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  • "Goblin with a Gauge":Dickinson's Readerly Gothic
  • Daneen Wardrop (bio)

Two questions arise in a reading of Emily Dickinson's poem, "'Twas like a Maelstrom with a notch" (#414). In this poem, the speaker describes a nightmare in which a vortex approaches continually nearer. The maelstrom whirls in a "boiling wheel" about the speaker, causing an agony:

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


For the reader, the first question to arise is the following: why does a goblin have a gauge? The second question follows on the heels of the first: what is the goblin (a staple character in Gothic literature) gauging, and what do his calibrations have to do with Emily Dickinson's poetry?

To answer these questions, we must see the poem within a Gothic context. Much of Dickinson's work conveys the images of the genre, but "'Twas like a Maelstrom" in particular provides the prototypical poem of Gothic concerns: the enclosure in the dungeon, the relationship between passive speaker and goblin-ravisher, the potential doubling with an unnamed "Creature," and the nihilism of the maelstrom. The poem inculcates all these [End Page 39] elements and more, for in the end #414 is a poem about the struggle between reader and language in which the spectre-spectator confronts the relentless process of signification in the haunted house of a Dickinson work.

Distinct from fiction, poetry seems to announce itself as antithetical to the Gothic genre, and yet poetry styles its own Gothic effects within the purview of its particular possibilities. In the Gothic novel we enter fear diachronically, and our fear mounts as we progress through the text. We cannot see from one page to the next, and tension rises accordingly. In poetry, and especially in Emily Dickinson's poetry, we almost always see the shape of the whole poem at a glance, a condition that might appear to dampen suspense. Our apprehension of stasis, however, occurs visually, whereas our emotional comprehension depends upon our reading of the poem word after word. The word-by-word diachrony of the poem exists side by side with our visual sensation of synchrony. With poetry, moreover, we have an added effect—the memory simultaneous with the reading of rhyme-resonances, puns, and repeated alliterative cadences. In the haunted house of poetry, ghosts do fly in the windows every bit as much as they do in prose; in the house of poetry, though, there are so many more encasements into which the ghosts can fly.

Though other critics, notably Jane Eberwein, Cynthia Griffin Wolff, and Gilbert and Gubar, have noticed Dickinson's Gothic images, they have not explored Gothicism as it exists as a genre in Dickinson's works.1 I am interested, in particular, in the writing and reading of the Gothic as it occurs in poetry. As a writer of Gothic, Dickinson employs various techniques that implant the stimuli for fear within the language of the lines of the poem. Such techniques include, for example, the use of the fantastic jeu de mot, the dash that rends her verse with gaps, and prefixial recurrence. As readers of Dickinson's poetic Gothic, we become aware of uncertainty as we move from punctuation mark to punctuation mark, word to word, sometimes syllable to syllable. In Gothic fiction, hesitation occurs on the narrative level. While Dickinson's poems also incorporate elements of narrative hesitation, they work on the smaller, more intensive level of Gothic gapping. That Dickinson intends for her readers a kind of lire feminine that registers hesitation on the physical level, I take as essential to an appreciation of her poetry. She wants us to read the body, to feel goosebumps and chills so unnerving "no fire can ever warm" (L473) us again. [End Page 40]

The Gothic Dickinson is most interesting in her coopting of fictional Gothic images so as to highlight the relationship between text and reader and in her attention to the instability of words. The Gothic brings to literature a genre that both foregrounds and vexes the response of the audience. Through the medium of supernatural beings like ghosts...


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