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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).