Search This Blog

15 September 2013

I lived on Dread —

I lived on Dread —
To Those who know
The stimulus there is
In Danger — Other impetus
Is numb — and vitalless —

As 'twere a Spur — upon the Soul —
A Fear will urge it where
To go without the spectre's aid
Were challenging Despair.

                                                                      F498 (1862)  J770

I've read here and there that Dickinson is "the poet of dread." I don't necessarily believe it; Dickinson can't be summed up so easily. Yet dread ("fear; apprehension; panic" according to the Emily Dickinson 
Lexicon ) does fuel or infuse quite a few of her poems. In this one she begins by saying she lived on fear – and further, that it is a useful state. Without this stimulus and spur to her soul she might devolve into Despair – another state that suffuses various Dickinson poems.
       Although the first declarative line is first person, Dickinson immediately switches to third person. Not just to her, but to "Those" people who know the stimulation of danger, other states can seem "numb" and lifeless. Danger and dread spur the soul, urging it onward; without such a "spectre" we would end up confronting Despair.

I think Dickinson's dread is existential and religious. Sometimes she seems terrified of the void of death, sometimes of falling through the "planks of reason," and sometimes even of God. In "He fumbles at your Soul" 
(477) she seems to advise a constant state of alert regarding God:  
Your Breath — has time to straighten —
Your Brain — to bubble Cool —
Deals One — imperial Thunderbolt —
That scalps your naked soul —
Myths reinforce the need for both dread and fear -- as 
does the story of Moses finding God in a burning bush

It is best to not "bubble Cool" but to maintain a sense of dread so that God can't catch your "naked soul."

At least that divine drama is exciting. The alternative is despair. Earlier poems are full of descriptions of this leaden state. Examples: "A wooden way," "A Threadless Way," and "quartz contentment." In "It was not Death, for I stood up," she describes despair " As if my life were shaven / And fitted to a frame, / And could not breathe without a key, / And 'twas like Midnight, some –" 
(F355) .  It is a state of living death.
       Dickinson makes a similar case for preferring danger over despair in "One need not be a Chamber – to be Haunted – " 
(F407) . We would be better off confronting ghosts and assassins, she says, than a "lonesome" confrontation with the "Cooler Host" of our brain. It's a frightening poem and one that makes me dread despair … hmmm – handy, that.


  1. Hello Susan

    i used to think that the second stanza is like this:
    "To go without the Sceptre's aid"
    Sceptre is a type of stick or wand. So it is make sense that the soul cannot walk without the help of its stick. Or cannot find the right direction.

    1. Ah, but that is too gentle for the fierce Dickinson!

    2. :)
      Thank u
      I was wondering whether this is a difference between Johnson's and Franklin's work or just a typo?!
      So is it "spectre's" in Franklin's?
      Look at this for example:

    3. It is a difference between the two editors. You can tell by looking at the poem's number: the wiki is giving the Johnson number 770, while I am using Franklin, #498. Here ( is an image of the poem -- clearly the one Franklin used. Perhaps there is another copy that Johnson used? "spectre's" is quite clear in this one.

  2. What is the style of this poem

  3. This poem describes symptoms of addiction to war, “the itch” some veterans call it. Dread, danger, fear generate adrenalin; long exposure creates addiction; and a withdrawal symptom is numbness. How many ED poems report numbness, hopelessness, despair, all symptoms of PTSD? She describes the disease amazingly accurately for a socially withdrawn poet of 1862. Did Whitman ever do that?