The first line of this poem presents a challenge to the reader—dare they see passions that burn so intensely that they are like an iron so hot it turns white? If so, Dickinson says, “crouch within the door” and watch. Red, she says, is the usual, common color of fire (“Red – is the Fire’s common tint –“), yet although it is this fire that heats an iron, the iron overpowers it, becoming hotter than the fire itself (But when the vivid Ore / Has vanquished Flame’s conditions”), and emerges from the forge (“It quivers from the Forge”).
When it comes out, hotter than the fire that heated it, it is white (“Without a color, but the light / Of unanointed Blaze”), white being colorless, pure light, like, she imagines, the fires of hell. Every village, even the smallest, has a blacksmith (“Least Village has its Blacksmith”) who enacts this refining process, acting as a metaphor for the spiritual, internal process (“Whose Anvil’s even ring / Stands symbol for the finger Forge”) of one refining their one soul (“That soundless tugs – within –“).
Inside the soul, this same refining process is happening silently, but not painlessly—it requires “Hammer” and “Blaze.” This continues until the passions themselves, like the iron that becomes hotter than the fire that heats it, overpower what refines and creates them.
“Dare you see a Soul at the White Heat?” can be read to be about the emotional intensity of Dickinson’s poems, and what it requires of both the reader and the poet to confront that intensity. Dickinson’s poetry is certainly filled with emotional intensity that is not hidden behind fancy language or stale tropes—there are no colors distracting from it, only pure white light—which makes it difficult to gaze at straight on.
That this is difficult is emphasized in the first line of the poem, the question “Dare you”—this is no easy, passive task, but may end in the reader getting burned. And although the “Then” that starts the second line implies that yes, the reader does dare, the implication of asking the question at all is that not everyone would. And although the reader who dares can gaze on the soul at white heat, they must still do it from the doorway -- they cannot actually participate.
This intensity is not just difficult and painful to gaze on—it requires significant effort and pain to create it and display it. Dickinson does not just portray these emotions for the sake of her poetry without feeling them; the intensity of their portrayal requires that they be true, that she feels them and even refines them to make them more intense, more overpowering.
The forge is her experience, her effort and her willingness to refine these emotions until they are in their purest form. Like her other poems that deal with the positive side of hardships, pain, and failure, this poem makes it clear that the kind of emotional intensity that is available in her poetry cannot come out of ease and happiness and success.
And, as in several other poems, pain and hardship here are closely connected to the soul, and what happens to it after death. Only through this painful experience of “Refining,” through hammer and fire, can the soul become refined enough that it can “Repudiate” the forge, that is, leave it behind and rise on to something better, ostensibly the afterlife.
This final repudiation is emphasized in the rhyme scheme, which enacts it. Throughout the poem the second and fourth line of each stanza rhyme, until in this final stanza, which doesn’t even have an off-rhyme—“blaze” and “forge.” This therefore makes the word “forge” come as a surprise, and seem to not fit correctly—it has essentially been repudiated from the very poem.