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21 April 2012

That after Horror – that 'twas us –

That after Horror – that 'twas us – 

That passed the mouldering Pier – 

Just as the Granite Crumb let go – 

Our Savior, by a Hair – 

A second more, had dropped too deep

For Fisherman to plumb – 

The very profile of the Thought

Puts Recollection numb – 

The possibility – to pass

Without a moment's Bell – 

Into Conjecture's presence – 

Is like a Face of Steel – 

That suddenly looks into ours

With a metallic grin – 

The Cordiality of Death – 

Who drills* his Welcome in –                            *nails

                                                            J286,  Fr243 (1861)  286

It’s interesting that in this poem as well as in F238, “How many times these low feet staggered,” Dickinson uses machine imagery to represent death. In F238 the dead body itself was referred to as a “rivet,” its ribcage “hasps of steel.” In this poem it is Death who has the “Face of Steel” and a “metallic grin” that “drills his Welcome in.” This isn’t surprising as so much of Dickinson’s poetry celebrates earthly beauties such as robins, flowers, bees, sunsets, etc., as paradisical. Paradise itself she has likened to a beautiful May day. Metallic, mechanical objects are obvious opposites. If you transpose the once living form into a machine, that is a horror. If you animate a mechanical thing as Death, that is even a greater horror.

            Modern readers have only to think of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books, and the movies based on those books, to see the ravages and hell many pastoralists saw in the Industrial Age. Imagine Hobbiton tucked into sunny, peaceful hills, a little Eden, against Mount Doom in the corrupt and corrupting realm of Gondor. Here, as in Dickinson, Industrialization represents the forces of death while the natural world means life.

The poem examines a near-death experience. Dickinson complicates the reading by leaving out enough words that it takes some close reading to follow some of what happens. I’ve put some words in to flesh out what she (successfully and poetically) elides; I’ve also paraphrased some of the imagery:
That Horror after death – that was us (my soul and I [see previous poem for Dickinson representing her soul as a person within a person]) that passed the rotting Pier of the flesh just as the granite rock anchoring the pier was about to crumble. But then Our Saviour rescued us by a Hair. A second more and we would have dropped too deep into death – for Fishermen to pull us out. The very outline of the Thought makes the recalling of it numb. The very possibility of dying without a marker such as a tolling Bell into the presence of what can only be conjectured is like a Face of Steel that suddenly looks into our face with a metallic grin. This is the Cordiality of Death who drills his ‘Welcome’.

In the second stanza Dickinson recalls Jesus’ words to his soon-to-be disciples Simon (Peter) and his brother Andrew as they were fishing along the shore of  Lake Galilee. “Come, follow me," Jesus said, "and I will make you fishers of men"  (Matthew 4:19). The stanza expresses the narrator’s fear that she might fall too far for rescue even by the church (founded by Jesus’ disciples, particularly fisherman Simon Peter). Her use of the singular “Fisherman” may imply that the greatest Fisherman, Jesus himself, might have been unable to save her had she fallen a bit further.

Dickinson captures something of the terror of such a moment not by saying the dying soul would soon face either God or the Devil without sufficient warning, but “Conjecture.” She doesn’t know, can only form conjectures about what might lie ahead. It is this possibility that – far from offering the comfort of even the light at the end of a tunnel that numerous near-death survivors have described – presents itself to her as a leering figure with drills. Perhaps this horror explains her despair expressed in other poems and in some letters over not being with the dying to offer hope and comfort (see “I should not dare to leave my friend,F234).
            The poem anticipates “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,” written the following year where the consciousness or perhaps soul lingers in the dead body for a while, experiencing excruciating sensations until her “mind was going numb.” Eventually “Space – began to toll, / / As all the Heavens were a Bell,” and then the soul is “wrecked, solitary.” The poem ends as “a Plank in Reason, broke,” and the  narrator plunges “down and down.” There is no salvation “by a hair” in that poem. “Because I could not stop for Death,” written within a year, takes a far more benign look at death. There is no pain, nor horror in that poem. Death is courteous and civil and takes the narrator on a leisurely ride to what seems to be eternal rest. It is certainly a welcome turn for the better in Dickinson’s imagery – and perhaps her life.


  1. Dear Susan,

    Thank you for your kind blog which has helped me understand this poem.

  2. On April 15, 1862, ED wrote Atlantic Monthly essayist, Thomas Higginson, for the first time, enclosing several poems with toned-down punctuation for his comments. Apparently, he responded quickly because her second letter to him, dated April 25 confessed:

    “I had a terror-since September - I could tell to none-and so I sing, as the Boy does by the Burying Ground-because I am afraid - ”.

    By “sing” ED means write poetry, and when she writes “That after Horror – that 'twas us –” she speaks literal truth. Psychologist John Cody (1971) posits winter 1861-1862 as apogee of an eight-year crisis in ED’s mental state.

    In that light, here’s an interpretation:

    I’ve felt terror pushing me
    to the edge of death;
    Just as sanity let go,
    my savior caught me.

    A second more, I’d be down
    too far for mortal rescue;
    Just remembering what I saw
    turns my blood to ice.

    To leave known life
    and moments later
    enter unknown death
    is like a steel skeleton
    staring in my face,
    grinning like a trap
    of cordial annihilation,
    Waiting to nail the coffin lid.

    John Cody. 1971. After Great Pain: The Inner Life of Emily Dickinson. Belknap Press, Harvard, 538 pp

  3. ED’s 14th letter to T. W. Higginson, dated June 1869 thanked him for his kindness and support over the years of their correspondence (CAPS mine):

    June 1869 [L330]

    Dear friend

    A Letter always feels to me like immortality because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend. Indebted in our talk to attitude and accent, there seems a spectral power in thought that walks alone - I would like to thank you for your great kindness but never try to lift the words which I cannot hold.
    Should you come to Amherst, I might then succeed, though Gratitude is the timid wealth of those who have nothing. I am sure that you speak the truth, because the noble do, but your letters always surprise me. My life has been too simple and stern to embarrass any.

    Of our greatest acts we are ignorant -

    YOU WERE NOT AWARE THAT YOU SAVED MY LIFE. TO THANK YOU IN PERSON HAS BEEN SINCE THEN ONE OF MY FEW REQUESTS. The child that asks my flower "Will you," he says - "Will you" - and so to ask for what I want I know no other way.

    You will excuse each that I say, because no other taught me?


    Their two meetings in person occurred in Amherst on August 16, 1870 and December 3, 1873. Higginson lived in or near Cambridge, Massachusetts, his entire life (1823 – 1911).

  4. Helen Vendler (2012, Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries) inserts in her commentary on this poem wise warning about her judgement that Stanzas 1-2 are “finally incoherent”:

    “It is always dangerous to indict Dickinson for incoherence, because some connection one has not yet perceived may light up coherence, where incoherence was thought to be.”

    Here’s Vendler’s list of eight incompatible nouns in Stanzas 1-2 (quotes mine):

    “...... the two-stanza narrative [Stanzas 1 & 2 combined] is finally incoherent. It includes a “Horror”, a “Pier” so mouldering that it has become an assemblage of “Granite crumbs”, a “Savior” without obvious antecedent, a proverbial “Hair”, an imagined “Fisherman”, a “Thought”, and “numbness”.

    ED’s “Savior”, as her second and 14th letter to T. W. Higginson tell us, was him. His quick response to her first letter, which she mailed from Amherst on April 15, 1862, rescued her from horribly close suicide. The Queen of Obscurity has befuddled Harvard’s Professor of Poetry, as Vendler wisely predicted.

  5. Franklin dates Variant A of F 243 (above) as “about 1861”; ED began her correspondence with Higginson April 15, 1862. Thus, “Our Savior” in Line 4 had to be Reverend Wadsworth, not Higginson, whom she considered her mentor, not her savior. We know Wadsworth visited ED in Amherst in 1860 and several of her poems imply Wadsworth also visited her in 1861 (e.g., 'One Year ago', F301, "about early 1862" - Franklin).

  6. I came across some old college notes. My professor agreed that fisherman us an allusion to the disciples, and Savior a reference to Jesus Christ, with “us” being mankind collectively. But he thought the granite refers to Christ’s tomb, and the poem’s narrowly averted crisis is that the resurrection and therefore salvation of man could have gone unnoticed… a revelation of divinity that mortals who were completely unprepared could have missed. Go figure.