An awful Tempest mashed the air

Emily Dickinson

‘An awful Tempest mashed the air’ by Emily Dickinson personifies a storm. The speaker follows it from its beginning to end and depicts how nature is influenced.

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: The natural world is very powerful

Themes: Death, Nature

Speaker: Someone who respects nature

Emotions Evoked: Fear, Stress, Terror

Poetic Form: Quatrain

Time Period: 19th Century

With style and characteristically strong imagery, Dickinson depicts a catastrophic natural event and all its many consequences.

An awful Tempest mashed the air’ is a three-stanza poem that is separated into uneven sets of lines. The first stanza contains four, the second five, and the third four lines again. These lines do not follow a specific pattern of rhyme, but that does not mean that rhyme is not present in the text. 

In the first stanza the second and fourth lines rhyme. The second stanza has another set of rhyming endings, lines two and five. Additionally of interest, line two of this stanza, which ends with the word “air” matches up the first line of the first stanza (it also ends with “air”). Finally, in the third stanza, there is a rhyme between “eyes” and “paradise,” the second and fourth lines.

An awful tempest mashed the air
Emily Dickinson

An awful tempest mashed the air,The clouds were gaunt and few;A black, as of a spectre's cloak,Hid heaven and earth from view.

The creatures chuckled on the roofsAnd whistled in the air,And shook their fists and gnashed their teeth,And swung their frenzied hair.

The morning lit, the birds arose;The monster's faded eyesTurned slowly to his native coast,And peace was Paradise!
An awful Tempest mashed the air by Emily Dickinson

Summary of An awful Tempest mashed the air

‘An awful Tempest mashed the air’ by Emily Dickinson is a short poem that speaks on a monstrous storm that came down upon a speaker’s house.

The poem begins with the speaker describing what the sky looked like as it approached. Everything was clouded in black, and one could not see heaven or earth. When the storm was raging, it was like out of control animals were on the roof. They were raging and shaking their hair.

The last stanza describes the simple and satisfactory peace which descended over the scene after the storm is over.

Poetic Techniques

Another technique that Dickinson makes use of throughout her poetry, and is present in ‘An awful Tempest mashed the air’ is anaphora. This occurs when a word or phrase at the beginning of a line is repeated at the beginning of other lines. For example, “And” starts four of the five lines in stanza two, and “The” starts two of the four lines in stanza three. 

A reader should also pay attention to alliteration in the text. This is seen through the repetition of the first letter of a word. For example, in the fourth line of the first stanza, there are “Hid” and “Heaven.” There is another example in the second stanza with “creatures chuckled, then again in the third stanza with “peace” and “Paradise.” 

Dickinson’s Dashes and Capitalization 

Scholars are divided over what Dickinson’s dashes and capitalization could mean. But in this case, the dashes are easily read as moments in which the speaker was overwhelmed or in awe of the tempest. The pauses represent a need to increase the drama of the depiction. It is also a way for the reader, speaker, and even Dickinson herself, to gather their thoughts together before moving on to the next, even more, harrowing line.  

One should also consider the use of capitalization in these lines. This is another technique that Dickinson is known for, and which causes confusion among students and scholars alike. There is no single definitive reason why Dickinson capitalized on the words she did. Often, those she chose were the most prominent of the lines, the ones that were the most evocative and meaningful. This appears to be the case in ‘An awful Tempest mashed the air’ as well. 

Analysis of An awful Tempest mashed the air

Stanza One 

An awful Tempest mashed the air—
The clouds were gaunt, and few—
A Black—as of a Spectre’s Cloak
Hid Heaven and Earth from view.

In the first stanza of ‘An awful Tempest mashed the air’ the speaker begins with the line that came to be used as the title of the poem. Generally, Dickinson’s poems are unnamed. They are usually referred to by numbers, this poem is number 198. It is clear from the first line what the poem is going to be about. The speaker is going to describe the experience of a huge storm, or tempest, and then what comes directly after it has passed. 

Throughout the poem, Dickinson makes use of something called the sublime. This is a state in which a viewer is separate from something awe-inspiring and horrifying but is unharmed by it. This is the feeling that is evoked by the text. A reader is allowed to visualize the storm but doesn’t have to worry about being injured by it. 

The next lines describe the tempest as made up of “gaunt” clouds. They were few, and the ones that were there were thin, as if emaciated. The most important thing to note about the clouds is that there are a number that are “Black—as a Spectre’s Cloak.” These are denser, the speaker is not able to see through them. In order to emphasize this point, she states that they are able to hide “Heaven and Earth from view.” They are separating the speaker from both worlds. 

Stanza Two

The creatures chuckled on the Roofs—
And whistled in the air—
And shook their fists—
And gnashed their teeth—
And swung their frenzied hair.

In this quintain of ‘An awful Tempest mashed the air’, the speaker personifies the storm. It is truly a monstrous one, so much so that it is given human characteristics. This allows the reader to truly feel the power of the storm. First, though, Dickinson places personified “creatures…on the Roofs.” They were chuckling up there. This is a strange line. Perhaps it references the noises that one hears as a storm approaches and the wind is just beginning to pick up. 

The power soon increases though and those same creatures, which are part of the larger storm, “whistled in the air.” In what seems like anger, they “shook their fists” and “gnashed their teeth.” The last line of this stanza adds that the creatures “swung their frenzied hair. These are very poignant images that give the reader an original way of imagining what a storm can be.

Stanza Three

The morning lit—the Birds arose—
The Monster’s faded eyes
Turned slowly to his native coast—
And peace—was Paradise!

In the final three lines, the storm has cleared. Once it is morning, the sun comes back out. Everything is back to normal, if not improved. The “Monster’s faded eyes” are in the distance. They are said, along with the monster itself, to be returning to “his native coast.” 

Now, what the speaker is experiencing is closer to paradise. The birds are back, and everything is calm. 

Discover the Essential Secrets

of Poetry

Sign up to unveil the best kept secrets in poetry,

brought to you by the experts

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.
Notify of

Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

The Best-Kept Secrets of Poetry

Discover and learn about the greatest poetry ever straight to your inbox

Discover and learn about the greatest poetry, straight to your inbox

Start Your Perfect Poetry Journey

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap