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 necessary, 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 –
F415 (1862) J442
In this thoughtful eulogy Dickinson compares the deceased man to anthracite – a lustrous variety of mineral coal that burns hot, bright and pure. Unlike lesser grades, anthracite has the potential to become a diamond. This man, Dickinson says, was “Lit with a finer Phosphor” than that animating lesser mortals. Phosphor, in addition to being a physical luminescent substance, represents “light; flame; fuel; vitality; vivacity; energy; spark of life” (Emily Dickinson lexicon, BYU College of Humanities and Brigham Young University).
Such fire and vitality is hard to extinguish; that is the point of Dickinson’s praise.
|Anthracite: hard, lustrous, and pure|
Dickinson then moves from the particular to the general. There are others like the eulogized man who also have fire in their souls. She moves from the heat potential of anthracite to likening it to the heat of Ethiopia. Such heat requires “an Ampler Zero” – a deep-space kind of freeze, a “Frost more needle keen” to reduce it.
|Plain, dull peat|
These low-spirited folks with their “Peat life” – although “amply vivid” in the day-to-day sense (the contrast is to the “Ampler Zero” required to quench the nobler souls) – ignore the eruptions and volcanoes in the world around them. The news may be “solemn” about the deadly potential of the Etnas and Popocatapels of this world, but the peat people take no interest. Dickinson ends the poem with the word “Choose” floating without anchor. Is she asking the reader to choose? Peat or anthracite? Volcano or a placid tract? Or is she suggesting that the peat people have chosen to be what and who they are?
I think there may be something just a bit different, though. The suggestion of choice at the end of the poem is at odds with the beginning where the anthracite man was “Lit with a finer Phosphor.” He was given his noble nature. The rest of us, with our empty tracts, may choose not to ignore the fiery earth beneath our feet. We should learn to see it, be in awe of it, perhaps even keep a bit of anthracite – mined deep from rocky seams rather than scraped like peat off the surface – in our hearth to keep us warm.
Several critics have suggested that Dickinson’s use of anthracite may have been inspired by Reveries of a Bachelor, a book by Donald Grant Mitchell published in 1850, that compares the dancing but weak sea-coal to the steady and strong anthracite by way of metaphor for different types of people:
But my [anthracite] fire is […] throwing a tranquil, steady light to the farthest corner of my garret. How unlike it is to the flashing play of the Sea-coal; unlike as an unsteady, uncertain-working heart to the true and earnest constancy, of one cheerful and right.
[G]ive me such a heart; not bent on vanities, not blazing too sharp with sensibility, not throwing out coquettish jets of flame, not wavering, and meaningless with pretended warmth, but open, glowing, and strong. Its dark shades and angles it may have; for what is a soul worth that does not take a slaty tinge from those griefs that chill the blood ? Yet still the fire is gleaming; you see it in the crevices ; and anon it will give radiance to the whole mass.
It hurts the eyes, this fire.
We have seen in previous Dickinson poems (e.g., F401, “Dare you see a Soul at the ‘White Heat’”) that despite the hurt, she forges her poems by gazing into the fire.