Life in the Iron Mills

by Rebecca Harding Davis

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Compare the korl woman of Rebecca Harding Davis' "Life in the Iron Mills" with the yearning felt in Emily Dickinson's poetry.

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In some ways the korl woman from Life in the Iron Mills can be thought of as a representation of the longing for "action" we find in Emily Dickinson's work.

The "korl woman" is a statue of a woman, "white, of giant proportions, crouching on the ground, her arms flung out in some wild gesture of warning."

Later it is described this way:

“There was not one line of beauty or grace in it: a nude woman's form, muscular, grown coarse with labor, the powerful limbs instinct with some one poignant longing. One idea: there it was in the tense, rigid muscles, the clutching hands, the wild, eager face, like that of a starving wolf's.” 

According to Wolfe, the sculptor/furnace operator, the woman is "hungry": for "Summat to make her live." The brutal labor of the mills crushes the human spirit—Davis writes, “Think that God put into this man's soul a fierce thirst for beauty,—to know it, to create it; to be—something, he knows not what,—other than he is.” 

Dickinson never worked in an iron mill, and her sequestered life was very different than the lives of Wolfe and Deborah, the tragic protagonists of Harding's novella. However, perhaps what Dickinson shares with them is a sense of being buried alive, a yearning for freedom that can be expressed in art but not actually attained. One thinks of a poem like "Wild Nights" in this connection, but to me a better poem is "A not admitting of the wound":

A not admitting of the wound
Until it grew so wide
That all my Life had entered it
And there were troughs beside -

A closing of the simple lid
that opened to the sun
Until the tender Carpenter
Perpetual nail it down -

We might feel, when confronted with poems like this, the same as May when he sees the korl woman—“What does the fellow intend by the figure? I cannot catch the meaning.” Whatever meaning we assign to the "wound," what is important is the feeling of one's life being consumed, even as the poet is in the act of expressing what is happening to her. Like the korl woman's wild gestures, Dickinson's poetry is an assertion of her existence and her access to a kind of truth.

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