Critical Evaluation

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The life and literary career of Emily Dickinson were filled with irony. In deciding that some of the poems she sent him were not strong enough for publication, the essayist and critic Thomas Wentworth Higginson is said to have remarked that they were “too delicate.” This judgment is only one of the many strange blunders made in connection with a woman who has finally been accorded the rank of a major poet.

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Proper evaluation of a contemporary writer is an uncertain business in any era, but literary criticism in Emily Dickinson’s time produced some especially ironic judgments. Of those who saw her poems during her lifetime, only Helen Hunt Jackson seems to have appreciated their real worth; Emily herself (and Emerson, who was astute enough as a critic to recognize the genius of Walt Whitman) thought Mrs. Jackson to be one of the great poets of her time, but she is now remembered almost solely for her championing of Emily. “Creative editing” is another irony that has plagued the work of the inspired recluse of Amherst. Only six of her poems appeared in print before her death; the mutilation of these by zealous editors who wanted to “correct” her vagaries of rhyme, meter, and punctuation was a factor in her decision not to seek publication but to take her chances with fame after death. Well-meaning editing continued to haunt her work long after she died and only recently, in THE POEMS OF EMILY DICKINSON, edited by Thomas H. Johnson and published in three volumes in 1955, has the world been allowed to read her lyrics as she wrote and punctuated them.

The bare facts of the life of Emily Dickinson were so simple that they would seem to permit no garbling, no misinterpretation, but even here what might be called “creative tampering” has also been at work. Legend says she fell madly in love with the Reverend Charles Wadsworth and he with her. Supposedly he was willing to give up family and career for Emily, to renounce everything for love; but true to her Puritan background, she refused him. Now biographers are certain that no such double renunciation ever took place, that while she was greatly influenced by her feelings for Wadsworth and addressed to him many of her finest poems, their acquaintance was largely restricted to letters and he was probably never aware of her deep attachment.

Out of these tangles that have long surrounded her life and career, the reader is now able to judge and enjoy the work of one of America’s most original and remarkable poets. Using the Bible as her chief source of inspiration and the rhythms of the hymn books as a metrical starting point, Emily Dickinson developed with care a technique that produced poems breath-taking in construction; they are full of the magic of a child who balances blocks on top of one another, performing feats impossible for a shaky adult hand. Almost as daring as the rhythms are her experiments in all the variations on part rhymes. With the help of Whitman, Emily Dickinson pushed open the door through which the “modern” poets have rushed to find new ways of expressing themselves. Here is an example of her metrics and musical effect:

Success is counted sweetestBy those who ne’er succeed.To comprehend a nectarRequires sorest need.Not one of all the purple HostWho took the Flag todayCan tell the definitionSo clear of VictoryAs he defeated—dying—On whose forbidden earThe distant strains of triumphBurst agonized and clear!

Poems in this characteristic style were what brought forth Higginson’s pronouncement—“too delicate.” The judgment now seems particularly obtuse, for the very delicacy he objected to is one of the poet’s chief charms; and sometimes that delicacy conceals the strength of iron:

The Soul selects her own Society—Then—shuts the Door—To her divine Majority—Present no more—Unmoved—she notes the Chariots—pausing—At her low Gate—Unmoved—an Emperor be kneelingUpon her Mat—I’ve known her—from an ample nation—Choose One—Then—close the Valves of her atten-tion—Like Stone—

The spirit of Emily Dickinson’s poems has been compared with that of the great metaphysicals, John Donne and William Blake; she is indeed like them in her ability to expand the little particularities of her everyday existence into ideas that are timeless and universal. For Emily Dickinson, who as her life slipped by confined herself almost entirely to her home and its grounds, these particularities were birds, flies, frogs, sunrises and sunsets, cups, saucers, doors, even a snake, that “narrow Fellow in the Grass” whom she never met “without a tighter breathing and Zero at the Bone.” Broadening these simple subjects, the poet expresses her feelings about God, death, and immortality.

Her relationship with God is an interesting one, for even in her childhood she could not force herself to be orthodox. As a schoolgirl she had great difficulty in professing herself to be a Christian. The harsh God of the Old Testament—the God who created man in His own image, restricted him with all sorts of “thou-shall-nots,” and then destroyed the image with death—had little appeal for Emily. In her poems her God is a very personal one, to be treated like a friend, praised for his good deeds and chided for his faults. Pompous piety has no place in any of her religious poems and when her feelings of intimacy lead her to address the Deity as “Papa above!” we are charmed rather than shocked by poetry that lets us become a part of a delightful woman to whom the trivialities of existence and the untouchable verities are of equal importance.

Like most poets, Emily Dickinson was intrigued by death; characteristically, she made it seem just another event in human experience. In one of her best-known poems, death is the driver of a carriage which picks her up, slowly takes her past a school where children are playing during recess, past fields, past the setting sun, until finally

We paused before a House that seemedA Swelling of the Ground—The Roof was scarcely visible—The Cornice—in the Ground—Since then—’tis Centuries—and yetFeels shorter than the DayI first surmised the Horses HeadsWere toward Eternity—

But death is not something the poet takes lightly. The loss of those she loved—particularly her father and Dr. Wadsworth—were blows from which she reeled; to one whose circle of acquaintanceship was so constricted each death assumed such great importance that it inspired a flood of little elegies in which the poet records both her grief and her love.

“Time,” “eternity,” and “immortality” are words that are insistently repeated in these poems. Always a skeptic, she once asked the question, “Is immortality true?” and like a proper metaphysician she lets her mind play with the two possible answers. In one of her last poems she seems to say that a person’s identity can never be blotted out; the poem concludes with this stanza:

To die is not to go—On Doom’s consummate ChartNo Territory new is staked—Remain thou as thou art.

Many readers of Emily Dickinson feel that she is a poet whom one may like or not like, that those who judge her a major poet have developed a sort of gourmet’s taste in literature, preferring the delicate and dainty to the robust and wholesome. There are indeed times when her poetry is quaint to the point of being cranky, when her eccentricities, compressions, and indirections lead to incomprehensibility; but if the reader will give her a second or third chance he, like others before him, will find that her best poetry provides the essence of great literature—contact with a powerful, original, fascinating mind.

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