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24 September 2012

'Tis so appalling—it exhilarates—

'Tis so appalling—it exhilarates—
So over Horror, it half captivates—
The Soul stares after it, secure—
To know the worst, leaves no dread more—

To scan a Ghost, is faint—
But grappling, conquers it—
How easy, Torment, now—
Suspense kept sawing so—

The Truth, is Bald, and Cold—
But that will hold—
If any are not sure—
We show them—prayer—
But we, who know,
Stop hoping, now—

Looking at Death, is Dying—
Just let go the Breath—
And not the pillow at your cheek
So slumbereth—

Others, can wrestle—
Yours, is done—
And so of Woe, bleak dreaded—come,
It sets the Fright at liberty—
And Terror's free—
Gay, Ghastly, Holiday!
                                                                                          F341 (1862)  281

In what may well be a follow up to her previous poem, “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,” Dickinson ascends from the “worst” where she had hurtled to the bottom of some abyss to “finish knowing,” into a position of existential strength. Nietzsche famously wrote, “What does not kill me, makes me stronger” (Twilight of the Idols, 1888), and Dickinson here makes something of that argument.
            But she does so with a rather Gothic set of paradoxes. What she experienced was “so appalling—it exhilarates,” so horrifying it was captivating. This is the Gothic attraction of the grotesque that awes as it terrifies. Having plunged to the end of awareness, the soul is more “secure.” It has faced the worst and now any Torment is easily borne.
            It is interesting to me that while “Funeral” was suffused with hearing (“Being” was reduced to being nothing but “an Ear), this poem is full of seeing. The soul “stares,” a Ghost is scanned, the wavering folks are shown prayer, and dying can mean nothing more than “Looking at Death.”
            Long gone are poems such as “’Tis Anguish grander than Delight” where the “Resurrection Pain” is a thrilling moment when creatures find their destined mates and find their way to heaven together. Long gone the saints who “Ascend in ceaseless Carol” after a life of pain and anguish (“To Learn the Transport by the Pain”). Instead, this poem asserts that any comfort or gain to be had from pain is knowledge of the “Bald, and Cold” truth. The idea of heaven and a loving Maker is for the faint of heart. “We show them,” she writes dismissively, “prayer.”
            The truth, cold and harsh as it may be, at least holds fast. Immediately after “Truth,” the poet turns to Death as if the truth of life is death. In fact, many of Dickinson’s poetry examines what it means to live life in the face of death. In “That after Horror—that ‘twas us,” she glimpses death and it is “With a metallic grin” that he “drills his welcome in.”  That is the vision she has in a near-death experience.
Logger sawing an 800-year-old red cedar (National Geographic/Getty Images)
            Any consolation the poem offers is in the fourth stanza where Dickinson claims that facing death (rather than praying or wrestling with reality) brings dying. By this I believe she means being dead to the world of hope and false optimism. Once death is faced, one can breathe again, sleep as soundly as the inanimate pillow. Then, although others will still struggle, “Yours, is done.” The last few lines take some pondering. I read them as saying that if “bleak dreaded” Woe comes around again it sets Fright and Terror loose. They go on a “Gay, Ghastly, Holiday” (those Gothic paradoxes again), but I interpret this as a big improvement over being locked inside the sufferer and causing the paralysis of “Funeral” where the aware self was helpless to prevent a complete breakdown. It reminds me of Thich Nhat Hanh’s advice about taking your anger or sorrow, setting it free and acknowledging it. “Yes, you’re bleak and dreadful,” I hear Dickinson saying. “But I’ve been through all that before and stood up to the worst that you can do. Go somewhere else and take your fun where you can find it.”
            In one of the finest lines in the poem, Dickinson notes that Torment is easy now—“Suspense kept sawing so.” The line captures the essence of miserable anxiety. The emotions seesaw as the anxiety and dread saw across the soul as if it were a tree helpless to defend itself.


  1. I'm so glad I found this. I found it to be very insightful. Thank you very much. :)

  2. A great analysis. Came to your site by way of mark dery's essay on nerval's lobster where he quotes the opening lines of the Dickenson poem. I'll be coming back for more of your mind. Thanks, Al Kuhn

    1. Thanks - and welcome. But ... I read all three of Dery's series, paying particular attention to the lobster piece, and found no mention of this poem. I did, however, fall in love with the phrase "Dalian flapdoodle," become disgusted with my lawn, and decide to shake things up a bit at the upcoming women's flyfishing club anniversary banquet.

    2. Dear Susan. Sorry, the reference, as you noted, wasn't in the article. It came from a Wikipedia example of dery's concept of the "pathological sublime". I taught (Russian lit and lang) at Amherst 50 years agonand lived a block away from Emily's home. In the early 60's it was the residence of the college chaplain.Thanks for getting back. Wow! Lots of unusual excitements awaiting you right in your own back yard! Best, misspeaking Al

  3. dear susan, reread dery's piece to find "dalian flapdoodle." You sure have a sharp eye and open heart. I'm at an age where everything conflates into some kind of mush. Best, Al

    1. Thank you, Al. After thinking about it, I bet my comments about disgust with my lawn and desire to shake things up at a banquet didn't make much sense. Dery wrote three articles about Surrealism, one of which was on the lobster. The other two tackled lawns (odious) and surrealist dinner guests (disasters). Meanwhile, I am just waiting for the opportunity to work "Dalian flapdoodle" into a conversation. Perhaps at the banquet ...

    2. Dear Susan, You are such an intelligent, sensitive reader but what amazes me is the natural. relaxed flow of your prose and of your thoughts, kind of like Federer hitting a winner from an impossible spot on the court as if it was, well, easy. Anyway, I was wondering, as I close in on 80, if Emily stuttered. Read aloud, by me anyhow, some of the lines seem to stop and start so abruptly, much like the speech of an old pal of mine who stuttered. Good luck on the novel. Hope to be around to read it, or at least buy it! Thanks for taking the time and expending the effort to reply. Much appreciated. Al Kuhn

    3. Just found Al’s obit (2017). What an incredibly accomplished individual - successful scholar and athlete.

    4. Thank you Anonymous. I found the obit and agree -- what an accomplished man.

  4. Last lines especially sound a lot like Gerard Manley Hopkins. Do you know if ED read him?

    1. I don't know if she read him. As for sounding similar, I'd have to agree. Take "Carrion Comfort", a poem also about grappling with a deep woe, with Despair. It has Hopkins' lapping rhythms and alliterations and extended sentences. Dickinson here is writing almost in aphorisms.

  5. Woe sets the fright at liberty. Amazing. And yet here we are with an introduction to Russian scholar Al Kuhn, another lover of tennis and poetry. The comparison with you and Federer is an apt one.

  6. “In what may well be a follow up to her previous poem, “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,” Dickinson ascends from the “worst” where she had hurtled to the bottom of some abyss to “finish knowing,” into a position of existential strength.” (Kornfeld)

    Nailed it. F340 and F341 are back-to-back, Poems 5 and 6 in Fascicle 16 (Franklin 1998), the segue connecting them, “And Finished knowing—then—".

    The second poem continues the first by telling in angry, relieved English the appalling truth she discovered at the lowest level of The Inferno: “The Truth, is Bald, and Cold. /. . ./ If any are not sure— / We show them—prayer— / But we, who know, / Stop hoping, now—".

    With apologies to MLK, she is “Free at last, Free at last, Thank God Almighty, . . . Free at last”.

    What an amazing thing for a Victorian woman to say.

  7. Re Gerald Manley Hopkins (1844-1889).

    Began college at Oxford in 1863, age 21. [B]ecause his style was so radically different from that of his contemporaries, his best poems were not accepted for publication during his lifetime, and his achievement was not fully recognized until after World War I.


    It's unlikely ED read his poetry, but their poetic biographies follow similar tracks.

  8. "But we, who know,
    Stop hoping, now—"

    ED's Magna Charta. She has concluded, for now, that when the dark curtain of death falls, nichts, nada, nothing remains, no soul, no heaven, no god, simply nothing, which frees her from her agonizing search for a non-existent afterlife.