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07 February 2014

A still — Volcano — Life —

A still — Volcano — Life —
That flickered in the night —
When it was dark enough to do
Without erasing sight —

A quiet — Earthquake Style —
Too subtle to suspect
By natures this side Naples —
The North cannot detect

The Solemn — Torrid — Symbol —
The lips that never lie —
Whose hissing Corals part — and shut —
And Cities — ooze away —
                                       F517 (1863)  J601

The volcano symbolizes a certain way of being alive. Could it be a poet's way (whose lips "never lie"), a woman's whose life amid a patriarchal Calvinist family and society meant her strongest passions and questings must either be silent or rupturing? I think so, and this is not the only Dickinson volcano poem that attentive readers and scholars suggest are a self portrait. 
The poem is full of paradoxical phrasings: the Volcano Life is "still"; the Earthquake is "quiet; and the Symbol (the volcano standing for the poet/speaker) is both "Solemn" and "Torrid".  The first two stanzas hint at the volatility and upheaval beneath the poet's surface. The Volcano is only flickering, and this at night. Related earthquake activity is so "subtle" that those north of or on the other side of the ocean from Vesuvius (the famous volcano near Naples, Italy) cannot detect it. These would be the cooler, more restrained types – think New Englanders or northern Europeans – unlike those hot-blooded Mediterraneans.  

Yet the third stanza warns that despite the lulling quiet, the volcano/poet need only part her coral lips, just open and shut them, and the resulting eruption will destroy any cities in its path. Yikes! 

There's a nightmare quality to the poem. We see the poet in her room, her passions roiling beneath the surface. She is writing at night where her poetic sight is clearest and where others won't get a glimpse of the hot light she keeps damped within. We see the tremors of her soul, moved by large questions, powerful emotions, and startling visions. In a bit of a dig, she suggests that while some people would sense her power and heat,  most are unacquainted with volcanoes; their emotional or spiritual climate is too cool. I am reminded of "More Life – went out – when He went" (F415) where she contrasts the "Peat life" to that of the flame-proved anthracite. The peat people ignore the existence of volcanoes.
In the monstrous last stanza Dickinson gives us a glimpse of her power. There is nothing coy, nothing humble, and nothing ladylike about it – although it is completely female. Her façade is "Solemn" for she is fully aware of herself. Her deeper nature is scorching, burning with heat. Her lips never lie, and when they open the erupting magma hisses and flows, whole cities destroyed as they "ooze away" in its flow. Now that's poetry!
That last image gains double power from the doubled image of the poet's lips. They are the guardian gates to the eruptive truths Dickinson hammers in the forge of her soul. "Dare you see a Soul at the 'White Heat'?" she asks in another poem (F401). They are at the same time labial which if opened would release a hot flood of female sexuality. Their flow is like magma, its force lethal for those in its path. The idea of "ooze" is primordial.

As a final note, Dickinson differentiates the North from the South in "Our lives are Swiss" (F129) where the northerners are "still" and "Cool" while on the other side of the Alps, the Italians live in earthy and hot passion. 



  1. what do you mean by
    "The first two stanzas hint at the volatility and upheaval beneath the poet's surface."

    1. I explain in the lines following that one. The poem can be read as self descriptive as well as general. Perhaps it was at night when the house-tending, gardening, baking Emily Dickinson felt most in touch with her passions and 'Life'. The latent 'Earthquake' that she senses inside is too 'subtle' for most others to detect.

  2. "She is writing at night where her poetic sight is clearest and where others won't get a glimpse of the hot light she keeps damped within."

    ED was probably a morning person. In her early letters she complains that her dawn to dusk schedule of cooking, cleaning, and keeping house leaves no time for poetry.

    Apparently, about 1858, she negotiated a deal with her father, Edward, giving her the morning hours for writing. ED’s wrote a brief thank-you note, ‘To my Father’ (L198), followed by a poem, ‘Sleep is meant to be’ (F35). She gave the note to her father and a copy to Susan Dickinson, perhaps as a FYI.

    Johnson Letter #198

    “To my Father -
    to whose untiring efforts
    in my behalf, I am in -
    debted for my morning-hours
    viz 3. AM to 12. PM.
    these grateful lines are
    inscribed by his aff


    Manuscript at Houghton Library, Harvard:

    Johnson’s notes, Houghton Library, Harvard, Emily Dickinson's Correspondences with Susan Dickinson:

  3. Beautiful gloss, very helpful. The north/south divide. The double meaning of lips. The thought of "poetry" itself, oozing away cities.

    I love the "too subtle to suspect" as applied to the poetry. The most subtle of poets, and yet, watch out!

    I like the volcano interrupts the "still life" in the first line. That seems to me to be the poem in miniature.

  4. ED wrote eleven “volcano” poems: F165, F207, F425, F517, F764, F1161, F1429, F1472, F1691, F1703, F1776, and four “bomb” poems: F360, F522, F622, F1150. In many of them the volcano/bomb is a secret ED must keep bottled because she thought its revelation would destroy lives of her family.

    ‘A still — Volcano — Life’ is one of those poems, its last stanza particularly direct about consequences of spilling her beans. But, she cannot keep completely silent, and so, she tells the truth, but tells it slant, leaving us to guess:

    “The lips that never lie —
    Whose hissing Corals part — and shut —
    And Cities — ooze away —”

    And then there’s ED’s Master Letter 2:

    “Vesuvius dont talk--Etna dont-- one of them--said a syllable--a thousand years ago, and Pompeii heard it, and hid forever--She could'nt look the world in the face, afterward, I suppose--Bashful Pompeii!” (L233, about late 1861).

    There were other ingredients in ED’s gnawing lifelong angst, but one was the truth about her relationship with Sue during their late teens and early twenties. Given the pain caused by the later affair of Austin and Mabel Todd, ED probably should have spilled her beans. The Dickinson family would have survived.