Saturday

Nightmare Sisters

Nightmare Sisters
A Halloween Essay

The nineteenth century was a time of great social change in both the United States and England, creating an underlying atmosphere of tension and uncertainty. On both sides of the Atlantic, the Industrial Revolution was changing the very nature of society, accelerating the pace of everyday life, and the very pace of change itself as well. In England, the Reform Bills passed by Parliament drastically altered the traditional relationship between the government and the governed. The United States also faced a constant reordering of the political landscape as parties came and went, and political divisions widened, all building up to the Civil War. New social causes also demanded attention, especially the struggling movement for women’s equality. The rift between religion and rationalism grew, as the old ways of thinking were challenged. New philosophies were changing the way people looked at life, as medical breakthroughs were changing the way people looked at death. All this change caused a tremendous amount of anxiety, which was then manifested through the cultural subconscious of poetry.

Just as a day filled with anxiety can cause nightmares, the wondrous Victorian age had its own dark Zeitgeist: a fascination with the nightmarish that is reflected in the poems of two quiet and retiring yet passionate women, Emily Dickinson of Amherst, Massachusetts, and Christina Rossetti of London, England.


Beyond merely incorporating ghastly imagery into their works, both Dickinson and Rossetti cast whole poems as nightmares themselves, taking the reader with them into a dark world of horror. In her poem “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,” Dickinson creates an inner world that moves from a numbing dread to a pulsing terror which drives the consciousness to find respite in madness. The poem begins following a steady beat: the heavy footfalls of the mourners, echoed in the funeral service itself:

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading — treading — till it seemed
That sense was breaking through —

And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum —
Kept beating — beating — till I thought
My Mind was going numb —

And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space — began to toll,

The tolling of the bell fills her entire being, as if the universe were pure sound and she pure hearing, until the poem, like her Reason, collapses. The ineffectual struggle of the self against the nightmare is seen again in “‘Tis so appalling — it exhilarates —,” in which Dickinson also deals with the irresistible attraction of the truly horrific, that strange part of our nature that, though confronted with something utterly repugnant, prevents us from turning away. In the final stanza, Terror is shown to be an irresistible force:

Others, Can wrestle —
Yours, is done —
And so of Woe, bleak dreaded — come,
It sets the Fright at liberty —
And Terror’s free —
Gay, Ghastly, Holiday!

This tone is reminiscent of the common nightmare experience of helplessness in the face of some often-unapparent threat, the point at which existential angst becomes panic. This angst is ever-present and inescapable, according to “Bereaved of all, I went abroad —.” In this sixteen-line nightmare, Dickinson’s speaker travels far, but is pursued by the anthropomorphized grave wherever she goes.

I waked to find it first awake —
I rose — it followed me —
I tried to drop it in the Crowd —
To lose it in the Sea —

In Cups of artificial Drowse
To steep its shape away —
The Grave — was finished — but the Spade
Remained in Memory —

Neither solitude, society, travel, or even drugs can eliminate the awareness of her impending terminus or dispel the gloom that shadows what life she has.

At the age of 17, Rossetti composed a gloomy, desolate piece titled “The Dead City,” one of her longer works, which creates an experience that reflects many elements common in nightmares: corruption of nature, horrific discoveries, and the eerie sensations imagined when alone among cadavers. The nightmare begins with a dream of bliss that is then lost. While frolicking within an idyllic forest, the innocent narrator is transported into a vision of a city of the dead, populated entirely by unmoving, petrified corpses. First, her edenic surroundings become inexplicably corrupted:

Happy solitude, and blest
With beatitude of rest;
Where the woods are ever vernal,
And the life and joy eternal,
Without Death’s or Sorrow’s test.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Soon the birds no more were seen
Glancing thro’ the living green;
And a blight had passed upon
All the trees; and a pale sun
Shone with a strange lurid sheen.

She is transported to a city which, though beautiful and splendid, is devoid of life. within an opulent palace, the narrator makes her chilling discovery:

Many banquetters were there,
Wrinkled age, the young, the fair;
In the splendid revelry
Flushing cheek and kindling eye
Told of gladness without care.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Yea they were all statue-cold,
Men and women, young and old;
With the life-like look and smile
And the flush; and all the while
The hard fingers kept their hold.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

And none broke the stillness, none;
I was the sole living one.
And methought that silently
Many seemed to look on me
With strange steadfast eyes that shone.

Like most nightmares, the weird vision abruptly vanishes and the narrator, like the reader, is at a loss to comprehend the “hidden mystery.” No interpretation is offered or even encouraged. Similarly, in her later poem “A Coast-Nightmare,” Rossetti refuses to reveal “the wordless secrets of death’s deep.” These secrets are revealed to her by “a friend in ghostland,” where “there comes neither night nor day.” She describes this ghostland, the home of her spectral lover, whose eerie presence haunts her continuously.

Without a voice he tells me
The wordless secrets of death’s deep:
If I sleep, his trumpet voice compels me
To stalk forth in my sleep:
If I wake, he hunts me like a nightmare;
I feel my hair stand up, my body creep:
Without light I see a blasting sight there,
See a secret I must keep.

As with Dickinson in “Bereaved of all, I went abroad —,” Rossetti here is inescapably haunted by the awareness of her own mortality. However they try to avoid dealing with that awareness, neither poet is able to shut out the whispers from “death’s tideless waters.” It is comfortless companionship, though. Despite the constant presence of the spectral figures, which often appear in large numbers, such as Dickinson’s mourners or Rossetti’s banquetters, the narrator is invariably alone, and images of isolation predominate in reference to the speaker. Nightmares are, after all, something that can be experienced only in isolation.


The poets take a step deeper into the darkness when they become the corpses themselves. Rather than experiencing the bleakness of death vicariously through ghoulish phantoms or ghostly lovers, they use their poems to directly face the fears of physical separation and emotional abandonment endemic in the age. In such a time of upheaval, even the most lasting concepts become in danger of being swallowed up, as Dickinson explores in “I died for Beauty —but was scarce.”

I died for Beauty — but was scarce
Adjusted in the Tomb
When One who died for Truth, was lain
In an adjoining Room —

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

And so, as Kinsmen, met a Night —
We talked between the Rooms —
Until the Moss had reached our lips —
And covered up — our names —

However, Dickinson also uses the same stance to step away from the abstract concepts associated with the human condition, such as Truth and Beauty, and to instead explore the moment of death in all its blandness. The death in “I heard a Fly buzz — when I died —” is the most mundane experience imaginable. It is a moment suspended between the chaos of life and the intensity of the afterlife. The speaker has accepted that life is at an end, and in the final moment, as consciousness fades, watches a fly bumbling about in the light. There is no real thought in this last moment, for thought has proven pointless. There is only the image itself, which is pointless as well. The poem is almost a nihilist hymn. Moving beyond the moment of death to her own ghostliness in “I am alive — I guess —,” Dickinson observes her own corpse:

I am alive — because
I am not in a Room —
The Parlor — Commonly — it is —
So visitors may come —

And lean — and view it sideways —
And add “How cold — it grew” —
And “Was it conscious — when it stepped
In immortality?”

There is no connection to the body or to the nameless mourners left behind, only the observation of the physical details and the awareness of being on a different plane of existence. The narrator has been severed from her self, from her emotions, and exists in an infinite, yet seemingly empty, space.

Rossetti composed a similar poem when she was 19, entitled “After Death.” In the poem, she, too, has become disembodied and is observing the reaction of others to her lifeless body. Unlike Dickinson, Rossetti maintains in her narrator a link with the emotions of life.

The curtains were half drawn, the floor was swept
And strewn with rushes, rosemary, and may
Lay thick upon the bed on which I lay,
Where thro’ the lattice ivy-shadows crept.
He leaned above me, thinking that I slept
And could not hear him; but I heard him say:
“Poor child, poor child:” and as he turned away
Came a deep silence, and I knew he wept.
He did not touch the shroud, or raise the fold
That hid my face, or take my hand in his,
Or ruffle the smooth pillows for my head:
He did not love me living; but once dead
He pitied me; and very sweet it is
To know he still is warm tho’ I am cold.

Later in life, Rossetti returned to this theme, but more closely echoed Dickinson’s sense of alienation. In “At Home,” the narrator returns to her family home to observe the wake held for her. She finds her friends feasting, laughing, and enjoying each other’s company. All their talk centers on the future, and not a word is spoken in remembrance of her.

Their life stood full at blessed noon;
I, only I, had passed away:
“Tomorrow and today,” they cried;
I was of yesterday.

I shivered comfortless, but cast
No chill across the table cloth;
I all-forgotten shivered, sad
To stay and yet to part how loth:
I passed from the familiar room,
I who from love had passed away,
Like the remembrance of a guest
That tarrieth but a day.

The poems written from the deceased standpoint by both authors put death in a new perspective, making it much more directly personal an experience. When another dies, one feels the sense of loss, but finds support nonetheless in other human relationships. How much more intense the loss, then, when the self dies, cut off from all sources of emotional support and cast into the netherworld of non-existence. The authors carry this further in showing that those they have left behind are emotionally distant as well. There are no great outpourings of grief or declarations of misery. At best there is polite curiosity, at worst indifference. Perhaps this is a reflection of the increasingly dehumanized state of the individual in society, or at least a premonitory dread caused by the rapid industrialization of two formerly agrarian nations. By the late 1840s, factory life had lost its original rustic charm and had mutated into its more hellish form. These poems of Dickinson’s are dated to the time of the Civil War, when even in sheltered Amherst, the shadow of death hung over people’s consciousness; not the peaceful bed-death surrounded by loved ones, but dying alone, far from home. Death had become an experience of alienation, and this new reality surely influenced the thinking of two educated and sensitive minds as Dickinson and Rossetti.


As the cultural conception of death was changing, it was important that it be understood, and an age-old method of coming to terms with the incomprehensible phenomena of existence is personification; thus, death became a character that frequented the nightmares of both poets. The best-known example from Dickinson’s works would be “Because I could not stop for Death —,” in which Death is the gentlemanly coachman come to deliver the soul into eternity.

We slowly drove — He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For his Civility —

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess — in the Ring —
We passed the fields of Gazing Grain —
We passed the Setting Sun —

The movement is leisurely and pleasant, a very polite, proper transaction masking the macabre truth. Death is again characterized as polite in “Death is a Dialogue between,” as Death exchanges words with the Spirit:

Death is a Dialogue between
The Spirit and the Dust.
“Dissolve” says Death — The Spirit “Sir
I have another Trust” —

Death doubts it — Argues from the Ground —
The Spirit turns away
Just laying off for evidence
An Overcoat of Clay.

Death’s presence in Dickinson’s nightmares seems to be stripped of its dreadful qualities, and is instead characterized by a cool rationality. While Death is ever gracious, it is also soulless, reflecting its increasingly clinical aspect in society.

In the few instances where death is personified in Rossetti’s works, it seems to lack the terror normally associated with it, and instead carries only the suggestion of its nature. A distance has grown between death and life, and death’s power is only increased for being disseminated. In “The Ruined Cross,” the poet relates the tale of a girl’s journey down the road to her doom.

She might not pause upon the road,
Lest Death should claim his promised bride
Ere yet her longing was fulfilled,
Her young heart satisfied.

Death, while a palpable presence, offers only a vague threat to the girl, until it finally, quietly claims her in the end. In “Repining,” Death plays the role of the gentle guide, though he leads the narrator on a nightmarish journey to the land of the dead. Leading the narrator from her empty, lonely life, Death never hurries or admonishes her, but merely gives firm, but gentle directions. She is shown a thriving village buried in an avalanche, a ship destroyed by a sudden storm, and a city consumed by fire. The narrator receives no explanations from her guide, only stony silence. She repents her wasted life, spent waiting for death to release her from her heartache. Unexpectedly, however, Death merely sighs at this conversion, and shows her a battlefield strewn with

Ghastly corpses of men and horses
That met death at a thousand sources;
Cold limbs and putrefying flesh;
Long love-locks clotted to a mesh
That stifled; stiffened mouths beneath
Staring eyes that had looked on death.

But these were dead; these felt no more
The anguish of the wounds they bore.
Behold; they shall not sigh again,
Nor justly fear, nor hope in vain.

Death is revealed to be an ambivalent force, a source of terrible destruction to some and merciful comfort to others. Typically, there is no great revelation codified in the closing lines, for the narrator is simply overwhelmed by the experience.

Neither Emily Dickinson nor Christina Rossetti offered any guidance to their age on how to deal with the enigma of death or how to come to terms with its changing conceptualization, but rather they express the deep-seated alienation and ambivalence that surrounded the phenomenon in a time of fundamental social change. That death haunted the Victorians is clear, but it was a quiet, understated, though unmistakably sinister force, an awareness that hovered in the back of the cultural consciousness. These two women gave a voice, however unheard it may have been, to the dark terrors that plagued an agitated, anxious society. They were the quiet chroniclers of a culture’s nightmares.


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