Search This Blog

21 January 2013

One need not be a Chamber—to be Haunted—

One need not be a Chamber — to be Haunted —
One need not be a House —
The Brain has Corridors — surpassing
Material Place —

Far safer, of a Midnight Meeting
External Ghost
Than its interior Confronting —
That Cooler Host.

Far safer, through an Abbey gallop,
The Stones a'chase —
Than Unarmed, one's a'self encounter —
In lonesome Place —

Ourself behind ourself, concealed —
Should startle most —
Assassin hid in our Apartment
Be Horror's least.

The Body — borrows a Revolver —
He bolts the Door —
O'erlooking a superior spectre —
Or More —
                                                                        J670,  F407 (1862) 670

 There's a real horror in the idea that the most terrifying ghosts and horrors reside within our own brains. Dickinson has plumbed this terror in two of her earlier Gothic poems,

F360 "The Soul has Bandaged moments—" and F341  "'Tis so appalling—it exhilarates—." In the first, the soul is paralyzed with fear by "ghastly" ghostly figures, and by "the Horror" to which she is returned, shackled and bound, whenever she tries to escape her imprisonment. The second poem takes us beyond horror, to a place of knowledge where there is no hope and where Fright and Terror are free to celebrate their "Gay, Ghastly, Holiday!"
          Dickinson states her argument in the first lines: the brain can be as haunted as any old, abandoned house; what's more, it is infinitely larger. That's a frightening thought—and it rings true, for we can indeed wander indefinitely through the mazes and corners of our minds. This can lead to madness or paralysis--or perhaps even enlightenment. Although here Dickinson writes from the madness and paralysis camp, it is by braving the demons of her mind that she receives her enlightenment. 
          Dickinson never holds back. We saw in F401, "Dare you see a Soul at the 'White Heat,'" how she dares the reader to "crouch within the door" as her soul is hammered and forged until at a white heat. This poem returns from the forge imagery to the frightening horrors within. 
          That inner ghost is cold, a "Cooler Host" than even an "External Ghost." It is extremely dangerous, worse than an "Assassin" lurking behind the door. It's the last thing you'd want to encounter, especially in the "lonesome Place" that is the deep interior of the brain.

The haunted Whitby Abbey

          What's interesting here is the multiplicity of self that is implied. There is the brain, first, that has the corridors and is haunted. Then there are the multiple selves, strangers and deadly dangerous to each other, that inhabit the brain. It is "Ourself behind ourself" that should scare us the most. We would be better off to be chased through a haunted Abbey than for the outward self to encounter the hidden one in our own interior. Then there is the body, that hapless bit of flesh that in obvious futility "borrows a Revolver" and "bolts the Door."
          Most frightening of all is the  rhyming spondee at the end of the poem: "Or More—". The "r" sounds add a dark, ominous quality. It causes us to fear for that poor Body and its useless revolver. The "spectre" he is defending himself against is not only "superior" but clearly not alone. There are very probably "More."
          While it may be that Dickinson wrote this for the goose-bump thrill of the Gothic writing she enjoyed (such as Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights), I find it likely that she really did find her mind haunted. But while many of us ignore or can easily divert and suppress our inner demons, and while some poor few of us fall victim to them, Dickinson never gave up her inner explorations. Her poetry is often a traveler's report of her terrifying adventures. 


  1. In that last stanza I see her going into her corner upstairs bedroom and looking out over the world passing on Main Street below.
    It evokes how she also felt she needed to defend herself against the outer world.

  2. I'm wondering about the etymology of "a'self' in the third stanza. It clearly refers to that internal cooler Host who is so frightening; it plays nicely off the preceding "a'chase;" but I've never seen it before. Is it an ED coinage perhaps: having liked "a'chase' she thought what the heck, I'll do another one? Or something else with lineage outside ED? Anyone?

    1. The trusty Dickinson Lexicon gives no etymology:
      I think you're right about it being a poetic choice based on sound.

  3. These commentaries are brilliant and very helpful, thank you.

  4. it's gud thought.let's face ourselves

  5. The lines of the poem are out of order. Please correct. Thank you.

    1. Done. Thank you. It was a very odd scrambling... can't figure out just how that happened as I usually copy/paste from Johnson's online and then adjust for Franklin's -- and here Johnson's and Franklin's coincide. It must be the Assassin in my Apartment.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. Thanks for correcting. Watch our for that Cooler Host. She's very sneaky.

  8. The interesting thing is to know what this frightening self is telling. Dickinson never tells, but could it be that it kills the rosy dream of immortality? Compare Because I could not stop for Death. She was a sharp thinker and did not leave many illusions intact.

  9. Saw this on Alias Grace episode and had to google and find some explanations on it.