My Emily Dickinson

by Susan Howe

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Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson meditates on the political, social, and cultural conditions that informed Emily Dickinson’s poetry. Howe’s work, though erudite, is a poet’s investigation into the poetic imagination rather than a critic’s analysis of poetry. Like Howe’s own poetry—or that of Dickinson—My Emily Dickinson defies any easy categorization. Howe’s text is not commentary; instead, it is an assemblage of meditations and citations from other works, compiled in an attempt to reconstruct Dickinson’s reading and poetic connections. With its lyric energy, it is as much a poetic essay as it is an essay on poetics. The most significant implication of Howe’s work is that Dickinson’s poetry is as informed by textual appropriations as it is by autobiographical events. Howe’s reading of Dickinson seeks to reinvoke the visionary capacities of Dickinson’s poetry.

My Emily Dickinson is divided into three parts. The untitled first part provides the context for the second and third parts, whose central focus is Dickinson’s poem “My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun” (c. 1863). Although questions of gender and difference are significant, Howe rejects superficial feminist critiques and programs that “relegate women to what we ‘should’ or ‘must’ be doing.” Instead, Howe argues that there is a “mystic separation between poetic vision and ordinary living"; thus, the “conditions for poetry rest outside each life at a miraculous reach indifferent to worldly chronology.”

Although social and economic conditions define a life, a poet’s writing, Howe argues, can only be understood through the poet’s reading. For Emily Dickinson, her “life was language and a lexicon her landscape.” To move toward an understanding of Dickinson’s vision, one must read her in conjunction with the English poets and novelists Emily Brontë, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Robert Browning, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and William Shakespeare as well as the American theologian and philosopher Jonathan Edwards.

In the book’s second and third parts, Howe commences a close reading of Dickinson’s “My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun.” The poem, like any true poem, Howe argues, eludes any final or specific interpretation. Instead, it results from compression, masking, riddling, rewriting, pulling text from texts. The second part, titled “Childe Emily to the Dark Tower Came,” initiates an archaeological reading of the poem. The first of its two sections, “Archaeology,” places texts of Calvinist tracts by Increase Mather and Cotton Mather as well as Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative alongside Dickinson’s poems. These form the mythology of the region, which, Howe argues, reflects a region’s reality and thus informs Dickinson’s writings. Most important, however, are the religious tracts of Jonathan Edwards, which became the basic texts for the religious revival that swept the United States during Dickinson’s life. Howe asserts that Dickinson’s faith in the futurity of her poetry, which sustained her decision not to publish, is rooted in the Calvinist beliefs expounded by Edwards more than a century earlier in self-assertion and the belief in being elected for a higher purpose. It is this idealistic energy that allowed Dickinson to survive.

The second section, “To Imagination,” draws parallels between Dickinson and Emily Brontë. In both Dickinson and Emily Brontë, Howe sees the conflict between the “inhuman legalism of Calvinism” and the “intellectual beauty of Neoplatonism” at work to create a “twofold wisdom, rational and supernatural.” Society, for both writers, was a hostile territory; it doomed passion to conform to necessity.

“Childe Emily to the Dark Tower Came” provides an archaeology of the region and its dominant myths through specific texts. The third part, “Trumpets Sing to Battle,” discusses the literary texts that also inform Dickinson’s poetry. Howe begins this part with a comparison between Robert Browning’s...

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poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” and Dickinson’s poem. Both, written in the mid-nineteenth century at the time of civil unrest and war, written by masters of the dramatic monologue, concern the fates of nameless narrators faced with the paralysis of power as they wander in a wasteland of old myths, archaic language, and the detritus of the world.

Following this untitled introductory section, “Trumpets Sing to Battle” is subdivided into two sections. The first, “Architecture of Meaning,” provides an associative reading of Dickinson’s poem stanza by stanza. Here, as throughout My Emily Dickinson, Howe describes the textual appropriations and allusions that inform Dickinson’s poetry. The second subsection, “Thomas Wentworth Higginson: 1823-1911,” concludes the stanza-by-stanza reading. Focusing on the final stanza of the poem, Howe reads it in conjunction with an examination of Dickinson’s relationship with Higginson, her literary correspondent and mentor. What Howe makes clear throughout My Emily Dickinson is that there is no definitive reading of this poem—that any true poem defies criticism’s strategies of containment.

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