Literature

A Short Analysis of Emily Dickinson’s ‘You cannot put a Fire out’

‘You cannot put a Fire out’ is a short poem by Emily Dickinson, who wrote many short poems. Like many of her poems, it’s baffling – bordering on the cryptic – so a few words of analysis are necessary to (try to) penetrate the poem’s meaning.

You cannot put a Fire out —
A Thing that can ignite
Can go, itself, without a Fan —
Upon the slowest Night —

You cannot fold a Flood —
And put it in a Drawer —
Because the Winds would find it out —
And tell your Cedar Floor —

What does Emily Dickinson mean by ‘You cannot put a Fire out’? A literal fire? The fire brigade would doubtless seek to disagree with her on that one. Clearly we’re in the realms of metaphor here. But what sort of figurative fire? The fires of passion? Of anger?

In the first stanza, Dickinson declaims that it is impossible to put a fire out, because something that can ignite or burst into flames will find a way to keep going by itself, without needing anyone to fan the flames. Even upon the slowest or calmest night, the fire will rage.

Then, in the second stanza, we swap fire for another classical Aristotelian element, water: we cannot fold a flood and put it away in a drawer, we’re told, because the winds (air – the third classical element we’ve encountered in this short poem) would discover the flood and empty the water all over the wooded floor.

So much for a brief summary of Dickinson’s poem. But this doesn’t really help us to get to the bottom of what the poem is meant to mean by employing these metaphors of fire and flood.

We can read these two images as symbols for either love or poetic creativity, since there is evidence suggestive of both in the poem. First, love: fire is commonly used to describe the heat of passion and desire, and much of Emily Dickinson’s poetry explores unrequited love or unsatisfied passions. (It’s tempting to detect a pun in ‘Fan’: not just a literal fan which gets the fire going, but a fanatical fan, or devotee. In other words, even if the person you love isn’t a ‘fan’ of your attention, it’s difficult to shut down your feelings for them just because they don’t return them.)

And what about poetic creativity? Well, igniting and fire both fit here, too, as does the flood. Indeed, we talk about a ‘flood of creativity’ when a writer gets into their stride and churns out a great deal of material (as Emily Dickinson did). Tellingly, we even have the word ‘tell’ in the poem’s closing line, suggesting storytelling and writing, and used rather oddly to describe the winds here.

Indeed, here at Interesting Literature we’d probably favour the latter interpretation, partly because the idea of shutting a flood in a drawer recalls Dickinson’s own practice of writing poetry and then shutting it away in a drawer – famously, very little of her poetic output was actually published during her lifetime. But the beauty of ‘You cannot put a Fire out’ is that the symbols can be read as referring either to unrequited passion or to unpublished writing: the key element (in more than one sense) seems to be the use of air-imagery (that Fan; those winds) in both stanzas, suggesting something that doesn’t see the light of day.

2 Comments

  1. Yes, condensed and cryptic! A couple of speculations, though it would help if I was better acquainted with American idiom in ED’s time. Does she mean put the fire out in the way of “put the dog out.” Or being disowned as in put out of the family etc? Or put out of sight? That meaning makes sense of the it’ll go itself line. I don’t know if fan short for fanatic was in use in ED’s time, but were ladies hand fans still a thing, and if so were they something a well-bred lady would take on a stroll?

    Your reading of the drawer stanza as connected to her stored away poems is illuminating. Thanks for that. I think also of the Dickenson sisters domestic duties. If that’s the core imagery here, then maybe put the dog out fits.

  2. Enjoyed your interpretation. Thanks for posting this!