in A Level, English Literature, Poetry

You may have noticed that Dickinson loves her volcanoes! Several of her most famous poems either feature volcanoes as a central symbolic image or contain references to them and their hidden powers.

Even though she never saw a volcano in her life, she learned much about them and felt personally connected to them – below, we’ll explore some of the key ideas about volcanoes and their significance in Dickinson’s works.


Thanks for reading! If you’re looking for more help with Emily Dickinson Poetry, you can access our full course here.

For all our English Literature and English courses, click here.


WHAT ARE VOLCANOES? 

A short geography lesson on volcanoes: The Earth is a sphere, and its outer layer is made of ‘crust’, which we call land. Underneath the crust, there is a layer of the heated rock, called the mantle. Part of the mantle is so hot that it turns into liquid, which we call magma. The crust is split up into large ‘tectonic plates’, which shift around on top of the mantle. When the plates pull apart (diverge) this creates a gap, where the mantle rises to the surface and cools, to form more crust. When they collide and press together (converge), this creates mountain ranges. At these points where the plates meet or separate, volcanoes are found. A volcano is a mountain-like structure that has a crater in the top of it – a hole that exposes magma to the air. From time to time, gas and various types of pressure build up inside a volcano, causing an eruption – where gas, lava (magma that reaches the surface), rock and ash explode out of the crater. Some volcanoes are thought to be extinct, meaning that they are no longer active, others are dormant – they are ‘sleeping’ and likely to erupt again at some point, and others are active – they have erupted or are likely to erupt within a fairly short time frame (10,000 years). 

Emily Dickinson Volcanoes

Eruption over Volcan de Fuego at sunrise seen from Acatenango; photo by Alain Bonnardeaux on Unslpash

Emily Dickinson Volcanoes

Earth and atmosphere cutaway illustration; picture found on Wikimedia Commons

POMPEII AND MT VESUVIUS

Mount Vesuvius is a volcano near Naples, in Italy. In 79 AD it famously erupted, causing destruction to neighbouring towns and villages. Though Dickinson never visited Vesuvius, her reference to Naples in the poem ‘A Still – Volcano – Life – ‘ demonstrates her knowledge of the event – she imagines that those who live in warmer climates,  closer to active volcanoes such as Mt Vesuvius, are more familiar with the idea of intensive passion and uncontrollable emotion, because they see that even the Earth itself can be temperamental in this way. 

Check our analysis of Emily Dickinson’s poem “I did not reach Thee”

Pompeii was an ancient city under Roman rule, located near Naples. It was built at the foot of Mt Vesuvius – a volcano that lay dormant for many years but finally erupted in 79AD, causing the destruction of Pompeii as well as surrounding cities such as Herculaneum. A giant cloud of hot ash covered the city, falling on buildings and inhabitants alike and preserving them in their moment of destruction. In 1748 excavations began on the area, so Dickinson writing in the 1800s would have heard accounts from travellers who had been to the site and witnessed the preserved city and its people. Visual images such as “And the palpitating Vineyard / In the dust, be thrown?” recall a sense of the simultaneous horror and wonderment that must be produced when a person visits the archaeological site. 

First published in 1860 – this is the first of several poems that Dickinson wrote about Volcanoes; she returns to the motif several times in other poems, suggesting that it is metaphorically significant to her, even though she never personally encountered a volcano and only learned about them from travellers’ tales and research – at the time of writing a painting called ‘The Heart of the Andes’ by Frederick Church was on display in New York; it depicted an exotic and unfamiliar landscape and an imposing mountain range – it was the talk of many artistic and educated people in North America

RELIGIOUS ALLUSION

Dickinson often uses Biblical references in a cryptic sense, referring metaphorically or symbolically to elements of Christianity. This Biblical parallel contains a reference to Pompeii: 

If some loving Antiquary,

On Resumption Morn,

Will not cry with joy “Pompeii”!

To the Hills return!


Here, the idea of ‘Resumption Morn’ potentially recalls the account of the resurrection of Jesus, who died after being crucified, yet was brought back to life after three days and was seen again by his disciples, with his follower Mary Magdalene seeing him first emerging from a cave. Symbolically, this allusion may reference the idea of death and resurrection within the soul (a concept which personally resonated with Dickinson) where after a great period of suffering an individual can undergo a state akin to death, only to be reborn and spiritually awakened. The idea is combined with the feeling that we should return to places of importance and see them for ourselves in the flesh if we cannot get enough satisfaction from reading about and researching them.

POEMS WITH REFERENCES TO VOLCANOES

A Still – Volcano – Life –

I have never seen Volcanoes

My Life had Stood – A Loaded Gun


Thanks for reading! If you’re looking for more help with Emily Dickinson Poetry, you can access our full course here.

For all our English Literature and English courses, click here.