On Choosing the Poems
After the publication in 1976 of Adrienne Rich’s essay, “Vesuvius at Home,” volcanoes became an image particularly associated with Dickinson and her situation as a woman and poet writing in inhospitable times. But apparently, Dickinson was not unique in her adoption of this image. Joanne Dobson finds that explosive images like volcanoes “were not uncommon in women’s writing at mid-century,” standing in contrast to the warming and unthreatening flames of sentiment expected of “a domestic hearth.” Writers such as Lydia Maria Child, Fanny Fern, and Lydia Sigourney also adopted similar volcanic imagery, though poets like Frances Osgood counseled women to don a mask of compliance to hide the roiling creative and emotional powers within, in order to speak in a masculinist culture.
Eschewing print publication, however, Dickinson might have been less constrained by such strategies of social reticence. Kamilla Denman focuses on the linguistic and punctuational implications of Dickinson’s use of the image. The volcano, she notes,
offers an image of Dickinson writing from within the confines of her society, exploding the language by which her culture seeks to limit and define her.
As Denman points out, though phallic in shape and ejaculating lava, Dickinson’s volcano, especially as depicted in one of the poems for this week, “A still – Volcano – Life –,” has a feminine component of vaginal and oral lips that utter symbols with the power to destroy man-made cities, thus evoking
the terrifying image of the woman writing from within the male organ(ization) itself.
Dickinson herself provided evidence that the period of 1862 was a particularly explosive one for her. In her fifth letter to Higginson written around August 1862, she described the effect of attempting to impose order on her own poetry in volcanic terms:
when I try to organize —my little Force explodes — and leaves me bare and charred — (L 271).
Eight of Dickinson’s poems mention volcanoes and though some of them appear outside of our period, we have included them below in order to be able to read them as a group and see how the imagery evolves. Several of them remain undated because they were sent to Susan Dickinson, who transcribed them. One cannot help feeling that they reflect this very creatively explosive period in Dickinson’s life, or its aftermath. One of them, “More life – went out – when He went” (F415, J422), mentions Etna and was explored in an earlier post.
Andrew Howard argues that as the poems progress, Dickinson’s linking of the dormancy or “reticence” of volcanoes with an “emotional stoicism leading to emotional outbursts” becomes more pronounced. He notes that volcanoes begin as myth or objects of scientific interest but soon become personifications, not of a feminine force, as Denman argues, but as
a consistently masculine, destructive trope, ultimately appearing as a personified male, holding beneath a still exterior the will to destroy.
It is possible, as some have argued, that Dickinson regarded her creative force as masculine. Howard reiterates Denman’s assertion of volcanic renewal:
just as the fiery lava and ash also resculpt the landscape and enrich the soil, Dickinson’s disruption of conventional discourse also reshapes and enriches the language.
I have never seen 'Volcanoes' –
But, when Travellers tell
How those old – phlegmatic mountains
Usually so still –
Bear within – appalling Ordnance,
Fire, and smoke, and gun –
Taking Villages for breakfast,
And appalling Men –
If the stillness is Volcanic
In the human face
When opon a pain Titanic
Features keep their place –
If at length, the smouldering anguish
Will not overcome,
And the palpitating Vineyard
In the dust, be thrown?
If some loving Antiquary,
On Resumption Morn,
Will not cry with joy, "Pompeii"!
To the Hills return!
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet IV, Fascicle 8-12, Houghton Library – (16a). Includes 20 poems, written in ink, dated ca. 1860. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. First published in Bolts of Melody (1945), 252-53, from a transcript of A (a tr335).
Dickinson copied this poem into Fascicle 8 in the 12th position around Spring 1860, and it is the first known reference that we could find to volcanoes in her poetry or letters. It is written in hymn meter that is somewhat irregular because the 2nd and 4th lines are more often 5 syllables than 6.
First, we might note that the word “volcanoes” in the first line is in single quotation marks, as if it is set off rhetorically. As if the speaker is implying that if one hasn’t seen volcanoes, they don’t quite exist. They are mysterious, the subject of fantastic tales by “Travellers,” tales of an internal violence compared to the easily perceived external tools of warfare: “Ordnance, / Fire, and smoke, and gun.”
This comparison to man-made weapons prepares us for the personification that follows in the last three stanzas, comparing the stillness of dormant volcanoes to the stoicism of keeping one’s countenance in the face of “pain Titanic” and “smouldering anguish.” The tone here is strangely impersonal. The speaker is careful to speak generally, though the imagery of repression may extend to the poem as well. What is under wraps? And is the image of the “palpitating Vineyard” thrown into the dust a post-eruption allusion to Emerson’s image in “The American Scholar,” cited in this week's post, of Vesuvius “illuminating the Vineyards of Naples” with its flames? Can the allusion to the tools of warfare be a veiled reference to the destruction of the Civil War?
The final stanza seems more hopeful or “playful,” according to Rebecca Patterson. It imagines an antiquarian in Heaven on “Resumption [Resurrection] Morn,” recognizing the “return” of the town of Pompeii that was buried in ash by the eruption of Vesuvius. What is the equivalent in human terms of this return?
Patterson, Rebecca. Emily Dickinson’s Imagery. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1979, 172-73.
A still –
Volcanic Volcano – Life –
That flickered in the night –
When it was dark enough
Without + erasing sight –
A quiet – Earthquake style –
Too +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 -+ooze away
+show +endangering +smouldering +slip • slide • melt
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XXIX, Fascicle 24-12 (part), Houghton Library – (156d). Includes 8 complete poems with a portion of another, written in ink, dated ca. 1862. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. First published in Further Poems (1929), 36, with the alternatives adopted (“slip” for line 7), and a fourth and final stanza (beginning “Therefore we do life's Labor”) which is part of a different poem, “I tie my hat – I crease my shawl.” The confusion in the manuscripts of Fascicle 24 that led to this association is discussed in Franklin, Harvard Library Bulletin, 28 (July 1980), 245-57.
Dickinson copied this poem into Fascicle 24 in the 12th place sometime around spring 1863. It is a good example of Dickinson’s use of short meter: 6686 rhyming abcb. It picks up the imagery of “stillness” as stoicism from the previous poem and extrapolates it in three stanzas that propose three metaphors linking volcanoes and writing in characteristically understated irony: a still Volcano life, a quiet Earthquake style, a solemn Torrid symbol. The tone is more personal than the previous poem and even threatening. In the first stanza, the volcano “flickers” as if to frighten us with its potential explosive force.
Helen Vendler does a thorough reading of this poem, its rhymes and its revealing variants. For example, Dickinson initially wrote “Volcanic” in the first line but changed it to a noun, because, as Vendler comments, “an adjective cannot be a Symbol,” and a “Volcano Life” is nothing if not a symbol. Of what, though?
Considering the image in the light of other “Volcano” poems, Vendler argues it is a reference to Dickinson’s “own life,” not of social repression but of self-regulation: she paints a picture of a brilliant, acerbic, opinionated woman “curbing her power to dismiss, to wound, to hurt, to ‘erase’” for moral reasons. Thus monitored, Dickinson built up resentment, which she took out in volcanic imagery that enacts her wish to vaporize “cities” with a word. Thus,Vendler concludes:
Dickinson’s revenge-fantasy on repressive New England is complete.
We are far away from Hitchcock’s notion of volcanoes as a safety valve and Emerson’s idea of them as “one soul.”
Other readers note the sexual implications of the imagery, described by Kamilla Denman in the Biography section of this post. Joanne Dobson, for example, notes that the “destructive power here is as sexual as it is verbal,” and that Puritan New England society required the possessors of such power “to maintain reticence.”
Cristanne Miller takes this further, seeing Dickinson’s volcano metaphor for the sexual woman as absurd and grotesque, an example of her use of excess to express the tension between her experience of herself and 19th century cultural expectations that rendered her monstrous and out-sized. We might ask, how does the image of the simmering volcano inextricably link the sexual to the creative?
Dobson, Joanne. Dickinson and the Strategies of Reticence: The Woman Writer in Nineteenth Century America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989, 108.
Miller, Cristanne. “The Humor of Excess.” Comic Power in Emily Dickinson. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993: 103-40.
Vendler, Helen. Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2010, 234-36.
My Life had stood – a
Loaded Gun –
In Corners – till a Day
The Owner passed – identified –
And carried Me away –
And now We roam in
Sovreign Woods –
And now We hunt the Doe –
And every time I speak
The Mountains straight reply –
And do I smile, such
Opon the Valley glow –
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let it's pleasure through –
And when at Night – Our
good Day done –
I guard My Master's Head –
'Tis better than the Eider –
+Deep Pillow – to have shared –
To foe of His – I'm deadly
None +stir the second time –
On whom I lay a Yellow
Or an emphatic Thumb –
Though I than He – may
He longer must – than I –
For I have but the + power
Without – the power to die –
+low +harm +art
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XXIV, Fascicles 40 (part) and 34 (part), Houghton Library – (131a). Includes 13 poems, written in ink, dated ca. 1862-1864. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. First published in London Mercury, 19 (February 1929), 354-55, and Further Poems (1929), 143, with the alternatives for lines 5 and 23 adopted.
Dickinson copied this poem into Fascicle 34 in the ninth place in late 1863, and also into Fascicle 40. It is written in fairly regular common meter, and perhaps the regularity of the form is meant to belie the violence of the contents: a speaker who imagines they (we don’t know if the speaker is feminine or masculine) are a “loaded gun” who kills innocent does (specifically female deer) and “deadly Foes” for an “Owner” and “Master.” And who gets pleasure—from the killing or serving the master or both?
This is probably the most celebrated of the many poems in which Dickinson creates explosive, even lethal metaphors to describe her speaker: dancing bombs, flickering volcanoes, loaded guns. There is much contention over its meaning: whether Dickinson supports the actions of the gun or critiques it; whether this is an allegory, and if so, for what? what the enigmatic last stanza means; and how to understand the relationship between Gun and “Owner / Master.” The word “Master” is a deeply fraught term in Dickinson’s writing, connoting cultural, artistic, sexual and racial power. Poet and critic Susan Howe puts an extended reading of this poem at the heart of her book, My Emily Dickinson.
Let us focus on the volcano image. The speaker-gun expresses its pleasure in a volcanic simile in stanza three: the “cordial light” of the gun’s firing produces a “glow” in the Valley where they are hunting and “It is as a Vesuvian Face / Had let its pleasure through–.” There is so much to unpack just in this image: the very positive words used here for destruction: cordial, glow, pleasure; the comparison with Vesuvius and its destructive eruption as pleasurable; the erotic connotations linking violence and pleasure; the gender-bending—who has agency? who speaks for whom? The pleasure evinced here through the volcano’s eruption takes Dickinson’s volcano imagery to another level—one that some readers have found disturbing.
Adrienne Rich singled this poem out in her essay, “Vesuvius at Home,” as the “onlie begetter” of her thinking about Dickinson. Here is what she says about it:
I think it is a poem about possession by the daemon, about the dangers and risks of such possession if you are a woman, about the knowledge that power in a woman can seem destructive, and that you cannot live without the daemon once it has possessed you.
Rich, Adrienne. “Vesuvius at Home.” Parnassus: Poetry in Review. 5, 1, 1976.
Further reading (selected from the summary in Sharon Leiter, Critical Companion to Emily Dickinson: A Literary Reference to Her Life and Work, Infobase Publishing, 2007, 147):
Cameron, Sharon. Lyric Time: Dickinson and the Limits of Genre. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979, 65-74.
Farr. Judith. The Passion of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1992, 241-44.
Freeman, Margaret H. “A Cognitive Approach to Dickinson’s Metaphors.” The Emily Dickinson Handbook. Eds. Gudrun Grabher, Roland Hagenbüchle, Cristanne Miller. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998, 265-69.
Gelpi, Albert. “Emily Dickinson and the Deerslayer: The Dilemma of the Woman Poet in America.” Shakespeare’s Sisters: Feminist Essays on Women Poets. Eds. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar. Bloomington: Indian University Press, 1979, 124-34.
Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven, Yale University Press, 1979, 607-12.
Howe, Susan. My Emily Dickinson. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 1985.
Pollak, Vivian. Dickinson: The Anxiety of Gender. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984, 150-55.
Weisbruch, Robert A. "Prisming.” The Emily Dickinson Handbook. Eds. Gudrun Grabher, Roland Hagenbüchle, Cristanne Miller. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998, 205-11.
Wolff, Cynthia. Emily Dickinson. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., Inc. 1988, 441-46.
basks and purrs
Naples is more
Than when she
shows her Garnet Tooth –
Security is loud –
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Loose sheets. When Etna basks and purrs. MS Am 1118.3 (374). Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Single Hound (1914), 9.
R. W. Franklin dates this poem to around 1869, and notes that it was written “in pencil on a leaf of stationery, apparently sent to Susan Dickinson without address or signature.” The poem is one stanza of short meter, 6686 syllables, and the slant rhyme “afraid/ loud” carries something of the poem’s point.
Mount Etna is an active volcano on the east coast of the island of Sicily, just off the toe of the boot of Italy. It is the largest volcano in Europe outside of the Caucasus, and two and a half times the height of Vesuvius, which is near Naples on the west coast of the Italian mainland. Greek mythology tells how Zeus trapped the deadly monster Typhon under Mt. Etna where the forges of Hephaestus were also said to be. Many eruptions have been recorded over the years. The poet Virgil includes what we suspect was a first-hand account of an eruption in The Aeneid [Book III, 551-587]. A particularly spectacular eruption occurred on March 11, 1669.
“Etna” means “I burn” and, indeed, this volcano is in an almost constant state of activity, spewing smoke and rumbling, a fact which might have captured Dickinson’s imagination as a figure in her stable of volcanic imagery. As in “My Life had stood a loaded Gun,” the speaker describes this active volcano in positive terms, like a large and dangerous feline basking in the sun and “purring” with pleasure. This potential for explosion is, according to the speaker, more fearful for “Naples,” a short-hand for Vesuvius, perhaps, a fellow volcano in Italy. For with Etna's constant reminders, everyone is kept on their toes. “Garnet” as a metaphor for the volcano’s flames connects the power of the volcano with Dickinson’s “gem tactics” and poems of female entitlement like “Title divine, is mine” (F194A, B, J1072). John Robinson notes:
The volcano image gives her the drama of greater power revealing itself to shake the lives of the previously complacent with revelations of the real. It is a drama which depends on deceptive appearance, so … it is when the volcano is quiet that the city is apprehensive.
Robinson, John. Emily Dickinson: Looking to Canaan. Faber Student Guides, London: Faber, 1986, 151.
Volcanoes be in Sicily
And South America
I judge from my Geography
Volcano nearer here
A Lava step at any time
Am I inclined to climb
A Crater I may contemplate
Vesuvius at Home
Link to EDA manuscript. [no image] Manuscript lost, transcribed by Susan Dickinson (h st2b). First published in Single Hound (1914), 125, from the transcript.
This volcano poem, whose manuscript is lost, was transcribed by Susan Dickinson. It comprises two stanzas of common meter run together and completely lacking any punctuation to guide us in our reading.
It was this poem that gave Adrienne Rich the provocative title for her essay about Dickinson’s explosive creativity: “Vesuvius at Home.” The poem imagines a young speaker, still studying geography, learning about real volcanoes far away but curious about the symbolic ones nearer to home. There is some evidence that Dickinson might have believed the Holyoke Hills formed the crater of an extinct volcano, but this is not geologically true. Still, the speaker wants to “contemplate” volcanoes up close, climb the steps left by streaming lava and the craters formed as the sides of the mountain fell away. Metaphorically, she wants to get at the source of the heat, flames and creative power. She wants a domestic, local source of that inner energy.
Cynthia Wolff considers this one of Dickinson’s poems in the voice of an “unsocialized child:”
The vision is that of a child–old enough to go to school but young enough to say aloud the truth that adults push from consciousness, that violence is not found exclusively “someplace else.”… still lingering in this student’s memory is the recollection of an earlier time of life when absolute rage and voracious passion found forthright expression. Such emotions can never be eliminated; instead, they are covered over with layers of moral injunction and social propriety. Yet, being volcanic, they sometimes still erupt through the many strata of these prohibitions, unexpectedly hissing violence in their path.
Wolff, Cynthia. Emily Dickinson. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., Inc. 1988, 185.
On my volcano grows the Grass
A meditative spot –
An acre for a Bird to choose
Would be the general thought –
How red the Fire rocks below
How insecure the sod
Did I disclose
Would populate with awe my solitude
Link to EDA manuscript [no image]. Manuscript lost, transcribed by Susan Dickinson (h st26b). First published in Single Hound (1914), 133, from the transcript, with the first two words of line 8 as the last of line 7.
Another volcano poem, undated, whose manuscript is lost, transcribed by Susan Dickinson. This poem uses tone and meter to excellent effect to make its point that things are not what they seem from their appearance. The grassy acre looks like a meditative spot for birds and bird-watchers but is actually the flank of a simmering volcano. The very sod of the earth beneath our feet is a flimsy, insecure covering for an awesome/awful reality. Here, the speaker owns the volcano as its—possession or manifestation? The slip into the first person pronoun seems terrifying and god-like.
Annie Finch observes that the regular rhythm of the hymn meter of the first stanza lulls us into peacefulness and security. But in the second stanza, Dickinson ends line 7 after only 4 feet and puts the remaining 4 feet into line 8 to form a line of iambic pentameter. “The poem,” she says
makes an unusually clear statement of the sense of confinement and frustration and the threatening tension that accompany the renunciatory poetics of Dickinson's hymn stanza. Rumbling under the surface of the poetic object, the hymn, the ballad, is a subject, a priest, a singer whose isolation could be inhabited (if she “Did [could? wanted to?] disclose”) by the authority that “rocks below.”
But this is to suppose that Dickinson wanted to compose in iambic pentameter, “the patriarchal meter,” the line of Shakespeare and Milton and Wordsworth. It's possible to see her metrical manipulation as leaving a blank space in line 7 to indicate what she cannot or dare not disclose or say: actually, how red the fire is below (an image of Hell), and how insecure is the sod of ordinary reality in quiet Amherst.
Finch, A. R. C. “Dickinson and Patriarchal Meter: A Theory of Metrical Codes.” PMLA 102 (2 March 1987): 166-76, 170.
The reticent volcano keeps
His never slumbering plan;
Confided are his projects pink
To no precarious man.
If nature will not tell the tale
Jehovah told to her
Can human nature not proceed
Without a listener?
Admonished by her buckled lips
Let every +prater be
The only secret + neighbors + keep
+babbler + people + shun
Link to EDA manuscript. [no image] Manuscript lost, transcribed by Mabel Todd (a 1896pc, 27). First published in Todd, The Outlook, 54 (15 August 1896), 285, stanzas 1 and 3 in a single eight-line stanza, with alternatives for lines 10 and 11 ("people"), adopted; Poems (1896), 38, entire, with alternatives for lines 7, 10, and 11 ("people") adopted.
Another volcano poem with a lost manuscript and undated, this one transcribed by Mabel Todd. The hymn form links it to the other volcano poems as does its explicit theme of “reticence.”
This volcano, like Etna, is “never slumbering,” a fact the speaker uses as an image of unending planning of “pink projects,” the fiery eruptions of its core. It is easy to link this image of projects to poetic or creative productions. Despite the now explicit gendering of pink as a feminine color, this volcano is explicitly male, the first time Dickinson assigns a specific gender to a volcano. Research shows that before WW II, style setters like department stores recommended pink for boys and blue for girls, reasoning that pink derived from red and was therefore a “stronger and more decided color,” while blue was more “delicate.” We might see this as Dickinson gendering the creative and destructive powers of her inner self as a masculine force—not surprising for a woman writing in a man’s world.
Stanza one is often quoted to support a reading of Dickinson’s reticence about her poetic work, her self-masking about “her enormous ambition.” Stanzas two and three can be read to support this, but also raise the issue of “immortality,” a word that implies a literary recognition and fame that lead to deathlessness or a religious salvation that leads to heaven. As the riddling second stanza suggests, there is a secret that God tells nature and nature will not divulge to humans. What is the secret of the volcano?
Barker, Wendy. Lunacy of Light: Emily Dickinson and the Experience of Metaphor. Carbondale: Southern Illinois Press, 1987, 120.
Denman, Kamilla. “Emily Dickinson’s Volcanic Punctuation.” The Emily Dickinson Journal 2, 1, Spring 1993, 22-46, 22-23.
Dobson, Joanne. Dickinson and the Strategies of Reticence: The Woman Writer in Nineteenth Century America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989, 107.
Howard, Andrew. “Volcanoes.” All Things Dickinson: An Encyclopedia of Emily Dickinson’s World. Ed. Wendy Martin. 2 vols. Greenwood Press, 2014, 849-851.