’Twas like a Maelstrom, with / a notch (F425, J414)

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

Toyed coolly with the final
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
To Gibbets, and the Dead –

And when the Film had
stitched your eyes
A Creature gasped ‘Repreive*’!                                         *Reprieve
Which Anguish was the
utterest – then –
To perish, or to live?

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 (see 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 Dickinosn 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.

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Sources for this poem