“More life – went out” (F415A, J422)

More Life – went out – when
He went 
Than Ordinary Breath – 
Lit with a finer Phosphor – 
Requiring in the Quench – 

A Power of Renowned Cold, 
The Climate of the Grave 
A Temperature just adequate 
So Anthracite, to live – 

For some – an Ampler Zero – 
A Frost more needle keen 
Is nescessary, to reduce 
The Ethiop within. 

Others – extinguish easier – 
A Gnat’s minutest Fan 
Sufficient to obliterate 
A Tract of Citizen –

Whose Peat life – amply
vivid – 
Ignores the solemn News 
That Popocatapel exists – 
Or Etna’s Scarlets, Choose – 

Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Packet X, in Fascicle 14 (H 48), ca. 1862. First published in Yale Review, 25 (Autumn 1935), 76, and Unpublished Poems (1935), 4, the first four stanzas. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

In this riddling poem that  uses imagery of heat and frost, we learn at the end that what “chooses,” or perhaps, the effects of choosing, are/like erupting volcanoes: “Etna,” an active volcano on the Italian island of Sicily; and Popocatapel, a volcano in central Mexico, described in Dickinson’s Webster’s as “a towering volatile peak; mountain capable of erupting in spectacular flames and lava flows.” This imagery connects the effects of choosing with the pressurized, subterranean and spectacular power of volcanoes, a theme threaded throughout Dickinson’s work. Volcanoes are both deadly, as in the case of Vesuvius destroying the city of Pompeii, and generative as a figure for the female poet who has to look “still” but is roiling with creative force underneath, as in this commanding poem from 1863:

A still –  Volcano – Life –
That flickered in the night –
When it was dark enough
to show do
Without endangering erasing sight –

A quiet – Earthquake style –
Too smouldering subtle to suspect
By natures this side Naples –
The North cannot detect

The solemn – Torrid – Symbol –
The lips that never lie –
Whose hissing Corals part – and shut –
And Cities – slip – • slide – • melt – ooze away –  (F517A, J601).

In “More Life – went out” the speaker characterizes the extraordinary life she admires in terms of different kinds of heat, and how that heat might be “quenched.” This life was “lit with a finer Phosphor,” according to Webster’s “a substance that shines in the dark; [fig.] vitality; vivacity; energy; spark of life.” Anthracite is a “species of coal which has a shining luster, approaching to metallic, and which burns without smoke, and with intense heat.” The EDA notes:

The meaning of “Anthracite’” (line 8) may derive from a distinction in Reveries of a Bachelor (1850) by Donald Grant Mitchell (“Ik Marvell”) between bituminous” and “anthracite” people, the latter characterized by a steady, profound sensibility not easily quenched.

Anthracite is contrasted with “Peat,” defined as “Organic; humus-like; sod-like; like dry soil; made of earthly elements; [fig.] dull; colorless; drab; plain; dreary; lackluster; humble; ordinary; human; mortal.” A “peat life” is unremarkable.

Dickinson also connects the extraordinary life with the warmer zones, the equator, and with the “Ethiop within,” a figure of color we have met in another guise in “The Malay took the Pearl,” and who often stands as a figure for energy, passion, life force and (masculine) power.


Hallen, Cynthia, ed. Emily Dickinson Lexicon. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 2007.

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