A still— Volcano —Life

Emily Dickinson

‘A still— Volcano —Life’ by Emily Dickinson is an unforgettable poem that uses an extended metaphor to describe the life of the poet. She compares herself to a volcano that erupts under the cover of darkness.

Emily Dickinson

Nationality: America

Emily Dickinson redefined American poetry with unique line breaks and unexpected rhymes.

Notable works include 'Because I could not stop for Death' and 'Hope is the Thing with Feathers.' 

Key Poem Information

Central Message: Sometimes real power is only visible in darkness

Themes: Celebration, Dreams

Speaker: Unknown, usually thought to be Dickinson

Poetic Form: Ballad, Quatrain

Time Period: 19th Century

'A still— Volcano —Life' is one of those Dickinson poems that takes some digging but rewards you tenfold when you uncover the meaning behind her extended metaphor.

The poem is filled with incredible examples of the poet’s power which is mainly displayed under the cover of darkness and out of sight of those who wouldn’t respect it. ‘A still— Volcano —Life’ maintains a nightmare-like quality throughout. 

A still — Volcano — Life —
Emily Dickinson

A still — Volcano — Life —That flickered in the night —When it was dark enough to doWithout erasing sight —

A quiet — Earthquake Style —Too subtle to suspectBy natures this side Naples —The North cannot detect

The Solemn — Torrid — Symbol —The lips that never lie —Whose hissing Corals part — and shut —And Cities — ooze away —
A still— Volcano —Life by Emily Dickinson


‘A still— Volcano —Life’ by Emily Dickinson is a powerful poem about literary and feminine power. 

The poet suggests that it’s at night when a volcano can show off its true strength. During the day, it’s a mountain, but at night when no one is watching and it’s in the safety of darkness, it shows its strength. So too, does the poet indulge her individuality, creativity, and strength at night. During the day, she fits into society’s expectations of her. At the poem’s end, the speaker alludes to her ability to destroy cities by simply parting her mouth. 


The main theme of this poem is power, specifically, power in unexpected places. The volcano, despite its obvious danger, is ignored by most people. They go about their lives during the day, never thinking about the mountain as a threat to their safety. But, at night, it demonstrates its eruptive power when no one is watching. So too does Dickinson, who, during the day, fits into society’s expectations and, at night, can feel more like herself, allowing her creativity to flow freely. 


The tone is passionate and descriptive. There is true power and confidence to these lines as well. The speaker knows the truth about the volcano and herself and delivers the information with startling clarity that is meant to juxtapose the demur, subdued life a woman was expected to live in Emily Dickinson’s contemporary time. 

Structure and Form 

‘A still— Volcano —Life’ by Emily Dickinson is a three-stanza poem that is divided into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains follow a rhyme scheme of ABCB, commonly seen in Dickinson’s verse and known as ballad or hymn rhyme. The poet is also known for using the metrical pattern commonly associated with this pattern. But, in this particular poem, she chose to use lines of a more similar length. Most are written in iambic trimeter, but a few, like line three of the first stanza, are in iambic tetrameter

Literary Devices 

Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:

  • Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “subtle” and “suspect” in line two of stanza two and “lips” and “lie” in line two of stanza three. 
  • Metaphor: a comparison between two things that does not use “like” or “as.” For example, throughout this poem, the poet uses an extended metaphor to compare herself (or at least in some interpretations) to the volcano. 
  • Caesura: a division in the middle, or in any spot, within a line of poetry. For example, “Whose hissing Corals part — and shut.” 
  • Anaphora: the repetition of the same word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “The” which begins lines one and two of the third stanza. 

Detailed Analysis 

Stanza One 

A still — Volcano — Life —

That flickered in the night —

When it was dark enough to do

Without erasing sight —

In the first stanza of the poem, Dickinson’s speaker, who is commonly considered to be the poet herself, begins by describing a volcano that appears still most of the day but at night flickers with life. It’s deceptive in the fact that most people only see it as a mountain. But, under the cover of darkness, it reveals its true power. 

The night is the perfect place/time for the volcano to show its passion and ferocity; like a female poet working in a male-dominated world where female literary pursuits were usually looked down on or scorned, Dickinson knew a great deal about what it meant to try to hide one’s intelligence, intentions, and skill. Through an extended metaphor, she compares herself to the volcano that only erupts at night and that others underestimate. 

Stanza Two 

A quiet — Earthquake Style —

Too subtle to suspect

By natures this side Naples —

The North cannot detect

In the second stanza, the poet continues the subdued imagery. In this case, describing the earthquakes that result from volcanic eruptions. The earthquake, she says, through an example of juxtaposition, is “quiet” and “too subtle to suspect.” So too is the volcano itself, which, from the other side of Vesuvius from Pompeii, no one can tell is erupting. There, in the “North,” no one is paying attention to the volcano or what it represents. 

Stanza Three 

The Solemn — Torrid — Symbol —

The lips that never lie —

Whose hissing Corals part — and shut —

And Cities — ooze away —

The third stanza is by far the most powerful of the three. The quiet imagery of the first two stanzas is disrupted when the speaker alludes to how the volcano, by choice, may part its lips (as the poet may part hers) and let out an eruption that will “ooze away” Cities.

This is only a glimpse of the volcano or the poet’s power. It’s at night, away from the day-to-day world where she’s forced to maintain a traditionally feminine and subdued personality, that she can open her lips and let out the poetry she keeps inside her. 


What is the message of ‘A still— Volcano —Life?’ 

The message is that more lies beneath the surface than one might initially expect. Such can be said for the volcano, the poet herself, women in the 19th century, and writers generally. Plus, the speaker suggests that there are those who (because of who they are, what they believe in, etc.) are never going to be able to sense the power of the volcano/individual. 

Why did Dickinson write ‘A still— Volcano —Life?’

Dickinson wrote this poem in order to explore her role as a poet and woman during her contemporary time. She alludes to her power as a writer, much of which was hidden throughout her lifetime, and her strength as a woman. 

What is the tone of ‘A still— Volcano —Life?’

The tone is descriptive and confident. The poet maintains this air of confidence and passion throughout. She knows what the volcano is capable of, knows that others ignore it, and has no issue with its ability to destroy entire cities with a simple parting of its “Coral” lips. 

Who is the speaker in ‘A still— Volcano —Life?’

The speaker is commonly considered to be Emily Dickinson herself. She spends the lines describing a volcano but alluding to her work as a poet and how she operates within the male-dominated literary world. 

What is the rhyme scheme of ‘A still— Volcano —Life?’

The poem follows a rhyme scheme of ABCB. Those who are familiar with Dickinson’s writing won’t find this pattern at all surprising. The vast majority of her poems are written in ballad or hymn meter

Similar Poetry 

Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Emily Dickinson poems. For example: 

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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