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Analysis and comments on 'Twas like a Maelstrom, with a notch, by Emily Dickinson

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Comment 1 of 18, added on March 31st, 2005 at 7:17 AM.


Dickinson’s initial simile “Maelstrom” provides a feeling of confusion, an
image of uncontrollable reality and panic. The word is derived from the
dutch verb “malen” meaning to grind or whirl. Maelstroms, more commonly
known as whirlpools are often found at sea but a “maelstrom” can also be a
violent or turbulent situation. Both meanings imply this lack of control.
The maelstrom image also suggests an inevitable pain since ships trapped in
a maelstrom will not survive. This theme is evident in this poem which
metaphorically depicts life. The “notch” provides a mechanical mix with
the natural “maelstrom”. The addition of “notch” almost adds some form of
control to this uncontrollable natural occurrence. This “notch” with its
connotation of control will be important with reference to later on in the
poem. The idea that the poem is a metaphorical representation of life is
further reinforced by the second line of the opening stanza: “That nearer
every Day”. This illustrates life as a journey to death and depending on
your belief, eternity. “Narrowing” clearly represents the descent into the
maelstrom and the inevitability of death. The “boiling wheel” with perhaps
a turning towards death. The cyclical motion of the wheel possibly
reflects the cyclical motion of the maelstrom. The added implication of
inevitable death is reminiscent of the words “You do me wrong to take me
out o' the grave…but I am bound Upon a wheel of fire”. There is a
possibility that Dickinson had read Shakespeare’s tragedy since the idea of
being granted a reprieve from the grave appears later and the debate
surrounding it is also evident. It also recalls the myth of Ixion, bound
upon a wheel of fire as torture for offending the Gods. The next line
appears unfinished “Until the agony” yet it leaves the reader to imagine
the narrator’s pain. It is possible that the entire first verse is Emily
Dickinson imagining hell. This possibility is reinforced by the controlled
chaotic feel and the evident suffering. Yet taking it as a metaphor for
life it appears Dickinson is exploring whether life itself is suffering.

The second verse allows the introduction of a second person or possibly
entity, yet the identity is kept secret. The initial lines of this
curiously five lined stanza “Toyed coolly with the final inch Of your
delirious Hem” again show the controlled chaos image that is so prominent
in this poem. The “toyed coolly” combined with “delirious” show the
external influences on the narrator that cannot be overruled. A “Hem” is
normally used to stop an item of clothing falling apart. The “Hem” in this
poem is potentially a metaphor for the narrator’s mental state which is
gradually unravelling however it could also be representing, like the
maelstrom, a gradual end to life. There is however also sexual
connotations of exploitation in this line. “And you dropt lost” is similar
to the falling sensation experienced by the narrator in “I felt a funeral”.
However in “I felt a funeral” this breaking is of “a Plank in reason” and
here what broke is left ambiguous. The words “And let you from a Dream”
hint that the narrator has left this reality, this world and is in the next
or at least imagining the next. Erwin Schroedinger (a philosopher) argues
“our picture of the world is and always will be a construct of the mind”.
Linking this to the idea of living in a “Dream” it appears that Dickinson
is questioning life and what is real. More simply, the dream could be the
idea of eternity, a salvation from the maelstrom and thus a reprieve.

The third verse introduces a gothic image of a “Goblin with a gauge”. The
verse continues with the ominous feeling in the second line “measuring the
hours”. The feeling is that the goblin is in control. Given Dickinson’s
religious background, we are left at present to wonder where God is. The
constant references to time are prevalent in this verse “Hours…Second” and
the pace seems to increase through their use. The “Paws” are reminiscent
of the poem “He fumbles at your soul”. There is the controlling image of
“when winds take forests in their paws” and that very same image is present
here. The “helpless” feeling already established by the “Maelstrom” is
reiterated here. The emotion of helplessness continues with the goblin
weighing up the narrator’s time left, the image conjured up is one of time
that is running out and can be ended if the creature so chooses.

The following stanza continues the helpless image. “Not a Sinew – stirred
– could help”. The caesura gives the appearance that the narrator is
trying to resist the fate that awaits her. Similar to “I felt a funeral”
the narrator comments “sense was setting numb”. It is as if the Goblin is
weighing up whether the narrator deserves a second chance or deserves to
live and the sense setting in is the narrator’s grave realisation of this.
Suddenly the narrator is saved from the goblin which intrinsically
represents a dark evil force. The curious thing about this poem is in the
next lines. “When God -remembered – and the Fiend Let, go then, Overcome”
shows us that God has indeed not abandoned the narrator. This would be in
keeping with all biblical portrayals of God “He will neither fail you nor
forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5, Deuteronomy 31:6). The caesura again is
implemented and allows the actions to be more realistic in the readers
mind. The overcoming of the fiend could be likened to Christ’s overcoming
of death on the cross. Death was overcome in that case and it seems the
fiend in control of death in this poem is overcome by the infinite power of
God once again.

The penultimate verse’s opening line is hinting at a predetermined life.
Similar to “Because I could not stop for death” in that when the narrator
claims “he kindly stopped for me” there is the appearance of a plan for the
narrator’s life and her time has simply come. This comparison is given
greater strength by the similarity of “frozen led” to “We slowly drove”.
The “sentence:” hints irrevocably at something coming to an end. Yet
despite this inevitability the “Dungeon’s luxury of Doubt” carries a
certain irony. The antithesis causes us to question as to how “doubt” can
be a “luxury” and especially with this feeling of time running out.
However with an impending death perhaps doubt is a luxury in that it
provides relief from the inevitable. What passes next is revealed in the
final line “To Gibbets and the Dead –“. However Dickinson leaves the
hyphen on the end perhaps implying that death is not the end and subtly
restating the idea of doubt. Gibbets are essentially gallows and this
entire line is a simple statement of impending destruction.

The final verse begins with the image of a “film” over the eyes of a
potentially dead narrator. It is said that people who have died develop a
film over their eyes. The stitching provides a picture of blindness
possibly blindness from the truth but the blindness is evident in the
concluding question from which the narrator is blind to the correct answer,
as are many. The stitching of the eyes also implies some form of torture
that we would associate with the middle ages. The image generated by the
stitching is one of a physical pain and this is accented and mirrored by
the narrator’s mental torment. The creature that gasps “Reprieve” could be
the dehumanised narrator’s plea or possibly the Goblin figure wanting some
form of deliverance from God. However it is more likely the broken
narrator. A reprieve is defined as a respite, postponement from punishment
or a temporary relief from irrevocable harm. It seems both meanings fit
the narrator. If the “Reprieve” is in the form of being saved from death
then the relief is impermanent but also could be in the form of eternal
life in which case the punishment is postponed and the narrator is forgiven
of all trespasses and transgressions. Yet the poem ends decidedly
negatively: Which Anguish was the utterest – then- To perish, or to live?”
However unlike many of Dickinson’s poems it doesn’t end with a hyphen.
This concluding question is left unanswered, a prime example of Dickinson's
frequent use of rhetoric.

Dickinson offers up many questions in this poem. The most prominent being
is it better to live knowing you will die or better to simply die (assuming
there is no afterlife). This question then forces the idea that can a God
who gave life keeps human beings in this state with inevitable impending
death with it eventually being taken away? However the fact that God
overcomes the fiend leaves us to wonder if the state of inevitability is
initiated by those who question the existence of God since they have no
belief in eternal life. It is difficult to decide whether this poem ends
positively or negatively. The two main possibilities are that the narrator
is left unwillingly in an eternal state of torment of knowing he/she will
die. The other possibility is the idea that life will last forever and she
does not appear to desire that. It could be argued however that we are
being invited to consider the idea of eternal life and since we live life
with no other assurance than the Bible and faith that it is true we are
efectively in a position of torture.


David from United Kingdom

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Information about 'Twas like a Maelstrom, with a notch,

Poet: Emily Dickinson
Poem: 414. 'Twas like a Maelstrom, with a notch,
Volume: Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson
Year: 1955
Added: Jan 9 2004
Viewed: 968 times
Poem of the Day: Aug 14 2007


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