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29 March 2012

An awful Tempest mashed the air –

An awful Tempest mashed the air – 

The clouds were gaunt and few – 

A Black – as of a spectre's cloak

Hid Heaven and Earth from view.

The creatures chuckled on the Roofs – 

And whistled in the air – 

And shook their fists – 

And gnashed their teeth – 

And swung their frenzied hair –

The morning lit – the Birds arose – 

The Monster's faded eyes

Turned slowly to his native coast – 

And peace – was Paradise!
                                                            F224 (1861)  198

The Northeastern U.S. can get hit pretty hard by stray hurricanes that make their way up the coast in the summer. More often, though, they get pelted by Nor’easters – which can come during any season. In this poem Dickinson shows off  her chops in a traditional ballad about a monster storm. Traditional ballads make use of alternating trimeter and tetrameter lines (sometimes combined into longer lines). That would be lines of 8 and 6 syllables (4 and 3 poetic feet).
            By way of comparison, here are a couple of stanzas from one of the most famous ballads: “Sir Patric Spens,” first recorded in the 18th century but describing an incident in the 13th.

They had not sailed a league, a league, 

A league but barely three, 

When the lift grew dark, and the wind blew loud, 

And gurly grew the sea. 

The anchors brake and the top-masts lap, 

It was such a deadly storm; 

And the waves came o'er the broken ship 

Till all her sides were torn.

I think Dickinson’s poem holds up very nicely; I only wish she’d gone on and made a bit of an epic out of it. Alas, after a few exciting descriptions of fiends, monsters, and specters, the storm  peters out overnight leaving a heavenly and no doubt very welcome peace.
            A lot of the excitement comes from the very vivid verbs Dickinson wields. The “Tempest mashed the air”; demonic creatures chuckle, whistle, shake their fists, gnash their teeth, and – best – swing “their frenzied hair.” That last description calls up the image of bushes and small trees whipping about in the terrible wind. The chuckling and whistling and gnashing of teeth are very aural: you can hear the sound of the wind rattling the windows and whistling down the chimney. But the visuals are most impressive: we have a “Monster” with a “gaunt” and “Black” spectre’s cloak sweeping in and darkening the sky so that even the earth is hard to see. He comes with attendent “creatures” that seem quite crazed. But finally, after the long night is over and he is worn out by all the exertion, the Monster turns his sleepy eyes away from town and heads back to sea.

1 comment:

  1. On November 3, 1861, Hurricane "Expedition" crossed Massachusetts. Its eastern side “blasted the southeastern New England coast between November 2 and November 3, damaging 250 vessels at Provincetown, Massachusetts, and running aground 20 others. In Boston harbor, the steamship “Marion” sank, drowning 22 occupants.”

    If the eastern side of Hurricane Expedition passed over Boston, its western side passed over Amherst. Then “The Monster's faded eyes / Turned slowly [east] to his native coast –”.