Meet the Undead:
Emily Dickinson was a prolific writer, composing close to eighteen hundred poems, out of which only a dozen were published during her lifetime (possibly because she dealt with themes and ideas that were unacceptable to her community).
She lived a sequestered existence in Amhert, Massachusetts, her lifelong home. The image of her sitting alone in a room composing poems for hours on end brings to mind the mystery and isolation that are so integral to the Gothic tradition.
The Writing on the Castle Walls:
“ I like a look of Agony,
Because I know it’s true-
Men do no sham Convulsion,
Nor simulate, a Throe-
The eyes glaze once- and that is Death-
Impossible to feign
The Beads upon the Forehead
By homely Anguish strung.” (2567)
Poem 339 is noticeably Gothic in its preoccupation with darker themes and images, including “Death” and suffering (“Agony,” “Convulsion,” “Anguish”), presenting very vivid descriptions of both. Dickinson’s capitalization of these terms has a very curious effect- they cease to be abtract notions, instead gaining bodies, and manifesting as physical or supernatural entities. This is particularly prominent in the line “the eyes glaze once- and that is Death.” The image is that of Death apparating into the scene, and into the poem.
The statement that Dickinson makes in 339 is that she appreciates suffering because it is true (a rather morbid idea), because it cannot be feigned or “[simulated].” This brings to mind the origin of American Gothic literature as a reaction against American Exceptionalism: is American Exceptionalism, with its emphasis on the good, the bright, and the optimistic, was presenting an idealistic myth, then the Gothic’s expression of such themes as death and suffering is true.
Lastly, it is not clear what form of suffering Dickinson is exploring in this poem (such ambiguity is common in her poetry, and is comparable to the themes of mystery and the unknown, explored in Gothic literature). She may be referring to physical suffering, as from illness, but she may also be commenting on spiritual suffering, the result of moral transgressions (the “Beads upon the Forehead” can bring to mind the image of a person sweating from fever, or that of a person perspiring under pressure, because of a guilty secret he or she has failed to confess).
Thus, in addition to touching upon the Gothic themes of death and ambiguity, poem 339 also introduces Gothic’s focus on psychological and internal struggles, and the question of guilt, sin and morality. These are further explored in poem 340:
“I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading- beating- till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through-
And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum-
Kept beating- beating- till I thought
My mind was going numb-
And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space- began to toll,
As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race
Wrecked, solitary, here-
And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down-
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing then-” (2568)
This poem is ambiguous in that it presents a vivid picture of suffering, but never delineates the cause. The cause remains a mystery. What is certain is that the speaker’s suffering is internal, psychological, a “funeral [felt] in [her] Brain.” The theme of depression is connected to that of death, in that depression is like a metaphorical or emotional death (this is shown in the way Dickinson uses the extended metaphor of the funeral to describe the speaker’s state of suffering).
In the first stanza, Dickinson also introduces the theme of madness. Her depression has overwhelmed her to the extent that it is eating away at her sanity: her “Sense [is] breaking through.” Eventually, “a Plank in Reason [breaks], and the speaker drops down, into abject misery, or madness, or both. Madness and insanity are recurring themes in the Gothic tradition.
In the second stanza, the image of the service beating, beating like a drum, driving the narrator to madness, strongly evokes the plot of The Tell-Tale Heart. As aforementioned, although the cause for the narrator’s suffering is not made clear, perhaps it has something to do with guilt? After all, she appears to be actively haunted by sounds- beats of drums, bells- followed by utter Silence, as if her internal suffering has manifested itself externally as aural sensations. We see this device recur in Poe’s writing (the beating of the heart in The Tell-Tale Heart; the shriek and the sound of the shield hitting the ground in The Fall of the House of Usher).
The poem ends on an ambiguous note, seducing the reader with the possibility of hope in the future. It ends, as so many of Dickinson’s poems end, with a dash. What does the dash indicate? Does “then” end the line or start a new line?
In “’Goblin with a Gauge”: Dickinson’s Readerly Gothic,” Daneen Wardrop argues that Dickinson’s use of punctuation produces narrative hesitation, uncertainty; she calls this technique “Gothic gapping” (Wardrop 40).
“One need not be a Chamber- to be Haunted-
One need not be a House-
The Brain has Corridors- surpassing
Far safer, of a midnight meeting
Than it’s interior confronting-
That cooler Host-
Far safer, through an Abbey gallop,
The Stones a’chase-
Than unarmed, one’s a’self encounter-
In lonesome Place-
Ourself behind ourself, concealed-
Should startle most-
Assassin hid in our Apartment
Be Horror’s least-
The Body- borrows a Revolver-
He bolts the Door-
O’erlookin a superior spectre-
Or More- (2574)
Poem 372 makes even more frequent use of that mysterious dash, and the “Gothic gapping” technique. It also furthers the notion of internalized Gothic struggle, i.e. a narrative in which the feared entity is not an external supernatural force (as in Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher), but a fear of the self, of one’s own sin and guilt (as in Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart). Dickinson presents the notion of internal ghosts and demons, fashioning the mind and the soul into a kind of metaphorical house (thereby internalizing the external, tying the supernatural to the psychological). The poem thus uses Gothic conventions to explore such recurring Gothic themes as sin and guilt (as aforementioned), isolation (“in lonesome Place”), the supernatural (“External Ghosts” and the “superior spectre” within), fear (“startle”), danger (the image of the Body arming itself with a Revolver), mystery and the unknown (“ourself, concealed”), and the notion of the Gothic house/mansion/setting (the haunted House, the “midnight meeting”), which she reconstructs as an internal, metaphorical place, within one’s conscience.
And the poem, like poem 340, ends on an uncertain and troubling note. What happens to the Body when it confronts the mind? What “More” could there be….
Daneen Wardrop’s “Goblin with a Gauge”: Dickinson’s Readerly Gothic
This essay focuses on Dickinson’s Poem 414, but much of what Wardrop says- about the connection between Dickinson’s writing and elements of Gothic- can be applied to the majority of her poems.
Audio anthology of nine poems by Dickinson
Read by Walter Rufus Eagles