January 8-14: The “Azarian School”

On Choosing the Poems

Dickinson's Writing Desk
Dickinson’s Writing Desk

The following poems illustrate aspects of the “Azarian School,” though distilled through Dickinson’s characteristic compression. In his article, “’When one’s soul’s at a white heat’: Dickinson and the ‘Azarian School’.”David Cody demonstrates that many of Dickinson’s poems engage intertextually with the works of Harriet Prescott Spofford and Rose Terry Cooke. These two New England writers were published in the Atlantic Monthly, which Dickinson frequently read, and were considered part of this “school,” which was characterized by lush, rapturous, exuberant and often spiritually intense writing. Azarianism was all the rage for a period in the 1850-60’s until critics decided it went too far and realism took over. Even its main practitioners, Spofford and Cooke, moderated their style.

As it is impossible to determine the exact composition date for a given poem, we do not mean to imply that these poems were written during January 8-14, 1862, but that they can be speculatively grouped together because they are intertextually connected to the Azarian School.

After great pain, a formal
feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious,
like Tombs –
The stiff Heart questions ‘was
it He, that bore,’
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?

 

1  The Feet, mechanical, go round –
3  Of Ground, or Air, or Ought
2  A Wooden way
4  Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like
a stone –

 

This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect
the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then
the letting go –

 

Link to EDA original manuscript. Originally in: Packet VI; Fascicle 18 (1862). First published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1929. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

 

 

 

Cody links “After Great Pain, a formal / feeling comes -” with Cooke’s story “Did I?” (1859) in which “an anonymous male narrator (speaking from beyond the grave) attempts to determine whether his own death by drowning was accidental or the result of a suicidal impulse.” This dramatic moment, Cody argues, “seems at least a powerful precursor to, if not a source of inspiration for, a number of Dickinson’s own depictions of the aftermath of a devastating emotional crisis.” He calls Dickinson’s poem a “distillation of Cooke’s description of the narrator’s emotional collapse,” quoted here:

 

     [M]y brain was stunned and stupid, my heart beat slow and loud; I knew nothing, I felt        nothing, I was nothing. Presently a bell rang. The world is full of magicians, transformations, magnetic miracles, juggling, chemical astonishments, moral gymnastics, hypocrisies, lies of wonder,—but what is so strange, so marvelous, so inexplicable, as the power of conventions? one minute found me tempting the blackness of darkness, every idea astray and reeling, every emotion benumbed; the next, a bell rang, and i went to the tea-table, sat in my own place, answered my mother’s questions, resumed the politenesses and habits of daily life, seemed to be myself to those who had known me always,—ate, drank, jested,—was a man,—no more the trodden ashes under a girl’s foot, no longer the sport of a girl’s cool eye, no slave, no writhing idolator under the car-wheel; and this lasted—half an hour! . . . and so this night stayed its pace; my room grew narrow and low; the ceiling pressed upon my head; the walls forever clasped me, yet receded ever as I paced the floor; the floor fell in strange waves under me,—yet I walked steadily, up and down, up and down! . . . Still the night stayed. a weight of lead pressed on my brain. . . . A pitiful chill of flesh and sense seized me; I was cold,—oh, how cold!—the fevered veins crept now in sluggish ice; sharp thrills of shivering rigor racked me from head to foot; pain had dulled its own capacity; wrapped in every covering my room afforded, with blunted perceptions, and a dreadful consciousness of lost vitality, which, even when I longed to die, appalled me with the touch of death’s likeness, I sunk on the floor,—and it was morning!

 

Elizabeth Petrino compares this poem to lines from another poet frequently cited as a source for the romanticism of the Azarian School, Alfred Lord Tennyson. Dickinson marked lightly with a pencil three stanzas from Tennyson’s long poem, In Memoriam (1850), that meditate on language’s failure to express grief:

 

I sometimes hold it half a sin
To put in words the grief I feel;
For words, like Nature, half reveal
And half conceal the Soul within.

But, for the unquiet heart and brain,
A use in measured language lies;
The sad mechanic exercise,
Like dull narcotics, numbing pain.

In words, like weeds, I’ll wrap me o’er,
Like coarsest clothes against the cold:
But that large grief which these enfold
Is given in outlines and no more.

 

She points out how Dickinson “transforms” Tennyson’s “measured language” from an intellectual consolation to a bodily experience, the “actual bodily experience of grieving.” And, she concludes, that while Romantics sought to merge the self with nature, Dickinson “underscores the impossibility of transcending the physical body.”

 

The many interpretations of this poem focus on its depiction of psychic pain and its aftermath, and on the remarkable figurative language. Suzanne Juhasz goes so far as to say that this poem

 

may be viewed as an exemplar of Dickinson’s figurative technique, a dazzling display of linked and embedded figures, carrying information like the chains of nucleotides that form the double helixes of DNA.

 

Not just the images, but their structure communicate the speaker’s extremity through the “extravagant appositionality of the terms of description—until the final two lines, all of the figures modify one another, and all of them modify ‘formal feeling.'” Cristanne Miller argues that this poem and others Dickinson wrote around this time about “the extremities of grief and pain” are the poet’s “most lasting contribution to Civil War poetry.”

 

The structure and meter of this poem also reward attention. Dickinson evokes the “formality” of grief with the use, unusual for her, of iambic pentameter in the first stanza, which breaks down in the second stanza, and appears broken up in the third. We should also note that Dickinson placed numbers in front of the lines of stanza 2, indicating an alternative order.

 

Sources

 

Cody, Dan. “‘When one’s soul’s at a white heat’: Dickinson and the ‘Azarian School.'” The Emily Dickinson Journal. 1 (1 2010): 30-59. doi: 10.1353/edj.0.0217.

 

Juhasz, Suzanne. “After great pain, a formal feeling comes-” An Emily Dickinson Encyclopedia. Ed. Jane Donahue Eberwein. Westport, CT.: Greenwood Press, 1998: 2-3.

 

Miller, Cristanne. Reading in Time: Emily Dickinson in the Nineteenth Century. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012.

 

Petrino, Elizabeth. “British Romantic and Victorian Influences.” Emily Dickinson in Context. Ed. Eliza Richards. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013: 8-108.

 

 

At least – to pray – is left –
is left –
Oh Jesus – in the Air –
I know not which thy chamber is –
I’m knocking – everywhere –

Thou +settest Earthquake in the South –                     
And Maelstrom, in the Sea –
Say, Jesus Christ of Nazareth –
Hast thou no arm for Me?

       *+stirrest –

Link to EDA original manuscript. No fascicle, just a loose sheet. Shares the sheet with “‘Twas the old road through pain” and “Better than music!” First published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1929. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Stories and novels in the “Azarian School” were rife with depictions of conversion experiences. Cody speculates that Dickinson may have been influenced by these themes, motifs, and especially the emotional register:

Given our sense that Dickinson herself may have experienced a number of private spiritual crises—agonies unjustified by any corresponding ecstasies—it is tempting to assume that she found Azarian descriptions of conversion experiences particularly interesting because they mirrored her own hopes and fears, offering her glimpses of a state that she feared she might never experience at first hand.

Cody frames this poem with a moment from Spofford’s story, “The South Breaker,” which appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in May-June 1862. The story is narrated by Georgie, a young woman in love with a fisherman named Dan, who is trapped in a marriage to a shallow woman ironically called “Faith,” who succumbs to the seductions of a sexy Frenchman, also ironically named Gabriel. In her reflections on Gabriel’s demise, Georgie’s mother offers a credo, with an image similar to Dickinson’s:

I will believe that Mr. Gabriel hadn’t any need to grope as we do, but that suddenly he saw the Heavenly arm and clung to it, and the grasp closed around him, and death and hell can have no power over him now.

Shira Wolosky finds  hints in this poem of the Civil War, discussed in last week’s post. She observes that Dickinson’s use of the word South “is surely a political-geographic marker, no less than ‘south’ is in Whitman’s ‘Out of the Cradled Endlessly Rocking.’” Might it also be a reference to the title of Spofford’s story, “The South Breaker”?  Wolosky describes the poem as “strangely situated between its own universality and the unavoidable but barely hinted fact of the war raging in the background of its composition.” The divine “arm” on which the speaker wishes to lean seems to reveal itself “only in its aspect of unleashing catastrophe” like maelstroms and earthquakes.

We might think about this arm and the agonized question that ends this poem in light of another poem from 1862, “They leave us with the Infinite” (F352, J350), where the speaker says of a divine figure, “And whom he foundeth, with his Arm / As Himmaleh, shall stand.” Or, a later, quite shocking Dickinson poem, “Those – dying then” (F1551, J1581), dated by Franklin to 1882, in which the speaker observes that those dying “then,” perhaps at an earlier period in Christianity, perhaps during the Civil War,

Knew where they went –
They went to God’s Right Hand –
That Hand is amputated now
And God cannot be found.

Sources

Cody, Dan. "'When one's soul's at a white heat': Dickinson and the 'Azarian School.'" The Emily Dickinson Journal. 1 (1 2010): 30-59. doi: 10.1353/edj.0.0217.

Wolosky, Shira. Emily Dickinson: A Voice of War. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984.

—–. "Public and Private in Dickinson's War Poetry." A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson. Ed. Vivian R. Pollak. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004: 103-32.

See also: Eberwein, Jane Donahue. "'Is Immortality True?' Salvaging Faith in an Age of Upheavals." A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson. Ed. Vivian R. Pollak. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004: 67-102.

Dare you see a Soul
at the White Heat?
Then crouch within
the door –
Red – is the Fire’s common
tint –
But when the vivid Ore
Has vanquished Flame’s
conditions,
It quivers from the
Forge
Without a color, but the
light
Of unannointed Blaze.

Least Village, has it’s
Blacksmith
Whose Anvil’s even
ring
Stands symbol for the
finer Forge
That soundless tugs – within –
Refining these impatient
Ores
With Hammer, and
with Blaze
Until the Designated
Light
Repudiate the Forge –

Link to EDA original manuscripts: Page 1, Page 2. Part of the Amherst manuscripts. First published in the Atlantic Monthly by Higginson in 1891. Courtesy Amherst College, Amherst, MA.

Cody argues that Dickinson’s poems were “distilled dramatic monologues, intense essences” of the themes and styles of the Azarian writers. “Dare you see a Soul / at the White Heat?” is a perfect example, echoing the language, imagery, and dramatic conversions featured in Spofford’s story, “The South Breaker,” which appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in May-June of 1862 (and is summarized in the commentary on the previous poem).

For example, this description offered by Georgie, the story’s young female protagonist, describing the conversion of Dan, the man she is in love with:

Perhaps you’ll think it wasn’t much, the quiet and the few texts breathed through it; but sometimes when one’s soul’s at a white heat, it may be moulded like wax with a finger.

Or this longer passage, spoken by Georgie’s prophetic mother, who paints a detailed picture of the last harrowing moments of the story’s villain, Gabriel:

at last, for he’s no coward, he has looked death in the face and not inched; and the danger, and the grandeur there is in despair, have lifted his spirit to great heights,—heights found now in an hour, but which in a whole life long he never would have gained,—heights from which he has seen the light of God’s face and been transfigured in it,—heights where the soul dilates to a stature it can never lose. Oh, Dan, there’s a moment, a moment when the dross strikes off, and the impurities, and the grain sets, and there comes out the great white diamond. …Dan, poor boy, is it better to lie in the earth with the ore than to be forged in the furnace and beaten to a blade fit for the hands of archangels?

Many readers interpret the poem as Dickinson'a account of religious conversion. Helen Vendler, for example, observes that

Dickinson’s refashioning of the Christian narrative of God’s chastening purgation of the soul takes it into an entirely personal and secular sphere.

While other readers regard the conversion described here as one of self-creation, growth through suffering, experience refined through poetic technique, the compression of Dickinson’s language, the refining of the creative will and metamorphosis, the pain and craft of the sublime (see Duchac for a complete list).

Mary Loeffelholz emphasizes the poem’s “aggression toward its readers [whom it exiles to a craven position “crouching” within the door of experience] and against genteel or sentimental poetic models” associated with “the poetess tradition of bleeding self-expression.” She situates it in a complex context of mid-19th century writers: Julia Ward Howe’s poem “Rouge Gagne,” that picks up the red vs. white imagery of Dickinson’s poem, and “A New Sculptor,” published in the Atlantic Monthly in September 1862, that articulates a more challenging and modern aesthetic, and might, in turn, have been influenced by Rebecca Harding Davis‘s story of frustrated creativity among the working class, “Life in the Iron Mills,” which appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in April 1861. Not to mention Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “manly didactic” poem, “The Village Blacksmith” (1839).

Sources

Cody, Dan. "'When one's soul's at a white heat': Dickinson and the 'Azarian School.'" The Emily Dickinson Journal. 1 (1 2010): 30-59. doi: 10.1353/edj.0.0217.

Loeffelholz, Mary. "U. S. Literary Contemporaries: Dickinson's Moderns. Emily Dickinson in Context, edited by Eliza Richards. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013, 128-38, 133-34.

Vendler, Helen. Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2010, 180-83.

’Twas like a Maelstrom, with
a notch,
That nearer, every Day,
Kept narrowing it’s boiling
Wheel
Until the Agony

 

Toyed coolly with the final
inch
Of your delirious Hem –
And you drop, lost,
When something broke –
And let you from a Dream –

 

As if a Goblin with a
Gauge –
Kept measuring the Hours –
Until you felt your Second
Weigh, helpless, in his Paws –

 

And not a Sinew – stirred –
could help,
And Sense was setting numb –
When God – remembered – and
the Fiend
Let go, then, Overcome –

 

As if your Sentence stood –
pronounced –
And you were frozen led
From Dungeon’s luxury of
Doubt
To Gibbets, and the Dead –

 

And when the Film had
stitched your eyes
A Creature gasped +‘Repreive’!                                       

     +Reprieve

 

Link to EDA original manuscripts: Page 1, Page 2Originally in: Packet 32, and multiple Fascicles. First published in Bolts of Melody, by Mabel Loomis Todd and Millicent Todd Bingham in 1945. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

 

“Circumstance,” a celebrated story by Spofford published in early 1862, was the only Azarian writing that Dickinson referred to directly in a letter to Higginson (L261). She told him the story “followed” her, so she avoided it. But, in an appreciation of Spofford’s “early work” published in The Springfield Republican on February 1, 1903, Susan Dickinson claimed that she gave her copy of the May 1860 Atlantic to Dickinson with Spofford’s “Circumstance” marked in the table of contents, and that Dickinson gave it a rave review:

 

This is the only thing I ever saw in my life I did not think I could have written myself. You stand nearer the world that I do. Send me everything she writes.

 

Contrary to what Dickinson told Higginson about “avoiding Spofford’s story, Cody argues that Dickinson borrowed liberally from the plot of “Circumstance” for this poem. In the story, a panther referred to throughout the story as an”Indian Devil” chases a frontier woman up a tree and is prevented from attacking her only by her continuous singing.

 

At the point at which her voice and will break, she is rescued by her husband who shoots the panther. In the final moments of her ordeal, the woman has what Rose Terry Cooke, the other major Azarian writer, described as a “visitation,” a moment of extreme crisis, of deep emotional or spiritual intensity. Cody speculates that “the six stanzas of ”Twas like a Maelstrom, with a notch’ present three attempts to describe or contain—to revisit and perhaps to lay to rest—the haunting ‘It’ that had begun to follow Dickinson in the dark after her own encounter with the tale.”

 

One of the most striking images in this poem filled with striking images, the “Goblin with a Gauge,” gave Daneen Wardrop the subtitle for her 1996 study, Emily Dickinson’s Gothic. Developing a theory of the “female gothic” through French feminist Helene Cixous’s reading of Sigmund Freud’s theory of the uncanny, Wardrop argues that Dickinson was essentially a gothic writer. This context allows Wardrop to untangle many of the poet’s most encoded images and riddling language, and locates her in the American literary landscape and within an extensive tradition of female writers.

Also notable is the imagery of the second stanza. The sense of being overwhelmed appears in “I started Early – took my dog,” which is also featured in this cluster. The image of dropping through something broken appears in “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” (F340, J280), also written in 1862.

 

Sources

 

Cody, Dan. "'When one's soul's at a white heat': Dickinson and the 'Azarian School.'" The Emily Dickinson Journal. 1 (1 2010): 30-59. doi: 10.1353/edj.0.0217.

 

Wardrop, Daneen. Emily Dickinson's Gothic: Goblin with a Gauge.  University of Iowa Press, 1996.

 

 

Because I could not
stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but
just Ourselves –
And Immortality

We slowly drove – He
knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure
too,
For His Civility –

We passed the School,
where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields
of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed
Us –
The Dews drew quivering
and Chill –
For only Gossamer, my
Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –

We paused before a
House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely
visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –

Since then – ’tis Centuries –
and yet
Feel shorter than the Day
I first surmised the
Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –

Link to EDA original manuscripts: Page 1, Page 2Originally in: Packet 31, Fascicle 23 (1862). First published in Poems by Emily Dickinson (First Series) by Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson in 1890. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Cody contextualizes “Because I could not stop for Death,” one of Dickinson’s most well-known poems, with Spofford’s story, “The Amber Gods,” which appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1860. He calls this tale an “incandescent burst of psychic energy—perhaps the quintessential Azarian work.” It features an accomplished female narrator, Yone Willoughby, who “is the most powerful incarnation of the dangerous Spofford female” because of her trespassing on the male turf of learning. She thus represents “an ultimately intolerable threat to the power of the New England patriarchy.” Cody speculates that Dickinson may have read this story and “Circumstance” (discussed previously) as “Spoffordian allegories of the plight of the female artist.”

Like some of Edgar Allan Poe’s definitely Gothic heroines, not even death can stop Yone’s voice. Cody identifies this technique as an experiment with “the posthumous narrative,” characters who speak from beyond the grave, often about their own deaths. After a long struggle, Yone describes her own demise in chilling terms. She gets up and roves around the house waiting for the clock to strike, when realization strikes her:

And ah! what was this thing I had become? I had done with time. Not for me the hands moved on their recurrent circle anymore … I must have died at ten minutes past one.

We see this posthumous narrative in several of Dickinson’s notable poems of this period, which capture different emotional registers to the experience, from interest, to anxiety, to ecstasy.

This poem has a fascinating history that is important for our understanding of it. As Cristanne Miller recounts, it appeared in the first edition of Dickinson’s published works, Poems, 1890, where the editors, Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, titled it “The Chariot,” omitted the poem’s fourth stanza and changed several words. These changes were not restored until Thomas Johnson’s edition of The Poems of Emily Dickinson in 1955. Apparently, Dickinson’s early editors felt they had to soften her Gothic vision that transformed the comforting Victorian notion of personal “Immortality” into the grim meaninglessness of “Eternity.” For many modern readers, the omitted fourth stanza is the emotional heart of the poem and its turning point. Miller argues that this stanza compels us to “read the poem’s beginning as ironic. The poem becomes a satiric portrait of Victorian gentility and repression …”

For a less somber revision of the poem, check this out: “The Carriage.”

Sources

Cody, Dan. "'When one's soul's at a white heat': Dickinson and the 'Azarian School.'" The Emily Dickinson Journal. 1 (1 2010): 30-59. doi: 10.1353/edj.0.0217.

Miller, Cristanne. "Because I could not stop for Death–." An Emily Dickinson Encyclopedia. Ed. Jane Donahue Eberwein. Westport, CT.: Greenwood Press, 1998: 13-15.

The Soul’s Superior
instants 
Occur to Her – alone – 
When friend – and
Earth’s occasion 
Have infinite withdrawn – 

Or she – Herself as –
cended 
To too remote a Hight 
For lower Recognition 
Than Her Omnipotent – 

This Mortal Abolition 
Is seldom – but as fair
As Apparition – subject
To Autocratic Air – 

Eternity’s disclosure 
To favorites – a few – 
Of the Colossal
substance 
Of Immortality

                    Emily – 

Link to EDA original manuscript: Page 1, Page 2. This copy was found as two loose sheets with Dickinson’s signature at the bottom, but other copies appear in Packet 17, and multiple fascicles. First published in The Single Hound by Martha Dickinson Bianchi in 1914. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

The Azarian School is a fitting context for this poem because it exhibits the school’s so-called “florid style,” which was resistant to narrative realism, the mode coming into fashion. Though Spofford and Cooke ultimately gave in to criticism and changed their style to match the interests of publishers, Dickinson was not subject to the same critical pressure. Dickinson continued to employ elements of the “florid style” in poetry and prose even when the Azarian writers gave it up.

According to Cody,

Dickinson seems to have been particularly fascinated by Azarian descriptions of spiritual or psychological crises—’The Soul’s Superior instants,’ as she herself describes them—and she distilled these lengthy passages of exuberant, exotic periodical prose into terse, gnomic, and extraordinarily intense poetic essences.

Cody also remarks that “The Soul’s Superior instants” might have been another of Dickinson’s responses to reading Spofford’s story, “Circumstance,” as the poem mirrors the plot of Spofford’s harrowing tale by capturing a response to the protagonist’s “utter anguish.”

He argues:

This unorthodox poem provide a detailed recapitulation of the orthodox process of purification—a sort of spiritual alchemy—by means of which Spofford’s heroine finds salvation. Her crisis conversion emerges naturally from her ordeal—a ‘Circumstance’ or trial of faith arranged by the same autocratic God who had arranged a lion’s den for Daniel and fiery furnace for Shadrach, Mesach, and Abednego.

Sources

Cody, Dan. "'When one's soul's at a white heat': Dickinson and the 'Azarian School.'" The Emily Dickinson Journal. 1 (1 2010): 30-59. doi: 10.1353/edj.0.0217.

I started Early – Took my
Dog – 
And visited the Sea – 
The Mermaids in the Basement 
Came out to look at me – 

And Frigates – in the Upper
Floor 
Extended Hempen Hands – 
Presuming Me to be a Mouse – 
Aground – opon the Sands – 

But no Man moved Me –
till the Tide 
Went past my simple Shoe – 
And past my Apron – and
my Belt 
And past my Boddice – too – 

And made as He would eat
me up –

As wholly as a Dew 
Opon a Dandelion’s Sleeve – 
And then – I started – too – 

And He – He followed – close
behind – 
I felt His Silver Heel 
Opon my Ancle – Then My
Shoes 
Would overflow with Pearl – 

Until We met the Solid
Town – 
No +One He seemed to know –                                            

I started Early – Took my
Dog – 
And visited the Sea – 
The Mermaids in the Basement 
Came out to look at me – 

And Frigates – in the Upper
Floor 
Extended Hempen Hands – 
Presuming Me to be a Mouse – 
Aground – opon the Sands – 

But no Man moved Me –
till the Tide 
Went past my simple Shoe – 
And past my Apron – and
my Belt 
And past my Boddice – too – 

And made as He would eat
me up –
As wholly as a Dew 
Opon a Dandelion’s Sleeve – 
And then – I started – too – 

And He – He followed – close
behind – 
I felt His Silver Heel 
Opon my Ancle – Then My
Shoes 
Would overflow with Pearl – 

Until We met the Solid
Town – 
No +One He seemed to know –                                             
And bowing – with a
Mighty look – 
At me – The Sea withdrew – 

 +man –

Link to EDA original manuscript. Originally in: Loose sheets, MS AM 1118.3 (382). Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

This poem may have been influenced by Spofford’s short story, “Yet’s Christmas-box,” in which the sea becomes dangerous to a young woman when the tide suddenly rises along the Bay of Fundy. As the sea threatens to engulf her, Yet experiences a crisis conversion like that of the female protagonist of “Circumstance.” She is eventually rescued by her lover, who is also threatened by the uncontrollable sea.

Cody writes about Dickinson’s poem:

Although the basic structure of Spofford’s scene (a casual visit to the sea becomes dangerous when the tide turns) has been retained here, there is no mention of a conversion experience. The sexual threat so nearly overt in “Circumstance” has been repressed but is still insistently present in “Yet’s Christmas Box,” in which the nightmarish “Indian Devil” [the panther] reappears as the sea itself.

Many readers have commented on this poem (see Duchac for a summary), with its highly symbolic objects and dreamlike atmosphere, often arguing that it reworks fantasies of sex and desire. Walter Eitner suggests that the myth of Daphne, daughter of a river god who is pursued by Apollo and turned into a laurel tree to protect her, is a helpful parallel. Ronald Wallace compares the poem to Whitman’s “You Sea!  I resign myself to you also,” and we might also include Section XI, “The Twenty-ninth Bather” of Song of Myself. Vivian Pollak argues: “At the heart of the poem’s insight into the complex relationship between risk and maturation lies a thanatized version of love and an eroticized version of death …” Wendy Barker sees this as a poem about Dickinson’s “Flood Subject,” that is, “immortality” (see L 319 to Higginson), “about the comings and goings of the muse, the ‘floods’ and tides of writing fever.”

Sources

Cody, Dan. "'When one's soul's at a white heat': Dickinson and the 'Azarian School.'" The Emily Dickinson Journal. 1 (1 2010): 30-59. doi: 10.1353/edj.0.0217.

Eitner, Walter. "ED: Another Daphne?" Emily Dickinson Bulletin. 33(1978): 35-39.

Pollak, Vivian. "The Second Act: Emily Dickinson's Orphaned Persona." Nineteenth-Century Women Writers of the English-Speaking World.  Ed. Rhoda B. Nathan. Contributions to Women's Studies, 69. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986: 159-69.

Wallace, Ronald. God Be with the Clown: Humor in American Poetry. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1984.