The Imagery of Volcanoes in Emily Dickinson’s Poetry

The Psychology and Aftermath of Emotional Repression

Chloe Marnin
May 10, 2016 · 7 min read

Emily Dickinson’s poems are known for their scientific language. In all her poems she has carefully chosen words and phrases to provoke greater thought; in this way, she is able to keep her poems short and significant. For example, her use of the word “volcano” and references to famous volcanoes creates a particular area of interest. In these poems, she promotes a link between human emotions and suppression. The volcano analogies create a vivid, relatable image that addresses more than one kind of emotion. Overall, Dickinson’s poems with images of volcanoes illustrates the repression, eruption, and aftermath of human emotion. Though, some critics argue that her purpose for the “volcano” image was merely rooted in sexual meaning. I argue, however, that the image represents a more complex system of deep emotions that range from anger to depression to some level of happiness. The underlying question is: why was Emily Dickinson specifically interested in Pompeii and Mt. Vesuvius? In the poems that utilize seismic and volcanic terms, a majority of them contain at least one reference to Mt. Vesuvius.

Excavated victims at Pompeii

During Dickinson’s lifetime, the French were actively excavating Pompeii. 1860 much of the western part of the town had been excavated (Dr Nappo Salvatore Ciro BBC 2011). Though these were the early years of excavation, it would make sense that news about this ancient civilization would spread to America during Dickinson’s life. From 1840 to 1847 she attended Amherst Academy; during this time she studied some geology, which meant she learned about volcanoes (Emily Dickinson Museum, Amherst). This seems to be where she may have heard about the excavation of Pompeii, and therefore the erruption of Mt. Vesuvius.

So Why Use Volcanoes to Describe Repression?

In psychology, these terms are often associated with depression. They are both terms that withhold or push away emotions. These emotions are not always specific and can refer to any strong emotion. According to most scholars, it is inferred from her body of work that Dickinson may have suffered from some form of depression. This could have influenced her use of strong imagery to discuss human emotions. It is interesting that she would write more than one poem specifically describing an image of repressed emotions; all of these images and terms relate to depression. The act of turning in to one’s self and shutting out the world, then exploding, unable to control too many complex emotions at once. In Dickinson’s poetry, there are many emotions represented; not just sexual.

Depression -Psychiatry. a condition of general emotional dejection and withdrawal;sadness greater and more prolonged than that warranted by any objective reason.

According Marinela Freitas of the Univeristy of Porto, Portugal, “if we understand the volcanic life as a metaphor for the definition of the self, we can see here the opposition between private behavior, potentially destructive, and a public pose that is socially contained.” She is referring specifically to Dickinson’s poem 601. Freitas addresses the 19th century woman in her article about this poem; she describes the societal suppression of individuality of women during Dickinson’s lifetime, and ties these “volcano” images to the feminine sexuality. This describes the cause of repression in this instance as societal pressure. Though this image has a very plausible argument, I feel Dickinson represents more than feminine sexuality with her “volcano” imagery. The repression is caused by inner turmoil over individual decision. Dickinson comments on the inner struggle to either withhold emotion or to express individuality. Though what Freitas excludes is that the volcano is a natural occurrence and is completely reliant on itself, not outside human intervention. Dickinson makes this very clear through her references to Pompeii. From one view point, one sees the destruction of society and structure that represents the suppression of feminine individuality; on the other hand, it describes the self-reliance of an individual and the after affects of decisions. The society has no control or influence over a volcano, because it is a natural occurrence and fluctuates according to its individual nature.

illustration of human suppression

Looking At Emily Dickinson’s Poems and Finding the Natural Expression

A quiet — Earthquake Style —

Too subtle to suspect

By natures this side Naples —

The North cannot detect

(601 Dickinson)

The words “quiet” and “subtle” suggest the existence of something more to come. The phrase “Earthquake Style” suggests that the volcano may erupt, referring to seismic movement that starts small and grows from the epicenter. Dickinson makes a reference to Mt. Vesuvius, a volcano in Naples that destroyed Pompeii, by writing: “By natures this side Naples.” This reference suggests that she is repressing anger. According to other critics the final stanza suggests sexual repression; however, the reference to Mt. Vesuvius provokes a different meaning. The word “torrid” can refer to dry volcanic rock after an eruption. The people of Pompeii were covered and frozen in time; because of the “volcano” image, this suggests that the line “lips that never lie” refers to them. Perhaps the most sexual lines are the final two: “Whose hissing Corals hissing Corals part — and shut/ And Cities — ooze away — ” (601). However, these lines can refer to the sea when a volcano erupts. There are vents in the ocean that release steam during the eruption. The cities that ooze away can mean they are melting from the heat of the magma that surrounds and covers them. In other words, this poem is not merely sexual, I believe that Dickinson’s use of “volcano” and her image of Mt. Vesuvius causes the poem to suggest the repression of anger or other emotions. For a volcano symbolizes an eruption of inner feelings, but the image evokes violence and destruction, which makes this poem feel more than sexual. The language is very scientific; which suggests a natural influence rather than outside intervention. This makes the repression and eruption of the volcano self-reliant.

image of present day Mt. Vesuvius

Dickinson also refers to Mt. Vesuvius in poem 628. She utilizes another image of violence, the gun. Dickinson writes: “My life had stood- a Loaded Gun-” (628), an image that evokes the same idea as her volcano imagery. It suggests repression, tension, and possible violence, and the image of the gun ties these concepts directly to the humanity; which again gives her imagery self-reliance and separates the societal influence on decision. Further in the poem, Dickinson refers to Mt. Vesuvius again: “It is as a Vesuvian face/ Had let its pleasure through” (628). This part of the poem suggests two things: the face of a Pompeii victim molded smiling in volcanic rock and the face of the volcano erupting allowing its hidden contents to spew out. Both images, however, describe an aftermath situation. Dickinson makes an observation on the human tendency to withhold emotions and to erupt, causing chaos for all involved. She seems to have had personal experience with this; perhaps she was not expressing herself as she wished she could and considered what could happen. Furthermore, Dickinson appears to connect the cause of everything to the nature of the volcano which obviously represents the human individual.

These observations add to Freitas’ argument about Dickinson’s volcano. The image is not simply representative of societal repression of femininity. Freitas described the contents of the volcano as “the fiery self as a prisoner of social forces.” However, a volcano is natural and separated from outside forces. Therefore, the contents of the volcano are the emotions of the self, selfrepressed and withheld for the harmony of society. When the self relents and explodes, society is overwhelmed and overcome by the intensity of repressed emotion. These emotions can be debated, but it is certain they are relentless, complex, and strong; meaning their effect is catastrophic.

Illustration of the destructive eruption of Mt. Vesuvius at Pompeii 79 AD.

Dickinson’s “volcano” carries a deeper meaning of individuality and emotion. Through the volcanic imagery Dickinson describes the natural disaster that is human feeling; through her many specific references to Mt. Vesuvius and Pompeii she attributes the natural occurrence and self-reliance of emotion. Dickinson’s purpose behind her “volcanoes” appears to promote the natural state of hidden human emotions and their consequences. Rather they result in violent outbursts or seismic change of emotion, her version of the human condition is almost sublime. Her “volcano” naturalizes the state of inner thought and creates a new understanding of the turbulence within human emotion. Dickinson’s poetry continues to question the human condition through her dynamic rhetoric and provoking imagery.

More on the History of Pompeii and Mt. Vesuvius

Interesting links and videos to understand the image Dickinson utilizes

Video on the disaster at Pompeii, provides an understanding of Dickinson’s imagery.

Works Cited

Ciro, Dr. Nappo Salvatore. “Pompeii: It’s Discovery and Preservation.” BBC, 2011.

Dickinson, Emily. “Emily Dickinson’s Poetry.” The World’s Poetry Archive, 2012. Web. 28 Apr. 2016.

Freitas, Marinela Carvalho. “Dickinson’s A STILL — VOLCANO — LIFE — .” Explicator 58.4 (2000): 200. Academic Search Premier. Web. 10 May 2016.