A transport one cannot contain
May yet, a transport be—
Though God forbid it lift the lid—
Unto its Ecstasy!
A Diagram—of Rapture!
A sixpence at a Show—
With Holy Ghosts in Cages!
The Universe would go!
F212 (1861) 184
The very peculiar and almost disturbing image of Holy Ghosts in display in cages makes a very dramatic argument in favor of keeping one’s religious ecstasy to one’s self. Who else would cut to the bone in such an utterly unique and unexpected way besides Emily Dickinson?
The poem begins a bit opaquely, and in fact the whole poem requires a bit of pondering. This is in keeping with Dickinson’s comment that poetry shouldn’t be too easy or else the meaning is lost, and also with the famous line, “Tell the truth but tell it slant.” To tease it apart we need to take the easy line (the “Holy Ghosts in Cages!”) and then work backwards to see how we got there. So we begin, after the initial reading, realizing that we are talking about the rapturous spiritual transport present with the Holy Ghost (aka Holy Spirit), who is the transcendent effusion of the Christian Trinity.
The first stanza is particularly dense and opaque, primarily because of two qualifiers where only one would seem to serve: first, there is a transport (joy or ecstasy) that can’t be contained but can still transport (carry the soul away in intense emotion or spiritual ecstasy); second it might still be a transport but “God forbid” (“God forbid” here is the same as saying “Heaven forbid” rather than a statement that God is forbidding something) the “lid” be lifted to reveal its full ecstatic power. So even if we can’t really own the “transport” or even fully see it or understand it, we can still be powerfully affected by it. All this makes sense in terms of the Holy Spirit.
The second stanza, by contrast, is an over-the-top satire. The box imagery introduced in the first stanza becomes the outer container for a cage – the way you might carry a bird cage in a box (and the Holy Spirit is often represented as a bird) or house the tiger cage in the tiger house. Why just imagine, the poet proposes, if indeed the “lid” of this box were lifted. What if we looked at all the pieces inside, stuck our faces against the bars as we do in zoos to better examine what’s inside? Maybe we’d see a “Diagram – of Rapture!”, the whole schematic. This is Dickinson critiquing the scientific method. You can’t put rapture or transport under a microscope to analyze it, nor can you diagram how it works. Spiritual forces just don’t work that way.
But let’s get into the spirit of her sharp-edged satire. Let’s say the lid were inadvisably lifted on the Holy Spirit and we could see the Diagram and all the inner clock workings. We could bring out the cages with the Holy Ghosts! The use of the plural here is interesting and I suspect Dickinson is hinting that we each have the Spirit inside us and so there would be a multitude of “Ghosts” if we all decided to trot out our spirituality for all to see. Now if we did indeed bring out the Holy Ghosts in cages that would be such an incredible sight that not just the whole town or state or even country would come to see, but the whole “Universe would go.” Dickison italicizes “Universe” to coax out the sarcasm.
Sure you might be carried away in spiritual bliss and transcendance, the poet warns us. But don’t try to dissect it or make a “Show” out of it. “Holy Ghosts in Cages”? How tacky.