Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1771
Dickinson has been hailed by critics as one of the most important and original poets to emerge from the American literary tradition. However, the poet received none of this critical acclaim during her lifetime. The few editors who actually appraised Dickinson's verse faulted her language as too unsentimental and plain to suit contemporary tastes. Further, the structure of her poems was not as polished as the conventional romantic verse that was published in the leading periodicals of the day. Modern critics have come to recognize that Dickinson's poetic style was in fact decades ahead of its time and that she anticipated the modern poetry movement of the twentieth century by using simple words and images to meditate on such profound universal concepts as nature, death, and immortality. Feminist scholars have examined Dickinson's poems and letters in an effort to gain some insight into how the poet responded to the gender-restrictive values of the mid-nineteenth-century patriarchal society. These critics have concluded that while as a person Dickinson succumbed to a life of social marginality and seclusion, as a poet she opened a new frontier of feminine power and assertiveness through her transcendent and imaginative verse.
Dickinson was born on December 10, 1830, in Amherst, Massachusetts. She was the eldest child of Edward Dickinson, a prominent lawyer, politician, and treasurer of Amherst College, and Emily Norcross Dickinson. The Dickinsons were a close-knit family governed by her father, a demanding, family-oriented patriarch. Indeed, Emily and her younger sister Lavinia never married, devoting their lives to the domestic obligations and care of the other members of the Dickinson family. Emily's brother, Austin, followed in his father's footsteps by becoming a partner in the family law practice and by succeeding his father as treasurer of Amherst College. Austin also built a house next to the Dickinson family homestead. As a youth, Emily received a formal education befitting a member of a prosperous New England family. She attended primary school for four years beginning in 1835; she then matriculated at Amherst Academy from 1840 to 1847. Upon graduating from the Amherst Academy, Dickinson enrolled in Mount Holyoke Female Seminary for one year from 1847 to 1848. Electing not to continue her studies at Mount Holyoke after her first year, Dickinson settled down in Amherst and resumed her domestic and familial obligations. During this time, she became acquainted with a number of prominent religious, political, and literary figures who paid visits to her father at Amherst. Among these visitors was Samuel Bowles, the owner and editor of the Springfield Republican, from whom Dickinson would seek advice and send poems in the hope of being recognized as a serious poet. Failing to recognize her talent, Bowles refused to publish Dickinson's poems in his periodical and even discouraged her from writing more verses.
In 1854 Dickinson traveled with her mother to Washington, D.C., to visit Edward, who was at the time serving a term as a representative to the United States Congress. On their return trip to Amherst, the Dickinsons visited a family friend in Philadelphia. Several biographers have speculated that while in Philadelphia, Dickinson met and fell in love with a married minister who begged her to elope with him. These scholars have further contended that this love affair and Dickinson's decision to end it precipitated her withdrawal into seclusion and her increasingly eccentric behavior. It is important to note that apart from one family account of this affair there is no evidence to substantiate the claim that it ever occurred. Nevertheless, not long after this trip Dickinson did become more reclusive and eccentric. She withdrew to the family homestead in Amherst, refusing even to venture to her brother's house next door. Whereas she had previously received and entertained numerous guests at the homestead, Dickinson now refused all visitors. She began to dress in only white attire, an act which some scholars have argued was a symbolic attempt to present herself as a nun, a virgin, a poet, or some combination of the three. Her few companions during this time included Lavinia and Austin. Dickinson's attachment to Austin's children and his wife, Susan, was especially close.
Biographers have generally agreed that Dickinson experienced a grave emotional crisis in the early 1860s. Although no evidence has been discovered to shed light onto the nature of this crisis, some scholars have pointed out that this time frame coincides with Bowles's public rejection of Dickinson's unsentimental brand of poetry in the Springfield Republican, although he did not specifically identify her as the offender. At about the same time, Dickinson's poetry output surged; in 1862 alone she is thought to have composed more than three hundred poems. After her rift with Bowles, Dickinson sought out a new patron who would recognize the value of her poetry. She initiated a correspondence with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the literary editor of the Atlantic Monthly, sending him some of her poems and soliciting his advice on their merit. Like Bowles, Higginson never published any of Dickinson's verse in his periodical, but he did serve as a sympathetic advisor to her literary endeavors. Throughout this period, Dickinson remained in seclusion at Amherst, except for brief trips to Boston in 1864 and 1865 to receive medical care for an eye condition. Whatever familial security Dickinson felt ended abruptly in 1874 when her father died unexpectedly. Not long after Edward's death, Dickinson's mother became an invalid, relying on her children for complete care until her own death in 1882. Dickinson herself died two years later on May 15, 1886, after a prolonged battle with a kidney disorder known as Bright's disease.
Literary scholars have discovered nearly eighteen hundred poems written by Dickinson. Some academics have posited that even more verses might be in existence as appendixes to Dickinson's voluminous correspondence with family, friends, and literary acquaintances, but that they have not yet been recognized by the letter recipients' inheritors. Those poems authoritatively attributed to Dickinson have been collected by scholars and each one assigned an identifying number since Dickinson did not give a title to most of her verses. Given the sheer number of Dickinson's poems, the poet afforded herself the opportunity to explore a wide variety of subjects, including the austerity and beauty of nature; experiences of love and loss; a skeptical attitude toward religion and immortality; and a morbid fascination with death. This last preoccupation is especially apparent in Poem 712 (also known as "Because I could not stop for Death—"), in which eternal rest is imagined as a carriage ride. Regardless of the subject, Dickinson's poetry represents an innovative formal technique that heralded the preeminent stylistic developments of the twentieth century: she developed a highly personal system of symbol and allusion, assigning complex meanings to colors, places, times, and seasons; she experimented with compression, enjambment, and unusual rhyme schemes; and she employed an idiosyncratic use of capitalization and punctuation, including the liberal use of dashes. The result is a distinctive and revolutionary poetic style quite unlike that of her nineteenth-century contemporaries.
Feminist scholars have identified a number of Dickinson's poems which directly comment upon the role and experiences of women within a repressive patriarchal order. In addition, some of these critics have suggested that many more poems can be interpreted as the poet's opinion of gender issues if one were to assume that the speaker in each verse is a female. For example, Poem 271 ("A solemn thing—it was—I said—") presents the image of "a woman—white," which may be a reference to a bride, a novice nun, or a female poet. At the conclusion, the speaker of the poem finds satisfaction in her "'small' life," which some commentators have suggested is a rejection of conventional female roles in favor of pursuing those that she finds more fulfilling. A similar theme of empowerment has been detected in Poem 657 ("I dwell in Possibility—"), which many critics have maintained is a commentary on the ability of the female artist to subvert the oppressive limitations of the patriarchal order through the transcendental power of poetry. Though her poems were not grouped into published collections during her lifetime, Dickinson did sew certain poems into "fascicles," or small booklets, indicating that she viewed them as related meditations on a central theme. Her fascicle 22, which includes Poem 271, is one example. Scholars have focused on the poems in this fascicle—which reflect on such subjects as domestic life, liberty, human relationships, and spiritual redemption—as verses indicative of Dickinson's desire to defy the social and gender conventions of her day.
Just as literary editors failed to recognize Dickinson's literary talent during her lifetime, late-nineteenth-century critics dismissed her first posthumous collection of verses entitled Poems (1890). While these reviewers asserted that Dickinson's unconventional use of meter, rhyme, and imagery was technically defective and dispassionate, the poems found an eager and receptive public audience. In order to meet the popular demand for Dickinson's verses, her estate published a second series of Poems in 1891 and a third series in 1896. In the early twentieth century, Dickinson's oeuvre influenced the poets who belonged to the Imagist movement, particularly Amy Lowell. Members of this movement, which advocated the employment of free verse and the expression of concepts and feelings through simple, precise images, found in Dickinson's pioneering tropes and images the framework in which to express their own revolutionary ideas about poetry. Along with the popular and literary acceptance of Dickinson's poems in the twentieth century, scholars and critics began to recognize the profound achievement of creating such sophisticated and technically innovative verse without the of assistance of any literary antecedents. Commentators have since analyzed nearly every aspect of Dickinson's poems from a myriad of critical perspectives, including linguistic, stylistic, psychoanalytical, philosophical, and historical. In the late twentieth century, feminist critics began to study Dickinson's poems in an effort to understand how they were shaped by the poet's experiences within the socially and morally codified patriarchal climate of mid-nineteenth-century America. These scholars have examined, among other issues, the difficulties Dickinson faced in reconciling her gender with the vocation of poet, the significance of her decision to retire from society, her use of language as a means of rebellion, and her importance to later writers. In addition, some critics have focused on Dickinson's relationships with the women in her life and her creation of a female-centered poetry, while others have concentrated on her interactions with men and her struggle to publish poetry in a male-dominated literary environment. Once deemed as eccentric, both Dickinson's poems and her way of life are now more commonly recognized as an uncompromising commitment to artistic expression and, in the opinion of some critics, as an attempt to undermine the restrictive masculine culture of her time.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 80
Poems (poetry) 1890
Poems second series (poetry) 1891
Letters of Emily Dickinson. 2 vols. (letters) 1894
Poems third series (poetry) 1896
The Single Hound: Poems of a Lifetime (poetry) 1914
The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (poetry) 1924
Further Poems of Emily Dickinson (poetry) 1929
Emily Dickinson Face to Face: Unpublished Letters with Notes and Reminiscences (letters) 1932
Unpublished Poems of Emily Dickinson (poetry) 1935
Bolts of Melody: New Poems of Emily Dickinson (poetry) 1945
Poems. 3 vols. (poetry) 1955
Letters. 3 vols. (letters) 1958
Complete Poems (poetry) 1960
The Poems of Emily Dickinson. 3 vols. (poetry) 1998
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SOURCE: Dickinson, Emily. "271." In The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson, pp. 123-24. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1960.
Literary scholars have speculated that the following poem by Dickinson was written circa 1861.
A solemn thing—it was—I said—
A woman—white—to be—
And wear—if God should count me fit—
Her blameless mystery—
A hallowed thing—to drop a life
Into the purple well—
Too plummetless—that it return—
I pondered how the bliss would look—
And would it feel as big—
When I could take it in my hand—
As hovering—seen—through fog—
And then—the size of this "small" life—
The Sages—call it small—
Swelled—like Horizons—in my vest—
And I sneered—softly—"small"!
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 194
SOURCE: Dickinson, Emily. "652." In The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson, pp. 324-25. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1960.
Literary scholars have speculated that the following poem by Dickinson was written circa 1862.
A Prison gets to be a friend—
Between its Ponderous face
And Ours—a Kinsmanship express—
And in its narrow Eyes—
We come to look with gratitude
For the appointed Beam
It deal us—stated as our food—
And hungered for—the same—
We learn to know the Planks—
That answer to Our feet—
So miserable a sound—at first—
Nor ever now—so sweet—
As plashing in the Pools—
When Memory was a Boy—
But a Demurer Circuit—
A Geometric Joy—
The Posture of the Key
That interrupt the Day
To Our Endeavor—Not so real
The Cheek of Liberty—
As this Phantasm Steel—
Whose features—Day and Night—
Are present to us—as Our Own—
And as escapeless—quite—
The narrow Round—the Stint—
The slow exchange of Hope—
For something passiver—Content
Too steep for looking up—
The Liberty we knew
Avoided—like a Dream—
Too wide for any Night but Heaven—
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 84
SOURCE: Dickinson, Emily. "657." In The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson, p. 327. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1960.
Literary scholars have speculated that the following poem by Dickinson was written circa 1862.
I dwell in Possibility—
A fairer House than Prose—
More numerous of Windows—
Of Chambers as the Cedars—
Impregnable of Eye—
And for an Everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky—
Of Visitors—the fairest—
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise—
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SOURCE: Dickinson, Emily. "712." In The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson, p. 350. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1960.
Literary scholars have speculated that the following poem by Dickinson was written circa 1863.
Because I could not stop for Death—
He kindly stopped for me—
The Carriage held but just Ourselves—
We slowly drove—He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility—
We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess—in the Ring—
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain—
We passed the Setting Sun—
Or rather—He passed Us—
The Dews drew quivering and chill—
For only Gossamer, my Gown—
My Tippet—only Tulle—
We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground—
The Roof was scarcely visible—
The Cornice—in the Ground—
Since then—'tis Centuries—and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses' Heads
Were toward Eternity—
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SOURCE: Rich, Adrienne. "Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson." On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978, pp. 157-84. New York: W. W. Norton, 1979.
In the following essay, originally published in 1976, Rich celebrates Dickinson's poetry as a work of genius that was partly a response to the patriarchal culture of the nineteenth century but also informed by the poet's relationships with women. Rich also asserts that poetry was the primary goal of Dickinson's life, not the byproduct of other events, as has been claimed by some critics.
I am travelling at the speed of time, along the Massachusetts Turnpike. For months, for years, for most of my life, I have been hovering like an insect against the screens of an existence which inhabited Amherst, Massachusetts, between 1831 and 1884. The methods, the exclusions, of Emily Dickinson's existence could not have been my own; yet more and more, as a woman poet finding my own methods, I have come to understand her necessities, could have been witness in her defense.
"Home is not where the heart is," she wrote in a letter, "but the house and the adjacent buildings." A statement of New England realism, a directive to be followed. Probably no poet ever lived so much and so purposefully in one house; even, in one room. Her niece Martha told of visiting her in her corner bedroom on the second floor at 280 Main Street, Amherst, and of how Emily Dickinson made as if to lock the door with an imaginary key, turned and said: "Matty: here's freedom."
I am travelling at the speed of time, in the direction of the house and buildings.
Western Massachusetts: the Connecticut Valley: a countryside still full of reverberations: scene of Indian uprisings, religious revivals, spiritual confrontations, the blazing-up of the lunatic fringe of the Puritan coal. How peaceful and how threatened it looks from Route 91, hills gently curled above the plain, the tobacco-barns standing in fields sheltered with white gauze from the sun, and the sudden urban sprawl: ARCO, MacDonald's, shopping plazas. The country that broke the heart of Jonathan Edwards, that enclosed the genius of Emily Dickinson. It lies calmly in the light of May, cloudy skies breaking into warm sunshine, light-green spring softening the hills, dogwood and wild fruit-trees blossoming in the hollows.
From Northampton bypass there's a 4-mile stretch of road to Amherst—Route 9—between fruit farms, steakhouses, supermarkets. The new University of Massachusetts rears its skyscrapers up from the plain against the Pelham Hills. There is new money here, real estate, motels. Amherst succeeds on Hadley almost without notice. Amherst is green, rich-looking, secure; we're suddenly in the center of town, the crossroads of the campus, old New England college buildings spread around two village greens, a scene I remember as almost exactly the same in the dim past of my undergraduate years when I used to come there for college weekends.
Left on Seelye Street, right on Main; driveway at the end of a yellow picket fence. I recognize the high hedge of cedars screening the house, because twenty-five years ago I walked there, even then drawn toward the spot, trying to peer over. I pull into the driveway behind a generous 19th-century brick mansion with wings and porches, old trees and green lawns. I ring at the back door—the door through which Dickinson's coffin was carried to the cemetery a block away.
For years I have been not so much envisioning Emily Dickinson as trying to visit, to enter her mind, through her poems and letters, and through my own intimations of what it could have meant to be one of the two mid-19th-century American geniuses, and a woman, living in Amherst, Massachusetts. Of the other genius, Walt Whitman, Dickinson wrote that she had heard his poems were "disgraceful." She knew her own were unacceptable by her world's standards of poetic convention, and of what was appropriate, in particular, for a woman poet. Seven were published in her lifetime, all edited by other hands; more than a thousand were laid away in her bedroom chest, to be discovered after her death. When her sister discovered them, there were decades of struggle over the manuscripts, the manner of their presentation to the world, their suitability for publication, the poet's own final intentions. Narrowed-down by her early editors and anthologists, reduced to quaintness or spinsterish oddity by many of her commentators, sentimentalized, fallen-in-love with like some gnomic Garbo, still unread in the breadth and depth of her full range of work, she was, and is, a wonder to me when I try to imagine myself into that mind.
I have a notion that genius knows itself; that Dickinson chose her seclusion, knowing she was exceptional and knowing what she needed. It was, moreover, no hermetic retreat, but a seclusion which included a wide range of people, of reading and correspondence. Her sister Vinnie said, "Emily is always looking for the rewarding person." And she found, at various periods, both women and men: her sister-in-law Susan Gilbert, Amherst visitors and family friends such as Benjamin Newton, Charles Wadsworth, Samuel Bowles, editor of the Springfield Republican and his wife; her friends Kate Anthon and Helen Hunt Jackson, the distant but significant figures of Elizabeth Barrett, the Brontës, George Eliot. But she carefully selected her society and controlled the disposal of her time. Not only the "gentlewoman in plush" of Amherst were excluded; Emerson visited next door but she did not go to meet him; she did not travel or receive routine visits; she avoided strangers. Given her vocation, she was neither eccentric nor quaint; she was determined to survive, to use her powers, to practice necessary economies.
Suppose Jonathan Edwards had been born a woman; suppose William James, for that matter, had been born a woman? (The invalid seclusion of his sister Alice is suggestive.) Even from men, New England took its psychic toll; many of its geniuses seemed peculiar in one way or another, particularly along the lines of social intercourse. Hawthorne, until he married, took his meals in his bedroom, apart from the family. Thoreau insisted on the values both of solitude and of geographical restriction, boasting that "I have travelled much in Concord." Emily Dickinson—viewed by her bemused contemporary Thomas Higginson as "partially cracked," by the 20th century as fey or pathological—has increasingly struck me as a practical woman, exercising her gift as she had to, making choices. I have come to imagine her as somehow too strong for her environment, a figure of powerful will, not at all frail or breathless, someone whose personal dimensions would be felt in a household. She was her father's favorite daughter though she professed being afraid of him. Her sister dedicated herself to the everyday domestic labors which would free Dickinson to write. (Dickinson herself baked the bread, made jellies and gingerbread, nursed her mother through a long illness, was a skilled horticulturist who grew pomegranates, calla-lillies, and other exotica in her New England greenhouse.)
Upstairs at last: I stand in the room which for Emily Dickinson was "freedom." The best bedroom in the house, a corner room, sunny, overlooking the main street of Amherst in front, the way to her brother Austin's house on the side. Here, at a small table with one drawer, she wrote most of her poems. Here she read Elizabeth Barrett's "Aurora Leigh," a woman poet's narrative poem of a woman poet's life; also George Eliot; Emerson; Carlyle; Shakespeare; Charlotte and Emily Brontë. Here I become, again, an insect, vibrating at the frames of windows, clinging to panes of glass, trying to connect. The scent here is very powerful. Here in this white-curtained, high-ceilinged room, a redhaired woman with hazel eyes and a contralto voice wrote poems about volcanoes, deserts, eternity, suicide, physical passion, wild beasts, rape, power, madness, separation, the daemon, the grave. Here, with a darning-needle, she bound these poems—heavily emended and often in variant versions—into booklets, secured with darning-thread, to be found and read after her death. Here she knew "freedom," listening from above-stairs to a visitor's piano-playing, escaping from the pantry where she was mistress of the household bread and puddings, watching, you feel, watching ceaselessly, the life of sober Main Street below. From this room she glided downstairs, her hand on the polished bannister, to meet the complacent magazine editor, Thomas Higginson, unnerve him while claiming she herself was unnerved. "Your scholar," she signed herself in letters to him. But she was an independent scholar, used his criticism selectively, saw him rarely and always on her premises. It was a life deliberately organized on her terms. The terms she had been handed by society—Calvinist Protestantism, Romanticism, the 19th-century corseting of women's bodies, choices, and sexuality—could spell insanity to a woman genius. What this one had to do was retranslate her own unorthodox, subversive, sometimes volcanic propensities into a dialect called metaphor: her native language. "Tell all the Truth—but tell it Slant—." It is always what is under pressure in us, especially under pressure of concealment—that explodes in poetry.
The women and men in her life she equally converted into metaphor. The masculine pronoun in her poems can refer simultaneously to many aspects of the "masculine" in the patriarchal world—the god she engages in dialogue, again on her terms; her own creative powers, unsexing for a woman, the male power-figures in her immediate environment—the lawyer Edward Dickinson, her brother Austin, the preacher Wadsworth, the editor Bowles—it is far too limiting to trace that "He" to some specific lover, although that was the chief obsession of the legend-mongers for more than half a century. Obviously, Dickinson was attracted by and interested in men whose minds had something to offer her; she was, it is by now clear, equally attracted by and interested in women whose minds had something to offer her. There are many poems to and about women, and some which exist in two versions with alternate sets of pronouns. Her latest biographer, Richard Sewall, while rejecting an earlier Freudian biographer's theory that Dickinson was essentially a psychopathological case, the by-product of which happened to be poetry, does create a context in which the importance, and validity, of Dickinson's attachments to women may now, at last, be seen in full. She was always stirred by the existences of women like George Eliot or Elizabeth Barrett, who possessed strength of mind, articulateness, and energy. (She once characterized Elizabeth Fry and Florence Nightingale as "holy"—one suspects she merely meant, "great.")
But of course Dickinson's relationships with women were more than intellectual. They were deeply charged, and the sources both of passionate joy and pain. We are only beginning to be able to consider them in a social and historical context. The historian Carroll Smith-Rosenberg has shown that there was far less taboo on intense, even passionate and sensual, relationships between women in the American 19th-century "female world of love and ritual," as she terms it, than there was later in the 20th century. Women expressed their attachments to other women both physically and verbally; a marriage did not dilute the strength of a female friendship, in which two women often shared the same bed during long visits, and wrote letters articulate with both physical and emotional longing. The 19th-century close woman friend, according to the many diaries and letters Smith-Rosenberg has studied, might be a far more important figure in a woman's life than the 19th-century husband. None of this was condemned as "lesbianism." We will understand Emily Dickinson better, read her poetry more perceptively, when the Freudian imputation of scandal and aberrance in women's love for women has been supplanted by a more informed, less misogynistic attitude toward women's experiences with each other.
But who, if you read through the seventeen hundred and seventy-five poems—who—woman or man—could have passed through that imagination and not come out transmuted? Given the space created by her in that corner room, with its window-light, its potted plants and work-table, given that personality, capable of imposing its terms on a household, on a whole community, what single theory could hope to contain her, when she'd put it all together in that space?
"Matty: here's freedom," I hear her saying as I speed back to Boston along Route 91, as I slip the turnpike ticket into the toll-collector's hand. I am thinking of a confined space in which the genius of the 19th-century female mind in America moved, inventing a language more varied, more compressed, more dense with implications, more complex of syntax, than any American poetic language to date; in the trail of that genius my mind has been moving, and with its language and images my mind still has to reckon, as the mind of a woman poet in America today.
In 1971, a postage stamp was issued in honor of Dickinson; the portrait derives from the one existing daguerreotype of her, with straight, center-parted hair, eyes staring somewhere beyond the camera, hands poised around a nosegay of flowers, in correct 19th-century style. On the firstday-of-issue envelope sent me by a friend there is, besides the postage stamp, an engraving of the poet as popular fancy has preferred her, in a white lace ruff and with hair as bouffant as if she had just stepped from a Boston beauty-parlor. The poem chosen to represent her work to the American public is engraved, alongside a dew-gemmed rose, below the portrait:
If I can stop one heart from breaking
I shall not live in vain
If I can ease one life the aching
Or cool one pain
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again
I shall not live in vain.
Now, this is extremely strange. It is a fact, that in 1864, Emily Dickinson wrote this verse; and it is a verse which a hundred or more 19th-century versifiers could have written. In its undistinguished language, as in its conventional sentiment, it is remarkably untypical of the poet. Had she chosen to write many poems like this one we would have no "problem" of non-publication, of editing, of estimating the poet at her true worth. Certainly the sentiment—a contented and unambiguous altruism—is one which even today might in some quarters be accepted as fitting from a female versifier—a kind of Girl Scout prayer. But we are talking about the woman who wrote:
He fumbles at your Soul
As Players at the Keys
Before they drop full Music on—
He stuns you by degrees—
Prepares your brittle Nature
For the Ethereal Blow
By fainter Hammers—further heard—
Then nearer—Then so slow
Your breath has time to straighten—
Your brain—to bubble Cool—
Then scalps your naked Soul—
When winds take Forests in their Paws—
The Universe—is still— (# "315")
Much energy has been invested in trying to identify a concrete, flesh-and-blood male lover whom Dickinson is supposed to have renounced, and to the loss of whom can be traced the secret of her seclusion and the vein of much of her poetry. But the real question, given that the art of poetry is an art of transformation, is how this woman's mind and imagination may have used the masculine element in the world at large, or those elements personified as masculine—including the men she knew; how her relationship to this reveals itself in her images and language. In a patriarchal culture, specifically the Judeo-Christian, quasi-Puritan culture of 19th-century New England in which Dickinson grew up, still inflamed with religious revivals, and where the sermon was still an active, if perishing, literary form, the equation of divinity with maleness was so fundamental that it is hardly surprising to find Dickinson, like many an early mystic, blurring erotic with religious experience and imagery. The poem I just read has intimations both of seduction and rape merged with the intense force of a religious experience. But are these metaphors for each other, or for something more intrinsic to Dickinson? Here is another:
He put the Belt around my life—
I heard the buckle snap—
And turned away, imperial,
My Lifetime folding up—
Deliberate, as a Duke would do
A Kingdom's Title Deed
Henceforth, a Dedicated sort—
Member of the Cloud.
Yet not too far to come at call—
And do the little Toils
That make the Circuit of the Rest—
And deal occasional smiles
To lives that stoop to notice mine—
And kindly ask it in—
Whose invitation, know you not
For Whom I must decline? (# "273")
These two poems are about possession, and they seem to me a poet's poems—that is, they are about the poet's relationship to her own power, which is exteriorized in masculine form, much as masculine poets have invoked the female Muse. In writing at all—particularly an unorthodox and original poetry like Dickinson's—women have often felt in danger of losing their status as women. And this status has always been defined in terms of relationship to men—as daughter, sister, bride, wife, mother, mistress, Muse. Since the most powerful figures in patriarchal culture have been men, it seems natural that Dickinson would assign a masculine gender to that in herself which did not fit in with the conventional ideology of womanliness. To recognize and acknowledge our own interior power has always been a path mined with risks for women; to acknowledge that power and commit oneself to it as Emily Dickinson did was an immense decision.
Most of us, unfortunately, have been exposed in the schoolroom to Dickinson's "little-girl" poems, her kittenish tones, as in "I'm Nobody! Who Are You?" (a poem whose underlying anger translates itself into archness) or
I hope the Father in the skies
Will lift his little girl—
Over the stile of "Pearl." (# "70")
or the poems about bees and robins. One critic—Richard Chase—has noted that in the 19th century "one of the careers open to women was perpetual childhood." A strain in Dickinson's letters and some—though by far a minority—of her poems was a self-diminutization, almost as if to offset and deny—or even disguise—her actual dimensions as she must have experienced them. And this emphasis on her own "littleness," along with the deliberate strangeness of her tactics of seclusion, have been, until recently, accepted as the prevailing character of the poet: the fragile poetess in white, sending flowers and poems by messenger to unseen friends, letting down baskets of gingerbread to the neighborhood children from her bedroom window; writing, but somehow naively. John Crowe Ransom, arguing for the editing and standardization of Dickinson's punctuation and typography, calls her "a little home-keeping person" who, "while she had a proper notion of the final destiny of her poems … was not one of those poets who had advanced to that later stage of operations where manuscripts are prepared for the printer, and the poet's diction has to make concessions to the publisher's style-book." (In short, Emily Dickinson did not wholly know her trade, and Ransom believes a "publisher's style-book" to have the last word on poetic diction.) He goes on to print several of her poems, altered by him "with all possible forbearance." What might, in a male writer—a Thoreau, let us say, or a Christopher Smart or William Blake—seem a legitimate strangeness, a unique intention, has been in one of our two major poets devalued into a kind of naivêté, girlish ignorance feminine lack of professionalism, just as the poet herself has been made into a sentimental object. ("Most of us are half in love with this dead girl," confesses Archibald MacLeish. Dickinson was fifty-five when she died.)
It is true that more recent critics, including her most recent biographer, have gradually begun to approach the poet in terms of her greatness rather than her littleness, the decisiveness of her choices instead of the surface oddities of her life or the romantic crises of her legend. But unfortunately anthologists continue to plagiarize other anthologies, to reprint her in edited, even bowdlerized versions; the popular image of her and of her work lags behind the changing consciousness of scholars and specialists. There still does not exist a selection from her poems which depicts her in her fullest range. Dickinson's greatness cannot be measured in terms of twenty-five or fifty or even 500 "perfect" lyrics, it has to be seen as the accumulation it is. Poets, even, are not always acquainted with the full dimensions of her work, or the sense one gets, reading in the one-volume complete edition (let alone the three-volume variorum edition) of a mind engaged in a lifetime's musing on essential problems of language, identity, separation, relationship, the integrity of the self; a mind capable of describing psychological states more accurately than any poet except Shakespeare. I have been surprised at how narrowly her work, still, is known by women who are writing poetry, how much her legend has gotten in the way of her being re-possessed, as a source and a foremother.
I know that for me, reading her poems as a child and then as a young girl already seriously writing poetry, she was a problematic figure. I first read her in the selection heavily edited by her niece which appeared in 1937; a later and fuller edition appeared in 1945 when I was sixteen, and the complete, unbowdlerized edition by Johnson did not appear until fifteen years later. The publication of each of these editions was crucial to me in successive decades of my life. More than any other poet, Emily Dickinson seemed to tell me that the intense inner event, the personal and psychological, was inseparable from the universal; that there was a range for psychological poetry beyond mere self-expression. Yet the legend of the life was troubling, because it seemed to whisper that a woman who undertook such explorations must pay with renunciation, isolation, and incorporeality. With the publication of the Complete Poems, the legend seemed to recede into unimportance beside the unquestionable power and importance of the mind revealed there. But taking possession of Emily Dickinson is still no simple matter.
The 1945 edition, entitled Bolts of Melody, took its title from a poem which struck me at the age of sixteen and which still, thirty years later, arrests my imagination:
I would not paint—a picture—
I'd rather be the One
Its bright impossibility
And wonder how the fingers feel
Evokes so sweet a Torment—
I would not talk, like Cornets—
I'd rather be the One
Raised softly to the Ceilings—
And out, and easy on—
Through Villages of Ether
Myself endured Balloon
By but a lip of Metal
The pier to my Pontoon—
Nor would I be a Poet—
It's finer—own the Ear—
The License to revere,
A privilege so awful
What would the Dower be,
Had I the Art to stun myself
With Bolts of Melody! (# "505")
This poem is about choosing an orthodox "feminine" role: the receptive rather than the creative; viewer rather than painter, listener rather than musician; acted-upon rather than active. Yet even while ostensibly choosing this role she wonders "how the fingers feel / whose rare-celestial—stir—/ Evokes so sweet a Torment—" and the "feminine" role is praised in a curious sequence of adjectives: "Enamored—impotent—content—." The strange paradox of this poem—its exquisite irony—is that it is about choosing not to be a poet, a poem which is gainsaid by no fewer than one thousand seven hundred and seventy-five poems made during the writer's life, including itself. Moreover, the images of the poem rise to a climax (like the Balloon she evokes) but the climax happens as she describes, not what it is to be the receiver, but the maker and receiver at once: "A Privilege so awful / What would the Dower be / Had I the Art to stun myself / With Bolts of Melody!"—a climax which recalls the poem: "He fumbles at your soul / As Players at the Keys / Before they drop full Music on—" And of course, in writing those lines she possesses herself of that privilege and that "dower." I have said that this is a poem of exquisite ironies. It is, indeed, though in a very different mode, related to Dickinson's "little-girl" strategy. The woman who feels herself to be Vesuvius at home has need of a mask, at least, of innocuousness and of containment.
On my volcano grows the Grass
A meditative spot—
An acre for a Bird to choose
Would be the General thought—
How red the Fire rocks below—
How insecure the sod
Did I disclose
Would populate with awe my solitude. (# "1677")
Power, even masked, can still be perceived as destructive.
That flickered in the night—
When it was dark enough to do
Without erasing sight—
A quiet—Earthquake style—
Too subtle to suspect
By natures this side Naples—
The North cannot detect
The lips that never lie—
Whose hissing Corals part—and shut—
And Cities—ooze away— (# "601")
Dickinson's biographer and editor Thomas Johnson has said that she often felt herself possessed by a demonic force, particularly in the years 1861 and 1862 when she was writing at the height of her drive. There are many poems besides "He put the Belt around my Life" which could be read as poems of possession by the daemon—poems which can also be, and have been, read, as poems of possession by the deity, or by a human lover. I suggest that a woman's poetry about her relationship to her daemon—her own active, creative power—has in patriarchal culture used the language of heterosexual love or patriarchal theology. Ted Hughes tells us that
the eruption of (Dickinson's) imagination and poetry followed when she shifted her passion, with the energy of desperation, from (the) lost man onto his only possible substitute,—the Universe in its Divine aspect … Thereafter, the marriage that had been denied in the real world, went forward in the spiritual … just as the Universe in its Divine aspect became the mirror-image of her "husband," so the whole religious dilemma of New England, at that most critical moment in its history, became the mirror-image of her relationship to him, of her "marriage" in fact.1
This seems to me to miss the point on a grand scale. There are facts we need to look at. First, Emily Dickinson did not marry. And her non-marrying was neither a pathological retreat as John Cody sees it, nor probably even a conscious decision; it was a fact in her life as in her contemporary Christina Rossetti's; both women had more primary needs. Second: unlike Rossetti, Dickinson did not become a religiously dedicated woman; she was heretical, heterodox, in her religious opinions, and stayed away from church and dogma. What, in fact, did she allow to "put the Belt around her Life"—what did wholly occupy her mature years and possess her? For "Whom" did she decline the invitations of other lives? The writing of poetry. Nearly two thousand poems. Three hundred and sixty-six poems in the year of her fullest power. What was it like to be writing poetry you knew (and I am sure she did know) was of a class by itself—to be fuelled by the energy it took first to confront, then to condense that range of psychic experience into that language; then to copy out the poems and lay them in a trunk, or send a few here and there to friends or relatives as occasional verse or as gestures of confidence? I am sure she knew who she was, as she indicates in this poem:
Myself was formed—a carpenter—
An unpretending time
My Plane—and I, together wrought
Before a Builder came—
To measure our attainments
Had we the Art of Boards
Sufficiently developed—He'd hire us
My Tools took Human—Faces—
The Bench, where we had toiled—
Against the Man—persuaded—
We—Temples Build—I said— (# "488")
This is a poem of the great year 1862, the year in which she first sent a few poems to Thomas Higginson for criticism. Whether it antedates or postdates that occasion is unimportant; it is a poem of knowing one's measure, regardless of the judgments of others.
There are many poems which carry the weight of this knowledge. Here is another one:
I'm ceded—I've stopped being Theirs—
The name They dropped upon my face
With water, in the country church
Is finished using, now,
And They can put it with my dolls,
My childhood, and the string of spools,
I've finished threading—too—
Baptized before, without the choice,
But this time, consciously, of Grace—
Unto supremest name—
Called to my Fill—the Crescent dropped—
Existence's whole Arc, filled up
With one small Diadem.
My second Rank—too small the first—
Crowned—Crowing—on my Father's breast—
A half unconscious Queen—
But this time—Adequate—Erect—
With Will to choose—or to reject—
And I choose—just a Crown— (# "508")
Now, this poem partakes of the imagery of being "twice-born" or, in Christian liturgy, "confirmed"—and if this poem had been written by Christina Rossetti I would be inclined to give more weight to a theological reading. But it was written by Emily Dickinson, who used the Christian metaphor far more than she let it use her. This is a poem of great pride—not pridefulness, but self-confirmation—and it is curious how little Dickinson's critics, perhaps misled by her diminutives, have recognized the will and pride in her poetry. It is a poem of movement from childhood to womanhood, of transcending the patriarchal condition of bearing her father's name and "crowing—on my Father's breast—." She is now a conscious Queen, "Adequate—Erect / With Will to choose, or to reject—."
There is one poem which is the real "onlie begetter" of my thoughts here about Dickinson; a poem I have mused over, repeated to myself, taken into myself over many years. I think it is a poem about possession by the daemon, about the dangers and risks of such possession if you are a woman, about the knowledge that power in a woman can seem destructive, and that you cannot live without the daemon once it has possessed you. The archetype of the daemon as masculine is beginning to change, but it has been real for women up until now. But this woman poet also perceives herself as a lethal weapon:
My life had stood—a Loaded Gun—
In Corners—till a Day
The Owner passed—identified—
And carried me away—
And now We roam in Sovereign Woods—
And now We hunt the Doe—
And every time I speak for Him—
The Mountains straight reply—
And do I smile, such cordial light
Upon the Valley glow—
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let its pleasure through—
And when at Night—our good Day done—
I guard My Master's Head—
'Tis better than the Eider-Duck's
Deep Pillow—to have shared—
To foe of His—I'm deadly foe—
None stir the second time—
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye—
Or an emphatic Thumb—
Though I than he—may longer live
He longer must—than I—
For I have but the power to kill,
Without—the power to die— (# "754")
Here the poet sees herself as split, not between anything so simple as "masculine" and "feminine" identity but between the hunter, admittedly masculine, but also a human person, an active, willing being, and the gun—an object, condemned to remain inactive until the hunter—the owner—takes possession of it. The gun contains an energy capable of rousing echoes in the mountains and lighting up the valleys; it is also deadly, "Vesuvian;" it is also its owner's defender against the "foe." It is the gun, furthermore, who speaks for him. If there is a female consciousness in this poem it is buried deeper than the images: it exists in the ambivalence toward power, which is extreme. Active willing and creation in women are forms of aggression, and aggression is both "the power to kill" and punishable by death. The union of gun with hunter embodies the danger of identifying and taking hold of her forces, not least that in so doing she risks defining herself—and being defined—as aggressive, as unwomanly, ("and now we hunt the Doe") and as potentially lethal. That which she experiences in herself as energy and potency can also be experienced as pure destruction. The final stanza, with its precarious balance of phrasing, seems a desperate attempt to resolve the ambivalence; but, I think, it is no resolution, only a further extension of ambivalence.
Though I than he—may longer live
He longer must—than I—
For I have but the power to kill,
Without—the power to die—
The poet experiences herself as loaded gun, imperious energy; yet without the Owner, the possessor, she is merely lethal. Should that possession abandon her—but the thought is unthinkable: "He longer must than I." The pronoun is masculine; the antecedent is what Keats called "The Genius of Poetry."
I do not pretend to have—I don't even wish to have—explained this poem, accounted for its every image; it will reverberate with new tones long after my words about it have ceased to matter. But I think that for us, at this time, it is a central poem in understanding Emily Dickinson, and ourselves, and the condition of the woman artist, particularly in the 19th century. It seems likely that the 19th-century woman poet, especially, felt the medium of poetry as dangerous, in ways that the woman novelist did not feel the medium of fiction to be. In writing even such a novel of elemental sexuality and anger as Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë could at least theoretically separate herself from her characters; they were, after all, fictitious beings. Moreover, the novel is or can be a construct, planned and organized to deal with human experiences on one level at a time. Poetry is too much rooted in the unconscious; it presses too close against the barriers of repression; and the 19th-century woman had much to repress. It is interesting that Elizabeth Barrett tried to fuse poetry and fiction in writing "Aurora Leigh"—perhaps apprehending the need for fictional characters to carry the charge of her experience as a woman artist. But with the exception of "Aurora Leigh" and Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market"—that extraordinary and little-known poem drenched in oral eroticism—Emily Dickinson's is the only poetry in English by a woman of that century which pierces so far beyond the ideology of the "feminine" and the conventions of womanly feeling. To write it at all, she had to be willing to enter chambers of the self in which
Ourself behind ourself, concealed—
Should startle most—
and to relinquish control there, to take those risks, she had to create a relationship to the outer world where she could feel in control.
It is an extremely painful and dangerous way to live—split between a publicly acceptable persona, and a part of yourself that you perceive as the essential, the creative and powerful self, yet also as possibly unacceptable, perhaps even monstrous.
Much Madness is divinest sense—
To a discerning Eye—
Much sense—the starkest Madness.
'Tis the Majority
In this, as All, prevail—
Assent—and you are sane—
Demur—you're straightway dangerous—
And handled with a chain— (# "435")
For many women the stresses of this splitting have led, in a world so ready to assert our innate passivity and to deny our independence and creativity, to extreme consequences: the mental asylum, self-imposed silence, recurrent depression, suicide, and often severe loneliness.
Dickinson is the American poet whose work consisted in exploring states of psychic extremity. For a long time, as we have seen, this fact was obscured by the kinds of selections made from her work by timid if well-meaning editors. In fact, Dickinson was a great psychologist; and like every great psychologist, she began with the material she had at hand: herself. She had to possess the courage to enter, through language, states which most people deny or veil with silence.
The first Day's Night had come—
And grateful that a thing
So terrible—had been endured—
I told my soul to sing—
She said her Strings were snapt—
Her Bow—to Atoms blown—
And so to mend her—gave me work
Until another Morn—
And then—a Day as huge
As Yesterdays in pairs,
Unrolled its horror in my face—
Until it blocked my eyes—
My Brain—begun to laugh—
I mumbled—like a fool—
And tho' 'tis years ago—that Day—
My brain keeps giggling—still.
And Something's odd—within—
That person that I was—
And this One—do not feel the same—
Could it be Madness—this?
Dickinson's letters acknowledge a period of peculiarly intense personal crisis; her biographers have variously ascribed it to the pangs of renunciation of an impossible love, or to psychic damage deriving from her mother's presumed depression and withdrawal after her birth. What concerns us here is the fact that she chose to probe the nature of this experience in language:
The Soul has Bandaged moments—
When too appalled to stir—
She feels some ghastly Fright come up
And stop to look at her—
Salute her—with long fingers—
Caress her freezing hair—
Sip, Goblin, from the very lips
Unworthy, that a thought so mean
Accost a Theme—so—fair—
The soul has moments of Escape—
When bursting all the doors—
She dances like a Bomb, abroad,
And swings upon the hours …
The Soul's retaken moments—
When, Felon led along,
With shackles on the plumed feet,
And staples, in the Song,
The Horror welcomes her, again,
These, are not brayed of Tongue— (# "512")
In this poem, the word "Bomb" is dropped, almost carelessly, as a correlative for the soul's active, liberated states—it occurs in a context of apparent euphoria, but its implications are more than euphoric—they are explosive, destructive. The Horror from which in such moments the soul escapes has a masculine, "goblin" form, and suggests the perverse and terrifying rape of a "bandaged" and powerless self. In at least one poem, Dickinson depicts the actual process of suicide:
He scanned it—staggered—
Dropped the Loop
To Past or Period—
Caught helpless at a sense as if
His mind were going blind—
Groped up—to see if God was there—
Groped backward at Himself—
Caressed a Trigger absently
And wandered out of Life. (# "1062")
The precision of knowledge in this brief poem is such that we must assume that Dickinson had, at least in fantasy, drifted close to that state in which the "Loop" that binds us to "Past or Period" is "dropped" and we grope randomly at what remains of abstract notions of sense, God, or self, before—almost absent-mindedly—reaching for a solution. But it's worth noting that this is a poem in which the suicidal experience has been distanced, refined, transformed through a devastating accuracy of language. It is not suicide that is studied here, but the dissociation of self and mind and world which precedes.
Dickinson was convinced that a life worth living could be found within the mind and against the grain of external circumstance: "Reverse cannot befall / That fine prosperity / Whose Sources are interior—." (# "395") The horror, for her, was that which set "Staples in the Song"—the numbing and freezing of the interior, a state she describes over and over:
There is a Languor of the Life
More imminent than Pain—
'Tis Pain's Successor—When the Soul
Has suffered all it can—
A Dimness like a Fog
As Mists—obliterate a Crag.
The Surgeon—does not blanch—at pain
His Habit—is severe—
But tell him that it ceased to feel—
That creature lying there—
And he will tell you—skill is late—
A Mightier than He—
Has ministered before Him—
There's no Vitality. (# "396")
I think the equation surgeon-artist is a fair one here; the artist can work with the materials of pain; she cuts to probe and heal; but she is powerless at the point where
After great pain, a formal feeling comes—
The nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs—
The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore,
And Yesterday, or Centuries before?
The Feet, mechanical, go round—
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought—
A Wooden way
A Quartz contentment, like a stone—
This is the Hour of Lead
Remembered, if outlived
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow—
First—Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go— (# "341")
For the poet, the terror is precisely in those periods of psychic death, when even the possibility of work is negated; her "occupation's gone." Yet she also describes the unavailing effort to numb emotion:
Me from Myself—to banish—
Had I Art—
Impregnable my Fortress
Unto All Heart—
But since Myself—assault Me—
How have I peace
Except by subjugating
And since We're mutual Monarch
How this be
Except by Abdication—
Me—of Me? (# "642")
The possibility of abdicating oneself—of ceasing to be—remains.
Severe Service of myself
I—hastened to demand
To fill the awful longitude
Your life had left behind—
I worried Nature with my Wheels
When Hers had ceased to run—
When she had put away her Work
My own had just begun.
I strove to weary Brain and Bone—
To harass to fatigue
The glittering Retinue of nerves—
Vitality to clog
To some dull comfort Those obtain
Who put a Head away
They knew the Hair to—
And forget the color of the Day—
Affliction would not be appeased—
The Darkness braced as firm
As all my strategem had been
The Midnight to confirm—
No drug for Consciousness—can be—
Alternative to die
Is Nature's only Pharmacy
For Being's Malady— (# "786")
Yet consciousness—not simply the capacity to suffer, but the capacity to experience intensely at every instant—creates of death not a blotting-out but a final illumination:
This Consciousness that is aware
Of Neighbors and the Sun
Will be the one aware of Death
And that itself alone
Is traversing the interval
And most profound experiment
Appointed unto Men—
How adequate unto itself
Its properties shall be
Itself unto itself and none
Shall make discovery.
Adventure most unto itself
The Soul condemned to be—
Attended by a single Hound
Its own identity. (# "822")
The poet's relationship to her poetry has, it seems to me—and I am not speaking only of Emily Dickinson—a twofold nature. Poetic language—the poem on paper—is a concretization of the poetry of the world at large, the self, and the forces within the self; and those forces are rescued from formlessness, lucidified, and integrated in the act of writing poems. But there is a more ancient concept of the poet, which is that she is endowed to speak for those who do not have the gift of language, or to see for those who—for whatever reasons—are less conscious of what they are living through. It is as though the risks of the poet's existence can be put to some use beyond her own survival.
The Province of the Saved
Should be the Art—To save—
Through Skill obtained in themselves—
The Science of the Grave
No Man can understand
But He that hath endured
The Dissolution—in Himself—
That man—be qualified
To qualify Despair
To Those who failing new—
Mistake Defeat for Death—Each time—
Till acclimated—to— (# "539")
The poetry of extreme states, the poetry of danger, can allow its readers to go further in our own awareness, take risks we might not have dared; it says, at least: "Someone has been here before."
The Soul's distinct Connection
Is best disclosed by Danger
Or quick Calamity—
As Lightning on a Landscape
Exhibits Sheets of Place—
Not yet suspected—but for Flash—
And Click—and Suddenness. (# "974")
Crumbling is not an instant's Act
A fundamental pause
Are organized Decays.
'Tis first a cobweb on the Soul
A Cuticle of Dust
A Borer in the Axis
An Elemental Rust—
Ruin is formal—Devil's work
Consecutive and slow—
Fail in an instant—no man did
Slipping—is Crash's law. (# "997")
I felt a Cleaving in my Mind
As if my Brain had split—
I tried to match it—Seam by Seam—
But could not make them fit.
The thought behind, I strove to join
Unto the thought before—
But Sequence ravelled out of Sound
Like Balls—upon a Floor (# "937")
There are many more Emily Dickinsons than I have tried to call up here. Wherever you take hold of her, she proliferates. I wish I had time here to explore her complex sense of Truth; to follow the thread we unravel when we look at the numerous and passionate poems she wrote to or about women; to probe her ambivalent feelings about fame, a subject pursued by many male poets before her; simply to examine the poems in which she is directly apprehending the natural world. No one since the 17th century had reflected more variously or more probingly upon death and dying. What I have tried to do here is follow through some of the origins and consequences of her choice to be, not only a poet but a woman who explored her own mind, without any of the guidelines of orthodoxy. To say "yes" to her powers was not simply a major act of nonconformity in the 19th century; even in our own time it has been assumed that Emily Dickinson, not patriarchal society, was "the problem." The more we come to recognize the unwritten and written laws and taboos underpinning patriarchy, the less problematical, surely, will seem the methods she chose.
1. A Choice of Emily Dickinson's Verse, p. 11.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1922
MARCIA FALK (ESSAY DATE 1989)
SOURCE: Falk, Marcia. "Poem 271." Women's Studies 16, nos. 1-2 (1989): 23-7.
In the following essay, Falk interprets poem "271" as a chronicle of self-discovery in which the narrator rejects the role of bride or nun.
In the first publication of Emily Dickinson's poem # "271" (in 1896, ten years after Dickinson's death), the poem was entitled "Wedded" by the editors. The editorial assumption that this passionate lyric was intended as a paean to marriage is typical of the way Dickinson's work and life have been treated by the critics until recently. It is much to the credit of feminist scholars in the recent past that readers have begun to see the poet and the poetry on their own terms, rather than filtered through the lens of heterosexist assumptions and values. The revisioning of poem # "271" as an expression of the poet's consecration to her art—an interpretation that sees the "woman—white" as Dickinson's private symbol for the role of the poet—falls within this new line of criticism. Insofar as it rejects the idea that the poem is a celebration of traditional marriage, this interpretation offers an important corrective to the earlier view. However, I believe that it does not yet fully take into account the logical development of the poem's argument—its unexpected turns of thought—and the literary and social conventions that the poem rests upon and ultimately transforms. I would like, therefore, to propose another alternative, a different dialogue with this poem.
I am going to begin by asserting the view—surprising though it may at first seem in the context of this feminist forum—that the "woman—white" is a double symbol for the traditional female roles of bride and nun, both of which, of course, are marriage roles—that is, roles of dependent relationship to a male other (or Other). Indeed, I think it is impossible to ignore these conventional readings of the "woman—white," no matter what information we have about Dickinson's biography. That Dickinson never married, that she chose to dress in white, that she dedicated herself fiercely to her poetry at about the time this poem was written—these are all facts of interest and importance, but they cannot obliterate, for us as readers any more than for Dickinson as writer, the common symbolic associations of the image of "a woman—white." In our culture, such an image cannot but call to mind the bridal gown and, perhaps secondarily, the novice's habit. Moreover, as we shall see as we read through the poem, Dickinson develops the bridal image thematically as the poem progresses, making it the foundation of a sophisticated poetic structure.
Having said this, however, I want to follow with the claim that the poem is finally not about choosing to be a bride or a nun, but about the process by which the speaker comes to reject such a choice. Indeed, the poem is not about the choice of any vocation or the adoption of any role. Rather, it is about the overthrowing of roles and idealizations in favor of embracing an autonomous, self-created life. Such a life is one of real and particular experiences—as contrasted with idealized, gender-determined roles—and no matter how this life is viewed by the world, no matter how "small" and inconsequential it may seem to external authorities and "Sages," it swells proud and large in the speaker's own "vest."
But the poem does not begin with this realization; it ends there. The following is an outline of the sequence of thoughts and events that leads to this defiant conclusion.
The poem recounts a mini-narrative, describing first what the speaker once thought ("A solemn thing—it was—I said—" [emphases mine]), followed by how she came to consider this idea ("I pondered how the bliss would look—"), and finally stating what she now believes and feels ("And then—/ … I sneered—"). The sequence of actions completed by the first person narrator—I said, I pondered, and then I sneered—summarizes the poem's story, which is, in effect, the tale of a change of heart and mind.
Once, the speaker tells us, she proclaimed it "a solemn thing" to be a "woman—white" (a bride to man or God). She believed this role to be sanctioned by God and cloaked in blamelessness (purity) and mystery (sexuality, passion). While the almost-oxymoronic phrase "blameless mystery" calls to mind the miraculous Virgin Birth (and, hence, associations of the convent), it also suggests the paradoxes of our culture's idealized image of the secular bride, especially the adolescent one: virtuous and virginal, yet seductive and sexual. Consider, for a moment, the classic style of wedding gowns: white, of course, and floor-length, covering the body from top—often beginning at the neck, with lace—to the very bottom, and even trailing beyond; yet form-fitting at the torso and often quite low-cut at the bust beneath the conveniently transparent lace; thus projecting the deliberately confusing message of chastity that seduces, modesty that reveals. To be both virgin and femme fatale was once an ideal shared by many American young women, living as they did in a culture deeply conflicted about sexuality in general and female sexuality in particular. In the first stanza of the poem, the speaker describes the aspirations she once embraced and the convictions she espoused when she declared it "solemn" to be a bride.
In the second stanza, the speaker continues to refer back to this earlier stage of life when she imagined her own future as a woman. "The purple well," another richly associative symbol, seems to emerge out of the symbol of the "woman—white," and to extend its meanings in both secular and religious domains. Thus, as a vaginal image, the well suggests female sexuality, while as a sacred image drawn from the body of nature—an image which is also associated with women, especially in biblical and other religious sources—it can represent a spiritual passageway, a site of revelation, a source of life. Although purple may appear to be the opposite of white—the one the symbolic color of lifeblood and passion, the other of innocence and purity—such a joining of opposites only completes in imagery the paradox implied in the "blameless mystery" of the first stanza. White becomes purple, as bridal innocence yields to marital passion, or religious self-renunciation leads to union with the Divine. To the adolescent imagination, the virgin ideal leads naturally into an idealized life of passion, be that passion sexual or religious. For the youthful persona of the speaker's past, the possibilities of "the purple well" seem infinite, "plummetless"; indeed, this well is a fount of eternal life, promising to "return—Eternity" to her.
The last two lines of the stanza are syntactically difficult, and it is tempting to read "Eternity—until—" as a reversal for the sake of the rhyme. But there seems to be more than rhyme at stake here. Placing "until" after "eternity," Dickinson cuts eternity short, and the word "until" becomes the turning point between the two halves of the poem: I said all of this until …I pondered.
In the second half of the poem, the vision changes, as thought supersedes the adolescent imaginings recounted in the first two stanzas. The speaker now ponders the "bliss" about which she had earlier only fantasized, wondering whether the life she had envisioned will seem as "big" once she possesses it as it had seemed when she had only imagined it. At a distance, she notes, this bliss was necessarily blurred by "fog," the fog of unreality. The logic of the laws of perspective is reversed here. Normally, things seem larger the closer they are brought into view. But here, the speaker questions whether her fantasies will seem—will "feel," to be precise—as big when they are owned, held in the hand, as they did when they were only glimpsed from far away. The answer, unspoken but already implied in the doubting, implied in the question itself, is a frank and resounding "no."
No, the life of the bride or the nun will not seem so large to her once she owns it. Having seen that her fantasies were misguided, overblown, the speaker now has the insight that her life is already large. It is already full and whole as "Horizons"—that is, a world in itself—swelling in her "vest" (a metonymy for her body, hence her Self, to replace the image of the gown or habit implied by the "woman—white"). This is the revelation of the fourth stanza. The so-called "Sages"—male authorities, society's standard-bearers—may have deemed her life "small," incomplete, unworthy. In their eyes, she may need to dedicate herself to a groom or to a God in order to be made whole, to be saved. But to this false vision she now replies with defiant and self-confident restraint—"softly," with only a sneer. With a sarcasm strongly implied by the use of quotation marks, Dickinson inverts the meaning of the Sages' word: "small" becomes, by implication, infinitely large. The speaker's choice to be her own Self—not to give her Self over to a male other, or to any other-defined role—seems fully valid now, not needing further argument or explanation. Indeed, her choices do not concern the outside world at all, for they are hers alone to make.
Having achieved this self-sufficiency, the speaker has completed her journey, arriving from adolescence to adulthood. She has gone from would-be bride ("woman—white—to be") to true mother of her Self. Her journey has taken her through an idealized anticipation of sexual, or mystical, union (the life dropped into the bottomless "purple well"), and then through a conceptualizing period (when she ponders). It is in this period of conceptualization/conception that she comes to reject the false "bliss," and in its stead to conceive—virginally, as it were, without union with a male other—a new identity, one which she will eventually hold in her own hands. This embryonic ("'small'") new identity then swells large in the womb of her "vest," until finally she is ready to defy the paternal authorities, become her own parent, and give birth to a new Self.
In poem # "508," Dickinson will subsequently write:
I'm ceded—I've stopped being Theirs—
A half unconscious Queen—
But this time—Adequate—Erect,
With Will to choose, or to reject,
And I choose, just a Crown—
The speaker of # "508" makes clear just how crucial was the choice of her own identity, an identity contrasted with the one imposed on her by others. The speaker of poem # "271" describes a similar choice and provides a similar contrast; however, she reveals not just the end of the process but also the internal stages along the way—and this revelation is what makes the poem so poignant. Thus poem # "271" depicts the temptations that are at first succumbed to, the robes that are eventually cast off, and the idols that must finally be overthrown before the Crown of the Self can be donned.
The genius of poem # "271" lies in the subtle interrelationship between its imagery and its structure, and in its bold appropriation and transformation of elemental cultural conventions. By an exquisitely crafted use of her art, Dickinson has taken the theme of bride-become-wife-and-mother (or, virgin-become-nun-or-Madonna) and converted it into the story of a woman's creation of her Self. She has done far more than reject tradition here; she has passed through it, transcended it, and made from it something wholly new.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12861
A. JAMES WOHLPART (ESSAY DATE WINTER 2001)
SOURCE: Wohlpart, A. James. "A New Redemption: Emily Dickinson's Poetic in Fascicle 22 and 'I dwell in Possibility.'" South Atlantic Review 66, no. 1 (winter 2001): 50-83.
In the following essay, Wohlpart argues that the poems that make up fascicle 22, particularly "I dwell in Possibility—," illustrate the gender constraints implicit in a patriarchal culture and Dickinson's attempt to undermine the foundations of that culture.
It was a life deliberately organized on her terms. The terms she had been handed by society—Calvinist Protestantism, Romanticism, the nineteenth-century corseting of women's bodies, choices, and sexuality—could spell insanity to a woman genius. What this one had to do was retranslate her own unorthodox, subversive, sometimes volcanic propensities into a dialect called metaphor: her native language.
—Adrienne Rich, "Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson"
In 1983, in her introduction to Feminist Critics Read Emily Dickinson, Suzanne Juhasz outlined a revisionary stance that she felt was necessary to appreciate fully Dickinson's poetry.1 In reaction to traditional criticism, which suggested that Emily Dickinson turned to poetry—a masculine activity—because of her failure as a woman or which read the poetry in light of a specific cultural context altogether ignoring concerns of gender, Juhasz posited the need for critical inquiry that was founded on the fact that Emily Dickinson was simultaneously a woman and a poet. Included in this collection of essays, Sandra M. Gilbert offered a reading that detailed the way in which Emily Dickinson structured her "life/text"—an emblematic conjoining of herself as woman with her poetry—"around a series of 'mysteries' that were distinctly female, deliberately exploring and exploiting the characteristics, even the constraints, of nineteenth-century womanhood so as to transform and transcend them" (23).
In the 1980s, critics offered revealing analyses of Emily Dickinson's poetry in connection to the concerns of domesticity that were central to her life and her work. The primary focus of these readings was the way in which Emily Dickinson transformed the limitations of nineteenth-century gender roles into a powerful force that allowed her to refigure the world around her. Suzanne Juhasz, in The Undiscovered Continent, describes Emily Dickinson's concern with the domestic economy, witnessed in her retreat from the external world into an internal, created space, as a "strategy," explaining that
Dickinson chose to keep to her house, to her room, to live in her mind rather than the external world, in order to achieve certain goals and to circumvent or overcome certain forces in her environment and experience that were in opposition to these goals—particularly, the expectations and norms that a patriarchal society creates for women, especially problematic when a woman wants to be a poet.
Juhasz and others demonstrated that Dickinson used the home and domestic concerns, which represent an integral component of the cultural constraints of the nineteenth century, as a force for subverting the patriarchal society that surrounded her.2
The readings of the 1980s, which opened a new avenue for Dickinson criticism, culminated in the 1990s with such works as Paula Bennett's Emily Dickinson: Woman Poet and Betsy Erkkila's The Wicked Sisters: Woman Poets, Literary History, and Discord. Bennett grappled with the paradoxical implications of the role of domesticity in Emily Dickinson's poetry, admitting that, even while "Dickinson herself appears to have had little sympathy with the values of spirituality, purity and service underlying the role she chose to play,"
there is no way we can separate Dickinson from the domestic life she led or from the role of 'poetess' she chose to play.…[F]or whatever reservations Dickinson had concerning domesticity, all the evidence suggests that she nevertheless identified strongly with women and with many aspects of domestic life.…Her submergence into the women's sphere and her presentation of herself as 'poetess' (a woman poet) was, therefore, a good deal more than simply a role she played in order to keep from playing others.
Erkkila explains that "What made Dickinson's female world unique was that it became, for her at least, not an initiation into but a form of resistance to the structures of male power as they were embodied in home and school, church and state, workplace and marketplace" (19). As Erkkila, Juhasz, and others have noted, the home, for Emily Dickinson, was a creative space that allowed for a reaction against the domestic economy of the nineteenth century. Rather than a place for woman as server of others, the home became a place for woman as creator.
Dickinson's manipulation of domestic imagery, at once accepting and subverting the values of her culture, suggests the possibility of a heightened awareness of the critical significance of her poetry, a kind of self-consciousness not only about the poems created but also about the creative process itself. Indeed, Dickinson very often used her poetry to explore her own poetic—that is, the meaning of her poetry and her role as poet.3 Because she had committed herself to a project that countered cultural expectations, and because she launched that project from the very seat of those expectations, Emily Dickinson often became self-reflective as she explored the ramifications of being a woman poet against the expectations of nineteenth-century womanhood. Such a concern for defining her poetic, then, was necessarily tied to explorations of domesticity; indeed, in her poems about creativity we can perhaps most clearly see the way in which Dickinson transformed the home and the activities of the home into a poetic force that undermined nineteenth-century culture.
One such obvious example of domestic concerns explicitly intersecting with poetic concerns is in the private publication of her poetry in the form of the fascicle. R. W. Franklin, who has produced the most extensive scholarship on Emily Dickinson's manuscripts, suggests that the gathering of poems into fascicles, "a personal enactment of the public act" of publication, may have been motivated by the desire "to reduce disorder in her manuscripts" (Introduction ix). Yet he goes on to note that as the binding of poems progressed, the fascicles became less a record of completed poems and more of "a continuing workshop where, in producing a new copy for friends or in reading among the poems, she would enter the specific poetic process again" (Introduction x). Such a view of the fascicles—as an organic workshop—is very much linked to domestic concerns in that it embodies the view of Dickinson's poetry as living things used to nurture her relationships. Wendy Martin notes that "The word fascicle, which her sister Lavinia used to describe the packets of sewn poems, is … a botanical term referring to a flower pattern in which the petals spring irregularly from the top of a main stem like a peony. In binding her poems into fascicular packets, Emily Dickinson chose an appropriate form for the blossoming of her poems; each poem was a petal, each packet a flower" (144). The organic metaphors used to describe the publication process—whether through considering the writing process or the botanical reference—suggests that the fascicles were living things, part of Emily Dickinson's garden.4 Moreover, both the physical nature and the content of the fascicles link them to a domestic economy. The physical method of binding the poems—sewing them together into a unit—"converted traditional female thread-and-needle work into a different kind of housework and her own form of productive industry" (Erkkila 38).
With the 1981 publication of Emily Dickinson's poems in manuscript form, critics have begun to explore the significance of the arrangement of poems in the fascicle form. The most extensive consideration of this issue, Sharon Cameron's Choosing Not Choosing, engages the manuscripts in all their complexity—considering the importance of variants in the poems, of clusters or groupings of poems within fascicles, of the relationships of poems within these clusters, and of the relationships of clusters to each other. Cameron is ultimately concerned with the way in which these variants and multiple relationships complicate each other in order to produce an "excess of meaning" (43).5 M. L. Rosenthal and Sally M. Gall, on the other hand, engage Fascicles 15 and 16 in order to demonstrate that Emily Dickinson used the form of the fascicle to provide order, albeit conditional, to her chaotic emotions: "The poems penetrate a life of secret turmoil, each striking a certain held pitch of awareness; and the fascicles mobilize these little systems of subjective energy into larger ones, permitting a more complex equilibrium among effects" (48). Others, such as Ruth Miller and William Shurr, have argued that a repeated drama occurs throughout the fascicles; for instance, Miller identified two primary dramas: of a woman, striving for acceptance or knowledge, failing, and then placing hope in an afterlife; or of a poet, seeking truth about the world, and then celebrating the relation between the mortal and the immortal, the natural and the spiritual (Poetry of Emily Dickinson 249).
While there is a great deal of disagreement about the way in which Emily Dickinson's fascicles are to be considered, Cameron, Rosenthal and Gall, and Miller all suggest that the fascicles present poems in ways that allow for interesting interactions among poems or groupings of poems that amplifies the meanings and possibilities of the poems.6 Indeed, at the 1997 MLA convention, Eleanor Heginbotham argued that certain poems might play specific roles within a fascicle, acting as a central poem for the movement of the fascicle, or that two poems might intentionally face one another within a fascicle, creating a tension that is resolved elsewhere. With these contexts in mind, I would like to turn to an analysis of "fascicle 22" (arranged in 1862), with a special focus on what I consider a central poem in this cluster, "I dwell in Possibility," one of Emily Dickinson's preeminent poems about poetry and the poet. Central to my analysis will be an awareness of the way in which Emily Dickinson wrote from the perspective of a woman poet who concerned herself with undermining the foundations of the cultural beliefs that surrounded her through the private publication of her works.
As a woman, Dickinson experienced the dichotomization of her culture—a polarization of male and female, culture and nature, spiritual and physical, this life and afterlife, sin and salvation—as constraint; rather than working to reconcile the binary oppositions of her culture, however, Emily Dickinson offered a poetic that undermines the ground of these oppositions in order to subvert the cultural norms that imprisoned her and thus to expand into limitlessness and freedom.7 Ultimately, the liberation that lies at the heart of Emily Dickinson's poetic in "fascicle 22" and "I dwell" subverts orthodox, religious views on redemption and can most clearly be defined as the establishment of interrelationships with the natural world and with other humans that enable her to transform the quotidian into the sacred.8 Dickinson subverts her culture's views on redemption in two primary ways: first, through offering a re-valuation of culturally opposed dichotomies, such as this life versus the afterlife and the physical versus the spiritual, in order to question the foundation of these oppositions, and, second, through reclaiming and revisioning the Garden of Eden, the originary space of these dichotomies. In "fascicle 22" with "I dwell" as a central poem, using images of the house and the garden, Emily Dickinson demonstrates that the dichotomies that originate from such institutions as religion, which create a prison especially for women and which pervade and dominate our lives, might be overcome through grasping the physical and temporal interconnectedness of all things—of the natural landscape as well as of humans.9
The first grouping of poems, including "A Prison gets to be a friend—" (J "652," F "456"), "Nature—sometimes sears a Sapling—" (J314, F457), and "She dealt her pretty words like Blades—" (J479, F458), describes the way in which humans not only accept and become accustomed to cultural constraints but also how we refuse to engage the truth about these experiences because it is too painful.10 As a result of our cultural constraints and disregard for truth, we become separated from nature, which is also here linked to the female poet. Significantly, Dickinson's description of the binary opposition between culture and nature—set up most clearly in a juxtaposition of the first two poems—posits the way in which we become comfortable and even happy in our cultural beliefs even though they imprison us. Set against this state of comfort, the poet, linked to nature and the feminine, offers a critique that creates pain and discomfort but ultimately is tied to freedom. The opposition between the poet and our cultural beliefs, which is set up in this first grouping, is central to the movement of the fascicle as a whole. While the central poem of the fascicle, "I dwell," offers a renewed vision of redemption, a kind of escape from our cultural system, the last grouping of poems in the fascicle returns to the concept of constraint explored here.
"A Prison gets to be a friend—" describes the process and the effects of acculturation, especially the way in which, as we grow older, we willingly replace our "freedom" with a "prison."11 The opening of the poem explains that, between our prison and ourselves,
… a Kinsmanship express—
And in it's narrow Eyes—
We come to look with gratitude
For the appointed Beam
It deal us—stated as our food—
And hungered for—the same— (ll. 3-8)
According to Dickinson, humans not only come to accept their prisons as kin, but also come to be grateful for the attention we receive from our imprisoning systems; more importantly, we come to hunger for this attention as if it were our sustenance. Because of our acculturating experience, we lose sight of the freedom we experienced as children—"As plashing in the Pools—/ When Memory was a Boy—" (ll. 13-14)—and perceive the prison as more real than liberation:
… Not so real
The Cheek of Liberty—
As this Phantasm Steel—
Whose features—Day and Night—
Are present to us—as Our Own— (ll. 19-23)
Dickinson suggests that the culturally created beliefs that guide our daily activities and define our selves—the beliefs that imprison us—are not real, are "Phantasm." Yet, significantly, we do not perceive the illusory nature of these systems; rather, because our beliefs provide a framework for navigating daily life, even though they simultaneously constrain us, they become more real than the liberty that we have abandoned.
The poem concludes, linking the imprisonment described in the poem to religion and reiterating the way in which we accept cultural beliefs—and, here, specifically, a belief in redemption in the afterlife—as the norm:
The Liberty we knew
Avoided—like a Dream—
Too wide for any Night but Heaven—
If That—indeed—redeem— (ll. 29-32)
As humans grow older, accepting cultural beliefs, we consider the freedom of our childhood, a freedom that we experienced naturally, as fantasy and can not even imagine liberation except insofar as it is connected to the afterlife. The acculturation process replaces our freedom with imprisonment, and relegates freedom ("redemption") to the spiritual world. Moreover, we have not only lost our ability to perceive true liberty, but also our ability to imagine—in the "Night"—this liberty. Consequently, we place our hopes for redemption elsewhere, in the afterlife, a hope that Dickinson questions in the final line.
This first poem begins to set up some of the binary oppositions that Dickinson will seek to undermine later in the fascicle—especially the dichotomies of this life and the afterlife, and sin and salvation—and to connect this project to poetry. While she does not dispel the polarities here, she does question them in the final line of the poem—"If That [Heaven]—indeed—redeem—" (l. 32), suggesting that the hope for redemption and freedom placed on the spiritual afterlife may be misplaced. But she is also concerned with the relation between the prison of culture and poetry:
We learn to know the Planks—
That answer to Our feet—
So miserable a sound—at first—
Nor even now—so sweet— (ll. 9-12)
On one level, these lines describe the sound of pacing on the floor of a prison cell that we have become accustomed to. On another level, however, they describe the way in which her poetry (the metrical feet of her poetic lines) adjust to, though they never completely harmonize with, the prison. Such a negative depiction will be significant to my reading of the fascicle as a whole, which ends rather despairingly in the limitations of religion described in the first poem of the fascicle.
The second poem in the first grouping, "Nature—sometimes sears a Sapling—", counterbalances the first poem through a description of the way in which Nature impacts both the natural world and humans. The first part of the poem depicts the harmful effects of Nature on the landscape:
Nature—sometimes sears a Sapling—
Sometimes—scalps a Tree—
Her Green People recollect it
When they do not die—
Fainter Leaves—to Further Seasons—
Dumbly testify— (ll. 1-6)
Not only do these first lines demonstrate that pain is a natural part of life—the searing of the sapling and the scalping of the tree—they also demonstrate that this pain is part of the cycle of life—the fainter leaves that grow in later seasons. In this way, Dickinson insinuates a cyclical view of time, one that will be built on later in the fascicle, and asserts that pain is a part of growth.12 But she also demonstrates that humans respond differently to the pain: "We—who have the Souls—/ Die oftener—Not so vitally—" (ll. 7-8). Humans, who are more delicate and fragile than the natural landscape—we die more often—die in a different way than the natural world, for we die "Not so vitally—" suggesting that our death is not that of our mortal bodies but of our "Souls." The pain of Nature, then, does not kill humans; rather, humans become separated from Nature, the cause of discomfort, because our fragile natures, unlike that of the sapling and the tree, cannot withstand the pain. Such a depiction of the human reaction to pain explains the reason for our acceptance of cultural constraints elaborated in the opening poem.
While the first two poems work together to delineate a nice contrast between culture—a familiar prison—and nature—a discomforting force, the third poem, "She dealt her pretty words like Blades—", ties the two together and links them directly to the role of the poet. Like "Nature—sometimes sears a Sapling—", "She dealt her pretty words," which describes how "She" creates a "vulgar grimace in the Flesh," also focuses on how poorly humans react to pain and the way in which we create customs to gloss over the "pretty words" that are "like Blades":
To Ache is human—not polite—
The Film upon the eye
Mortality's old Custom—
Just locking up—to Die. (ll. 9-12)
Culture, which determined that it is not appropriate to reveal our discomfort, is described here as a film that skews our sight, imprisoning us in a kind of death in life. Because this poem follows "Nature—sometimes sears a Sapling—" and because it deals with similar issues, the "She" of the poem might refer to Nature; yet, because "She" deals with words, the pronoun simultaneously refers to the poet who offers a truth that cannot be borne by her audience, thus connecting the female poet with Nature.13 The first three poems of the fascicle, then, set up a clear distinction between culture—which is defined as a limitation or constraint, a custom or habit, such as placing our hope for redemption in the afterlife, that separates us from our freedom—and nature or the poet—which is connected to freedom, but also to a pain that humans cannot tolerate and thus that they disassociate themselves from.
The next grouping of poems, including "'Why do I love' You, Sir?" (J480, F459), "The Himmaleh was known to stoop" (J481, F460), and "We Cover Thee—Sweet Face—" (J482, F461), deals with the importance and power of human relationships. These poems, which depict a fragile relation between a dominant male lover and a passive female devotee, have been read metaphorically as delineations of the various aspects of the poet's self; Gelpi notes that Dickinson's love poems describe a "subjective drama, and both figures in the drama are first and last psychological factors … the 'other' [in the poems] is a projected personification of the poet's emotional and religious needs much more than any person she has known and loved. 'He' is real but not actual, and his reality is self-referential. 'He' is a protagonist/antagonist in the drama of identity" (Tenth Muse 247-48). Others have more recently read these poems in relation to Dickinson's creative powers, suggesting that the male lover might refer to the creative dimension of her personality, "her own inner agency, which she feared would desert or destroy her" (Martin 103).14 While I certainly think that such readings add depth to our understanding of Emily Dickinson and her views of creativity, I want to consider these poems not as statements about Dickinson's multifaceted self, or about Emily Dickinson as a poet, but rather as statements that attempt to describe in some fashion the power of human relationships.
The first poem in this grouping, "'Why do I love' You, Sir?" replies to the question of the opening line through several parallels in the natural world—between the wind and the grass, the lightning and the eye—that demonstrate that love is beyond explanation and beyond language: "And reasons not contained—/—Of Talk—/ There be—" (ll. 14-16). The dash at the start of line 15, a truncated line, mirrors the fact that there is a great deal about love that cannot be contained in words.15 While the poem demonstrates that love is inexplicable, it concludes with evidence of love's power:
The Sunrise—Sir—compelleth Me—
Because He's Sunrise—and I see—
I love Thee— (ll. 17-20)
The poem, which opens with the question "'Why do I love'" (note that the rest of the first line, "You, Sir?" is not in quotations and thus that the question is more about why humans love than it is about why she loves him), concludes without providing an answer beyond the fact that she is compelled to love. The power and force of love, a power that cannot be captured in language, becomes the only explanation for the love.
The next two poems, "The Himmaleh was known to stoop" and "We Cover Thee—Sweet Face—", describe the effect of relationships—the way in which relationships allow the meanest thing to become great, to expand beyond its normal proportions. The low daisy of the first poem, which puts forth her petals in a field full of daisies for the Himmaleh, is amplified: "Her Universe / Hung out it's Flags of Snow—" (ll. 5-6). The lowly flower suddenly recognizes herself as a "Universe" at the same time that her white flowers—the "Flags of Snow"—are spread out for others to see. Likewise, in the second poem, the narrator, who must continually con her lover in order to receive attention, concludes that she would be "Augmented … a Hundred fold—/ If Thou would'st take it—now—" (ll. 11-12). Taken together, this series of poems describes the way in which relationships enrich us beyond our normal state, offering a nice contrast to the first grouping of poems, which define the role of culture in delimiting us. In addition, this grouping begins the process of subverting cultural norms, a process emphasized in the second half of the fascicle, through offering a re-valuation of the devalued, passive, female position, a position which expands as the "Universe" and is "Augmented … a Hundred fold."16 Moreover, these three poems lead to the next series of poems, which explicitly describes the liberation and expansion of the self into the universe, and to the central poem, "I dwell in Possibility" which is also concerned with relationships, and especially the relation of the poet to her "Visiters—the fairest—".
The third grouping of poems, including "Of Being is a Bird" (J "653," F "462"), "A long—long Sleep—A famous—Sleep—" (J "654," F "463"), "Without this—there is nought—" (J "655," F "464"), and "The name—of it—is 'Autumn'—" (J "656," F "465"), centers on describing the experience of liberation and expansion and suggests an interconnection of nature and humans. The first poem compares our "Being" to the free flight of a bird that floats upon the heavens and "measures with the Clouds / In easy—even—dazzling pace—" (ll. 6-7). The ease with which the bird associates with the clouds in the heavens belies the magnificence of her feat, linking the poem to the second grouping. The poem concludes noting that the only difference between our being and the bird is that "a Wake of Music / Accompany their feet—" (ll. 9-10), suggesting that birds can not only experience this sense of freedom but that they can also sing about it.17 The second poem draws on the freedom experienced in the first poem of this series while beginning to undermine the binary oppositions (here, night versus day) that pervade our culture, thus building on the first two groupings of poems. The "long Sleep" not only "makes no show for Morn," but it also does not "look up—for Noon" (ll. 2, 8), suggesting that this famous sleep is independent of the boundaries of night and day that guide our temporal lives. The third poem in this series returns to the concept of expansion and ties into the second grouping of poems that revealed the importance of relationships. The poem opens, referring to love, "Without this—there is nought—" (l. 1) and concludes:
I wished a way might be
My Heart to subdivide—
Twould magnify—the Gratitude—
And not reduce—the Gold— (ll. 9-12)
Here, the narrator expresses her desire to offer her love to as many humans as possible; with this magnification of relationships, however, her love is not thinly spread and thus weakened but is rather increased without reducing its intensity or power. Again, the concept of magnification is introduced, as in the second grouping, and is tied to an exploration of relationships.
The concluding poem in this series, "The name—of it—is 'Autumn'—", links the natural landscape and humans while also describing time as cyclical rather than being demarcated by boundaries (day and night). In the poem, autumn is described through human characteristics: "An Artery—upon the Hill—/ A Vein—along the Road—" (ll. 3-4), thus linking humans and the natural landscape as well as humans and the seasons. When the wind upsets the autumnal clouds, the "Scarlet Rain" "sprinkles Bonnets—far below—" (ll. 8-9), offering a physical communion of nature and humans, before it "eddies like a rose—away—/ Upon Vermillion Wheels—" (ll. 11-12). Although a poem about autumn might conjure images of death and decay, here the references to the beauty and the "Wheels" of the season suggest a concern not with time ending but with time as a cycle, as a part of a natural process—very much like "Nature—sometimes sears a Sapling—" and "She dealt her pretty words like Blades—" in the first grouping of poems. In addition, the cycles of time include both the natural landscape and humans which are linked in the poem.18 Such a link, which exists in many Dickinson poems, can also be seen in her letters. In February 1855, in a letter to Susan Gilbert, Dickinson metaphorically connects her observation of nature (and the seasonal cycles of nature) with her feelings for her friend, her relationships: "Sweet and soft as summer, Darlings, maple trees in bloom and grass green in sunny places—hardly seems it possible this is winter still; and it makes the grass spring in this heart of mine and each linnet sing, to think that you have come" (L 178).
The central poem in "fascicle 22," "I dwell in Possibility—" (J657, F466), draws on the themes and motifs registered in the first three groupings of poems. Centrally concerned with defining poetry and the role of the poet, "I dwell" works to undermine the religious dichotomies of Dickinson's culture—sin versus salvation, physical versus spiritual, this life versus afterlife—not through reconciliation but rather through subverting the foundation of these dichotomies.19 The opening lines of the poem begin to assert this stance: "I dwell in Possibility—/ A fairer House than Prose—" (ll. 1-2). Dickinson, describing her vocation through the domestic image of the house, sets up a distinction between the house of poetry and the house of prose, the former founded on openness and multiplicity—like the cycles of nature—the latter by contrast founded on clear cut distinctions—such as night and day, sin and salvation. The house of poetry is "More numerous of Windows—/ Superior—for Doors—" (ll. 4-5), linking poetry to relationships and thus interconnectedness. Significantly, the house of poetry is also tied to nature:
Of Chambers as the Cedars—
Impregnable of Eye—
And for an Everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky— (ll. 5-8)
and thus completes the depiction: prose arises from culture and creates constraint and limitation because it is founded on polarities; poetry arises from nature and creates freedom and liberation because it sees past polarities and is based on interconnectedness.
Dickinson concludes the poem further defining her conception of the expansion at the heart of her poetic. She notes:
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise— (ll. 9-12)
Here, Dickinson suggests that poetry, as a vocation, creates a change in her being. She moves from narrowness, a symbolic reference to human depravity and sin borrowed from orthodox, Puritan religion, to expansion. The capitalization of the word "Hands" suggests a parallel between the poet as creator and God as creator. Thus, poetry as a vocation allows her to overcome and move beyond limitations as set by a traditional view of humans and become infinite, ultimately "gather[ing] Paradise." Because Dickinson has moved beyond conventional religious beliefs, the paradise referred to here is not the paradise of traditional religion but a revised and renewed paradise—one founded on a unique interrelation of the natural world (the house is compared to cedars and connected to the sky) and humans (the house includes multiple entrances).20
A similar revisioning of Heaven, one based on human relationships and often connected to nature, can be seen in Dickinson's letters.21 In a letter to Susan Gilbert, Dickinson notes "Dear Children—Mattie—Sue—for one look at you, for your gentle voices, I'd exchange it all. The pomp—the court—the etiquette—they are of the earth—will not enter Heaven" (L 178). Here Dickinson redefines the state of salvation; rather than existing in something as royal as the afterlife, heaven and thus redemption exist through relationships. Similarly, in a letter to Mrs. J. G. Holland in January 1856, Dickinson notes "While I sit in the snows, the summer day on which you came and the bees and the south wind, seem fabulous as Heaven seems to a sinful world—and I keep remembering it till it assumes a spectral air, and nods and winks at me, and then all of you turn to phantoms and vanish slowly away" (L 182). Dickinson's relation to her friend, as "Heaven," is troped as a summer day, connecting her redefinition of paradise to a relationship with and interconnection between humans and nature.22
As the central poem in the fascicle, then, "I dwell" works to undermine rather than merely reconcile the polarities of her culture in two specific ways. First, in this poem the home becomes the site of her occupation, thus subverting the separation of the public sphere and the private sphere that occurred in the nineteenth century and that devalued the domestic and the female. In Jeanne Holland's analysis of Dickinson's various forms of publication, from the fascicle to the household scrap, she asserts that "As a nineteenth-century woman writer … Dickinson retires to the domestic to confront, and thwart as best she can, its ideological stranglehold" (154). Yet Dickinson's objective was not merely to oppose the constraints of nineteenth-century womanhood or domesticity; rather she offers a re-valuation of the domestic sphere that provides a basis for the re-valuation of other cultural paradigms that exist as constraints. Second, returning to paradise as the Garden of Eden, Dickinson returns to the originary space of polarities (before sin, the fall, separation from God and nature, before the creation of culture) and reclaims that space as one where she entertains "Visiters—the fairest—" (l. 9). Such a revisioning of paradise as a renewed Garden of Eden to be gathered through extended, welcoming arms offers a new form of redemption, one based not on the afterlife but rather on this life—and specifically on the interconnectedness of and relationships in this life.
The first grouping of poems in the second half of the fascicle, including "A Solemn thing within the Soul" (J483, F467), "Whole Gulfs—of Red, and Fleets—of Red—" (J658, F468), "My Garden—like the Beach—" (J484, F469), and "The First Day, when you praised Me, Sweet" (J659, F470), alternates between poems focusing on garden imagery and poems focusing on time. Both "A Solemn thing" and "My Garden," with references to gardens, describe the movement from seeming insignificance to significance; yet this apparently clear cut distinction is erupted with the assertion that the smallest and meanest thing is really no different from the greatest, thus subverting the foundations of these distinctions and building on the second grouping of poems in the first half of the fascicle. "A Solemn thing within the Soul" occurs within the Garden of Eden—and thus before the fall—and depicts the slow process of becoming "ripe": "Your chance in Harvest moves / A little nearer—Every Sun" (ll. 14-15). While Judith Farr notes that the focus of the poem is on "the reunion of God with his creation" (63), in this garden the end of the process is not the most significant, for it is "Wonderful—to feel the Sun / Still toiling at the Cheek" (ll. 7-8) while you "golden hang" (l. 3). The experience of ripening within the garden is one that offers its own form of communion, not only with God but also with nature (the "Sun" as God and as nature).23 Similarly, "My Garden—like the Beach—" suggests that the garden, which ultimately creates her poetry, like the grains of sand on the beach which create the pearl, are equally significant, for it is the garden and the beach which offer the foundation for the existence of the sea and poetry (l. 2). These two garden poems within this series build on "I dwell" in that they undermine distinctions and polarities (in the first, sinner vs. redeemed; in the second, garden vs. poetry or sand vs. pearl) and depict the interconnectedness of all things. The glorification of the insignificant—the sand, the garden, the ripening Soul—creates a re-valuation that interrupts traditional distinctions and thus allows for a perception of the interconnectedness of all things.
The other two poems in this series, interpolated with the garden poems, also deal with seeming polarities through references to time and also undermine these polarities through careful delineation of the value associated to units of time. "The First Day, when you praised Me, Sweet" seems to offer a distinction between two time periods, before the day she was praised—"The Minor One—that gleamed behind—" (l.7)—and after that day—"And Vaster—of the World's" (l. 8). Yet these two sets of days are both described as "Gold"; the only distinction (beyond the fact that one is past and one looks to the future) is that they are separated by "That Day" that she received praise, the day that "Glows Central—like a Jewel" (ll. 4-5). While this kind of demarcation between two periods generally leads humans to a different valuation of those periods, Dickinson suggests that such a dichotomization not happen—that we see the separating moment as unique, but that time flow around it. Building on the awareness of time as cyclical, such a perception allows for a sense of constant renewal. Similarly, while "Whole Gulfs—of Red, and Fleets—of Red—" dramatizes a sunset, it does not, recalling "A long—long Sleep," offer the sunset as a marker for creating distinctions or differences between night and day, one time period and another. The moment, which appears to divide, really only makes us recognize the value of what lies on either side and, ultimately, the equal value of these units of time. Gelpi notes that Dickinson's struggle to live in the moment created a unique dilemma, for to live in the moment meant that she must dwell on that moment, allowing other moments of time to slip away; the result was a kind of melding of time around the moment: "one found one's self living not just in the present but in the past and even the future; a life dedicated to apprehending the immediate intensity became alarmingly caught up in retrospection and anticipation" (The Mind of the Poet 103). Such a perception alters our relationship to time through uniting disparate moments within the flow of time.
The second grouping of poems in the last half of "fascicle 22," including "To make One's Toilette—after Death" (J485, F471), "'Tis good—the looking back on Grief—" (J660, F472), "I was the slightest in the House—" (J486, F473), and "You love the Lord—you cannot see—" (J487, F474), reiterates the project of the fascicle and "I dwell"—that the polarities and distinctions offered through orthodox religion create limitations and constraints and that her house—the house of poetry—offers freedom from these constraints. Three of the poems in this series focus specifically on the oppression of religious dogma. "To make One's Toilette—after Death" suggests that it is easier to prepare for the day when a friend has died than it is when the friend has been "wrenched / By Decalogues—away—" (ll. 7-8), possibly referring to the many friends of Dickinson who were swayed by the religious awakenings of the nineteenth century and joined the church. The loss of friends in this life to orthodox religion becomes worse than the loss of friends to death because of the continued presence of the friends, a presence which acts as a constant reminder of the loss.24 "I was the slightest in the House—" concludes that
I never spoke—unless addressed—
And then, 'twas brief and low—
I could not bear to live—aloud—
The Racket shamed me so— (ll. 10-13)
The organized religion that pervades Dickinson's culture causes a racket that creates shame (the guilt of sin) but also that silences and devalues women—"I was the slightest in the House—/ I took the smallest Room—" (ll. 1-2). Significantly, the overwhelming presence of religion abnegates her own thoughts and exploration of a wider world: "Let me think—I'm sure—/ That this was all—" (ll. 8-9). The next poem, "You love the Lord—you cannot see—", builds on this idea, suggesting that most humans spend their time consumed with traditional rituals that are empty:
You love the Lord—you cannot see—
You write Him—every day—
A little note—when you awake—
And further in the Day. (ll. 1-4)
Yet the poem also offers a solution to the racket of religion through the house of poetry: "But then His House—is but a Step—/ And Mine's—in Heaven—You see" (ll. 7-8). Access to God's house, to heaven, occurs through one step, death; yet her house, the house of poetry as identified in "I dwell," is already heaven because it recaptures the paradise of the Garden of Eden.
The value that has been placed within the distinction between sin and salvation, this life and the afterlife is reversed in these poems—it is easier to lose a friend to the afterlife than to lose her in this life—and thus the differentiation is interrupted. The other poem in this series, significantly placed as the second poem in this series of four poems, reiterates the process so crucial to "fascicle 22" of breaking down or undermining the dichotomies and polarities, and the consequent values, that are part of our culture. "'Tis good—the looking back on Grief—" again suggests that though we often value certain experiences differently, no differentiation should be made between these experiences:
And though the Wo you have Today
Be larger—As the Sea
Exceeds it's Unremembered Drop—
They're Water—equally— (ll. 9-12)
Grief, like all experiences, when fully and truly experienced, does not have any distinctions; a small grief and a large grief are both overpowering and overwhelming—are "Water—equally." If we differentiate between the two, we devalue the "small" grief which is equally profound. By extension, Dickinson suggests in this series of poems that this life is as valuable as the afterlife, that redemption should not be relegated to a spiritual existence after we die but rather that it can and should be experienced in our temporal lives.
While the movement of the entire fascicle up to, and immediately after, "I dwell in Possibility" is concerned with offering a poetic of liberation and freedom that undermines the cultural and religious dichotomies of sin and salvation, and thus redefining redemption, the final grouping of poems in the fascicle reasserts the religious dichotomies and thus suggests that maintaining the poetic of redemption is difficult if not impossible. "Myself was formed—a Carpenter—" (J "488," F "475"), "We pray—to Heaven—" (J "489," F "476"), "He fumbles at your Soul" (J "315," F "477"), and "Just Once! Oh least Request!" (J "1076," F "478") increasingly assert the dominance of a traditional God who judges and condemns. "Myself was formed—a Carpenter—" is tied to the theme of the fascicle in that it suggests that her work as a poet, linked to Christ's work through the image of the carpenter, should not be measured according to traditional cultural values:
a Builder came—
To measure our attainments—
Had we the Art of Boards
Sufficiently developed—He'd hire us
At Halves— (ll. 4-8)
The narrator, with her tools, "Against the Man—persuaded—/ We—Temples build—I said—" (ll. 11-12). While the poet offers something grander than the builder desires or understands, her art is diminished through the valuation offered by her culture.25 Indeed, the next two poems in the cluster, "We pray—to Heaven—" and "He fumbles at your Soul," indicate that the traditional values of her society, on the afterlife and the God of the afterlife, dominate; the heaven of the first poem, while it can not be located—"There's no Geography" (l. 9)—is the central concern of humans: "We pray—to Heaven—/ We prate—of Heaven—" (ll. 1-2), just as the God of the second poem, who "fumbles at your Soul" (l. 1), "Deals—One—imperial—Thunderbolt—/ That scalps your naked Soul—" (ll. 11-12), suggesting the imperious and dominating nature of God in mid-nineteenth-century American culture.26
The concluding poem of "fascicle 22," "Just Once! Oh least Request!" with its unanswered questions to the God described as "Adamant," "a God of Flint," and "remote" (ll. 2, 6, 8), depicts the poet herself returning to traditional religious beliefs. Unable to maintain her poetic of redemption in the face of a society that cannot hear the painful truth or experience the liberation of her poetic, the poet has no choice but to put her request "Just Once" to God who offers the only salvation that humans perceive even though she knows that this request will not be acknowledged. Such a recognition is reflected, occasionally, in Dickinson's letters; in a letter to Louise and Frances Norcross in 1861, Dickinson describes a little boy who is
restricted to Martin Luther's works at home. It is a criminal thing to be a boy in a godly village, but maybe he will be forgiven.…If angels have the heart beneath their silver jackets, I think such things could make them weep, but Heaven is so cold! It will never look kind to me that god, who causes all, denies such little wishes. It could not hurt His glory, unless it were a lonesome kind. I 'most conclude it is.
Dickinson's desire for angels to show their hearts or for God to allow the boy something else to read than Luther's works is countered with her recognition that Heaven is remote, cold, uncaring—and in control of all.
Significantly, this last poem delimits the expansion and liberation at the heart of Dickinson's poetic as outlined in "fascicle 22" and "I dwell." While the first half of the fascicle leading up to the central poem describes the power of interconnectedness and human relationships (especially in the second grouping) as the foundation for liberation (in the third grouping), "Just Once! Oh least Request!" with its emphasis on our relationship to a remote God, returns to the prison of culture delineated in the opening poem of the fascicle and thus brings the movement of the fascicle full circle. Indeed, the domestic imagery central to the fascicle (especially the house and garden), is appropriate for this movement of despair that opens and closes the fascicle, with the hope at the center of the fascicle, for the house that Emily Dickinson lived in, while it constituted the space that allowed her to write, create, and thus re-valuate her culture, was also the house of her father who formally joined the church in 1850 and increasingly pressured his daughter, the last hold out, to convert as well. As Cynthia Griffin Wolff notes, "The notion of 'House' brings together a number of Dickinson's concerns: her autonomy, her authority, her right to inherit the earth, her right to possess herself of god's heroic grandeur as well, and her right to create poetry through which these ambitions could be realized" (431).27
The house of poetry in "fascicle 22," which offers a re-valuation of domesticity and a new redemption through interconnectedness, meanwhile must contest with the dominant house of prose, with its confinement and oppression. Jeanne Holland's analysis of the scraps that represent Dickinson's later form of private publication suggests that moving away from the fascicle, a form that closely mirrored public forms of publication, to the scrap, a more refined domestic technology of publication, was an attempt to "materially locat[e] her poems in the private home. It is significant that her writing on household refuse coincides with her agoraphobic withdrawal from public life" and more fully "reflects and shapes her explorations in the domain of self-hood and writing" (141). This movement did not erase the conflict between patriarchy and poetry, as Holland demonstrates in her analysis of the manuscript of "Poem 1167," "Alone and in Circumstance—" (dated 1870), which includes a stamp with a locomotive on it, a representation of her father. Rather, it allowed Dickinson the opportunity in her later poetry to more fully question "the oppositions between locomotive/poetry, father/daughter, male/female" (147). Yet in the early part of her career, the late 1850s and early 1860s, Dickinson felt very keenly the constraining power of the patriarchal culture that surrounded her. She notes, in the conclusion of a letter to John L. Graves dated April 1856, what "a conceited thing indeed, this promised Resurrection!" (L 184), suggesting her frustration at the overbearing power of patriarchal systems.
I want to conclude this paper with reference to another poem, "They shut me up in Prose—" (J613, F445), that was composed around 1862 and situated in "fascicle 21." In this poem, Dickinson also develops her conception of the paradoxical relationship between constraint and liberation using house imagery, here the house of prose. In this poem, she suggests that those in power—ministers or parents—use "prose" as a method of confinement: "They shut me up in Prose—/ As when a little Girl / They put me in the Closet—".28 While the poem opens with a description of her constraint, the conclusion of "They shut me up" suggests that residing (or being confined) in the house of prose does not, ultimately, limit or constrain the narrator:
… Could themself have peeped—
And seen my Brain—go round—
They might as wise have lodged a Bird
For Treason—in the Pound—
Himself was but to will
And easy as a Star
Abolish his Captivity—
And laugh—No more have I—
Significantly, the epistemological freedom that the narrator experiences derives from her confinement in the house of prose; without the captivity, the narrator would never have been able to enact the abolishment of her captivity—would never have been able to access her freedom. Dickinson here suggests that a dialectical relation exists between constraint and liberation, between prose and poetry, and that, ultimately, it is the confinement of prose that provides Dickinson the opportunity to create the transcendence of poetry. Such a tension, significantly, is traced in the movement of "fascicle 22" as a whole, which, while it opens and closes with conceptions of constraint, has as its central conception that of liberation, a liberation that is offered through subverting the foundations of Dickinson's culture.
- I would like to thank the College of Arts and Sciences at Florida Gulf Coast University for support with professional development in writing this paper. I would especially like to acknowledge the assistance of Lisa Crocker, who provided me with research on many of the poems in this paper and who aided in editing the text.
- Other critics who explored Emily Dickinson's poetry within the context of domesticity in the 1980s include Cheryl Walker, The Nightingale's Burden; Wendy Martin, An American Triptych; and Suzanne Juhasz, "Writing Doubly: Emily Dickinson and Female Experience."
Gertrude Hughes, in "Subverting the Cult of Domesticity: Emily Dickinson's Critique of Woman's Work," argues that Dickinson re-valued the gendered experiences of the nineteenth century, an argument akin to my own:
Like her daily life, her poems are filled with the flower-tending, letter-writing, music-playing, and sickroom nursing that were canonically assigned to her, but the poems do not use these in prescribed ways. Whereas the convention prescribed that such homely occupations existed to provide background and support for male activities, Dickinson decided for herself what constituted trivia and what 'firmament,' and she also decide whether male activities deserved support or scorn.
I will extend this argument to fascicle 22 and especially "I dwell" where Dickinson uses the locus of the home to redefine and re-valuate such culturally determined beliefs as what constitutes redemption.
- For a detailed analysis of Dickinson's metapoetics—that is, of her reflection on poetry and the role of the poet—see Raab.
- In her third letter to T. W. Higginson, dated July 1862, Dickinson describes her poems as "Blossom[s] from my Garden" (L 268). That Dickinson's poetry originates from her garden will be significant to my reading of "I dwell in Possibility" which centers on the way in which she reclaims and revisions the Garden of Eden.
- Cameron states, early on, that "In Dickinson's fascicles—where 'variants' are more than the editorial term for discrete delimited choices—variants indicate both the desire for limit and the difficulty in enforcing it. The difficulty in enforcing a limit to the poems turns into a kind of limitlessness, for … it is impossible to say where the text ends because the variants extend the text's identity in ways that make it seem potentially limitless" (6). While Cameron would certainly argue against such a thing, I would suggest that one reading of fascicle 22 is in fact an exploration of the thematic significance of the concept of limitlessness, a reading that I will pursue here. Significantly, as Cameron notes, the variants to poems within fascicles increased in 1861, about the same time that Dickinson arranged the poems in fascicle 22.
- Cameron makes the most comprehensive argument concerning the compounding of a multiplicity of meanings, suggesting that a thematic approach to the fascicles that does not engage the variants and interrelationships is not, indeed, reading Dickinson. I would suggest, rather, that a thematic approach such as the one that I pursue here might act as one reading of a fascicle which could easily, even comfortably though possibly contradictorily, be joined by other readings which privilege other poems and discern different groupings within the fascicles. My reading, then, would only be the beginning of a series of readings that would allow for a compounding of meanings, all of which might be expected to interact, to lead to questionings, to lead to problematization.
- Many critics have noted the conflict in Emily Dickinson's poetry between constraint and transcendence, especially in relation to her conception of her vocation as poet. Many of these readings posit the conflict as one between Puritanism and Transcendentalism without considering the importance of gender.
For those critics who consider the conflict to be an unresolved tension that offers complexity to Dickinson's work, see Albert Gelpi, The Tenth Muse: The Psyche of the American Poet, and Hyatt Waggoner, American Poets, who provide perhaps the strongest background for this discussion. See also Carter, who suggests that Dickinson experienced "a continuing and never-resolved conflict between the secularism represented by Emerson's Transcendentalism and the Christianity represented by her family and her New England heritage" (85), and New, who locates Dickinson not in Romanticism nor in nihilism but in a third position, "that of a theologically answered doubt," that New defines through Kierkegaard (4). As I will note later, New proceeds to read "I dwell" as a thoroughly Transcendental poem (6-7).
On the other hand, Weisbuch argues ultimately that the second world, that of Puritan limitation, overwhelms the first: "The veto power of Dickinson's second pain-filled world stands ready to negate or qualify the self-legislated grandeur of the first.… Dickinson would insist on testing her fictions, and they would often fail. The resultant despair is not simply a worldly pessimism; it is directed not against 'so fair a place' as nature but against her own visions which have neglected a limit. Her second world is 'second' because it is logically subsequent to her hopes.…In this second world, the Transcendental possibilities of the first tantalize only to torture" (Emily Dickinson's Poetry 2). For similar readings, see Wilner, Yin, and Eberwein, "'Graphicer for Grace.'"
My reading of Dickinson's poetic, following the lines of many of the feminist critics of the 1980s and 1990s, is founded on a concern for gender as a tool for subverting traditional cultural values. As Jeanne Holland notes in her analysis of Dickinson's private publishing efforts, "The ideological split between 'male' literary creativity and 'female' domestic labor collapses in Dickinson's experience. Because she combines ideological positions that her culture struggles to separate—indeed her late works meld literary creativity and domesticity—Dickinson's multiply [sic for multiple?] gendered perspective enables her to resist … possessive individualism" (152).
- Dickinson's rebellion against orthodox religion can be seen in many letters and poems, especially in her descriptions of refusing to go to service with her family and remaining home, instead, to write letters to her friends. This rebellion can also be seen in "Some keep the Sabbath going to Church—" (J324; F236), which concludes: "So instead of getting to Heaven, at last—/ I'm going, all along" (ll. 11-12). The distinction between the heaven of orthodox religion—based on faith in the afterlife—and the heaven of this life is at the heart of Dickinson's redefinition of redemption.
Several other critics have also noticed this rebellion. Margaret Homans, in "Emily Dickinson and Poetic Identity," suggests that Dickinson reacted against both orthodox religion and Emersonian Transcendentalism, and especially their gendered foundations, in developing her poetic. In relation to Transcendentalism, she notes that, while Emerson works from polarities to a state of reconcilement, Emily Dickinson "works toward undermining the whole concept of oppositeness" (140), an argument that I will build on.
In addition, in "Writing Doubly," Suzanne Juhasz notes that in many of Dickinson's poems, rather than staging a conflict between two polarities (either/or), she offers simultaneity (both/and); while patriarchal culture devalues female experience as domestic and trivial, Dickinson's poetry reacts against this devaluation and asserts the grandness of the female experience not in order to cancel out the former but only to offer a simultaneous and contradictory view. Again, my reading will build on this argument, relating it specifically to the poems in fascicle 22.
- I am following the organization of the fascicle suggested in the Variorum edition of Dickinson's works, edited by Franklin (Dickinson, The Poems of Emily Dickinson: A Variorum Edition 476-92). Fascicle 22 includes the following poems, grouped according to my own strategy:
- FIRST PART
- J652/F456 A Prison gets to be a friend—
- J314/F457 Nature—sometimes sears a Sapling—
- J479/F458 She dealt her pretty words like Blades—
- J480/F459 'Why do I love' You, Sir?
- J481/F460 The Himmaleh was known to stoop
- J482/F461 We Cover Thee—Sweet Face—
- J653/F462 Of Being is a Bird
- J654/F463 A long—long Sleep—A famous—Sleep—
- J655/F464 Without this—there is nought—
- J656/F465 The name—of it—is 'Autumn'—
- J657/F466 I dwell in Possibility—
- Grouping One
- SECOND PART
- J483/F467 A Solemn thing within the Soul
- J658/F468 Whole Gulfs—of Red, and Fleets—of Red—
- J484/F469 My Garden—like the Beach—
- J659/F470 The First Day, when you praised Me, Sweet
- J485/F471 To make One's Toilette—after Death
- J660/F472 'Tis good—the looking back on Grief—
- J486/F473 I was the slightest in the House—
- J487/F474 You love the Lord—you cannot see—
- J488/F475 Myself was formed—a Carpenter—
- J489/F476 We pray—to Heaven—
- J315/F477 He fumbles at your Soul
- J1076/F478 Just Once! Oh least Request!
- Grouping One
My analysis will follow what I perceive to be an organizational pattern in the fascicle. I will analyze three groupings of poems in the first half of the fascicle, with a special emphasis on the first grouping, that set up the primary themes and motifs, including especially the concept of constraint or limitation, the importance of relationships, and the experience of liberation or freedom. These first three groupings will lead up to a reading of the central poem of the fascicle, "I dwell in Possibility," a poem which delineates the role of poetry and the poet in relation to the themes and motifs introduced in the first half of the fascicle. In this poem, Dickinson most clearly undermines the binary oppositions of her culture—especially relating to religion—through returning to, and redefining, the Garden of Eden—symbolically the foundation for the dichotomies that pervade nineteenth-century culture. I will then analyze three groupings of poems in the last half of the fascicle that fall away from "I dwell" through repeating the theme of "I dwell" but also through suggesting that maintaining the undifferentiated state is difficult or perhaps even impossible.
- FIRST PART
- While I will consistently note both Johnson's and Franklin's numbers for the poems when I first introduce them, when citing Dickinson's poems, I will use Johnson; if Franklin offers a significant alternative, I will note the Franklin version in a footnote.
- Several critics have offered differing readings of this poem. Roger Lundin interprets the poem within intellectual contexts of the nineteenth century that suggest that Dickinson's concern with the disorientation that occurred as a result of the advance of human knowledge led to a growing awareness that the universe does not display an ordered design (135-37). James Guthrie reads the poem within the context of Dickinson's problems with her sight and her experiences as a patient (69-71). Finally, Eleanor Heginbotham glosses the poem in relation to references to Milton ("'Paradise fictitious,'" 59).
- Wolff provides a nice gloss of this poem, reading it within a biblical context—Jacob's struggle with God. While this struggle wounds Jacob, it also offers him a new identity—"a new 'self' empowered to exercise the authority he had won" (149-50). While I certainly agree that the pain in the poem is connected to the possibility for growth, I suggest that Dickinson is concerned with differentiating nature's response to this pain from human's response.
- While Weisbuch suggests that this poem describes the "misuse of the word's power" ("Prisming Dickinson" 210), Gelpi offers a reading similar to mine, noting the connection between poetry, which depicts life, and pain (The Mind of the Poet 137).
- Betsy Erkkila notes that in the Master Letters and love poems, the narrator offering herself up to the male lover "might be read as an attempt to invest … [herself] with masculine subjectivity and power. But because masculine presence would threaten to overpower the woman, her romantic passion is often most intense when the male figure is either absent or unavailable" (66). See also Adrienne Rich (104-05, 109).
- Franklin does not truncate these lines:
And reasons not contained—Of Talk—There be—preferred by Daintier Folk— (ll. 14-15)
Significantly, the four other stanzas of the poem, even in Franklin, include truncated lines, which, like the Johnson version of these lines, builds on the theme of the inexplicability of human love.
- In reference to Poem 481 and others like it, Robert Smith offers a nice reading of the way in which Dickinson created a "masochistic aesthetic" that used the "thematics of domination and submission" in order to subvert "power hierarchies." Such a thematics, according to Smith, creates a "representative space … from within which poet and readers alike are able to explore and demystify the brutal conjunction of power and pleasure in intersubjective relations" (2).
- In a letter to Dr. and Mrs. J. G. Holland, written in the summer of 1862, Dickinson makes a similar parallel: "My business is to love. I found a bird, this morning, down—down—on a little bush at the foot of the garden, and wherefore sing, I said, since nobody hears? One sob in the throat, one flutter of bosom—'My business is to sing'—and away she rose! How do I know but cherubim, once, themselves, as patient, listened, and applauded her unnoticed hymn?" (L 269).
- In "Terrains of Difference," Joanne Feit Diehl notes that "poem 656 ["The name—of it—is 'Autumn'—"] disrupts conventional literary distinctions between the internal and the external, between nature and culture, between the body and all that lies beyond it. In addition to its brilliantly descriptive view of autumn, Dickinson's text constitutes a re-examination of the relationship between nature and the human, presenting a vision of the world as body and of seasonal (therefore cyclical) occurrence as a willed or volitional event" (87).
- Many readings of "I dwell in Possibility" suggest that this poem reflects Emersonian Transcendentalism. See Judith Farr, who notes that "I dwell" "makes the association frequent in Emerson between sky and paradise while her allusion to fairest visitors is to those transcendental emissaries, the muses, or sources of artistic inspiration to whom she alludes in a number of poems about the poetic process. Poem 657 describes the creative responsiveness Emerson praised in Nature: 'Every spirit builds itself a house, and beyond its house a world, and beyond its world a heaven'" (51). See also Douglas Robinson, who notes: "Certainly her attachment to Emersonianism was strong. In her very Emersonian poem 'I Dwell in Possibility' (657) … 'Possibility' tropes nature while enacting NATURE: 'Build, therefore, your own world.' The poem is Dickinson's world, her dwelling place or house of poetry" (25). Likewise, Frederick L. Morey reads the poem in the light of Emersonian Transcendentalism and Kantian metaphysics (33). Finally, while the context of Doriani's study is "the Christian prophetic tradition," and especially that tradition as it existed in Puritan New England, the emphasis on prophecy links the study to considerations of Emersonian Transcendentalism (1); Doriani's reading of "I dwell" focuses on the religious terms of Dickinson's vocation (142). See also Diehl, "Emerson, Dickinson, and the Abyss," and McElderry for discussions of Dickinson and Transcendentalism.
Significantly, most other readings focus on the concepts of liberation and limitlessness; see Juhasz, "'I dwell in Possibility': Emily Dickinson in the Subjunctive Mood"; Miller, "Poetry as Transitional Object" (449-50); and Julia Walker (21). Only Benfey reads this poem as emphasizing limitation and negation: "The doors and windows of the first stanza seem, in retrospect (on rereading, that is), to be there less in the service of openness than for the possibility of closing them when necessary: they serve as much to exclude as to include" (34).
- Elisa New interprets the final lines of the poem in terms of Emersonian Transcendentalism: "in these lines Dickinson lays out not only the promise of poetic innovation that her work will fulfill, a wrenching of the poem away from the prose dictions that afford available paraphrase, but also promise of an alternative, more commodious theology than that to which American poetry is used. 'Possibility' implies both a poetic and a theological movement. By 'spreading wide [her] narrow Hands' the poet will gather in a redemption neither guaranteed nor made particularly available by her forebears' faith, a redemption whose paradoxes will deepen and compound" (7).
New's analysis of the connection between Dickinson's poetic and theology parallels my own, yet I don't read Dickinson's beliefs as grounded in Emersonian transcendentalism, which very often works towards reconciling binary oppositions (see Homans 140). Dickinson, rather, works through oppositions in order to envelope and encompass; specifically here she works through constraints and limitations in order to reach freedom, a strategy common in her works that suggests the importance of constraints as a part of the process for attaining liberation. Amy Cherry notes that "the limitations of the prison are what keep her writing. She needs the boundaries so she can attempt to overcome them" (21). I will return to this idea in my conclusion.
- For two interesting discussions of Dickinson's views on and symbolic uses of Heaven in her poetry, see Guthrie (Chapter 4) and Wolff (321-42).
- Significantly, even when Emily Dickinson maintains a traditional view of Paradise, as existing only in the afterlife, she still defines it through relationships; in a letter to Mrs. J. G. Holland in 1856, Dickinson notes that she wishes that she were in the afterlife, "which makes such promises.…And I'm half tempted to take my seat in that Paradise of which the good man writers, and begin forever and ever now, so wondrous does it seem. My only sketch, profile, of Heaven is a large, blue sky, bluer and larger than the biggest I have seen in June, and in it are my friends—all of them—every one of them—those who are with me now, and those who were 'parted' as we walked, and 'snatched up to Heaven'" (L 185). Yet even after this, she suggests that she envisions two distinct paradises: "If roses had not faded, and frosts had never come, and one had not fallen here and there whom I could not waken, there were no need of other Heaven than the one below—and if god had been there this summer, and seen the things that I have seen—I guess that he would think His Paradise superfluous" (L 185). Significantly, Dickinson admits that maintaining the vision of this life as paradise is difficult, primarily because of the presence of death which interrupts the cycles of life, the flow of time, key concepts in her poetic and revisioned redemption.
Many other letters maintain the real presence of the paradise of this life; see, for instance, letters 193 and 305.
- Both Wolff and Lundin suggest that the narrator in the poem is suspended between two worlds—the "heaven above and the abyss below" (Lundin 159)—suggesting that her "glimpse into Heaven, then, is not glorious but terrifying" (Wolff 306). Such a reading ignores the significance of the garden imagery in the poem which suggests that becoming ripe allows the soul to fall into the garden, a garden of redemption before the fall; in this reading, only one world exists, that of possibility and hope.
- For a strong discussion of Emily Dickinson's reaction to the revivals that occurred in and around Amherst throughout her life, and their impact on her family and friends, see Chapter 3 in Gelpi, The Mind of the Poet.
- Judith Farr also discusses this poem, in connection with "I was the slightest in the house" and "A Solemn Thing it was I said," noting that in these poems, "Dickinson's speaker offers herself in solitude to nature's influence and predicates the sacramental connection between landscape and humanity, between landscape and the divine, which was the hypothesis of the romantics and a chief principle of Ruskin" (51). While I agree that such a connection is established in fascicle 22, I have suggested in my reading of "I dwell" especially that it differs somewhat from that of the romantics; more importantly, in looking at the movement within the fascicle, by the time Dickinson gets to "Myself was formed a Carpenter," which is in the final grouping, she is moving away from the ability to maintain this sacred connection. While Guthrie rightly notes that this poem offers a high valuation of poetry (132), this claim comes in response to the devaluation of her work by "the Man," a symbolic representative of the dominant, patriarchal culture.
- Wolff describes this domination in sexual terms: "God rapes us one by one; however, He has violated us collectively, too, for His violence has vitiated the very culture in which we have been reared" (280). For other discussions of this poem, see Fast, who suggests that the poem is concerned with poetic inspiration; Juhasz, who reads the poem in relation to "the nature and uses of power itself" ("Poem 315" 66); and Ringler-Henderson, who reads the poem as depicting "a devastating psychic and emotional storm" (70).
- For a nice discussion of the role of place, and especially the home, in Emily Dickinson's thinking, see Eberwein, "Dickinson's Local, Global, and Cosmic Perspectives."
- Robert Weisbuch has rightly linked the reference to prose in this second poem to the "rigidities of puritanism" that existed in the Dickinson family (Emily Dickinson's Poetry 4). Weisbuch concludes: "The House of Prose, of conventional and prosaic conformity, here [in "They shut me up"] becomes a punitive closet; but the House of Possibility, of imaginative epistemological freedom, exists wherever the mind is" (Emily Dickinson's Poetry 5).
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——. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Vols. 1 and 2. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1955.
——. The Poems of Emily Dickinson: A Variorum Edition. Vol. 1. Ed. R. W. Franklin. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1998.
Diehl, Joanne Feit. "Emerson, Dickinson, and the Abyss." Modern Critical Views: Emily Dickinson. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1985. 145-160.
——. "Terrains of Difference: Reading Shelley and Dickinson on Autumn." Women's Studies 16 (1989): 87-90.
Doriani, Beth Maclay. Emily Dickinson: Daughter of Prophecy. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1996.
Eberwein, Jane Donahue. "Dickinson's Local, Global, and Cosmic Perspectives." The Emily Dickinson Handbook. Ed. Gudrun Grabher, Roland Hagenbuchle, and Cristanne Miller. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1998. 27-43.
——. "'Graphicer for Grace': Emily Dickinson's Calvinist Language." Studies in Puritan American Spirituality 1 (Dec. 1990): 170-201.
Erkkila, Betsy. The Wicked Sisters: Women Poets, Literary History, and Discord. New York: Oxford UP, 1992.
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Fast, Robin Riley. "Poem 315." Women's Studies 16 (1989): 55-59.
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——. Introduction. The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson. Ed. R. W. Franklin. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1981. ix-xxii.
Gelpi, Albert J. "Emily Dickinson and the Deerslayer: The Dilemma of the Woman Poet in America." Shakespeare's Sisters: Feminist Essays on Women Poets. Ed. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1979. 122-34.
——. Emily Dickinson: The Mind of the Poet. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1966.
——. The Tenth Muse: The Psyche of the American Poet. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1975.
Gilbert, Sandra M. "The Wayward Nun beneath the Hill: Emily Dickinson and the Mysteries of Womanhood." Feminist Critics Read Emily Dickinson. Ed. Suzanne Juhasz. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1983. 22-44.
Guthrie, James R. Emily Dickinson's Vision: Illness and Identity in Her Poetry. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 1998.
Heginbotham, Eleanor. "Dickinson's Aesthetics and Fascicle 21." Unfastening the Fascicles: An EDIS Roundtable at the 1997 MLA. http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu/dickinson/fascicle/he... . 18 June 1998.
——. "'Paradise fictitious': Dickinson's Milton." Emily Dickinson Journal 7.1 (1998): 55-74.
Holland, Jeanne. "Scraps, Stamps, and Cutouts: Emily Dickinson's Domestic Technologies of Publication." Cultural Artifacts and the Production of Meaning: The Page, the Image, and the Body. Ed. Margaret J. M. Ezell and Katherine O'Brien O'Keeffe. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1994. 139-181.
Homans, Margaret. "Emily Dickinson and Poetic Identity." Emily Dickinson. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1985. 129-44.
Hughes, Gertrude Reif. "Subverting the Cult of Domesticity: Emily Dickinson's Critique of Women's Work." Legacy 3 (Spring 1986): 17-28.
Juhasz, Suzanne. "'I dwell in Possibility': Emily Dickinson in the Subjunctive Mood." Emily Dickinson Bulletin 32 (1977): 105-109.
——. "Introduction: Feminist Critics Read Emily Dickinson." Feminist Critics Read Emily Dickinson. Ed. Suzanne Juhasz. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1983. 1-21.
——. "Poem 315." Women's Studies 16 (1998): 61-66.
——. The Undiscovered Continent: Emily Dickinson and the Space of the Mind. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1983.
——. "Writing Doubly: Emily Dickinson and Female Experience." Legacy 3 (Spring 1986): 5-15.
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——. The Poetry of Emily Dickinson. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 1968.
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——. "Emily Dickinson's Fascicles: Method and Meaning of a Christian Poet." Literature and Belief 15 (1995): 1-21.
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8564
KEN HILTNER (ESSAY DATE 2000)
SOURCE: Hiltner, Ken. "Because I, Persephone, Could Not Stop for Death: Emily Dickinson and the Goddess." Emily Dickinson Journal 10, no. 2 (2000): 22-42.
In the following essay, Hiltner interprets Dickinson's poem "Because I could not stop for Death—" as a retelling of the Greek myth of Persephone and as a critique of patriarchal exogamy (the practice of a father choosing his daughter's husband from an outside group). Hiltner also suggests that Dickinson's choice not to publish her poetry can be viewed as her preference to remain separate from male-dominated society.
Though it is doubtful Emily Dickinson will ever be described as a "Classicist," we know that the poet not only studied Latin at Amherst Academy, but had at her disposal in the libraries of the Academy, Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, and the family's Homestead a wide variety of classical textbooks as well as original and translated works by Homer, Sophocles, Horace, Cicero, Virgil, and others.1 Latin words and phrases appear throughout the poet's body of work, from the early "Sic transit glories mundi" (Fr2/J3), to late references to "ignis fatuus" and "illume" in "Those dying then" (Fr1581/J1551). We also know that the Amherst poet made inspired use of such classically influenced writers as Shakespeare, Milton, and the Romantic poets.2 Furthermore, a provocative case has been made that Dickinson's familiarity with Latin quantitative metrics and caesurae strongly influenced the poet's meter, capitalization, and internal punctuation.3 Yet, in spite of this classical background, perhaps because critics still reluctantly find the reclusive poet provincial or simply turned inward (and hence away from, among other things, the ancient traditions), Dickinson's use of classical material has virtually escaped the attention of critics.4 Indeed, what Jack Capps somewhat pejoratively noted decades ago is still widely accepted today: Dickinson "found no place in her own writing for the involved apparatus of classical … mythology" (72).5
Or did she? In the present essay I propose to use one of Dickinson's most anthologized poems, "Because I could not stop for Death" (Fr "479" / J "712"), to demonstrate that the poet not only used classical sources (in this case the Homeric "Hymn to Demeter"), but, in producing a new and startling version of the myth of Persephone, framed a devastating critique of patriarchal exogamy as that which would not only take her away from mother, sister, and friends, but the mother's realm of the imaginary as well. As we shall see, more than just a speculative critique, this approach to patriarchal exogamy may underscore a number of the poet's life decisions, not the least of which being her reluctance to publish
Since the discovery in 1777 of a single surviving medieval manuscript of the Homeric "Hymn to Demeter," writers have flocked to retell the story of the mother who was willing to sacrifice so much in order to save her daughter. Both Percy Bysshe and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley offered early versions of the myth: his in verse in the "Song of Proserpine," and hers as the unpublished drama "Proserpine." But it was not until mid-century that a virtual avalanche of works let loose which either directly referenced the myth or featured characters reenacting the story. A partial list includes Nathaniel Hawthorne (Tanglewood Tales), Elizabeth Barrett Browning ("Aurora Leigh"—a favorite of Dickinson's), Helen Hunt Jackson ("Demeter"—Jackson was, of course, one of Dickinson's correspondents), Alfred Tennyson ("Demeter and Persephone"), H. D. ("Demeter"), Edgar Lee Masters ("Persephone"), Gertrude Atherton ("The Foghorn"), Amy Clarke ("Persephone"), Margaret Atwood (Procedures for Underground and Double Persephone), Sylvia Plath ("Two Sisters of Persephone"), Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Ellen Glasgow, Virginia Wolfe, Colette, and many more.6 The myth has also attracted the attention of literary critics such as Adrienne Rich (Of Woman Born), Susan Gubar ("Mother, Maiden, and the Marriage of Death"), and Luce Irigaray (Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche). Indeed, Susan Gubar sees Persephone as nothing less than "the central mythic figure for women" (302).
It will be easiest to understand why this myth captured the imagination of so many by moving to Dickinson's poem, but not before addressing the crucial question of where the poet encountered the Homeric "Hymn to Demeter": at first glance a copy of the "Hymn" does not appear to be included in the libraries of Amherst Academy, Mount Holyoke, or the family Homestead. But, after sifting through the classical reference books available to the poet, we find a number of different versions of Persephone's tale. Both Thomas Bulfinch's The Age of Fable or Beauties of Mythology (Houghton #2133) and John Lempriere's A Classical Dictionary, which were available in the Dickinson's home library, contain extended retellings of the myth. However, though these rather freely recounted versions appear to have been somewhat influenced by the "Hymn," it is clear that they owe a greater debt to Ovid's "The Rape of Persephone" appearing in his Metamorphosis. Both Bulfinch and Lempriere follow Ovid's version of the tale in omitting the role that Helios (the sun) played. Additionally, these versions end with Persephone's time spent half with Hades and half with her mother. In the Homeric "Hymn"—and, as I shall argue, in Dickinson's poem—the sun does play a role, while the tale crucially divides the year into three parts, with Persephone spending only one third of her time with Hades. This still leaves unanswered the question of where Dickinson encountered the "Hymn."
Buried in Charles Anton's Classical Dictionary—which was a required reference book at Amherst Academy—under "Ceres" (Demeter's Latin name) is a version of the "Hymn" which, while omitting certain lines, is an otherwise faithful, and indeed beautiful, translation. This is hardly surprising as Anton's (which should not be confused with Lempriere's work of the same name) was no ordinary classical dictionary. It has been persuasively argued that Hawthorne used Anton's dictionary, which was widely respected and available at mid-century, as the basis for all the classical myths recounted in his Tanglewood Tales, including his version of the Demeter story.7 What made Anton's work so unusual was that, though he added introductions and commented on classical myths, he preferred to use slightly abridged translations of the earliest available versions of the myths. In contrast, Lempriere's work strayed far from the classical sources in order to give the "work the charm of a story-book" (4). In that Anton's translation of the "Hymn" is so faithful to the original, as well as Dickinson's likely source of the myth, all references to the "Hymn" (unless otherwise noted) will be to this edition as we move to the Amherst's poet's own version of the myth.
Because I could not stop for Death—
He kindly stopped for me—
The Carriage held but just Ourselves—
We slowly drove—He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility—
We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess—in the Ring—
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain—
We passed the Setting Sun—
Or rather—He passed us—
The Dews drew quivering and chill—
For only Gossamer, my Gown—
My Tippet—only Tulle—
We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground—
The Roof was scarcely visible—
The Cornice—in the Ground—
Since then—'tis Centuries—and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses' Heads
Were toward Eternity (Fr479)
That the poem depicts Death as a bridegroom has hardly been lost on critics, but whether Death is a "chivalrous gentleman" (Capps 88), or a "gentleman suitor" who is revealed to be a "kind of rapist" (Wardrop 88), has certainly been contested—as it has been regarding the Homeric "Hymn" where the suitor Hades arrives in his "golden Chariot" (330). Hawthorne, for example, held that Persephone was surprisingly content with having been abducted by Hades and taken to his palace: Persephone "being of a cheerful and active disposition … was not quite so unhappy as you may have supposed. The immense palace had a thousand rooms, and was full of beautiful and wonderful objects" (322). However, recent critics have been especially wary of efforts on the part of writers like Hawthorne to "reframe positively" the "violent … behavior" of Hades, instead of naming it "directly as kidnapping and rape" as did the "ancients" (Carlson 15). Before moving to the question of rape in relation to Dickinson's poem, it might be helpful to quickly cite some obvious lines which indicate that the poem's speaker is, in fact, Persephone and the "gentleman suitor," Hades.
As the "Hymn" opens, Persephone is found to be gathering "the rose, the violet, the crocus, [and] the hyacinth" (330), which for the goddess of young plants and fertility was "My labor and my leisure too"—as was such an activity for gardener Emily Dickinson. Because the abduction in the "Hymn" was nearly "unheard and unseen by gods" (330), it passed even the field of vision of "Gazing Grain"—Persephone's mother Demeter (goddess of grain), who, failing to see the abduction, went feverously looking for her missing daughter. "Fields of Gazing Grain," of course, also wonderfully paints Persephone, flying in the "golden Chariot" of Hades (330), looking down to clearly seeing her mother's fields, yet sadly unseen by Demeter. However, there were two witnesses to the abduction, the most important for now being "King Helios (the sun), whose eye nothing on Earth escapes" (330) as he too streaked across the sky in a chariot, causing the poem's speaker to first believe that "We passed the Setting Sun" in his chariot, though she quickly realizes that "He passed us."
But, why is it that Helios did the passing? To approach this question we need realize that the poem's third quatrain, in three lines each beginning with "We passed," wonderfully depicts three spans of time (a day, a season, and a lifetime) being broken into appropriately three phases. As mentioned earlier, the Homeric "Hymn" (unlike the retellings of Persephone's story by Ovid, Bulfinch, and Lempriere) depicts the year separated into three parts with Persephone spending one third of her time with Hades and two thirds with Demeter. Anthon's extended commentary, which is an attempt to explain the "scientific" basis of the "Hymn," offers that "the time which the corn [Persephone, who like Demeter is also a goddess of corn] is away … [is] … about four months" (330), as this is the time needed for the sown corn to reach maturity. This time before reaching maturity forms the first third of the day of the abduction (line one of quatrain three where "We passed the School"), the first third of life (childhood, "where Children strove / At Recess—in the Ring"), and of course, the first third of the year: spring. The second third of the day is witness to the "Fields of Gazing Grain," the adult period of life where the mature grain has grown tall, which is also the second third of the year as summer yields to autumn. The final third of the day of the abduction, the time of the "Setting Sun," is old age and winter. The fact that it is Helios who "passed" the speaker adds double meaning as the sun not only sets on the day, but also moves lower in the sky as autumn turns to winter. As Judith Farr succinctly summarizes the third quatrain, in it "Dickinson describes childhood (when ring games are played), maturity (fields of grain), and old age (setting sun)" (330).
Using a three-part structure for days, seasons, and life is a notable departure for Dickinson, who consistently prefers a fourfold division. As Rebecca Patterson has noted, Dickinson "associates each quarter of the compass with its traditional time of day and season of the year … she has also two symbolic movements of the sun corresponding to her North-South and East-West divisions. On this double axis she has literally suspended hundreds of poems" (181). Barton Levi St. Armand has taken this notion of Dickinson's "fourfold universe" (277) further to not only include days, seasons, and life, but color-based, religious, geographical, and other fourfold cycles.8 The influence of the "Hymn" on the poet seems clear here, for in no other poem does Dickinson so thoroughly use a tripartite structure. As we delve further into the Amherst poet's retelling of the myth, the significance of the Threefold will become far more apparent.
However, as distinct as these three phases may be, the third quatrain also joins them by virtue of repeated circular images: "the Ring," the circle shaped "Sun," and the overarching image of Helios making his journey across the sky. Though days, seasons, and lifetimes seem to come to an end, they merely turn back on themselves to circularly repeat. Night and winter are not endings, but rather preludes to morning and spring. Similarly, when maturity leads to a new birth, life continues past death. (This last circular notion, of life living past death through birth, is an important one to which we need return.) As Bettina Knapp has further noted, in the third quatrain "The parataxis ("We passed … We Passed … We Passed") and the alliterations ("Fields of Gazing Grain" and "the setting Sun") depict a continuity of scenes, thereby emphasizing the notion of never-endingness" (92).
As the fourth quatrain opens it is clear that we have been led to the third arc of the circle as the day ends when "He [Helios] passed us" as the sun sets. It is in this third part of the year, with Helios low in the sky, that "The Dews drew quivering and chill" with the onslaught of winter. This is also the effect of Demeter's passive resistance to the abduction of Persephone: using the only leverage at her disposal, to bring "quivering and chill" to the Earth, in the fourth quatrain Demeter is attempting to effect the return of Persephone.
In the fifth quatrain the sun has set on life as the palace ("House") of Hades—which is also a fresh grave, "A Swelling of the Ground" comes into view. Yet the sixth quatrain, which begins by assuring us that the speaker is a contemporary Persephone, speaking centuries after the abduction occurred, ends with the notion that life too has turned back on itself to achieve immortality.
Though it seems clear Dickinson's poem is a retelling of the myth of Persephone as it appears in the "Hymn," the greater question of why the poet chose to retell the tale also compels us to ask why so many writers—especially women—have offered up their own versions of the myth. While it might seem the myth is principally concerned with the agricultural change of seasons (a subject to which Dickinson frequently returned), this is increasingly becoming acknowledged as a something of a "cover story." As classical philologist Adriana Cavarero notes, "The agricultural symbology is superimposed on … [the myth] … as an external artifice. It does not contribute to mediating and resolving the conflict" (58). That "conflict" centers on certain marital practices as patriarchal institutions.
Before the events of the myth are put into motion, unbeknownst to both Persephone and Demeter, a deal had been brokered between Hades and Persephone's father, Zeus, whereby Persephone had been given to Hades. As Irigaray has noted, "As a piece of property, Persephone belongs to the men" (112), and as property herself, Demeter need not have been consulted. However when Demeter finds that "the ravisher is Pluto [Hades], who, by the permission of her sire [Zeus], had carried away" her daughter, she becomes "Incensed at the conduct of Jupiter [Zeus]" (330). This of course leads to Demeter, as goddess of fertility, going on "strike" until Persephone is returned.
As psychologist Kathie Carlson has noted, traditionally this behavior on Demeter's part has been "presented as pathological: neurotic, depressive, overpossessive, narcissistic, a midlife 'folly,'" and so forth. Persephone, on the other hand, "is seen as naïve, innocent and teasing, lacking depth, and needing to break away from her mother." With Persephone unable "to separate from a 'binding' mother," traditionally her "rape is recast" as a much needed "initiation" (14-15). Hawthorne's retelling of the myth generally takes this position—as do, unfortunately, many of the versions penned by men. On the other hand, certain men, most notably Jung, realized that the Demeter/Persephone myth hardly depicts pathological behavior, but rather "exists on the plane of the mother-daughter experience, which is alien to man, and shuts him out. In fact, the psychology of the Demeter cult bears all the features of a matriarchal order of society" (177).
Or, more accurately, we might say "a matriarchal order of society" under siege. As Helene Foley has noted "In the 'Hymn' Zeus attempts to impose on Persephone a form of marriage new to Olympus … in modern terms we would characterize it as a patriarchal and virilocal exogamy (a marriage between members of two different social groups arranged by the father of the bride in which the bride resides with her husband)" (105). Generally when the Greek gods married, it involved a goddess from Olympus marrying a god from Olympus with the couple continuing to reside in the same location, but as most Olympian gods and goddesses were barred from Hades' realm, this meant that Persephone and Demeter were forever separated by her marriage. Of course, the myth speaks to human patriarchal marriage practices, common in ancient Greece, whereby daughters, unlike sons, were forced not only to leave home, but often compelled to live at a distance sufficient to effectively separate them from mother and family. As such, Foley adds, "The Hymn thus takes apart the benign cultural institution we see functioning without tension … and shows the price paid by mother and daughter for accepting for the first time a marriage that requires a degree of separation and subordination to the male" (109). When this patriarchal institution is functioning invisibly, attention is turned away from the institution itself as resistance to the mother/daughter separation is seen as "pathological" and "unnatural" on the part of the women.
It is furthermore clear that such patriarchal exogamy, when carried to the myth's extreme, in which the prospective wife not only has no role in the choice of her husband, but also has no knowledge of her marriage until her husband comes to "take" her, results in nothing less than rape. Dickinson's retelling of the myth, in which the speaker has no choice or prior knowledge of her husband or marriage, also, as Daneen Wardrop has noted, "recounts the events of rape" (88). In addition to having meaning for any woman living under patriarchal exogamy—regardless of where of when—it has been suggested that the myth of Persephone "mirrors mythically the usurpation and gradual assimilation of an older southern European religion of the Mother Goddess by the earliest forces of patriarchy … Mythically, this assimilation was repeatedly pictured as the Goddess being raped, dismembered, slain by a hero, or married (and subordinated) to the invading god" (Carlson 3). In short, this myth, which still speaks to existing patriarchal marital practices, may have first originated when those practices where forced on a culture that, if not matriarchal, at least had greater gender equality.
While Jung believed the myth of Demeter/Persephone was an archetype shared by all women, it should be clear that it is a myth shared only by women of certain patriarchal cultures; however, given the ubiquity of these cultures, the impression is that the archetype is truly universal. Adrienne Rich has similarly noted that the myth seems universal: every "daughter … must have longed for a mother whose love for her and whose power were so great as to undo rape and bring her back from death. And every mother must have longed for the power of Demeter, the efficacy of her anger" (240). As a near-universal archetype, it is hardly surprising that so many women writers used the "Hymn to Demeter" to express their own experiences of patriarchy. Such a woman was Emily Dickinson.
Though Dickinson (who, to borrow Carlson's words, like Demeter has been "presented as pathological: neurotic, depressive," and so forth (14), has often been depicted as unwilling to leave her father's home, so it may be her mother's home the poet chose not to leave. Aside from the vicious separation of mother and daughter, the most devastating effect of patriarchal exogamy is that it generally undermines communities of women. With women constantly being traded about by patriarchal power, it is not only the relationship between mother and daughter that is severed, but that between sisters, as well as bonds with friends who live nearby. In Dickinson's case the relationships at risk would have been with her sister [Emily described her bond with Lavinia as "early, earnest, indissoluble," (L827)], close friends and relatives (Dickinson called her sister-in-law Susan an "Avalanche of Sun" in her life, L755), and her mother (after losing her mother Dickinson lamented, "When we were children and she journeyed, she always brought us something. Now would she bring us but herself, what an only Gift," L792).
In the version of the "Hymn" Dickinson had in her possession, Anton notes that Hades either took Persephone from the company of "Venus, Minerva, and Diana," who were "the companions of their sister for the occasion," or "the sirens" who were her "attendants" (330). In either case, and in the unabridged Hymn, Persephone is taken away from a community of women described as "sisters." Moreover, after Demeter realizes that Hades is the kidnaper/rapist, she leaves Olympus—and the male god who betrayed her in allowing the abduction to take place—to settle in Eleusis. There she resides in a community populated largely by woman, Queen Metanira and her daughters. A salient feature of the myth is not only that Persephone is snatched from a community of woman, but also that having lost the company of her daughter, Demeter seeks solace by joining a similar community.
One of the most unusual features of Dickinson's retelling of the myth is that it is told in the first person by Persephone. None of the ancient variants of the myth are told by Persephone, and many of the nineteenth and twentieth-century versions told by women, like Shelley's unpublished drama (written shortly after she lost a child), are either told by or emphasize the role of Demeter. Unlike these versions, Dickinson's poem tells the story of a woman willingly taken away from her community of loved ones. Dickinson's life, on the other hand, tells the story of a woman unwilling to be taken away from the company of those she loved.
It is on this point that so much of the poem pivots: unlike Persephone in the Homeric "Hymn," the speaker in Dickinson's poem is surprisingly content to be taken off by Death. In the "Hymn," Hades literally "carried her off [kicking and] shrieking for aid" (330). The mood of Dickinson's poem, by contrast, is thoroughly calm, with Hades acting "kindly" towards Persephone, driving "slowly" with "no haste." Hades in general is found to possess marked "Civility." Now, of course, whether we have linked the poem with Persephone's story or not, it is clear that these words are dripping with irony. How indeed does a woman calmly accept a suitor when he intends to forever take her away from family and friends? I would argue that this is one of the central questions Dickinson asks in the poem.
Though so many ancient and nineteenth-century retellings of the myth focused on how the mother Demeter was unwilling to allow her daughter to be taken, Dickinson asks how Persephone could let herself be taken, calmly and willingly, as the poem makes so clear. In accordance with patriarchal exogamy as it existed in the nineteen century, girls and young woman were, with remarkably calm resignation, allowing themselves to be taken away from everything and everyone they loved. In the "Hymn," Demeter not only protests patriarchal exogamy, but also successfully overcomes it for two thirds of the year. Yet Persephone, whose name before the abduction, Kore, literally means in Greek "the girl," is presented as a helpless waif who has no role in her own recovery. As Dickinson looked about her, she found a world populated by Kores, willingly and calmly accepting a fate dictated to them by patriarchal power.
And yet, the Amherst poet is surprisingly sympathetic to the speaker of her poem. But, why be sympathetic to a speaker—and to women—who were making a choice the poet clearly rejected in her own life? The answer involves that third passenger in the carriage: for "The Carriage held" not "just Ourselves," but also "Immortality." To understand the role of immortality, not just in Dickinson's poem but in the "Hymn" as well, we can again turn to Jung, who held that regarding the myth of Demeter and Kore:
We could … say that every mother contains her daughter in herself and every daughter her mother, and that every woman extends backward into her mother and forward into her daughter. This participation and intermingling gives rise to that particular uncertainly as regards time: a woman lives earlier as a mother, later as a daughter. The conscious experiencing of these ties produces the feeling that her life is spread out over generations—the first step towards the immediate experience and conviction of being outside time, which brings with it a feeling of immortality.
The relationship between mother and daughter is unlike that between sisters or friends. As Jung suggests, in many respects they share a life, lived before as mother, then as daughter becoming mother, and later as daughter, and so forth. The speaker of the poem, unlike Dickinson, is not cut off from this life. I have argued that one of the central questions asked by the poem is how a woman accepts a suitor when he intends to take her away forever from mother, sister, and friends; yet, how does she not? Though she might remain within her community of women, in failing to accept a marriage co-opted by patriarchal exogamy, a woman nonetheless cuts herself off from her (to borrow Jung's words) "life … spread out over generations," and with it, her "feeling of immortality."
We hear two voices in the poem, one unspoken (Dickinson's), and the other, the voice of a woman in a carriage traveling down a road not taken. The other voice is, in fact, also Emily Dickinson's, but as three women telling their single story. To unfold this notion, we need return again to the "Hymn."
In accordance with Jung's argument that mother and daughter begin to merge into one, when Demeter and Persephone are shown in Greek painting and sculpture, they are frequently indistinguishable.9 This is because, though Hades abducts the Kore (the "girl"), a woman, Persephone, emerges from the experience. (It is for this reason that the myth has traditionally been seen as an "initiation" rite, though rape as a rite of passage certainly needs to be questioned.) The Kore changes into the woman Persephone, who assumes all the significance, power, and appearance of Demeter. In Anton's version of the myth this is especially clear as he interchangeably refers to both Demeter and Persephone as goddess of corn and grain (330). In order to speak of these two indistinguishable goddesses who were both the goddess of grain, the Greeks typically adopted the dual mode (to Theo) to speak of the two who are one. Still, both are inescapably related to the Kore, who is the future of one (as Demeter's daughter), and the past of the other (as the Kore from whom the woman Persephone has grown).
Yet, we cannot stop at the two who are one goddess, for there is also a third: her name was Hecate, whom I mentioned earlier (but failed to name) as the second witness to Persephone's abduction. As the "Hymn" notes in Anton's translation, while Demeter was searching for Persephone, "Hecate met her … [and] … together they proceeded to Helios" for news of the abduction (330). From this point on, Hecate becomes the constant companion of Demeter until the Kore emerges as Persephone, at which point "Hecate arrives to congratulate Persephone, and henceforth becomes her attendant" (330, emphasis added). Janet Wolf explains the significance of Hecate to the myth as she notes that while Demeter and Persephone
were a sacred duo … each related to the other as past and future … There is, however, a third woman with an important role in the myth, that is the ambiguous goddess Hecate … the triad of Persephone, Demeter, and Hecate does indeed represent the three phases of the moon, the seasonal cycle, and woman at the three stages of their life cycles, i.e., woman as maiden, nymph [mother], and crone.
all may appear together, dynamic and intertwined … in the Goddess: Maiden, Mother, Crone, the feminine three-in-one … a dynamic, ever-repeating cycle … the Triple Goddess.
Together Persephone, Demeter, and Hecate form a trinity known simply as the "Goddess"—an ancient mythic figure who likely preceded the Greek pantheon of gods historically.
With the threefold Goddess in mind, we can return to Dickinson's poem which, as noted earlier, in quatrain three creates a threefold cycle of days, seasons, and life. However, if we look at the six-quatrain poem as a whole, it is clear that it is also divided into three sections (each made of two quatrains) with one each given to Persephone, Demeter, and Hecate.
The first section, voiced by the Kore, is the quiet, relaxed account of a girl willingly giving up "My labor and my leisure too" as she is being taken off. Hades is described here as "kindly," and as having "Civility," because the girl, who does not possess the knowledge of a woman, cannot fully understand what is in store for her.10 Both introductory quatrains proceed at a leisurely pace as "We slowly drove—He knew no haste."
But in the second section, voiced by the Kore becoming Persephone, everything speeds up as "We passed … / We Passed … / We passed." Persephone's double, the protesting Demeter, is also present in this section as she brings "quivering and chill" to the Earth.11 Kore, dressed in a something resembling a wedding "gown" that is "only Gossamer," is, in Knapp's words, experiencing an "elopement of sorts" (93)—in quatrains three and four, Kore, being raped, is becoming Persephone. But with the rape comes knowledge. As noted earlier, the third quatrain is itself a single day (the day of the rape) that is also a season and a lifetime. A lifetime divided into three parts: childhood, "where Children strove" (Kore); maturity, "Fields of Gazing Grain" (Demeter); and old age, "the Setting Sun" (Hecate). On that day in which Kore became Persephone, she gained knowledge of life as past (Kore), present (Persephone/Demeter), and future (Hecate) spread out before her. In the poem's closing lines she remembers it as "the Day / I first surmised the Horses' Heads / Were toward Eternity."
But Persephone does not voice those closing lines: the poem's third section (quatrains five and six) belongs to Hecate. As noted earlier, the "Hymn" tells us that after Persephone's return, Hecate "becomes her attendant" who will accompany her back to Hades' realm (330). Kore, who became Persephone, who in turn became Demeter, now becomes Hecate, who will enter that "House that seemed/ASwelling of the Ground" as the cycle of the Goddess completes itself. But as the Goddess, who "first surmised" on that day of her rape, "Centuries" ago, "the Horses' Heads / Were toward Eternity"—she will return from rape and death once again as Persephone.
Dickinson's likely wrote the poem when she was thirty-two years old.12 No longer a Kore, and with the specter of Hecate before her, she assumed the voice of the Goddess—the Maiden Kore, the Mother Demeter, and the Crone Hecate—in order to explore marriage as that which would in many ways take her away from everything she loved in life, yet, in the uneasy bargain, enter her into a life of immortality. As she speaks for the Goddess, she reveals patient sympathy for women ripped away from family and home, yet cannot help but see this as a horrific fate they capitulated to with calm willingness of a child.
To further understand the significance of Dickinson's rejection of separation from mother and home, it will be helpful to consider the psychology of the Persephone myth. As the myth depicts the separation of daughter from mother, it has been argued that
the Freudian theory of psychosexual development … [appears] … to embody and illustrate a cultural logic analogous to that found in the Homeric "Hymn to Demeter." In both, the strategies of resistance to patriarchal domination have an internal logic and coherence, and both culminate in a validation of the patriarchal order.
Simply put, the "Hymn" depicts the Kore (the "girl") making the transition from the preoedipal to the oedipal stage of development. Though mother and daughter both object, the daughter is nonetheless separated from the mother by the intrusion of the father.
However, much the same way that Jung's "universal" archetype of Persephone's myth is now understood to be dependent on whether a culture is patriarchal, Freud's notion of the universal transition from the preoedipal to oedipal stage has certainly been questioned. In bringing together object-relation psychology, sociology, and cross-cultural anthropology, Nancy Chodorow finds girls, though always moving from preoedipal to oedipal phases; nonetheless, doing so in widely differing ways. In certain groups, such as largely matriarchal Atjehnese families in Indonesia, Chodorow finds girls and women often having flexible and nearly nonexistent ego boundaries separating them from their mothers and other female relatives. In practice in Atjehnese culture, "the mother-daughter tie and other female kin relations remain important from a woman's childhood through her old age. Daughters stay closer to home in both childhood and adulthood and remain involved in particularistic role relations. Sons and men are more likely to feel uncomfortable at home and spend work and play time away from the house" (260).
In directly applying Chodorow's approach to the Homeric "Hymn of Demeter," Helene Foley finds that "Ego boundaries between Demeter and Persephone are barely developed" throughout the "Hymn" (127). In that father Zeus's attempt to assert patriarchal order is only marginally successful (separating Demeter and Persephone for just one third of the year), Demeter largely succeeds in keeping a strong postoedipal bond between mother and daughter intact. This is not to say that Persephone fails to make the transition to the oedipal stage when she becomes an individual separated from others by ego boundaries, but that these boundaries need not separate her from her mother's realm. What the "Hymn" then depicts is a challenge to Freud's claim that, for the oedipal stage to be successfully negotiated, firm ego boundaries need be thrown up between mother and daughter. Indeed, viewed from the eye-opening perspective of the "Hymn," the very notion that daughters need be separated from mothers—what Freud argued was an essential stage of development—can itself be seen as patriarchy at work.
Though Foley's application of Chodorow to the "Hymn" is revealing in itself, Jacques Lacan's take on the oedipal exchange, especially as interpreted by French feminist thinkers, adds a whole new dimension to the subject. Lacan held that the preoedipal or "imaginary" stage is a preliterate time before the father and his law is insinuated, thereby inaugurating the oedipal, or "symbolic" stage. Writers such as Irigaray and Julia Kristeva have noted that the imaginary stage is decidedly feminine, being associated with the body, feelings, the non-rational, the unconscious, and speech. On the other hand, these thinkers have taken the symbolic to be principally male, involving the mind, rationality, the conscious, and written language. Given that, in classic Freudian (and Lacanian) terms, we should all fully enter the oedipal (symbolic) phase, this clearly involves a break with much that is feminine.
It is this break that Hélène Cixous sees both as a horrid shattering of a wonderful state of oneness (a prelinguistic unity) of mother and child, and as the imposition of the law of the father: "we are born into [his] language and [his] language speaks [to] us, dictates its law" (14). As noted earlier, what Demeter is fighting against in the "Hymn" is a world controlled by patriarchal power, but these French feminist thinkers reveal the remarkable extent of that power, especially regarding written language. In the West, written language—its grammar, its metaphors, and its meaning—has always been controlled by the male realm of the symbolic. As French feminist Xavière Gauthier has noted, this presents a profound difficulty for the woman who desires to write: How can she find her "place within the linear, grammatical, linguistic system that orders the symbolic … the law," when much that is feminine lies outside that very symbolic order?
Historically this difficulty became especially apparent when, in the second half of the nineteenth century, "believing themselves to be emancipated, women had access to universities where they were fed by force a language in which everything, verbs and subjects, was masculine" (Gauthier 162). Not surprisingly, as Gauthier notes, to "speak 'the language of Man'" was a maddening situation for women: "If there is a madman, then its definitely the Woman" (162, Gauthier's emphasis). In considering this "Madwoman," though without reference to Gauthier, Gilbert and Gubar found that "by the end of the nineteenth century," even though often representing a part of themselves as monstrous and mad, "women were not only writing, they were conceiving fictional worlds in which patriarchal images and conventions were severely, radically revised" (44). As empowering as this may seem, there still remains Gauthier's overarching concern that if women do "begin to write and write as men do, they will enter history subdued and alienated," yet it is "history that, logically speaking, their speech should disrupt" (162-63, Gauthier's emphasis).
This situation essentially presents women with an oedipal dilemma: either enter the male symbolic order so that they may write, or remain silent in the feminine imaginary realm. Josephine Donovan adds that
At no point in women's history was this dilemma more acute than at the turn of the [twentieth] century, because it was then that … women genuinely had the option of entering patriarchal civilization, the realm of the Symbolic. Before that they had remained segregated in woman-centered communities that sustained separate non-oedipal cultural traditions.
Though Donovan's focus is on works written at the close of the century by Wharton, Cather, and Glasgow, I believe applying her thesis to Dickinson's 1862 work reveals the poem to be something of a harbinger of what was to come—especially as Donovan notes how this oedipal dilemma was indeed a reenactment of the myth of Persephone:
The Persephone-Demeter myth allegorizes the historical mother-daughter transition that occurred towards the end of the nineteenth century in the Western world. Partly as a result of the nineteenth-century women's movement, young middle-to upper-class women were leaving their mothers' bowers in increasing numbers and entering such institutions of the male-dominated sphere as universi ties and the professions. In the process these women were leaving behind the women's sphere of "love and ritual," which had its own traditions and values … Like Demeter, late nineteenth-century mothers were struggling to keep their daughters "home," thereby sustaining women's culture, otherwise doomed by the daughter's abduction/betrayal. The daughters, on the other hand, were eager to expand their horizons, to engage in new systems of discourse, like Persephone, unaware that such involvement entailed patriarchal captivity.
Certainly for thousands of years daughters had been taken from their mother's homes by suitors, but in the second half of the nineteenth century daughters were leaving home—and the preoedipal feminine world of the imaginary—to eagerly and willingly enter the patriarchal realm of the symbolic.
This reveals a great irony of the nineteenth century "women's movement," for, in order to defy patriarchy, there was a great "movement of women," especially women writers, away from their mother's homes—which startlingly reen-acted the myth of Persephone as these women surprisingly found themselves in a new captivity dictated by patriarchy, especially the patriarchal nature of written language. The new and improved nineteenth-century Hades, no longer content with abducting a single woman (and for centuries having perfected a system of training women to calmly and willingly be taken by him) envisioned a brave new world where women by the tens of thousands could be lured away from family and home to become captives in his palace. As enticing as this new carriage ride may have seemed to many, Emily Dickinson declined its offer.
The last two decades of Dickinson studies have witnessed a number of ground-breaking works which have found the Amherst poet working outside the limits of the male language of the symbolic. In Margaret Homans's now classic de-constructive reading of Dickinson's poems, she argues that, though the maternal presence is lost in infancy, Dickinson's writing nonetheless gives voice to what is seemingly absent. Shortly after Homans's work appeared, Joanne Feit Diehl argued that Dickinson challenged the tradition of the male Romantic poets. Building on these and other writers, Mary Loeffelholz, in introducing Lacan into her own deconstructive approach, found the male literary tradition which Dickinson subverted as itself expressive of the symbolic. Works by Cristanne Miller, Helen McNeil, and others have also built upon the general notion that Dickinson, in rejecting the traditional male realm of the symbolic, was attempting to work out a distinctly feminine mode of expression.
Whereas Donovan argues that Wharton, Cather, and Glasgow were seduced by the prospect of expressing themselves through the symbolic, it is clear from the works of the aforementioned critics that Dickinson was not so easily ensnared. I earlier remarked that the lines from the Persephone poem, "I had put away / My labor and my leisure too," suggest the tending of young flowers, a leisurely labor both for Persephone and Dickinson. But for Dickinson, her labor and leisure, was, first and foremost, poetry. The poet plainly understood that it was not only from mother and home that she was to be taken, but from the tending of her poetry as well. Hades arrives in the poem as more than just a man who has come to claim his woman; his arrival announces what patriarchy demands (along with Freud and Lacan) as an essential stage in the "maturity" of all women: their delivery from the mother's realm (with its culture, traditions, values, and unique communication) to the father's domain of the symbolic. Dickinson, though sympathetic with women who sought immortality through writing as they left the realm of their mothers, also clearly sees this as a road away from a distinctly feminine mode of expression.
It is not only (critics have noted) Dickinson's mode of expression which reveals the poet's rejection of the "patriarchal suitor," but her recalcitrance about letting the poems themselves leave the realm she shared with her mother, sister, and friends. This becomes especially clear when we consider the early publication history of the Persephone poem. Todd and Higginson likely cut the work's fourth quatrain from the 1890 edition of Dickinson's Poems because it dared an image of the speaker "quivering" in a "Gossamer … Gown." But, as noted earlier, Dickinson's entire retelling of Persephone's tale pivots on the third and fourth quatrains, which renders the image of a woman exposed and quivering at the moment of rape. The image is disquieting precisely because Dickinson, in not subscribing to the patriarchal notion of Kore undergoing a much-needed "initiation," is reclaiming the ancient conviction that this indeed was rape. As a result, the edited poem's tone, now more influenced by the first two quatrains (Kore's section), is that of a child calmly and willingly accepting the unknown as a suitor. In so editing the work, Todd and Higginson converted Dickinson's poem, which protested patriarchal exogamy, into something akin to Hawthorne's retelling of the myth: an endorsement of those very patriarchal practices. Furthermore, the editorial decision to give the poem the title "The Chariot," which, though perceptively hinting at the poem's classical pedigree; nonetheless, does little to introduce the essential patriarchal conflict explored by the work. Though these revisions were made after the poet's death, Dickinson unquestionably understood that consigning her poems to the realm of the symbolic would risk their being brutally ravished.
Withal, the event chronicled in the "Hymn" and Dickinson's poem is not a painful but necessary growth out of childhood but rather a death. The Goddess, the poem's three-in-one speaker, is describing the death of that which linked her with home, mother, sister, friends, feelings and expression. What she is relating is nothing less than the death of much that gave her life. Though well aware of the regenerative power of the Goddess, knowing that she too could live through rape and death, Dickinson choose not to achieve immortality at the cost of killing the relations that bound her to her world. Even if Emily Dickinson had never encountered the Homeric "Hymn to Demeter," it is likely she would have produced her Persephone poem—not to give new life to an ancient myth, but, in boldly writing the story of a woman traveling a road not taken, to silently give expression to the poet's own life and its decisions.
- Regarding the poet's exposure to Latin at Amherst Academy, Dickinson mentions in a letter to Jane Humphrey, "I am in the class that you used to be in Latin—besides Latin I study History and Botany I like the school very much indeed" (L3). Furthermore, Dickinson wrote to Abiah Root that she was attending classes in "Mental Philosophy, Geology, Latin, and Botany" (L6). Capps and Lowenberg have been used to determine the availability of classical books and authors to Dickinson.
- See Jack Capps's Emily Dickinson's Reading: 1836-1886 for the availability and influence of these writers on Dickinson.
- For the influence of Latin grammar on Dickinson, see both Cuddy's "The Influence of Latin Poetics on Emily Dickinson's Style," as well as her "The Latin Imprint of Emily Dickinson's Poetry: Theory and Practice."
- I say "virtually" escaped critical attention for in 1976 Nancy McClaran made a brief (two page) case that Dickinson's "Of Death I try to think like this" makes a reference to Virgil.
- More recently, Jane Donahue Eberwein has echoed a similar sentiment: "Dickinson, despite her modestly classical education, paid little attention to Greek deities or classical ideals" (233).
- For a broad survey of works referencing the Demeter myth, see Helene Foley's The Homeric "Hymn to Demeter" (151-69). Josephine Donovan also offers a book-length analysis of the myth in Wharton, Cather, Glasgow, Wolfe, and Colette.
- Hugo McPherson's Hawthorne as Myth-Maker is a book-length treatment of Hawthorne's use of Anthon's Classical Dictionary in the writing of Tanglewood Tales. McPherson argues that in retelling the myth of Persephone, Hawthorne "relied on the simple but exhaustive account given in Anton under 'Ceres'" (99)—the same passage I am arguing Dickinson used in writing her own version of the Persephone myth.
- For Dickinson's creation of a "fourfold universe," see Barton Levi St. Armand's Emily Dickinson and Her Culture, especially his chart of "Dickinson's Mystic [Fourfold] Day" on 317.
- For the similarities of Demeter and Persephone in Greek painting and sculpture, see Frazer, 462.
- A treatment of the Greek use of the dual mode in reference to Demeter and Persephone can be found in Pakkanen, 106-07.
- For the likely date of the poem's creation see both Johnson's variorum edition of the poems (volume 1, page 492) and Franklin's The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson (volume 1, page 508).
- On the notion of Dickinson rejecting male language, see Homans's Woman Writers and Poetic Identity: Dorothy Wordsworth, Emily Brontë, and Emily Dickinson, Diehl's Dickinson and the Romantic Imagination, Loeffelholz's Dickinson and the Boundaries of Feminist Theory, Miller's Emily Dickinson: A Poet's Grammar, and McNeil's Emily Dickinson.
Unless otherwise indicated the following abbreviations are used for reference to the writings of Emily Dickinson
Fr: The Poems of Emily Dickinson. ed. R. W. Franklin. 3 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1998. Citation by poem number.
J: The Poems of Emily Dickinson. ed. Thomas H. Johnson. 3 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1955. Citation by poem number.
L: The Letters of Emily Dickinson. ed. Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward. 3 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1958. Citation by letter number.
Anton, Charles. A Classical Dictionary: Containing an Account of the Principal Proper Names Mentioned in Ancient Authors. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1841.
Bulfinch, Thomas. The Age of Fable or Beauties of Mythology. Boston: Sanborn, Carter and Bazin, 1855.
Capps, Jack L. Emily Dickinson's Reading: 1836-1886. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1966.
Carlson, Kathie. Life's Daughter/Death's Bride: Inner Transformations Through the Goddess Demeter/Persephone. Boston: Shambhala Press, 1997.
Cavarero, Adriana. In Spite of Plato: A Feminist Rewriting of Ancient Philosophy. Trans. Serena Anderlini-D'Onofrio and Aine O'Healy. New York: Routledge, 1995.
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——. "The Latin Imprint of Emily Dickinson's Poetry: Theory and Practice." American Literature 50 (1978): 74-84.
Diehl, Joanne Feit. Dickinson and the Romantic Imagination. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1981.
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Duchac, Joseph. The Poems of Emily Dickinson: An Annotated Guide to Commentary Published in English, 1890-1977. Boston, G. K. Hall, 1979, 658 p.
A comprehensive survey of criticism on Dickinson published between 1890 and 1977.
——. The Poems of Emily Dickinson: An Annotated Guide to Commentary Published in English, 1978-1989. Boston, G. K. Hall, 1993, 525 p.
A comprehensive survey of criticism on Dickinson published between 1978 and 1989.
Habegger, Alfred. My Wars are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson. New York: Random House, 2001, 764 p.
Comprehensive account of Dickinson's life.
Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. Emily Dickinson. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1988, 635 p.
Provides an in-depth bio-critical survey of Dickinson's life and career.
Eberwein, Jane Donahue. "Ministerial Interviews and Fathers in Faith." Emily Dickinson Journal 9, no. 2 (2000): 6-15.
Discusses the two ministers who served the Amherst, Massachusetts church that Dickinson's family attended, speculating on the influence that they may have had on her work.
Grabher, Gudrun Roland Hagenbüchle, and Cristanne Miller, eds. The Emily Dickinson Handbook. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998, 480 p.
Comprehensive reference source containing essays on the poet's life and work; also contains commentary on the state of modern Dickinson scholarship.
Landry, H. Jordan. "Animal/Insectual/Lesbian Sex: Dickinson's Queer Version of the Birds and the Bees." Emily Dickinson Journal 9, no. 2 (2000): 42-54.
Interprets Dickinson's use of insect and bird imagery as the poet's means of reimagining gender and sexual roles.
Martin, Wendy, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002, 248 p.
Collection of scholarly essays focusing on Dickinson's biography and the publication history of her works, her poetic strategies and themes, and the cultural contexts inferred from her poetry.
Messmer, Marietta. A Vice for Voices: Reading Emily Dickinson's Correspondence. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001, 280 p.
Surveys Dickinson's letters in an effort to elucidate the poet's inspiration and literary genius.
Ramirez, Anne West. "Harriet Beecher Stowe's Christian Feminism in The Minister's Wooing: A Precedent for Emily Dickinson." Christianity and Literature 51, no. 3 (spring 2002): 407-24.
Examines the similarities between Dickinson's verse and Stowe's novel, outlining the women's shared cultural history.
Raymond, Claire. "Emily Dickinson as the Un-named, Buried Child." Emily Dickinson Journal 12, no. 1 (2003): 107-22.
Analyzes Dickinson's narrative technique of assuming the voice of a dead child and considers the device as a comment on gender roles and identity.
Shoobridge, Helen. "'Reverence for each Other Being the Sweet Aim': Emily Dickinson Face to Face with the Masculine." Emily Dickinson Journal 9, no. 1 (spring 2000): 87-111.
Employs the theories of Luce Irigaray to examine Dickinson's letters, suggesting that the poet's intention was to communicate with and educate men.
Vendler, Helen. "Emily Dickinson Thinking." Parnassus: Poetry in Review 26, no. 1 (2001): 34-56.
Detailed analysis of Dickinson's treatment of time in her poetry.
OTHER SOURCES FROM GALE:
Additional coverage of Dickinson's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers; American Writers Retrospective Supplement, Vol. 1; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 22; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1865-1917; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 1, 243; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition and Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors and Poets; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Exploring Poetry; Literature Resource Center; Modern American Women Writers; Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vols. 21, 77; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 1; Poetry for Students, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 10, 11, 13, 16; Poets: American and British; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Something about the Author, Vol. 29; Twayne's United States Authors; World Literature Criticism; World Poets; and Writers for Young Adults.
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