just keeps unwinding. There is a knot at the end
however, and death will come, even though the rest it provides
will not last.
The second image is of things being put carefully away in
drawers for later use. The implication is that the items are
bodies and that the drawers are graves. There is a problem with
the use of "doubt",
which now means quite the opposite of what it once did; these
days we would want to read the line
"that any doubt
An ultimate Repose"
to mean that no-one would have any doubt that it would happen.
In the last century it carried the meaning expect, so the line
"Too tenderly, that any expect
an ultimate Repose."
This actually makes much more sense of the whole poem The
final image is of children too tired too really enjoy playing,
but also too tired to give in gracefully. The suggestion is
that even though life can be joyless, people are unwilling to
commit themselves to the alternative.
As I have said, a dim view is taken of death in this poem;
unlike such poems as "Alabaster
Chambers"(p.5) & "Sweet
- safe - Houses "(p. 16) it is not seen as a place
of peace & safety, but merely an uncertain tune of waiting.