Identity in the Romantic Era and Emily Dickinson’s Poems
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
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