This is a disturbing poem and it’s hard not to imagine Emily is talking about herself. She uses horrific imagery – “Goblin” and ghost imagery – along with prisoner imagery – “Felon” and “Dungeoned” – to describe “The soul” – her “soul”. There is a sense she is dealing with issues of self esteem, depression, mania – a loss of control of “a Theme – so -fair”.
The first image of the poem is one of wounds, and it’s possible she was thinking of images of wounded soldiers in the US Civil War, but also of her own “Soul” and how there is something lurking deep inside her that terrifies her, as if she is at war with herself and her own mental states the way the United States was also at war with itself. The image that comes to mind with a word like “Bandaged” recalls images of young men being operated on inside the battlefield hospital tents, such as Jonathan Letterman’s introduction of the concept of triage to treat wounded soldiers. Emily introduces a theme of a fragmented whole that heals as it also bleeds.
The second stanza uses outright military terminology as “Fright” gives her a “salute”, yet she seems as if she’s already dead as “Fright” caresses “her freezing hair”. Perhaps Emily saw a picture of a dead soldier in the paper and the imaged frightened her, but she could also be relating the sensation of a “Fright” inside herself which is like an ugly “Goblin” living inside her that is the source of her own negative thoughts. Though she tries to be whole, something insider her whispers “a thought so mean” and this could be her way of explaining how when someone sufferers from depression will think the blackest thoughts, as if a “Goblin” were speaking to us. Thus a combination of the imagery of the battlefield dead along with her dark thoughts might be her way of expressing the darkest of all thoughts: suicide.
The third stanza “swings” in the opposite direction where rather than the lethargy of her “appalled’ “Soul”, there is a mania inside her “like a Bomb” whose length of fuse is entirely unpredictable as it rolls about the battlefield spitting angrily while the terrified soldiers try to run away from it. Again she uses the battle imagery of the “bomb” and “bursting” and the insanity and manic terror of war to also describe her own emotions as she “swings” from one extreme to the other. Her fractured “Soul” knows no peace and perhaps she feels as if she is at a continual war with herself and that like the soldier who tries to run from the “Bomb” she too is running from the bomb inside her which could go off at any moment and wound her.
She introduces the language of a prisoner with the word “escape” in the third stanza which she carries through to the end of the poem with the words “borne”, “Dungeoned”, “Liberty”, “Felon”, and “shackles”. This switch from military imagery to that of a prisoner could be a parallel with soldiers who ran from battle but were captured and probably executed for desertion. In fact, the etymology of the word “Staple” describes how a ‘stapol’ was a block for executions (OED).
Thus she feels trapped by the “Goblin” inside her that whispers “a thought so mean” and she longs to run away from it, but she knows she will be recaptured and “The Horror welcomes her, again” and that this “Horror” is “not brayed of Tongue” and that it will continue to whisper its “thought so mean”. She cannot run away from this “Goblin” whose dark whispers are like a bomb that she longs to run away from but can’t because she will be recaptured, she is a prisoner to her own inner demons the way a deserter is a prisoner for running away from the “Bomb” on the battlefield. She is stuck and fractured, just as the United States was at this time.