Emily Dickinson is one of my favorite poets. Over the last week I have had what is termed a “summer cold” and have spent a lot of time reading new works and re-reading my favorites. Like Dickinson, I write mainly at a small table placed near the window of my bedroom so that I can look out and see my garden. Unlike Emily, I have a laptop computer.
I hope that you enjoy my musings on her poetry.
Emily Dickinson wrote many of her poems seated at a small, one drawer table placed near the window in the corner bedroom of her family’s Amherst home. This young, single woman did not travel very much; indeed, due to a progressive medical condition that nearly destroyed her eyesight, she did not leave her family’s household grounds and often refused to see visitors. Yet Dickinson wrote ground-breaking poetry about diverse subjects, including volcanoes, deserts, physical passion, suicide, the afterlife, wild beasts, power, rape, madness, eternity, separation, and the grave. Dickinson’s poems heralded a new way of thinking about verse—a new poetic form.
Although Dickinson wrote nearly 2,000 poems in a span of a few years, she recognized her poetic style to be unorthodox for her time, which is why she did not seek to have many published.
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—.
These eight lines contain the fundamental principle of Emily Dickinson’s poetry—perhaps of all great lyric poetry. She wanted her writing, her poems, to express great truths, but realized that not everyone who read them would want, or even be able, to see the truth expressed in the verses. A blunt declaration would cause people to turn away or to argue—to turn a blind eye to what the poet is saying. To tell the truth “slant” allows the author to ease it into the consciousness of the readers.
Many of these “truths” that Dickinson expressed did concern the idea that women could (and should) be writers. In many of her poems on writing, she agonizes over the choice she felt she had to make—between being an artist and being a woman in the Victorian Era:
I would not paint—a picture—
I’d rather be the One
Its bright impossibility
And wonder how the fingers feel
Evokes so sweet a Torment—
I would not talk, like Cornets—
I’d rather be the One
Raised softly to the Ceilings—
And out, and easy on—
Through Villages of Ether—
Myself endued Balloon
By but a lip of Metal—
The pier to my Pontoon—
Nor would I be a Poet—
It’s finer—own the Ear—
The License to revere,
A privilege so awful
What would the Dower be,
Had I the Art to stun myself
With Bolts of Melody!
As Adrianne Rich (1979) explains, this poem is about choosing an orthodox Victorian Era “feminine” role; the woman is receptive rather than creative; she views rather than paints; she listens rather than makes her own music; she is acted upon rather than being active. Yet even while seemingly choosing this role she wonders “how the fingers feel / Whose rare—celestial—sir / Evokes so sweet a Torment—.“ At the same time, the typical Victorian Era “feminine” role is praised in a curious sequence of adjectives: “Enamored—impotent—content—.” Rich (1979, p. 108) explains: “Moreover, the images of the poem rise to a climax (like the Balloon she evokes) but the climax happens as she describes, not what it is to be the receiver, but the maker and the receiver at once.” The lines “A privilege so awful / What would the Dower be, / Had I the Art to stun myself / With Bolts of Melody!” reveal Dickinson’s dual nature: She wants to remain a writer and still fulfill the role that her society has determined for her as a woman. She wants to write poetry that she can also be “stunned” by as a reader.
Much of Dickinson’s life was fueled by the pursuit of writing. Imagine what it was like to write poetry you knew was in a class by itself—to pour the energy into the creation and physical task of writing, to copy out the poems, and then to place them in a trunk or mail out a few to your friends and relatives in confidence—to create a body of work that you realize will never be recognized or appreciated in your own lifetime:
This is my letter to the world,
That never wrote to me,–
The simple news that Nature told,
With tender majesty.
Her message is committed
To hands I cannot see;
For love of her, sweet countrymen,
Judge tenderly of me!
Most of Dickinson’s friends, including T.W. Higginson, found her poems to be puzzling and unorthodox. Literally, she had taken a giant step forward in style and technique, so much so that her poems are still considered “innovative” in the modern era. Many of the topics would also not have been considered appropriate for a female author in Victorian times. “It is an extremely painful and dangerous way to live—split between a publicly acceptable persona and a part of yourself that you perceive as the essential, the creative and powerful self, yet also as possibly unacceptable, perhaps even monstrous” (Rich, 1979, p. 115). It was this type of negative reception from her friends and certain family members that, in all probability, made her want to wait until after her death to publish her work. “The poems became Dickinson’s “letter to the world, / That never wrote to [her]” by her own choice.
Rich, A. (1979). Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson. In S. M. Gilbert & S. Gubar (Eds.) Shakespeare’s sisters: Feminist essays on Women Poets. (pp. 99-121). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.