601 (A still——Volcano——Life——)

Joanne Feit Diehl: On 601 ("A still——Volcano——Life——")

Whereas Emerson and Dickinson are both drawn to the vision of an imminent power that smoulders undetected, Dickinson "personalizes" this vision. Volcanic force is no longer associated with universal man as in "The American Scholar," but, instead, with the single life. Power does not run through all of us, as Emerson maintains; furthermore, it cannot be apprehended by anyone who observes the seemingly quiet, single self. The one soul which animates all men now stands isolated and alone. . . . This single life erupts irrevocably. Hidden, mysterious, still, the power floods mechanically; corals "part and shut"—destroying cities. What distinguishes this from Emerson's volcano is Dickinson ' s insistence on secrecy, on individuality, and on destruction. The poems will go further to identify this oral potency with both poetry and the self.

Moreover, Dickinson's practice of defining her self against Emerson's while drawing upon his language recurs in varying forms. Although she may alter the thrust of an Emersonian image or impose her own priorities on his diction, the new poem lies hidden in its parent text. Characteristically, a Dickinson poem takes an example that Emerson introduces into an essay and invests it with the strength of a subversive, anti-Emersonian vision.

From Dickinson and the Romantic Imagination. Copyright © 1981 by Princeton UP

Cristanne Miller: On 601 ("A still——Volcano——Life——")

"A still -- Volcano -- Life -- " begins by making disruptive thoughts or feelings of "Life" concrete through the metaphor of a (nongendered) volcano. . . .

The poem's first two stanzas emphasize the secrecy of such a life. At the end of the second stanza, however, Dickinson moves out from the abstract soul to the physical (and in this case implicitly gendered) body to give more intimate and immediate impact to her metaphor:

The North cannot detect

The Solemn -- Torrid -- Symbol -- The lips that never lie -- Whose hissing Corals part -- and shut –  And Cities—ooze away--

The multiple suggestive aspects of female sexuality in the final stanza's images (the speaker's undetected, clearly non-phallic, metonymic ability to "ooze"; the coral lips which might belong either to the mouth or to the more frighteningly "quiet" vagina; and perhaps even the volcanic heaving bosom) point to the centrality of the body in imagining this Life's eruption.

As with all of Dickinson's metaphors of grotesquerie, this stanza offers two surreal pictures. In the first, a speaker's "hissing Corals" part to release lava--like words, expressions, or fluid so destructive that "Cities" are destroyed. One of the more chilling aspects of this image lies in the lack of anger or intention in the volcano's action: whether the speaker utters curses or merely parts her lips in a smile, the result is equally destructive. At the same time, the metaphor depicts a volcanic mountain with the "lips" of a siren, sensuously "hissing," "part[ing]" and "shut[ting]" as it slowly releases its molten rock. In either case, the body disappears except for the magnified and red lips, which give immediate and frighteningly controlled release to the "Volcano -- Life" within. In a grotesque metonymy, a woman becomes a mouth--or that other dangerous and lipped female orifice--spewing violent destruction. Here there is no obvious humanity to which a victim of the "hissing Corals" might appeal.

[. . . .]

A human volcano, with lips prominent and sensual, whose expressions make "Cities -- ooze away" evokes horror, disbelief, but also amusement at the incongruity of the speaker's self-aggrandizing fantasy: the speaker implies that she might at any time choose to open her coral lips and release destruction, that beneath her white dress lies volcanic fury. . . .

This poem suggests a sensibility that values a sexually female power wholly alien to (or in tension with) notions of femininity in a staid New England community. . . .

[T]he speaker reveals a kind of glee in knowing what the "North cannot detect" . . . . The speaker is not interested in politeness but in volcanic honesty that simultaneously reveals and devastates.

From Comic Power in Emily Dickinson. By Suzanne Juhasz, Cristanne Miller, and Martha Nell Smith. (University of Texas Press, 1993). Copyright © 1993 by the University of Texas Press.

Kamilla Denman: On 601 ("A still——Volcano——Life——")

Emerson, in his famous lecture on "The American Scholar," declared: "The human mind ... is one central fire, which flaming now out of the lips of Etna, lightens the capes of Sicily; and, now out of the throat of Vesuvius, illuminates the towers and vineyards of Naples. It is one light which beams out of a thousand stars. It is one soul which animates all men."' The volcano that animates Dickinson's writing, however, is a far more violent force, an image of devastating linguistic expression erupting out of silence: "Vesuvius dont talk—Etna—don’t--one of them---said a syllable--a thousand years ago, and Pompeii heard it, and hid forever--" (L 233). Dickinson's volcano emits not only light but consuming lava:

[. . . .]

In contrast to Emerson's image of benevolent spiritual enlightenment, Dickinson's volcano consumes, burns, and destroys. The volcano is an unpredictable, subversive force, more appalling when it erupts because it has been so long silent. Yet the subtlety of the volcano persists even in the eruption, which is only a hiss, and in the destruction, which is an oozing away. Far from being limited by its constraining rock, the volcano's power of expression is so great that it can swallow up the exterior that seems to confine it. As such, it offers an image of Dickinson writing from within the confines of her society, exploding the language by which her culture seeks to limit and define her. . . . Dickinson's disruption of social structures, like her poetic image of the volcano, is primarily a linguistic one. The volcano destroys cities that are, like conventional language and grammar, constructions of civilization. But just as the fiery lava and ash also resculpt the landscape and enrich the soil, Dickinson's disruption of conventional discourse also reshapes and enriches language.

From "Emily Dickinson’s Volcanic Punctuation" in The Emily Dickinson Journal (1993).