The Master        

He fumbles at your spirit
        As players at the keys
Before they drop full music on;
       He stuns you by degrees,

Prepares your brittle substance
        For the ethereal blow,
By fainter hammers, further heard,
       Then nearer, then so slow

Your breath has time to straighten,
       Your brain to bubble cool,--
Deals one imperial thunderbolt
       That scalps your naked soul.

When winds take Forests in their Paws--
The Universe is still.

I have added the last two lines of this poem, which your textbook omits. It makes the poem even more terrifying and carries His brutality throughout nature.


This is a poem of possession. The question is, possession by whom or what? I have classified this under the heading of "God" and suggest that Dickinson is describing the experience of religious conversion. However, another possibility is possession by poetic fervor. Dickinson may be describing the poet's relationship to her own poetic power or the compulsion to write. The fact that this force is male is no argument against this interpretation; male poets traditionally refer to their muse or poetic inspiration/fervor as the opposite sex or female. No matter how you interpret the unnamed "He," the way that the images function and Dickinson's attitude toward the possession are essentially the same.

Dickinson uses the simile of a musician's playing to describe God's conversion technique. The initial approach is tentative; "He fumbles" with the keys, which represent the spirit or soul, and stuns "by degrees." The words describing the conversion become increasingly more violent after the "drop" "stuns you": "blow," "imperial thunderbolt," "scalps your naked soul." The conversion culminates in violence of cosmic proportions; winds (God) "take forests in their Paws." The savagery of God is insisted upon not only because he scalps, which is horrifying enough, but also because he scalps a defenseless victim ("naked soul"). Dickinson uses "paw," rather than hand, as the final expression of God's ferocity. Think of who or what has paws.

God's blows are spiritual; therefore, the blow of the (piano) hammers is ethereal. (The meaning of ethereal being used here is heavenly or celestial.) Because of God's might and status, the thunderbolt is "imperial." The full force of God's assault paralyzes the universe, which "is still." Cynthia Griffin Wolff calls God's approach "the rape of conversion."

Dickinson, Online overview
"For each ecstatic instant," p. 2
"I taste a liquor never brewed," p. 2
"Safe in their alabaster chambers," p. 3
"I heard a fly buzz when I died," p. 21
"It was not death, for I stood up," p. 22
"A bird came down the walk," p. 13
"I like to see it lap the miles," p. 27
"Pain has an element of blank," p. 31
"A narrow fellow in the grass," p. 44
"I'm nobody! Who are you?" p. 9
"After great pain a formal feeling comes" (handout)
"The soul selects her own society" (handout)
"The heart asks pleasure first," p. 24
"I'll tell you how the sun rose," p. 11
"Presentiment is that long shadow on the lawn," p. 36
"Success is counted sweetest" (handout)
"I cannot live with you," p. 29
"He fumbles at your spirit," p. 11
"I felt a cleaving in my mind," p. 43
"My life closed twice before its close," p. 49
"Wild nights! Wild nights!" p.5
"She sweeps with many-colored brooms," p. 3
"Hope is the thing with feathers," p. 5
"I felt a funeral in my brain," p. 8
"I had been hungry all the years," p. 26
"I started Early--took my Dog--" (handout)
"My life had stood a loaded gun" (handout)
"Because I could not stop for Death," p. 35
"If you were coming in the fall," p. 23
**Supplemental Reading**
      Sample Midtern and Student Answers

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