'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
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.