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The Worm

Undated but probably dreamed 1870s, by Emily Dickinson
In Winter in my Room
I came upon a Worm--
Pink, lank and warm--
But as he was a worm
And worms presume
Not quite with him at home--
Secured him by a string
To something neighboring
And went along.

A Trifle afterward
A thing occurred
I'd not believe it if I heard
But state with creeping blood--
A snake with mottles rare
Surveyed my chamber floor
In feature as the worm before
But ringed with power--
The very string with which
I tied him--too
When he was mean and new
That string was there--

I shrank--"How fair you are"
Propitiation's claw--
"Afraid," he hissed
"Of me"?
"No cordiality"--
He fathomed me--
Then to a Rhythm Slim
Secreted in his Form
As Patterns swim
Projected him.

That time I flew
Both eyes his way
Lest he pursue
Nor ever ceased to run
Till in a distant Town
Towns on from mine
I set me down

This was a dream.

In the manuscript, the last line is not set off. It may be a note, or the last line of the poem.


I like this nightmare because, like a lot of Dickinson, it's so strangely modern. Freud would be sure he knew what that worm was, of course, and he might even be right. But nothing's simple in Dickinson's world. The worm grows not just big but articulate, and perceptive; it sees through Emily's new-found politeness quite as well as Freud himself might.

And the nightmare has broad applicability. Whether sex or ambition or doubts about God (and Emily's worm could be all of these and more), we've all tied up something with a string and idly thought it under our control, only to have it grow up "ringed with power", to come after us with a vengeance for restricting it--for taking it for granted.

--Chris Wayan

LISTS AND LINKS: worms and bugs - snakes - sexual symbols - nightmares - prisoners and freedom - hunted and chased - poetry - Emily Dickinson - Carl Jung has a weirdly similar dream around the same time: The Man-Eater

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