Skip to content

Dare you see a Soul at the White Heat?

December 11, 2009

Emily Dickinson, daguerreotype taken at Mount Holyoke in late 1846 or early 1847

Dare you see a Soul at the “White Heat”?
Then crouch within the door –
Red – is the Fire’s common tint –
But when the quickened Ore

Has sated Flame’s conditions,
She quivers from the Forge
Without a color, but the light
Of unanointed Blaze –

Least Village, boasts it’s Blacksmith
Whose Anvil’s even ring
Stands symbol for the finer Forge
That soundless tugs – within –

Refining these impatient Ores
With Hammer, and with Blaze
Until the Designated Light
Repudiate the Forge –

Thomas Wentworth Higginson

First, a few preliminaries—the data, the given. Thomas Johnson numbers this poem 365, while R.W. Franklin numbers it 401; both however date the poem ca. 1862, with Franklin dating it more precisely in the summer of that year, when Dickinson prepared a fair copy of the poem, apparently for the purposes of sending it to someone enclosed with a letter; this copy, however, she retained. We can be fairly sure that she did send a copy to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, though that copy is now lost. It also appears in Fascicle 20, as reprinted above. Readers of the 1955 Johnson edition know it in a slightly different form, where the first line reads as follows: “Dare you see a Soul at the White Heat?”; and where for “quickened” we read “vivid,” and for “sated” “vanquished,” and for “She” (in line 6) “It”; and where the poem is given with no stanza breaks. This is the fair copy manuscript referred to already. Below are images from the Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson (Harvard, 1981), and the text as rendered with the variations just described.

From Fascicle 20

Dare you see a Soul at the White Heat?
Then crouch within the door—
Red—is the Fire’s common tint—
But when the vivid Ore
Has vanquished Flame’s conditions,
It quivers from the Forge
Without a color, but the light
Of unanointed Blaze.
Least Village has its Blacksmith
Whose Anvil’s even ring
Stands symbol for the finer Forge
That soundless tugs—within—
Refining these impatient Ores
With Hammer, and with Blaze
Until the Designated Light
Repudiate the Forge—

From Fascicle 20.

In his “reading” edition of the poems, Franklin follows this latter text, but inserts the stanza breaks found in the Fascicle. His reasons are clear: he regards “vivid,” “vanquished” and “It,” as later emendations by Dickinson, as surely they appear to be on the evidence of the images reproduced here from Franklin’s edition of The Manuscript Books. Higginson published the poem in The Atlantic Monthly in October 1891, giving it the title “The White Heat.” He altered line 6 to read “Its quivering substance plays,” so as to regularize meter and rhyme, and altering “ring” in line 10 to “din” so as, again, to make the rhyme “full,” rather than “near.” And in this form it appeared in the Poems of 1891, edited by Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd. So much for preliminaries, which I retail here largely to lay before you such niceties as an editor of the poem must attend to. Many of Dickinson’s poems more or less demand that the reader be at once editor and reader anyhow.

Clearly, a single metaphor underlies the whole of the poem, take it in whatever text you will, the vehicle of which is smithery: white heat, fire, ore, flame, forge, blacksmiths, anvils, hammers, and so on. To the question “What is the tenor of this vehicle?”—well, the first line tells us: someone is dying, and we are invited to gaze in upon a deathbed scene, if we “dare.” A Soul has reached “the white heat,” and is preparing for its deliverance from the Forge of the body it had inhabited for, oh, its three-score years and ten. And we are told further—as if this were not clear enough—that the blacksmith’s shop and forge in even the smallest of villages “stands symbol” for the refinement of the Soul for this deliverance. I say “deliverance” from the forge. But of course is not that, really; the Soul, brought to a white heat, “repudiates” the forge. In the old days, husbands were said (according to the O.E.D.) to “repudiate” their wives in divorce; and in any case, the word literally means “to cast off,” with the added idea that you hold

St. Paul, by El Greco, ca. 1608-1614.

in contempt what you cast off. There is a Pauline drift to this, as for example in the book of Romans 7:18: “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.” Now there’s a repudiation of the body if ever I laid eyes on one. And the agony, the antagonism, even unto the point of “warring,” that Paul lays out between flesh and spirit finds its analogue in the poem in the hammer and anvil, and perhaps also in the fire. But is this poem really “Christian” in its bearings? I do not think so. Dickinson did not, perhaps, go far so beyond Christianity as Emerson, into outright “Transcendentalism.” But the “affect” of the poem is rather one of exhilaration than of such agony as we find in Paul. Dickinson is working from a “two-world” theory, to be sure: there is the natural world to which our senses, our bodies, give us access, and then there is the super-natural world that lies behind and above it; the latter is Real, the former merely Apparent. Emerson and Paul would agree there, if on nothing else, and so would Dickinson. The difference lies in the mood, the affect, as I say. Dickinson fairly yearns to know what it is to die. But I never find in her a sense of “sin.” Paul says: “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing.” But for Dickinson the flesh, the body, is not wicked; it is merely a limitation to be overcome. Hence her exhilaration—if I am correct in my account of the poem’s mood—at the prospect of seeing someone overcome it. The query she puts to the reader at the outset takes for granted that Dickinson certainly “dares”: she sees nothing awful, nothing fearful in the prospect. I do not by any means regard this poem as some sort of memento mori, because I find in it no hint that what lies beyond the sensual world in the super-sensual world—that what lies above the natural world in the super-natural one—has anything to do with, say, “judgment.”

R.W. Emerson, in the late 1850s.

The way of deliverance is not, as it is for Paul, through Jesus Christ; the “way” is simply to die. This—if I am correct about it—draws Dickinson rather more close to New England Transcendentalism than to something as quaint as Christianity. Emerson concludes “Illusions” as follows: “The young mortal enters the hall of the firmament: there is he alone with them alone, they pouring on him benedictions and gifts, and beckoning him up to their thrones. On the instant, and incessantly, fall snow-storms of illusions. He fancies himself in a vast crowd which sways this way and that, and whose movement and doings he must obey: he fancies himself poor, orphaned, insignificant. The mad crowd drives hither and thither, now furiously commanding this thing to be done, now that. What is he that he should resist their will, and think or act for himself? Every moment, new changes, and new showers of deceptions, to baffle and distract him. And when, by and by, for an instant, the air clears, and the cloud lifts a little, there are the gods still sitting around him on their thrones, — they alone with him alone.” And in a mood I find quite Dickinsonian, he says this, in the “Divinity School Address“: “In this refulgent summer, it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life. The grass grows, the buds burst, the meadow is spotted with fire and gold in the tint of flowers. The air is full of birds, and sweet with the breath of the pine, the balm-of-Gilead, and the new hay. Night brings no gloom to the heart with its welcome shade. Through the transparent darkness the stars pour their almost spiritual rays. Man under them seems a young child, and his huge globe a toy. The cool night bathes the world as with a river, and prepares his eyes again for the crimson dawn. The mystery of nature was never displayed more happily. The corn and the wine have been freely dealt to all creatures, and the never-broken silence with which the old bounty goes forward, has not yielded yet one word of explanation. One is constrained to respect the perfection of this world, in which our senses converse. How wide; how rich; what invitation from every property it gives to every faculty of man! In its fruitful soils; in its navigable sea; in its mountains of metal and stone; in its forests of all woods; in its animals; in its chemical ingredients; in the powers and path of light, heat, attraction, and life, it is well worth the pith and heart of great men to subdue and enjoy it. The planters, the mechanics, the inventors, the astronomers, the builders of cities, and the captains, history delights to honor. But when the mind opens, and reveals the laws which traverse the universe, and make things what they are, then shrinks the great world at once into a mere illustration and fable of this mind” (emphasis mine). That’s what Dickinson hankers for: the laws that traverse the universe, and of which the sensual, bodily world we inhabit is a mere illustrative fable. She takes a page from Emerson’s first book, Nature (1836) in the last eight lines of the poem we’ve been reading: “Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact,” Emerson says. “Particular natural facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts. Every appearance in nature corresponds to some state of the mind, and that state of the mind can only be described by presenting that natural appearance as its picture.” And so it is with Dickinson’s village blacksmith-shop: “it stands symbol” for a “spiritual fact,” as I will point out below.

But again, to the body of the text itself. I like Dickinson’s teasing way with us in those first two lines: “Dare you see a Soul at the White Heat? / Then crouch within the door.” No one can doubt that she dares to open the door and have a peek into this deathbed chamber, which is surely what it is. I think the metaphors, here, are not exclusively metallurgical: in sickness the body passes through the red blush, or “common tint,” of a  fever, until it reaches—no, achieves—the white pallor of Death. For then the Soul “vanquishes flames conditions” (or “sates” them, as you will): this is an overcoming (or a fulfillment, if we take “sates” for our reading). The purified Soul “quivers” from the forge “without a color.” We mustn’t be put off by “unanointed”: remember, I, at any rate, am not treating this poem as Christian in its coordinates. Extremely hot fires not “anointed,” as with some oil or other matter, burn pure and clean, uncolored.

One problem I have, though. I can’t evade the suspicion that Dickinson is imprecise in her metaphor. The Soul cannot be the “ore” that “vanquishes” the fires, the fevers. The idea is to get the gold, the thing most precious, whatever it may be, out of the “ore,” isn’t it? That’s what blacksmiths do, among other things. The ore—whether iron or gold or silver—suffers repudiation. Oughtn’t the metaphor go as follows, say? Ore is to Silver as Body is to Soul. A lump of ore and a body have at least this much in common: inside each lies something precious, let us say, and for Dickinson that thing, so far as the Body is concerned, is a “Soul”; and it can be separated from the dross only by an agony of some kind, by being brought through the common tint of fever (red) to “the white heat.” Though, again, I want to emphasize that this is not the agony St. Paul has in view: the flesh isn’t damned as “wicked,” even if be repudiated; it is felt simply as a limitation of our horizons.

But anyhow, no matter. I won’t quibble with Dickinson as to whether “ore” or what’s inside the “ore,” emerges from the forge (properly speaking). Dickinson’s “ores”—the ones that “stand symbol” for the Soul—are “impatient” to die, to emerge. Let’s get it on!—they say. That “finer forge within,” with its “even ring,” which is to say, its rhythmic beating, “stands symbol,” I suppose, for the heart, which beats quicker, even into arrhythmia, toward the looked-for moment of death, when Soul emerges a “Designated Light.” “Designated” means a number of things, of course: singled out; elected; chosen. It has other meanings particular to officials, ecclesiastical and otherwise: we speak of “the Archbishop designate,” or the “Secretary of State designate.”

I can imagine a counter-argument, and I want to address it. “Mr. Era of  Casual Fridays, wait a minute. You say this is no Pauline, no ‘Christian’ poem. But doesn’t the Soul ‘vanquish’ the body? Doesn’t the Soul ‘repudiate’ it? And doesn’t this imply, as with Paul, a clear hierarchy: Soul over Body, Soul conquering Body, as in the ‘war’ Paul speaks of between his Spirit and his, well, ‘members‘?” To which I make reply, by way of conclusion: Yes it does imply a hierarchy, just as does Emerson in the texts I have quoted imply a hierarchy of spirit over the merely “natural” world. But nowhere in Emerson—certainly not in those splendid opening sentences of the “Divinity School Address”—and nowhere in Dickinson do I ever get the sense of sin or depravity that so pervades the Pauline writings, at least so far as the flesh, the sensual, or the merely natural is concerned. And I would remind my imaginary interlocutor that Dickinson tells us elsewhere that:

The common bobolink (dolichonyx oryzivorus), a small New World blackbird.

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –
I keep it, staying at Home –
With a Bobolink for a Chorister –
And an Orchard, for a Dome –

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice –
I just wear my Wings –
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton – sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman –
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –
I’m going, all along.

Much could be said about this poem of natural religion, which frames in little what Emerson says in his “Divinity School Address” anyway: Who needs a clergyman? Who needs the Bible for that matter? Who needs the institutional trappings of it all? We have to do, here, with a profoundly “Protestant” way to keep the Sabbath, and one that carries us, as Protestantism will, at its logical extreme, out of churches altogether: the relation to divinity becomes immediate, unmediated. “Some keep the Sabbath going to Church” is Dickinson’s “Divinity School Address”: “Whilst the doors of the temple stand open, night and day, before every man, and the oracles of this truth cease never,” says Emerson, “it is guarded by one stern condition; this, namely; it is an intuition. It cannot be received at second hand.”

So, no, Dickinson never says of the flesh, or of the natural world to which it belongs, that in it “dwelleth no good thing.” The natural world, the flesh and all it is heir to, is not “wicked,” I say again: instead, it is for Emerson and Dickinson alike merely an absurd limitation. All of which raises a question that I will pose, in closing, but not address. To what degree exactly is Dickinson to be ranked amongst the New England Transcendentalists? Is she prepared to go—did she go, in thought—to that “bare common” with its “snow puddles” where “all mean egotism” vanishes? Or did she somehow retain, or hold to, some notion of a personal immortality, as against what Emerson happily imagines—to wit, the complete annihilation of the merely personal, wherein The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental”? In short, what exactly would Dickinson have made of Schopenhauer had she read him?

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: