Friday, June 10, 2011

On Emily Dickinson's "One need not be a Chamber—to be Haunted—"

One need not be a Chamber—to be Haunted—
One need not be a House—
The Brain has Corridors—surpassing
Material Place—

Far safer, of a Midnight Meeting
External Ghost
Than its interior Confronting—
That Cooler Host.

Far safer, through an Abbey gallop,
The Stones a'chase—
Than Unarmed, one's a'self encounter—
In lonesome Place—

Ourself behind ourself, concealed—
Should startle most—
Assassin hid in our Apartment
Be Horror's least.

The Body—borrows a Revolver—
He bolts the Door—
O'erlooking a superior spectre—
Or More—

My love of Emily Dickinson’s poetry didn’t begin until I went to college. The woefully inadequate textbooks I had in high school seemed to favor poems like “A narrow Fellow in the Grass” and “I’ll tell you how the Sun rose.” I imagine the publishers found these poems to be ”safe“ and accessible for high school students, but at that time in my life, poems about nature and wildlife left me cold.

When I first encountered this poem, #670, I was absolutely floored. It spoke to me in a way that was powerful and immediate. I couldn’t believe that the quiet, frail, wide-eyed girl in the picture had written it. I looked back to that photograph, stared at it a long time, and wondered who she had really been.

When I began teaching high school English, it was a foregone conclusion that I would teach Dickinson—and not the poems that had been in my old textbook, but instead, the poems like this one that dared to speak “out loud” about the dark anxieties, even terrors, that haunt all of us—and perhaps teenagers, especially so.

There is a lot to “teach” in this poem. Dickinson breaks from her usual hymn meter here, writing the 1st and 3rd lines of each stanza in an almost-but-not-quite iambic pentameter, followed by 2nd and 4th lines in an abrupt dimeter and, ultimately, monometer.

“Why,” I ask my students, “might she have wanted to unsettle the rhythm of this poem? How do these techniques work toward the message she is trying to convey?” They always have a lot to say. We talk as well about diction, how Dickinson evokes the world of the Gothic with words like “chamber,” “haunted,” “midnight,” “ghost,” “abbey,” and “assassin.” She creates the landscape we know, the world of the intentionally frightening, to juxtapose it with the interior world that frightens us against our will.

The first year I taught this poem, it seemed to me that it had an impact on some of the kids—but, of course, there was no way I could be sure. That evening, a huge snowstorm was predicted, and snowflakes were already beginning to fall. Anticipating a day off from school, I went out to the local bookstore to get some fresh reading material. When I turned the corner into the poetry section, there on hands and knees, looking through books on a bottom shelf, was one of my students, Jessica. She was a girl who was not easy to know. She rarely spoke and her expression gave little clue as to what went on in her mind. Seeing her in her dance team uniform on game days, I had made some snap judgments about who she was, what she valued.

That evening, her mother was with her, tapping her foot and looking anxiously out at the swirling snow. Clearly, she wanted to get home before the roads got too slick. I watched as Jessica pulled out Johnson’s Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson and opened the pages. It made my night. Truth be told, it made my whole year.

– Melanie McCabe


  1. Poetry teachers are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.

  2. There's something powerful in the incongruence here: A young mind is encouraged by another's perturbation. I teach Theatre, and my greatest successes with students occur when they discover the virtues of alienation. It is a frisson that helps them come to life.