And Heaven beside, and Heaven abroad;
And yet a Pit —
With Heaven over it.
To stir would be to slip —
To look would be to drop —
To dream — to sap the Prop
That holds my chances up.
Ah! Pit! With Heaven over it!
The depth is all my thought —
I dare not ask my feet —
'Twould start us where we sit
So straight you'd scarce suspect
It was a Pit — with fathoms under it —
It's Circuit just the same
Whose Doom to whom
'Twould start them –
We – could tremble –
But since we got a Bomb –
And held it in our Bosom –
Nay – Hold it – it is calm –
F508 (1863) J1712
The speaker is trapped in a Gothic nightmare landscape, paralyzed with dread. All that exists is a deep pit surrounded by heaven (which is not only "over it," but "beside" and "abroad"). Despite all this heaven, neither help nor hope seems to be forthcoming. The speaker exists by sitting completely still and holding a secret bomb. Sitting still presents her from falling into the pit; the bomb keeps her calm.
The poem reminds me of Edgar Allen Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum" (1842), where a prisoner of the Inquisition is nearly forced into a hellish pit while his judges watch him from hidden windows. The following passage comes after the prisoner is being forced to the edge of the pit by the closing in of his prison walls, now heated to fiery red:
But the alteration stopped not here-I neither hoped nor desired it to stop. I could have clasped the red walls to my bosom as a garment of eternal peace. "Death," I said, "any death but that of the pit!" Fool! might I have not known that into the pit it was the object of the burning iron to urge me? Could I resist its glow? or, if even that, could I withstand its pressure And now, flatter and flatter grew the lozenge, with a rapidity that left me no time for contemplation. Its centre, and of course, its greatest width, came just over the yawning gulf. I shrank back -- but the closing walls pressed me resistlessly onward.Poe's language evokes terror and dread. In Gothic style he employs specific details punctuated by expressions of terror and horror. Compare that with Dickinson's tone. Although the setting is Gothic, the speaker seems more mystified than horrified as she contemplates a heaven-embraced deadly pit. She repeats wonderingly, "And yet a Pit – / With Heaven over it." The plain rhyme is childlike. The child cannot imagine such betrayal. Poe's protagonist, on the other hand, is not wondering at the irony of Christian priests designing and presiding over his torture. He is too caught up with the physical details of his fate.
|Arthur Rackham’s interpretation of|
“The Pit and the Pendulum,” 1935.
In "The Soul has Bandaged moments" (F360), Dickinson treats a similar theme, but does so with Gothic gusto. In that poem a "ghastly Fright" caresses an appalled but "bandaged" soul, and gives her ghoulish kisses. At times the sol escapes, "dances like a Bomb," but is always "retaken" with "shackles on the plumed feet / And staples, in the Song, . . / The Horror welcomes her again…".
The current poem is much quieter: the Bomb is restrained, held tight against the chest. We don't know what this bomb is but it is not likely to be a wild and delirious dance of stolen freedom. I see it as knowledge: a poet sees deeply and truly. Her truths can shatter. Although drastic, this is the only possible defense Dickinson allows in this grim and austere existence.