What would a structuralist reading of Emily Dickinson's "I Dwell In Possibility " look like?

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Noelle Thompson | High School Teacher | eNotes Employee

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I dwell in Possibility - A fairer House than Prose - More numerous of Windows - Superior - for Doors - Of Chambers as the Cedars - Impregnable of Eye - And for an Everlasting Roof The Gambrels of the Sky - Of Visitors--the fairest - For Occupation - This - The spreading wide my narrow Hands To gather Paradise -

Before exploring a structuralist reading of Emily Dickinson's "I dwell in Possibility--," it's important that we determine what it means to be structuralist, specifically in literary theory.  Structuralism is always concerned with a particular element (in this case a literary element, a poem) as "part to the whole" and as a piece in relationship to other pieces that he author would have written.  Purdue does a good job of explaining this, using the simplest terms possible.

Examine the structure of a large number of short stories to discover the underlying principles that govern their composition...principles of narrative progression...or of characterization...you are engaged in structuralist activity.

So, a good way to apply structuralist literary theory to "I dwell in Possibility--" would be to delve into form and content and then compare it to the rest of Dickinson's poems, perhaps using another representative poem as an example.  Let's begin with the short poem in its entirety:

I dwell in Possibility--
A fairer House than Prose--
More numerous of Windows--
Superior--for Doors -

Of Chambers as the Cedars--
Impregnable of Eye--
And for an Everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky--

Of Visitors--the fairest--
For Occupation--This--
The spreading wide my narrow hands--
To gather Paradise--

It is necessary to analyze the form and content here before comparing it in a structuralist perspective to the "whole" of Dickinson's works.  Form comes first.  The poem has three stanzas.  The first line is the title of the poem.  In regards to form, the title is iambic quatrameter.  An iamb is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable.  Quatrameter simply means there are four iambs in a line.  Here is a scanned line with capital letters used for the stressed syllables:  "i DWELL in POSsiBILitY--"  The poem as a whole, however, goes back and forth between quatrameter and trimiter (three iambs per line).  Trimeter can be seen here: "imPREGnaBLE of EYE" and "the GAMBrels OF the SKY."  The poem also has examples of both exact rhyme ("eye/sky") and off-rhyme ("this/paradise") and doesn't have any particular rhyme scheme.  We can see that the lines are fairly equal in length and written in a fairly grandiose style.  Note the formal words here "for an Everlasting roof" that most likely would not be used in everyday conversation.

Now to analyze the content before we view this poem in the context of the others to form our structuralist perspective.  There are three elements of content here that would be advantageous to mention.  Namely they are afterlife and hope in the context of metaphor.  The speaker (fairly well known to be Emily herself) wishes to "dwell in possibility" or in the realm of imagination instead of in reality.  This is what gives her hope.  Here we only know of hope because she DOES dwell in that realm of possibility instead of grim reality.  Further, there is mention of death/afterlife in the last line that signifies a hug:  "The spreading wide my narrow hands--To gather Paradise--"  Point blank, a hug would be Dickinson's paradise.  She dwells in that possibility (a hug from a friend or confidant) instead of the reality (writing alone in her room).  Finally, all of these things are within the extended metaphor of the expansion of her own imagination through poetry (instead of prose).  This allows her to dwell in "possibility" instead of reality.

Now for the exciting part of the analysis!  Let's look a this poem in regards to structuralism, using another famous poem of Emily Dickinson's as evidence to prove our points!  As previously stated, structuralism is always concerned with one element as a part to a whole.  We are now looking at form and content of "I dwell in possibility--" as compared with Dickinson's other works of which "'Hope' is the thing with feathers—" is a good representative.  Let's take the entire poem here just because you may not be familiar with it:


'Hope' is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—

And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—
And sore must be the storm—
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm—

I've heard it in the chillest land—
And on the strangest Sea—
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb—of Me.

Let's take form first and look at Dickinson's poems from a structuralist perspective through these two.  Again, the poem has three stanzas.  As usual, Dickinson's first line is the title of the poem just like in the poem you asked me to analyze.  Similar to the first title, this one is "almost" in iambic quatrameter.  Almost.  But as such, it fits perfectly into Dickinson's usual style in that she never, ever sticks to exact formations.  The poem as a whole, however, goes back and forth between quatrameter and trimiter (three iambs per line).  Trimeter can be seen here:  "that PERches IN the SOUL--" The poem also has examples of both exact rhyme ("heard/bird") and off-rhyme ("soul/all") and doesn't have any particular rhyme scheme.  We can see that the lines are fairly equal in length and written in a fairly grandiose style.  Note the formal words here "could abash the little Bird" that most likely would not be used in everyday conversation.

Finally, to examine the structuralist content!  The content here helps us see both poems (and especially the first that you wished to compare) as a part to the whole of Emily's entire entourage.  The same as before, and the same as ALWAYS with Emily Dickinson, there are three elements of content here that would be advantageous to mention.  Namely they are afterlife and hope in the context of metaphor.  The speaker wishes to dwell on the concept of hope and relate it to nature.  Nature is the only reality that Emily wishes to delve into here. This is what gives her hope.  Further, there is brief mention of life after death, even in this most hopeful of Emily's poems, when Emily mentions "the soul."  This is not something of this earth, but something that extends on after death. The soul will move on to paradise.  If you would like to take the idea further the "thing with feathers" could also be an angel!  She dwells in that possibility.  Finally, all of these things are within the extended metaphor of hope being compared to a little bird or "a thing with feathers."  Could this be an angel as well?  Yes.  Again, we see that Emily's poetry shares the recesses of her soul with us through this structuralism.  Not just with one poem, but with ALL of her poetry.

In conclusion, "I dwell in Possibility--" is a perfect structuralist representation of Dickinson's poetry for all of the reasoning indicated above.  To expand upon this structuralist interpretation, further details about linguistics could be explored in the future.  In such exploration, one will find that both in content AND in linguistics, Dickinson's poem is sound in regards to structuralist literary theory.  Thank you, Miss Dickinson, for bearing your soul to us in poetry.

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