Literature

A Short Analysis of Emily Dickinson’s ‘A Thunderstorm’

This is the second version of a poem which Dickinson wrote in two different drafts in 1864. This version opens, ‘The wind begun to rock the Grass’, and describes the chaos that a storm wreaks upon the world. Worth reading for the following two lines alone: ‘The Dust did scoop itself like Hands / And threw away the Road.’

A Thunderstorm

The Wind begun to rock the Grass
With threatening Tunes and low –
He threw a Menace at the Earth –
A Menace at the Sky.

The Leaves unhooked themselves from Trees –
And started all abroad
The Dust did scoop itself like Hands
And threw away the Road.

The Wagons quickened on the Streets
The Thunder hurried slow –
The Lightning showed a Yellow Beak
And then a livid Claw.

The Birds put up the Bars to Nests –
The Cattle fled to Barns –
There came one drop of Giant Rain
And then as if the Hands

That held the Dams had parted hold
The Waters Wrecked the Sky,
But overlooked my Father’s House –
Just quartering a Tree –

Emily Dickinson wrote several poems about thunderstorms. As well as ‘The Wind begun to rock the Grass’ she also wrote ‘An awful Tempest mashed the air –’ and ‘The Lightning playeth — all the while –’, which are similarly concerned with tempests and harsh weather. But ‘The Wind begun to rock the Grass’ is her great thunderstorm poem.

Right from that arresting opening line – and few poets have dealt such a strong line in opening lines than Emily Dickinson – she is out to unsettle us: ‘The Wind begun to rock the Grass’, not ‘The Wind began’. The attempts to wrongfoot us, to put us at our unease, continue with the unusual word-order of the second line: ‘With threatening Tunes and low’. Not ‘With low and threatening Tunes’, which would have scanned identically, but with an effect that comes close to hendiadys, that rare figure of speech whereby the word ‘and’ joins two other words but in an odd way: one of the most oft-cited examples is the Roman ‘we drink from cups and gold’, where ‘cups and gold’ means ‘golden cups’.

Consider the statement ‘this room is nice and warm’ or ‘it’s nice and warm in here’. The meaning is clear: the room is nice because it’s warm, and a comment is being made on the room’s (nice) temperature. The niceness of the room, separate from its temperature, is unknown: it might be ugly, decorated with gaudy drapes or horrible curtains, so in every other respect it isn’t ‘nice’ at all. But the speaker doesn’t mean ‘this room is nice [i.e. all round, in terms of its appearance and general comforts] and [by the way, as a separate issue] warm’: instead, they mean it’s nice because it’s warm. So ‘nice and warm’ is an example of hendiadys in an everyday English phrase.

Shakespeare also uses this figure. George T. Wright, in his article ‘Hendiadys and Hamlet’, and Frank Kermode in Shakespeare’s Language, have shown how Shakespeare’s use of hendiadys peaks in his play Hamlet, written in around 1600 or 1601. For Kermode, hendiadys is an apposite literary device for Hamlet because of the play’s ambivalence towards some of its key themes, and its fondness for exposing ‘the conjunction of what is ordinarily disjunct’. Time and again in Hamlet, Shakespeare conjoins two things which we do not expect to be joined together: ‘voice and yielding’, for instance, means either ‘yielding voice’ or ‘vocal yielding’, while ‘morn and liquid dew’ means ‘liquid morning dew’.

But as with Shakespeare’s use of hendiadys, Dickinson’s ‘threatening Tunes and low’ creates ambiguity. Is it ‘threatening and low Tunes’ or ‘threatening Tunes and low[ing]’, as in a lowing sound, as of cattle? Is ‘low’ merely an adjective, or does it contain verb-al potential? Such a word would not be out of place in a poem about the coming of a thunderstorm, given cattle’s well-known talent for predicting the coming of rain, or the fact that the lowing of cattle can be likened to a rumbling sound, not unlike the rumbling of thunder. (Sure enough, the cattle flee to their barns later in the poem, knowing something’s up.)

In any case, we continue: ‘He threw a Menace at the Earth – / A Menace at the Sky.’ ‘He’ is presumably God here, but because of the placing of ‘He’ at the head of the line, we have no way of telling whether it would otherwise be capitalised (to show divinity: ‘He’ for God). The rebounding of this ‘Menace’, like a thunderbolt or a bolt of lightning rebounding from the earth and back up into the sky, is mirrored nicely by the quatrain, with the trademark Dickinsonian dash even helping to suggest, boomerang-like, this act of rebounding.

Everything is rendered strange in what follows: the leaves aren’t shaken passively from the trees, but unhook themselves; the lightning is like a bird of prey with a beak and claw that is ‘livid’ – not just because of the blue-grey colour of the thunderclouds but to hint at the mighty anger of the coming storm.

Then, as the poem nears its end, Dickinson returns us to the hands of God:

And then as if the Hands

That held the Dams had parted hold
The Waters Wrecked the Sky,
But overlooked my Father’s House –
Just quartering a Tree –

The floodgates or ‘Dams’ are opened, and after that single drop of ‘Giant Rain’, the deluge or downpour arrives, wrecking not only the land but ‘the Sky’, changing the appearance of the dark clouds. And God is the focus of the final couplet of ‘The Wind begun to rock the Grass’, too, ‘my Father’s House’ being the local church. Throughout the poem, Dickinson emphasises the power of this natural phenomenon, linking it to godly power.

4 Comments

  1. Great hints on how to savour a magnificent poem from a magnificent writer

  2. Agreed! Wonderful poem and appreciation of it.

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