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07 January 2013

Dare you see a Soul at the "White Heat"?

Dare you see a Soul at the "White Heat"?
Then crouch within the door—
Red—is the Fire’s common tint—
But when the vivid Ore

Has vanquished Flame’s conditions—
It quivers from the Forge
Without a color, but the Light
Of unannointed Blaze—

Least Village, boasts its Blacksmith—
Whose Anvil’s even ring
Stands symbol for the finer Forge
That soundless tugs—within—

Refining these impatient Ores
With Hammers, and with Blaze
Until the designated Light
Repudiate the Forge—
                                                               F401 (1862)  J365

In one of her most studied and anthologized works, Dickinson dares the reader to confront a soul being battered by God. She begins with the dare: are you brave enough to see a white-hot soul? Her metaphor is that of the blacksmith, the ore, and the forge. The dare is to “crouch within the door” to the blacksmith’s shop. Forging the raw metal into a usable tool is a violent process. How many of us are willing to face the forge of our own souls? It hasn’t always been smooth sailing. Life is rarely gentle—particularly to our poets and visionaries.

Blacksmith with soul? Or poet with poem.

          The first two stanzas outline the process in all its drama. The third explicitly outlines the metaphor. The fourth, in classic Dickinson style, turns our understanding of the poem on its head.
The poet begins by setting the reader down at the smithy’s door. She is the guide. She points to the red flame of the forge hearth: it’s “Fire’s common tint.” The metal will also turn red after being placed into the forge. But once the bellows are applied or the metal left within the flame long enough, the fire heats the metal until “the vivid Ore” has no more impurities to burn off; its volatile gases have burned off, and it is left “Without a color.” The blacksmith removes the metal and it “quivers” in its white heat, ready to be hammered and shaped.
          Yet “Unannointed Blaze” would indicate that the metal has not yet been annealed—a cooling process that strengthens the metal yet gives it a bit of give so that it will not break when struck. Dickinson could have used the more precise term “unannealed,” but there is a wonderful resonance with “Unannointed” that not only suggests the brittle state of the metal but the vulnerable state of the soul. It must go through further trials before it can withstand more blows.
Dickinson makes sure her metaphor is clearly understood. The forge and its anvil represent the severe difficulties we must deal with in life, but unlike the noise made as the blacksmith hammers his hot iron, our internal forge is “finer” and “tugs” silently at us from within.
          The ore is worked and refined through hammering, shaping, and re-heating until the blacksmith is satisfied. Certain tools need heating to red-yellow. Others perform best if heated until blue. The blacksmith must decide.  This is what the poet means by “designated Light.”
          But then the twist: at some point the ore is going to stop the process. The blazing heat, the hammering and shaping—enough is enough. The Ore, having reached the appropriate light, “Repudiate[s] the Forge.”
          Let’s put some flesh on that metaphor. The blacksmith is the agent throughout the poem. He selects the ore, subjects it to heat, and then hammers it on his anvil. He will also anneal and temper the metal. He creates something new, or re-formed something old: a knife, for example, out of raw ore or scrap metal. The metal must submit: it’s only metal! Until—and that’s the Dickinsonian part—the Soul in its white heat finally draws the line and repudiates the forge.
          If the blacksmith is God and Ore is the soul, we see that God fits us for some purpose through quite brutal means—“With Hammers, and with Blaze.” We think of the suffering of the saints and how they emerged purified and holy. We are certainly not meant to think of the poor souls who are beaten down by the trials of life until they are dispirited, meek things. But the last two lines imply that at some point the ore speaks back to the blacksmith. It rejects and refuses the hammer and heat. Perhaps this is a type of rebellion or perhaps it is the Blacksmith God’s goal to have a creation with an independent and fully formed sense of rightness and judgment.

The poem, for all its simple metaphor, is very abstract. Still, I take it as a very personal poem. Dickinson, I think, is writing about her own soul here. Her torment “soundless tugs” within her, yet she perceives her Blacksmith as no less violent than the local smith. She has been heated, hit with repeated shaping blows, heated again… etc. At some point she will repudiate him.
          Some scholars consider the metaphor to reflect the poetic process. It's not easy writing poems, and Dickinson dares the reader to peek in at the white-hot heat that forges them. She would be the blacksmith in this case. She writes and re-writes and tinkers with them, stopping only when the poem has enough life in it to let her know it's done. 


  1. Until the designated Light
    Repudiate the Forge—

    This is, to me, the key to the passage. The suffering of a Soul isn't meant for the White Heat or the Forge forever but for this designated Light. Our suffering isn't for suffering's sake, but for a purpose known only to the Blacksmith.

    1. Upon re-reading, I think you're right. Sorry it took, so long to see and respond to your thoughtful comment.

  2. I love Least Village, thinking this is her image for her as well as all of us and even Amherst.

    In psychotherapy it is the job of the therapist to become obsolete for the one who is seeking to stand on his own, so for parents who want their children to grow sovereign of themselves, so maybe for god who wants us to stand on our useful own.

  3. Also, if this is really a window into EDs poetic process, imagine how generous she is to invite us crouch within the door of her bedroom and watch her hammer out the ore. As private as she was this invitation sows how willing she is to expose the naked depths of herself.

  4. A wonderful, thoughtful commentary as always. I especially liked the sentence you wrote about the metal quivering in its white heat. Like prose poetry! Amherst was very small at the time, but they did have a blacksmith, so a literal "least" is there, but ED also often compared herself to the least too, such as the crickets who can be heard only late in the summer once the birds are gone, so I can certainly see how the poet allusion can work too.

  5. ED forges poems in her subconscious, where she, not God, works words like blacksmiths work metal. God may watch from afar poems being born, but ED conceives and gestates them until they emerge kicking and screaming from her forge, she the do-er, not do-ee.

    As for the “Soul”of Line 1, it is ED; “[H]ow generous she is to invite us crouch within the door of her bedroom [if we “dare”] and watch her hammer out the ore. As private as she was, this invitation shows how willing she is to expose the naked depths of herself.” (Anonymous, February 19, 2015, 5:28 AM). Amen.

  6. Franklin (Work Metadata, 1998) tells us [brackets mine]:

    “Three [variants], (one [manuscript, Variant C, sent to Higginson, who published it in The Atlantic Monthly, August 1891, has been] lost), [ED composed the poem] about 1862. About summer 1862 ED prepared a fair copy [Variant A] as if for sending, but retained it, unaddressed, unsigned, and unfolded”

    STANZAS 3 & 4 of ED’s Variant A and B are identical and not discussed below.

    Franklin published Variant A, which SK reprinted above, except that ED’s manuscript italicized “at the White Heat” in Line 1. Generally, ED italicizes words for emphasis.

    Variants A & B differ in Lines 4, 5, & 6. Below, ED’s alternative words are in [brackets] and rejected words in CAPS:

    "Dare you see a soul at the “White Heat?”
    Then crouch within the door –
    Red -- is the Fire's common tint –
    But when the QUICKENED [vivid] Ore

    Has SATED [vanquished] Flame's conditions –
    SHE [It] quivers from the Forge
    Without a color, but the Light
    Of unannointed Blaze –

    The rejected “She” of Line 6 is a gender switch, feminine to neuter. Where ED was going with the “She” is anybody’s guess, but the “It” makes sense to me if the newborn poem “quivers from the Forge”.

    Apparently, Franklin made an editorial decision to retain the misspelled "unannointed" in Line 8.