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29 November 2015

Did you ever stand in a Cavern's Mouth —

Did you ever stand in a Cavern's Mouth —
Widths out of the Sun —
And look — and shudder, and block your breath —
And deem to be alone

In such a place, what horror,
How Goblin it would be —
And fly, as 'twere pursuing you?
Then Loneliness — looks so —

Did you ever look in a Cannon's face —
Between whose Yellow eye —
And yours — the Judgment intervened —
The Question of "To die" —

Extemporizing in your ear
As cool as Satyr's Drums —
If you remember, and were saved —
It's liker so — it seems —
                            F619 (1863)  J590

I can say quite a bit about this poem: its Gothic qualities, the pivot from Cavern to Cannon, the dark and frightful imagery for Loneliness, the extemporizing moment when facing death; I can discuss the ballad meter and how it works with the gothic, the spondees of "Widths out" – and all sorts of things. But, Reader, what I cannot discuss with any confidence at all are the last two lines.
        If I read carefully, tracing back the sentence structures, it would seem Dickinson is saying that if you remember looking at death in a 'Cannon's face' than it is likely that it happened. But I am not convinced that is what Dickinson is getting at. So let's take a closer look – and maybe you can help out.

The poem begins with asking the reader if they were ever terrified by something deep within a cavern and then advising that if they have, they know what Loneliness looks like. It isn't entirely clear whether Loneliness is like the horror that one flees or the whole terrifying experience. I think the latter.
        Dickinson then pivots to facing death. Once again she asks the reader if they have had a dread experience that, the poet implies, she herself has had. The third stanza with its "Did you ever" parallels the first. The fourth, on the face of it, parallels the second: if you did such a thing (ran away, remembered and were saved), then … something. In the second stanza it is gaining the knowledge of Loneliness. In the fourth, well, I'm not sure. 
I read the third stanza as saying, "Did you ever face a cannon as it went off, aimed at you, and heard the voice of Judgment intervene as you pondered your own death?" 
And then I'm guessing. 
Speculation one: If you remember the cannon firing and the voice of judgment intervening, then you have been saved by God. (Is this Salvation or just fortunate divine intervention?)
Speculation two: If you remember the cannon going off at you and how you were coolly and distinctly pondering whether you would live or die – or even were ready to die – then your judgment saved you (perhaps by having you duck).

I'd love to hear readers' interpretations. Understand, though, that I really don't need a clear and logical explanation for Dickinson. She likes to 'tell it slant'. But often there is some deeper meaning that can be expressed or at least hinted at. 

I am wondering, having tossed this poem around while I wrote, if Dickinson isn't talking about Salvation. The moment of Salvation is like the moment of death; it is like looking down a live cannon. And one meaning of salvation is being saved from the terrifying loneliness that is this cavern, life.


  1. This poem raises many questions for me, too. I don't have clear opinions about meaning.

    The poem has a hinge between the first two stanzas and the last two. There is parallel construction, as you point out -- down to the enjambed line at the end of the first and at the end of the third stanzas.

    But what is the link between the two? A cavern is a symbol of the underworld -- a place of fear. In Greek mythology, it is the realm of the unseen, of Hades, of the dead. In this poem, the experience of the cavern is an imagined experience -- we are "deemed to be alone . . . in such a place" and the Goblin is what "would be" as "t'were" pursuing you. The last line of the second stanza says that this imagined experience looks like "Loneliness". This is an odd leap -- we generally don't equate fear with loneliness. Perhaps because the fear is ours alone -- in our mind -- and no one else feels it, it is loneliness.

    The third stanza turns to the Civil War image of a cannon. The cannon is personified with the same "Yellow eye" that ED used in her more famous poem "My Life had stood -- a Loaded Gun". The cannon is also an image of death. Here, the poem addresses an image of actual death -- not imagination -- but isolates a moment of reflection -- the question will I die "extemporizing" (a beautiful word) in your ear. The reflection here -- a frozen moment when time slows, instead of being based on horror and fear is "As cool as Satyr's Drums". This is a strange image -- reaching back again to Greek mythology. Satyrs are better known as flute players -- but they also have a link to rhythm in music. Why is the Satyr's Drum "cool"? The "hot" fear in the first two stanzas is based on imagined death. The "cool" reflection of the second two stanzas is in a moment of confrontation with an image of actual death.

    The poem seems to end by saying that this moment of reflection -- when one has been spared death and returns to life -- is "liker so" -- closer to loneliness than the death that we imagine.

  2. This could also be read as escaping a bad relationship. Satyr is associated with passion, and he is suddenly cool. The death of a relationship is certainly a lonely time...

  3. Hi Susan. As the poem's overriding theme seems to be loneliness, are the last two stanzas not simply describing the utter fear and isolation that one feels at the point of death? Ultimately, we leave this earth alone.
    This reading may help one to understand the last line of the poem. I feel that the word 'It's' in final line refers back to the Loneliness mentioned in line 8 ('Then Loneliness - looks so-'). The connection between line 8 and line 16 is suggested by the fact that both lines employ the vocabulary of resemblance, ie 'looks' in line 8, and 'liker' in line 16. The link between the two lines is also suggested by the use of the word 'so' in both.
    I therefore understand the final line, 'It's liker so - it seems', to be saying that the isolation one experiences at the point of death is a more absolute embodiment/reflection of loneliness than any other experience (even that of standing at the mouth of a fathomless cave).
    Would be interesting to get your thoughts on this!

    1. I like your links between line 8 and 16 - still baffled by satyr’s drums.

  4. It's about having homosexual urges during that time period and the loneliness and shame connected to those urges.