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22 July 2013

He fumbles at your Soul

He fumbles at your Soul
As Players at the Keys —
Before they drop full Music on —
He stuns you by Degrees —

Prepares your brittle Nature
For the Ethereal Blow
By fainter Hammers — further heard —
Then nearer — Then so — slow —

Your Breath — has time to straighten —
Your Brain — to bubble Cool —
Deals One — imperial Thunderbolt —
That scalps your naked soul —

When Winds hold Forests in their Paws —
The Universe — is still —

                                                                                   F477 (1862)  J315

I have always read this poem as Dickinson’s depiction of the terrors of God, how an encounter with the male deity can be seen as (in Adrienne Rich's words) "seduction and rape."  He is a methodical assailant lulling and preparing the subject until ready to strike his imperial blow. Revelation, or perhaps salvation, does not come easily. The path to truth is not for the faint of heart.
       Some scholars read the poem as a sketch of Rev. Charles Wadsworth's powers in the pulpit. The talented but married Wadsworth is considered by many to be one of the great loves of Dickinson's life. Certainly the poem makes sense if read as what it would be like to sit in the church under the spell of a charismatic preacher.
       But however we read the "He" – God, preacher, patriarchy, or even, as Lyndall Gordon would have it, epilepsy, images of violence mingle with the sensual. In the first lines we see piano players noodling a few notes to warm up before dropping the "full music on" the audience. The musicians are well aware that their warm up notes toy with the listeners' desire to hear the music. Then there is the slow tease of the "fainter Hammers" approaching
Star Trek crew member is compelled by an
alien to play the climax to its lonely music
gradually in a sort of foreplay. The very masculine thunderbolt is dealt to a "naked" soul who has been "prepare[d]." And finally, the winds are seen with "Paws" rather than claws – which is a frightening yet tender image: Papa Bear has paws; tigers have claws.
       I find it interesting that the wind isn't shaking the trees but rather holding them – as if the forest shakes on its own and the wind that restrains it. A second, more ominous image that comes to mind is that of the wind holding the forest as it prepares to shake the dickens out of it. The potential violence is so real that the universe seems to hold its breath. The wind, like God, is a predator. The forest, like the victim speaker, is the prey.

This poem never fails to grip and frighten me. I like this about the poem and so I choose not to dwell on it as if it were about a preacher or a grand mal seizure. Much of its frightening power comes, in addition to the concept, from strikingly vivid words. In the first line the attacker "fumbles" at the generalized you's soul. The image is immediately sexual and invasive: the soul is the ultimate private part; "fumbler" suggests a teenage or inept lover. But we soon see that this fumbling (by the end of the poem we look back on that as pawing, the word having been provided in the last couplet) is God pawing at our souls to see if there is anything of interest there, any resistance, any yearning. "Fumbles" is at once dismissive and horrifying. I also think of someone fumbling with the lock, the inhabitants cowering behind the bedroom door.
       Once done with the fumbling, God begins his actual assault very slowly, as if "ethereal hammers" were gradually drawing nearer. We are in the blacksmith's forge now, as we were in "Dare you see a Soul at the 'White Heat'?" (F401).  The metal of our souls is brittle and must be prepared, otherwise an imperial blow would shatter rather than "scalp" the soul. What a frightful word! Yet for Dickinson, it was probably even more visceral than it is to us today. She must have read the frontier narratives of the day where the Native Americans took scalps as battle prizes. The idea that God scalps your soul is far from the portrayal of Jesus as the loving Savior; it takes us back to the angry Jehovah who annihilates whole populations. She adds nothing to either soften or justify this portrayal. The prepared soul, having been stunned "by degrees" is "naked" and defenseless. Is it better off for having been scalped? Dickinson doesn't say. My guess is that she is recounting what it was like for her to encounter God.
       Another strikingly vivid phrase comes in the anticipation of waiting: the speaker has time to "straighten" her breath; whatever terror or dread you experience is lulled by the hammers that seem to draw closer but very slowly so that the 'you' is calmed. The brain, initially on full and frightened alert by the unmistakable signs that God is stalking, has time "to bubble Cool." As in a horror movie, we want to yell at it to look out, don't close your eyes!.

The "still" universe at the end implies to me that an act of divine violence or revelation or love creates a surrounding silence, perhaps of despair, perhaps of horror, or perhaps of peace. I rather think of it as shocked awe. Dickinson write in the first stanza of the "full Music" being dropped on us. Several earlier poems refer to some distant, cosmic music; a music fraught with meaning and intent. It sounded seductive and desirable in those poems. In this one, we learn what it is to have the whole force of that music directed at you. No wonder the response to that scalping noise is silence.
    I am also reminded of the stillness in "A Certain Slant of Light" where there is a sense of cosmic suspension. "[T]he landscape listens" and "Shadows – hold their breath."

Here are a couple of stanzas from "Better than Music" that show a different sort of music:

Not such a strain—the Church—baptizes—
When the last Saint—goes up the Aisles—
Not such a stanza splits the silence—
When the Redemption strikes her Bells—

Let me not spill—its smallest cadence—
Humming—for promise—when alone—
Humming—until my faint Rehearsal—
Drop into tune—around the Throne—
                    F378 (1862)  503


  1. I don't see any reference to god in this poem.

    Instead, I think the poem is about the effect of art on the audience -- particularly poetry. ED wrote often of the effects of words and poetry in language very similar to the metaphors of this poem: how ED's own words "chill and burn me"; how a single syllable can make a human heart "quake like a jostled tree"; how her "Verses just relieve" the palsy, how their "jingling cooled my tramp"; "If I read a book it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry."

    She also uses "soul" very commonly in her poems -- without particular reference to god.

    1. I "see" the reference to god because that's the way the poem hits me, no matter how credible I find the other interpretations. Further, it fits (the logical entity to fumble at your soul, I think, would be God) – and I can't find any evidence against my favored interp. Talk about subjective!

      I did think about the lines you quote as I was composing my commentary, particularly the last ones from her Higginson letter, so if I had to pick an alternative reading I would agree that her poem takes poetry as its subject.

      In fact, I would speculate that she wrote the poem in response to having read something by Keats or Shakespeare (or another of her favorite authors) and having a particularly hair-raising/scalping response to it. The poem would be a tribute to that poet's power. Thinking of the subject as a particular poet would account for the "He" of the poem, which I think eliminates a generalized subject of Poetry or Art.

  2. I just found your blog, seeking more information about this poem, which I had just discovered in an anthology of love poems written by women...and I was having a hard time making that connection. I like your analysis. I wonder, though, at the hammers following the reference to piano playing. The piano's action is 'hammered.' This suggests an alternate interpretation of / extrapolation from "fainter hammers." From Wikipedia: the piano's action "translates the depression of the keys into rapid motion of a hammer, which creates sound by striking the strings." An experienced pianist can get quite a bit of dynamic variation from this percussive action, pp to ff. Although I do not believe the poem refers to a musical performance, it does suggest to me aspects of Beethoven sonatas :-)

    1. It makes a lot of sense for the hammering to be a further reference to the piano playing. Thanks for bringing it up -- it makes a more complete metaphor.
      I really can't imagine what the anthology editor was thinking!!! Perhaps she just liked the poem a lot.

  3. i interpret the fainter Hammers as the heart as the blood flow rushing through ones head, first a quick staccato in the distance and then a slow, heavy pounding.

  4. If ED had ever wanted to convey some horrors of war, this would be an excellent entry. The verbs seem too violent to suggest salvation, even for ED.

  5. We read this poem in high school English class. From the very beginning, it has struck me as a lyrical way to describe aging and death. Death fumbles with our souls, and before he gets us ("drop full music on") our bodies slowly age over the years (he "stuns you by degrees," "fainter hammers further heard, then nearer, then so slow"..."your breath has time to straighten, your brain to bubble cool"). In the end, after the ravages of time have taken their toll on our bodies and minds, Death is the imperial thunderbolt that scalps the naked soul.

    This is the most straightforward, uncomplicated exegesis of the poem; and is quite in keeping with Dickinson's other poems where she muses on Death.

    1. Interesting, but I'm not convinced. For one thing, the poem doesn't seem to deal with the corporal self; you have to paint that in yourself. Second, the scalping imperial thunderbolt seems excessive as a culmination of the aging process. Third, and most intriguingly important: such an exegesis can't comfortably account for the last two lines. Can they?

      If you think about some of her Death poetry, they often are almost anticlimactic in terms of soul-scalping. There is the gentleman caller in 'Stop for Death', there are the housewives and children who sort of fade away, and there are the Dead themselves waiting for an eternity for a Rapture that doesn't come, or talking among themselves. There are those who go triumphant to a wonderful heaven. So, yes, Dickinson does often take Death as her subject; but I don't think that part of her opus supports this disturbing poem.

  6. Hi Susan! Thank you for doing this blog. I am exploring Dickinson for the first time and your interpretations are helping to sensitize me to my own. I love how encouraging you are to your readers to make our own interpretations, and how solidly reasoned and defended your own are. I'm finding it a little difficult to engage Dickinson's work. I don't know if that is a product of my personality, my generation, or her work, but, regardless, I'm sure it her work is worth the effort!

    Anyway, thank you again! I look forward to continuing the conversation.

    1. Dickinson is notoriously difficult: she leaves words and punctuation out, her pronouns are often without a clear antecedent, and she eschews spelling things out. As in this poem, the core conceit might be one of several different things.

      That ambiguity and difficulty, plus the power and wonderful originality of many of her poems (such as this one) convinced me to tackle this project. At about four hundred poems I found them a bit easier to get a handle on (although not to feel confident about 'what they mean').

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  8. I like the comment about the effect of an artist on his audience. The God/rape thought is fairly terrifying, but as a musician who has performed and, more than that, has enjoyed great performances, I have experienced that Thunderbolt that scalps the naked soul. There is a sensuality to the poem that is very palpable though - if it is indeed about the effect of art on an audience, her take provides (as usual!) a different view. Marvelous. If of God, then terrifying to be sure.

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  10. A 45 minute conversation about this poem led by Al Filreis, UPenn, ModPo instructor -

    1. Thank you for the link -- very engaging discussion!

    2. I liked the moderator pointing out that this is, in fact, a sonnet.

  11. May I please read this as a lovely poem about lovemaking.

    1. Hmmmmm.... yes. I think one could fit that. Maybe 'lovely' would not be quite strong enough, but, still, yes.

  12. I have always felt that this poem is a description of a mystic episode.

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  14. If sex, I think it the underlying metaphor not the thing itself. If only sex, it is a very masculinist framing -- explicitly, with the "He" and also with the verbiage. All those vivid verbs phrases refer to what the He is doing.

    I wonder, though, how an 'ethereal blow' fits with sex outside of the metaphor.

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  16. Maybe the "He" is just the wind.
    This reminds me of living thru a hurricane with trepidation & fear building while the wind toys with you before the grand finale.
    Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar!

    1. I had never thought of that! I can fit a lot of the poem into that reading. "Ethereal blow" seems more 'heavenly' to me, but perhaps it fits with hurricane winds.

  17. You're right! Also, in 1849 a hurricane landed in Massachusetts causing 143 deaths. (see: Ethereal or hellacious, it's hard to distinguish during a Katrina type hurricane.
    I love your project & my project is to read the entirety of your work here. It has been much help to me. Thank You.

  18. Which Adrienne Rich essay are you citing? Thank you.

  19. A great poem fumbles with our souls in many ways:

    1. “Dickinson’s depiction of the terrors of God, . . . , what it was like for her to encounter God”” (Kornfeld),
    2. “a sketch of Rev. Charles Wadsworth's powers in the pulpit” (Larry B),
    3. “a lyrical way to describe aging and death”, (-D-)
    4. “the effect of art [poetry] on the audience”, (Anonymous, July 22, 2013)
    5. “a . . . reference to the piano playing [fainter Hammers — further heard —]”, (Anonymous September 16, 2015)
    6. “the blood flow rushing through one’s head”, (Anonymous October 1, 2015)
    7. “some horrors of war”, (mcjeeps)
    8. “a lovely poem about lovemaking”, (Anonymous April 15, 2020)
    9. “a description of a mystic episode”, Rosemary
    10. “a hurricane”, Anonymous September 22, 2022

    This must be a super great poem.

  20. Dr./Rev. Charles Wadsworth arrived in San Francisco in June 1862 and immediately began preaching at Calvary Presbyterian Church. Membership at the church was 12 families and attendance at Sunday sermons had been low. Within weeks the pews were filling and within months people were arriving an hour early to secure a seat. In 1863, George Burrowes, a nationally known minister and professor at San Francisco Theological Seminary

    ( ) published a 24-page pamphlet that would be labelled hype were it from a less eminent source (

    This excerpt from Burrowes’ pamphlet (pp. 13-15) perhaps explains why ED, age 24 in March 1855, fell in love with him after hearing one sermon and stayed that way to the end of her life:

    “No preaching can be popular without being practical. His preaching is eminently practical. It shows great shrewdness and penetration into the heart and into the motives operating in daily life. It owes not its interest to startling novelties; it does not draw its power from oratorical elocution. It is not rhetorical; it is not flowery; it is not metaphysical. It is not addressed to some particular fancy or idiosyncrasy of the day. You cannot detect in him any shade of resemblance to the features of the family of sensation-preachers. He has nothing in common with them. The very appearance of the man in the pulpit shows his abhorrence of claptrap and cant. You see that self is left in the background. His case is a fulfillment of the promise, "He that shall humble himself, shall be exalted."--:Matt. 23: 12.

    “He shrinks from public notoriety, public demonstrations, and public applause. He possesses eminently, so much so that it is a deficiency in his character, the very unusual disposition to undervalue himself and his productions. He cannot understand how he could ever be viewed as a preacher of mark and power. The crowds that have ever hung around his ministry, are to him alone a mystery. After sermons under which all hearts in a crowded congregation are melted down, and recover from their breathless and even painful attention with admiration and tears, he alone will sit [behind the pulpit] overcome with a sense of failure and of little worth in so magnificent an effort. Nor is this feeling of personal shortcoming and unworthiness a mere pretense: a maneuver for drawing forth expressions of admiration. It is a deep, honest conviction, resulting from a constitutional peculiarity that can never be removed.”

  21. Wadsworth led San Francisco Calvary Presbyterian seven years, 1862-1869. Before that, from 1850-1862, he pastored Philadelphia’s Arch Street Presbyterian. His sermons and style there matched those described by Dr. Burrowes in San Francisco (1863, 'Impressions of Dr. Wadsworth as a Preacher').

    George F. Whicher, Professor of English at Amherst College (1915-1954), published one of ED’s early book-length biographies, which included a description of Wadsworth’s sermons (Whicher, George F., 1938, ‘This was a Poet’, Amherst College Press, 337 pages, reprinted 1992 with an introduction by Richard B. Sewall, pp. 101-102):

    “In the pulpit he used few gestures and scrupulously avoided any trick of manner. He adhered closely to the carefully written manuscript of his sermon, almost reading it aloud. Nevertheless his sheer moral intensity penetrated the most sealed and obdurate hearts, and his congregations were shaken as if by a whirlwind. As Emily Dickinson put it, he wrought upon his hearers gradually, then with increasing hammer strokes, and when the stupendous moment came, dealt ''one imperial thunderbolt that scalps your naked soul.''

  22. "When Winds hold Forests in their Paws—
    The Universe — is still —"

    When Wadsworth holds congregations in his grip,
    the Universe stops moving.