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Surely this poem's central image is almost the apotheosis of anguish converted into energy, what Dickinson elsewhere called the "ecstasy of death." Transforming the puzzles of life into the paradoxes of art, the poet/speaker is on a kind of "gay, ghastly, Holiday," reminding us that she is the same woman who once told Thomas Wentworth Higginson that "I had a terror . . . I could tell to none—and so I sing, as the Boy does by the Burying Ground—because I am afraid—."

It is significant, however, that the "gay, ghastly, Holiday" into which Dickinson so often converts her "great pain" is not a weekend in "Domingo" or a passage to India. On the contrary, though she characterizes herself as an Empress of Calvary, this poet is always scrupulously careful to explain that she "never saw a moor . . . never saw the sea" (1052). Her muse-like "King who does not speak" maintains his inspiring silence in a parlor, after all, and even the Master who owns the "Loaded Gun" of her art sleeps on an "Eider-Duck's / Deep Pillow" that sounds as homely as any bedding nineteenth-century New England had to offer. Dickinson loved exotic place-names—admiring, for instance, the "mail from Tunis" that the hummingbird brought to the bushes on her father's ground (1463)—but nevertheless the news of those distances came to her at home, in her parlor, her kitchen, her garden.


From "'The Wayward Nun Beneath the Hill': Emily Dickinson and the Mysteries of Womanhood" in Feminist Critics Read Emily Dickison. Ed. Suzanne Juhasz. Copyright © 1983 by Indiana University Press.