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
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—F378 (1862) 503
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—