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2015 Undergraduate Prize - Winning Essay

Emily Dickinson Undergraduate Essay Prize

In 2015, the Emily Dickinson International Society launched a prize for undergraduate research on Emily Dickinson. We seek critical essays by undergraduates from institutions of all kinds, focusing on Dickinson’s poems or letters. Students at all levels are eligible to submit. Papers should be 15 pages maximum. The winning essay will be published on the EDIS website and the author will receive an award of $250.

To submit an essay for the prize, copies of articles as anonymous word attachments were sent, plus a cover letter with contact information to the following address by May 1, 2015: The essays were distributed electronically to a panel of nationally recognized scholars for judging, and Rebekah Davis, a senior English major at Seattle Pacific University, is our first undergraduate essay prize winner. She wrote the paper for Susan VanZanten's upper–division course.

The Traumatic Cycle of Emily Dickinson’s Goblin Poems

Emily Dickinson’s eighteen hundred or so poems span a variety of subjects, but critics and readers alike have been drawn to her depictions of the darker experiences of life. A quick perusal of her collected poems reveals the nonchalant way in which her subjects can switch from birds hopping down a path in “A Bird, came down the Walk –” (Fr 359) to a soul being assaulted by a terrifying fright in “The Soul has Bandaged moments –” (Fr 360). Out of the number of Dickinson’s poems that treat themes like suffering, pain, grief, and death, six poems in particular depict a maddeningly ambiguous encounter with horror while featuring a specific image unique among Dickinson’s other poems: the goblin. It appears adjectivally in “If you were coming in the fall” (Fr 356) and “Did you ever stand in a cavern’s mouth” (Fr 619), but the goblin also makes more significant appearances as the personification of a fright that harasses the speakers of “The Soul has Bandaged moments—” (Fr 360), “It would never be Common – more – I said –” (Fr 388), “‘Twas like a Maelstrom, with a notch” (Fr 425), and “I think to Live – may be a Bliss” (Fr 757). Though the goblin’s appearance is scattered across six different fascicles, R. W. Franklin dates all the goblin poems as written in the same year of 1862.

Critics have applied various interpretive frameworks to the image of the goblin itself, but very little has been said on how the four major goblin poems are in conversation with each other. The appearance of the goblin character links the four poems together and reveals that, though approaching the matter from different subjects, the poems represent four attempts to come to terms with a horrific trauma. The goblin is not the only image or diction they share. Collectively, the four poems record what Maria O’Malley describes as the “sequential reactions of the soul to a traumatic moment: paralysis, escape, and reincarceration” (70). Each goblin poem describes these three stages, and on a larger scale, the cycle of goblin poems embodies their speakers’ inability to move on from the experience and memory of the unspecified trauma. Though the goblin’s persistent appearance demonstrates the staying power of fright, the goblin’s eventual disappearance from Dickinson’s poetry suggests that on the whole, Dickinson discovers a way to exorcise the goblin of trauma through imaginatively articulating her experience.

Dickinson was not the only poet to feature goblins in the nineteenth century, and a brief look at some of the goblin’s other literary appearances provides a sense of context for the term. As Daneen Wardrop details in her study of the goblin, it was “A miscreant present in literary history as early as the fourteenth century… mak[ing] an early distinguished appearance in 1667 with Milton’s Paradise Lost: ‘To whom the Goblin [Death] replied’ (line 668)” (3). The goblin persisted, appearing in less canonical works of literature during Dickinson’s life. In Dickinson’s time, a goblin was defined in Webster’s Dictionary (1844) as “An evil spirit; a walking spirit; a frightful phantom.” In 1858, Ralph Waldo Emerson demonstrates a less terrifying version of a goblin in his poem “Two Rivers,” published in The Atlantic Monthly, a magazine Dickinson is known to have read. Emerson describes the Musketaquit River in fantastic terms as “a goblin strong / Of shard and flint makes jewels gay” (13-14). But another Atlantic Monthly poem, this one published in 1861, aligns more with the dictionary definition of the goblin’s uncanny nature. James Russell Lowell’s “The Washers of the Shroud” describes an encounter with the three fates in a chilling, mystical dream. As the speaker crosses an eerie, misty meadow, he describes the laugh of a loon “that seemed to mock some goblin tryst” (8). Lowell uses the goblin as one of many images to conjure up a frightening landscape that would fit in many a fairy tale or myth. The poet Christina Rossetti uses goblins as the main antagonists in her poem “Goblin Market,” which tells the story of two women threatened and tricked by the deceptive creatures. Though “Goblin Market” was published in 1862, the same year Dickinson wrote her own goblin poems, we do not know for sure if Dickinson ever read Rossetti’s poem.

Goblins, however, were certainly on Dickinson’s mind, as we can see from one of her letters from August of 1862 in which she recounts a story she was told as a child about goblins. Writing to Thomas Wentworth Higginson in response to a warning she felt was unwarranted, she describes what happened when she ignored a caution she received as a child: “When much in the Woods as a little Girl, I was told that the Snake would bite me, that I might pick a poisonous flower, or Goblins kidnap me, but I went along and met no one but Angels, who were far shyer of me, than I could be of them” (Dickinson 415). The image of the frightful goblins, whether persisting from the childhood threats or presented in other poems and stories Dickinson read, was significant enough to become part of Dickinson’s poetic repertoire, and she enlists the goblin as a supporting character in poems that depict extreme psychological torment. The terrifying creatures of her poems stand in stark contrast to the harmless goblins invoked to warn young Dickinson of the forest’s dangers. When Dickinson explores the tangled woods of a terrified psyche, her speakers meet goblins that put Lowell’s and Emerson’s frights and fancies to shame.

Since the goblin is capable of inflicting such horrific trauma on the speakers of these poems, critical analyses have centered on uncovering what the goblin represents. Daneen Wardrop makes the most thorough examination of the goblin in her book Emily Dickinson’s Gothic: Goblin with a Gauge. Wardrop notes the “subcluster of goblin poems,” seeing them “as the denominator of all [Dickinson’s] gothic” and uses the goblin as a “presiding antiprotagonist” of her investigation of Dickinson’s Gothic imagery (3). Wardrop interprets the goblin as Dickinson’s “gothic villain” (71), performing “the roles of father/Father/lover/Master/-lawyer/Death/surgeon/editor/critic/rapist” (84). Richard E. Brantley takes a less multifaceted reading and instead sees the assaulting goblin of “The Soul has Bandaged moments” (Fr 360) as “the usurping Goblin of death” that separates the two lovers (37). David Cody reads the same poem as Dickinson’s response to Harriet E. Prescott Spofford’s short story “Circumstance,” which features a young woman being kidnapped by a monstrous black panther. Dickinson biographer Cynthia Griffin Wolff sees the goblin of “The Soul has Bandaged moments” and “‘Twas like a Maelstrom, with a notch” as representing a cruel, uncaring God (36). Though their opinions differ, each of these critics sees solving the riddle of what the goblin represents as the key to unlocking the meaning of these difficult poems.

But part of what makes the goblin so frightening is its mythic, inexplicable presence, and by leaving the goblin undefined, the poems emphasize the goblin’s effect on the speakers. The majority of the stanzas in all the goblin poems deal with the speaker’s reaction to the goblin rather than the goblin itself. It follows then that the poems are more about the speaker coming to terms with the horror than naming the horror. A key part of the speakers’ experiences is their inability or unwillingness to speak directly of the terror that haunts them. Concentrating our attention so completely on the goblin may eclipse the experiences and feelings articulated by the speakers of the poems featuring the fiend. Instead of assigning the goblin a particular function in Dickinson’s poetry, we can exchange the question of what the goblin means for the question of what the goblin does. As it sips, gauges, and threatens, the goblin acts as the mythologized epitome of the unnamable catalyst that traps the speakers in a traumatic cycle. The appearance of the goblin ties all these poems together while the variety of their perspectives allows Dickinson to fully explore the experience they depict.

“The Soul has Bandaged moments —” (Fr 360) and “It would never be common – more – I said” (Fr 388) demonstrate how a goblin’s assault incites the first stage of trauma: a helpless, frozen paralysis induced by an unnamable fright. “The Soul has Bandaged moments—” (Fr 360) is written from an impersonal perspective; an “I” is not used as the speaker details the themes and images of the poem in reference to an ethereal “Soul” (1). The poem outlines three experiences or “moments” of the soul, declaring that first “The soul has Bandaged moments—” (1). The use of the word “Bandaged” to describe these initial moments may lead the reader to expect that such moments are a positive experience. But the second line reveals that the bandaging of the soul has more to do with bondage than healing, for these moments occur when the soul is “too appalled to stir” (2). The appalled soul is helpless to do anything as it is approached by “some ghastly Fright” (3) that, in a series of progressive violations, first stops to look at the soul, then greets her, caresses her hair, and ultimately “Sip[s], Goblin, from the very lips / The Lover – hovered – o’er –” (4-8). The speaker reflects how unworthy it is “that a thought so mean / Accost a Theme – so fair –” (9-10). This unnamed fright is so horrible it can only be described indirectly as a monster forcing its attentions on the speaker of the poem.

“It would never be common – more – I said” (Fr 388) describes a similar state of paralysis and also attributes the cause to the ambiguous assault of a goblin, but it does so from a much more personal perspective. While “The Soul has Bandaged moments—” (Fr 360) begins with the soul’s ‘bandaged’ state, “It would never be Common – more – I said –” (Fr 388) starts with the euphoria of escape—the glories of a speaker experiencing what it is like to have her past pains eclipsed by present bliss (7-8). The speaker is in the midst of distributing her “pleasure all abroad” (17) like a wealthy man distributing gifts, “when – suddenly – my Riches shrank – / A Goblin – drank my Dew –” (23-24). This image echoes the same action of the goblin in “The Soul has Bandaged moments – ” (Fr 360), where it “Sip[s], Goblin, from the very lips / The Lover – hovered – o’er –” (7-8). The images of the goblin sipping at a soul’s lips or drinking the speaker’s dew, while disturbing, shroud their meaning in metaphor, leaving us to guess at what the image stands for in either poem. But the recurrence of the goblin and its actions from “The Soul has Bandaged moments—” (Fr 360) in “It would never be Common – more – I said –” (Fr 388) allows us to read the latter poem as a first-person account of the “Bandaged moments” featured in the former poem. In stark contrast to the impersonal perspective used in “The Soul has Bandaged moments—” (Fr 360), each line in the seventh stanza of “It would never be Common – more – I said –” (Fr 388) begins with “I” as the speaker frantically attempts to achieve some sort of purchase on her newly distorted reality. The speaker recounts how “I clutched at sounds” (25), “I groped at shapes” (26), and “I touched the tops of Films” (27). The speaker has been so disrupted by the goblin’s imposition, it is as if some sort of film or thin skin has come between her and the world, obscuring sounds and shapes. This odd series of synthesias demonstrates how extremely disturbed the speaker is, both physically and mentally, by what has happened.

The physical imagery and language used in both these poems bring up an important question as to whether the causes of these experiences are more physical or psychological. Wardrop reads the descriptions quite literally, interpreting the goblin poems as broaching “the terms of rape” (71). She understands “It would never be Common—more—I said—” as “portray[ing] a woman artist, near success, as subject to sexual violence” (86). The description of the goblin sipping from the soul’s lips in “The Soul has Bandaged moments—” (Fr 360) and alluded to in “It would never be Common – more – I said –” (Fr 388) is obviously couched in sexual imagery. But, particularly in “The Soul has Bandaged moments—” (Fr 360), such physical imagery is countered by the fact that we are not dealing with substances of flesh and blood, but with ethereal thoughts and souls. The bodiless soul in “The Soul has Bandaged moments—” (Fr 360) is not actually subject to the unwanted physical attentions of a frightful goblin. But the soul is undergoing something so horrible that its experience can only be described by the lengthy and disturbing narrative of the poem. Though Wardrop’s explication of sexual imagery in the goblin poems is valid and well-researched, David Reynolds’s argument describing Dickinson’s effective application of sensational imagery to psychological states can apply to her goblin poems. Reynolds points out that “Dickinson’s most successful applications of sensational images occur where she directs such images inward, using them as metaphors for the recesses of the psyche” (178). For every physical metaphor in the goblin poems, there is a bodiless abstraction that suggests the goblin’s assault is more on the speaker’s mind than body, and the weird juxtaposition of the monstrous goblin’s physical attack on the mind is part of what makes the poems so disturbing.

But just as these poems describe the speakers’ paralysis, they also affirm the speakers’ ability to seemingly escape the fear that paralyzes them, and the terms in which the poems do so emphasize their psychological dimensions. Even as we initially see the soul in “The Soul has Bandaged moments—” (Fr 360) as helpless to resist the goblin’s assault, the third stanza of the poem declares that “The Soul has moments of escape – / When bursting all the doors— / She dances like a Bomb, abroad” (11-13). Like a “delirious” bee, kept or “Long Dungeoned from his rose” (15-16), the soul “swings” (14) about in an ecstasy of “Liberty” (17). The diction of escape, begun in line 11 and continued through the references to dungeon and liberty, contrasts with the soul’s helplessness in the first stanza, suggesting that the soul has escaped from the very frights that left it paralyzed earlier. But how has the soul managed its explosive escape? The bee touches “liberty” and “then know[s] no more – But Noon, and Paradise” (17-18). This knowing is perhaps the alternative to the “Unworthy…thought” (9) that stalked the soul in the beginning of the poem, since, occupied with the happiness of liberty, noon, and paradise, the soul’s happier knowledge of this paradise excludes the memory of the fright that assaults the soul so violently.

The vehicle of the speaker’s escape in “It would never be Common – more – I said –” (Fr 388) is even more obscure than that in “The Soul has Bandaged moments—” (Fr 360), described as an unspecified “Difference” (2) that will put an end to the “old sort” (4) of “bitterness” (3) the speaker knew in the past. “It would never be Common – more – I said” (1), the speaker declares, as she contrasts her present moment with her past, convinced that life has changed for the better. As Diehl points out, the poem “opens with such astonishing bravado” (5) that is in step with the delirious giddiness that characterizes a moment of escape. Whereas in “The Soul has Bandaged moments—” (Fr 360) a disembodied soul experiences the moments of terror and liberty, the speaker in “It would never be Common – more – I said –” (Fr 388) is a person, and her happiness has physical manifestations. She has “so much joy” (9) she blushes, and the way she “publish[es]” her happiness in her eyes and shows it on her cheeks makes it unnecessary for her or anyone to talk about it with words (9-12). There is such a spring in her step that the speaker “walked – as wings – my body bore –” (13). Her feet are as unnecessary as shoes would be to birds (14-16). This imagery of the speaker soaring on wings of joy echoes the description in “The Soul has Bandaged moments—” (Fr 360) of the soul’s “plumed” or feathered feet (21). And just as the soul “dances like a Bomb, abroad” (13) in the earlier poem, the speaker of “It would never be Common – more – I said –” (Fr 388) also turns her overflowing joy outward, employing the same diction from “The Soul has Bandaged moments—” (Fr 360) as she “put my pleasure all abroad –” (17), and greets every “creature” (19) she meets with “a word of Gold” (18).

The fact that both these depictions of joy are framed as moments of escape from previous fears or bitterness may explain some of the extreme and even dangerous imagery used to characterize these moments. And ultimately, such joy cannot last, as “The Soul has Bandaged moments—” (Fr 360) demonstrates, because the next phase in the cycle consists of the “Soul’s retaken moments” (19). The soul’s blissfully forgetful paradise cannot endure once the soul is recaptured by the same frights it fled from like a “Felon, led along, / With shackles on the plumed feet / And staples in the song” (20-22). “Plumed” according to Webster’s Dictionary (1844) could mean that something is adorned with feathers, thus painting the soul now almost like a bird in chains. Or it could even be a more extreme image of something stripped of feathers, which would fully divest the soul even of its ability to achieve the flight-like freedom described in the third and fourth stanzas. Wardrop records how the soul “has been deprived not only of her freedom, suffering shackles, but also of her right to sing, suffering staples in her song” (Wardrop 86).

“It would never be Common – more – I said –” (Fr 388), like “The Soul has Bandaged moments—” (Fr 360), concludes just as the speaker is led along back into the captivity of her former anguish. Eying “The Sackcloth,” a coarse cloth worn in biblical times during mourning, that “hangs opon the nail –” (30), the speaker recognizes it as “The Frock I used to wear –” (31), reminding us of the sorrows she was escaping from at the beginning of the poem. But whereas the soul in “The Soul has Bandaged moments—” (Fr 360) is shackled and led away to be greeted by the horror, the speaker in “It would never be Common – more – I said –” (Fr 388) stops to wonder where the joy she experienced has gone. Upon seeing the familiar sackcloth that her encounter with the goblin bids she wear again, she asks where is her “moment of Brocade –” (32), an ornate, embroidered cloth, and her “drop – of India?” (33). While “India” in this instance carries with it the same exotic extravagance suggested by “Brocade,” the idea of a “drop” itself harkens back to the “dew” the goblin previously stole from the speaker (24).The word “moment” cannot help but emphasize the poem’s connection with “The Soul has Bandaged moments—” (Fr 360) once the poems are set side by side. The “moments of escape” of “The Soul has Bandaged moments—” (Fr 360) are reframed in “It would never be Common – more – I said –” (Fr 388) with the imagery of clothing as a “moment of Brocade” (32). Despite their respective moments of escape and brocade, the speakers of both poems are equally susceptible to the return of the traumatic memories.

“The Soul has Bandaged moments—” (Fr 360) and “It would never be Common – more – I said –” (Fr 388) both work to unpack the reaction to the goblin’s assault. We have seen how little the speakers are concerned with informing us who or what the goblin may be or the specifics behind its disturbing sipping. But the goblin’s recurrence encourages us to read the poems in conversation with each other, an action that reveals other common words and images repeated throughout the poems. Two more poems in which the goblin appears provide slight variations on the traumatic cycle set forth by “The Soul has Bandaged moments—” (Fr 360) and “It would never be Common – more – I said –” (Fr 388) while offering additional insight into whether or not the speaker can ever escape the cycle of trauma.

While “The Soul has Bandaged moments—” (Fr 360) and “It would never be Common – more – I said –” (Fr 388) emphasize the movement between the three stages of trauma, “‘Twas like a Maelstrom, with a notch” (Fr 425) immerses us in the suspension someone experiences between the moments of paralysis and release. The bizarre setting and subjects of the poem are enhanced by the fact that it is written in second person, with the speaker addressing an unspecified “You.” Whether the speaker is addressing herself or someone else, the duality suggested by the use of the second person undergirds the poem’s disjointed, dissociative examination of anguish and escape. From this unique perspective, the poem paints a triptych of metaphors— escaping a maelstrom, being rescued from a goblin, and being delivered from a death sentence—that attempt to articulate a paradoxical instance of narrow escape from danger where the escape is equally as agonizing as the threat. Cody writes that “the six stanzas of ‘‘Twas like a Maelstrom, with a notch’ present three attempts to describe or contain—to revisit and perhaps lay to the rest—the haunting ‘It’” (Cody 41) mentioned in the poem’s first line. Cody’s argument that the “It” is the panther attack featured in Spofford’s story “Circumstance” may be contested due to the poem’s refusal to elaborate on the cause of this moment, but he provides an apt interpretation of the function of the poem’s repetitious structure. All three metaphors employ the idea of an unexpected release and, what is more, they all employ words and imagery that have appeared elsewhere in the goblin poems, while featuring the goblin in a new activity with fascinating consequences.

Even while echoing the previously discussed goblin poems, “‘Twas like a Maelstrom, with a notch” (Fr 425) records a movement not yet seen before in the speaker’s relationship to the goblin. As the poem begins, the whirlpool of agony that the addressee, as Wolff points out, surreally hovers over (356), narrows until it “Toyed coolly with the final inch / Of your delirious hem – / And you dropt, lost” as if awakened from a dream (5-9). The “delirious hem” (6) and the action of dropping echo the “delirious” bee from “The Soul has Bandaged moments—” (Fr 360), as well as the sackcloth frock and the “dropped” Palaces (23) resulting from the goblin’s sip in “It would never be Common – more – I said –” (Fr 388). The frozen paralysis experienced by the speakers of “The Soul has Bandaged moments—” (Fr 360) and “It would never be Common – more – I said –” (Fr 388) appears in “‘Twas like a Maelstrom, with a notch” (Fr 425) as “not a Sinew – stirred – could help, / And Sense was setting numb” (14-15). But this time the goblin, instead of sipping at the soul’s lips, is holding a “Guage” (10), and “measuring the Hours” (11). While the image of the goblin holding “your Second /…in his paws” (12-13) is incredibly ambiguous, it is clear from its equivocation with being trapped in a maelstrom and undergoing a death sentence that the experience is not a positive one. But this time, something interrupts the goblin’s assault: “When God – remembered – and the Fiend / Let go, then, Overcome – ” (16-17). This turn of events is likened in the poem’s final stanzas to having a death sentence repealed at the moment the eyes are beginning to be stitched over with the film of death (18-23).

Seemingly, this should be an incredibly joyful outcome: the goblin is overthrown, unlike any of the previous poems, suggesting that the addressee’s deliverance from the maelstrom/goblin/death is more than just the temporary escape experienced in the previous poems. But the question posed by the final two lines of the poem recasts it in a maddeningly ambiguous light: “Which Anguish was the utterest – then –” (24), in the moments of suspension between terror and escape, “To perish, or to live?” (25). For the addressee to be in such distress that living would be just as much an anguish as death speaks to the extreme psychological torment she is experiencing. Such distress nullifies even the temporary hope of escape that gave the speakers of the previous poems such delirious happiness. Whatever the goblin may represent, “‘Twas like a Maelstrom, with a notch” (Fr 425) implicitly argues in its final question that there is no escape, even if you manage to elude a maelstrom, a goblin, or death itself.

But the despair of “‘Twas like a Maelstrom, with a notch” (Fr 425) is not the final word on the goblin that haunts Dickinson’s poetry, and the speaker of “I think to Live – may be a Bliss” (Fr 757) beholds a vision of what life may be like free of goblins and the entrapping memories of trauma. The poem begins by providing an answer to the question concluding “‘Twas like a Maelstrom, with a notch” (Fr 425). Rather than considering life an anguish equal to death, the speaker declares that she thinks “To live – may be a Bliss” (1), but her qualifications reveal she may have more in common with the captured speaker of “It would never be Common – more – I said –” (Fr 388). The bliss of living would be for “those who dare to try – ” (2), and such bliss is apparently beyond the speaker’s conception or testimony (3-4). Nevertheless, the speaker continues envisioning how she could achieve this bliss. “The Heart” the speaker “former wore” (5), just like the frock the speaker “used to wear” (31) in “It would never be Common – more – I said –” (Fr 388), “Could widen” until an ambiguous “Other” that has dominated the speaker could proportionally appear as insignificant as “the little Bank / …unto the sea –” (7-8). And the “Days” so recently seen as held captive by the goblin in “‘Twas like a Maelstrom, with a notch” (Fr 425) could be set apart or ordained for “Majesty” (11) rather than “an inferior kind” (12) of time.

The speaker continues to describe this bliss, contradicting her previous claim that it is beyond her “limit – to conceive –” (3), through a series of negations that reveal significant absences. There would be “No numb alarm” (13) like that recorded in “The Soul has Bandaged moments—” (Fr 360), “It would never be Common – more – I said –” (Fr 388), and “‘Twas like a Maelstrom, with a notch” (Fr 425), and “No Goblin – on the Bloom” (14); neither would there be “Bankruptcy” (16) like that experienced by the speaker of “It would never be Common – more – I said –” (Fr 388), and no “Doom” like the kind visited on the speaker sentenced to the anguish of life and death in “‘Twas like a Maelstrom, with a notch” (Fr 425).

As appealing as this “Midsummer – in the Mind – ” (18) is, so free of goblins and the cycle of traumatic recurrence of paralysis, escape, and recapture, it is still only a “Vision” (21). But the speaker describes how the vision, “ – pondered long – / so plausible becomes / That I esteem the fiction – real – ” (21-23). As plausible as this vision may become, the speaker affirms its ineffability by pondering how wonderful it would be if all her life had been a “Mistake” (27) easily corrected by an unspecified “Thee” (28). The conclusion of the poem ultimately attributes the bliss the speaker contemplates as only being achievable in her life through the intervention of someone else. But the poem itself also subtly suggests that the speaker herself may possess the ability to enact what she requests of the other. “The Vision—pondered long” may seem no more than a dream. But the speaker’s ability to see this dream is a stark contrast to her opening claims that blissful life is “Beyond my limit— to conceive – / My lip – to testify –” (4). The poem itself demonstrates that the speaker can vividly and articulately conceive and testify what it would be like to live in a world with no goblins on the horizon.

The speaker’s act of imagination may be the very means for the speaker to regain her former freedom. This poem’s repeated emphasis on what its speaker “think[s]” (1,5,9) shows that her vision of bliss is not just the thoughtless fantasy of the escaped soul that knows nothing more than paradise in a panicked attempt to escape the memory of an assaulting fright. Instead the speaker recognizes the reality of what she fears, and the acknowledgment of the existence of goblins, doom, and bankruptcy contributes to making a vision of a world in which they are eclipsed by “Certainties of Sun” (17) a plausible alternative. Though the speaker wishes for a “Thee” that might rectify or, as Webster’s Dictionary (1844) puts it, “correct…errors, mistakes, and abuses” she has experienced in life, the speaker’s poetic ability to articulate her negative experiences and imagine life beyond them may allow the speaker to free herself.

If we revisit the traumatic cycle begun by the goblin in “The Soul has Bandaged moments—”Fr 360), we see how the goblin poems subvert the moments of paralysis, escape, and recapture they record. “The Soul’s retaken moments / … / These, are not brayed of Tongue” (19, 24), the speaker of “The Soul has Bandaged moments—” (Fr 360) concludes. But these four poems demonstrate that Dickinson has spoken of these moments in the goblin poems themselves, despite the “staples, in the song” (22) that may hold her speakers back from doing so. Even as her poems emphasize the unspeakable nature of the horror their speakers undergo, the poems exist as articulate, if abstract, embodiments of their speakers’ agony and ecstasy. In fact, the goblin poems form a sort of cycle themselves as each of their speakers provides both an overview of the three-fold movement and a unique perspective on the personal experience of the particular stages.

The goblin poems stand in stark contrast to the harmless goblins Dickinson spoke of in her letter to Higginson, and the cycle they depict provides a gut-wrenching portrait of extreme psychological distress. Yet the fact that the goblin disappears from Dickinson’s work suggests that somewhere along the line whatever fright Dickinson was investigating through the image of the goblin was indeed overcome, whether through God’s intervention, Dickinson’s articulation, or the actions of another. We are left to wonder just what exactly the goblin was representing in Dickinson’s poetry and what events ultimately exorcised it from her work just as we are left to guess at what sort of angels she met in the wood as a child instead of the goblin threat. Whatever fears from her own life the goblins may have stood for, Dickinson dared to articulate unspeakable anguish and, through the process of telling about the goblins she met in life, may have escaped from the goblin’s shadow.

Works Cited

  • Brantley, Richard E. “Dickinson’s Signature Conundrum.” The Emily Dickinson Journal 16.1 (2007): 27-52. Print.
  • Cody, David. “‘When one’s soul at a white heat’: Dickinson and the ‘Azarian School’”. The Emily Dickinson Journal 19.1 (2010): 30-59. Print.
  • Dickinson, Emily. The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1958. Print.
  • ---. The Poems of Emily Dickinson Reading Edition. Ed. R. W. Franklin. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1999. Print.
  • Diehl, Joanne Fiet. “The Ample Word: Immanence and Authority in Emily Dickinson’s Poetry.” The Emily Dickinson Journal 14.2 (2005): 1-11. Print.
  • Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Two Rivers.” The Atlantic Monthly January 1858: 311. Print.
  • Lowell, James Russell. “The Washers of the Shroud.” The Atlantic Monthly November 1861: 641-643. Print.
  • O’Malley, Maria. “Dickinson’s Liberatory Poetics.” The Emily Dickinson Journal 18.2 (2009): 63-76,101. Print.
  • Reynolds, David S. “Emily Dickinson and popular culture.” The Cambridge Companion to Emily Dickinson. Ed. Wendy Martin. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002. 167-90. Print.
  • Wardrop, Daneen. Emily Dickinson’s gothic: Goblin with a Gauge. Iowa City: Iowa UP, 1996. Print.
  • Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. Emily Dickinson. New York: Knopf, 1986. Print.