EMILY DICKINSON and HER POETRY
<Written and prepared by Belinda F. St. Angelo, a ‘Master’ student at the Salve Regina College (Now University), Newport, R.I., and, her Professor of Psychology and supervisor Prof.Dr. Ismail Ersevim, as the thesis for her graduation, 1968, USA>
The quiet life of Emily Dickinson was made rich by the poet’s perceptive and enthusiastic response to the small events and homely beauty that surrounded her. From gay and witty school girl, Emily Dickinson grew into a sensitive woman who seldom ventured for her father’s house in Amherst, Massachusetts. But her imagination carried her far afield, and her gift of words spun wonder out of what she saw and felt. The fact remains nevertheless, that from age thirty on her life was essentially withdrawn from society. Her solitude took a very morbid turn after death of her father in 1874, and she because a complete recluse never leaving the family house. She became very occupied with the subject of death and her poetry and questions of the subject became somewhat morbid.
Thus, Chapter I, deals with the forces that were important in Emily’s life and her development as a poet, her friends, and her Puritan background. Her strong-willed father, whose influence upon her never be underestimated, is carefully and deftly characterized. Chapter II examines a perceptive reading of some of her poetry. It discusses the unique voice of the poet and the theme which dominates her most famous poetry: the theme of permanence and decay or more properly expressed time and death.
The final chapter presents Emily Dikinson and the modern sensibility, and the key of her modernity which lies in the peculiar relationship which Emily Dickinson bears to the Emersonian point of view. The third chapter also considers the other two keys to her modern sensibility which are her use of emotions in poetry and her connection with the twentieth century existentialist philosophers. It is important that the reader keep in mind that Emily Dickinson’s poetry reveals a rather tongue-in-cheek yet injured attitude toward the world. Let the reader heed Emily’s own words, “This is my letter to the world, /that never wrote to me!…” She is communicating with the world but without answer.
Emily Dickinson has always been shrouded in mystery. Curio-sity has been playing about her ever since the little volume of poems appeared in 1890, four and one-half years after her death. Even before that, in the town in which she lived, she had become a legendary figure. The
neighbors whispered about her. She stayed always at home in her father’s house and saw no one.
On a slip of paper Emily Dickinson once wrote: “Area-no test of dept”, and sent it with a gift to a friend. İt is the truest, the most piercing, the only perfect comment on a singular life. Her “area” was for a time the small precise town of Amherst, Massachusetts, she was born n 1830. Then after school days, it shrank to the garden which enclosed her father’s house. (1)
Did she draw an invisible line and refuse to step across it because of an oath made in pique; or a desire to symbolize difference of soul by difference of conduct; or because haven taken the “immortal wound” and renounced the beloved inflictor, she felt contempt for or indifference to the world, her life being elsewhere within? These questions have been asked but not answered. We only know that a tireless and measureless probing inward, since she could not, or would not, expande out-ward, is recored in poems as limited in size as her backyard, and yet like her mind, of “colossal substance.”
A few facts about head and moving force of the Dickinson house
hold is known. It may be said that he was a “monarch” in Emily Dickinson’s
life-a stern calvinist father. This is illuminated in her correspondence, especially in remarks to Higginson, a friend and literary figure who exam-ined some of her poems. Neither Emily nor her only sister married, and it is generally assumed that Mr. Dickinson dominated the household of her mother, two daughters and one son. He did so with less harshness than we might assume, although he stressed Bible-reading over other books which, Emily reports to Mr. Higginson, he feared would juggle the mind. (2)
On Sunday, Mr. Dickinson, lawyer read “lonely and religi-
us books”; he would eat Emily’s bread and no one else’s;
he insisted on giving medicine, especially if the patient
rebelled;— he refrained from kissing his children; when
Emily at thirty-six had to go to Boston eye-specialist, he
objected on the ground that he was “in the habit of her”,
he forbade her to marry and when, just once, she ques-
tioned his authority, he put on his great cape and his
high beaver had, grasped his gold-headed cane, tapped
the floor hard- and the matter was settled for another
thirty years. But he cracked nuts with his family, after
supper; and requested his daughter Emily to perform the
“Lancer’s Quickstep” on the piano; and when, his last
afternoon on earth, though with no prenomition, she
preferred his company and made an excuse to leave her
mother, he said as the June light waned, “I would like it
not to end.” (3)
There is no need, however to distort this picture into a warped relationship between the father and daughter; it was not the free exchange which we like to think characterizes the 20th century, yet it certainly was not unnaturel for the time. Emily Dickinson has spoken most accurately of
her father to a tremendous degree, in a letter to Higginson after Mr. Dickin-son’s death in 1874. It is a touching letter, expressing a tender awesome regard for the father, and a pathetically “lost feeling” which reaches out to her friend, Higginson. This “lost” feeling is seen throughout her poetry, but it is most predominant in those written after her father’s death. Instead of stating conventionally, “I would rather died before he did”, she says, “I am glad there is immortality, but would have tested it myself, before entrusting him.” To her friend, she speaks starkly, out of terrible loneliness, “I have wished for you, since my father died—” And of her father, she speaks almost in an epitaph: “His heart was poor and terrible, and I think no other like it exists.” (4)
Emily Dickinson and Amherst College grew up together. There were only nine years difference in their ages. The college, almost as literally as she, could claim to be a child of the Dickinson family, for her grandfather was one of its most zealous working founders and her father and brother between them held the office of College treasurer for sixty years. She, almot as liberally as the college, was an emanation of the religion. Inbread in each was the Calvinistic insistence on perfection to be won by mental striving. Both college and poet were nurtured in Puritan orthodoxy, and both turned from beliefs that had become familiar and dear to engage in an unprejudiced and clear-eyed scrunity of the world about them. (6)
There is a third sphere of Emily Dickinson’s life which is also shrouded in mystery-her love affairs if there were any. When she was twenty a young schoolmaster named Leonard Humphrey died. A week before his death he had written to her, while in perfect health, that he would die and she would become a poet. Ten years after his death she said:
“When a little girl, I had a friend who taught me immor-
tality, but venturing to near himself, never returned.
Soon after my tutor died, and for several years my
lexicon was only my companion. Then I found one
more, but he was not contended I be his scholar, so he
left the land.” (7)
The literary world has been trying for years to discover the name of thgis “once more”. Was the George Guild? – a tall spiritual-eyed, full tipped young scholar, brilliant at Ahmerst and the Union Theological Seminary, who was frowned on by her father because of poverty, and did indeed, for two years. “leave the land.” Was the Majopr Edward Hunt? – Helen Hunt Jackson’s first husband, who was killed at thirty-two while
experimenting with an invention, and who Emily once remarked, “Interested me more than any man I ever saw.” Was it the Reverend Doctor Charles Wadsworth? – a married Philadelphia Minister, whom her father introduced to her men she was twenty-three-and he forty; on the fatal five week trip to Washington and Phladelphia which ended with her retirement from the world. Conjectures on young Emily’s passion for Wadsworth ara based on drafts of three letters to him <although no letters, if there were any remain-ed from Rev. Wadsworth himself> and on the “Love Poems” which followed in the 1860’s. Wadsworth did call on her in 1860, while visiting nearby Northampton, and it seems likely that she was aware in 1861 of his intention to move to San Francisco. Her poems of this period, for example, speak of fears and a sense of loss – “I had a terror since September, I could tell none -” There is no real evidence though, for assuming that this unfulfilled love affair was sole or sufficient motive behind her gradual withdrawal from society; it is more realistic to conclude that such an experience might have encour-aged what already a tendency toward solitareness and introversion in her. (8)
Those are all fact, but they do not “split the lark and find the music, bulb after bulb in silver rolled—” (9)
That she loved a man and of her own volition relinquished him is of great importance in understanding her character and her poetry. But does it matter whom she gave her heart to and lost? If tomorrow it were proved beyond a possibility of doubt that the man her soul fixed upon was George Gould or Charles Wadsworth, or a man never before mentioned, curiosity cease-that is all. Great poetry, when most personal, transcends personality: it soars out of the realm of names:
So we must keep apart,
You there, I here
With just the door ajar
That oceans are,
And that pale sustenance,
That she contained to love the man is certain. “Mine but the right of white election!”; “He put the belt around my life, – I heard the buckle snapp.”; “Empty my heart of thee, its single artery?”; “After? When the hills do.” Days, and weeks, and years went by, but:
To fill a gap-
Insert the thing that caused it.
Block it no
With other and ’twill yawn’
You cannot solder an abyss
With air. (11)
She wore clean piqué dresses, white, like a pledge of faith, till the day of her death. It is not clear just when Emily Dickinson began to dress invariably in white and to invest herself in an atmosphere of “hallowed mys-tery”- that her garments symbolized. By 1862 her retirment from the world had become marked but was not absolute. Higginson reproached her for shunning men and women, and she admitted that a chestnut tree in blossom, encountered on her walk, was better company. Through the sixties she still appeared to greet her father’s guests at the annual commencement yeas when the Dickinson entertained the academic world. By 1870, her seclusion had become a conscious resolution: “I do not cross may father’s ground to any house at town.” A preference for privacy deepened into a morbid dread of prying eyes. She continued to work in the garden where she scrambled clods, and weeded and sprinkled, and watched the buds swell, squatting, on wet days, on an old red frayed-out rug. And she wrote:
I tend my flowers for thee,
My fuchsia’s coral seams
Rip while the sower dreams — (12)
She dreamed till she was thirty, and then began to write poems. Was it crystallizing power of the Civil War, which she lived through, or simply by thirty she had reached <and would have reacvhed in any circumstances> spiritual maturity? Leonard Humphrey, principal of Amherst Academy and her tutor, had declared with the prescience of the about-to-die that she would be a poet, and suddenly it seemed that she was. But how could she be certain? In the spring of her thirty-second year she wrote Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a literary arbiter of her day:
Are you too deeply occupied to say if
my verse is alive? The mind is so near
itself, it cannot see distinctly, and
I have none to ask… (13)
If Colonel Higginson was a bit chary of his praise, it is not surprising, for the appearance of an important woman poet was, in the light of history, extremely improbable and required special discernment to see and bravery to hail. There have been comparatively few women poets. “The Oxford Book of English Verse”, a balanced and just anthology, gives space to twenty-four women and forty-four men -and many of the twenty-four are represented by one easily forgotten lyric-. Women, in general, seem defici-ent in the distinguishing talents of the great poets: they are not dramatic, nor philosophic, nor epic; they do not look far back or far forward in time;
they are more or less indifferent to “real existence”, they seem unable to synthesize many small confusing facts into one divinely simple fact; their eyes stap upward and downward, shallowy, neglegting the cosmos. (14)
The lady was so throughly a woman, and it is doubtful whether he had spent such time mediating on the fact that in poetry, a woman’s success, as in life a woman’s destiny, does not consist in being other than what she is: she is an individual before she is a woman , but must develop along her own lines if she is to develop at all. Colonel Higginson was looking for a certain thing, and finding another, did not see it clearly and completely for it was. But he was poetic, he was gallant; he did not tell her to go back to bread-baking. Those intimate fierce thoughts set down in dubious rhyme stuck in his memory.
He did not have an interview with Miss Dickinson and wrote hiw wife: “A remarkable experience, quite equalling my expectations…” and went on to relate how she ‘glided in,’ dressed in spotless white, ‘a little plain woman with two smooth bands of reddish hair.’ “Her voice was timid, but once she had begun, she talked without difficulty.”
“How do most people live without any
thoughts? she said. “There are many people
in the world (you must have noticed them
in the street), how do they live? How do they
get strength to put on their clothes in the morning?” (15)
And, “I find ecstasy in living the mere sense of living is joy
“If I read a book and it makes my whole body
so cold no fire can warm me. I know that is poetry.
If I feel physically as if the top of my head were
taken off, I know that is poetry. There are the only
ways I know it. Is there any other way?” (16)
Mr. Higginson said later that no one had ever drained his nerve
power so much; that without touching him she drew from him, and he was glad that he did not live near her.
During the next fifteen years her pile of poems grew something
like animate. There was enough high explosive in her drawer to have wrecked the red-brick mension, and demolished the block. But all along the street, under the great outspreading pines, it was unspeakably quiet.
Her father died first leaving her desolate and aghast. One can-not study the lives of outstanding woman poets, without noticing the profound influence of fathers upon daughters which is significant. Of Emily Bronté with her forbidding father, and Christina Rossetti with her firey academic one, and Alice Meynell with her gentlemanly one, and Elizabeth Barret Browing with her thunderous one, and Emily Dickinson with her legal and adored one, it might be said, as Dryden said of Lady Ann Killigrew, “The father was transfused into thy blood.”
After her father, Mr. Bowles, a dear friend, died too, and then
another friend, Dr. Holland; and then as a climax to the years of paralysis, her mother; and then Reverend Charles Wadsworth, and then her dear eight-year old nephew Gilbert, next door. As a result of too much contemplation of death or something else, she was plunged into an enigmatical mental darkness, which she taught and in a time won her way only to sink again, at fifty-five, with Bright’s disease. <Kronik nefrit-böbrek iltihabı. Dr.İ.E.>
“The heart asks pleasure first:
And then, excuse from pain;
And then those little anodynes
Then deaden suffering
And then, to go to sleep;
And then, if it should be
The will of the Inquisitor,
The liberty to die!”
Of Emily Dickinson, it is important to remember that she did not withdraw into a cave of romantic sensibility, though in her girlhood the notion of the poet as a beautiful soul standing apart from the crass occupati-ons of life was widely accepted. Hers was not a solitude of monasticism nor the solitude of hermit’s mossy cell. But it was the seclusion of one who retires to his chamber and there is communion with the spirits of the mighty dead through the medium of books, works out the great problems of philo-sophy, science and politics; he who after long reflection in his closet forms the vast schemes to be realized in future life, he who marks out a consistent course of action based on fixed principles, it is he then that truly makes solitude the school of genius, and through it paves the way to fame. (18)
Emily Dickinson’s conception of a poet is in accordance with the way she shaped her life. She believed a poet is an interpreter of nature’s mysteries. Was there not “a noisless noise in the orchard that I let person’s hear?” But her retirement had no anti-social implications. There are traces of this kind of romantic aloofness in Thoreau’s retreat to his Walden cabin, though he was also impelled by the practical desire to find time to write a book. Emily Dickinson valued her individuality no less than Thoreau, but there is not a hint that he courted solitude in order that she might be more completely a law onto herself. Loneliness was a burden that she set herself to bear. Far from considering her individual notions superior to the general sense of mankind, she was continually begging the men she most admired to guide and instruct her. Though she was not always able to take their advice, she considered that the defect was hers. Doubtless her habit of seclusion was facilitated in part by the fact that during her fourth decade, she was over-strained and far from well. She had never been robust, and the prolonged nervous tension brought on by falling in love with a man she could not marry was almost too much for her. (19)
The external story of her life is very nearly a blank. After sharing the normal girlhood experiences of her contemporaries, she remained at home, tending her garden. Her fartherest travels consisted in several visits to Boston, twice in later years for the care of her eyes, and a short trip to Washington and Philadelphia when she was twenty-three. If at any time she fell upon the thorns of life, she was careful that no one should see her hurt. For the last twenty years that she lived, she preferred the conclusion of her father’s house to any society that the village or the world could offer. To intimate friends, she sent vivid letters and occasional bits of verse, but not even the members of her family suspected the work she was perfecting in secret. Fame she thought of as a perilous food, and for her own part she would not even nibble of it. Only after her death was her hoard of poems uncovered.
Thus passed from the obscruity of her life to the obscruity of death perhaps the greatest American poet, irrespective of sex. The technical irregularities of her verse are, for the most part, not flaws but a forecast. Whether she wrote of the immensities of time, love, pain, justice, hope, or death, or the minitial of her garden-a robin, a snake, a mushroom, a berry, a clover, a bee-the words strike through, sharply, to the ultimate and incorruptible. Hardly anything escaped the scrunity of her great brown eyes. Occasional coyness is easily forgiven this spinster, this gnome, this keeper-of-faith, this demure wrestler-with-God. Since she stands so securely among the poets of the world, stanchly New England in the white pique, her own poem is her best praise:
“I reckon, when I count at all,
First Poets-then the sun-
Then Summer-then the
Heaven of God-
And then the list is done.
But looking back-the first so seems
To comprehend the whole-
The others look a needless show
So I write Poets-ALL.”
Then as increment after increment was published, lovers of poetry gradually came to realize that the most memorable lyric poet in America had lived and died unknown.
(1) Moore, Virginia, “Distinguished Woman Writers”, pp.147-8.
(2) Alexander, Charlotte, “The Poetry of Emily Dickinson”, pp.7-8.
(3) As the same in (1), p.150.
(4) Todd, Mabel; “Letters of Emily Dickinson”, p.280.
(5) As the same in (1), p.149.
(6) Whicher, George; “This was a Poet”, pp.20-2.
(7) Bradford, Gamaliel; “Portraits of American Women”, pp.242-4.
(8) As the same in (2), p.6-7.
(9) As the same in (3), p.150.
(10) Ibid. pp.151-2.
(11) Ibid. pp.153-4.
(12) As the same in (7), pp.245-6.
(13) As the same in (4), pp.285.6.
(14) As the same in (6), pp.27-8.
(15) As the same in (3), p.156.
(16) Ibid. pp.158-9.
(17) As the same in (6), pp.136-8.
(20) As the same in (3), pp.159-60.
Emily Dickinson’s most powerful poetry, as will be shown in the poetic analyses of this chapter, dwells upon the subject of permanence and decay; or put another way, on time, death and eternity. We must than assume that the religion of her particular background and ear exerted a strong influence on her thinking. The result of this religion, however, was to place her in a limbo between faith and doubt. Her father is often referred to as an-old rank Puritan (the terms Puritan and Calvinist are used inter-changeably here, and indicate sternness and narrowness), and her family life was undoubtedly filled with typical Calvinist stern observances. Bible reading prayer meetings, sterict keeping of the Sabbath, convictions of eternal damnation or future paradise, suspicions that pleasure was sinful, were the backbone of her father’s religion. Yet it was obvious from her poetry that Emily Dickinson developed into a mixture of Puritan and free-thnker, and she was troubled enough by doubts about traditional Calvinist doctrine to treat God and religion from time to time in a poetically flippant fashion. A choice example of such an attitude is also one which illustrates her directness and ironic wit:
Faith is a fine invention
For gentlemen who see
But microscopes are prudent
In an emergency!
On the other hand, some of her most beautiful, succesful, and often most popular poems are affirmation of faith. The following examples referred to by her first lines exemplify this: “Because I could not stop for Death”, “I died for beauty”, “As imperceptively as grief”, “here is a certain slant of light”, and, the well-known “I never saw aMoor.”
Late in her life, however, her questionings about death and immortality became somewhat morbid, as evidenced in the tone of her poetry took and in the almost grotesque little notes of condolence, she sometimes wrote to friends. There is one poem, for instance, which is rather literal in its insistent inquirey:
To know just how he suffered would be dear;
To know if any human eyes were near
To whom he could intrust his wavering gaze,
Until it settles firm on Paradise.
Other questions the poet wants answered are, “To know he was patient, part content, /was dying as he thought, or different”, or “was he afraid, or tranquil?”. This preoccupation with and curiosity about death, betrays a growing conflict in her mind between faith and doubt. Then of course there are the ancedotes about her notes of condolence, one one of which suffices to indicate her turn of mind during this late period of life. She wrote to a friend whose father had died on her wedding day: “Few daughters have the immortality of a father for a bridal gift.” (2) Here again, one must in honesty ask a lot of questions: is this genuine sympathy, is it simply poor taste, is it selfishness which puts one’s thoughts about a subject-and the frank expression of them-before consideration for the bereaved friend? However these questions are answered on this and similar occasions, especially as she grew older and more isolated from the outside world. Emily Dickinson inevitably wrote for herself, and not from any contact with realities, either of poetry or of people.
The first, then, most obsessive theme of Emily Dickinson’s poetry is “death”, “time” and “immortality.” Many of her famous poems, including: “I heard a fly buzz when I died,” “Safe in their alabaster chambers,” and others deal with this theme. She often placed herself in the position of the person who was dying, in an attempt to convey some of what death must be like. At other times, for example in “The last night she lived”, she presents herself as one of the mourners who must watch a loved one dying and taking care of her body after dying. “Safe in the alabaster chambers” deals with death itself, rather than the death of an individual; here she contrasts the light and motion of life with the dark, timeless quality, which is death. It is important to note, as will be shown in the following poetic analyses that is none of the poems dealing with death does Dickinson indicate that she has any real faith in an afterlife. On the contrary, she contenplates on the complete removal of the dead, both physically and spiritually. Death to Dickinson, is the absolute
cessation of motion; apparently she felt that death was indeed the death of everything.
Other poets of comparable stature have made the theme of death
central in much of their writing. Emily Dickinson did so in hers to an unusual
degree. In one way or another she has drawn it into the texture of some five or six hundred poems. “All but Death”, she wrote in 1863, “can be adjusted”, and concludes:
Death-unto itself exception-
Is exempt from change.
Much later in her life she came to feel that “Maturity only enhances mystery, never decreases it.” She viewed death from every possible angle, and left a record of her emotions and her ideas about it in her poems. Death is a terror to be feared and shunned. It is hideous and inequitable mistake; a trick played on trusting humanity by a sportive, insensate deity. It a welcome relief from mortal ills. It is the blessed means to eternal happiness. But which of the attitudes is most valid, what assump-tions about it are really true, she never decided. (3)
It seems fair to assert that the most gripping of Emily Dickinson’s poems are poems entered around the questions of “what is death?”, “Why is death?” and “What is it like to die?”. Her besst poems on death were not inspired by personal experiences. They sprang instead from the inherent ambiguity of the grave, that obsessive image for poet and priest. ‘Death’, according to one of her very earliest poems, is “but our rapt attention/To immortality.” What we experience at graves, “Death’s bold Exhibition”, she says in another, enables us to infer more precisely both what we are and what we may become. And again, nothing can reduce our mortal consequence like knowing that soon we shall not exist, nothing can exalt it like the belief that she shall exist again. The experience of this world, outer and inner, had furnished a center of gravity for tha majority of her poems, but an opposite pull drew the rest lik a lodestar:
Death is the other way-
It is the White Eploit.
She never found a better image for its ambiguity than this, man’s bold adventure into blackness. Obsessive concern with death is no more morbid than is a compulsion to escape from it. Attitudes toward death become valid when it is made the occasion of a search for meaning rather than an expression of emotion for its own sake. The natural compliment to an intense love of life is an intense fear of death! Dickinson’s poems are triumphant over this fear. She justified her own obsession in philosophical terms: “Death is the first form of life which we have had the power to contemplate, our entrance here being an exclusion from comprehension; it is amazing that the fascination of our predicament does not entice us more.”
In a letter following up this idea, she said: “Of our first Creation we are unconscious and of living, too, until death forces us to be conscious of it.” (4)
In her poems these abstractions find concrete embodiment, because she saw ‘New Englandly’, though with a difference. The stable society of a small town made death a more conspicuous part of daily life than is possible in the transient urban world. Modern man say seem more verbally realistic, but the circumstances of his life tend to make dying remote and abstract. On the other hand, the pious language of a hundred years ago may seem evasive, but people then dealt with the fact of death at firsthand. Her only problem was to revitalize the language. Two light verses show her trying to achive distance by wit. In one “There’s been a Death in the Opposite House”, she uses the mock-grotesque to paint a genre sketch of the whole sequence from death to burial in an old-fashioned Amherst, just a country town, made memorable by her figure for the undertaker as that man of the “Appalling Trade.” In the other, she saturizes the professional smoothness of modern funeral parlors with their satin-lined metal caskets “Sweet-safe-Houses'” corpses turned into people of ‘Pearl’ by the embalmer’s art, and “Muffled Coaches” that cushion the anguish of the tomb. The ‘undertaker’ has been transformed into the ‘mortician’, whose function is to no longer bury the dead but to obscure the fact of dying for a hedonistic society that has lost the belief in the soul; but by sealing out the reality of death it has out itself off from immortality too. For her serious poems she found her rituals in the village world of her childhood more dramatic, as the stark recital of her old custom of laying out of the body at home for burial. Here she reunites the personal experience of death with its religious meaning, as the long wake concludes: (5)
And loe-we placed the Hair
And drew the Head erect
And then an awful leisure was
Our fate to regulate.
Her poems on death fall into three groups. There are those which are concerned with the physical demise of the body; some describing the cat of dying with clinical detachment; some with emotional vehemence. Others muse upon death or depict the face and form of the body on which the gazer’s attention is riveted. There are poems in which death, the suitor, is personified-in which the theme deals less with life here and now, or life to come, than with the precise moment of transitiın from one state to the other. And,, there are also the elegies and epitaphs-lyrical commomerations of friends and personages whom she has admired, like Elizabeth Barrett Browing or Charlotte Bronté. (6)
There seems to be one persistent thought that binds together this very large number of poems on death. It is the knowledge that death snaps the lines of communication with those whom we have known and loved, and creates the uncertainity in the minds of all mortals whether that communication can ever be reestablished. She gave expression thus in 1864 to the basic human wonderment:
Those who have been in the grave the longest-
Those who begin Today-
Equally perish from our Practise-
Death is the further way-
Foot of the Bold did least attempt it-
It-is the White Exploit
Once to achieve, annals to power
Once to communicate-
Death, whether occuring in the recesses of the past or in accomlis-hing the one thing about which she felt a gathering terror. Each such event left her unrecoverably out of touch with those she had loved. “A Coffin-is a small Domain”, she says in the same year:
Yet able to contain
A rudiment of Paradise
In it’s diminished Plane.
A grave-is a restricted Breadth-
Yet ampler than the sun-
And all the Seas He populates
And lands He looks upon
To Him who on it’s small Repose
Bestows a single Friend-
Circumference without Relief
Or Estimate-or End- (7)
Any death for Emily Dickinson was an experience which she too shared and the death of friends was one in which she emotionally participated. She witnessed it from two directions: through the eyes of the observer, and by constructions through the sensations of the dying. This compound vision she embodies in such poems as “No Notice gave she, but a change”, and ” ‘Twas Crisis-All the length had passed.” The quite irony of “To diee takes just a little while” is characteristic of Dickinson’s poetry…and here the images flash with sharp precesion.
The Dying need but little, Dear
A Glass of Water’s all,
A Flower’s unobstrusive Face
To punctuate the wall,
A fan, perhaps, a Friend’s Regret
And certainity that one
No color in the Rainbow
Perceive, when you are gone.
“How many times these low feet staggered” is written from the point of view of one who stands alone in a room gazing at a dead body. Intimate touches associate the deceased with her homely labors. One cannot move the ‘adamantine figures’ which will never again wear a thimble. Dull flies buzz, the sun shines bravely through the ‘frekled pane’, and a cobweb now swings ‘fearless’ from the ceiling.” In “I’ve sen a Dying Eye”, she describes the search of dying one for sımething just before the sight is obscured by death:
Then Cloudier become
And then-obscure with Fog
And then-he soldered down
Without disclosing what it be
‘Twere blessed to have seen-
The search, it is clear, is in fact being made by the poet who, in the presence of death, hopes to find an answer to the riddle of death. It belings to the same order of poems as ” ‘Tis so appaling in exhilirates,” in which she concludes that:
Looking at Death, is Dying
Just let go the Breath
And not the pillow at your Cheek
Others, can wrestle-
Your’s, is done-
And so of Wo, bleak dreaded-come,
It sets the Fright at liberty-
And terror’s free-
Gay, Ghastly, Holiday. (8)
In 1861, she wrote one of her more famous death poems, “A Clock stopped” with similar intent, and also at some remove. The moment of death when the heart ceases to beat, is metaphorically described in the first stanza.
A Clock stopped-
Not the Mantel’s-
Geneva’s fartherest skill-
Cant put the puppet bowing
That just now dangled skill-
By now no physician’s skill can restore life. The second stanza goes back to the moment before death. When the dying person hunched with pain, realizes tyhe awful moment is at hand and, at the final stroke of noon, succumbs.
An awe came on this Trinket!
The Figures hunched, with pain-
Then quivered out of Decimals-
Into Degreeless Noon.
The scene described is so entirely metaphorical that one suspects she is imagining the moment of her own death. Certainly she is not realisti-cally observing that of a friend. She projects a situation which concerns a person whose those who have some claim to love (the shopman, for instance) are powerless to help. Time thenceforth must be reckoned by “Decades of Arrogance”. That which cannot be compared is indeed a trinket. (9)
It will not stir for Doctor’s-
This pendulum of show-
The Shopman importtunes it-
While cool-concernless No-
Nods from the Gilded pointers-
Nods from the Seconds slim-
Decades of Arrogance between
The Dial life-
Equally remarkable for its virtuosity, “I heard a fly buzz-when I died,” belonmgs to a somewhat different order among the lyrics which ponder the crisis of sorrow. It appears to have in 1862. With that combination of condensed precision and eloquence which gave her best poems their rank, she transmits the sensations which she imagines she might feel during the last moments before death. The bereaved family at the bedside are past the point of tears, for the moment of death has arrived.
And Breaths were gathering firm
For the last Onset-when the King
Be witnes-in the Room-
A stillness such as that “Between the heaves of storm”, prepares the reader physically to hear the final agonizing gasp of the dying. The buzzing fly, so familiar a pat of the natural order of persistent household discomfort, is brought in at the last to give the touch of petty irritabilities that are concomitant with living-and indeed- with dying.
With Blue-uncertain stumbling Buzz-
Between the light-and me-
And then the windows failed-and then
I could not-see to see-
It is of course because Emily Dickinson had from childhood felt an unusual sensitivity about such events that she is here uniquely able to give reality to the moment. (10)
Another poem noted as one of her best-known works shares this virtuosity of “I heard a Fly buzz-When I Died.” This poem contrasts the qualities of stillness with those of life. In the first stanza, she emphasizes the timelessness of death: “the meek members of the resurrection” sleep in their coffins untouched by dawn or noon. They are sealed in, closed off from time and the world, by the oppressive weight of rafter and roof. The second stanza lists spme of the joys of a summer day: the breeze laughs, the bees buzz, the birds sing. Their unknown wisdom is for nothing, however, since no one hears them. In the third stanza the poet goes from the movement of the natural things to the movements of time; the years preceed in their orderly fashion, plants make their own prescribed orbits, abd earthly things rise and fall-but again the dead are unaware of all this activity. Thus, the poem is a statement on the awful unknowingness of death, the complete removal of the dead from all activity, the largest and the smallest. The dead are “safe” in their “alabaster chambers“, but they are also completely removed from everything that a human being considers interesting or valuable. (11)
A quite different order of poems are those which personify Death, a nebulous creature at first, who soon develops the stature of a true character of fiction. “One dignity delays for all,” written in 1859, picture death as a potentate, almost oriental in the absoluteness of his sway and the splendir of his court. His colors are purple, and thus doubly associated with royalty and with the color of the ample bow of ribbons attached at the time of death to the front door of New England houses. The “dignity which none can avoid includes, beside the purple, a coach, footmen, a chamber, and a state of gathering. There will be bells too for the processional march, with a solemn service and a hundred hats. This pomp surpassing ermine, death prepares:
“When simple you, and I
Present our meek escutcheon
And claim the rank to die!”
Exactly the same ceremony of investure is described in the slightly later poem “Wait till the majesty of Death/Invests so mean a brow”, where
“this democrat,” dressed in “ever-lasting robes,” receives the homage of “Obsequious angels.” Twice again -in 1862- he is the despot. Here too as earlier in “I heard a Fly buzz when I died”, we wait “For that last Onset-when the King/Be witnessed in the Room.” But in “Triumphant may be of several kinds” Death that “Old Imperator,” has not met and vanquished by his adver-sary Faith. This is the last poem in which Emily Dickinson imagines death as a swollen tyrant. She now returns the morality puppet to its box because she already has created one of the most extraordinary characters in American Literature.” (12)
Emily Dickinson personified Death but her method of doing so reverses the usual procedure. She started with a symbol which she altered into a reality. The method is inherently necessary when the symbol intense-ly, have the artist’s endowment whereby the substance is made flesh. In respect to that ability as in other ways already noted, she calls to mind William Blake who, liked her, began with a symbol which demanded from the artist a concrete form. hus Death as Emily Dickinson delineated him is a protean figure, part element of nature, part erlking, part Grendel, but mostly country squire: a suave, elusive, persuasive, insinuating character, but always a very genteel and attentive Amhers friend and suitor. (13)
Death first becomes dimensional in the following year in “Dust is the only secret.” He is identified as a neighbor’s boy who has grown up in Amherst and who, because everybody has vaguely know him, is now somewhat legendary. He is:
“—- the only one
You cannot find out all about
In the native town-
Nobody was a Boy
Hadn’t any playmates
Nor ‘Early History’-”
The biographical sketch becomes now more indistinct, fading into snatches of local gossip:
Bolder than a Fleet-
Builds like a Bird-too-
Christ robs the nest-
Robin after Robin
At the end he has metamorphosed into a father robin who, having turned suddenly into a smuggler, acts as agent for a divine robber barron. (14)
Death is contained in most of her love poems which are concerned with a celestial betrothal. Several of them combine this with a metaphor of a funeral as the wedding journey to eternity, like the one beginning: “Tie the strings to any Life, My Lord, — Just a look at the horses.” The most original, written late in life, is an explicit rendering of death as the lover who transports her in his carriage, the theme that is only implicit in the major poem just discussed.
Death is the supple Suitor
That wins at last-
By pallid innuendoes
And dim approach
But brave at last with Bugles
And a biseated Coach
It bears away in triumph
To troth unknown
And kinsmen as divulgeless
As Clans of Down-
When “Death” first appears as a suitor, sha changes from a girl to a coy virgin. This must be a “stealthy Wooing,” for though she knows it will result in a glorious new status for her, she is vaguely aware that it will mean a renunciation of all the world she has known. Her maidenly reserve is indicated by the manner in which he is forced to conduct the courtship, by “pallid innuendoes” and a “dim approach.” But he is a “Supple Suitor” and attains his goal at last. (15)
The second change comes with great suddenness for it is the kiss of death, transforming her from virgin to bride, or at least to the betrothed. Because of the protean character of “Death”, who is born envoy and groom-to-be, the ceremony itself does not occur in the poem but falls between the first six lines and the last six. Then without more ado he bears her away “in triumph”, both from the proxy wedding and towards a final one, to the sound of “brave Bugles” such as would announce a royal marriage, or the day of doom. The strange duality of this journey is reflected by the odd vehicle in which they travel, “a bisected Coach.” As a hearse it separates her body in the glass enclosure from the driver on the seat above, as a wedding coach it divides the wife-to-be from the virginal life behind as a heavenly chariot the mortal from the immortal. The third and final change of status lies beyond the poem because it lies beyond death. She only knows that she is going to a “Troth unknown”. The impossibility of describing her spiritual marriage is put flatly in this phrase and in the vagueness of her projection of the glorious life to come, with “Kinsmen as divulgeless/He clans of Down” or as the variant of the concluding lines reads: “Pageants as impassive/As Proselain.”
<The word comes from ‘prosevite‘, namely “one who changes onto some other religious person or thing; the beings who change-transform their previous existing states.I.E.>. The three stages of the poem which also transform the suitor into a bride-groom and prospective husband correspond to the awareness of death, the act of death, and the state after death. The last, in relation to the Christian concept of entering heaven as the bride of Christ is rendered with typical Dickinsonian obliqueness. (16)
“Because I could not stop for Death” is incomparably the finest poem of this cluster. Death now comes into a full stature as a person. It is a superlative achievement in which Death becomes one of the great charac-ters of literature. (17)
It is almost impossible in any critique to define exactly the kind of reality which her character Death attains, simply because the protean shifts of form are intended to forestall definition. A poem can convey the nuances of exulation agony, exultation, agony, compassion, or any mystical mood. But no one can succesfully define mysticism because the logic of language has no place for it. One must therefore assume that the reality of Death, as Emily Dickinson conceived it, is to be perceived by the reader in the poems themselves. Any analysis can do more than suggest what may be looked for.
In “Because I could not could not stop for Death”, Emily Dickinson
envisions Death as a person she knew and trusted, or believed that she could trust. He might be any Amherst gentleman, a William Howland or an Elbridge Bowdoin, or any of the coming lawyers or teachers or sinisters whom she remembered from her youth, with whom she had exchanged
valentines, and who at one time or another had acted as her squire.
“Because I could not stop for Death
He kindly stopped for me-
The Carriage held but just Ourselves-
The carriage holds but the two of them, yet the ride as she states with quiet emphasis, is a last ride together. Clearly there has been no decep-tion on his part. They drove in a leisurely manner, and she feels completely at ease. Since she understands it to be a last ride, she of course expects it to be unhurried. Indeed, His graciousness in taking time to stop for her at that point and on that day in her life when she was so busy that she could not possibly have taken time to stop for Him, is a mark for special politeness. She is therefore quite willing to put aside her work. And again, since it is to be her last ride, He can dispense with her spare moments as well as her active ones.
“We slowly drow-He knew no haste
And I did put away
My labor and my leisure too
For His civility.”
She notes the daily routins of the life she is passing from, Children playing games during a school recess catch her eye at the last. And now the sense of motion is quickened. Or perhaps more exactly one should say that the sense of time comes to an end as they pass the cycles of the day and the seasons of the year, at the period of both ripeness and decline.
“We passed the School, where children strove
At recess-in the Ring-
We passed the Fields of Grazing Grain-
We passed Setting sun-”
How insistently “passed” echoes throıgh the stanza! She now conveys her feeling of being ouıtside time and change, for she corrects herself to say that the sun passed them, as it of course does all who are in the grave. She is aware of dampness and cold and becomes suddenly conscious of the sheerness of the dress and scarf which she now discovers that she wears.
“Or rather-He passed Us-
The Dews drew quivering and chill-
For only Gossamer, my Gown-
My Tippet-only Tulle-”
The two concluding stanzas, with progressively decreasing concreteness, hasten the final identification of he “House”. It is the slightly rounded “surface” of the vast ground with a scarcely visible roof and a cornice “in the Ground.” To time and seasonal change, which have already ceased, is now added motion. Cessation of all activity and creativenss is absolute. At the end, in a final instantaneous flash of memory, she recalls the last objects before her eyes during the journey; the heads of the horses that bore her, as she had surmised they were doing from the beginningg toward-it is the last word-“Eternity.”
“We posed 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.”
Gradually, too, one realizes that Death as a person has receded into the background, mentioned last only impersonally in the opening words
“We passed” pf the fifth stanza, where His services as aquire and companion are over. In this poem concrete realism melds into “awe and circumference” wity matchless economy.” (18)
“I never hear that one is dead,” begins a significant poem. The bell tolled for Emily when anyone died. “Tilling the ‘abyss of death”, her mind
“Had madness, had it once or twice,
The yawning consciousness.”
“Beliefs are bandaged,” the poem continues. That is the idea of death is so terrible that the ordinary mind defendes against it. Emily knew no one so bold that she would dare look “that awful stranger, consciousness,” in the face. It is not too much to say that she looked at it more squarely-than any other poet: Emily Dickinson was extremely frustrated. She wrote poetry which she could not publish. She loved where she dared not to love. Again and again, she insisted that she had given up life on this earth and all her hopes on a life to come. The ensued life in her avenged itself by confronting her with the image of death.
It was a consumation tht Emily never knew. She died at the age of thirty-five, on a May evening of 1886, attended by Austin and Sue Dickinson, her brother, and sister-in-law, her sister, Lavinia, and a few friends. On the day of her burial, Higginton observed with surprise that she “looked 30, not a gray hair or wrinkle, and a perfect peace on the beautiful brow.” It was the only peace she ever knew. And from the grave to which the small coffin was born on a bright, flower-ladded May afternoon. She continues to fling her challenging and unanswerable questions. For those who have truly felt her poems she is an inquiet sleeper.
Emily Dickinson’s death poetry is her great poetry.Her gretness is this: that out of the grotesqueness of her private situation there was wrestled the insight she had into man’s tragic lot in a tragic world. Born of frustration, her work passes the supreme test which art demands of suffering. The frust-rations are important, since, lacking them Emily Dickinson might never have written a line of verse. What really counts, however, is the aesthetic leap to which frustrations give rise. By virtue of the leap, Miss Dickinson enjoys, as an artist, the very triumph that life denied her. She ceases to be the agonized maiden lady of Amherst, and becomes a profound moving irony, the poet of the tragic man. She deserves more than being called “the poet of the tragic man“. Critics hail her as the poet of modern sensibility. She is claimed as a poet of the twentieth century.
(1) Alexander, Charlotte; “The Poetry of Emily Dickinson”, pp.:12-14.
(2) Ward, Theodora; “Emily Dickinson’s Letters”, p.:87.
(3) Griffith, Clark; ” The Long Shadow”, pp.:203-05.
(4) Todd, Mabel; “Letters of Emily Dickinson”, p.:290.
(5) Anderson, Charles; “Emily Dickinson’s Poetry”, p.:229.
(6) Johnson, Thomas; “Emily Dickinson”, pp.:204-06.
(7) Ibid, p.:208.
(8) Longsworth, Polly; “Emily Dickinson”, p.:153-55.
(9) Anderson, Charles; “Emily Dickinson’s Poetry”, pp.:240-45.
(10) Alexander, Charlotte; “The Poetry of Emily Dickinsom”, p.:69.
(11) Ibid., pp.:82-83.
(12) Johnson, Thomas; “Emily Dickinson”, pp.:216-18.
(13) Ibid., p.:219.
(14) Ibid., p.:220.
(15) Anderson, Charles; “Emily Dickinson’s Poetry”, pp.:245-7.
(16) Ibid., pp.246-48.
(17) Johnson, Thoas, “Emily Dickinson”, pp.:224-5
(18) Griffith, Clark; “The Long Shadow”, pp.: 138-40.
The modernity of Emily Dickinson makes for a complicated issue. Her work has commanded the interest of many of the most sophisticated critics of poetry writing in our time. Sooner or later, virtually all of them have seen fit to “damn it” with a combination of “loud praise” and “bitter reproach”. To Yvor Winters, considered an intriguing, stimulating yet somewhat unorthodox critic, Emily Dickinson is one of the great Lyric
poets of all time. But, in the next breath, she has become “of all great poems” the one most “lacking in taste.” Winters admits that her technique is often ‘barbarous’ and ‘irresponsible”. Similarly, R.P. Blacmur, a professor of English at Princeton and one of the most eminent and most original critics of our time, praises the occasional power in Miss Dickinson’s lyrics, even as he berates her for her ignorance, untidiness, and a failure to be objectively in control of poetic language. Allan Tate, a very influential critic and teacher of our century, congragulates Miss Dickinson for being born at the right time for great poetry and for taking advantages of this opportunity, nevertheless laments the losseness and the self-indulgence which he detects in a good deal of what she wrote. A.C. Ward, author of “American Literature“, places Dickinson within the context of the cultural and literary history of the United States, focusing on her belief in “inviolability of selfhood”. He places her at an opposite pole from a vulgar, hurrying and materialistic America of the end of nineteenth century. “She was not, it is clear, a resigned and long-suffering spinster who took the world as she found it. To the world, she may have appeared placid and acquiscent, because it was within herself that the drama was played and judgements passed—”
Emily Dickinson’s real force lay in her almost contenptuously detached manner of stating truths. Percy Lubbock, whose “The Craft of Fiction” is a masterpiece in the theory of modern fiction, saw her with judicious sympathy. He observes, as for her strange little poems, they too suffered in the end from the perverse artificiality of her life, their cryptic harshness, their bad rhymes and wild grammer. “Emily came to believe, perhaps, but these were a mark of her originality and sincerity, disdaining rule. Her friends believed so, at any rate, and she hardly encountered the criticism of any but frends.” He concludes rather nicelyon what is the ‘spirit’ of this poet: “To this determined little anchoress, so carefully shut up in her provincial cell, nothing was sacred and nothing daunting; she made as free with heaven and and hell, life and death, as with the daisies and butterflies outside her window. She was small, she was obstinate. She was not as wise as she ended by thinking herself; but her voice was unique, and she flung out
the short joy of her, pain or mockery with a note that cannot be forgotten. It is much to say in a world where voices are so many.” (1)
The modern view of Emily Dickinson, then, has been frankly reserved. At least, in the hands of major critics – the theorists whose tastes and preferences have tended to shape our conception of what poetry ought to be: she has come off, if not quite badly, then rather less than well. It is of the utmost significance that these critics, together with certain others who share their position, have consented to deal with Miss Dickinson at all. It is significant because they are the very writers who profess either disdain or indifference toward the every other nineteen century American poet. Of the Cambridge poets: Lowell, Holmes, Longfellow, Whitman: they simply do not speak at all. They ignore or drag in to exemplify everything wrong with poetry. With Emerson, they associate with a perniciousness that is moral as well as aesthetic.
Thus, by their willingness to read her closely and even, for that matter, to impose a severe judgment upun her work the New Critics confirm an important point about Emily Dickinson: they asserted that she still has a voice. Despite their reservations, they make it clear that she continues to speak to us, as her American poet contemporaries ordinarily do not. What are the sources of her appeal? Why is it that she appears to have a unique claim upon the modern sensibility. It is with these questions, questions having to do not with popularity in the conventional sense, but with Miss Dickinson’s attractiveness to a highly intellectual ype of criticism -that this chapter will be concerned.-
Beyond any doubt whatsoever, one key to her modernity lies in the peculiar relationship which Emily Dickinson bears to the Emersonian point of view. In its pure form -that is as a set of hopes and beliefs identifi-able with Ralph Valdo Emerson – the point of view has not weathered well with critics. Emerson lay stress upon human perfection or in its harping upon the easy access man has to Nature and God, or in his sweeping denials of pain and evil. The case against his blandness has been made many times in the twentieth century though never more bluntly than by Robert Pen Warren who insists that, “after Emerson has done his work,” life, literature, and culture in America were all divested of “tragic possibilities.” (3)
Emerson does offend readers and critics with the shrillness of his optimism. There is a way he has of dismissing (or simply looking through) realities which, from the view point of our troubled age, makes him seem willfully blind and shallow, almost to the point of stupidity. Yet the Warren allegation remains no better than a half truth, because it falsifies the facts of history. After “Emerson had done his work,” there did indeed come into being tragic writers and the essence of their outlook was largely conditioned by what they had inherited from Emerson. It was the destiny of these writers to separate the Emersonian belief from the Emersonian hope. The results were psychologically painful, no doubt, but they also made for the greatest moments in nineteenth century American literature. (4)
Emily Dickinson is the second major writer of the nineteenth century (Melville is the first) to discover tragedy in the Emersonian point of view, and to dramatize her insight by combining the old, jubilant expectations with a new and frustrating outcome. Her views of nature ten to invert the typically Emersonian view. If she takes pleasure from the beauty of natural forms, if the look of a sunset delights her or the sound of a summer wind fills her with ecstasy, Miss Dickinson still recognizes that in its deeper, more symbolic aspects, Nature, is an adversary, a creature who either withholds her meanings or yields them up in hints which the individual would be better off not discovering. The poet may deplore those who are totally indifferent to the natural order. But criticism is tempered by the realization that too deep an involvement can be hurtful:
“But nature is a stranger yet;
The ones that cite her most
Have passed her haunted house,
Nor simplified ger ghost.
To pity those who know her not
Is helped by the regret
That those who know her know her less
The nearer her they get.” (5)
Sometimes this sense of the complex natural enemy without will shape a poem which is so similar to Emerson – and yet so utterly distinct from him- that is almost has the ring of cruel and conscious parody:
“Alone and in a Circumstance
Reluctant to be told
A spider on my reticence
And so much more at Home than I
I felt myself a visitor
And hurriedly withdrew.
Revisiting my late abode
With articles of claim
I found it quietly assumed
As a Gymnasium
Where Tax asleep and Tide off
The inmates of the Air
Perpetual presumption took
As each were special Heir
If any strike me on the street
I can return the Blow-
If any take my property
According to the Law
The Statue is my learned friend
But what redress can be
For an offense nor here nor there
So not in Equity-
That Lascony of time and mind
The marrow of the day
But spider of forbid it Lord
That I sould specify.” (6)
The cardinal principle of Emersonianism is Emerson’s assertion that “natural facts are symbols of spiritual facts.” A chain of analogies links the world below to the wold above, so that by attending to what les openly before him or hearkening to its intonations, an observer can detect in immediate experience the larger rhytms of the realm of spirit. And, this is the principle to which Emily Dickinson has offered her unique revision. From the spider -from the concrete natural fact- her speaker learns the lesson which says that experience freely trespasses upon the self. There-after, her vision steadily enlarges, until it seems to her that the trespass cannot readily be restricted to the spider, but, that it is an offense “not here not there,” a transgression of such magnitude that is must be spiritual and must have originated with God. Thus for Miss Dickinson, no less than Emerson, Nature has been the symbol of spirit. (7)
It might be argued furthermore that Emily Dickinson subjects the Emersonian doctrine of “compensation” to the bitter reversal. Compensation itself represents the core of Emerson’s ‘moral idealism.’ It proceeds from the point of view that the universe is so finely purposed and so harmonious a place that no evil or injustice can possibly accure to the individual. If an apparent evil does occur, it is explicable in terms of any or all of three different reasons. Either it is a deserved punishment, as when “The theif steal from himself.” Or, it is a preparation for some later good, as when “every defeat in one manner is made up in another; every suffering is rewarded.” Or, it is subsumable under a Total Plan (Emerson’s ‘Oversoul‘ or his “Spiritual Laws“) which negates the reality of evil. At all events, it is inconceivable that evil should exist as a concrete fact, an actual and positive principle. The idea repels human intelligence, which as Emerson says: “refuses limits and always affirms an Optimism never a Pessimism.” (8)
There is no mistake about it, Emily Dickinson looked at life in an identical fashion. That is, she too was conscious of some overlying plan in moral experiences. In addition, she wanted to see identical relationships. In other words, her moral idealism would have been satisfied, had she, like Emerson, found grounds to believe that ‘good‘ is the only reality possessed by ‘man’. Once again, however, the wish she carried to experience was confounded by the fact. For her, the crucial truth is not that an apparent evil will be offset by the actual good; it is just the opposite of that happy proposi-tion. Miss Dickonson beholds a world in which the momentary and the appa-ritional thing is good itself, in which the dream of pleasure only enlarges one’s susceptibility to suffering, and which the ‘total Plan’ dispenses one misfortune a top another. In her poetry, agony is the price paid for each ecstatic moment; men are lost in the very hour of salvation; an unexpected gift of is followed by the certain betrayal; one discovers that if today is bad, tomorrow will be twice horrible. What may we are shown, in short, is a torture-chamber universe, where Emerson’s logic is tested by experience and made to seem hopelessly woolly-headed. To his theory that life will always make amends. Emily Dickinson simply adds that the amends appear always to be further pain and further evil. It is a cruel addition made all the bleaker by our realization that, however different the conclusion they reach, the two writers have had a common startting point. (9)
The idea of ‘Nature’s treachery‘ and the sense of the ‘supremacy of evil’ mark Emily Dickinson as a modern. By the first, she aligns herself spiritually and intellectually with a poet like Frost, whose sardonic qualities have never quite concealed the fact that he too sees existence as a post-Emersonian tragedy. By the second, she gives to her work the sort of syste- matic precariousness which we associate nowadays with such influential moderns as Kafka and Dostoevsky. Irony of the history though it is, then, the fact remains that Emily Dickinson learned from her Emersonian lagecy just those insights into darkness and despair which have preserved her hold on the twentieth century. But her most intriguing connection with Emerson, we need to study a single image which the two of them shared: the image of the eye. In Emerson’s scheme, the eye stays open, and masters life, masters it by appearing to look, but by keeping very vague and general nonetheless what is actually to be seen. Emily Dickinson began at the same starting place. She too hoped to perceive “Universal Being”, to spell out oracular disclosures with the eye. The difference, though, was that Miss Dickinson had little talent for Emersonian generalization. Even as she hungered to see, she also saw. Out of the difference came the tragic viewpoint which Emersonianism forced upon her. When according to the fashion of the day Emily Dickinson brought her eye to bear on life, she found hard, blunt facts, recalling to her that human vision is finite. When following Emerson’s dictum she essayed to keep the eyeball open, the facts asserted themselves again, too ugly to be easily endured, and compelling her retreat into self-willed sightlessness. It was precisely because she cultivated the eyes of optimism that Emily Dickinson ended up looking through the eyes of doom. (10)
In our time, the eyes of optimism continue to be a genial institution perhaps, but they are hardly a force. Indeed, so easy and facile does the Emersonian way now seem to be that we have a taste for flagellate it for us. This is the case with Emily Dickinson. There is absolutely no reason to think of her as a critic of Emersonianism. She was far too deeply involved that, and far too reluctant to give up the Emersonian position. Nevertheless, her inversions have the ring of criticism. The paradoxical truth is that she used Emerson’s means to pursue Emerson’s ends, until she discovered that those ends could have their cruel and tragic opposites. However painful the discovery -what-ever it cost her in peace of mind- this inverted “shock of recognition” is among the qualities in Miss Dickinson’s work that makes her one of ours. (11)
The second quality which makes Miss Dickinson one of ours is her tendency to show emotions. The quality in Romantic poetry which is most often scorned in the twentieth century is the quality of an undisciplin-ed emotionalism. Among the New Critics, it is commonly asserted that the Romantics failed as a group, because, instead of dramatizing emotions, they were content to list and label them, to tick them off, one by one, on their fingers. The romantics d not show us how or why we should feel deeply. Rather they are content to say to us: “Look! I feel this way! You must feel this way too!” One supposes that Shelley and Poe are the worse offenders in this respect: poets whose shrieks and posturings have sorely impaired their current reputations. (12)
Emily Dickinson is capable of writing sentimentally. She too can present bald emotions which seem to have little foundation in fast, or which at any rate, strike us as being greatly in excess of the facts she supplies. This is the case in those of her love poems which betray the influence of magazi-nes and gift books. It also holds true for certain of the philosophical or des-
criptive texts, wherein Miss Dickinson seeks to conceal, with a thick coating of sanctimony and platitude, the same grave issues that had plagued her elsewhere. This latter type of sentiment appears to be a part of the irony, appears a way if poking fun at statements uttered on the surface of the poem. But one cannot invariably depend upon this interpretation. A certain amount of time, Emily Dickinson wrote off the top of her mind, without both-ering to watch or to listen. Finding her in this vein:
“Nature-The Gentlest Mother is,
Impatient of no Child-
The fublest-on the waywardnest-
Inebriate of Air-am I-
And debauchee of Dew
Ruling-thro endless summer days-
From inns of Molten Blue- (13)
We are not sure whether an obscure joke is intended, or whether, for the moment, she really means it.
In the main, though Miss Dickinson’s usage of language of emotion was a good deal more painstaking. Typically her finest poems sprang from the profound sense she had of how the self is preyed upon by outer realities. There is an exact, effective correlation between the tumult of feeling within the speaker and those circumstances beyond her which have brought the tumult into being. We are made to see precisely how and why death and time, man and God and Nature, each occasion such ovewhelming responses. Consequently, the responses themselves have seemed rooted in actuality and properly pinned down to some specific reference. Even if we are not always prepared to sympathize with the reactions to life that Emily Dickinson presents, we are still able to accept them as dramatically true.(14)
Furthermore, Miss Dickinson was directly concerned with the problem of communicating an emotion. As a poet who wrote of suffering in its various forms and stages, she had the liveliest interest in those verbal devices which could be used to render visible and articulate the nebulous and the private inner state. This interest shows up in a number of her excel-lent poems, including one that many readers would probably think of her supreme achievement:
“After great pain a formal feeling comes-
The nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs-
And Stiff Heart questions Was it He, that bore,
And Yesterday, or Centuries before?
The feet, mechanical, go round-
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought-
A Quartz contentment, like a stone-
This is the Hour of Lead
Remembered, if outlived,
As Ireezing persons, recollect the Snow-
First-Chill-then Stupor-then the
No attempt in this poem is being made to explain why the pain occured. We are simply told that agıny has existed, without any reference to external causes. The poem portrays an emotion which comes after the initial shock. Its location is completely inward. It seeks to give body to a state of mind; to say with force and clarity, what a particular feeling is like. What the reader seen then is an emotion which is paradoxically, the absolute absence of emotion. In tense suffering has dehumanized the person described, redu-cing her to a collection of bodily parts which are no longer being willed into action, but which perform only automatic gestures. The most remarkable thing about about the poemm is that it provides us with an exact transcrip-tion of interior realities. The mind, the nerves, the heart are laid bare; their contents, during a particular period of time, are fully divulged. We are not told about an emotion, or asked to linger over it; we are compelled to see the feeling directly, to lay our hands on its size and shape. In effect, we have stood face to face with the time of depression that follows after some name-less and unspecified anxiety. (15)
At her best, Emily Dickinson exercised great care where the communication of feelings was concerned. Either she used the conventional means of supplying a concrete motive for emotions or she followed the more difficult process of finding descriptive images which would dramatize the emotions in their pure form. At all times, in her most memorable poetry, she undertook to do three things: to embody emotional and psychological states in a hard, specific language; to prevent the states from becoming abstract, or ultra-personal; to endow the states, in short, with the life, the substance, the dramatic impact which would make them suitable for objective statement.(16)
Writing in seclusion and without any real critical training or knowledge, Miss Dickinson could easily have filled her little booklets with page after page of sentimental gush. The circumstances were right for her to produce a poetry in which swoons succeeded tremors, in which the palpi-tation was as standard a feature as the exclamation point, and in which emotion became the ultra-personal cry of:
“Oh! lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
I fall upon the thorns of life!
She usually avoided these extremes which is perhaps less a tribute to her artistry than it is measure of her intense personal suffering. It may be, in other words, that the everyday acuteness of pain caused her search for ways in which pain could be expressed. It may be that by her profound sense of personal instability, she was driven to find refuge in the stabilizing force of words. But regardless of the reasons, Emily Dickinson’s precision with the language of feeling is a mark for her work from the worst defects in the poetry of her time; the tendency is a second quality in her writing which confirms Miss Dickinson as one of ours. (17)
The third area which makes Emily Dickinson one of ours is her philosophy. Emily Dickinson was in no sense a systematic phylosopher. Her unresolved metaphysical ponderings were the result of the determination that she had to know, rather than of logical thinking or of an active interest in philosophy. One might even say that the ponderings reflect a mind too vain and petulant to be at ease with the ordinary inescapable limitations on human knowledge. Miss Dickinson chose to see through God’s eyes; her philosophical poems are protests against all the aspects of experience-whether natural, human, or divine – which seemed to interfere with that impossible project. Yet for all its naivité, her philosophical point of view will bear comparison with (for it represents an amateurish varition of) the crisis
of philosophy that has been of influence in our own time. There is more than one trace of Christian Existentialism in the relationship which Emily Dickin-son establishes between existence and essence, in her stress upon God’s unreliability, and in her conception of man as the pawn and prisoner of obscure cosmic factors.
The existentialist sees a thoroughly disjointed world. He seems overwhelmed by verytable clutter of activities, all of which declined being patterned, and from every shred of significance appears to have been removed. As it confuses, however, experience still has a way of proffering vague hopes. Hemmed in by chaos, the existentialist is haunted by the feeling that order might be realized, provided he took a fresh approach to the problem or looked at life in a new way, or chose a different perspective from which to survey the world before him. Kierkegaard, the father of existentialism, illustrates this frustration. The attempt to find order or more specifically, the sttrugle to offer rational proofs for God or to reduce God’s existence from the facts of experience is in Kierkegaard’s notorious phrase, as “excellent subject for the comedy of the hidden lunacy.” But to recognize the folly of the attempt it by no means to be free of making it. None except the foolish deny God outright, and to give up looking for Him is simply to be reminded of His presence all over again. The real heart of the existentialistic dilemma is that one perceives meaninglessness everywhere, even as one is prodded to search anew for meaning. (19)
Confusion is also an aspect of Emily Dickinson’s world view. It informs her poetry, shapes her style, and enters into the basic theme to which she repeatedly returns.
Confusion is an observed fact. Or rather it is the fact since con-fusion is, for Emily Dickinson, the essential condition of every experience. Looking to the world she dwells in, Miss Dickinson perceives a bewildering proliferation of events. Time, change, the physical and mental deterioration of the self: these are her eternal mysteries. The delusive gift, the unlooked for bereavement, the surprising intrusion, the sudden betrayal, the abrupt looming of a new threat to security: these constitute daily shocks which she has no power to comprehend. Yet, mysteries though they themselves are, the events point to a mystery that is still greater than themselves. So regular
is there appearance, so steady the rhytme of suffering which they evoke that they seem the effects of some dim and indecipherable cause. This is no
aimless succession which Emily Dickinson beholds. Rather it is (or at least, appears to be) a strangely determined flow. (20)
Emily Dickinson’s relations with experience were expressed through identically the same paradoxes as Kierkegaard’s. Her quest for certainity could have been consummated in either of two ways: through an exact knowledge of whatever purpose life possesses or through the final rea-lization that since all is rush and disorder, there is no purpose and can never be any. But both these fixed views were luxuries that life never permitted her to enjoy. One of her most powerful symbols, is the springtime light, which comes, hovers, beekons, and withdraws-but in the act of withdrawal gives promise of a later return. This is the symbol of an essentially existenti–alist universe, and in which experience simultaneously invites and rebuffs, and in when the individual can no more deafen himself to the invitation than he can follow it through to a satisfactory conclusion. (21)
There is an anxiety from which Emily Dickinson is rarely free. She suspects that Nature whispers about her, and in the presence of Nature’s “Haunted House”, she represents her identity in the form of cracked cave, dreadfully exposed and open to invasion. In lines that are still more Kafkawsque, she can say of herself:
“Nature and God-I neither Knew
Yet both so well knew me
They startled like Executors
Of my identity.”
The problen of Emily Dickinson’s speaker is that of knowing nothing, but of laboring under the realization that she is terribly known. A two-way conversation with God and Nature is ouf of the question, for both are too vague for definition and far too remote to be reached. But there is no denying them either. They are indisputably “out there” someplace operating as existential menaces, who have the insight to see at a glance and the power to destroy in an instant. (22)
Emily Dickinson stands, therefore, at a crucial turning in the history of the religious-poetic sensibility. Behind her stretch the old, out-moded systems arguing in their placid way that life is merely a finite enact-ment of the Infinite. Before her lies a situation in which the infinite seems to have disappeared or in which, if Infinity can be demonstrated at all, the demonstration is a result of a long and arduous effort. In her poetry the easy way breaks up, and the difficult way begins to crystallize. By the very ques-tions she asks, the transition from the one to the other is made necessary. Emily Dickinson is one of those writers who causes us to see, with renewed understanding, the literature that comes both before and after them. She remains one of ours because her attitudes break with “Theirs,” and continue to shape-in fact, continue to be our own.
Thus Emily Dickinson may be referred to us a “paradox”, as the representative of divided and ambiguous things. It is an American trait, if we consider the split in the American consciousness beween idealism (echoes of both Puritan Christianity and American Transcendentalism, along with the “American Dream“, of pioneer conquest and cultivation of rewards from the great riches of land), and, “pragmatism” (the materialistic core of Ameri-can life; the other part of that American dream, that every boy can be president; and more importantly to a true definition of pragmatism, the clear-eyed capacity to look at life as it really is, not as it ought to be or we’d wish it to be). That these elements would be in conflict, in American writers particularly, is inevitable. Not surprising then, that she was both puritan and free-thinker, desirous of listeners yet perversely secretive, devoted to poetry rebellious to its rules, brilliantly concise yet indifferently redundant, sharply ironic yet sentimental, original and trite-all of which make Emily Dickinson a modern poet.
(1) Alexander, Charlotte; “The Poetry of Emily Dickinson”, p.3.
(2) Griffith, Clark; “The Long Shadow”, pp.220-24.
(3) Ibid., pp.224-25.
(4) Whicher, George; “This Was a Poet”, pp.203-04.
(5) Griffith, Clark; “The Long Shadow”, pp.228-29.
(7) Ibid., pp.229-30.
(8) Todd, Mabel; “Letters of Emily Dickinson”, pp.126-28.
(9) Johnson, Thomas; “Emily Dickinson”, pp.196-98.
(10) Whicher, George; “This Was a Poet”, pp.265-66.
(11) Ibid., pp.267-68.
(12) Alexander, Charlotte; “The Poetry of Emily Dickinson”, pp.93-5.
(13) Griffith, Clark; “The Long Shadow”, pp.239-41.
(14) Anderson, Charles; “Emily Dickinson’s Poetry”, pp.210-12.
(15) Ibid., pp.214.
(16) Griffith, Clark; “The Long Shadow”, pp.248-49.
(17) Anderson, Charles; “Emily Dickinson’s Poetry”, pp.198-200.
(18) Griffith, Clark; “The Long Shadow”, pp.261-62.
(19) Sartre, Jean Paul; “Existentialism”, pp.261-64.
(20) Alexander, Charlotte; “The Poetry of Emily Dickinson”, pp.9-14.
(21) Griffith, Clark; “The Long Shadow”, pp.26-30.
(22) Ibid., pp.270-72.
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Moore, Virginia; “Distinguished Women Writers”, E.P. Dutton & Company,
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