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13 January 2014

A Pit — but Heaven over it —

A Pit — but Heaven over it —
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.

Dickinson has a great line: "Whose Doom to whom." It is slow and spooky like an owl's call, but it does not invoke horror. It suggests that no matter who dooms whom, the pit of death or annihilation awaits. The pit is the same for everyone and is centered under heaven. This unimaginably cold situation dwarfs such petty concerns as justice and fair play. While this view of heaven has its own horror, it is not a Gothic horror.
        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.


  1. I love the sounds of this poem. First, pit, over it, yet a pit, over it. Then, slip, drop, sap, prop, chances up. Then, fathoms, same, doom, whom, tremble, bomb, bosom, calm.

    I agree -- for a poem about mortality -- there is wonderful, child-like, lyrical humor in these lines.

    In terms of meaning, thee placement of Heaven over, beside, and abroad (entirely beyond reference to) the Pit makes the mortal world insignificant. And yet we are entirely preoccupied by mortality. "The depth is all my thought" -- means both that out thoughts are preccupied with the pit and that the pit is formed out of our thought -- out of our mind that cannot see the all pervasiveness of Heaven.

    The poem ends with a second metaphor for mortality -- changing from physical proximity to death to temporal proximity. A bomb is held to our bosom -- and we hold our breath in the moment of calm -- our brief, precious life -- yet knowing the implications of what life means.

    1. I like the paradox of the bomb as a reminder of life, perhaps the only reminder.

      Are you suggesting that the Pit is "mortality" -- that is, looming death? It's an interesting gloss -- that although the speaker knows that heaven is all around, she is focused only on the pit/death. It's not that she can't see heaven, for she knows it is there, but that she doesn't think about it.

      I can't help but feel that Dickinson is depicting a chilling passiveness or detachment on the part of heaven. Heaven is doing nothing, but the pit is a real threat. It's like the dead who wait forever for resurrection, or the little mouse or child who do not get enough crumbs.

    2. As I read the poem, you see the pit as a real threat because "The depth is all your thought . . . We --- could treble". That is a valid reading. But to know that there is "Heaven abroad" hints at another reading that is not contradictory -- but from a more expansive view.

      Maybe I read too much into it. But I like to let a poem rattle around. No need to tie it down.

    3. Agreed: there is a more expansive reading, and this is a very good poem to let rattle around. The more I read the poem the more I like it. Thanks.

  2. I like your contrast with "The pit and the pendulum". And your suggestion that the bomb is knowledge is interesting--especially theologically; instead of knowledge (of good and evil) separating humans from heaven, knowledge would be all that's keeping her from trembling and falling out of heaven.

    Do you think the referent of 'it' in 'it is calm' is the bomb? That seems almost forced by the previous 'it'--in 'held it in our Bosom', 'it' is obviously the bomb. But the contrast should be with 'We - could tremble'. So I'm puzzled why she has the bomb being calm instead of herself. That is, why 'it is calm', instead of 'we are calm'? (Or am I being too literal? Is this just metonymy--cause for effect?)

    1. I have labored over that "it." There are several pronouns with ambiguous referents, but this one is key. I'm venturing that it refers to ""Bosom." Her switch to first person plural – "we" vs. "I" – comes when she is talking about her feet and not wanting to startle them. As in other poems there seems to be a division between what I call the Aware Self and the body. That may be why the bosom is "our" bosom. While the bosom (and the feet) may have been trembling, the bomb has made it calm.

      The previous commenter made a good point about not worrying about tying the poem down (or as Billie Collins said in a poem I used to teach ("Introduction to Poetry"), "tie the poem to a chair with rope
      and torture a confession out of it."

      I read one critic who felt that the heaven would be free love with Sue and the pit was the hell that their relationship would stir up. The bomb would be the knowledge of Sue's love. I don't like reading Dickinson's poems in a super biographical way, although the poems in letters are sometimes fair game for this. But what a restricted reading this provides for such a deep piece.

    2. Bomb is a startling metaphor for our mortality. Since we hold it to our bosom, the image ticking bomb evokes our heart beating. So, calm could be our heart -- calm in the face of death in a literal sense -- as well as the calm of life before the trama of death.

  3. I believe that the bomb is held in the tits waiting to jiggle them.

  4. In Lyndall Gordon’s view, the bomb in her bosom could be her epilepsy - the unpredictable nature of the epileptic paralyzed with dread, waiting for the next detonation/seizure.