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23 February 2013

'Twas like a Maelstrom, with a notch

'Twas like a Maelstrom, with a notch,
That nearer, every Day,
Kept narrowing its boiling Wheel
Until the Agony

Toyed coolly with the final inch

Of your delirious Hem —
And you dropt, lost,
When something broke —
And let you from a Dream —

As if a Goblin with a Gauge —

Kept measuring the Hours —
Until you felt your Second
Weigh, helpless, in his Paws —

And not a Sinew — stirred — could help,

And sense was setting numb —
When God — remembered — and the Fiend
Let go, then, Overcome —

As if your Sentence stood — pronounced —

And you were frozen led
From Dungeon's luxury of Doubt
To Gibbets, and the Dead —

And when the Film had stitched your eyes

A Creature gasped "Reprieve"!
Which Anguish was the utterest — then —
To perish, or to live?
                                           F425 (1862)  J414

"Descent into the Maelstrom"
    Something terrible, we don’t know what, has happened. We do know, however, how it felt. The first two stanzas describe the experience as if you (and Dickinson indeed uses the second person, as if speaking directly to the reader) were being sucked into a giant whirlpool. This maelstrom has conscious, malevolent intent: it “Toyed coolly” with you as you drowned, delirious with “the Agony” until you had been pulled under all the way to the last inch of clothes. But then, just as if waking from a nightmare, something happened to break the terrible experience.
       That was a near miss – a very close call! But then the next two stanzas describe another nightmare. This time the terrible experience is as if an inhuman Goblin, particularly monstrous with its “Paws,” measures your suffering with a guage, hour after hour, until you were down to the last second, paralysed and numb so that you couldn’t move a muscle to free yourself. We’ve all had these nightmares, fighting to move or even to squeak out a call for help but unable to. They are truly horrible.
       Worse, God is involved. Instead of being there to help or rescue, he had forgotten all about you. Good thing he remembered at the last second! The Goblin becomes the devil, “the Fiend,” as if you were captured by Satan and carried, helpless, into Hell. But when God finally shows up, the Fiend lets go.
       That’s all bad, but it gets worse! Now you are being led to certain death at the gallows. The terrible experience is as if you’d been sentenced to death but then left in the dungeon – in the “luxury of Doubt” about your future. Well, when the guard comes for you and leads you to the Gibbets, or gallows, for hanging, you don’t have that luxury anymore. You know for sure your moment of death is at hand. As if “frozen,” you go, and as you are hanged and your eyes film over (the film “stitched” your eyes – as if hanging weren’t pain enough), someone comes running up gasping “’Reprieve’!” Once more you are saved at the last possible second from a hideous death.
       The question Dickinson poses at the end is whether or not you would feel more anguish at simply dying on the spot or being set loose again to live. Certainly she has not introduced any optimism. No doubt the poor sufferer will have more of these terrible episodes or nightmares – or whatever terrible experiences are being depicted here.

What all of these events have in common is the feeling of helplessness. The Maelstrom, the Goblin, and the Executioner all have the power of life and death. The Maelstrom and the Goblin are cruel, causing pain and observing it for their own purposes. The judge sentences an innocent (perhaps) person to a miserable death. The sufferer doesn’t have power to avoid pain or to inspire her rescue. Rescue seems as inexplicable as pain.

    I read about a cruel experiment with dogs where the floor of a dogs cage would deliver painful jolts of electricity. The dogs would try to avoid the pain, but when they realized there was no way to anticipate it or avoid it – no way to stop it, they gave up and just lay down in utter misery. That’s the sense at the end of the poem. If life is like this series of nightmares, why live?

It’s not one of Dickinson’s cheeriest poems. In other poems she finds a way out, or rails against the injustice. Here, however, she simply scribbles it out for all to see. The pain is made more excruciating by her choice of words. The first stanza has Maelstrom, notch, boiling, Agony: all strong, hard, and dramatic words. The second switches to the cool-sounding “Toyed coolly,” and the two “oh” sounds – the dipththong and the long “oh” – force the reader to slow down, just as time was slowing down for the drowning person. But then the words are clipped and short, just as the experience is cut short. There are a series of one-syllable words: dropt, lost, broke, Dream.

       What can we say about the “Goblin with a Guage” and his paws? What a great phrase and image. Again, Dickinson uses a string of strong, dramatic words: Goblin, Paws, Sinew, numb, Overcome. This continues and even becomes more hyperbolic as we read Dungeon, Doubt, Gibbets, Dead, stitched, gasped, Anguish, and utterest.
       How could those who knew the reclusive Miss Dickinson ever have known she was writing this stuff?


  1. That last line sure reminds me of her poem about the mouse on its slow way to death in the teeth of the cat ("The Whole of It): "'Tis life's award to die, contenteder if once, than dying half, then rallying, for consciouser eclipse." Very simlar poems, maybe?

  2. Yes, I can see it. Typical for her to work round and round at an idea, delving, working it out... I'd not known about that poem, "The Whole of It." Thanks you for this insight.
    Not for Dickinson the hospice with morphine.

  3. I’m with Lyndall Gordon on this one. This is a perfect picture of the epileptic, waiting in agony for what she knows is coming, but doesn’t know when. When the maelstrom/goblin/executioner does inevitably return, it ravages its victim nearly to the point of death before it finally let’s go and the seizure is over, leaving its wrung-out victim to recover, terrorized by the spectre of its inevitable and unpredictable return. A terrible way to live - haunted by founded fear.