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...
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- Critical Essays