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04 February 2013

More Life – went out – when He went

More Life – went out – when He went
Than Ordinary Breath –
Lit with a finer Phosphor –
Requiring in the Quench – 

A Power of Renowned Cold,

The Climate of the Grave
A Temperature just adequate
So Anthracite, to live – 

For some – an Ampler Zero –

A Frost more needle keen
Is necessary, to reduce
The Ethiop within. 

Others – extinguish easier –

A Gnat's minutest Fan
Sufficient to obliterate
A Tract of Citizen -- 

Whose Peat life – amply vivid –

Ignores the solemn News
That Popocatapel exists –
Or Etna's Scarlets, Choose –
                                                       F415  (1862)  J442

In this thoughtful eulogy Dickinson compares the deceased man to anthracite – a lustrous variety of mineral coal that burns hot, bright and pure. Unlike lesser grades, anthracite has the potential to become a diamond. This man, Dickinson says, was “Lit with a finer Phosphor” than that animating lesser mortals. Phosphor, in addition to being a physical luminescent substance, represents “light; flame; fuel; vitality; vivacity; energy; spark of life” (Emily Dickinson lexicon, BYU College of Humanities and Brigham Young University). 

Such fire and vitality is hard to extinguish; that is the point of Dickinson’s praise. 
Anthracite: hard, lustrous, and pure
          Quenching it required “A Power of Renowned Cold.” The phrase is beautifully ambiguous and compelling. It suggests an extreme degree – or power – of cold; the power of an extreme weather event such as a freezing blizzard; and also a malevolent power – a bone-chilling demon or devil. This wasn’t a man defeated by life and going gently into that good night. It took “The Climate of the Grave” to douse the life force that clearly was strong in him until the end.
            Dickinson then moves from the particular to the general. There are others like the eulogized man who also have fire in their souls. She moves from the heat potential of anthracite to likening it to the heat of Ethiopia. Such heat requires “an Ampler Zero” – a deep-space kind of freeze, a “Frost more needle keen” to reduce it.

Plain, dull peat
          The poor in spirit and the weak, the most of us I think she implies, are more easily reduced. Our little flames die without a fight. The tiny fluttering of a gnat’s wings are sufficient to blow them out. Ouch! The poet doesn’t pull her punches, either. The gnat’s “Fan” can “extinguish” and “obliterate” the spirit of these people. Dickinson uses the phrase “Tract of Citizen” and one sees a tract of land, empty and unfulfilled. It is not even a high-quality tract but one filled with peat. Double ouch! Peat, a precursor of coal, is almost the definition of drab and dull. Compared with the brilliant “stone coal,” anthracite, peat is partially-decayed vegetable tissue. When we think of peat we think of bogs and swamps.
          These low-spirited folks with their “Peat life” – although “amply vivid” in the day-to-day sense (the contrast is to the “Ampler Zero” required to quench the nobler souls) – ignore the eruptions and volcanoes in the world around them. The news may be “solemn” about the deadly potential of the Etnas and Popocatapels of this world, but the peat people take no interest. Dickinson ends the poem with the word “Choose” floating without anchor. Is she asking the reader to choose? Peat or anthracite? Volcano or a placid tract? Or is she suggesting that the peat people have chosen to be what and who they are?
        I think there may be something just a bit different, though. The suggestion of choice at the end of the poem is at odds with the beginning where the anthracite man was “Lit with a finer Phosphor.” He was given his noble nature. The rest of us, with our empty tracts, may choose not to ignore the fiery earth beneath our feet. We should learn to see it, be in awe of it, perhaps even keep a bit of anthracite – mined deep from rocky seams rather than scraped like peat off the surface – in our hearth to keep us warm.

Several critics have suggested that Dickinson’s use of anthracite may have been inspired by  Reveries of a Bachelor, a book by Donald Grant Mitchell published in 1850, that compares the dancing but weak sea-coal to the steady and strong anthracite by way of metaphor for different types of people:
But my [anthracite] fire is […] throwing a tranquil, steady light to the farthest corner of my garret. How unlike it is to the flashing play of the Sea-coal; unlike as an unsteady, uncertain-working heart to the true and earnest constancy, of one cheerful and right.
            [G]ive me such a heart; not bent on vanities, not blazing too sharp with sensibility, not throwing out coquettish jets of flame, not wavering, and meaningless with pretended warmth, but open, glowing, and strong. Its dark shades and angles it may have; for what is a soul worth that does not take a slaty tinge from those griefs that chill the blood ? Yet still the fire is gleaming; you see it in the crevices ; and anon it will give radiance to the whole mass.
              It hurts the eyes, this fire.

We have seen in previous Dickinson poems (e.g., F401, “Dare you see a Soul at the ‘White Heat’”) that despite the hurt, she forges her poems by gazing into the fire.


  1. Just found your blog, I'm a writer, just published a middle grade/ya fiction novel with the poems of Emily Dickinson, not the most popular thing with that demographic these days, but the words need to be heard, enjoy the week

  2. Thanks, Alex! I love YA fiction--so cool to have Emily in some. Might I ask what title(s)?? - Susan

  3. This has really saved me when taking an Emily Dickinson class at University. I am able to read through the poems and try to draw my own conclusions, but then I read yours and suddenly, it all makes sense! Keep doing this!

  4. Reminds me of Thomas McGrath's wonderful poem A Coal Fire in Winter.

    Thanks, Susan, for your daily diligence.

  5. I wonder, also if the Choose in the last line doesn't refer to the volcanoes choosing who is great and who is not; forces beyond us determining us.

  6. I wonder who “He” was? Fraser Stearns again? Or is this just an opportunity to comment on how some people burn brighter than others?

  7. I wish I could see the original to see if that might just possibly be a period after scarlets and before Choose. I like to think she is calling on the reader to choose between the two, that it is something you can choose. This one seems to be continuing the thought from a few poems back in the fascicle, another poem contrasting hot temperaments in cold temperatures and vice versa.

    A shady friend—for Torrid days—
    Is easier to find—
    Than one of higher temperature
    For Frigid—hour of Mind—

    The Vane a little to the East—
    Scares Muslin souls—away—
    If Broadcloth Hearts are firmer—
    Than those of Organdy—

    Who is to blame? The Weaver?
    Ah, the bewildering thread!
    The Tapestries of Paradise
    So notelessly—are made!

    1. My books all have a comma before 'Choose' -- but when I look at the manuscript image I see a little dash and a little period beneath it -- which is perhaps a dashed off comma. Comma vs. period is a significant contrast in meanings.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. "I wish I could see the original to see if that might just possibly be a period after scarlets and before Choose."

    The easy call is Susan's "little dash", which is ED's cross mark of "t" in "scarlets".

    The "little dot" is a tough and probably arbitrary call. In the manuscript there is virtually no difference among the "little dot" after "scarlets", the 'period' after Stanza 3, and the 'dash' after "Choose", which ends the poem.

    There are no periods in the three preceding or three succeeding poems, only dashes or exclamation marks.

    Were it my call, based on ED's nearby proclivities I would put dashes in all three locations in F415. The effect on meaning at the poem's end would be similar the pause of a period, which Anonymous (1/20/23) suggested.

    BTW, Franklin (1998) copied exactly Johnson's (1955) punctuation.

  9. “He” is Reverend Charles Wadsworth, the love of ED’s life. Wadsworth’s skill at preaching was legendary. As she says, he was “Lit with a finer Phosphor”. Wadsworth and family moved from Philadelphia to San Francisco in June 1862. Franklin dates this poem “about autumn 1862”.

    “In February 1850, after a decade of decline and waning membership numbers, Arch Street Presbyterian Church called Charles Wadsworth as its pastor. Wadsworth served for thirteen years, and the congregation grew rapidly, often filling the sanctuary an hour before services began.”
    ( ED heard him preach in March 1855.

    Their “correspondence began in 1858, when Dickinson asked Wadsworth for counsel concerning her mother's illness. She had also been sent a copy of one of his sermons earlier in the year. It is known that Dickinson's letters to Wadsworth were forwarded to him by her friend Mary Holland.”

    “Wadsworth moved to San Francisco in 1862 to take up a pastorate there. Wadsworth may have mentioned to [ED] the previous year of his plans to relocate, and it is believed that Dickinson wore white dresses only, commencing in 1861 and continuing the remainder of her life” (

    In her second letter to Higginson (L261, 25 April 1862), ED told Higginson “I had a terror-since September-I could tell to none-and so I sing [write poems], as the Boy does by the Burying Ground-because I am afraid”.

    ‘More Life – went out – when He went’ (F415, 1862) describes Wadsworth’s charisma, at least in her mind, and justifies, again in her mind, why she remained faithful to him until their deaths, in 1882 and 1886.