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.