Dickinson’s poem “Publication –is the Auction” deals with the speaker’s disdain toward the publication of an author’s works. The speaker seems to regard the act of publishing work as an act of selling oneself short, compromising one’s purity and integrity. In the first line, the speaker conveys the impersonality of publication by comparing it to an auction, something detached and businesslike. The speaker goes on to say that the only acceptable reason for publishing work is if the author is struggling with poverty and needs to publish to survive. Next, the speaker brings in personal experience by stating she would rather turn white because of staying in her attic and, presumably, writing poetry which will never be seen. The speaker also incorporates the concept of a higher being as the creator of thoughts. This higher being then passes thoughts on to the writer, or “Him Who bear / It’s Corporeal Illustration” (10-11). The image of a poem being something that can be bought and sold as a commodity continues throughout the poem.Many of the words in this poem have more than one meaning and function in multiple ways. The word “publish” is used to mean both commercialization (i.e. publishing books for sale) and releasing something to the public non-commercially. The definition of the word “auction” is also interesting, because it mentions that the object being bid on will go to the highest bidder. This definition implies that not only is the object only worth monetary value, but that the monetary value is almost arbitrary. To say that publication is like an auction is to say that the reason for publishing is not even to share something, but simply to make the most profit possible. Many of the other words, such as “parcel,” “merchant,” and “price,” create a very businesslike and cold image. The poem gives no indication that the speaker is anyone but Dickinson herself. The context of the poem is simply a single speaker expressing feelings on writing and publication. Her attitude and the poem’s tone are passionate in an assertive yet non-threatening way. She is angry toward the entire concept of publication and what it does to a person. The diction is a few steps above casual speech, but it is not complicated. The ease of the diction allows the reader to better understand the meaning of the poem. It is also an example of the poem’s message; the diction, just as the author, does not put on airs. The open form of this poem made scansion more difficult. There is a clear rhyme scheme and some classic poetic devices are present, but these aspects are not altogether grouped in familiar ways. The first stanza is composed of two pairs of rhyming couplets, in which the first rhyming couplet is two lines ending in near rhyme with the words “auction” and “man,” thus creating an “a-a-b-b” rhyme pattern. The remaining three stanzas are quatrains with various rhyme schemes and rhythms. The second stanza has a much more obvious rhyme scheme of “c-d-c-d.” In the third stanza, the rhyme scheme is broken up, with a pattern of “e-f-g-e.” This variation in common rhyme scheme is jarring to the reader. The last stanza has the same rhyme scheme as the second, with a pattern of “h-i-h-i.”The prevailing foot of the poem is trochaic, with the actual meter varying from line to line. The first line of each stanza is clearly trochaic tetrameter. The fact that the beginning of each stanza is clearly identifiable provides a stable anchor for the rest of the lines. Some of the lines have an extra beat hanging at the end, which almost allows the reader to carry over the beat into the next line, helping the enjambment. The caesurae and the enjambment that almost always follow are the poet’s tools to control the discourse time, forcing the reader to pause at certain words and think of their meaning not only in the current line, but also the lines before and after the word. There are medial and terminal caesurae in virtually every line, which force the reader to stop and concentrate on certain words or phrases. For example, in the first line of the second stanza, “Possibly –but We –would rather” (5), there are two caesurae. The first caesura disconnects the word “possibly” from the rest of the line. One of the reasons for this, aside from distinguishing the word as being important, is that the actual word “possibly” could link back to the last two lines in the previous stanza in which the speaker says that “Poverty –be justifying / For so foul a thing” (3-4). The addition of the word “possibly” indicates the speaker’s apprehension to even admit there is a good reason for publishing one’s work. The third stanza is almost all enjambment, even carrying its thoughts over to the next stanza with the lines “It’s Corporeal Illustration –sell / The Royal Air / In the Parcel –Be the Merchant” (11-13). This enjambment is paired with syntactic doubling, because a line could easily refer to the line before it or after it.The figurative language in this poem is the most interesting and refreshing characteristic of it. The entire poem is an extended metaphor in which publication is the tenor, and an auction is the vehicle with which the tenor is described. The concept of publication seems cold, impersonal, and very money-driven to the speaker. An auction is exactly that –an object is sold to the highest bidder as fast as possible with the main concern being how much profit the seller will make. The comparison of publication to an auction reveals information about the writer’s feelings toward the subject.Within the extended metaphor of the auction lie more metaphors and imagery. In the second stanza the speaker mentions “white” and “snow.” She says she would rather become pale and die in her attic than sell her “snow.” She says she would rather go pale and go “unto the White Creator” (7), which is presumably a metonymy for God. If the “White Creator” is God and “Thought belong to Him who gave it / Then –to Him Who bear / It’s Corporeal Illustration” (9-11)), then the “white” and “snow” are the poet’s thoughts and poetry itself. This entire reasoning creates an entirely different metaphor.Dickinson’s “Publication –is the Auction” is a speaker’s protest against publication because of what it does to a person’s soul and their thoughts. Publication degrades the human spirit by putting an arbitrary price on it. The speaker feels so strongly about this that she implies she would rather essentially sit in her attic and die than publish her work and allow her mind, soul, and integrity to be compromised.
In Emily Dickinson’s 419th untitled poem, more commonly known by its first line, “We grow accustomed to the Dark-“, the speaker describes two distinct situations in which people must gradually adjust to “darkness”. The first portion is fairly lucid, using concrete images to portray a simple nighttime farewell that describes the time it takes for eyes to adapt to a lack of light; however, though the final stanzas comment on the same theme of reorienting oneself amid obscurity, this last portion is ensconced in symbolism and conspicuous abstraction. Only by examining the similarities and differences of both can a clear message be extrapolated from the poem. Utilizing the ease and palpability of the poem’s first two stanzas as a foundation, Dickinson makes the metaphorical analogy that people need time and courage to adjust not only to the physical darkness of night, but to the emotional darkness of the mind, as well. The poem begins with two stanzas containing concrete, perceptible imagery that establish the mood, theme, and basis for the message that the poem will build upon. It begins with broad strokes (“We grow accustomed to the Dark -/ When light is put away”) and continues to describe how we “fit our Vision to the Dark -” as the “newness of the night -” requires. In these few commonplace observations, the speaker immediately establishes a communal point of view, thus implying a collective importance to the act of adjusting to the darkness. By using the word “dark”, the speaker foregoes more sweet and somber synonyms such as “night” in favor of a word that has massively negative connotations, ranging all the way from sadness to evil and even death. The capitalization intensifies the power and absoluteness of the word – an effect that is compounded by the phrase “light is put away.” The verb phrasing of “put” implies that light, and therefore darkness, is beyond our control. “Dark” also suggests feelings of isolation (a lack of light correspondingly implies a lack of people), as well as dismal skepticism (we cannot be sure of much without our sight). Both of these emotional connotations are amplified by the specific scene Dickinson creates. “The Neighbor holds the Lamp/ To witness her Goodbye – / A Moment -” and unadjusted to the dark, “We uncertain step.” Like the darkness, the goodbye forces the literal isolation of “We” and makes that same collective markedly timorous. The trepidation and gloom created by the diction and imagery of the first two stanzas is reinforced by their structure. The stanzas have no rhyme scheme at all; such a form would detract from the anxiety and unrest found in other parts of the poem. The repeated use of dashes in the poem at line breaks and in the middle of phrases creates a frantic slant to the narration (such as in the line, “A Moment -/ We uncertain step”). When read out loud the dashes create an intriguing choice for readers: to speed up in breathy haste and ascribe a frenetic nature to the speaker’s uncertainty, or to leave a disquieting pause and contribute to the tremulous mood and overall dismal feel of the poem. The dashes also create halting moments in an otherwise steady rhythm and meter of alternating iambic tetrameter and trimeter. Yet this raises an interesting question: why utilize such a strict meter when it betrays other facets of the poem? The answer is two-fold. The speaker says we “meet the Road – erect -“, implying that there is a relatively well-worn path out of physical darkness and courage to call upon for the journey. Following this, the steady march of the iambs could be used to mimic the simple steps one can take to leave physical darkness; just put one foot in front of the other. But there is also a simpler option: it was made to be broken. In the final two stanzas of the poem, the structure undergoes several key changes indicating not only that different “larger – Darknesses” are being discussed, but also helping to elucidate key facets of these new nights. Generally, the form begins to interact with poetry on a sensual level. When the speaker describes how some attempt to leave the darkness “And sometimes hit a tree / Directly in the Forehead”, meter and rhythm mimic these tactile interactions. There are multiple stresses on top of each other in “sometimes hit” so that the sound upon pronunciation is noticeably harsher – as if an actual hit has taken place. The symmetry of “Directly in the Forehead” actually looks like two objects about to knock into each other and the difference in meter between its iambs and the previous lines’ flawed stresses – as well as having five short syllables preceding two long ones – makes the line positively arresting. Both of these formal points emulate the actual content of the line, creating a heightened connection between poem and reader which indicates that these darknesses are of a much more sensual, personal nature. Rhyme is also used to symbolize aspects of the adjustment to these new darknesses. The second line in stanza four, ending in “Tree”, actually synchs in rhyme to the fourth line, “But as they learn to see -“. The second and third lines of the last stanza also rhyme: “something in the sight / Adjusts itself to Midnight -“. These rhymes indicate the closeness to realizing true sight; in the first example they are learning to see and are one line apart; in the second example adjustment is achieved and the lines create a couplet. Yet the role of the last line in this new pattern creates an added dimension to the reading: “And Life steps almost straight.” If life is stepping straight, one would expect a rhyme to go with this happy ending – yet there is none. Instead, despite the suffix “ight” being repeated in the last line as in the previous two, there is no rhyme. It is strikingly close to, but not quite, a rhyme – just as life can “almost” step out of the darkness. The form of the final stanzas indicates that the new darknesses within the poem are of a more intimate and tragic nature, but to ascertain their exact composition as mental darknesses one must unpack the abstract images Dickinson uses to describe them. For example, the concept of plural “darknesses” that are “larger” – more painful, more gloomy – than the “Dark” described previously is an invaluable characterization. The darknesses are also characterized as “Evenings of the Brain”, and when “The Bravest” try to escape them, they end up getting hit in the “Forehead”. The metaphor to “Evenings” as well as the plurality of the darkness suggests that these darknesses recur regularly, and the use of two cerebral nouns, “brain” and “forehead”, indicates that they occur in the mind. This reading of darknesses is supported by the following lines: “When not a Moon disclose a sign – / Or Star – come out – within -“. The moon and star, possible solutions to physical darkness, are converted to an indefinite nature and used as metaphorical solutions to the many evenings of mental darkness. The fact that the potential solutions could be internal in nature also speaks to the mental aspect of the darknesses. Dickinson’s poem utilizes an amalgam of form, rhythm, and imagery which are all based on the varied connotations of the word “dark”; however, marked distinctions within those areas ultimately reveal a metaphorical analogy between a literal, physical darkness and metaphorical, mental darknesses that are ultimately more personal and more tragic. The exact composition of that cerebral gloom remains ambiguous, forcing readers to make a personal connection to their own problems – those recurring evenings of mental darkness that are impossible to step away from – while at the same time encouraging them to recognize the collective importance of working against such events.
With a few straight lines, perhaps a dot, and an occasional squiggle, Word is born. Despite its humble beginnings, Word holds the possibility of greatness: the ability to cause war, to make peace, to express love, to describe fear. While many others are easily accessible, wrangling Perfect Word requires patience, scrupulousness, and wit. In spite of having properly hogtied it, the actual “perfection” of Word relies on its relationship with Other Words. Emily Dickinson possesses an uncanny ability to wrestle down the perfect diction, thus creating worlds of hope, despair, faith, and endless questioning. Through her use of the word Goblin, its role, its impact on the understanding of the poem, and its relationship to other imagery, Dickinson displays her linguistic prowess and the intricacies of language. Each of the six poems (356, 360, 388, 425 619, and 757) that include goblin imagery does so in an entirely distinct manner; nevertheless, as the goblin’s part of speech is more substantial, so too does its degree of evil and its role in the poem intensify. Via subtle manipulations of language, Dickinson deepends her poetry and opens it to many layers of interpretation and connectedness. #757 I think to Live – may be a Bliss To better understand Dickinson’s use of the word goblin poem in #757, its context must first be evaluated. Because of a desire for “bliss” and the “widen[ing]” of one’s heart, the tone of this poem reflects a wishful air-a dream of achieving a more perfect existence than the life she lives and knows (lines 1, 6). This poem articulates the speaker’s desire to reach paradise wherein all fear of corruption of beauty, “apprehension” for her destiny, or moral and spiritual “bankruptcy” is dispelled by a vision of a “steadfast South” for the soul (13-16, 19). So vivid and longed for is this dream that she favors this “fictitious” world to her reality (21, 23). Furthermore, not only does she long for the arrival of paradise, but she also wishes to disregard this life as a “mistake” corrected by God, implying that her life truly begins upon entering heaven (27-28). Paradise, with its splendor and bounty, serves as a striking contrast to earthly corruption and uncertainty in faith. Having established its context, goblin appears in a catalog of negativity and corruption on earth that is missing in heaven. While used as a noun, the negation of that noun renders this example of the word the least potent of the six examples. Because goblin does not exist in heaven, it has little effect on the meaning of the poem (aside from contrasting the perfection of heaven with the corruption of earth). Due to the part of speech ascribed to goblin, neither the word nor its implications apply/affect the interpretation in a negative sense. Therefore, the tone of this poem remains wishful because the speaker merely acknowledges the fact that negatives exist in reality but refuses to let them impact her dream state. The role of the goblin here is that it acts as a corrupter of flower blooms-a destroyer of passive beauty. Associated with a mere insect in nature, the “goblin” represents a pest or annoyance typically ignored and deemed a fact of life. In light of this interpretation, Dickinson’s subtle use of a word with evil connotations reveals her grasp and control over language and ability to bend it to her needs.#356 If you were coming in the FallThe initial tone of this poem appears longing and wishful due to the speaker’s willingness to “brush the Summer by” to get to fall, stow the wound-up balls of month in separate drawers to get past the year, casually count down the “centuries…on [her] hand” if her lover (or God) be only a century away, or carelessly toss aside her lifetime if in the afterlife they would be united (2, 6-7, 10, 14). Time acts as the faceless enemy who stands between her and her lover. Although this poem speaks of love and a longing to be reunited with a lover, there remains an element of pain. Because she does not know how long they will be kept apart by an exterior force, she suffers emotionally-as if her heart awaits a sense of comfort afforded by a defined time frame of separation. The uncertainty is torturous, but only torturous because she must wait for love. Even the most negative aspect of this poem remains positive.Within this context, goblin acts as an adjective, modifying bee. In this respect, the goblin exists but only in the form of another being, thereby existing in the transferal of goblin-like qualities. Because this sense of evil exists in a diluted form (as the bee possesses other qualities in addition to its goblin-status), it has a subtle impact on the tone of the poem, adding impatience to longing and wishful. By proclaiming that the uncertainty of the length of time that they will be apart “goads [her], like the Goblin Bee-/that will not state-it’s sting,” the speaker ascribes goblinhood as a state of mischievousness and taunt (18-20). This goblin bee momentarily withholds its sting because the unknown is far worse than the known. Because the speaker is uncertain of both the sting and the reunion, she remains anxious. The use of goblin as a natural image also seems to imply that this is an unfortunate, but expected, life event. This taunting yields the change in tone: not only is she eager to be reunited with her lover but she also appears annoyed by time. Dickinson’s delicate use of “goblin” as an adjective enables the word to act as an element of evil without corrupting the entire amorous sentiment behind the poem.#619 Did you ever stand in a Cavern’s Mouth- The tone of this poem, unlike the previous two, is dark, foreboding, and haunting, as revealed by the images of the darkness within a cavern, horror, loneliness, and death (1, 5, 8, 12). Fear permeates this poem-fear of no afterlife, of death, of loneliness, of the unknown, of desperation, of living after such experiences. The speaker describes these fears first through the metaphor of the cavern. Standing within the cave, “widths out of the Sun” and enshrouded in darkness, the speaker evokes a sense of paranoia coupled with a shortness of breath and prickled hairs on the back of the neck (2, 3). Panic prevails, not for fear of a presence in the darkness but rather for fear of overwhelming loneliness. This sense of desperation continues with the metaphor of the cannon. Driven to that point out of hopelessness and disparity, the barrel of the gun (or cannon) offers lost souls a means of alleviating the pain. The ignited “yellow eye” from within the cannon’s barrel serves as a paradox to the light leading the deceased unto heaven: while the heavenly light represents redemption and guidance, the lighted fuse of the cannon lures its viewer to a false sense of reprieve (an anti-salvation) (10). Right before committing suicide, the question of death enters the mind of the person. That fear of the unknown causes the individual to reconsider life, saving him or her not by a faith in heaven but by the uncertainty of it. Without knowing whether the Christian god will save, if the pagan underworld (symbolized by the Satyr’s song) prevails, or nothingness reigns, death proves a greater risk than life. Within the terms of this poem, Dickinson uses goblin as an adjective, modifying the word it, which in turn represents the circumstances within Cavern’s Mouth. Within this context, goblin acts as a sort of exclamation, emphasizing that the cave is frightening, haunting, and horrible. The situation within the cave inspires fear and uncertainty, much like the mystical character of a goblin. However, because goblin merely describes the greater entity of a cave, the word’s impact loses some of its potency and demonic aspects. Because of its minimalized role, its impact on the poem’s overall tone and meaning is to underscore pre-established sentiments and to introduce a somewhat otherworldly element. Typically deemed a lesser demon or mythical creature, the goblin represents the question of faith through a glimpse of the powers of evil. By describing the cavern as possessing goblin-like qualities, it therefore takes on the air of a place of evil, temptation, and paganism. Likewise, a feeling of isolation and helplessness often relates to a questioning of faith in God. By simply using goblin in relation to the cavern, Dickinson emphasizes the temptation and religious turmoil experienced in people’s darkest moments.#388 It would never be Common- more- I said The tone of this poem resonates of a longing for times past because now, “difference had begun” (2). Because it speaks of a crippling loss and transformation from bliss to jadedness, the poem applies to several interpretations: to the loss of riches, loss of innocence, loss of love, loss of faith, or loss of the ability to find happiness. Unsettling change has taken place, which was once met with bitterness but is now viewed more with longing or reminiscence. Once upon a time, the speaker lived a life of blushing joy, once reflected in her rosy cheeks and sparkling eyes (9-12). Rather than be grounded to earth, she “walked- as wings,” soaring above earthly troubles (13). Her joy could not be held within, but rather demanded to be shared with “every creature- that [she] met-/ and Dowered-all the World” (19- 20). Unexpectedly, however, the source of her happiness is stripped from her, and she becomes “beggared” (24). Temporarily blinded and disoriented by the suddenness of this loss, she “clutch[es] at sounds” and “grope[s] at shapes,” feebly searching for signs of familiarity and her former life (25, 26). Her beautiful and exotic textiles have been replaced with simple, coarse “sackcloth” (30). The beauty she saw in life before her cataclysmic loss of innocence, lover, or faith has been replaced with an element of the banal and coarse. Reality has grounded her. Within this poem, goblin acts as a noun that represent one of many goblins or beings. Unlike the previous poems, because goblin represents an actual entity, it possesses all aspects of goblinhood rather than mere goblin-like qualities. As an actual being, it exhibits traits attributed to a goblin in its purest form: a malicious being, troublemaker, and manipulator. The use of “goblin” greatly affects the tone of the poem, as it aids in stimulating the turning point and cause for longing. In this poem, the goblin belongs to list of deeds that transform the speaker’s life from naÃ¯ve and gay to jaded and depressed. By drinking her “dew,” it steals her freshness and God-given sustenance. However, because the goblin in this poem acts as one of many goblins in existence, indicated by the indefinite article “a,” this goblin’s power is not unique. Likewise, its impact on the speaker’s state is significant but not the only player in the downfall; the shrinking of riches, tenantlessness of palaces, and beggardom of the speaker accompany it (21-24). Through this portrayal of the goblin, the poet unveils a character strong enough to entirely alter the course of the poem, transforming the speaker’s life from bliss to meekness.#414 ‘Twas like a Maelstrom, with a notch, Illustrated by words like “boiling,” “agony,” “delirious,” “frozen,” and “anguish,” this poem has an overall tone of despair (3, 4, 19, 24). Divided into three sections, the first and second stanzas illustrate the message in terms of a maelstrom, the third and fourth stanzas retell that same account but in terms of a goblin with a gauge, and the fifth and sixth stanzas reinterpret the fourth stanza in terms of an execution. The overall subject matter of this poem discusses the anxiety over the deciding of fate regardless of whether it is in the form of courtly or heavenly judgment. Helpless to change the course of events, the individual must anxiously wait because the “hem” or “final inch” of her fabric of life lies in agony’s hand and her own (6, 7). Whereas in the first stanza the means of measuring time was represented by notches in a chaotic maelstrom, the third stanza employs the goblin as the cincher of the fleeting hours, transferring that role from an act of nature to an unworldly demon. The key words “as if” that open the fifth stanza establish the mirroring of the fourth stanza (18). In the fourth stanza, the hesitation of time depicted as the paralysis of “sinew” and “sense” translates into the frozen state of the individual as she is led to the gibbets, still captivated by the “luxury of doubt” (14, 15, 20). God, in the fourth stanza, saves the condemned from the powerful demonic hands of the “fiend” but in the sixth stanza, becomes a mere creature that gasps for “reprieve” to release the prisoner (16, 23). In rendering the position of savior from “something” that breaks loose in the second stanza to God in the fourth to a mere creature in the sixth, Dickinson articulates her uncertainty about faith’s role in reality (8, 16, 23). To go from an unknown to a spiritual and end with a physical image, the role of savior is not necessarily minimized; rather, it becomes some aspect of this world, tangible and comprehendible (thus depicting the poet’s vacillation between Calvinism and Transcendentalism). The final lines of each section introduce the question of how to react to reality in light of this experience with salvation-waking from a dream, being “let go, then, overcom[ing],” or questioning whether to perish or to live implies that although the individual has been saved from condemnation, her fate is uncertain (9, 17, 25). Through uncertainty while awaiting conviction, paralysis with fear, liberation, and return of uncertainty, the poem causes a sense of discomfort; through all of those trials and tribulations, the individual finds herself no better than when she started. Here, goblin behaves as a noun, first representing one of many goblins (A goblin) but then acting as one specific goblin (THE fiend) (10, 16). The transition from indefinite to definite article implies that the demon has adopted a more prominent role within the poem. As briefly mentioned above, the goblin takes over the role of the maelstrom in depicting the person’s lack of control over her fate. Beyond a mere transferal of roles, the goblin acts as a being consciously controlling someone’s life, whereas the maelstrom appears to be an unfortunate but inevitable event that unwittingly captures the person. Therefore, the goblin represents a demonic force, determined to destroy and torture for its own pleasure. Furthermore, to pair this goblin with God forces an interaction between pagan and Christian influences in addition to the battle between good and evil. Although the goblin initially maintains control over the helpless individual, its power holds no strength against the will of God, serving as a commentary on interplay between temptation and salvation. Once saved, however, God and goblin disappear but the fate of the individual remains uncertain, begging the question of the role of God beyond salvation. Until God “remembered” her, she was held victim to the temptations of evil the in the paws of the goblin-where was God before that (16)? Within this poem, the goblin plays a critical role because without it “measuring the hours,” tempting, and torturing the individual, God would have no role and the poem’s message would be lost (11). However, despite the goblin’s demonic demeanor, it still falls subservient to the will of God. This subtle though pivotal role of the goblin in this poem exhibits Dickinson’s thorough comprehension and adept manipulation of language.#360 The Soul has Bandaged moments- Highlighted by the soul’s moments of misery then reprieve but back to misery, the ultimate tone of this poem is one of despair and despondency. Divided into three portions, the first unveils a soul that suffers a grievous loss or traumatic event and, despite moments of relief, the pain overwhelms her. Restrained and bound by the memory of her loss, the soul (of the speaker) stands paralyzed at the sudden recollection of the trauma. The “ghastly fright” accosts and torments her by acting as an anti-lover. Performing deeds typically associated with a lover, the goblin corrupts these memories with a crippling sense of loss (5-10). The goblin seems to mock her pain by taking over that role. The happy memories pain the soul because they remind her that the lover is gone. The third and fourth stanzas represent the second section of the poem. Here, the soul escapes the bandaged moments and manages to celebrate the memory or the happiness in life. Reveling in the “touch [of] liberty” comparable to a bee reunited with its rose, the soul appreciates the time she and her lover had shared. This liberation is only temporary, however, because the bandages return in the form of “shackles” and the “staples, in the song” replace the “bursting all the doors” (21, 22, 12). Following suit with the goblin, “horror welcomes her,” thus perverting a typically pleasant deed with horror (23). The fact that the final two stanzas begin with “retaken moments” implies that distress is the natural state and liberation is the exception. Through the experience of a grievous loss, the soul forever remains crippled by the ordeal. Within the context of this poem, this goblin acts not only as a noun, but as a proper noun addressed by the poem. This transition from general noun to specific noun means that not only does it possess goblin-like qualities or act similar to many goblins but that this Goblin is the epitome of what it means to be a goblin. This being is the essence of evil, menacing, corruption, villainy, and manipulation. Replacing “Fright” within the context of the poem, Goblin adds a more demonic air to the torture of the soul. Not only does fright accost and paralyze her, but the goblin defiles her precious memories. It steals the breath and kiss from her lips that she reserved only for her lover’s touch. The memory of that touch and those kisses pains the her to the depths of her soul. By replacing an intangible and somewhat passive emotion with Goblin, Dickinson emphasizes the victimization of the soul. Goblin does more than merely “come up;” it takes on human characteristics by saluting, caressing, sipping and accosting her (3, 5, 6, 7, 10). The soul is not only haunted by her loss but is continually wounded by it. This example of goblin holds the most potency of all the preceding examples in that here it not only creates the tone of the poem, but its role and power over the soul ultimately prevail. Through this final use of the almighty goblin, Dickinson reveals her ability to mold the language to her will.Conclusion A careful analysis of only six poems in a 1,778-poem collection shows that Dickinson reveals her mastery of language through her subtle use of diction. Her use of the word goblin varies slightly from one poem to the next. Based on the part of speech she prescribes to goblin, Dickinson establishes its potency throughout the poem. From a negated noun to an adjective to an indefinite noun to a definite noun and finally to a proper noun, both the degree of evil and its role within the poem intensifies. This one word appears in poems about love, faith, loss and despair, but its precise meaning is yet to be defined. That, however, is the beauty of Perfect Word: its meaning may change with intent and interpretation, but for a poet of finesse, its perfection is never undermined.
Emily Dickinson’s poetry covers a broad range of topics, including poetic vision, love, nature, prayer, death, God, Christ, and immortality. There is a unity in her poetry, however, in that it focuses primarily on religion. Full of contradictions and varying moods and perspectives, her poems offer a glimpse into a complex and intelligent mind that struggled for a lifetime with religious belief. Clearly, she resisted conforming to the expectations of her church and school that she publicly identify with the community of believers and accept their traditional doctrines without question. She chose to define her own beliefs rather than accept the “limitations” of a structured religion’s mold: an issue that she struggled with until her death. This struggle is characterized in her poetry by a constant questioning of God’s goodness, an identification with the sufferings of Christ, and, ultimately, by the lack of a connection between a suffering Christ and a loving God, and between a triumphant Christ and hope for humanity.Although Dickinson’s struggle was deeply internal, external influences played a significant role, particularly in the realms of science, philosophy, religion, and literature. The traditional Protestant worldview was being challenged by a gradual shift towards naturalism, due in part to Darwin’s publication of “The Origin of Species” in 1850 (when Dickinson was twenty years old). Dickinson poses questions and raises doubts about accepted knowledge and worldviews that sound almost ahead of her time. She maintains an unshakeable confidence that absolute truth exists, but with keen observations of realistic detail, her deep insight into human psychology, and unique gift of poetic expression, she frames questions that still continue to be debated in literature today.Closer to home, the religious climate in Amherst was hardly harsh and puritanical, as is commonly supposed, but was rather characterized by a “curious mix of Whig republicanism and evangelical moralism” (Lundin 13). The strict Calvinism of the Puritans had blended with the American culture to produce a religion of inner reform, self-restraint and service to an orderly, pious society. Some of Dickinson’s poetry reveals her disdain for religious hypocrisy and outward attempts to appear righteous. Poems like “401” and “324” are examples of this rejection, not only of hypocrisy, but of conformation to those outward standards that supposedly constituted righteousness and spirituality according to society and the church. In “401”, she pokes fun of “These Gentlewomen” (2) who appear as “Soft – Cherubic Creatures” (1). Underneath the outward and exaggerated facade of perfection, however, they are really only “A Horror so refined” (6). They are shallow, with no deep-rooted convictions, and have the blemishes of “freckled Human Nature” (7) like everyone else. Poem “324” is also a playful jab at religious people, and has a self-exultant tone: she keeps the Sabbath her own way. She is not bound by church walls or by time, and especially not by the expectations of the established church of her day. It is important to recognize and distinguish between Dickinson’s rebellion against these kinds of societal and religious expectations and her questions and doubts about God Himself.Dickinson was also influenced by leading transcendentalist poets such as Emerson, but she never fully embraced transcendentalist philosophies. The romantic emphasis on the self and intuition and on nature as a spiritual emblem is evident in her poetry, but she does not share the transcendentalists’ strong faith in nature’s power to reveal God or spiritual truth. She focuses much more on the hidden and paradoxical nature of God and on the seemingly unexplainable suffering and death in the natural world. In between the literary ages of romanticism and realism, she speaks “with a new voice that combined enduring elements from both ages, the old and the new” (Perkins 872).All of these factors and more, no doubt, influenced Dickinson’s decision to turn inward, to retreat from the limitations and uncertainties of the outside world into the realm of infinite possibilities her mind provided. “I dwell in possibility” (657, 1), she asserts in a poemcelebrating her freedom as a poet. She is not limited – the “Hands” of her “occupation” reach out “To gather Paradise” (657, 12). Dickinson, “With Will to choose, or to reject” (508, 18), deliberately chose her path in life, and in turn, rejected another. At Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary, she steadfastly refused to publicly declare faith in Christ as her Savior. She did not pretend to be unaffected by the pressure and later expressed regret over her missed opportunities, indicating that she really was experiencing a strong, internal inclination to become a Christian (Habbegar 202). Poem “576” is similar to “508”, in that she is looking back on a childhood during which religious expressions were forced on her. In “508”, she exalts the baptism of her own choosing, considering her first one as trivial as her dolls and “stings of spools”. Poem “576” has a far different attitude toward her childlike prayers. This poem, along with the general tenor of her entire life and works, demonstrates a consistent desire to overcome doubt and believe:And often since, in DangerI count the force t’would beTo have a God so strong as thatTo hold my life for me. (576, 14-17)As she entered adulthood, her simple child’s world became complex, filled with ongoing doubts and struggles to understand “parts of his far plan/ That baffled me” (576, 10-11). The strict religious environment in which Dickinson was raised likely left little room for doubt, and probably required complete acceptance of the church’s dogma. Perhaps she thought that total confidence would be desirable, and would ensure great security. However, her doubts do not allow this confidence: “How would prayer feel – to me – / If I believed” (576, 4-5), she wonders. She eventually came to believe that “her critical consciousness had shut her out from the innocence of childhood and had somehow made the assurances of Christian belief unavailable to her in conventional form” (Lundin 47). She longed for a simple faith that would sustain her with joy and hope, but the failure of her critical mind to understand her suffering, along with a stubborn refusal to trade her independence for identification with the community of believers, made such faith impossible.Perhaps the most threatening stumbling block to her faith was what she perceived as the distance and silence of God. One of her poems begins:I know that He exists,Somewhere – in Silence -He has hid his rare lifeFrom our gross eyes. (338, 1-4)That God seems hidden or silent is not the most disturbing of Dickinson’s charges. Poem “724” is a rather shocking indictment of God’s use of His power and authority. Overall, the poem questions God’s purpose for his creation and for the suffering of man. Does He even have a plan, or is He playing some sort of game? Are His actions fair to man? Did He just create the world as a show of His authority and might? God seems to be acting spontaneously, almost haphazardly, in this poem – “inserting Here – a Sun – / There – leaving out a man – ” (11-12). It is easy for him to invent a life, but just as easy to “efface it” (5). Death seems to be a quick-fix solution to this spontaneous creation of life:It’s easy to efface it -The thrifty DeityCould scarce afford EternityTo spontaneity – (5-8)Hinting that the blame for death rests ultimately on God reveals her questioning of the doctrine of man’s depravity. Though we may “murmur” against it, His “Perturbless Plan” (10) proceeds.Dickinson is convinced that “This world is not Conclusion” (501, 1), that ultimate truth lays beyond the visible and temporal world. It is “Invisible, as Music – / But positive, as Sound – ” (501, 3-4). Exactly what this truth is, however, remains largely a mystery to her, and thus “her thematic sense of religion lies not in her assurance, but in her continual questioning of God, in her attempt to define his nature and that of his world” (Magill 805). This mystery “beckons and it baffles” (501, 5), but escapes the grasp of philosophy and sagacity of men. The crucifixion of Christ showed it to us, but faith is still not satisfied and blushes to be seen searching for “a twig of Evidence” (501, 15). Even the “Narcotics” (501, 19) of religion cannot satisfy the yearning of the soul. Dickinson identifies with the human desire for visible evidence, for clear answers to questions about God and His plan for humanity. This poem contains evidence that she ultimately found the revelation of the natural world (commonly thought of as God’s general revelation) to be limited. But more importantly, she reveals her dissatisfaction with God’s special revelation, the person of Jesus Christ. That the crucifixion is included in a list of unsatisfying and disappointing avenues toward truth is an idea echoed in another poem:Embarrassment of one anotherAnd GodIs Revelations limit (662, 1-3)God’s revelations to man have limits; this is why those who have chosen faith must blush and feel ashamed of their fellow believers and of God. Dickinson’s attempts to seek God seem to meet with limitations as well. Prayer is often a source of frustration in her poems: “Of course – I prayed – / And did God care?” (376, 1-2). She also writes in her letters about her frustration with prayer: “I seek and don’t find, and knock and it is not opened” (Johnson 107), and “We pray to Him, and He answers ‘No.’ Then we pray to Him to rescind the ‘No’ and He don’t answer at all yet ‘Seek and ye shall find’ is the boon of faith” (Johnson 290). Dickinson truly believed she was a seeker, but echoes of frustration in her poetry (and letters) indicate that she had not found what faith had promised.Dickinson explores the relationship between the Father and the Son in poem “357” by using a metaphor of the legendary courtship of Miles Standish. God, at home in His distant heaven, sends his Son to “woo” humanity. It is as if God fears that, like Priscilla, mankind will “Choose the Envoy – and spurn the Groom – ” by not realizing that they are one. Dickinson certainly seems to be wrestling with complex questions about Jesus’ origin and identity. Could she trust that Jesus had really come from God? Is Jesus really the answer to all her questions about the Father? Although it is a difficult concept, the Scriptures are clear that the mission of Christ was to reveal the great love of the Father. God is love, and Christ was His ultimate manifestation of that love to humanity: “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him” (I John 4.9). Dickinson surely had no problem understanding this from the Bible, but something in her own experience kept her from believing it without hesitation. Somehow, her identification with the suffering Christ was not adequate to dispel her doubts about His Father. So, in her poetry, the Father remains “a God who does not answer, an unrevealed God whom one cannot confidently approach through Nature or through doctrine” (Wilbur 130) – or, as I would add, through the life and revelation of Christ.The suffering that drew her to Jesus was usually brought on by death. Although she lived a reclusive life from about age thirty on, she maintained very active correspondence with quite a few friends. In a letter, she responded this way to the death of a friend’s daughter: “I can’t stay any longer in a world of death” (Johnson 145). She even notices the cruelty of death in nature:The Frost beheads it [the flower] at its play -In accidental power -The blonde Assasin passes on – (1624, 3-5)As the critic, Alfred Kazin, writes: “She never got over the impermanence of everything she saw, the fragility of human relationships, the flight of the seasons, the taste of death in winter” (143). This problem of death, especially the deaths of her close friends and family members, haunted Dickinson, so she turned from a silent, distant Father to the fellow human sufferer, His Son.In poem “698”, Christ spans the distance between God and humanity. Although for man the uncertainties of death remain, Christ’s death justifies him:Death – We do not know -Christ’s acquaintance with HimJustify Him – though – (2-4)Christ was not only acquainted with death, but with all aspects of earthly life:All the other DistanceHe hath traversed first -No New Mile remaineth -Far as Paradise – (9-12)”I like a look of Agony / Because I know it’s true – ” (241, 1-2), she writes in another poem. While many people pretend optimism, Dickinson rejects the romantic view and chooses instead to see death as it really is – a stark reality that renders life meaningless without explanation. The life of Jesus, therefore, held great appeal for her; forsaking heaven to experience undeserved suffering and death made him true, genuine, and trustworthy:The Savior must have beenA docile Gentleman -To come so far so cold a DayFor little Fellowmen – (1487, 1-4)Over and over in her poems about Jesus, he is the solution for the distance between God and humanity. Another poem describing the incarnation of Christ brings out his divinity and worthiness: although humans’ weak faith may cause the “Bridge” to “totter” or seem “brittle”, God “sent His Son to test the Plank / And he pronounced it firm” (1433, 7-8). The fact that Jesus came and that he was sent by God reveals his divinity and his love, and this is a strong basis for faith.Yet Dickinson’s faith in Christ still seems to waver. She questions Jesus in “217”, but not in the same way that she questions God. Her questioning of God is often accusatory in tone, but in this poem she seems timid and childlike, hoping that Jesus can help her, yet fearful that he cannot. Will he remember her, and will her heart be too heavy for him? Jesus is her fellow sufferer, but what can he do about her suffering? Sometimes he, too, seems to be unreachable, or perhaps not able to reach her. In another poem she is praying, “knocking – everywhere – ” (502, 4), but is still unable to find him. His hand is in creation, but “Hast thou no Arm for Me (502, 8)?” she asks. These poems evidence a childlike timidity and fear, unlike the bold independence she asserts in other poems. Perhaps her most disconcerting fear was that Christ would offer no comfort in death. As she envisions herself “Dying! Dying in the night” (158, 1)! she frantically asks,And “Jesus”! Where is Jesus gone?They said that Jesus – always came -Perhaps he doesn’t know the House -She wrote the following to her friend, Abiah Root: “when trial grows more, and more . . . whose is the hand to help us, and to lead, and forever guide us, they talk of a ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ will you tell me if it be he” (Johnson 39)? She believes in the divinity of Christ, but as Lundin notes, “When theology turns into anthropology, Jesus becomes merely a pioneer in the endless process of bearing pain . . . [He becomes] trapped with us in our finitude” (5). Dickinson’s poetry dwells heavily on Christ the sufferer, but pays very little attention to Christ the risen Savior. His triumph in the resurrection does not seem important in her poetry, perhaps because she could not identify with that part of his experience as she could with his suffering. Times of doubt are not uncommon, even in a believer’s life, but Dickinson never seemed to rise above the anguish of her suffering. She longed for the joy she saw in others when they accepted Christ as their Savior, but never seemed to experience it herself. The presence of Christ in one’s life does bring about a radical new perspective on suffering that Dickinson does not seem to have – the perspective the Apostle Paul writes about in Romans:We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. (5. 3-5)God turns the result of evil – suffering – into a way to work “for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8. 28). In Dickinson’s poetry, suffering seems only to frustrate her desire to know and understand God’s love, and any comfort she has lies in her shared sufferings with Christ instead of his healing power and promise of a new life through his resurrection.Having come to this conclusion, however, it would be unfair to ignore the poems that seem to contradict it. As one critic states, “In Dickinson’s poetry, God himself is paradoxical: he is both attached and detached, near and far, compassionate and indifferent, generous and jealous” (167). If this is true, then Dickinson herself is paradoxical, clinging stubbornly to faith and hope even while expressing rebellion and fear. While the dominant tone in the overtly religious poems seems to be one of doubt, at times she does evidence a simple but sure faith: “Christ will explain each separate anguish / In the fair schoolroom of the sky” (193, 3-4), she writes hopefully. Her ride with Death in “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” includes Immortality as his companion, and their final destination is “Eternity” (24). Another poem uses a simple illustration from nature to demonstrate her confidence in God and an afterlife. Just as she knows what a moor and the sea look like without having actually seen them, she says:I never spoke with GodNor visited in Heaven -Yet certain am I of the spotAs if the Checks were given – (1052, 4-8)That such simple assurance and hope can be expressed by a critical mind so keenly aware of mystery, so prone to doubts and fears, and so bruised by disappointments and death reveals Dickinson’s inner strength and courage, and the power of the human imagination.It is difficult, and probably impossible, to definitively discern the underlying message of some of Dickinson’s poems. The contradictions – the various expressions of both doubt and belief, joy and pain, peace and turmoil – may simply be reflective of her emotional distress, or may be evidence of a lack of true spiritual commitment, or a refusal to trust completely in God. The mind of Dickinson may remain a mystery, but her poetry still offers us access into a mind that sought independence and individuality and struggled to “still the Tooth” of doubt and suffering “That nibbles at the soul” (501, 19-20) with belief that hope lay beyond the cruelty of death.Works CitedDickinson, Emily. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1960.Habbegger, Alfred. My Wars are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson. New York: Random House, 2001.Johnson, Thomas H., ed. Emily Dickinson: Selected Letters. The Belknap P of Harvard U P: Cambridge, 1971.Kazin, Alfred. God and the American Writer. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.Kher, Inder Nath. The Landscape of Absence: Emily Dickinson’s Poetry. New Haven: Yale U P, 1974.Lundin, Roger. Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief. Wm. B. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1998.Magill, Frank N., ed. Critical Survey of Poetry. Vol. 2. Englewood Cliffs: Salem P, 1982.Perkins, George and Barbara M. Perkins, Eds. The American Tradition in Literature. 9th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1999.The Holy Bible, King James Version.Wilbur, Richard. “Sumptuous Destitution.” Emily Dickinson: Three Views. Amherst: Amherst College P, 1960. By Richard Wilbur, Louise Bogan, and Archibald MacLeish. Rpt. in Emily Dickinson: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Richard B. Sewall. Englewood Cliffs: Salem P, 1982.
Emily Dickinson’s “Wild Nights–Wild Nights!” is as enigmatic as it is condensed. Most critics agree that it is an essentially erotic poem, but interpretations vary widely within that shared recognition of its eroticism. There is disagreement as to what motivated Dickinson’s eros, toward whom or what she directed that motivation, and even as to what feelings she attempted to convey. With criticisms which run the gamut — from saying the poem evokes “the quiet, even regressive aftermath of orgiastic release” (Pollack, 185), to labeling it “homoerotic” (Farr, 223) — it is impossible to imagine a definitive reading upon which everyone can reach a consensus. Still, to anyone who has felt the underlying emotional tension in Dickinson’s “Wild Nights!” it seems incongruous to hear James L. Dean describe the poem as “less-provocative” (92) simply because the final “Thee” may be addressing the metaphorical sea rather than a particular lover. To come to that conclusion would require one to suppose that an anticipated tryst between individuals is somehow more provocative than a seething sexual tension that springs from nature directly into the human psyche. It suggests a reader more concerned with voyeuristic imagery than with the deeper questions of desire, and one who ultimately might be better served reading bawdy limericks than by pondering the words of Dickinson.James L. Dean is not unfamiliar with Emily Dickinson or “Wild Nights!” In fact, in his essay in the Winter, 1993 Explicator, Dean tells us that he has thought about the poem enough over the years to “have been of eight or nine minds about it” (91). This is probably why he asks such good questions to help us with analysis, and why his insights into various aspects of the poem are so compelling. It is all the more confounding, then, when his words lead almost precisely to the emotional nerve that drives the poem’s voice before he veers off and crashes into one of his own fantasies. Dean makes important points — he identifies the metaphorical sea, examines the speaker’s relationship with Eden, and discusses what he sees as a paradox of mooring within the wild sea — but in each instance, his analysis suffers from a kind of myopic march toward a conclusion the poet never intended. While Dean has his eye firmly fixed on a wild sexual liaison which will happen “Tonight”, Emily Dickinson’s gaze stretched farther. “Wild Nights–Wild Nights!” is an expression of an erotic desire so integral with human nature that the poet connected it to the larger natural world out of necessity. Instead of humming along in hungry contemplation of an imminent rendezvous, Dickinson’s poem expresses a quality of unquenched passion that no earthly Eden, nor any single “Tonight”, can ever satisfy.Dean sees the “sea” as passion’s source and siren, therefore concluding it is the place where “passionate nature unleashes itself” (92) — this is partly right, but somehow he never makes the connection between the sea’s potential for unreasoned tumult and the chaotic need in the speaker’s voice. There is a jerkiness in the poem as it veers from the first stanza’s cry for luxury, to the second stanza’s seeming departure and respite, and finally back to desire in the second line of the final stanza. This conveys a corresponding jerkiness of emotion — the speaker cannot even hold constant for the final stanza as she looks from Eden suddenly back to the sea. When Dean looks at the sea only as a place of unleashing the wild heart, he fails to inform our sense that the speaker is intimate with its underlying tumult, that in fact, all the forces which work to throw a sea into fits are the same forces which act likewise within her heart. Dean points to the poem’s symbolic parallels between the human heart and the sea’s passionate nature, but ascribes them only to the latter — he sees “the anarchic, the dark, the threatening, and the wild” (93), but merely as things which the speaker seeks, not as aspects of her own being which are inseparable from her nature. Blinded by his own imagined goal of a particular sexual “Tonight”, Dean misses the bolder image here, the one which shows us a female passion that is fundamentally wild, that is as endlessly rich and powerful as the sea which Dickinson uses as its metaphor. Far from being the less provocative, this reading has implications that strike at the core of sexual notions in our culture, and which certainly ignored the Victorian attitudes of the poet’s time.Dean’s reading of line 9, “Rowing in Eden”, includes the thought, “there could even be mild disparagement of Eden as tame, depending on the tone that we sense” (93). If we take into account the first stanza’s ebullient speculation, and then read line 10 as a sudden musing away from Eden and toward that anarchic sea, Eden seems not only tame, but stifling and oppressive. Viewing the poem through Dean’s eyes, it is understandable that he would see the tameness rather than the oppression — tameness fits into his shallower idea of a speaker yearning for a particular diversionary tryst to soothe her hunger, while to sense oppression would require Dean to feel the internal conflict of a limitless passion held prisoner by someone else’s idea of paradise. Where Dean believes “rowing in Eden may imply great bliss [but not] danger or substantial expense of energy” (93), he misses the boat entirely by not fully acknowledging the irony he initially suggests. The speaker is not satisfied in Eden, it is not a paradise of her making, and more, the act of rowing is anything but blissful and effortless — in fact, most rowers will find that what was originally splendid and full of adventure soon becomes a tedium of the most heart-numbing kind. The speaker in “Wild Nights!”, because her emotions are reaching elsewhere, sounds almost chained to her oars, and the image is one of a galley-slave looking toward freedom. “Futile the winds / To a heart in port” (Dickinson, Lines 5 – 6) is surely true when the port is a place where the passionate heart is anchored, being held by whatever means such things are done. To a heart that longs to dance and celebrate upon the buffeting waves of its own wilder sea, there is oppression in shelter, the dancing replaced by monotonous repetitive motion within closed boundaries. The heart that longs to exult in wildness is held prisoner for the sake of safety, something, the poet seems to say, which is anathema to human, or at least female nature. While Dean sees “Eden [as] not enough” (93), Dickinson sees Eden, at least in this poem, as the antithesis of the wild heart beating relentlessly within. She thus provides a much more provocative notion for those who search for truth in the voices and images of art.It is in discussing the seeming paradox of mooring within the sea that Dean concludes his reading of “Wild Nights!” Because he does not associate the poem’s tone and symbols with the statement Dickinson is making about female nature, it is inevitable that he ends up with a paradox. Were it true that the speaker was laboring under an “intensity of desire [while moving] from a general wish for wild nights to an intensely desired, specific ‘Tonight'”, as Dean says (Dean, 93), while also rowing in a blissful Eden, then yes, it would imply a paradoxical desire for both safety and wildness. But when one feels the deeper roots of desire, those which stretch from the churning depths of nature’s sea to the pounding unrest of the passionate heart, and an imprisoned heart at that, there is no paradox whatsoever. There is only the most understandable of sentiments in the words “Might I but moor — Tonight — / In Thee!” (Dickinson, Lines 11 – 12) — it is the need to be whole, the craving for a synthesis that will finally make sense to a heart which feels its own nature is tied inexorably to universal, or infinite forces. If this were paradox, then Dickinson would be falsifying her own transcendentalist notions, admitting that no such connection between the human and the higher realm of nature was possible. It is doubtful that she would have chosen to write a poem as voluptuous as “Wild Nights!” in order to announce a break from a philosophy that was more about the sensual than the rational. Instead, this poem is an eloquent lyric which incorporates an unsettled and unsettling sexual desire within Dickinson’s own vision of a transcendent human existence.Whether it is because of some androcentric tendency to equate the erotic with a specific sexual action or object, or simply because he has never looked upon the wilder nature in the women he knows, James L. Dean has deprived himself of the essence of Dickinson’s poem . Reading the word “Tonight” as an implicit reference to a desired sexual coupling diminishes its power as a breathless expression of immediacy, making it a mere referent to the supposed physical act to follow. It is possible that had he read the fascicle copy of the poem in Dickinson’s own handwriting, and seen that she put “Tonight” on a line all its own, and with a spirited horizontal flourish topping both T’s simultaneously (Smith, 65-66), Dean might have sensed the agony of enduring urgency in the speaker’s voice, an urgency that never abates because it is integral to the speaker’s nature. But given that Dean consistently underestimates the feelings at work in the poem, that he is content to ascribe them only to the physical longing for uninhibited sexual release while ignoring the image of natural desire which animates the speaker, one concludes that he would not. Instead he seems doomed to inhabit a more mundane world where “separation enlarges desire [and] intensity feasts on absence” (Dean, 93), a world defined by linear sexual attraction rather than an alinear longing for an integration between nature and the sexual self. If so, that’s too bad, because Dickinson offers much more to those who can look beyond conventional patterns of thought and hear the beating sound of her unconventional, but very real heart.List of Works CitedDean, James L. “Dickinson’s ‘Wild Nights.'” Explicator, 1993 Winter, pp. 91-93.Dickinson, Emily. “Wild Nights — Wild Nights!” In The Passion of Emily Dickinson. Judith Farr. Cambridge, Ma. and London: Harvard University Press, 1992. 229.Farr, Judith. The Passion of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge, Ma. and London: Harvard University Press, 1992.Pollack, Vivian R. Dickinson: The Anxiety of Gender. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1984.Smith, Martha Nell. Rowing in Eden: Rereading Emily Dickinson. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992.
Over the past few decades, a considerable number of comments have been made on the idea of eternity in Emily Dickinson’s poetry. The following are several examples: Robert Weisbuch’s Emily Dickinson’s Poetry (1975), Jane Donahue Eberwein’s Dickinson: Strategies of Limitation (1985), Dorothy Huff Oberhaus’ Emily Dickinson’s Fascicles: Method and Meaning (1995), and James McIntosh’s Nimble Believing: Dickinson and the Unknown (2000). However, opinions vary as to how Dickinson explored the question regarding eternity; much ink has still been spent on the issue. This paper, therefore, provides another discussion of the idea of eternity depicted in Dickinson’s poetry. I will discuss the issue by considering how her poems describe the process through which the poet finally reaches the belief in eternity-overcoming the feud between Christianity and scientific knowledge and that between Romanticism and existentialism. As a beginning, let us look closely at one of the poems in which Dickinson gives a detailed account of a deathbed scene: The last Night that She livedIt was a Common NightExcept the Dying-this to UsMade Nature differentWe noticed smallest things-Things overlooked beforeBy this great light upon our MindsItalicized-as ’twere. As We went out and inBetween Her final Room And Rooms where Those to be aliveTomorrow were, a BlameThat Others could existWhile She must finish quiteA Jealousy for Her aroseSo nearly infinite– (P-1100)It is presumed that Dickinson wrote this piece of verse in circa 1886. In May of that year, Laura Dickey, the wife of Frank W. of Michigan, died at the parents’ home in Amherst. Although there is no document which shows that Dickinson was with the woman at her death, the event might have inspired the poet to write this poem. Whatever the fount of inducement, she sets down, in this narrative, a profound moment of death and its impact on the living, whereby she couches her belief and doubt in the next world.Though it is a “Common Night” when the woman dies, the speaker says, there is something unnatural in the air, because what people usually disregard or avoid is emphasized (“Italicized”) by death (“great light”). The moment of death is a “Compound Vision” (P-906) for Dickinson. While, on the one hand, the dying woman steps forward to the presence of God, on the other hand, the living go in and out of “Her final Room” vigorously. In the meantime, two differing emotions-“a Blame” and “a Jealousy”-seize the speaker: she is filled with anger against the absurdity of death which snatches away the woman alone to the “Undiscovered Country” (L-752); at the same time, she is envious of the woman’s fate in that the dying woman can now go through the great adventure and see the world beyond death.So far, the speaker observes the dying from a Christian viewpoint: the jealousy for the woman represents a belief in Paradise and eternal life affirmed in the Bible. She wants to share with the departed the opportunity to get a glimpse of afterlife which is intangible to the living. Nevertheless, it is only the woman lying on the bed that can exceed the limit of this world. The speaker cannot puzzle out the enigma of death. Here, anti-religious knowledge begins to raise its head within the speaker, or the poet. When writing to T. W. Higginson, Dickinson states that “My business is Circumference-” (L-268); and according to the interpretation by Eberwein, “circumference, for Emily Dickinson, is death” (164). Then, the inability to find the sense of death indicates the nonsuccess in her own business. As far as she adheres to the Christian idea, death remains a mystery. Hence the poet averts her eyes from Christianity so that she can accomplish her assignment, which gives the poem a sudden alteration in its tone:She mentioned, and forgot-Then lightly as a ReedBent to the Water, struggled scarce-Consented, and was dead-And We-We place the Hair-And drew the Head erect-And then an awful leisure wasBelief to regulate- (P-1100)The woman, on the brink of death, attempts to utter a word, in vain. She just struggles feebly against “a reaper whose name is Death” (L-185) as if she were a defenseless reed standing against the current which tries to wash it away. In a well-known poem, “I heard a Fly buzz-when I died-” (P-465), a fly ruins the crucial moment of the speaker’s death with its buzz. But there appears, at the woman’s deathbed, no hindrance like the fly; instead she yields to death with great ease, just leaving her body behind her. What the attendants including the speaker must do now is to fix her hair, to set up her head-and to “regulate” their religious faith. Christians are trained to watch for signs of salvation at the point of death to search for an evidence that angels come down to take a newcomer to the Paradise. Yet people cannot perceive any providential signal in the woman’s submitting to death. As a result, they are agitated, and a scientific view begins to conquer their minds. These baffled people require, for the moment, “an awful leisure” for their recovery of unshakable belief.The last two stanzas express, in this manner, Dickinson’s loss of faith in Christianity and in its idea about afterlife. She apparently watches the dying within the limit which scientific knowledge affords: death, here, is a mere vanishing point and there is no revelation in it. In the period when Dickinson lived, railroad, telephone, steamship, electricity-all these products of modern science and technology were introduced to New Englanders. And those inventions not only facilitated their lives but lured them into the materialism; consequently, science started to supersede the formulated Christian faith. Besides, from what Cynthia Griffin Wolff points out, “Dickinson was given more instruction in current mathematics and science than the average American schoolboy is given now” (342). It is likely that her attachment for science was much stronger than our speculation. Adrift from the belief in the Omnipotence, Dickinson came to believe only what had a proof; as a natural result, the commitment to scientific knowledge antagonized religious learning about death and afterlife. And so far as these two stanzas are concerned, abstract description of afterlife in the Scripture is regarded as unworthy: it does not disclose the true nature of death, of the afterworld-and of eternity.Then, can “We” inclusive of the poet really adjust their faith during “an awful leisure”? The answer would be “Yes” and “No” as Dickinson mentions simply that the “leisure” is arranged after the death of the woman. Some might overcome their skepticism; others might abandon the solemn Christian view at such time. And in the case of Dickinson herself, it can be said that she continued to be both a skeptic and a believer in Christianity. The poet with a materialistic viewpoint needed the “leisure” to reconsider the Christian thought when she witnessed death; all the same, she understood satisfactorily that scientific knowledge was insufficient after all as a clue to answer the ultimate question about life and death. Dickinson’s pursuit of eternity, in other words, went to and fro between the orthodox Christian view and the scientific one upon the world after death. Now I will shift the emphasis away from the clash between Christianity and scientific thought to that between Romanticism and existentialism. The analysis of Poem 191 provides a good starting-point:The Skies cant keep their secret!They tell it to the Hills-The Hills just tell the Orchards-And they-the Daffodils!A bird-by chance-that goes that way-Soft overhears the whole-If I should bribe the little Bird-Who knows but she would tell?”The Skies,” that is to say, the kingdom of heaven, reveals the secret of God and angels to “the Hills”; the rolling country, to “the Orchards”; the fruit tress, to “the Daffodils.” “A bird” eavesdrops on their whispering talk, and if the speaker offers “the little Bird” a bribe, “she” will presumably tell it to her, too. In such a manner, the gist of these lines is exceedingly simple; it is clear that the poet makes no doubt about the potentiality of the interlocution between nature and human beings. Critic Hoxie Neale Fairchild exhorts:[. . .] romanticism can most fruitfully be defined as the attempt to achieve, to retain, or to justify that emotional experience which is produced by an imaginative interfusion of real and ideal, natural and supernatural, finite and infinite, man and God. (206)The attempt to discover the infinite within the finite, looking after the anchor for human life-this is what is called Romanticism. Then, it is obvious that Dickinson was a romantic poet. She conceived nature as God’s representative in the stanzas above; she was convinced that she could listen to the Deity directly by the agency of nature.However, her intellect did not permit her to be satisfied with the romantic view of nature: she could not be carried away plenarily by a romantic vision. Accordingly, she made her speaker address God, to borrow Sewall’s phrase, “with a certain abstemiousness” (714):So keep your secret-Father!I would not-if I could,Know what the Sapphire Fellows, do,In your new-fashioned world! (P-191)This concluding coda of the poem shows that the speaker has no desire to be informed of what “the Sapphire Fellows” do in the Holy City even if “Father” lets her know it voluntarily. There was no conciliation, in the poet’s philosophy, between the finite and the infinite. Therefore she disassociated her speaker from Romanticism when she was about to know, through natural phenomena, all the answers to questions about eternity. And what came to the poet’s attention now was an existential idea with regard to eternity.The existentialist movement spread widely in European countries after the World War II; it was long after the death of Dickinson that it entered American literary world. But the philosophical movement actually originated in the nineteenth century when Soren Kierkegaard used the term “Existents-forhold,” meaning “the condition of existence” or “an existential relation.” As Kenneth Stocks supposes, it “already existed in the consciousness of Emily Dickinson’s time” (52). In his volume The Sickness unto Death, Kierkegaard notes that “God and man are two qualities separated by an infinite qualitative difference” (126), which is looked on as the very fundamental doctrine of existentialism. Unlike Romanticism, it affirms that there is no amicable settlement between the limited being and the unlimited one: human beings and Supreme Being are not two portions on the equivalent level but two elements in two dimensions. To sum up, existentialism is a school of philosophy which recognizes the finitude of human beings.When we review Dickinson’s works in conformity to this definition, we can easily hit upon poems which illustrate her existential realizations. As an example, she sings:To be alive-is Power-Existence-in itself-Without a further function- [no stanza break]Omnipotence-Enough-To be alive-and Will!’Tis able as a God-The Maker-of Ourselves-be what-Such being Finitude! (P-677)”To be alive” denotes, the poet remarks, “Power,” “Existence,” or “Omnipotence” of human beings. Even if they are just alive, the very capacity of living is all-powerful enough. Besides, when they retain “Will,” they can possess godlike competence: they are able to achieve anything as God created them. Still, their “Existence” is finite after all. However gifted they are, they are condemned to “Finitude.” Accordingly, their “Existence” is distinguished from God’s one; and only “Finitude” becomes their dominant character, or “Omnipotence.” Obviously, Dickinson approves the heterogeneity between the godhead and the nature of human beings in this poem, which acquaints us with the fact that she was involved in existential thought even unwittingly.Indeed Dickinson’s idea was quite analogous to Kierkegaard’s ones. The following poem serves as evidence of this point:Conscious am I in my Chamber,Of a shapeless friend-He doth not attest by Posture-Nor Confirm-by Word-[. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ]Presence-is His furthest license-Neither He to MeNor Myself to Him-by Accent-Forfeit Probity-[. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ]Neither if He visit Other-Do He dwell-or Nay-know I-But Instinct esteem HimImmortality- (P-679)In the introduction to The Sickness unto Death, Kierkegaard insists:Christianly understood, [. . .] death is by no means the last of all; in fact, it is only a minor event within that which is all, an eternal life, a and, Christianly understood, there is infinitely much more hope in death than is in life [. . .]. (7)Seemingly, Kierkegaard merely sums up a representative Christian theology. Yet the point to note is that he carries the Christian belief one step further. His exploration of the human existence uncovers that a human being cannot be given eternal life automatically after his/her bodily extinction; according to his premises, it is necessary, for the inheritance of eternal life, to assume the internal eternity consciously. The following quotation will make his view clearer. He prescribes the human existence straightforwardly:A human being is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation; the self is not the relation but is the relation’s relating itself to itself. (13)It is the real way to exist, his argument suggests, that the self always relates to itself. In connection with this point, we have the explanation that “the self is the conscious synthesis of infinitude and finitude that relates itself to itself” (29). Although a human being is allowed to live during a limited time only, its existence includes “infinitude,” or the eternal within it. To put it another way, the human existence is dual. And what is immediately apparent in these extracts is that a human being has to relate the self to the duality of the existence. Only when conscious of its doubleness, a human being can be bestowed eternity.Turning back to Poem 679, it is clear that the poet was as philosophical as Kierkegaard. At the opening lines, the speaker confesses that she is “Conscious” of a guest visiting her “Chamber.” He is invisible and silent; yet she can perceive him since “His furthest license” is “Presence.” As long as she is present, the guest is also granted to exist; as far as he keeps the “license,” she can be present. And they relate mutually with “Probity” so that they may accomplish the coexistence. The correlation between the speaker and the “shapeless friend” is, in this way, quite an amicable one. And through the staunch mutual relation, she comes to be able to infer his true colors at the closing paragraph: her “Instinct” feels that he is “Immortality.” Wolff insists “Eternity” is “a term that is coldly indifferent to the existence of both mankind and God” and that “Immortality” is connected with “the infinite life of an integral consciousness, either human or divine” (293); and she tries to clear the dissimilarity between the two terms. But The Oxford English Dictionary defines “Immortality” as “absolute eternity, having neither beginning nor end” and treats the two words as synonyms; we would rather agree with this definition here. Hence the speaker of this verse is aware of the eternal within her “Presence.”Judging from the above, it is quite satisfying that Dickinson penetrated, in these lines, the duality of the human existence as much as Kierkegaard did in his writings. Aware of ” shapeless friend” in her “Chamber,” in other words, in her self, she began trying to unveil the friend’s true character; she ultimately evaluated it as the eternal in the same sense Kierkegaard used. It may well be that such a discovery of the infinite aspect of the human existence let Dickinson wholly acquire the intrinsic conception of eternity. In one of her poems, we are told:The Blunder is in estimate Eternity is there We say as of a StationMeanwhile he is so nearHe joins me in my RambleDivides abode with meNo Friend have I that so persistsAs this Eternity (P-1684)Dickinson enunciated that eternity was already lurking in the existence before a human being is “called back” (L-1046). To return to the statement by Kierkegaard, a human being “cannot throw the eternal away once and for all, nothing is more impossible [. . .]” (17); Dickinson, too, sensed the persistence of the friend called eternity. Without a dash, the symbol of her uncertainty, this poem represents, in such a manner, her winning of the noumenon of eternity. The poet transformed, in an existentialist standpoint, her sheer wistfulness for eternity into a veritable conviction in it.”I dwell in Possibility- / A fairer House than Prose-” (P-657) Dickinson sings softly. The mansion embracing “Possibility” was, of course, poetry. This paper has clarified how she furnished the empty house with an abstraction, eternity. Eternity is, for all human beings, one of the most intriguing subjects; innumerable writers choose it as the theme for their works. We may say there is nothing new in her poems with respect to it. Still, Dickinson’s uniqueness in the exploration is her inquiring mind affected by four different ideas: Christianity, scientific knowledge, Romanticism and existentialism. While these ideas perplexed her time after time, they titillated her immeasurably; magnetized from all sides, she exerted herself to ascertain which thought was the most reliable one to get to the core of eternity. And existentialism finally proved to be a trustworthy theory.Dickinson once writes: “Finite-to fail, but infinite to Venture” (P-847), whereby she tries to show that we cannot surpass our limitations unless we test our possibility. This active attitude toward life well explains Dickinson’s life long search for a glimpse of eternity. As we have observed, none of Christian ideology, scientific knowledge, nor Romanticism was so appealing as to retain the poet’s zeal for them and existentialism tendered some answers for her questioning about eternity. But it is true that she was absorbed in each idea on each occasion: she attempted to pursue eternity, through the lyrics, believing that every though must have a possibility of providing a guide in her investigation. In that respect, her quest for eternity was exactly a “Venture.” She lived, in actuality, in the house decorated with “Possibility.” And when she sought for eternity in the remarkable house, the “Venture” let the poet perceive “The Torrents of Eternity / Do all but inundate-” (P-1380), wherein we can see her conclusive success in being assured of eternity in life-here and now.Works CitedDickinson, Emily. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. 3 vols. Cambridge: Belknap-Harvard UP, 1951.—. The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson, and Theodora Ward. 3 vols. Cambridge: Belknap-Harvard UP, 1958.Eberwein, Jane Donahue. Dickinson: Strategies of Limitation. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1985.Fairchild, Hoxie Neale. Preliminaries. Religious Trends in English Poetry. Vol. New York: Columbia UP, 1949. 3-18. Rpt. as “Romantic Religion” inRomanticism: Points of View. Ed. Robert F. Gleckner, and Gerald E. Enscoe. 2nd ed. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1974.”Immortality.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989.Kierkegaard, Soren. The Sickness unto Death. Ed. And Trans. Howard Hong, and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980. Trans. of Sygdommen til Doden. Copenhagen: privately printed, 1849.Sewall, Richard J., ed. The Life of Emily Dickinson. 2 vols. 1974. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1994.Stocks, Kenneth. Emily Dickinson and the Modern Consciousness. Hong Kong: Macmillan, 1988.Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. Emily Dickinson. 1986. Reading: Addison, 1988.Works ConsultedKjaer, Niels Pastor. “The Poet of Moment: Emily Dickinson and Soren Kierkegaard.” Dickinson Studies 59 (1986): 46-9.McIntosh, James. Nimble Believing: Dickinson and the Unknown. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2000.Oberhaus, Dorothy Huff. Emily Dickinson’s Fascicles: Method and Meaning. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1995.Rosenbaum, S. P., ed. A Concordance to the Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1964.Scholnick, Robert J., ed. American Literature and Science. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1992.Weisbuch, Robert. Emily Dickinson’s Poetry. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1975.
Emily Dickinson never became a member of the church although she lived in a typical New England Puritan community all her life. The well-known lines, “Some – keep the Sabbath – going to church – / I – keep it – staying at Home -” (P-236 [B]; J-324),1 suggest her defiance against the existing church and Christianity of her time in particular. And her manner of calling the Deity by such terms as “Burglar,” “Banker” (P-39; J-49), and “a jealous God” (P-1752; J-1719) clearly discloses her antagonism against the Christian God. In fact, she insistently rejected being baptized even when her family members and intimate friends at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary had chosen to bow in faith before the Christian Lord. It is no exaggeration to say that Dickinson tried to deviate from the orthodox religious belief prevalent in the society she lived in.Nevertheless, Dickinson was an avid reader of the Bible, and as Fordyce R. Bennett states in the preface to A Reference Guide to the Bible in Emily Dickinson’s Poetry, “Dickinson found story and situation, syntax, symbolism and imagery, inspiration, and much more in the King James Bible” (xi). That is to say, no matter how much she felt uncomfortable among the Christian circle of the New England community of her day, she endeavored to “keep the Sabbath” (P-236 [B]; J-324) in her own way through the most reliable source, the Christian Scripture, which came to her hands quite easily.The purpose of this paper, then, is to discuss Dickinson’s poetry with reference to the Bibleespecially, the Book of Revelation. One of her poems poses a question: “To that etherial throng / Have not each one of us the right / To stealthily belong?” (P-1639; J-1596). To find an answer to this kind of question, nothing would have given more insight than the Book of Revelation: it literally reveals the “etherial” world. And Dickinson herself knew the answer was to be found in the Bible, as she answered, “For Prose–Mr Ruskin–Sir Thomas Browne–and the Revelations” (L-261)2 when asked by Thomas W. Higginson what her favorite books were. Of course, there were many other prose writings which she could have mentioned, but she dared to select these three as the sources of her inspiration. Needless to say, the three were exclusively special for her. Therefore, by referring to the picture of heaven in the Book of Revelation, I will consider how Dickinson’s poetry delineates one of the most important and sometimes enigmatic Christian doctrines, the idea of heaven.The following poem furnishes us with appropriate materials for discussion:I went to Heaven -‘Twas a small Town -Lit – with a Ruby -Lathed – with Down -Stiller – than the fieldsAt the full Dew -Beautiful – as Pictures -No Man drew -People – like the Moth -Of Mechlin – frames -Duties – of Gossamer -And Eider – names -Almost – contented -I – could be -‘Mong such uniqueSociety – (P-577 [B]; J-374) Written in about 1862, one of the anni mirabiles (most productive years) of Dickinson’s life, this poem portrays a really mirabile visu spectacle of the heavenly kingdom in earthly images as John sees heaven in terms of earthly material images of jewels and treasures. In the poet’s highly-colored imagery, heaven is “a small Town” like her birthplace, Amherst, Massachusetts. What illuminates the town is “a Ruby,” the birthstone of July, which reminds us of summer or of the meridian of life. She tells us, in one of her letters, “my only sketch, profile, of Heaven is a large, blue sky, bluer and larger than the biggest I have ever seen in June [. . .]” (L-185), wherein she compares the kingdom of God to the sky in summer. We can safely say that she associates heaven with the scenery of summer on earth. But at the same time, Dickinson herself knows very well: “Of Paradise’ existence / All we know / Is the uncertain certainty – ” (P-1421; J-1411). “No Man” can draw the “Beautiful” picture of the town no matter how it may resemble Amherst in summertime. “Heaven” is after all a place that each person’s mind creates. Accordingly, she applies herself diligently to the description of heaven and coordinates the lines by startling images as “People – like the Moth – / Of Mechline – frames – .” The moth-like inhabitants’ “Duties” are as thin as the web of a spider whereas people are burdened with obligation in this world; their names are lightweight like eiderdown though everyone clings to them in earthly life. Here in Dickinson’s sketch of heaven, we cannot see any images of heavy loads that overgrow on earth. All the light-footed unrestricted inhabitants subsist as they wishwithout bothering themselves with fame, rank, or social standing. The poet tries to evince, in short, that the life of people in God’s heaven is completely a novelty for the living. And being confident of her own ingenuity in depicting the mystic region nobody has even seen, she finally “regard[s] herself,” to borrow Jane Donahue Eberwein’s phrase, “as an especially promising candidate for heaven” (263).What has to be noticed further, however, is that the earthly images in the poem are actually derived from John’s delineation of heaven that we find in the Book of Revelation. So far as chapter twenty-one of the Revelation is concerned, there is an agreement among the critics that Dickinson loved it, calling it a “Gem Chapter” (Sewall 347; Wolff 288). The Bible has a passage concerning heaven as follows:And [the angel] that talked with me had a golden reed to measure the city, [. . .] the city lieth foursquare, and the length is as large as the breath: and he measured the city with the reed, twelve thousand furlongs. The length and the breadth and the height of it are equal [. . .]. And the building of the wall of it was of jasper: and the city was pure gold, like unto clear glass. And the foundations of the wall of the city were garnished with all manner of precious stones. (Rev. 21.15-19)3 The cube city with “twelve thousand furlong” (about two thousand two hundred kilometers) sides is not “a small town”; in this respect, the narrator of Poem 577 is wrong. But if we remember the phrase from the Bible, “one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Pet. 3.8), we can immediately understand that God’s scale is different from that of human beings; and that even a seemingly large city could be “small” in the celestial dimension. And the town in Dickinson’s poem emblemized by “a Ruby” obviously echoes the heavenly structures ornamented with the “jasper” and “all manner of precious stones” even though the Book of Revelation does not mention specifically “a Ruby.” Dickinson’s close reading of the “Gem Chapter” drove her to write the poem.Also, in addition to the “Gem Chapter,” some other parts of the Revelation have an influence upon the contents of the poem. To take a few examples, the notion of heaven cannot become “Pictures” easily because “what the Spirit saith” about the afterlife is apprehensible only to “[him] that hath an ear” (Rev. 2.11). And the “People” enfolded in moth-like clothes with “Mechlin” and given “Eider – names – ” remind us of the whitness and its meaning illustrated in the Bible: Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white: for they are worthy. He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels. (Rev. 3.4-5) The poet believes that she would be able to live in the world where “People” are dressed in white and where their names are stately announced before God. In this sense, Poem 577 narrating the people’s life in the New Jerusalem is Dickinson’s version of the Book of Revelation. When she declares, “I – could be – / ‘Mong such unique / Society – ,” she is assured of her readiness to join the saints in heaven, being “arrayed in fine linen, clean and white” (Rev. 19.8).Indeed Dickinson’s relationship to whiteness is worthy of further examination. She began to wear only white clothes in around 1861 in her secluded life and never changed the unique style until her death, as one of her acquaintances, Mabel Loomis Todd, reports: “His [i.e. Austin’s] sister Emily is called in Amherst the myth.’ She has not been out of her house for fifteen years [. . .] . She wears always white [. . .]” (Sewall 217). Opinions are divergent on the reason why she chose such clothes. From a feminist perspective, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar contend that “white was in the nineteenth century a distinctively female color” (615) and that Dickinson “escape[d] her culture’s strictures by ironically imposing [white clothes] on herself” (621); according to a biographer, Cynthia Griffin Wolff, it was “a visible sign of perpetual mourning” after her father’s death (507). Still, as we noted in the discussion of Poem 577, Dickinson strongly yearned for the Kingdom of God, where chosen people are always clothed in white. It is likely that her white dress demonstrated an unmistakable clue on the part of the poet: she was certain that she would become a member of heaven. The first stanza of Poem 307 (J-271) gives authenticity to this point: A solemn thing – it was – I said -A Woman – white – to be -And wear – if God should count me fit -Her blameless mystery -With “a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues” (Rev. 7.9), the poet in white garments stands before God, purified from earthly impurities. Dickinson’s early poem states in a perplexed manner: “There are that resting, rise. / Can I expound the skies? / How still the Riddle lies!” (P-68; J-89). But as we have observed, she successfully enlarges visionary pictures of “the skies” in her own words. Beth Maclay Doriani points out very aptly that “[Dickinson’s] poems call their readers to consider what lies beyond the visible world” (94). We, human beings, are not allowed to solve “the Riddle” as regards heaven while we are alive; instead we are allowed to envision heaven in the form of painting, of music, or of poetry. Dickinson also studded her own lines with the visionary images of heaven discovered as the consequence of her persistent quest for afterlife and her meticulous reading of the Book of Revelation. And the readers with the similar kind of speculation about heaven are attracted to her poetry–even at the beginning of the twenty-first centuryas she lets them in her vision of heaven.Notes1. Dickinson’s poems are basically reprinted in accordance with Franklin’s three-volume variorum edition, The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Subsequent citations from these volumes appear parenthetically as the letter “P,” followed by the each number. Also, the numbers given to the poems in Johnson’s The Poems of Emily Dickinson are indicated after the letter “J” for reference.2. Dickinson’s letters are taken from The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Subsequent references to this edition are cited parenthetically in the text as the capital letter “L,” identified by the numbers. 3. All scriptural quotations are from the King James Version of the Bible, the version that Dickinson knew.Works CitedBennett, Fordyce R. A Reference Guide to the Bible in Emily Dickinson’s Poetry. Lanham: Scarecrow, 1997.Dickinson, Emily. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. R. W. Franklin. Variorum ed. 3 vols. Cambridge: Belknap-Harvard UP, 1998. —. The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward. 3 vols. Cambridge: Belknap-Harvard UP, 1958.Doriani, Beth Maclay. Emily Dickinson: Daughter of Prophecy. Amherst: U of Massachusetts, 1996.Eberwein, Jane Donahue. Dickinson: Strategies of Limitation. Amherst: U of Massachusetts, 1985.Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.Sewall, Richard B. The Life of Emily Dickinson. 2 vols. 1974. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1980.Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. Emily Dickinson. 1986. Reading: Addison, 1988.Works ConsultedCapps, Jack L. Emily Dickinson’s Reading 1836-1886. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1966.Dickinson, Emily. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. 3 vols. Cambridge: Belknap-Harvard UP, 1955.McIntosh, James. Nimble Believing: Dickinson and the Unknown. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2000.Mounce, Robert H. The Book of Revelation. Rev. ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998.Rosenbaum, S. P., ed. A Concordance to the Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1964.
Emily Dickinson once said: “We meet no stranger but ourself.” This quote relates strongly to the theme of identity within her poems. It can be taken to mean that it is easy for us to get to know others. To understand oneself, however, is a much more difficult task. As people, we are constantly evolving, so truly knowing ourselves is a never ending journey. Much of her body of work relates to searching for one’s own identity, as well as exploring what it means to be a woman in the Romantic Era. In this essay, I will be discussing Dickinson’s views on her personal identity, as well as the identity of women in general during the Romantic Era. I will be focussing mainly on “The Wife”, with supporting evidence from “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” and “The Soul selects her own Society”.
“The Wife” offers a strong critique of the lack of identity many women suffered during the Romantic Era. The lines “[s]he rose to his requirement, dropped / [t]he playthings of her life” is the harsh reality of what happened when women were married (Emily Dickinson, The Wife, verse 1, lines 1-2). The term “playthings” implies that anything a woman was involved in was not to be taken seriously (Emily Dickinson, The Wife, verse 1, line 2). It also expresses the idea that women’s hobbies were something simple and childlike. They needed something to pass the time until they were wives and mothers and had ‘real’ work to do. A woman would need to grow up and rise above them to do the “honourable work” of a wife (Emily Dickinson, The Wife, verse 1, line 3). Along with losing their name, women would lose their sense of personal identity, and become an addendum to their husband’s identity. Their worth would not be determined by their own achievements, but by the status of their husband.
Looking at this poem in relation to Dickinson’s life, it makes sense that she feared the institution of marriage and what it would mean for her. Poetry was her life and gave her a sense of identity. If she married, however, her poetry would be considered her “[plaything]” (Emily Dickinson, The Wife, verse 1, line 2). She would have to give it up, and it would “lay unmentioned” (Emily Dickinson, The Wife, verse 3, line 9). This poem gives birth to another dangerous idea: women only truly become women when they marry. Until then, they are still children preoccupied with “playthings” (Emily Dickinson, The Wife, verse 1, line 2). The fact that Dickinson remained unmarried in spite of this public opinion shows the strength of her convictions. She was confident enough in herself and her poetry to consider herself a woman, even without the approval of society.
“The Soul selects her own Society” reinforces Dickinson’s belief in staying true to oneself. In a time when women were expected to attend every large social gathering and force intimacies with each other, she subverted expectations and chose to live a life apart from others. Rather than pretend to be someone she was not or fake pleasantries with the other ladies in her circle, she would take one or two close friends, and “[shut] the door; / [o]n her divine majority” (Emily Dickinson, The Soul selects her own Society, verse 1, lines 2-3). The term “divine” implies that going against the norms of society in this way was considered almost sinful. However, the speaker is simply not impressed by status or grandeur. The speaker is even “unmoved [by] an Emperor… kneeling” (Emily Dickinson, The Soul selects her own Society, verse 2, line 7). It is widely speculated that Dickinson was deeply agoraphobic. Rather than live a life of constant social interaction – and therefore terror – she built a life that she could be content in.
“I’m Nobody! Who are you?” shows Dickinson’s contentment with her solitude. The line “they’d advertise – you know!” evokes images of advertising for a freak show, and shows what an oddity the speaker would have been considered at the time (Emily Dickinson, I’m Nobody! Who are you?, verse 1, line 4). Women were expected to be social climbers. As previously stated, the position of a women in society was determined by her husband. As such, women were expected to seek advantageous matches. A woman content with being a nobody would have been unheard of. The speaker is not only content with her lowly status, the idea of being someone of import is “dreary” to her (Emily Dickinson, I’m Nobody! Who are you?, verse 2, line 5).
In conclusion, it can be seen that Dickinson spent her life trying to understand not only herself, but also the world, through the lens of her poetry. She hid herself in solitude, finding it more worth her while to plumb the depths of her own identity than to take on the acquaintance of too many others. As she said, “We meet no stranger but ourself”. Understanding her own thoughts and feelings was more important to her than understanding those of others. What was expected of young women at the time held no interest to her. Instead, she buried herself in her poetry, and found herself there. She eschewed all of the ways in which young women of the time gained an identity, such as entering society and marrying well. In lacking an identity in the eyes of society, she found her true identity. Though mostly alone, she had poetry as a constant companion. Unlike other young women of the time, her identity was not linked to that of her husband or father. Her identity was merely the qualities she found within herself, in the confines of her solitude.
Dickinson, E. 1896. Love, Poem 17: The Wife. The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Series One (Lit2Go Edition). Retrieved November 12, 2016, from http://etc.usf.edu/lit2go/114/the-poems-of-emily-dickinson-series-one/2395/love-poem-17-the-wife/
Dickinson, E. 1896. Life, Poem 13: Exclusion. The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Series One (Lit2Go Edition). Retrieved November 14, 2016, from http://etc.usf.edu/lit2go/114/the-poems-of-emily-dickinson-series-one/2337/life-poem-13-exclusion/
Dickinson, E. 1960. I’m Nobody! Who are you?. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Retrieved November 11, 2016, from https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/im-nobody-who-are-you-260
Emily Dickinson, in most of her poetry, proves to cherish ambiguity. Some of her poems can be perceived in multiple different ways of which none are right or wrong. Depending on how the reader sees and interprets the poem, the meaning is twisted to fit their view. The ambiguity in her writing relates to the idea that human beings cannot tell what the world means, but they try to figure it out anyway. Dickinson offers explanations and answers in a way that does not state them as facts, but proposes them as possibilities. In her poems “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died-” and “I died for Beauty – but was scarce”, Dickinson uses ambiguity to suggest that there are several different ways to view the mysteries of the world.
In the poem “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died-“, Dickinson proposes answers to the question of the existence of divinity in the world. The narrator has died and is lingering around, with other people, waiting for the presence of “the King” (“I heard a Fly buzz” line 7). The “King”, in this use, is God. They want to witness a sign that there is divinity in the world around them. The only sign of anything in the room, however, is a fly. The ambiguity of the poem comes into play with two different readings, one negative and one positive. In the negative reading, the poem tells the tale of the anti-climax in the belief of divinity. People wait their entire lives in search of a sign of God, or divinity. In death, they hope to see a hint of what they believe in, but instead all there is is a fly buzzing about. In this reading, humans never get to experience God, despite their life-long beliefs. In the positive reading, on the other hand, humans ultimately see to see that everything is divine, including the fly. This interpretation suggests that the fly might be God, and even though there is no way to be sure, there are subtle hints. The fly is described as “Blue”, which is a color that is associated with the Virgin Mary and divinity (“I heard a Fly buzz” line 13), and it appears between the light and the narrator, which hints at light being a representation of understanding or heaven (“I heard a Fly buzz” line 14). This reading proposes that although there may never seem to be signs of true divinity while alive, humans will ultimately understand that everything they saw was divine. The two separate ways to interpret this poem were purposefully designed by Dickinson as offerings to the question of divinity that humans will never know the answer to. This poem’s ambiguity can lead readers in either direction, altering the meaning and the answer they see.
The poem “I died for Beauty – but was scarce” tells the tale of two deceased people. One has lived life for beauty, and the other has lived for truth. The two talked at night until the moss that grew covered their lips and their names. This poem offers to readings in the same way as the poem, “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died-“. The negative reading suggests that death and nature ultimately obliterate all of the high-minded searches for things like truth and beauty. These noble pursuits are nothing when death approaches. The names of truth and beauty, and the names of the people who devoted their lives to these virtues, are covered up by the growth of nature, and seemingly forgotten. The positive reading, however, proposes that as divinity is in everything, the moss is divine too, even as it grows and covers up noble pursuits. Also, the death of those in the name of beauty and truth represent universal unity. Although the two individuals may have spent their lives completely separate from each other, they are joined in death. There is solace in the unity of death, and the divinity of the moss proves to be special in covering the individuals. This poem’s ambiguity offers two different interpretations. One views the negative side of death in that it destroys all noble pursuits that have been life-long. The positive side offers comfort in the idea that death is a type of unity that all meet at, and that divinity can be found in even the miniscule things, such as moss. The ambiguity of the poem leads to different readings, and the reader is the one who decides how they view the message of the poem.
In “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died-“ and “I died for Beauty – but was scarce”, Emily Dickinson uses purposeful ambiguity to propose different possible answers to questions that human beings may never know the answer to. Questions about the divinity of the world and the aftermath of death can never be answered. Dickinson offers several different interpretations of her poems in order to propose possible answers. There is no right or wrong way of viewing the messages of the poems, because there is no right or wrong answer to the mysteries of the world. The technique of using ambiguity alters the poems meanings because each reading offers a different message. The reader sees and understands what they read the poem to mean, whether negative or positive, it is neither right nor wrong, and Dickinson created her writing specifically to suggest that the answers to the questions she writes about are arbitrary and can never really be answered.
American poets Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman are best known for their confessional works, in which they express their inner desires and urges. Both poets reflect their own unique qualities through choice of style, form, and language, as they discuss their feelings of sexual dissatisfaction and longing. Dickinson and Whitman stand on opposite ends of the poetic spectrum in terms of their expression of desire, which is clearly reflected in Dickinson’s “Wild Nights—Wild Nights!” and Whitman’s eleventh section of “Song of Myself.” Each poem addresses a different model of desire, contains different language and structure, and describes different ways in which desires are fulfilled. While both poems may appear quite distinct from one another, there is one steady similarity to consider. In the two poems, Dickinson and Whitman coalesce through their expressions of separation and expulsion from one’s somatic desires.
Emily Dickinson’s “Wild Nights—Wild Nights!” is commonly known as her most erotic poem. The title of the poem itself signifies a sense of mental and sexual release as the word “wild” is often affiliated with untamed freedom and a loss of self-control, and “night” is known as a time of darkness and secrecy as the consciousness of society dims with the ticking hours. The title ends with an exclamation point, which indicates forcefulness and intensity, as if the speaker is full of excitement, passion, or anger. Such emotions are directed towards a particular unnamed individual/lover, in which the speaker refers to as “thee.” This model of desire is singular and specific, a common poetic trait of Dickinson. The individual is absent, which causes the speaker great dissatisfaction and displeasure. The only way the speaker will be fulfilled is if the individual is physically with her rather than symbolically: “Wild nights… Were I with thee” (3-4). Dickinson uses nautical imagery throughout the second half of the poem to describe the rough, sensual wind and ocean-like energy in which the speaker wants to create with her lover: “Wild nights should be our luxury! Futile – the winds…Ah, the sea!” (3-10). If the speaker’s lover was physically present, they would create their own stormy, “wild nights” of sexual passion, indulgence, and privilege. The stability of their love allows the speaker’s heart to remain “in port,” as if she is a boat sitting over calm water (6). Their love also does not require a “compass” or a “chart,” meaning there is no need for any source of control or reason; it is untamed like nature itself. The speaker then imagines the pleasures of “Rowing in Eden,” (9) which connects sensuality and eroticism to earthly paradise. The poem closes with forceful and urgent lines: “Might I but moor—Tonight—In thee!” (11-12). The speaker wants this pleasure tonight, not any other day; however this will not happen as her lover is nowhere in sight. Thus, she is left unfulfilled as she can only dream of the sexual satisfaction in which the presence of her lover claims to provide.
While the subject matter of the “Wild Nights—Wild Nights!” is not necessarily conservative or reticent, the way Dickinson expresses such provocative, carnal material is quite compressed as she hides it under nautical elements which appear nonsexual at first glance. The structure of the poem is condensed and brief, containing only a few words in every line, which parallels with Dickinson’s desire to keep her poetry and deep thoughts private and contained. Compression is Dickinson’s unique method of thinking, as it draws attention to silence and the unsaid. There are multiple dashes throughout the poem, which formalize the silence in what cannot be said to the self or to the lover. Like many of her other poems, this poem is one of lyric solitude. The speaker and the lover are the only figures in the poem, however there is no actual conversation between them, which provides a more remote tone, as if the mind is thinking alone. Silence itself becomes Dickinson’s way of mastering feelings, which intensifies the speaker’s demand for erotic pleasure and the tortuous pain of receiving none.
Walt Whitman does not display any repression of eroticism in his poetry. The eleventh section of “Song of Myself” strictly focuses on bodily and physical desire, as it includes multiple anatomical descriptions of the male body. The speaker in the poem is a removed observer, identified as a woman through the use of the female pronouns “she” and “her.” A dramatic vignette is presented within the first lines: “Twenty-eight young men bathe by the shore” as a lonesome woman watches, hidden behind the blinds of her window (1). This woman is a member of the upper class, as she owns a “fine house by the rise of a bank” and “hides handsome and richly drest” (4-5). The woman fantasizes of participating in the men’s joy and playfulness, referring to herself as the “twenty-ninth bather” (10). Like Whitman himself, the woman enjoys observation and experiences sexual release through conjoining with other individuals. The imagery of the poem suddenly becomes erotic as Whitman begins to describe the physical assets of the men as they bathe: “the beards of the young men glisten’d with wet, it ran from their long hair, little streams pass’d all over their bodies” (12-13). The woman’s fantasy grows deeper as she then imagines herself as an “unseen hand” that sensually touches each man’s body, which deepens the woman’s desire for an intimate physical connection. Like the speaker in Dickinson’s poem, she never obtains the true pleasure she craves; she can only mentally experience such sexual satisfaction, as she remains secluded in her house. However, she does not appear to experience any frustration as the poem still ends within a sexual fantasy: “they do not know who puffs and declines with pendant and bending arch, they do not think whom they souse with spray” (18-19).
Neither speaker receives physical intimacy, however Whitman’s speaker does experience some form of fulfillment towards the end of the poem while Dickinson’s speaker is left in only discontent. As stated previously, Whitman does not show difficulty in expressing eroticism. His model of desire is all-inclusive, as he refers to each of the twenty-eight bathers as the poetic other. The structure of the poem is free flowing and elaborate, containing multiple short stanzas. There are no dashes or periods, indicating a sense of openness, generativity, and expansion. His language is strictly observational and unembellished, only describing the real and physical aspects of his environment. There is no sense of regularity or concern towards propriety, which provides the poem with rawness and carelessness, demonstrating Whitman’s strong aspiration to share his inner desires with the public world. A sense of fulfillment and hope appears through the closing lines of the poem, ultimately reflecting Whitman’s determination to discover pleasure through simple visual examinations of the ordinary world. Dickinson keeps her desires and urges repressed and contained through a first-person narrative, which transforms her speaker’s physical cravings into one strong spiritual yearning. Whitman transmits his speaker’s desires and urges through a dramatic scene, which transforms his cosmic self into a living phenomenon. The way in which each poet achieves the fulfillment of desire is extremely different. However, the ego of the speaker in both poems is restricted, either voluntarily or involuntarily, causing an immediate detachment from their desires.
Once detached, both speakers are left only to imagine satisfaction, which in itself creates a new form of thrill and pleasure; however, it is not the same. The sensual tone of Dickinson’s “Wild Nights—Wild Nights!” portrays the speaker’s deep passion for her lover and her yearning for physical intimacy. Like Whitman, Dickinson uses environmental images such as water and wind to illustrate the beauty and allure of somatic contact and movement. Both speakers feel the same yearnings, yet they do not directly achieve them. In Dickinson’s case, her speaker’s lover is not physically present, which causes her yearning to grow deeper. Her speaker does not attempt to contact or search for her lover; she remains removed and distant, which indicates a sense of shame or hesitation towards her desires. Whitman’s speaker portrays similar behavior as she does not leave her house to physically join the bathers, remaining hidden and locked within her imagination, only able to fantasize of her satisfaction. Despite different methods of erotic expression, both speakers act upon their desires through physical detachment and receive similar consequences of isolation and restlessness.
Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman display polar opposite poetic qualities, most notably through their choice of language and structure, but also through their expression of desire and fulfillment. Dickinson demonstrates a sense of privacy and compression in terms of expressing one’s desires while Whitman demonstrates publicity and expansion. However, similarity arises as both speakers in the two poems display similar behavior as they are confronted by their sexual urges and choose to detach from them, only able to receive a taste of fulfillment through their imagination.