An Overview of the Poetry of Emily Dickinson

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BACKGROUND NOTE

Very little is known about Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886) other than that she had a normal rearing in a Calvinist, New-England background; that at school she formed some extravagant attachments, and, at the age of 23 she cut herself off from the outside world, except for some correspondence with a few friends.  She spent years without putting her foot outside the grounds of her house and yet, like Hopkins, she made a huge contribution to the world of literature after her death.  With her contemporary, Walt Whitman, she helped to usher in a new age of poetry.  No one is sure why she resorted to live a life of seclusion; some say, without much proof, that she had an unhappy love affair; perhaps she did so from choice.  Judgement of her work is often made in an atmosphere of wonder, similar to that of judges of Shakespeare’s work: ‘How could this country boy from Stratford have written such plays?’  However, having studied her work, I’m sure you’ll agree that she had a unique perspective on life, death, love, nature and friendship.  She didn’t use titles for her poems, she didn’t need them because her lines spoke volumes and  still speak volumes to us today.

She was a Calvinist, living in a narrow New England society, but she did not accept the Puritan idea of a frightening, punishing god: she was rather a mixture of Puritan and free-thinker, but she never doubts an after-life, although she is terrified of its nature.  Indeed, the number of her poems about death is remarkable.  She was terrified of its uncertainties.  In spite of the Calvinism in her upbringing she could say, ‘That bare-headed life under grass worries me like a wasp.’  She had, despite her reclusive nature, a morbid passion (obsession?) for writing letters of condolence and was always probing into the morbid details as to how a person died.  She was obsessed by death, ‘goings away’.  At times she seems to be looking at her own death in anticipation.  But all the time she writes as an observer.  But this pre-occupation, with its horrible uncertainties and its doubts about immortality, gave us her best works.

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FOR THE FIRST TIME EVER THERE IS A PERFECT 50/50 GENDER BALANCE IN THE SELECTION OF POETS CHOSEN FOR THE HIGHER LEVEL LEAVING CERT COURSE IN 2016.  THEREFORE, WE NO LONGER HAVE THE TOKEN FEMALE POET, OR EVEN WORSE, THE TOKEN FEMALE IRISH POET!   THIS BRINGS ITS OWN PROBLEMS FOR YOU THE HARD-PRESSED STUDENTS WHO ARE TRYING TO GUESS WHICH FOUR POETS WILL APPEAR ON THE PAPER IN JUNE.  THOSE DOING HIGHER LEVEL MATHS (WHO ISN’T!) WILL TELL YOU THERE’S ONLY ONE SOLUTION TO THIS PROBABILITY PROBLEM – IF THERE ARE EIGHT POETS TO BE STUDIED AND IF FOUR OF THESE WILL APPEAR ON YOUR PAPER IN JUNE THEN, YOU MUST STUDY AT LEAST FIVE POETS WELL TO BE GUARANTEED THAT AT LEAST ONE OF YOUR STUDIED POETS WILL APPEAR IN JUNE – BUT THEN AGAIN MAYBE YOU INTEND  DOING AN ACTUARIAL INTERNSHIP WITH PADDY POWERS LATER ON – OR EVEN WORSE, TAKING A CHANCE AND STUDYING ONLY THREE POETS BECAUSE THAT’S ALL THEY’RE DOING IN THE TUTORIAL DOWN THE ROAD!

WHAT FOLLOWS IS A PERSONAL REVIEW OF SOME THEMES AND ISSUES FEATURED IN THIS SELECTION OF DICKINSON’S POETRY.  YOU SHOULD CONSIDER THESE IDEAS, THEN RE-EXAMINE THE POEMS MENTIONED FOR EVIDENCE TO SUBSTANTIATE OR CONTRADICT THESE INTERPRETATIONS.  IN OTHER WORDS MAKE YOUR OWN OF THESE NOTES, ADD TO THEM OR DELETE FROM THEM AS YOU SEE FIT.

  • “Hope” is the thing with feathers
  • There’s a certain Slant of light
  • I felt a Funeral, in my Brain
  • A Bird came down the Walk
  • I Heard a fly buzz – when I died
  • The Soul has Bandaged moments
  • I could bring You Jewels – had I a mind to
  • A narrow Fellow in the Grass
  • I taste a liquor never brewed
  • After great pain, a formal feeling comes

THE REVIEW RANGES OVER NEARLY ALL THE POEMS IN THE ANTHOLOGY.  THE TWO POEMS WHICH OVERLAP WITH THE ORDINARY LEVEL COURSE ARE: ‘HOPE IS THE THING WITH FEATHERS’, AND ‘A NARROW FELLOW IN THE GRASS’.  PICK YOUR OWN SIX FAVOURITE POEMS FROM THIS SELECTION AND GET TO KNOW THEM VERY WELL.

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THEMES AND TOPICS IN DICKINSON’S POETRY

MINDSCAPES

Just as some poets, such as Heaney and Longley, are drawn to landscapes for their inspiration, ‘mindscapes’ are Dickinson’s forte.  Her most striking pictures are of inside the mind; she is primarily a poet of inner states. Sean Dunne described her poems as, ‘concise fragments from a diary, a logbook of the mind’s voyages, and where Melville (Moby Dick) wrote of the sea and Whitman of the plains, she wrote of a space equally vast: her own mind.’  Consider the following aspects of her psychological explorations.

Range of moods:  She explores the full emotive range, from elation to deep despair.  For example, consider the mood of giggling abandonment, the juvenile rebelliousness in ‘A Liquor Never Brewed’.  Notice the dangerous elation of ‘she dances like a Bomb’ (‘The Soul’); the balanced self-confident optimism of ‘I’ve heard it in the chillest land’ (‘Hope’); and the deep, unrelieved religious despair in ‘Slant of Light’.

Depression:  Dickinson deals frequently with the numbness and the weight of depression.  In ‘After Great Pain’ she explores the numbness, the lack of any emotion, occurring in the aftermath of suffering and pain.  It is ‘an analysis of the absence of feeling in those who have felt too much’ (McCormack).  It explores the ‘Hour of Lead’.

The paralysis of depression is also touched on in ‘The Soul’.  She is very much aware of the social isolation and loneliness of the depressed person:

These, are not brayed of Tongue.

She also deals with extreme mental pressure, with the breaking down of the mind into the emptiness of insanity.  In ‘A Funeral’ she says:

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,

And I dropped down and down –

She explores terror and dread and the obscene horrors the mind is capable of conjuring up, the ‘ghastly Fright’, the ‘Goblin’, the ‘Horror’ of ‘The Soul’.  There is also a hint of guilt in stanza 2.  She has an intimate awareness of the wounded, damaged spirit.

A dramatic rendering of mental states and processes:  We are given an immediate step-by-step view of the development of these traumatic mental states.  It is as if we are watching a psychological drama, but inside the head.  Consider the dramatic stages of ‘A Funeral’ or ‘The Soul’.  The use of first-person narrative, dramatic verbs and staccato phrasing all contribute to the orchestration of this drama.

The nature of consciousness:  At the broadest level, Dickinson was fascinated by the nature of consciousness itself.  Two aspects of it, feeling and knowing are referred to in the exploration of psychic disintegration in ‘A Funeral’.  She dwells in particular on the loss of consciousness in that poem (‘and Finished knowing – then’) and also in ‘A Fly’.  In ‘After Great Pain’ consciousness is seen in terms of sensation and its loss:

First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting

go –

The fragile nature of the mind, the psyche under siege, and the individual as victim are other aspects of this theme hinted at throughout the poems.

NATURE

Admiration for nature:  Dickinson’s attitude to nature is quite complex.  On the one hand she is full of admiration for the agility, the deftness and the beauty of nature’s creatures.  For example, the flight of the bird is awe-inspiring as he ‘unrolled his feathers / and rowed him softer home.’  The poet is moved by his beauty: ‘he stirred his Velvet Head’ (‘A Bird’).  There is an appreciation of the essential wildness and speed of the snake – ‘Whip lash’ – in ‘Narrow Fellow’.  As she says explicitly in that poem, she feels a certain ‘cordiality’ for ‘Nature’s People’.

Yet she is also aware of how different, how completely other, nature is.  We notice this in a small way in ‘A Bird’, when she is shocked by the sudden realisation of his carnivorous nature, his essential bird quality.

He bit an Angleworm in halves

And ate the fellow, raw.

Likewise, the mysteriousness of the ‘narrow Fellow’, his essentially unknowable nature and the ever-present sense of threat he exudes, provokes in her ‘a tighter breathing’.  The sunlight in ‘Slant of Light’ loses its conventional associations and quickly becomes totally alien and oppressive.

So the human is sometimes cut off from nature, as the poet is from the bird:

I offered him a Crumb

And he unrolled his feathers (‘A Bird’).

Nature as metaphor:  Dickinson uses nature motifs as metaphorical vehicles for her moods.  The mood of playful drunkenness in ‘A Liquor Never Brewed’ is portrayed in natural terms: ‘Inebriate of Air – am I’.  And, in a startling departure from the expected, she uses light, stripped of its normal associations and invested with negative ones, as a medium for conveying her despair in ‘Slant of Light’.  She also uses natural phenomena in her definition poems, as one leg of the comparison.  The concrete image from nature in ‘Hope’ is used as a metaphorical correlative for the abstract virtue.

LOVE

Hopeless longing:  This selection of poems, chosen for the Leaving Cert course, for the most part, deal with the negative aspects and outcomes of love.  Lost love, or the absent lover, feature in such poems as ‘The Soul’.  There is a suggestion that love is always out of reach, that it is an illusion, and that we have a great capacity for self-delusion in this area of our lives.

The effect of lost love:  Consider the destructive effects of possible lost love in ‘The Soul’: depression, nightmares, sick erotic fantasies, guilt and so on.  Is she saying that the loss of love unbalances the person?  Unbalanced, too, is the elation as she ‘swings upon the Hours’.

DEATH

Re-enactment of actual death:  Dickinson is fascinated by the deathbed scene, the moment of transition from life into death.  Consider ‘A Fly’ and study the steps in the process; the fading of the light; the alienation or separation of the dying person from the things of life; the negation of order; the growing lack of comprehension of the world.

Death as alienation from the world:  Death is not merely a physical or biological process but an alienation of the consciousness from the world: see ‘A Fly’.

A Calvinist picture:  The Calvinist austerity of death is shown in ‘A Fly’, where the emphasis is on the         awesomeness of God as the king and on the last battle (‘that last Onset’).  It is a comfortless encounter, without a hint of angels or heavenly choirs or any of the trappings of a Catholic cosmology.  Nor is there any view at all of the afterlife here.  This may suggest a failure of belief on her part.

Technique of the surviving consciousness:  Often the speaker describes the process of death as if the consciousness somehow survived it and could relate the event.  This gives us a dual perspective on death: that of the person undergoing it, and a more distant objective view.

Metaphorical death:  Dickinson does not always make a distinction between actual death and spiritual or mental death.  Metaphorically, death is associated with despair, with separation, with depression.  These states of mind are likened to the experience of death, as in ‘the Distance on the look of Death’ (‘Slant of Light’).  Burial is equated with mental breakdown in ‘A Funeral’, and the loss of feeling is described in terms of dying: ‘First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go’ (‘After Great Pain’).  Indeed this ‘letting go’ seems a welcome relief.

Loss:  Dickinson has been described as a poet of loss – lost love, lost sensation, and lost sanity.  Denis Donoghue said of her: ‘in Emily Dickinson generally, experiences are more intensely apprehended just after their loss.’  Which poems would you explore to examine this view of Dickinson?

THE RELIGIOUS ETHOS OF HER POEMS

A view of heaven:  As we saw, Dickinson has not got an orthodox religious view.  Heaven seems a very remote prospect: ‘Hangs so distant Heaven – to a hand below’ (‘Distrustful of the Gentian’).  Or heaven is painted as an unrealistic pantomime where ‘Seraphs swing their snowy Hats / and Saints – to windows run’ (‘A Liquor Never Brewed’).  The afterlife here has been naturalised, but to the point of caricature.  In a display of shocking originality, she manages to ‘send up’ Heaven!

Religious despair:  But she also feels the oppression of religion: ‘the Heft of Cathedral Tunes’ (‘Slant of Light’).  She suffers intensely from the internal scarring (‘Heavenly Hurt’, ‘imperial affliction’).  These she relates in a tone of bitter complaint and condemnation that God does not reveal himself through the world.

The awesome Calvinist God:  The final terrifying encounter with God, the king, at ‘that last Onset’ is one of the most poignant religious moments in this selection of poems.  It points up Dickinson’s view of humankind’s insignificance before the divine, the awesome omnipotence of God, and the formal feudal nature of the relationship between God and humanity.

The human being as victim:  The helplessness of the human being is a motif running through many of her poems.  We are unable to fulfil desire.  Love is out of reach: frustration is the lot of the person (‘Slant of Light’, ‘After Great Pain’, ‘The Soul’).

Religious oppression:  The complete inability of the speaker to affect or influence the light in any way, even to understand it in the orthodox way, leaves one with a feeling of total impotence against heavenly oppression in ‘Slant of Light’: ‘None may teach it – Any’.  It is ‘sent us’, ‘Heavenly Hurt’, ‘it gives us’; all these suggest the powerlessness of the victim.

THE SPEAKER AS VICTIM

A victim of mental frailty:  Examine the breakdown of ‘A funeral’.  Notice the robotic actions, the loss of human sensitivity and of motivation in ‘After Great Pain’, where ‘the Feet, mechanical, go round.’  The fragile mind is all too evident in ‘The Soul’, where the speaker is a mental victim, perhaps also a sexual victim (‘too appalled to stir’ or ‘a Felon led along’).  In ‘Narrow Fellow’ she is captive to her fear of nature, which induces in her ‘a tighter breathing’.

A victim of death:  She is a victim of death, despite her attempts to control it in ‘A Fly’: ‘there interposed a Fly….. between the light – and me’.  Perhaps we can see her as dumb, a prisoner of language, unable to be creative, with ‘shackles on the plumed feet, and staples, in the song’ (‘The Soul’).  Some critics also feel that Dickinson deliberately sought out situations of oppression, that ‘she cultivates the apprehension made possible by pain’ (Denis Donoghue).

Suffering and pain:  Suffering and pain, whether physical or mental, are ever-present in Dickinson’s poetry.  Which poems best illustrate this?

Alienation:  Alienation, from God and nature, are part of the suffering at the heart of Dickinson’s poetry (‘Slant of Light’, ‘Narrow Fellow’)

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SOME TYPICAL MODES OF OPERATION IN DICKINSON’S POETRY

Searching for meaning:  Many of Dickinson’s poems are struggling to find meaning in the experience being investigated, experiences such as the nature of hope; the feeling of despair; the experience of breakdown; what it might be like to die; the essential nature of bird or reptile.  Even the structure of some of the poems makes it clear that what is happening is an investigation, a struggle to name or master the experience.  She uses analogies, similes, etc. in an attempt to understand.  She attempts to define abstracts in terms of concrete things (‘”Hope” is the thing with feathers’ or ‘the Nerves sit ceremonious like Tombs’).  The bird’s flight (‘A Bird’) is explored through the analogy with rowing.  Mental breakdown is examined through the extended metaphor of a funeral (‘A Funeral’).  She is struggling to understand, using unusual and inventive analogies.

Some of the poems are structured as riddles (‘Narrow Fellow’, ‘Jewels’).  Each of these is a circuitous exploration of a phenomenon that is gradually made clearer but is never fully named.  Sometimes things resist being named.  Sometimes, what at first appeared simple takes on an alien nature, and it becomes impossible for the poet to pin down its meaning accurately.  Consider ‘A Fly’ and ‘Slant of Light’.  In the latter, the feeling of loneliness and hurt is brought out by the analogy with wintry sunlight, the coldness of winter afternoons, etc.  However, the feeling is never fully comprehended but understood only in terms of its effects (‘when it comes’ and ‘when it goes’).  Yet she goes on, questioning and prodding at the meaning of things in an attempt to master their significance.

Some critics refer to the rhetorical quality of Dickinson’s poems.  Not only is she debating with herself but she is using devices to argue and convince us of her position.  We might consider the appeal to the reader in ‘Narrow Fellow’: ‘You may have met Him – did you not.’  Helen McNeil speaks of Dickinson’s ‘passionate investigation’ and notices how, in a typical poem, she takes the reader through a sequence of rapidly changing images, exploring definitions that quickly break down, or veers off into unexpected surmises or more rhetorical investigation before ending, frequently, in an open closure.  McNeil interprets that final dash as a graphic indication that the debate has not finished with the poem.

Exploring transient states:  Dickinson is fascinated by moments of change, the in-between condition: the point of breakdown (‘and Finished knowing – then’); the moment of death (‘I could not see to see’); the ‘letting go’ (‘After Great Pain’).   She explores the swiftly changing moods in ‘The Soul’.  Examining despair, she focuses on its arrival and departure (in ‘Slant of Light’).

When it comes, the Landscape listens –

Shadows – hold their breath –

When it goes, ‘tis like the distance

On the look of Death.

There is a certain air of indeterminacy about her own attitude in some of the poems.  She is unable to define her experience in ‘Slant of Light’, humorously vacillating in ‘I could bring You Jewels – had I mind to.’  Despite her ‘transport of cordiality’ for nature, she is terrified by the ‘narrow Fellow’.  John Robinson comments:

She is a poet of passing away (death is one great form of this), of the elusive and the transient, and the fugitive, of what she called ‘a quality of loss.’  Her great brilliance is with this, and with the ominous, the vague, the threatening, the non-arrival, the not-quite-grasped, the not-quite-realised, the missing.

Which of these qualities do you think applies to the Dickinson poems you have read?  Search for the evidence –  and trust your own judgement!

Telling dramatic stories:  For all the elusiveness of her subject matter and the circuitous nature of her poetic method, there is a strong narrative structure in many of Dickinson’s poems.  Most are told in the first person and constructed as reminiscent narratives (‘A Funeral’, ‘A Bird’, ‘A Fly’, and ‘The Soul’).  The poet takes us through a sequence of images, inside or outside the head, exposing us to a series of problems or confused feelings, which mostly lead on to a dramatic if sometimes inconclusive ending.  This is the basic structure of any story.

And they are dramatic.  They deal with dramatic moments of discovery and insight (‘A Bird’, ‘Narrow Fellow’); or they cover a personal crisis (‘Slant of Light’, ‘A Funeral’, ‘After Great Pain’).  Even death provides the ingredients for dramatic conflict, with ‘that last Onset’, ‘the Heaves of Storm’, and the dying person’s struggle for control.  Dickinson’s technique of the ‘divided voice’ provides dramatic conflict in the narrative (i.e. the voice actually experiencing, which is separate from the voice outside the experience, the persona that has survived death or whatever).  This is true in particular of ‘A Funeral’ and ‘A Fly’.

Offering a transformed view of the world:  Dickinson disrupts and transforms our accepted view of things.  ‘She takes the normalising frames of our world and unhinges them, forcing them askew to make space for a joke, for a different take’ (Juhasz, Miller, and Smith).  We can see this in ‘A Bird’, where Dickinson disturbs our ordinary, somewhat clichéd view of nature.  This is not sweet songbird but a wild carnivorous creature:

He bit an Angleworm in halves

And ate the fellow, raw.

Yet at the same time we are expected to think of him as polite and gentlemanly, as he ‘then hopped sidewise to the Wall / To let a beetle pass.’  But it is when she begins to describe his flight that we can no longer hold our orthodox conception of bird or air.

And he unrolled his feathers

And rowed him softer home –

Than oars divide the Ocean,

Too silver for a seam –

Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon

Leap, plashless as they swim.

The elements mingle and the bird rows, leaps, flies, swims.  What do these lines actually mean (‘to row him softer home’, ‘Banks of Noon’)?  Juhasz, Miller and Smith say: ‘You can see it, you can feel it, you can get a shiver of delight every time you read it – but those lines of poetry do not make literal sense.’  So what Dickinson has done is to evoke something outside our experience, create a new reality, a new construct.  As readers we believe in it and enjoy it and in a certain sense we understand it, but it is not real.  Yet we are willing to inhabit her transformed world.

Frequently she manages to disorient the reader, in little ways, through her word usage and stylistic devices.  She confounds our normal expectations, for example, by substituting an abstract word for the expected concrete one.  In ‘A Funeral’ she uses ‘Space’ instead of the expected ‘bells’ in the line ‘then Space – began to toll.’  But it carries the sense of emptiness brought on by depression and breakdown.  This sensation is likened to the tolling of the death bell, and it resounds through the speaker’s entire being.  So, instead of the profound silence one might expect of emptiness we find a vibrating universe of sound in which the speaker is equally isolated and, if anything, more oppressed.

And all the Heavens were a Bell,

And Being, but an Ear.

Except that here, instead of the expected unfeeling state of numbness usually associated with depression, it is a state of hypersensitivity to the entire universe that isolates the speaker.  And this sense of isolation from humanity is conveyed in that extraordinary image of the poet herself and personified silence as a new race of beings in the galaxy.

And I, and Silence, some strange Race

Wrecked, solitary, here.

Once again we have entered Dickinson’s new cosmic construct, unreal but rendered so convincingly that we have no difficulty inhabiting her transformed world.  Look for other examples of these radical transformations in her poetry.

In tones of seriousness and humour:  The serious tones of Dickinson’s poetry are patently obvious: the strong, confident tone of ‘Hope’; the bleak and painful despair of ‘Slant of Light’; the sense of oppression in ‘A Funeral’ and ‘After Great Pain’, and the sheer terror of ‘The Soul’.  Because of the peculiarities of her writing style – the punctuation, the truncated episodic imagery, the pared-down phrases, etc. – we are always conscious that these poems are crafted, and there is also an awareness of control and of some distance between the speaker and the feelings portrayed.  So the tone is mostly one of controlled emotion, however powerful and painful.

There is a good deal of humour too, some of it bleak, some of it sheer slapstick.  There is the dark, ironic humour of the fly – a mere house pest interrupting, and completely ruining, the solemnity and altering the focus of this most significant ritual.  There is the grotesque humour in the figures of ‘ghastly Fright’ and the goblin in ‘The Soul’.  Perhaps it is more gothic horror than grotesque humour.  But as well as the bleak humour we find a strain of literary humour in ‘A Liquor Never Brewed’, which is a parody of Emerson’s ‘Bacchus’.  The fun in that poem is driven by sheer exuberance and can be seen in the extremity of metaphor she employs:

When ‘Landlords’ turn the drunken Bee

Out of the foxglove’s door.

There is a sense of comic rebelliousness in her caricature of Heaven, where ‘Seraphs swing their snowy Hats,’ etc.  And there is a certain humour to be found in all her quirky, peculiar observations, such as the somewhat contradictory characteristics of the bird, as discussed earlier.

Conciseness:  Sparseness and economy of word and image are key features of Dickinson’s poetry.  For example, consider the preciseness of her descriptions in ‘A Bird’.  There is hardly a superfluous word, until she attempts to understand the nature of flight at the end.  Consider also the precise details of the deathbed scene in ‘A Fly’.

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SOME TECHNICAL ELEMENTS OF DICKINSON’S STYLE

Punctuation:  The most idiosyncratic feature of Dickinson’s punctuation is undoubtedly her use of the dash.  At first this was viewed as sloppy punctuation, indiscriminate, and just another example of her unpreparedness for publication.  Then it was argued that the dashes had a rhetorical rather than a grammatical function.  Because some of them were sloping in the original manuscripts it was felt that they might be hints for the pitch of a reading voice.

Nowadays readers accept them as a conscious feature of her punctuation, and they are seen as fulfilling a function somewhere between a full stop and a comma.  It can be argued that a dash represents a long pause, linking what has gone before and what is to follow.  It facilitates continuity and gives the impression of immediacy, i.e. that these ideas, fears, terrors or images are only just being processed by the mind.  Reader and speaker are just now making these explorations and discoveries.

The dash then fulfils a number of functions:

  • The dash at the end of a poem might suggest continuity, that the debate is not finished, or that the consciousness somehow survives. We see this latter suggestion in ‘A Funeral’ (‘and Finished knowing – then – ‘).  There is a similar end to ‘A Fly’.
  • The dash affects the pace and rhythm of the line. It is used for very dramatic pausing, deliberately slowing the pace to correlate with the idea, as in ‘First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go – ‘ (‘After Great Pain’), though a combination of commas and consonants can slow a line equally well, as in ‘Wrecked, solitary, here – (‘A Funeral’).
  • Strategically placed dashes increase the sense of drama in ‘The Soul’ (‘Look at her – Salute her – with long fingers – caress her’). The tension of the awful moment is prolonged.
  • The dash is used to isolate and emphasise when the fly interposes ‘Between the light – and me – and then the Windows failed.’ The speaker (‘and me’) is being graphically isolated and separated out for death.
  • Some suggest that the dash is used by the poet to emphasise her sparse, cryptic style. All superfluous words have been edited out and we are left with the compressed, condensed, distilled essence that is Dickinson’s poetry.  So, altogether the dash functions as a very versatile form of punctuation.

Capitalisation:  Dickinson’s capitalisation has also been a source of much discussion and questioning.  Present-day scholars feel that she uses capitals for emphasis, drawing attention to words that carry the weight of the central imagery and meaning and so provide a line of emphasis through the poem.  So we can view the capitalised words as stepping-stones through the meaning.

David Porter illustrates how this works by examining the first stanza of ‘Slant of Light’:

There’s a certain Slant of light,

Winter Afternoons –

That oppresses, like the Heft

Of Cathedral Tunes –

‘Slant of Light’, Winter Afternoons’, ‘Heft’, and ‘Cathedral Tunes’ carry the ideas in this stanza.  The argument is then refined by the word ‘certain’, which denotes something special about the light, while ‘oppresses’ makes the emotional reaction specific.  Porter also suggests that this visual distinction of words by capital letters indicates that the meanings of these words have been enriched – that ‘Winter Afternoons’ denotes not only the scene but a range of sensuous suggestions (coldness, inactivity, whiteness) and also emotional responses (apprehension, meditation, isolation).  We know that Dickinson relied greatly on the connotations of individual words and images; perhaps capitalisation was her way of signposting depth and richness, which readers must mine for themselves.

Diction: We also need to pay close attention to Dickinson’s use of words:

  • She uses words in a fairly straightforward way, without allusions or references, for the most part.
  • Most noticeable is her tendency to mix the simple and the abstract: for example, in ‘A Funeral’ we get ‘Funeral’, ‘Mourners’, ‘Service’, ‘Drum’, ‘Box’, ‘Bell’, and then ‘Being’.
  • Probably the most important feature of her use of words is her reliance on the connotations, associations or suggestions of individual words to create layers of meaning. We have already seen the example of ‘space’ and ‘toll’; another example worth considering is ‘Seal’ in ‘Slant of Light’.  A seal is a sign usually of authenticity or authority (Remember Trevelyan’s seal as it ‘blooded the deal table’ in Eavan Boland’s ‘Famine Road’).  Ironically, the divine seal here is not uplifting (‘the Seal Despair’). It might also suggest a sealing off, that this state is unalterable, etc.  Consider also a ‘Quartz contentment’.  This carries associations of coldness, the weight of despair, the immobility of rock, the glittering brittleness of quartz, etc.
  • Some critics feel that the capitalisation encourages the reader to scrutinise these words for layers of meaning.
  • She sometimes uses groups of words from a particular professional usage to create an effect. For example, the legal words in ‘A Fly’: ‘willed’, ‘Keepsakes’, ‘Signed’, ‘portion’, ‘Assignable’.  They suggest ‘last will and testament’ and accord precisely with the controlled, ordered atmosphere she wishes at her deathbed.  She uses technical language to mechanise life in ‘After Great Pain’: ‘mechanical’, ‘go round’, ‘a Wooden way’.
  • One of the most fascinating and original but also exasperating facets of her diction is the development of a personal vocabulary. Take, for example, her use of the word ‘Noon’, whose meaning varies throughout the poems.  At times ‘noon’ and ‘night’ are interchangeable for ‘life’ and ‘death’; but ‘noon’ has been used by her to suggest both immortal life and the timelessness of death.  In the poems on our course ‘noon’ is used to suggest playfulness, happy, excited activity, in the phrase ‘Banks of Noon’ (‘A Bird’); but it is also used to suggest passionate love and sensual fulfilment in ‘The Soul’, as the escaped Bee is free to

Touch Liberty – then know no more,

But Noon, and Paradise.

There is a similar ambiguity and inconstancy in her use of colour.  ‘Red’ mostly suggests life and blood.  ‘Green’ is the colour of the grave.  But there is ambivalence in her usage of ‘blue’.  It is used for the beloved and is the colour of the sky (‘inns of Molten Blue’), but it is also used negatively, in the context of the fly, with the stumbling and failing of mind and consciousness for a theme.

Imagery:  

  • Emily Dickinson’s poetry is primarily visual. Image follows image in a technique that might be seen as cinematic nowadays.  Consider the sequence of images in ‘A Bird’, ‘A Fly’, ‘The Soul’, and ‘Narrow Fellow’.
  • Dickinson thinks in images. They are not ornamental: their function is to carry the thought of the poem.  Examine the imagery in ‘A Funeral’; the treading mourners and the service ‘like a drum’ carry the notion of being weighed down, oppressed, deprived of the ability to act, as does the image of ‘Boots of Lead’.  The ‘Box’, or coffin, suggests the confinement, the claustrophobia of the condition and also suggests that depression is a sort of mental death.  The imagery of the fourth stanza conveys the isolation of the speaker in cosmic terms – a solitary soul adrift in the universe!  Again a funeral image (uniting world of mind, concrete and abstract) provides the impetus for the mind’s final plunge into chaos: ‘a Plank in Reason, broke, and I dropped down, and down.’
  • She uses similes and metaphors in an attempt to understand by analogy: ‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain’, ‘Hope is the thing with feathers.’
  • Many of her most startling metaphors and images consist of abstract and concrete elements yoked together, such as ‘a Plank in Reason’, ‘Zero at the Bone’, ‘Hope is the thing with feathers’, etc.
  • Many of her images are pared down to a mere phrase, to their barest essentials. This economy of imagery leads to a certain cryptic quality and often lends itself to ambiguity.  But this ambiguity was a conscious feature of her style.  The reader is expected to work at these cryptic images, such as ‘Zero at the Bone’, ‘Being but an Ear’, ‘Banks of Noon’, etc.
  • We find a great range and variety of imagery in Dickinson, from the natural (‘so bubble brooks in deserts’) to the legal (‘the Nerves sit ceremonious’, ‘the stiff Heart questions’), the military (‘that last Onset’), the everyday (tankards, boxes, robbers), and the macabre (‘ghostly Fright’). Much of her imagery comes from the natural world.  Some comes from her own studies: references to geology, geography, and biology.  And some of it is obtained in her reading: the fly from The House of the Seven Gables, and jewels and spices and colours from her reading on exploration and scientific discoveries.

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Sample Answer:  EMILY DICKINSON –  A UNIQUE AND UNCONVENTIONAL POET.

 Every true poet is unique and Dickinson’s uniqueness is visually and verbally striking.  She is the most instantly recognisable of poets.  Her idiosyncratic genius is clearly seen in her imaginatively intense short poems; the eccentric, unconventional punctuation; the capitalisations; the irregularities; the cryptic, puzzling images; the dash; the rhymes and half-rhymes; the vigorous rhythm.  Many of the lines in a Dickinson poem reach an abrupt and definite end; when she uses the run-on line, as she does in the closing stanzas of ‘A Narrow Fellow in the Grass’, she does so effectively.  It is said that, in Emily Dickinson’s poetry, ‘language remains itself and becomes at the same time brand new.’

The ten poems on our course capture Dickinson’s different moods, her many extreme psychological states. There are moments of sudden intoxication (‘I taste a liquor never brewed’), hopefulness, pain and suffering (‘The Soul has Bandaged Moments’). There is also a detailed exploration of the meaning of death (‘I heard a fly buzz-‘), a delight in the world of nature (‘A Bird came down the Walk’) and its danger and mystery (‘A Narrow Fellow in the Grass’) etc., etc.

Though she lived in Amherst for most of her life and lived in her father’s house all of that time, it is characteristic that she only mentions Amherst by name in two of her 1,775 poems.  Other personal details are never explicitly revealed in her poetry.  It is not always possible to say if the poet is addressing another or if she is speaking to herself.  In Adrienne Rich’s words, Dickinson writes of ‘the intense inner event, the personal and psychological.  Another critic has expressed this same idea by referring to Dickinson as ‘a poet of the interior.’

Many of her themes are abstract – she frequently writes about life, time, death and eternity – but her abstractions are often rendered vividly and imaginatively in her work.  Her poem, ‘I felt a Funeral …’ is typical of Dickinson in its description of an interior state in such distinct, memorable, physical terms.  Though short, the poems are intense.  Compression is a trademark of hers.   She is also a brilliant observer of nature.  She watches a bird eat a raw worm or she sees the snake, ‘a spotted shaft’, and feels ‘a tighter breathing’.  On winter afternoons she notices ‘a certain Slant of light’ and finds it oppressive.

There is in her poetry an intense awareness of the private, inner self. ‘Vesuvius at Home’ was how she once described her domestic world, suggesting as it does an image of great emotional force and power.  The poems often strike the reader as self-contained, enigmatic, elusive.  Her tone is often confident, strong-willed and knowledgeable.  She wrote for herself principally; there was no audience for her work during her lifetime.  In a letter, she once wrote, ‘Pardon my sanity in a world insane.’

Dickinson’s poems on mortality (‘I felt a Funeral … and ‘I heard a Fly buzz’) sometimes lead to uncertainty or despair (‘and hit a World, at every plunge, / And Finished knowing – then – ‘ or ‘And then the Windows failed – and then / I could not see to see – ‘).  The chilling mood is in stark contrast to a playful, delightful or happily confident note that is found in such poems as ‘I taste a liquor never brewed’.

Dickinson believed that ‘to shut our eyes is travel’.  For her the inner world of mind and imagination and heart were sufficient and these she explored brilliantly and honestly.  ‘My business,’ she said in a letter, ‘is circumference.’  By circumference, one of her favourite words, she meant the ‘comprehension of essentials’.

Of all the poets in English, Emily Dickinson is one of the most strikingly original and eccentric.  This is immediately seen in the unconventional capitalisations and her use of the dash.  Although capitalisation was used earlier in English poetry, Dickinson gave the capital letter a new energy.  Words which might have been considered commonplace (hats, sea, drum, walls, chill, bandaged, comb, and so on) were given fresh attention and a more important role once capitalised.

Even though she often uses a conventional metre in her poems, those poems often sound anything but conventional because of her revolutionary use of the dash.  Even if the poems were listened to and not read from the page, the dashes are felt and heard, and we know already from Hopkins that hearing the poem is every bit as important as seeing it on the page.

Dickinson ‘found ecstasy in living’: the seasons, birdsong, sunset, became the subject matter for her poems.  However, as we have seen, the darker aspects of life were of interest to her also.  Though she wrote in a small way, the big themes are all there: Life, Time, Nature and Eternity.  And we have seen and enjoyed (?) her fresh and original use of language.  She described herself as ‘small, like the Wren, and my hair is bold, like the chestnut burr – and my eyes, like the Sherry in the Glass, that the Guest leaves.’  Sean Dunne described her poems as ‘concise fragments from a diary, a logbook of the mind’s voyages, and where Melville (Moby Dick) wrote of the sea and Whitman of the plains, she wrote of a space equally vast: her own mind.’  She believed that self-exploration is the only worthy kind of travel and Sewell in his biography of Dickinson concludes with the reminder: ‘The whole truth about Emily Dickinson will elude us always; she seems wilfully to have seen to that … There is a feeling of incompleteness, of areas still to be explored, of mysteries that still beckon.’

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