The Soul has Bandaged moments—
When too appalled to stir—
She feels some ghastly Fright come up
And stop to look at her—
Salute her, with long fingers—
Caress her freezing hair—
Sip, Goblin, from the very lips
Unworthy, that a thought so mean
Accost a Theme—so—fair—
The soul has moments of Escape—
When bursting all the doors—
She dances like a Bomb, abroad,
And swings upon the Hours,
As do the Bee—delirious borne—
Long Dungeoned from his Rose—
Touch Liberty—then know no more,
But Noon, and Paradise—
The Soul's retaken moments—
When, Felon led along,
With shackles on the plumed feet,
And staples, in the Song,
The Horror welcomes her, again,
These, are not brayed of Tongue—
F360 (1862) 512
More should be made of Emily Dickinson as a Gothic poet. Writing here in the Gothic romantic mood she enjoyed in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1847), Dickinson describes the dramatic and even perilous extremes to which the soul is subject. In the first stanza the Soul is introduced in a “Bandaged” moment when, constricted and paralyzed, “some ghastly Fright” stops to look at and caress her. Like in a nightmare when one is unable to move, the Soul is “too appalled to stir.”
|Dickinson would have heard about and seen pictures of mummies--and
the image seems to have rooted in her imagination
That first line, “The Soul has Bandaged moments,” is among my Dickinson favorites. The use of “bandage” as an adjective still sounds fresh since we are used to hearing the word only as a noun or verb. And while a bandaged soul is clearly a metaphor for the stifling constriction of depression, it also suggests protection. We bandage something wounded to protect it. The bandaging also recalls mummification—another Gothic image. Victorian explorers had been bringing mummies out of Egypt for decades by Dickinson’s time and a couple of mummy books and stories had been published. In fact, within a few years of this poem, Louisa May Alcott, author of the beloved Little Women, wrote a short story called “Lost in a Pyramid; or, the Mummy’s Curse.” There were a few famous incidents prior to this poem, including one in Boston, of mummy unwrappings. Dickinson was explicitly tapping into a very current element of horror here.
As for the romance aspect, the very next stanza couples the frightening apparition and the mummified soul with the remembrance of a lover. Just as the Lover kissed the woman whose soul is bandaged, so the Fright hovers to “Sip” Goblin-like, from those very lips. That’s a vampire image, or even a succubus (which would be an interesting gender reversal as the succubus is a female demonic figure who drains the souls of men by having sex with them as they sleep). The “Theme—so—fair” is the lover; the “thought so mean” that accosts it is the frightful apparition. Could it be that in its depression the Soul converts the touch of the lover to the touch of the vampire dead or the soul-stealing succubus? Unlike Snow White who is revived by the life-giving kiss of her prince, the Soul of this poem seems to subliminally dread and fear it.
Thankfully, the soul “has moments of Escape” when it bursts out of its confinement to dance and swing all day and night. The word Dickinson chooses to describe this is “Bomb.” Talk about manic depressive—the poem takes us from catatonia to explosive delirium. She likens herself in these moments to an imprisoned bee, miserable without the nectar of “his Rose.” When finally released from his dungeon, he becomes so lost in his flower that he is aware only of “Noon”—the fullness of day—and “Paradise.” If this sounds familiar, it’s because Dickinson wrote about this very bee in “Come slowly—Eden!”. In that poem, written the previous year, the “fainting Bee—”
Reaching late his flower,
Round her chamber hums—
Counts his nectars—
Enters—and is lost in Balms.
|The vampire or demon lover were other
images Dickinson would have been known
It’s a beautiful and very sexual image. Yet, in tandem with the current poem, the flower might be read as dangerously passive. It is the bee who flies to her, hums around her, “counts his nectars,” and then enters to become lost in the flower’s luscious sweetness. The flower is no more able to escape the attentions of the bee than the bandaged Soul those of the demon lover. In some way, the poet has become both flower and bee in this poem. She knows what it is to fly in ecstasy to a loved object; she also knows what it means to be besieged.
The very excess of the Soul during its escape seems to lead to the awful and humiliating punishment that follows. “Retaken,” the Soul’s “plumed feet” are shackled, she is “led along”—and one imagines a prisoner cruelly dragged back to jail as the townspeople watch. The plumes suggest a bird, a common symbol for the Soul—one frequently used by Dickinson. But of course a shackled bird cannot fly. In perhaps the most horrifying image of the poem, the bird’s very song has been stapled. These wouldn’t be the dainty staples we use to fasten a few pieces of paper together. Those hadn’t yet been invented. These staples would have been heavy blacksmith-forged fasteners for holding carriage parts or large door latches together
—not the ethereal beauty of
birdsong or poetry.
A bird whose song was killed would be like a poet whose poems had been stilled. Is there a toll on the poet’s pleasures so that if she enjoys a lover’s kiss or a few hours of delirious joy (as in “He touched me, so I live to know”) she must pay for it by periods of incapacitating depression? The last two lines seem to imply as much. “The Horror” of the bandaged moments when the soul is helpless against the Fright, “welcomes her, again.” What a sad line! This is something she is used to. The very last line, “These, are not brayed of Tongue—,”a particularly ugly and awkward one, is worth unpacking.
“These” refers to all the frights and indignities that the soul is subjected to while unable to stir. The tongue does not bray about this. Donkeys, not poets, bray and it is not an attractive sound at all. To speak of the horrors would be like the grating noises of a farm animal known for stubbornness and lack of sense. And why does Dickinson twist normal sentence structure so that the poem ends in “not brayed of Tongue” instead of the more natural “the tongue does not bray”? Perhaps she wanted “Tongue” at the end as a slant rhyme with “again.” It is also a rather ugly word and that is the way, I think, she wanted to leave the poem. The harshness is what lives.
I also think that “brayed of Tongue” is too suggestive of the word “prayed” to be ignored. Whatever the poet is experiencing is not something that she either prays about or feels that prayer could properly express. Her bandaged prison of depression or despair is truly a hell from which no words can escape, whether a call for help, a poem, or a prayer.