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13 January 2012

I have never seen "Volcanoes"—

I have never seen "Volcanoes"—
But, when Travellers tell
How those old – phlegmatic mountains
Usually so still –

Bear within – appalling Ordnance,
Fire, and smoke, and gun,
Taking Villages for breakfast,
And appalling Men –

If the stillness is Volcanic
In the human face
When upon a pain Titanic
Features keep their place –

If at length the smouldering anguish
Will not overcome –
And the palpitating Vineyard
In the dust, be thrown?

If some loving Antiquary,
On Resumption Morn,
Will not cry with joy "Pompeii"!
To the Hills return!
                                                            F165 (1860)   J175

The poem takes a bit of patience to unravel because Dickinson has left out, as she does in numerous poems, certain grammatical constructions that would transition one stanza and thought to another. The first two stanzas start off simply and clearly, leading the reader by almost imperceptible degrees into an awareness of a seething passion of love and/or rage beneath the surface of the poet (although the case is framed as abstract speculation, I doubt if the poet would be surprised that readers make assumptions about her).
            The last three quatrains are phrased as hypotheticals: if this, if this, if this; and it is up to the reader to make the connections. Okay, let’s go:

If humans are like dormant volcanoes, then the face may be quite still while a “pain Titanic” (referring to Titans and the convulsing pain that followed their utter defeat) smolders within. But like an awakened volcano the pain will eventually burst through, overcoming the “Vineyard” of the body (its living wine and fruits), ultimately causing its death and burial “in the dust.” And yet there is the hope of “Resumption Morn” (and Dickinson takes religious liberties here with the idea of Resurrection – as if life were to simply resume rather than the souls resurrected into a new spiritual state in heaven) where even Pompeii, the fabulous city famously buried by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius will shake off its ashes in response to the call of a “loving Antiquary” or historian.

 This is the first of several poems Dickinson will write that liken her passions to volcanoes. Unlike later poems, though, this one ends on a note of hope. The historian can recall his beloved Pompeii. Perhaps whoever aroused this passion in the poet will also call her back to life as well.
Eruption of Mt. Vesuvius
            Dickinson would have heard quite a bit about volcanoes. Pompeii was being actively uncovered during her lifetime, and Frederick Church’s famous “The Heart of the Andes” had just gone on display in New York and was all the buzz. But she eases into this poem with her homely little bit about never having seen a volcano but having heard travelers talk about them. She transforms what they said into images of war and mythical dragons. The “appalling Ordnance” includes guns as well as “fire, and smoke.” Like a dragon swooping down from its mountain lair, the volcano also takes “Villages for breakfast.” The appalling ordinance and violence is also “appalling man” – a neat bit of grammatical fun as “appalling” is employed first as an adjective and then as a verb.

            Although the torment seems deadly real, readers can be glad for the volcano churning inside Dickinson because no doubt that is where a lot of the poetry came from. 


  1. Is the supposition of a restored Pompeii something new in Dickenson's poetry? It seems that from a longitudinal study, her previous poems did not accord such physical properties to Heaven? What do her future poems say about physical versus spiritual resurrection.

    1. they say conflicting things. Try putting 'resurrection' in the search bar underneath the site banner...

  2. A recent web series (Dickinson) uses this poem as a base for its second episode. The concluding scene has neighbor Sue and Emily in bed together experiencing their own “eruption”. Whatever one thinks of it, the show is bringing new readers to Emily’s work. Very cool.

    1. I've been hearing good things about that series. Thanks for the post!

    2. The mentioned series is somehow shallow (for me) - shows ED in a bit hip-hop way. It makes easier to think about ED as a cool companion to drink a beer in a park. But (for me) does not show the development of her extraordinary sensitivity or erudition. It's only focused on her rebelious (?) nature which is easy to sell. Anyhow, as Creig said, let's hope that "show is bringing new readers" to her poems.

    3. I met emily's work because of the series, and I agree with you about the focus a little bit shallow for all the she was, but still, It is valid, promotes visibility. It made me fall in love with her so it worked lol

    4. Yeaah,Actually it also Worked for me..I also met Emily By the Series (Dickinson)

  3. Thank you for your analysis! I really appreciate your insights. You state that Dickinson takes “religious liberties here with the idea of Resurrection – as if life were to simply resume rather than the souls resurrected into a new spiritual state in heaven.” But she had it exactly right. The New Testament writings are very clear that resurrection is not a spiritual state, but a literal, bodily resurrection. That is one of the audacious, great hopes of the Christian faith, that just as Christ was bodily raised from the dead and is the first fruits of that future harvest, so we also die with the hope of being bodily raised from the dead. Eternity future according to Christianity is not as disembodied spirits sitting on clouds plucking harps. We will dance, we will hug, we will eat—our bodies immortal and free of illness and death. (1 Corinthians 15:51-55,1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Revelation 21:1-4)

    1. Thank you for providing the citations and explanation.

  4. To what does the vineyard refer?

  5. Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, Act 2, Scene 4, Shipwrecked Viola, disguised as a page, speaking to Orsino, Duke of Illyria:

    “She never told her love, but let concealment, like a worm in the bud, feed on her damask cheek. She pined in thought; and, with a green and yellow melancholy, she sat like Patience on a monument, smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed?” Apparently, ED thought so.

    Excerpt from Master Letter 2 (L233), about late 1861:

    “Vesuvius dont talk--Etna dont-- one of them--said a syllable--a thousand years ago, and Pompeii heard it, and hid forever--She could'nt look the world in the face, afterward, I suppose--Bashful Pompeii!”

    ‘I have never seen volcanoes’ (F165, 1860) is the first of ED's eleven volcano poems: F165, F207, F425, F517, F764, F1161, F1429, F1472, F1691, F1703, F1776. The year of the last volcano poem in Franklin’s numbered list is unknown. No copy in ED’s handwriting exists, but Mabel Todd transcribed a printer’s copy for her 1896 edition of ED’s poems. That is all we have.

    “While it is not certain how Emily and Susan met, it is likely that they were friends by 1847 or 1848. In an 1850 letter to Susan, Emily's brother Austin remarks on the previous Thanksgiving and expresses his happiness when Emily and their sister Lavinia asked Susan "into the circle which had for two or three years been gradually forming." (Hart and Smith 1998).

    ED’s lifelong pining for Sue’s love was, in part, self-inflicted and unspoken, just as Viola’s love for Orsino had been. Sue was an orphan without income, living with a married sister in Amherst. She had only two financial options to support herself, teaching or marriage. In summer 1851 Susan secured a one-year teaching job, and during academic year 1851-52, she moved “to Baltimore to teach at Robert Archer's school for girls. Her decision to go away is sudden, and she writes to her brother Dwight, declaring that she has left her "good friends in Amherst actually staring with astonishment"(Hart and Smith, 1998). ED wrote Sue weekly, but responses were rare, which ED presumed the result of Sue’s busy teaching schedule.

    That year apart triggered painful separation feelings, convincing ED she had to keep Sue near. An obvious option was to cultivate a suitable Amherst husband for Sue, and an excellent choice was her brother Austin, a recent Harvard Law graduate who had noticed Sue’s charming personality as early as 1850. “Letters from Emily to Susan and drafts of letters from Austin indicate that Susan is the object of passionate attachment for both brother and sister.” (Hart and Smith 1998). Apparently, ED did not foresee the enormous long-term emotional price she would have to pay, especially after the newlyweds settled into a new house 100 yards west of the Dickinson family home.

    During 1860, the year ED wrote ‘I have never seen volcanoes’, French archeologists were excavating Pompeii, a wealthy Roman resort town 250 miles southwest of Rome. On August 24, 79 AD, erupting Vesuvius buried Pompeii in ash, apparently so quickly that people could not escape. Today, their petrified bodies and expensive homes provide a snapshot of Roman life at the apogee of Rome’s 200-year Augustan Peace. ED must have followed the excavation news closely because she used volcanoes and Pompeii as metaphors for the rest of her life.

    Hart, EL, and MN Smith, 1998, Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson's Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson, 323 pp, Paris Press, Ashfield, MA.