- Molly McQuade
- North American Literatures
A clear sign of literary malady: The experienced reader begins to take Emily Dickinson for granted, failing to feel the insoluble, salutary shock of her poetry. And the cure for this malady: try paraphrasing any poem by Dickinson. If you do, you'll quickly learn that you will probably never be able to satisfactorily summarize—or maybe even fully understand—Dickinson's recondite, elated originality. The writing will faithfully resist any effort to possess it completely; her poetry belongs to Dickinson only. Marvelously, though, many readers have been able to borrow it, admire it, and glean wisdom from the lapidary brio of the author. Although writing in literary seclusion in western Massachusetts during the mid to late nineteenth century, Dickinson invented a poetry both unprecedented in form and long-lasting in impact. She wrote as if to bid farewell to the Victorians and to urge on the modernists.
A Daughter and Her Precursors
Dickinson was born on 10 December 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts, a part of the New England region that often witnessed “the blazing up of the lunatic fringe of the Puritan coal,” as the contemporary American poet and essayist Adrienne Rich has commented (McQuade, p. 33). Emily Dickinson's father, Edward, was the eldest son of Samuel Fowler Dickinson, a “flaming zealot for education and religion” (Bianchi, pp. 76–77) who wished with outstanding ardor for “the conversion of the whole world” (Bianchi, pp. 76–77). In his dedication to higher learning and the Protestant faith, Samuel Dickinson, lawyer and businessman, reflected the preoccupations of his neighbors in Amherst, a Puritan stronghold subject to periodic evangelical revivals.
His granddaughter Emily, although she did not profess the faith with his unbounded zeal, often concerned herself in her poems with the spiritual life. The following example delicately considers a supplicant's potential claims and merits before a singular and all-sufficient judge. (All quotations in this article are taken from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson, 1951.)
Few, yet enough,Enough is One—To that etherial throngHave not each one of us the rightTo stealthily belong?
The uncanny unity of Dickinson's five lines embodies, with a selflessly ghostly reverence, both the divine unity of a god and the solitary, helpless unity of the lone congregant of one. In its absolute compression of form, the poem also supports its own claim of spiritual sufficiency.
Although Emily Dickinson's paternal grandfather served instrumentally in founding Amherst College, Samuel Fowler Dickinson did so at great cost to himself, neglecting his other affairs to his own financial injury and embarrassment: While still engaged in seeking funds for Amherst, he mortgaged all his property and then was unable to pay off the mortgages. As his firstborn son, Edward Dickinson was naturally compelled to make amends for his disgraced father, particularly after Samuel left Amherst in 1833 following foreclosure on his mortgages. The early burden of financial responsibility may have affected adversely the development of her father's character.
Edward Dickinson was for Emily, her older brother, Austin, and her younger sister, Lavinia, a distant though powerful figure whose law practice, various investments, political ambitions, and devotion to community service often combined to keep him from home during extended forays to Boston, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. Thanks to Edward's drive to succeed, the Dickinson home in Amherst was handsomely appointed, the children were well provided for, and their father's presence on Sundays could be counted on. Merely by reading aloud to his family regularly from the Bible, he may have helped to assure his elder daughter's fascination with richly aphoristic language in particular and with rhetoric in general—with the full, roving scope of it, from scrupling understatement to rumbling hyperbole.
A Tacit Mother
Yet Edward's many absences also threw the younger Dickinsons into a greater dependency on their mother than might have been true otherwise. His growing distance from the family also isolated Emily Norcross Dickinson, his wife and their mother. Her steadfast resilience was demanded and perhaps not rewarded.
Regardless, Emily Norcross Dickinson would have been unlikely to provide perfect resilience under any circumstances, partly by dint of her innate temperament and partly due to her recurrent illnesses, which crimped her domestic role and abilities. Biographers have characterized Mrs. Dickinson as an uncommunicative, narrowly conventional farmer's daughter who did not receive from her husband the love or the support at home that a woman like herself would have needed.
If paternal absences and maternal silences, differently inflected, were facts of her home life from her earliest years, then perhaps Emily Dickinson learned the value, as well as the hardship, of tacit intimacy as a main bequest of the family. Tacit intimacy would rely on the listener's cultivated talent to interpret the unspoken—to “read” a silence, whether loving or troubled, intermittent or ongoing. The same interpretive talent also serves well a reader of Dickinson's spectrally concise poetry. The poetry's currency is silence as much as it is words:
My Cocoon tightens—Colors teaze—I'm feeling for the Air—A dim capacity for WingsDemeans the Dress I wear—A power of Butterfly must be—The Aptitude to flyMeadows of Majesty concedesand easy Sweeps of Sky—So I must baffle at the HintAnd cipher at the SignAnd make much blunder, if at lastI take the clue divine—
No. 1099 Physically and emotionally constrained by an unspecified distress, the narrator of the poem is unable to perceive or to speak. Even so, she feels compelled to “baffle” and to “cipher” at evidence of the divine—to interpret even when interpretation seems all but impossible.
An Improper Puritan
Apparently the infant Emily Dickinson was never baptized, although her mother underwent a conversion experience only seven months after her birth and although Edward's family prayed fervently for him to follow suit. (Their prayers were rewarded.) Her brother Austin was the last to convert, in 1855; Emily never did.
Still, beginning with her earliest schooling locally in Amherst at the age of five, Dickinson was surrounded by an intense and intimidating aura of Puritan devotion. She most likely learned by heart many of Isaac Watts's Divine and Moral Songs for Children (1788), for example. Watts's iambic rhyming quatrains embedded themselves in the poet's ear, as suggested in poem after poem by Dickinson, notably:
No Rack can torture me—My Soul—at Liberty—Behind this mortal BoneThere knits a bolder One—You Cannot prick with Saw—Nor pierce with Cimitar—Two Bodies—therefore be—Bind One—The Other fly—The Eagle of his NestNo easier divest—And gain the SkyThan mayest Thou—Except Thyself may beThine Enemy—Captivity is Consciousness—So's Liberty.
No. 384 Describing the freeing of the soul, this poem paradoxically engulfs its very own words mainly in iambic rhythms, thus suggesting the serious limitations attached to any state of spiritual consciousness.
In 1840 Dickinson began attending Amherst Academy, only recently opened to girls, and continued there as a student for seven years. One of her teachers, Daniel T. Fiske, described Emily at twelve as “very bright, but rather delicate and frail looking.” She impressed him as “an excellent scholar: of exemplary deportment,” and yet “somewhat shy and nervous. Her compositions were strikingly original” (Habegger, p. 152).
Part of Dickinson's originality may have suggested itself early in her inability to experience conversion. The revival fevers regularly sweeping the region claimed many souls who were thus ready to regenerate their religious dedication. The discomfort felt by abstainers must have been considerable, and it was not merely social in temper: During an era when illness could easily cut life short, a public and official renewal of one's faith would ease the passage to eternal life. Failure to renew, especially over the long term, would therefore require a rare sort of self-reliance, however subject to doubt. Indeed, the ability both to invite and to withstand recurrent doubt during the decades of her youth and maturity may imply that Dickinson did affirm faith but of another kind and in another light. In her poetry she subtly broached her heterodox faith:
We pray—to Heaven—We prate—of Heaven—Relate—when Neighbors die—At what o'clock to Heaven—they fled—Who saw them—Wherefore fly?Is Heaven a Place—a Sky—a Tree?Location's narrow way is for Ourselves—Unto the DeadThere's no Geography—But State—Endowal—Focus—Where—Omnipresence—fly?
No. 489 Dickinson here expresses heretical doubt about the need of humans to specify, literalize, and “prate” about an afterlife, when all too evidently the dead have “no Geography.” Her asperity serves, however, the purpose of an unconventional devotion perhaps too great for words.
When in 1847 Dickinson entered Mount Holyoke Female Seminary as a student who boarded at the school in South Hadley, not far from her Amherst home, she might have hoped for a surcease of religious peer pressure, but she didn't get it. Here the pressure to renew her faith increased—and was less easy to escape from. During the Christmas season of 1847, for instance, an audience of students was asked by Mary Lyon, headmistress of the school, to rise if they “wanted to be Christian” (Habegger, p. 201). According to an observer, Dickinson remained seated while everyone else stood. Moreover, her fellow students prepared written reports for inspection by authorities conceding Dickinson's continuing failure to conform in the faith (Habegger, pp. 202–203).
When Dickinson left school for good in 1848, she returned to live at home—with only a handful of interruptions or substantial excursions—for the rest of her life. Although for a time she continued to pursue a sometimes social existence in public, she gradually and famously withdrew until few outside the immediate family circle of her brother (and eventually his wife), her sister, her parents, and their servants regularly caught sight of her. Even esteemed guests might be turned away at her doorstep if the moment were not right; neighborhood children were well known to receive surreptitious baskets of her gingerbread, lowered from a window by the virtually invisible “Miss Emily.”
Although she was writing, at times furiously, from her twenties through her fifties—Dickinson died 15 May 1886 at age fifty-five—she chose voluntarily not to publish the poetry. Instead she circulated it selectively by inserting or weaving her poems into numerous informal notes and longer letters written and dispatched by mail or messenger to family and friends, whether distant or close at hand. (According to Victorian custom, she also bound her poems into stitched packets known as “fascicles” for the purposes of her own editing and revising.)
Any serious reader of Dickinson must thus contend, sooner or later, with the legend that surrounded and surrounds the writer as a self-anointed recluse without wings in the world. As her sister-in-law and confidant Susan Dickinson was to write in Dickinson's 1886 obituary, published in the Springfield Daily Republican: “Very few in the village, except among older inhabitants, knew Miss Emily personally, although the facts of her seclusion and her intellectual brilliancy were familiar Amherst traditions.” Dickinson herself cultivated her legend, not only by withdrawing but by doing so with a cunning theatrical panache. Her studied effort at self-characterization, even after her secession, left potent word of her in her wake as the woman in white who tended flowers, baked bread, cosseted children, and fashioned words into unusual artifacts.
Her “Lonely” Wisdom
Actually, Dickinson may have chosen wisely to secede from conventional life. Conventional life in western Massachusetts during the later nineteenth century would inevitably have meant marriage, the mortally dangerous matter of childbirth, and domestic subjection for decades to come, were the wife and mother to survive that long (many did not, despite all possible care). Thus, for a writer who happened to be female, the conventional life would have decreed the end of her writing. We would not have Emily Dickinson to read now if she had chosen to pursue the lot of an average woman of her place, time, and class.
Beyond those patent social constrictions, the poet also struggled against the apparently less insuperable bonds bestowed in any upstanding New England hamlet even when a respectable lady of the nineteenth century remained unmarried. One of those bonds must have been purely linguistic: the language of social custom and daily behavior. To conduct one's days and hours according to those linguistic conventions might impose an extreme or even cruel demand on someone such as Dickinson, whose genius was to speak and write as she knew how to and not as most did or were expected to. To obey such linguistic habits of diction, syntax, grammar, and rhythm on a regular basis would have annulled, transfixed, or strangled the language of her very genius—Dickinson would have seen her language taken from her. The acceptance of female subordination, in language as in most things, would only have intensified her need for liberty concerning words—a liberty always conditional and qualified yet undoubtedly more available within her family circle than outside of it. By minimizing in her own life social entanglements that would have corrupted her poetic language, Dickinson was seeking to preserve herself along with her writing.
Part of her uncanny intelligence was to work out a solution, according to her own necessary terms, with a boldness that disputes or negates her reputation, earned over time, for fearful retreats and sidling evasions. Rather than talk her life away on trivial social niceties, she conserved her singular verbal resources and decanted part of that stock into the famous handwritten missives, which sounded (and still sound) like no one else's. To her friend Elizabeth Holland, after Holland's visit, Dickinson dispatched the message:
The Parting I tried to smuggle resulted in quite a Mob at last! The Fence is the only Sanctuary.That no one invades because no one suspects it.
A contemporary reader cannot fail to notice the heightened aphoristic quality of this note, however quickly improvised it was.
To Adelaide Hills of Amherst, who never met Dickinson face to face, the poet wrote:
To be remembered is next to being loved, and to be loved is Heaven, and is this quite Earth?
Dickinson's rhetorical question provides an answer probably never foreseen or demanded by the recipient. She wrote to air her thoughts and secondarily to be heard.
To Sarah Tuckerman, another lady of Amherst never encountered in person, Dickinson mused at length:
I fear my congratulation, like repentance according to Calvin, is too late to be plausible, but might there not be an exception, were the delight or the penitence found to be durable?
Although the original context of the note is not known, Dickinson's words can be savored by any reader who appreciates extravagant and refined quibbling in a “routine” note of apology. By imposing on herself, and on others, the fastidious freedom to choose words, Dickinson surrounded herself with the art she most needed.
“A Susan of My Own”
Even while successfully negotiating the terms of her survival, however, the very private Dickinson was nonetheless confronted, as anyone would have been, by the commonplace calamities: illness and death, the wish for love, the denial of love, and the loss of love. Perhaps more than most people, she relied on intense friendships to help sustain her imaginatively, and yet she found them unreliable.
Because she lived in seclusion by choice, and because her poetry also steadfastly reflects the author's coveting of privacy, to read the life in the poetry is perilous, if not impossible. Likewise, to search the life for the origins of her poetry would be treacherous. It is more feasible to regard each arena, the life and the writing, separately. A survey of the leading people and events in Dickinson's adult life would fairly include the following.
A signal element until Dickinson's death was her long-term friendship with Susan Dickinson, who married her brother, Austin, in 1856. She and Susan most likely met in Amherst during the late 1840s. The friendship was to mark her poetry decisively even when the two endured repeated fallings-out. Susan, an intelligent and sensitive woman close in age to Dickinson, shared with the poet a certain shrewdness and steeliness of temperament; she was also relatively tolerant of unconventional ideas and behavior. Susan was the intended audience and the frequent recipient of so many Dickinson letters and poems that even Susan must at times have felt overwhelmed or resentful. Also, as time passed and Susan bore several children, she found she had less time for the childless Emily and her seductively winning demands. Quarrels and estrangements disturbed them in 1854 and more protractedly in 1861. Susan wrote Dickinson's obituary, however, and assisted with the posthumous editing and publication of her poetry.
To enjoy the full force of Dickinson's appeal to her friend, the evidence of the poet's letters and poems written for and to Susan is compelling. In the late 1870s, scholars estimate, Dickinson wrote this note to Susan in the form of a poem:
I must waita few Daysbefore seeingyou—You aretoo momentous.But rememberit is idolatry,not indifference. Emily.(Open Me Carefully)
Dickinson charms by staging surprises meant to disarm and waylay the recipient.
On another occasion during the same era, she wrote to Susan:
To the faithfulAbsence iscondensed presence.To others, butthere are noothers—(Open Me Carefully)
Dickinson interrupted herself here in mid-sentence, precipitously dramatizing her deep regard for Susan.
And, with a renegade's childlike delight, Dickinson confessed:
To own aSusan ofmy ownIs of itselfa Bliss—WhateverRealm Iforfeit, Lord,continueme in this!(Open Me Carefully)
What was the real nature of Susan and Emily Dickinson's long-lived mutual affinity? Suggests Adrienne Rich, “Obviously, Dickinson was attracted by and interested in men whose minds had something to offer her; she was, it is by now clear, equally attracted to and interested in women whose minds had something to offer her” (McQuade, p. 37). Rich elaborates: “Women [in the nineteenth century] expressed their attachments to other women both physically and verbally; a marriage did not dilute the strength of a female friendship, in which two women often shared the same bed during long visits, and wrote letters articulate with both physical and emotional longing” (McQuade, p. 37).
In The Passion of Emily Dickinson, the Dickinson critic and scholar Judith Farr attributes ninety-four poems written by Dickinson as intended for Susan Dickinson, including numerous love poems. Like so much of Dickinson's private life, her relationship with Susan Dickinson remains enigmatic to us.
Letters to the Editor
In general, the 1850s were socially, emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually momentous years for Dickinson, despite or perhaps partly because of her seclusion. In 1853 she met Josiah Holland, literary editor of the Springfield Daily Republican, then a well-regarded newspaper, along with his wife, Elizabeth. Their company was stimulating. In 1858 she first met Samuel Bowles, the editor in chief of the Springfield paper for which Holland worked. Bowles's liberal politics included feminist leanings, unlike Holland's, and as the redoubtably busy boss of the paper he was able to give Dickinson much-valued indirect access into the world of public affairs as well as an audience of one for her letters and poems. (Bowles was introduced to her, as were others, when he visited the home of Susan and Austin Dickinson.)
On the other hand, just as momentously, in 1855 Dickinson heard the inspiring Charles Wadsworth preach in Philadelphia. Wadsworth seems to have impressed her with a spiritual quality of tormented eloquence that touched her as a woman and as a writer. Some biographers feel that Dickinson was seriously smitten with him and may have written some of her most recklessly erotic love poetry with him in mind.
For the poet, 1862 was also a highly significant year, for it was then that Dickinson began to read the essays of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, an editor and a frequent contributor to the Atlantic Monthly magazine. Emboldened partly by her enthusiasm for his observations of nature, she initiated a correspondence with him by sending him four of her poems. Higginson helped to fill the gap left in her spiritual and literary life after Wadsworth's 1862 departure for San Francisco and following her apparent quarrel with Bowles in the same year. Higginson's hidebound and conventional taste prevented him from savoring as he might have done Dickinson's achievement in poetry. Still, as a representative from the world of professional letters, such as it was, he eased her isolation.
Her father's death in 1874 was followed a year later by her mother's major stroke. As she had also done before during less threatening maternal illness, Dickinson offered primary care to her bedridden mother, although she was sharing their house with her sister, Lavinia. This added responsibility may partly account for the diminution of her writing from the fiendishly productive 1860s.
With one exception, all of Dickinson's suspected romantic interests (Wadsworth, for instance) led her to no tangible success. But in the early 1870s she became a friend of the prominent Judge Otis Lord while he was a guest of Austin and Susan. In the years after the death of his wife Elizabeth in 1877, he began pursuing Dickinson and evidently sought to marry her. Although she shared his feelings, she decided against marriage.
She may have been wise to do so. The 1880s for the Dickinson family were parlous, for the long-married Austin Dickinson fell in love with Mabel Loomis Todd, the much younger wife, new in town, of a local professor. They carried on an active and long-lasting affair in his house and hers, to the grief of Susan and the supposed equanimity of the cuckolded husband. Although little known to Emily Dickinson, Mabel Loomis Todd and her daughter Millicent Todd Bingham later competed with Susan Dickinson and her daughter, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, in trying to bring Dickinson's poetry and her letters to publication after the writer's 1886 death from Bright's disease. Although she wrote poetry in secret and asked that her letters be destroyed on her demise, Dickinson left an immense cache of fascicles behind her, surprising everyone.
All in all, hardly a life empty of significant action. However, Dickinson's most significant life was given to and conducted through her poetry. While it is impossible to do justice to the body of her work, numbering 1,789 poems and three volumes of letters, many critics have tried and are still trying—among them Helen Vendler, Sharon Cameron, Judith Farr, Richard B. Sewall, R. W. Franklin, Thomas H. Johnson, Denis Donoghue, and others.
As Richard B. Sewall, a preeminent Dickinson critic and biographer, put it in 1963, “We still are not quite sure of her. We ask and ask.” Perhaps it is better to keep asking, even now.
One of the first questions a new reader of Emily Dickinson might justifiably ask is about the rate of speed pulsing through her generally very short poems. The staccato quickness of much Dickinson poetry is achieved partly by use of her iconoclastic punctuation, most notably by her multiple dashes. The dashes, introduced at the ends of lines or as a fleeting intersection at a line's midpoint, quicken some of the poems by bifurcating them, as if a gasp is being uttered as the poem goes on running.
Her dashes, while mandating fragmentation, also serve to unite a poem's various fragments—syntactic, rhythmic, metaphoric—into a composite fragment, a whole made up of undisguised parts. The dashes may also summon up for some readers the sensation of abridgment, curbing or cutting as they do the poem's approaches to a thought or thoughts. Dickinson's poems typically record the motion of her mind as she thinks in and through the words. Her dashes take fast steps forward that also exert a retractive pull, holding back when a poem seems impelled or poised to spill headlong out of itself.
The Wick and the Flame
Many of Dickinson's poems show her interest in speed as a verbal mode. One poem that does so with finely adumbrated irony is No. 233.
The Lamp burns sure—within—Tho' Serfs—supply the Oil—It matters not the busy Wick—At her phosphoric toil!The Slave—forgets—to fill—The Lamp—burns golden—on—Unconscious that the oil is out—As that the Slave—is gone.
The confident writer here contrives a richly simple scene that burgeons quietly into metaphor. The scene: A kerosene lamp, dependent upon oil as its fuel, continues to burn its wick (the source of the lamp's light) despite the gradual exhaustion of the oil, which the “slave” does not happen to refill.
As long as the oil exists in good supply, the wick “matters not,” for the oil will enable the flame to burn. But once the oil has vastly diminished, the wick takes precedence, persevering despite the lack of both oil and attendant “slave” to aid the flame. What Dickinson does not say directly: Only the wick can burn in a kerosene lamp, and so without the wick a lamp cannot shed any light. As physically the smallest and visually the most recondite element, the wick—typically just a bit of densely knitted fabric or thread—is nonetheless the most significant constituent of lamp and light, selflessly and singularly enabling our sight by which to read.
Like the wick she cites, Dickinson's insight about the wick and its flame lies submerged in the body of the poem, which is itself like a lamp radiating intelligence as a deceptively modest essential ingredient—as, in other words, the poem's flame. Yet Dickinson employs her dashes here to qualify and cast doubt on the seeming stability of both the poem and the lamp it evokes.
The dashes undermine the lamp's security, which is as fleeting as the ever-consumed oil that dwindles in the vessel of the lamp. Dashes also dramatize the oncoming extinction of the flame igniting the ultimately oil-less wick. In a line such as “The Lamp—burns golden—on—” the dashes overtly dispute the lamp's observed action, eroding the announced continuity of light and instead imitating the unsure flickering of a guttering flame. But because Dickinson chooses not to visualize the flame's death, she leaves us with a paradoxical closing impression: of steadfastness in a state of conscious uncertainty.
That state is finally the poet's, since she is the author of the metaphorical lamp. In the poem, Dickinson ironically salutes her own indentured and overlooked strength. The self-effacing writer, like the wick, rests on her own unsteady bravado as creator while her sustenance and stamina recede.
Although the critic R. P. Blackmur has voiced a negative view of Dickinson's dashes, he also clarified her use of them for his own earlier critical era, claiming that her dashes acted as musical notation for her words, which he compared with musical notes. The notation of the dashes was, Blackmur argued, inadequate to guiding the reader through Dickinson's ambiguous “music.” Even so, the very inadequacy of the notation encouraged successively different readings (or hearings) of any given Dickinson poem, thus highlighting and serving her propensity for lyric freedom.
Failing at Sea
Similarly, in poem No. 226, Dickinson employs dashes.
Should you but fail at—Sea—In sight of me—Or doomed lie—Next Sun—to die—Or rap—at Paradise—unheard—I'd harass God—Until He let you in!
Here the dashes insinuate an implicit undertone in the action of the poem and comment on it. This seven-line poem lacks the visual symmetry of the previous poem's twinned quatrains, and unlike No. 233, No. 226 also begins on an emphatically subjunctive note of unconfirmed future possibility. “Should you but fail at—Sea—” reads the first line, with seemingly gratuitous paired dashes fluttering up at its end. What could be the connotative meaning of those pronounced dashes?
At the very least, the dashes interject further doubt into the already unsure “sea” of the first line, where the identity of the “you,” the locale of the “sea,” and the full meaning of the anticipated “failure” all remain hazardously unknown. As the reader's eye travels down the lines of the poem, that eye is rocked by an unstable wake, thanks mainly to Dickinson's dashes.
She resolves No. 226 with a countervailing irony utterly unlike that imbuing poem No. 233. For after conjecturing the various possible future fates of the “you” addressed in No. 226, fates of doom and suspected expiration, the poem's narrator insists that she will save the day if need be: she'll “harass God” to forestall disaster and grant the “you” safe passage into heaven. While Dickinson may be mocking her own powers before God, she also asserts these powers merrily by crafting the poem in the first place, by summoning and then puckishly solving the poem's challenges. As an author she permits herself a godly kind of mischief.
Hymns and Anti-Hymns
Emily Dickinson's mischief-making tendencies, whether construed from punctuation or by other means, were tempered almost always by her poetry's reliance on hymn meters, ranging from “common meter” (an eight-syllable line followed by a six-syllable line) to “short meter” (two six-syllable lines followed by a line of eight syllables followed by a line of six syllables) to “long meter” (lines of eight syllables only).
Hymn meter typically occurred in four-line stanzas and in Dickinson's work included mainly iambic or trochaic metrical patterns. The regularity of hymn meter gave Dickinson's poetry a steady base to work with and to deviate from, as well as a specifically liturgical point of origin for earthly and spiritual meditations alike. As the eminent Dickinson scholar Thomas H. Johnson has noted, Dickinson often mingled different hymn meters within a single poem and varied exact rhymes with imperfect and suspended rhymes. With the passing of time, she asserted with increasing frequency her right to expressive liberties.
As the contemporary Dickinson critic Timothy Morris has observed more recently, Dickinson's approach to rhyme developed comprehensively over her career. In her first poems, written during the first half of the 1850s, she preferred exact rhyme. Later in the same decade, she experimented consistently with what Morris calls “a much less conventional rhyming,” meaning a less regular and a more sonically subtle kind.
As Morris has proved by surveying analytically her poems by year of composition, Dickinson also imposed another signature innovation upon hymn form: She typically enjambed her lines, whereas the lines of hymns are traditionally end-stopped. Enjambment—in which the end of one line continues, in its syntactical organization and in its sense, into the next line—confers on Dickinson's poetry a supple speed of impetus and delivery that would have been wholly exotic to hymn lyrics. Although Dickinson's early work contains end-stopped lines, Morris's quantitative analysis has demonstrated that over the years she increased the prevalence of enjambed lines in the poetry.
Clearly Dickinson was a poet who counted and measured even while she worked to subvert traditional forms. Why did she choose to subvert at all? Was the impulse a well-considered one?
Rules of Subversion
Some of her poems, devoted to fathoming nullity or immensity as a spiritual quantity, may offer a partial answer to the question. For example, consider poem No. 546:
To fill a GapInsert the Thing that caused it—Block it upWith Other—and 'twill yawn the more—You cannot solder an AbyssWith Air.
The six lines of this poem, ranging dramatically in their length, seek, at least nominally, to provide a sort of prescription for the writing of a poem—at least, for a certain kind of poem as it might be written by a certain kind of poet.
“To fill a Gap,” begins the poem in its prescription, “Insert the Thing that caused it.” The counsel offered is so matter-of-factly pragmatic as to foretell the construction of this very poem. What is the Gap except the space between what may be left unsaid and what might instead be written?
If the poet fails to express herself, then the gap must remain as it is; she would thus prolong the gap. To “block it up” may serve to fill it but will also meanwhile press upon the edges of the gap, widening it. In other words, each poem presses on its own borders and presses against other poems, written or yet to be written. Although writing may fulfill the momentary beckoning of an unwritten poem, writing cannot conclude the greater work of poetry, which expands in its possibilities with each word written. Like a cubist ahead of her time, Dickinson seems to envision a poetry of shifting juxtapositions that will never fully occupy or settle the space of poetry or the mind that creates it.
If all poetry remains provisional and unfinished, forever shifting in place and extending in dimension, then the poet might do well to reflect such material facts of aesthetic life in the form of the poems she writes. The visual “yawning” of this poem does just that by carving gaps into itself and defying its own finishing. By closing her auspicious first line with the word “Gap” and by concluding her oracular last line with the word “Air,” with both words capitalized like Platonic ideals or like reigning gods, Dickinson seems to salute the poem's ability to unmake itself, whatever the will of the poet.
Creation, especially for a maverick Puritan such as Dickinson, would needfully call to mind and into question the poet's heterodox and troubling position as a would-be rival of God. To concede truthfully the necessary originality of the poet in the effort of creating, she may have refused to mimic poetic tradition or to venerate theological orthodoxy. Creation by either God or man must, by definition, forgo mimicry and commit originality; formal rebellion may further poetic justice.
Not even Dickinson's formal ingenuities should distract a reader for too long from what she writes about and how she feels—or how the poems feel. A fact of continual amazement in her poetry is the exacerbated emotion that infuses, with terrific selectivity, phrases and lines and single words that otherwise might mainly suggest by their spare singularity the poet's unusual restraint in writing.
Such emotion flourished with Dickinson's extreme verbal scruples and with her dictional precision. She relied on relatively few words to do the work and play of a poem, yet the combined effects of syntax, rhythm, diction, rhyme, and metaphor in her writing confer an uncanny power on the slimmest scaffolding. She was able to economize marvelously, seizing smallness and wringing it for feeling. Her style was grandly parsimonious.
Dickinson's poem No. 365, beginning with the line “Dare you see a Soul at the White Heat?,” shows what may be asked by her poetry of reader and writer alike.
Dare you see a Soul at the White Heat?Then crouch within the door—Red—is the Fire's common tint—But when the vivid OreHas vanquished Flame's conditions,It quivers from the ForgeWithout a color, but the lightOf unanointed Blaze.Least Village has its BlacksmithWhose Anvil's even ringStands symbol for the finer ForgeThat soundless tugs—within—Refining these impatient OresWith Hammer, and with BlazeUntil the Designated LightRepudiate the Forge—
To see the ore that “quivers from the Forge / Without a color” is to see the soul fully ignited and refined, a vision beyond the scope and ability of most eyes. To recognize the ore so vividly colorless demands a courageous, penetrating glance. So does Dickinson's poetry.
Nature is What We Know
Visual perception was a mainstay of Dickinson's writing, nowhere more so than in her many poems observing nature. “ ‘Nature’ is what We know” she declared, “But have no Art to say.” Nature's art guided Dickinson's.
She conceived exquisitely stark and airborne metaphors of a bee's erotic conquests in poem No. 1224:
Like Trains of Cars on Tracks of PlushI hear the level Bee—A Jar across the Flowers goesTheir Velvet MasonryWithstands until the sweet AssaultTheir Chivalry consumes—While He, victorious tilts awayTo vanquish other Blooms.
The workaday bee, who nonetheless seeks sexual “Plush,” finds it over and over again in the open (ajar) blossoms, whose “Velvet Masonry” excitingly evokes both a watertight floral construction and the possibility of entering it rapturously. Dickinson's unexpected merger in her metaphor of love with business eroticizes each, as though pollinating both. The poem marks a conquest of its subject, inspecting bee and flower as if conducting an “assignment” in love.
Another remarkable piece of more extended natural observation, poem No. 1575, describes the bat as a sort of anti-poet who is unable to sing anything. Yet Dickinson's eye lingers upon him with a covetous adoration.
The Bat is dun, with wrinkled Wings—Like fallow Article—And not a song pervades his Lips—Or none perceptible.His small Umbrella quaintly halvedDescribing in the AirAn Arc alike inscrutableElate Philosopher.Deputed from what Firmament—Of what Astute Abode—Empowered with what MalignityAuspiciously withheld—To his adroit CreatorAscribe no less the praise—Beneficent, believe me,His eccentricities—
To visualize inscrutability in a creature is not far removed from conducting the devotional duty of a congregant, which may help to explain why the poem moves, in the last stanza, to consider the bat's creator. Immaculately imperfect—“dun, with wrinkled Wings”—the animal is as such doubly desirable and infinitely beloved. Dickinson's fine and sharp portrait leaves out so much that what persists is unforgettable, fiercely and religiously real.
“There is a word / Which bears a sword / Can pierce an armed man—,” wrote Dickinson in poem No. 42. Although that metaphor is for this poet relatively undistinguished, even mundane, her poetry aims to pierce in just such a way, and her narrators tend to welcome their share of piercing too.
“I like a look of Agony,” reflects the speaker in poem No. 241, “Because I know it's true—.” To be properly felt, truth must wound, as when, in poem No. 561, “I measure every Grief I meet / With narrow, probing, Eyes—/ I wonder if It weighs like Mine—/ Or has an Easier size.” Poetic readiness was for Dickinson cued by pain, well received. “To comprehend a nectar,” she wrote, “Requires sorest need.”
Even so, her writing thrives on indirection as a technique, on the avoidance of explicit statements. When Dickinson's poetry is at its most cryptic and unfathomable, the writer seems to claim a stance of diabolical removal, deitylike, from which to preside, overlook, and administer. The stance recalls that of the lordly “He” in poem No. 315:
He fumbles at your SoulAs Players at the KeysBefore they drop full Music on—He stuns you by degrees—Prepares your brittle NatureFor the etherial BlowBy fainter Hammers—further heard—Then nearer—Then so slowYour Breath has time to straighten—Your Brain—to bubble Cool—Deals—One—imperial—Thunderbolt—That scalps your naked Soul—When Winds hold Forests in their Paws—The Universe—is still—
The artful inevitability of death needs no announcing, all the more so as the mortal mind could not understand death anyhow.
A Dimple in the Tomb
Dickinson's mind enjoyed danger and was wont to frisk with it. Her poem No. 1489 can be read as a mordantly earnest wisecrack.
A Dimple in the TombMakes that ferocious RoomA Home—
For the legendary secluded one, a sepulchral dimple was perhaps a redeeming joke.
When writing with the fewest possible words, as above, Dickinson seemed to compress and expose at once, to speak translucently in order to mete out a transporting justice. In the process, “she” vanished in the purity of her sight and insight. Although unmistakably hers, the poetry aspires to a wayward disappearing act:
By homely gifts and hindered WordsThe human heart is toldOf Nothing—“Nothing” is the forceThat renovates the World—
See also Poetess in American Literature, The.
- The Poems of Emily Dickinson (1951; edited by Thomas H. Johnson)
- The Letters of Emily Dickinson (1958; edited by Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward)
- Selected Letters of Emily Dickinson (1971; edited by Thomas H. Johnson)
- The Master Letters of Emily Dickinson (1986; edited by R. W. Franklin)
- The Poems of Emily Dickinson (1998; edited by R. W. Franklin)
- Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson's Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson (1998; edited by Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith)
- Bianchi, Martha Dickinson. Emily Dickinson Face to Face. Hampden, Conn., 1932.
- Cady, Edwin H., and Louis J. Budd, eds. On Dickinson: The Best from American Literature. Durham, N.C., 1990. An up-to-date anthology of criticism, originally published in the scholarly journal American Literature, on such topics as Dickinson's style, her links with the metaphysical poets, and “thirst and starvation” as a theme in her writing.
- Cameron, Sharon. Lyric Time: Dickinson and the Limits of Genre. Baltimore, 1979. Analysis of Dickinson's use of time in her writing.
- Cameron, Sharon. Choosing Not Choosing: Dickinson's Fascicles. Chicago, 1992. A leading contemporary Dickinson scholar's contribution to the field.
- Farr, Judith. The Passion of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge, Mass., 1992. An incisive investigation of Dickinson's love poetry.
- Farr, Judith. I Never Came to You in White. Boston, 1996. An epistolary novel, based on fact, about Dickinson's schooldays, written by the Dickinson scholar.
- Ferlazzo, Paul J. Emily Dickinson. Boston, 1976. A compact biographical and critical study.
- Gelpi, Albert. The Tenth Muse: The Psyche of the American Poet. New York, 1991. This collection of Gelpi's criticism includes the essay “The Self as Center,” a highly regarded work of Dickinson criticism.
- Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven, Conn., 1979. Includes a chapter offering a substantial and significant feminist reading of Dickinson.
- Habegger, Alfred. My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson. New York, 2001. A much-praised full-length biography of Dickinson.
- Howe, Susan. My Emily Dickinson. Berkeley, Calif., 1985. The noted contemporary American poet's ruminations on Dickinson.
- Johnson, Thomas H. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. 3 vols. Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1951.
- Johnson, Thomas H. Emily Dickinson: An Interpretive Biography. Cambridge, Mass., 1955. A significant contribution to Dickinsoniana.
- Leyda, Jay. The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson. 2 vols. New Haven, Conn., 1960. Essential reading.
- McQuade, Molly, ed. By Herself: Women Reclaim Poetry. St. Paul, Minn., 2000.
- Sewall, Richard B. Emily Dickinson: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1963. Essays by Thomas H. Johnson, R. P. Blackmur, Louise Bogan et al, that give a sense of how critical reactions to Dickinson have changed over time.
- Sewall, Richard B. The Life of Emily Dickinson. 2 vols. New York, 1974. A milestone in the field of Dickinson studies.
- Ward, Theodora Van Wagenen. The Capsule of the Mind: Chapters in the Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge, Mass., 1961. Useful early work on the poet.