illustrated portrait of English poet Emily Dickinson

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How can I write an essay about binary opposition in Emily Dickinson's poetry?

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Let's first discuss what the term binary means. Dictionary.com explains it as something involving two things—e.g., the numbers 0 and 1, or a mathematical equation involving x and y. In everyday English usage, however, binary usually means two things each distinct from the other, but in some way needing...

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Let's first discuss what the term binary means. Dictionary.com explains it as something involving two things—e.g., the numbers 0 and 1, or a mathematical equation involving x and y. In everyday English usage, however, binary usually means two things each distinct from the other, but in some way needing each other. Examples could be the linguistic terms signifier and signified, where the signifier is a word, such as "word," and the signified is the concept of word. Thus, "word" signifies the concept of word. Sometimes, binaries express oppositions in tension with each other, such as capitalism and communism.

In my opinion, Emily Dickinson's poetry often uses binary to indicate two concepts in tension with each other. What do I mean by that?

Let's take a few stanzas from the beginning of Dickinson's poem "I measure every Grief I meet":

I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing, eyes—
I wonder if It weighs like Mine—
Or has an Easier size.

I wonder if They bore it long—
Or did it just begin—
I could not tell the Date of Mine—
It feels so old a pain—

I wonder if it hurts to live—
And if They have to try—
And whether—could They choose between—
It would not be—to die—

Do you see a binary here? I do: "I" and "They." The poet is saying that when she "probes" grief—i.e., when she becomes inquisitive about her grief and examines it—she wonders if others ("they") also do the same.

But there is also a much more interesting binary. "Grief" itself—something that the "I" feels—becomes a binary with the "I." The speaker and her grief are not one, but separate. Apparently, this was a favorite technique of Emily Dickinson: to split her speaker from the subject she considers, even if that subject was something she experiences, such as grief, pain, love, death, and so on. The speaker here wonders if the grief that Grief itself feels is easier to bear, and if "They"—the others—bear their own griefs differently.

In my essay, I would first define binary and explain what I understand by it. Second, I would go to a poem by Dickinson. Third, I would discuss the binaries I see and explain the meaning of the poem in terms of those binaries, like I did with the binaries between "Grief" and "I" and between "I" and "They." Finally, I would end my essay with some observation about Dickinson's use of binaries throughout her work as a whole.

I think Emily Dickinson was a poet of tensions. She loved to create tension between ideas, often between her speaker and the ideas. Her purpose was not necessarily to solve the tension. Rather, she preferred to stay in between two concepts or ideas that had been placed in tension. Binaries helped her in doing that, both philosophically and aesthetically.

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