Emily Dickinson American Literature Analysis
Critics of Dickinson’s verse generally note that the poems incorporate one or more of the following themes: death, love, religion, nature, eternity. This observation, of itself, does not take into account the amazing thematic combinations she managed or the extraordinary variety of poetic voices she employed. These range from the almost embarrassing cuteness of poems such as 61 (“Papa above!”) or 288 (“I’m Nobody! Who are you?”) to the skepticism of 338 (“I know that He exists.”) and the passion, with intended or accidental double meaning, of 249 (“Wild Nights—Wild Nights!”).
Some of her poems are high serious meditations, such as 258 (“There’s a certain Slant of light”); others amount to waspish commentary, such as 401 (“What Soft—Cherubic Creatures—”). That she could see herself as a nobody, a seething volcano, a mouse, or a loaded gun all within the compass of several hundred poems is an indication of the variety of unconventional metaphor she used.
Even more astonishing is the fact that her style undergoes no linear development. Many of the early poems are as excellent as the later ones; bathetic and coy elements also appear throughout the collection. Absence of end-line punctuation creates enjambments that run for full stanzas, while dashes often create a hiatus at mid-line or end.
Early critics ascribed these eccentricities to Dickinson’s inability or unwillingness to punctuate (a characteristic her correspondence shares). Others see Dickinson’s unconventional style as a flouting of convention, particularly as most nineteenth century verse written by women was conservative in both form and theme. Still others, noting the lyric configuration of the dashes, compare her poems to the lyric measures of nursery rhymes or to the hymnal melodies then sung in Trinitarian churches. These interpretations do not necessarily exclude one another. What is important is that the irregular rhythms these dashes create almost always improve the poetry.
Dickinson neither titled nor dated her poems, and this is one problem that Johnson faced when preparing the 1955 major edition. The result is that he assigned the poems numbers, arranging them in what appeared a likely chronological order. Sometimes he arrived at relatively secure dating, as when a poem appears in dated letters, on dated billheads, or on postmarked envelopes. Unfortunately, this precludes neither prior nor subsequent composition. Furthermore, because the poems show no radical shifts in style, the task of firm dating remains even more daunting.
A related curiosity of Dickinson’s poems is their nearly complete exclusion of reference to external specifics. Number 61 (“Papa above!”) might appear to imply her father’s death, yet the Johnson chronology posits 1859 as its year of composition. Because Dickinson’s father died in 1874, accepting the Johnson dating means having to limit application of the first line to the poet’s divine father alone. The poem becomes merely a coy parody of The Lord’s Prayer rather than a simultaneous hope that the poet’s own father might remember his little mouse.
The complete run of Dickinson’s poems is so marked by genius that one tends to forget the occasional lapses of obviously unsuccessful works. These seem to occur most often when she reaches beyond the microcosm of her immediate world. A good example of this is poem 196 (“We don t cry—Tim and I,”). Dickinson here attempts to parallel the pathetic condition of the poet’s persona and that of Tiny Tim, the patient crippled child of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843). Unfortunately, the effect is so cloying and sentimental that the poem descends to the bathetic, almost becoming parody.
Similarly, poem 127 “’Houses’—so the wise Men tell me—”), though it begins with a biblical simplicity akin to that of William Blake’s child songs, strains to such an extent to evoke sympathy that the verse becomes flaccid. What began as the Lord’s promise of a mansion for his children quickly descends to sentimentality for its own sake: “Mansions cannot let the tears in,/ Mansions must exclude the storm!”
The mid-nineteenth century figures of Dickens’s Tiny Tim and Little Nell thus continue to afflict Dickinson’s verse at irregular intervals. In all fairness, so much maudlin sentiment pervaded the popular poetry of the time that it is a wonder Dickinson’s style remained as distinct and uniformly superior as it did. Her poetry is generally on its weakest ground when her dry wit or high serious reflection aims merely to imitate popular trends of the day.
Amherst, in Dickinson’s time, was an enlightened, relatively well-educated community, surrounded even in the nineteenth century by institutions of learning, many of them associated in one way or another with the Trinitarian or Unitarian churches. From Dickinson’s perspective, however, its people were all too comfortable in religious outlooks she rejected.
Infant death was a common fact of life in the nineteenth century United States. Regular influenza epidemics claimed the lives of adults as well as children every winter. Tuberculosis, then called consumption, claimed still more, and all those deaths appeared listed on the front page of the Springfield Daily Republican, the newspaper Dickinson read every day. The room in which Dickinson wrote overlooked the Protestant cemetery. At one period, the funerals of Amherst friends and acquaintances became so common that Dickinson felt she had to move her writing desk to the center of the room to spare herself. In short, Dickinson and her contemporaries lived with death in a way most present-day Americans can hardly comprehend.
Added to this is the fact that Dickinson steadfastly resisted the doctrine of “election,” the view that some people were marked from birth for salvation, while others were damned. Proof of such justification lay in what Trinitarians called a “conversion experience.” This generally took the form of some personal religious insight experienced at a critical stage in life. Dickinson’s grandfather, father, and brother had all undergone such an experience during or just after their college years. Even at Mount Holyoke, however, Dickinson was among “the unredeemed.” She was one of only three students so categorized. To be included among “the saved” she needed only to profess some religious experience, yet she refused to make this claim merely for social acceptance.
By her late teenage years she had abandoned church attendance; for a New England woman raised in the tradition of nineteenth century Trinitarianism, this was anathema. It is little wonder, then, that particulars of the Congregationalist funeral service appear as they do in poem 280 (“I felt a Funeral, in my Brain”). Their droning monotony first causes the narrator’s mind to go numb. Feet scrape the wooden floors of the frame church until the narrator feels “That Sense was breaking through—.” The coffin seems to “creak across my Soul,” and she is “Wrecked, solitary.” Finally, “a Plank in Reason, broke,” and the narrator “Finished knowing—then—.” Literally, the poet describes her own death, a familiar starting point for many of her poems.
The particulars of the service are equally familiar, but her alterations are striking and reflect her nonconformist views, To the congregation, she is “wrecked” and “solitary.” Reason breaks, and sense breaks through. She plunges downward into nothingness and finishes knowing, because at death she has certainty. There is no mention here of Heaven or Hell. The “World” she hits “at every plunge” is that of her inner self.
Dickinson here reverses the “plank of faith” metaphor familiar to most New England Protestants in the nineteenth century. This plank, firmly grounded on each side, bridges an abyss. One negotiates it while holding firmly to the Bible. One who looks to either side must surely plunge into the depths. Dickinson’s family, as did most others of their station, owned William Holmes and John W. Barber’s Religious Allegories (1848), which presents the metaphor accompanied by a woodcut showing one of the faithful attempting to cross the gap. Dickinson’s plank is Reason, not Faith, however, and Sense does not break, it breaks through.
To modern readers such nonconformity may not seem particularly striking, but one must imagine the effect it had on Dickinson’s family and churchgoing acquaintances. This poem, then, synthesizes the death and religion one finds so often separately treated in Dickinson’s verse; more important, it gives some impression of the extent to which the poet felt obliged to argue her convictions. She did not take her theological position merely for the sensation it (no doubt) created, and her religious views were certainly more heterodox than many critics indicate.
Critics who analyze Dickinson’s work must storm the verbal fortress of commentary written by her family and friends who, with all good intentions of making Dickinson the stereotype of a nineteenth century spinster who happened to write poetry, came close to neutralizing the double meanings of many of her best poems.
Higginson, whose advice Dickinson regularly sought on literary matters, is particularly blameworthy in this regard. During her lifetime, he repeatedly urged her not to publish, largely on the practical grounds that her verse was unsalable, though wider circulation of her poems would undoubtedly have brought her into correspondence with important writers of the day. One could also argue that this might have changed her style, made her less violently expressive, or rendered a life in Amherst impossible, but these are moot arguments.
Even after her death, Higginson was intent on perpetuating the Dickinson image he had helped to create. Typical is his famous disclaimer inevitably attached to commentaries on poem 249 (“Wild Nights—Wild Nights!”). The poem turns on the image of a storm; lovers can cast away both compass and chart and row in the safe harbor of their love. Higginson’s scruples concerned the erotic implication of the poem’s final lines: “Might I but moor—Tonight—/ In Thee!” Higginson feared to publish the poem, “lest the malignant read into it more than that virgin recluse ever dreamed of putting there.”
One wonders, however, whether Higginson even noticed the much more perverse implications of a stormy Eden whose fallen lovers dispose of the compass and chart which would have kept them on the prescribed course—presumably, apart. Though one could argue that the erotic image of the moored lovers was unintended, it is much more difficult to reject the lovers’ obvious abandonment of their set course. The reckless emotion of their love justifies the erotic implication of the final lines.
Comparable eroticism, in this case consummation of love, appears in poem 190 (“He was weak, and I was strong—then—”). Here the lovers alternate in conditions of strength and weakness. When the narrator becomes weak, her lover leads her “Home.” The night is quiet, the lover says nothing. When “Day knocked” they had to part, neither the stronger: “He strove—and I strove—too—/ We didn’t do it—tho’!” This final line refers to the lovers’ refusal to part, but it also can imply their decision not to abandon the traditional rules of courtship. This naughtiness is an important element of Dickinson’s verse. To deny it merely to create the image of a sainted recluse plays false with the facts and cripples the impact of her poetry.
Men much more than women were important to Dickinson the poet. She relied upon the literary judgments of Newton, a clerk in her father’s office, and editors and Higginson, and she appears never to have questioned their separately expressed views that she should not attempt to circulate her poems more widely. They, no doubt as much as she, were affected by the stereotypes of domestic verse, the only kind considered suitable for a nineteenth century woman to publish.
If one examines the poems Dickinson did place during her lifetime, it becomes obvious that they suit requirements of prevailing taste. Were they the sole criterion by which to judge her as poet, she would have been considerably less important than critics agree she is. Of the 1,775 poems in Johnson’s edition, only eleven appeared in Dickinson’s lifetime, and six of those eleven were printed in the Springfield Daily Republican. Those six are poem 3 (“Sic transit gloria mundi,” which appeared bearing a title “A Valentine”), poem 35 (“Nobody knows this little Rose”), and more substantive verse such as poem 214 (“I taste a liquor never brewed—,” which was given the title “The May-Wine”), poem 216 (“Safe in their Alabaster Chambers—, called “The Sleeping”), poem 228 (“Blazing in Gold and quenching in Purple,” titled “Sunset”), and poem 986 (“A narrow Fellow in the Grass,” which appeared as “The Snake”).
This small list allows one to see how editors consistently attempted to render Dickinson’s verse immediately intelligible, both by means of clarifying titles and standardizing punctuation. Though one could consider none of these poems inferior, they nevertheless fit within the parameters of what passed as “women’s verse” in a way other of her works did not. It is easy to see how they are consonant with works published by Dickinson’s female contemporaries: Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin(1852), Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh (1857), and George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1872). By the time Eliot had published Middlemarch, Dickinson had written but not published—and had little hope of publishing—more than twelve hundred poems.
“Poem 160 (Just lost, when I was saved!)”
First published: 1891 (as “Called Back”)
Type of work: Poem
In this poem is one of Dickinson’s anticipatory views of eternity.
Dickinson wrote this poem between 1860 and 1862, if one accepts the Johnson chronology. Her sister included it among the small selection of poems published after the poet’s death. It appears that the title “Called Back” was appended based on a note the poet had written to her cousins on the day before her death. Perhaps she was inspired by the sudden conviction she was recovering that affects many terminally ill people, or (equally likely) she did not want her cousins to worry. In any event, she wrote, “Little cousins,—Called Back. Emily.”
Dickinson’s poems often focus on a proleptic view of the death experience; that is, they anticipate death yet present a living narrator to interpret the nearly experienced event. Not surprisingly, they are usually devoid of any overt Christian imagery; yet, there does appear, in this...
(The entire section is 6166 words.)
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