‘Twas like a Maelstrom, with a notch,

‘Twas like a Maelstrom, with a notch,
That nearer, every Day,
Kept narrowing its boiling Wheel
Until the Agony

Toyed coolly with the final inch
Of your delirious Hem —
And you dropt, lost,
When something broke —
And let you from a Dream —

As if a Goblin with a Gauge —
Kept measuring the Hours —
Until you felt your Second
Weigh, helpless, in his Paws —

And not a Sinew — stirred — could help,
And sense was setting numb —
When God — remembered — and the Fiend
Let go, then, Overcome —

As if your Sentence stood — pronounced —
And you were frozen led
From Dungeon’s luxury of Doubt
To Gibbets, and the Dead —

And when the Film had stitched your eyes
A Creature gasped “Reprieve”!
Which Anguish was the utterest — then —
To perish, or to live?

Analysis, meaning and summary of Emily Dickinson's poem ‘Twas like a Maelstrom, with a notch,


  1. Susan McHale says:

    I do like all those points and referrals to the poem. But I would replace the word “life” or “death” with LOVE.

  2. David says:

    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.

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