Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) penned nearly 1,800 poems, of which fewer than a dozen were published in her lifetime. For Dickinson, success came posthumously, and she’s regarded today as one of the most original voices in American poetry. Living much of her life as a recluse, she maintained friendships largely through correspondence. Her poems are marked by recurring themes of death, immortality, nature, and the “undiscovered continent,” a landscape of the spirit, or the interior world of the poet herself.

Among recurring imagery of flowers, gardens, allusions to the teachings of Christ (to whom several of her poems are addressed), birds, and other imagery of nature and spirit, you can add the volcano, references to Pompeii, and Mount Vesuvius.

“Emily Dickinson’s poem ‘A still — Volcano — Life’ (numbered 517 in R. W. Franklin’s editions and 601 in Thomas Johnson’s), is a smoldering evocation of, on the one hand, a subterranean and dangerous energy, and, on the other, minds that are not prepared to notice the rumbling and roiling of something hidden,” says Maggie Evans McGuinness, a poet and tutor at St. John’s College. “Some readers may see in these lines a portrait of Dickinson herself — the seemingly placid and cloistered New England lady who, unknown to most, had a churning and powerful inner life and produced an astonishing quantity of disruptive and challenging verse.”

Here, Evans McGuinness takes the reader through the poem, elucidating the possible meanings of its imagery and the poet’s choice of words. — Michael Abatemarco

A still — Volcano[1] — Life[2]

That flickered in the night —

When it was dark enough to do

Without erasing sight[3]

A quiet — Earthquake Style[4]

By natures this side Naples —

The Solemn — Torrid — Symbol[6]

The lips that never lie —

Whose hissing Corals part[7] — and shut —

And Cities — ooze[8] away[9]

Editors R.W. Franklin (1863) Johnson J601

[1] Emily Dickinson’s handwritten poems (often found on the backs of envelopes or other such ephemera) include notes for possible substitutions for some words, usually marked by a cross or plus. Dickinson’s manuscript version of this poem begins with “Volcanic” rather than “Volcano.” What difference does this substitution make? For me, “A still — Volcanic — Life” suggests that the poem is concerned with a certain kind of life only, a still volcanic one. But Dickinson’s choice of “Volcanic” (going so far as to strike through the first choice of “Volcano” in favor of the marginal alternative), leaves us with Life itself — a whole including and perhaps even going beyond individual lives — as volcanic. If you are interested in seeing scans of Dickinson’s handwritten poems, many are available to the public online at the Emily Dickinson Archives (edickinson.org). Many of them include fascinating and surprising variations and alternatives that can’t be seen in the traditionally published edited versions.

[2] Compare Dickinson’s vision of volcanic life — to me, a violently sensual, disturbingly embodied vision — to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s: “The human mind … is one central fire, which flaming now out of the lips of Etna, lightens the capes of Sicily; and, now out of the throat of Vesuvius, illuminates the towers and vineyards of Naples. It is one light which beams out of a thousand stars. It is one soul which animates all men” (from “The American Scholar,” 1837).

[3] What is the “erasing sight” that would happen if the volcano were to flicker in the day? I first read the phrase as suggesting that the light of the volcano would be damaging to sight if it were to erupt during daylight. But why should darkness be the time that the light of volcanic fire would be easier on our eyes? Wouldn’t the night make the light brighter by contrast? More blinding? Perhaps, then, the “erasing sight” refers to erasing the sight of the lava itself. If it flickers during the day, it is invisible. Night is needed so that the sight of the flickering volcanic light is not erased by sunlight. Are our eyes endangered by the intensity of this light? Or are we in danger of missing it if we don’t look rightly? This opening ambiguity between violence and subtlety echoes through the rest of the poem.

[4]  Why would an “Earthquake Style” be quiet or subtle? Why do we need a nature south of Naples or a ‘southern’ sensibility to detect an earthquake? Does that mean that it is a very deep and hidden tremor, only noticeable by careful attention or long experience? Or does it mean that those with “natures this side Naples” are so coarse or insensitive that cataclysmic eruptions go unnoticed?

[5] The volcano was an important image for Dickinson, and she revisited it in her poems and letters. In “Volcanoes be in Sicily” (Franklin 1691, Johnson 1677) and “On my volcano grows the grass” (FR 1743, J1748), as in this poem, the volcano is evoked as silent, smoldering, and dangerous but deceptively tamped down. She was conscious of how out of place volcanic heat was to her New England clime but asserted that she need not travel in order to “contemplate/Vesuvius at Home” (FR 1691). In one of her letters, to an unknown recipient addressed only as “Master,” Dickinson wrote: “Vesuvius don’t [sic] talk — Etna — don’t — one of them — said a syllable — a thousand years ago, and Pompeii heard it, and hid forever —” (Letter 233).

[6]  “Symbol” is a rare word for Dickinson. It is used in a fewer than a handful of poems (four, if you include those with manuscript variations that use the word) out of nearly 2,000. In the poem’s beginning “Dare you see a Soul at the ‘White Heat’ ” (Franklin 401, Johnson 365), a tangible source of intense heat, this time a village forge, is said to be a “symbol” for a “finer Forge” that produces the “White Heat” of the soul. In both of these poems, intense actual fires, products of Earth and of human labor, point to or stand for the heat of an inner state. This is perhaps less radical in the case of the forge, which is, after all, made by human hands. But what would it mean for the deepest eruptions of the Earth, the literal core of our earthly existence, to be merely an image of something more? Who (or what) could (or would) craft a volcano as a symbolic act?

[7] The parting of hissing corals is a suggestively feminine and undeniably erotic image for volcanic eruption. Perhaps feminine sexuality is a smoldering lava flow that will cause cities to ooze away. But the parting of lips calls to mind a whisper or a word, at least as much as a kiss. And if those lips never lie, what is the destructive truth they “hiss” when they part?

[8] This word “ooze” provoked more variations from Dickinson than any other in the poem. The bottom of the handwritten version gives “slip,” “slide,” and “melt” as alternatives. How would the poem change with each of these substitutions? Why choose “ooze” from them all?

[9] In the final word of the poem, the rhyme scheme, too, seems to “ooze away.” Each previous pair of rhyming words has been resonant and clear (“night/sight,” “suspect/detect”), but “lie” only very tenuously rhymes with “away,” if at all. To my ear, this last moment has an oozing character, the long “oo” of “ooze” and the last syllable of “away” elongating as I try to make it rhyme with “lie” but can’t quite accomplish it. Does this make the structures of the poem itself (rhyme and rhythm) into a kind of city under threat from the smoldering beneath? ◀

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