Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)
Emily Dickinson read about the world around her, but for most of her adult life, she did not live in it. She spent much of her life behind locked doors, refusing visitors and producing poem after poem in her room. However, politics engaged Dickinson's attention for some time. Her father, Edward Dickinson, was a United States Congressman. Dickinson's ancestry traced back to the beginnings of New England history. The Dickinsons had come to America with John Winthrop in 1630 and had settled all over the Connecticut River Valley by the time Emily Dickinson was born two hundred years later.
During Dickinson's life, a number of important events and movements took place. A social and religious movement called the Great Revival renewed religious fervor among the people of New England. It resulted in the closing of saloons all over Massachusetts and Connecticut. Dickinson's father joined the Great Revival movement in supporting the temperance pledge, but Dickinson looked on the movement with skepticism.
During the 1840s and 1850s, the abolitionist movement–a social movement organized in the North to abolish the institution of slavery–gained support. On May 30, 1854, Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This bill made the Kansas and Nebraska territories full-fledged states. As a result of granting Kansas and Nebraska statehood, the slave debate in America intensified, for the new bill permitted slavery, enraging some United States citizens. The Kansas-Nebraska Act stated that the new states would decide to adopt slavery or not based on "popular sovereignty," or the will of the inhabitants of the territory. Leaving the adoption of slavery up to the individual states directly contradicted the Missouri Compromise, which barred the extension of slavery into new states. Edward Dickinson fought vehemently against the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The bill passed, and as a result, Edward Dickinson and about forty other U.S. Congressmen began planning an entirely new political party, which would come to be called the Republican party.
The Civil War also touched Emily Dickinson's life. Her brother Austin paid a conscript to take his place in the war, avoiding it, but Emily's great friend Thomas Wentworth Higginson led the first black regiment in the Union army, and one of her dearest friend's husbands was killed by an explosion in the conflict.
The American literary world was not closed to female writers, but it did not welcome them, either. Harriet Beecher Stowe was the notable exception to the unspoken rules barring women from the literary club. In 1852, Stowe published the immensely popular, controversial novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. Despite the gains made in fiction by women like Stowe, poetry was still considered a man's arena, especially in New England, where heavyweights like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman practiced their art.
Dickinson's father was liberal in some respects and conservative in others. He would have disapproved if he knew Dickinson spent her time writing in her room, so she kept her massive collection of writings locked in a secret drawer in her room. Dickinson's only publicly disseminated poems were those she sent to friends and family as notes, birthday greetings, and Valentines. In her lifetime, Dickinson published only seven poem out of the nearly 2,000 that would eventually be published after her death. During Dickinson's life, nearly all of the seven published poems were published anonymously in the Springfield Republican newspaper. Dickinson, socially brilliant as a young woman, became increasingly reclusive as her life progressed. In her mid-twenties, she began wearing only clothing that was white. Eventually, she stopped receiving most visitors, even refusing to see dear friends that came to her house.
Dickinson's great poetic achievement was not fully realized until years after her death, even though Dickinson understood her own genius when she lived. Many scholars now identify Dickinson's style as the forerunner, by more than fifty years, of modern poetry. At the time in which Dickinson wrote, the conventions of poetry demanded strict form. Dickinson's broken meter, unusual rhythmic patterns, and assonance struck even respected critics of the time as sloppy and inept. In time, her style was echoed by many of our most revered poets, including Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. However, while she lived, the few publishers could not appreciate the innovation of Dickinson's form. Her unique technique discomfited them, and they could not see beyond it to appreciate her jewels of imagery and her unexpected and fresh metaphors.
Dickinson's niece Martha Dickinson Bianchi and Dickinson's sister Lavinia collected and published some of Dickinson's poetry after her death, but the world was still slow to recognize Dickinson. In 1945, the collection of poems titled Bolts of Melody was published. In 1955 Dickinson's letters and selected commentaries on her life and work were published, and in 1960, her complete poems, edited by Thomas H. Johnson, were published. At last the world began to recognize Dickinson's innovation and brilliance. Today, Dickinson is ensconced in the canon and almost universally considered one of the greatest poets in history.
In recent years, many scholars have rejected the popular view of Emily Dickinson as a heartsick recluse who spent her entire life pining for an unnamed lover, foregoing sex and companionship in order to concentrate more fully on her writing. Some scholars have argued that research on Emily Dickinson has focused too heavily on her personal life and on the importance of men to her poetry. There can be no doubt, however, that her poetry was a forerunner to modern poetry and that her poems contained some of the most unusual and daring innovations in the history of American poetry.
Dickinson was experimenting with the form and structure of the poem. Many of her innovations form the basis of modern poetry. She sent her poems as birthday greetings and as valentines, but her love poetry was private. She tied it in tight little bundles and hid it away. She did, however, seek out a mentor in Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a prominent literary critic in Boston. They began a correspondence that would last for the rest of her life. Though she doggedly sought out his advice, she never took the advice he gave, much to Higginson's annoyance.
During the 1860s and 1870s, Dickinson grew even more reclusive. She stopped wearing clothes that had any hint of color and dressed only in white, she turned away almost every visitor who came to see her, and she locked herself in her room for days at a time. In the late 1870s and early 1880s, a number of people close to Dickinson died in quick succession, including her mother, her friend Judge Otis Lord, her young nephew, her good friend Helen Fiske Hunt and Dr. Charles Wadsworth.
In 1886, Dickinson's health began deteriorating and she found herself slowly becoming an invalid. Dickinson was only fifty-six, but she was suffering from a severe case of Bright's disease. She died on May 15, 1886, and was buried in a white coffin in Amherst.
Success is counted sweetest...
The speaker says that "those who ne'er succeed" place the highest value on success. (They "count" it "sweetest".) To understand the value of a nectar, the speaker says, one must feel "sorest need." She says that the members of the victorious army ("the purple Host / Who took the flag today") are not able to define victory as well as the defeated, dying man who hears from a distance the music of the victors.
The three stanzas of this poem take the form of iambic trimeter--with the exception of the first two lines of the second stanza, which add a fourth stress at the end of the line. (Virtually all of Dickinson's poems are written in an iambic meter that fluctuates fluidly between three and four stresses.) As in most of Dickinson's poems, the stanzas here rhyme according to an ABCB scheme, so that the second and fourth lines in each stanza constitute the stanza's only rhyme.
Many of Emily Dickinson's most famous lyrics take the form of homilies, or short moral sayings, which appear quite simple but that actually describe complicated moral and psychological truths. "Success is counted sweetest" is such a poem; its first two lines express its homiletic point, that "Success is counted sweetest / By those who ne'er succeed" (or, more generally, that people tend to desire things more acutely when they do not have them). The subsequent lines then develop that axiomatic truth by offering a pair of images that exemplify it: the nectar--a symbol of triumph, luxury, "success"--can best be comprehended by someone who "needs" it; the defeated, dying man understands victory more clearly than the victorious army does. The poem exhibits Dickinson's keen awareness of the complicated truths of human desire (in a later poem on a similar theme, she wrote that "Hunger--was a way / Of Persons outside Windows-- / The Entering--takes away--"), and it shows the beginnings of her terse, compacted style, whereby complicated meanings are compressed into extremely short phrases (e.g., "On whose forbidden ear").
"Hope is the thing with feathers "
The speaker describes hope as a bird ("the thing with feathers") that perches in the soul. There, it sings wordlessly and without pause. The song of hope sounds sweetest "in the Gale," and it would require a terrifying storm to ever "abash the little Bird / That kept so many warm." The speaker says that she has heard the bird of hope "in the chillest land-- / And on the strangest Sea--", but never, no matter how extreme the conditions, did it ever ask for a single crumb from her.
Like almost all of Dickinson's poems, "'Hope' is the thing with feathers--..." takes the form of an iambic trimeter that often expands to include a fourth stress at the end of the line (as in "And sings the tune without the words--"). Like almost all of her poems, it modifies and breaks up the rhythmic flow with long dashes indicating breaks and pauses ("And never stops--at all--"). The stanzas, as in most of Dickinson's lyrics, rhyme loosely in an ABCB scheme, though in this poem there are some incidental carryover rhymes: "words" in line three of the first stanza rhymes with "heard" and "Bird" in the second; "Extremity" rhymes with "Sea" and "Me" in the third stanza, thus, technically conforming to an ABBB rhyme scheme.
This simple, metaphorical description of hope as a bird singing in the soul is another example of Dickinson's homiletic style, derived from Psalms and religious hymns. Dickinson introduces her metaphor in the first two lines ("'Hope' is the thing with feathers-- / That perches in the soul--"), then develops it throughout the poem by telling what the bird does (sing), how it reacts to hardship (it is unabashed in the storm), where it can be found (everywhere, from "chillest land" to "strangest Sea"), and what it asks for itself (nothing, not even a single crumb). Though written after "Success is counted sweetest," this is still an early poem for Dickinson, and neither her language nor her themes here are as complicated and explosive as they would become in her more mature work from the mid-1860s. Still, we find a few of the verbal shocks that so characterize Dickinson's mature style: the use of "abash," for instance, to describe the storm's potential effect on the bird, wrenches the reader back to the reality behind the pretty metaphor; while a singing bird cannot exactly be "abashed," the word describes the effect of the storm--or a more general hardship--upon the speaker's hopes.
"I'm Nobody! Who are you?"
The speaker exclaims that she is "Nobody," and asks, "Who are you? / Are you-- Nobody--too?" If so, she says, then they are a pair of nobodies, and she admonishes her addressee not to tell, for "they'd banish us--you know!" She says that it would be "dreary" to be "Somebody"--it would be "public" and require that, "like a Frog," one tell one's name "the livelong June-- / To an admiring Bog!"
The two stanzas of "I'm Nobody!" are highly typical for Dickinson, constituted of loose iambic trimeter occasionally including a fourth stress ("To tell your name--the livelong June--"). They follow an ABCB rhyme scheme (though in the first stanza, "you" and "too" rhyme, and "know" is only a half-rhyme, so the scheme could appear to be AABC), and she frequently uses rhythmic dashes to interrupt the flow.
Ironically, one of the most famous details of Dickinson lore today is that she was utterly un-famous during her lifetime--she lived a relatively reclusive life in Amherst, Massachusetts, and though she wrote nearly 1,800 poems, she published fewer than ten of them. This poem is her most famous and most playful defense of the kind of spiritual privacy she favored, implying that to be a Nobody is a luxury incomprehensible to the dreary Somebodies--for they are too busy keeping their names in circulation, croaking like frogs in a swamp in the summertime. This poem is an outstanding early example of Dickinson's often jaunty approach to meter (she uses her trademark dashes quite forcefully to interrupt lines and interfere with the flow of her poem, as in "How dreary-- to be--Somebody!"). Further, the poem vividly illustrates her surprising way with language. The juxtaposition in the line "How public--like a Frog--" shocks the first-time reader, combining elements not typically considered together, and, thus, more powerfully conveying its meaning (frogs are "public" like public figures--or Somebodies--because they are constantly "telling their name"-- croaking--to the swamp, reminding all the other frogs of their identities).
The Soul selects her own Society
The speaker says that "the Soul selects her own Society--" and then "shuts the Door," refusing to admit anyone else--even if "an Emperor be kneeling / Upon her mat--." Indeed, the soul often chooses no more than a single person from "an ample nation" and then closes "the Valves of her attention" to the rest of the world.
The meter of "The Soul selects her own Society" is much more irregular and halting than the typical Dickinson poem, although it still roughly fits her usual structure: iambic trimeter with the occasional line in tetrameter. It is also uncharacteristic in that its rhyme scheme--if we count half-rhymes such as "Gate" and "Mat"--is ABAB, rather than ABCB; the first and third lines rhyme, as well as the second and fourth. However, by using long dashes rhythmically to interrupt the flow of the meter and effect brief pauses, the poem's form remains recognizably Dickinsonian, despite its atypical aspects.
Whereas "I'm Nobody! Who are you?" takes a playful tone to the idea of reclusiveness and privacy, the tone of "The Soul selects her own Society--" is quieter, grander, and more ominous. The idea that "The Soul selects her own Society" (that people choose a few companions who matter to them and exclude everyone else from their inner consciousness) conjures up images of a solemn ceremony with the ritual closing of the door, the chariots, the emperor, and the ponderous Valves of the Soul's attention. Essentially, the middle stanza functions to emphasize the Soul's stonily uncompromising attitude toward anyone trying to enter into her Society once the metaphorical door is shut--even chariots, even an emperor, cannot persuade her. The third stanza then illustrates the severity of the Soul's exclusiveness--even from "an ample nation" of people, she easily settles on one single person to include, summarily and unhesitatingly locking out everyone else. The concluding stanza, with its emphasis on the "One" who is chosen, gives "The Soul selects her own Society--" the feel of a tragic love poem, although we need not reduce our understanding of the poem to see its theme as merely romantic. The poem is an excellent example of Dickinson's tightly focused skills with metaphor and imagery; cycling through her regal list of door, divine Majority, chariots, emperor, mat, ample nation, and stony valves of attention, Dickinson continually surprises the reader with her vivid and unexpected series of images, each of which furthers the somber mood of the poem.
A Bird came down the Walk
The speaker describes once seeing a bird come down the walk, unaware that it was being watched. The bird ate an angleworm, then "drank a Dew / From a convenient Grass--," then hopped sideways to let a beetle pass by. The bird's frightened, bead-like eyes glanced all around. Cautiously, the speaker offered him "a Crumb," but the bird "unrolled his feathers" and flew away--as though rowing in the water, but with a grace gentler than that with which "Oars divide the ocean" or butterflies leap "off Banks of Noon"; the bird appeared to swim without splashing.
Structurally, this poem is absolutely typical of Dickinson, using iambic trimeter with occasional four-syllable lines, following a loose ABCB rhyme scheme, and rhythmically breaking up the meter with long dashes. (In this poem, the dashes serve a relatively limited function, occurring only at the end of lines, and simply indicating slightly longer pauses at line breaks.)
Emily Dickinson's life proves that it is not necessary to travel widely or lead a life full of Romantic grandeur and extreme drama in order to write great poetry; alone in her house at Amherst, Dickinson pondered her experience as fully, and felt it as acutely, as any poet who has ever lived. In this poem, the simple experience of watching a bird hop down a path allows her to exhibit her extraordinary poetic powers of observation and description.
Dickinson keenly depicts the bird as it eats a worm, pecks at the grass, hops by a beetle, and glances around fearfully. As a natural creature frightened by the speaker into flying away, the bird becomes an emblem for the quick, lively, ungraspable wild essence that distances nature from the human beings who desire to appropriate or tame it. But the most remarkable feature of this poem is the imagery of its final stanza, in which Dickinson provides one of the most breath-taking descriptions of flying in all of poetry. Simply by offering two quick comparisons of flight and by using aquatic motion (rowing and swimming), she evokes the delicacy and fluidity of moving through air. The image of butterflies leaping "off Banks of Noon," splashlessly swimming though the sky, is one of the most memorable in all Dickinson's writing.
After great pain, a formal feeling comes
The speaker notes that following great pain, "a formal feeling" often sets in, during which the "Nerves" are solemn and "ceremonious, like Tombs." The heart questions whether it ever really endured such pain and whether it was really so recent ("The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore, / And Yesterday, or Centuries before?"). The feet continue to plod mechanically, with a wooden way, and the heart feels a stone-like contentment. This, the speaker says, is "the Hour of Lead," and if the person experiencing it survives this Hour, he or she will remember it in the same way that "Freezing persons" remember the snow: "First--Chill--then Stupor--then the letting go--."
"After great pain" is structurally looser than most Dickinson poems: The iambic meter fades in places; line-length ranges from dimeter to pentameter; the rhyme scheme is haphazard and mostly utilizes couplets (stanza-by-stanza, it is AABB CDEFF GHII); and the middle stanza is five lines long, rather than Dickinson's typical four. Like most other Dickinson poems, however, it uses the long rhythmic dash to indicate short pauses.
Perhaps Emily Dickinson's greatest achievement as a poet is the record she left of her own inwardness; because of her extraordinary powers of self-observation and her extraordinary willingness to map her own feelings as accurately and honestly as she could, Dickinson has bequeathed us a multitude of hard, intense, and subtle poems, detailing complicated feelings rarely described by other poets. And yet, encountering these feelings in the compression chamber of a Dickinson poem, one recognizes them instantly. "After great pain, a formal feeling comes" describes the fragile emotional equilibrium that settles heavily over a survivor of recent trauma or profound grief.
Dickinson's descriptive words lend a funereal feel to the poem: The emotion following pain is "formal," one's nerves feel like "Tombs," one's heart is stiff and disbelieving. The feet's "Wooden way" evokes a wooden casket, and the final "like a stone" recalls a headstone. The speaker emphasizes the fragile state of a person experiencing the "formal feeling" by never referring to such people as whole human beings, detailing their bodies in objectified fragments ("The stiff Heart," "The Feet, mechanical," etc.).
I died for Beauty - but was scarce
The speaker says that she died for Beauty, but she was hardly adjusted to her tomb before a man who died for Truth was laid in a tomb next to her. When the two softly told each other why they died, the man declared that Truth and Beauty are the same, so that he and the speaker were "Brethren." The speaker says that they met at night, "as Kinsmen," and talked between their tombs until the moss reached their lips and covered up the names on their tombstones.
This poem follows many of Dickinson's typical formal patterns--the ABCB rhyme scheme, the rhythmic use of the dash to interrupt the flow--but has a more regular meter, so that the first and third lines in each stanza are iambic tetrameter, while the second and fourth lines are iambic trimeter, creating a four-three-four-three stress pattern in each stanza.
This bizarre, allegorical death fantasy recalls Keats ("Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty," from Ode on a Grecian Urn), but its manner of presentation belongs uniquely to Dickinson. In this short lyric, Dickinson manages to include a sense of the macabre physicality of death ("Until the Moss had reached our lips--"), the high idealism of martyrdom ("I died for Beauty. . . One who died for Truth"), a certain kind of romantic yearning combined with longing for Platonic companionship ("And so, as Kinsmen, met a Night--"), and an optimism about the afterlife (it would be nice to have a like-minded friend) with barely sublimated terror about the fact of death (it would be horrible to lie in the cemetery having a conversation through the walls of a tomb). As the poem progresses, the high idealism and yearning for companionship gradually give way to mute, cold death, as the moss creeps up the speaker's corpse and her headstone, obliterating both her capacity to speak (covering her lips) and her identity (covering her name). The ultimate effect of this poem is to show that every aspect of human life--ideals, human feelings, identity itself--is erased by death. But by making the erasure gradual--something to be "adjusted" to in the tomb--and by portraying a speaker who is untroubled by her own grim state, Dickinson creates a scene that is, by turns, grotesque and compelling, frightening and comforting. It is one of her most singular statements about death, and like so many of Dickinson's poems, it has no parallels in the work of any other writer.
I heard a Fly buzz--when I died
The speaker says that she heard a fly buzz as she lay on her deathbed. The room was as still as the air between "the Heaves" of a storm. The eyes around her had cried themselves out, and the breaths were firming themselves for "that last Onset," the moment when, metaphorically, "the King / Be witnessed--in the Room--." The speaker made a will and "Signed away / What portion of me be / Assignable--" and at that moment, she heard the fly. It interposed itself "With blue--uncertain stumbling Buzz--" between the speaker and the light; "the Windows failed"; and then she died ("I could not see to see--").
"I heard a Fly buzz" employs all of Dickinson's formal patterns: trimeter and tetrameter iambic lines (four stresses in the first and third lines of each stanza, three in the second and fourth, a pattern Dickinson follows at her most formal); rhythmic insertion of the long dash to interrupt the meter; and an ABCB rhyme scheme. Interestingly, all the rhymes before the final stanza are half-rhymes (Room/Storm, firm/Room, be/Fly), while only the rhyme in the final stanza is a full rhyme (me/see). Dickinson uses this technique to build tension; a sense of true completion comes only with the speaker's death.
One of Dickinson's most famous poems, "I heard a Fly buzz" strikingly describes the mental distraction posed by irrelevant details at even the most crucial moments--even at the moment of death. The poem then becomes even weirder and more macabre by transforming the tiny, normally disregarded fly into the figure of death itself, as the fly's wing cuts the speaker off from the light until she cannot "see to see." But the fly does not grow in power or stature; its final severing act is performed "With Blue--uncertain stumbling Buzz--." This poem is also remarkable for its detailed evocation of a deathbed scene--the dying person's loved ones steeling themselves for the end, the dying woman signing away in her will "What portion of me be / Assignable" (a turn of phrase that seems more Shakespearean than it does Dickinsonian).
The Brain--is wider than the Sky
The speaker declares that the brain is wider than the sky, for if they are held side by side, the brain will absorb the sky "With ease--and You--beside." She says that the brain is deeper than the sea, for if they are held "Blue to Blue," the brain will absorb the sea as sponges and buckets absorb water. The brain, the speaker insists, is the "weight of God"--for if they are hefted "Pound for Pound," the brain's weight will differ from the weight of God only in the way that syllable differs from sound.
This poem employs all of Dickinson's familiar formal patterns: it consists of three four-line stanzas metered iambically, with tetrameter used for the first and third lines of each stanza and trimeter used for the second and fourth lines; it follows ABCB rhyme schemes in each stanza; and uses the long dash as a rhythmic device designed to break up the flow of the meter and indicate short pauses.
Another of Dickinson's most famous poems, "The Brain--is wider than the Sky--" is in many ways also one of her easiest to understand--a remarkable fact, given that the poem's theme is actually the quite complicated relationship between the mind and the outer world. Using the homiletic mode that characterizes much of her early poetry--"the brain is wider than the sky" is as homiletic a statement as "success is counted sweetest by those who ne'er succeed"--, Dickinson testifies to the mind's capacity to absorb, interpret, and subsume perception and experience. The brain is wider than the sky despite the sky's awesome size because the brain is able to incorporate the universe into itself, and thereby even to absorb the ocean. The source of this capacity, in this poem, is God. In an astonishing comparison Dickinson likens the minds capacbilities to "the weight of God", differing from that weight only as syllable differs from sound.
This final stanza reads quite easily, but is actually rather complex--it is difficult to know precisely what Dickinson means. The brain differs from God, or from the weight of God, as syllable differs from sound; the difference between syllable and sound is that syllable is given human structure as part of a word, while sound is raw, unformed. Thus Dickinson seems to conceive of God here as an essence that takes its form from that of the human mind.
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Heterotopological Space in Emily Dickinson’s Poem 632 “The Brain—is wider than the sky—”
In this paper, we examine Emily Dickinson’s Poem 632 “The Brain—is wider than the sky” and argue that signifying spatial anxiety is the poet’s main preoccupation, attempting hence to fill a gap in critical appreciation which lacks a theoretically sound analysis of spatial signification and significance in Dickinson’s verse. Dickinson’s distinctive sense of space is examined in the light of Michel Foucault’s concept of ‘Heterotopology’. Focusing on width, depth, weight, color, and sound, in addition to shape/calligraphy, Dickinson’s poem achieves a size (a space) that goes beyond the limits of its lines and a significance that outreaches the sounds of its syllables. That is, the persona’s journey is a hyperreal wandering through multiple sites of heterotopic space, trying to achieve an insight or a comprehension which is only achievable, if at all possible, or at least the search for which is merely representable, in the hyperreal territory framed in the poem, which hence becomes a concentrated virtual presentation of the contending domains in persona’s (un)conscious (entire psyche). Those contending sites are symbolic of Dickinson’s intellectual, philosophic, and religious concerns mounting to her belief in the infinite possibilities of the human mind, a perception by which signifying geography overtakes knowledge.
Keywords: Heterotopological space, hyperreal space; Emily Dickinson; spatial anxiety; Michel Foucault.
Heterotopological Space in Emily Dickinson’s Poem 632 “The Brain—is wider than the sky—”
The Brain—is wider than the sky—
For— put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and you—beside—
The Brain is deeper than the sea—
For—hold them—Blue to Blue—
The one the other will absorb—
The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As Syllable from Sound—
Emily Dickinson’s Poem 632
“Space was rapidly replacing time as the single most crucial factor in American life, and it would soon dominate American literature as well.”
(McQuade et al, 265)
Signifying spatial anxiety is Dickinson’s main preoccupation in this poem, superficial spatiality perhaps containing, absorbing, and implicitly writing/voicing a wider, deeper, and equally weighing philosophical argument about man and the universe. Focusing on width, depth, weight, color, and sound, in addition to shape/calligraphy (the en rule, capitalization, and ‘Syllable’) Dickinson’s poem itself achieves a size (a space) that goes beyond the limits of its lines and a significance that outreaches the sounds of its syllables. This study examines the notion of hyperreal space in Dickinson’s poem, in the light of Michel Foucault’s concept of ‘heterotopology,’ in an attempt to fill a gap in critical appreciation which lacks a theoretically sound analysis of spatial signification and significance in Dickinson’s verse. Dickinson’s verse – with few references to this poem – has been received with mixed responses but with an almost unanimous preoccupation with the religious aspect along with manuscript presentation. Most studies have, nevertheless, so far fell short of providing a critically solid account of the spatial implication and magnitude of Dickinson’s poetry at large, or of this poem in particular, in a way that may help expose the religious and other ambiguities of that poetry.
A major aspect of the poem’s spatial dimension can be seen in the manuscript presentation, an issue that has preoccupied Dickinson’s critics who either read the distinctive presentation as an intentional swerve or discard its significance at all and pose doubts about the accuracy of the edited versions. For example, Domhnall Mitchell conservatively views Dickinson’s intentions that critics might attach to the assembling and presentation of her manuscripts, intentional fallacies they use as grounds for propositions regarding aesthetic ends (Mitchell, 706; 731). On the other hand, Thomas Johnson, speaking of Dickinson’s liberal use of dashes, wrote in the Harvard edition that “[Q]uite properly such ‘punctuation’ can be omitted in later editions…” (Johnson, ixiii), but he has later recognized that “Dickinson used dashes as a musical device, and though some may be elongated end stops, any ‘correction’ would be gratuitous”; the dashes are reproduced as they should be (Johnson, x-xi; 92).
A similar critical dispute marks readings of Dickinson’s religious stand. Critical reception of the issue can be categorically seen as a debate amongst those who argue Dickenson’s faith in God, her lack of faith in God, or her skeptic questioning of religion which might belong to any of the first two. David porter sums up the whole matter describing Dickinson’s divinity as “a form of religious challenge, either in hatred of a God she could not entirely deny or in paradoxical service to Him she doubted” (Porter, 119). Likewise, Christopher Benfey underlines Dickinson’s serious attachment to skepticism, arguing that Dickinson believed that one cannot know with certainty the existence of God or the nature of other minds and that “what is required of us is not more analysis but more acceptance,” an act of “trusting uncertainty,” whereby we need “to renounce our demands for proof, for certainty, for possession” (Benfey, 117; 118). This is a vague proposal; it seems to suggest that Dickinson abandons the intellect for blind faith, while at the same time asserting the significance of the mind since uncertainty is itself a skeptic attitude which, though may not seek proof, does at least ascertain the lack of evidence. Benfey’s argument is mistakenly more of the first sense. In fact, Dickinson’s poem “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” seems to refute Benfey’s proposition, maintaining rather Dickinson’s hold to the intellectual. She speaks of the death of the brain at the hands of “those same Boots of Lead” (line 11) who celebrated, in the last line, the doctrine “Finished knowing—then—” Dickinson refused this death of the mind and insisted that inquiry should never stop, as her final disclosure (—then—) hints. Benfey seems to side with those who finished knowing. Within this context, William Franke argues that Dickinson’s poetry should best be understood as a negative theology, that which he calls ‘apophatic’, an act of exploring based on negating the existing, a skeptic strain indeed (Franke).
We know from the biographical sources that Dickinson’s early theological exposure was Puritan, the Calvinist dogma, to which she reacted because of two main Calvinist principles: infant damnation (original sin) and God’s sovereign election of His own. Nonetheless, it is now evident that the so-called ‘literary transcendentalism’ was forcefully effective at her time, an effect that perhaps accounts for her paradoxical views of religious matters, for while it is argued that she admired the notion of a compassionate Savior, she also resented the hypocrisy of the institutional church. To Karl Keller, “she is like Bradstreet in daring to write, despite being a woman, because of Puritan covenantal validation of her inner experience, yet she goes well beyond Bradstreet in the flamboyance of her self-sufficiency, claiming herself a rival of God” (in Buckingham, 675). In this regard, Allen Tate claims that Dickinson’s poetry resolves the historical clash between a dying Puritanism and a rising “piratical” individualism, because Dickinson’s verse embodies a polar opposition between the two, offering hence a revised form of the Puritan “theological dumb-show” (quoted in O'Hara, 180). As Pinsker Sanford puts it:
Emily’s poetry is wedded to mystery. So, when I think of the 20th-century writer she most resembles, it is hardly surprising that Kafka comes to mind, for, like Kafka, she retained enough awe to equate a powerful God with an earthly father, and enough rebelliousness, enough unswerving honesty, to pit her imagination against both. (Sanford)
In fact, reading Dickinson’s religious inquiry, one recalls a related notion in Blake’s “Songs of Innocence” and “Songs of Experience”. However, her religious contemplations remain enigmatic, as if she plays it safe, finding in mystery a haven for her desired contemplation and safe social/religious position. As Richard Sewall claims, Dickinson is trying to “effect a bridge between two poles” which he sees in the light of Porter’s claim that Dickinson’s mind is torn between the poles of the now and the hoped for, between actuality and ideality, a mind marked by a tendency towards the ‘re-mystified’ (Sewall, 24).
Dickinson’s ambivalent notion of faith in God is central in David Rutledge’s reading of Dickinson’s poem 338 “I know that he exists”. Rutledge argues that after the simple declarative statement ‘I know that he exists’, Dickinson undermines that faith in the rest of the poem by posing doubt about God’s actual existence, a doubt reinforced by the inevitable reality of death which creates an ambivalent psychological state that is remains troubled by fear of fear of divine punishment in case of the existence of God or fear of the hence ‘unknown’ due to a nonexistence of God (Rutledge). Besides, death turns more real and frightening than God. Hence, the persona moves from hope and faith to fear and despair, a downward journey into the inferno of the real, rather than the ideal. That is, death is certain while, in moments of panic, God is uncertain; or that God is a psychologically needed creation to prepare one for encounter with death. This perception is evident in one of Dickinson’s disclosures, where she attaches religion to grief: “When Jesus tells us about his Father, we distrust him. When he shows us his Home, we turn away, but when he confides to us that he is ‘acquainted with Grief,’ we listen, for that also is an Acquaintance of our own” (Dickinson, L 932; quoted in Roxanne, 315). Examining “Dickinson’s conflicted view of her Christianity,” Harde Roxanne argues that “she is tied to the Church’s language and narrative, but its views of God and immortality terrify and anger her” a matter that represents “the shape of her lifelong theological explorations” (Roxanne, 315). However, Roxanne’s understanding of Dickinson’s Christology of embodiment is presented as a “Christology of the body” (Roxanne, 318). As such, there is a problem: what about the spirit and/or the mind. Perhaps, this Christology of embodiment is to be seen as a Christology of the mind/brain/intellect leading to – or perhaps refuting -- a spiritual epiphany.
Other critical accounts assign Dickinson’s skepticism about religion to her felt conflict between the real and the ideal. Judith Banzer traces ‘the habit of Dickinson’s mind,’ that of trying to establish a “Double Estate,” through which the ideal notion of God is grasped realistically by seeing God as her “Old Neighbor” (Banzer, 417). Banzer here foresees a connection between Dickinson and the Metaphysical poets, arguing that Dickinson had a habit of constant contemplation of ‘Essence’, within a notion of “oneness of being,” whereby the poetry becomes “the continual creation of an explorative and unifying self,” a mode of divine communion based on “her simultaneous analysis of earth and eternity” in order to “compose the ‘Compound Manner’ that commits her to the metaphysical tradition” (Banzer, 417; 433). Nonetheless, this notion of ‘oneness of being’, inherent in the Transcendentalists, offered her the chance and meditative mechanism of exploring her mind, since, Anna Wells asserts, Dickinson “seems to have absorbed something of the spirit of Transcendentalism” (Wells, 245).
Besides, some critics link Dickinson’s skeptic views of religion with science, or a scientific attitude. Fred White traces Dickinson’s devotion to recruiting scientific premises in her poetry such as science in general, biology, botany, chemistry, geology, mathematics, medicine, physiology, physics, astronomy, and psychology. White argues that “[F]ew poets in [the] twentieth century, let alone the nineteenth, have incorporated scientific concepts into their work as purposively and effectively as Emily Dickinson… More than 200 of her poems touch on scientific themes” (White, 121). White ascertains that Dickinson’s incorporation of scientific discourse in her poetry is to be seen in relation to, amongst many other issues, her ‘epistemological dilemma’, which is central in her struggle between certainty and uncertainty. Speaking of her family, Dickinson says: “They are religious except me, and address an eclipse every morning whom they call Father” (in Wells, 250). After all, Dickinson herself reveals this interest in skepticism in her verse:
Sweet Skepticism of the Heart—
That knows--and does not know—
And tosses like a Fleet of Balm
Affronted by the snow—
Invites and then retards the Truth
Lest Certainty be sere
Compared with the delicious throe
Of transport filled with Fear-- (P 1413)
Uncertainty is a motivation for life and for an ongoing pursuit. Certainty is no more than a frightening ultimatum for Dickinson. Such involvement with science, Magdalena Zapedowska argues, contributed to Dickinson’s skepticism about a Calvinist God: “Scientific discoveries, industrialization and the growth of capitalist economy, and, last but not least, the unprecedented bloodshed of the Civil War seriously undermined faith in a benevolent Deity and a divinely ordered universe” (Zapedowska, 379).
Within the same line of inquiry, James Wilson argues that the scientific revolution of Dickinson’s time had proven that a Puritan determinism regarding a notion of God’s supreme rule meant the necessary abandonment of reason, a matter that was to be reacted against in order to establish the primacy of the intellect (Wilson, 399). In the words of Helen Casey: “Her [Dickinson’s] physical description was an effort to convey that successful poems are not effete passages or bookish exercises; they are chillingly annihilating. They have the power to alter us irrevocably” (Casey, 5). Perhaps poetry then is a cognitive exercise achieved by and leading to revolutionary thought and hence potentially new sensation/feeling and belief/faith. While this active metamorphosis is at the heart of the poet’s creative endeavor, it is nonetheless a requirement for an enthusiastic reader who immerses himself/herself into the poet’s intellectual domain, the poem, though not necessarily achieving similar thoughts or feelings as those of the poet, particularly in the case of the open-end nature of Dickinson’s poems which do not conclude and rather initiate.
The poem is an intellectual space in which revolutionary thought takes place; the poem turns into mental gymnastics, a cognitive endeavor, which may not necessarily lead to an ultimate truth but may challenge those presented to be so. And because the issues examined in the poem are spatially wider, deeper, and heavier than the poem’s physical dimensions, it [the poem] turns into a virtually containing and encapsulating space. This perception is rooted into Dickinson’s notion of the brain/mind in poetry. The idea of the mind in her poems reflects a dual but simultaneous state of human awareness of the external and internal worlds; that is, being conscious of the external existence and maintaining meanwhile a consciousness of the inner self, this last one being the individual’s main tool of achieving a personal consciousness of the external world. As such, the skeptic strain is essential in this perception, whereby the whole external world, the non-self, is to be analyzed by individual consciousness before being cognized to become emancipated within, or be granted permission to enter into, the self. Hence, the whole of the external world might end up internalized in the self, a matter that raises a question about the distinctive notion of space by which the self may contain the physically extremely huger external world.
This paper attempts a reading of Dickinson’s poem in the light of the notion of ‘heterotopological space’ a term theorized by Michel Foucault in “Of Other Spaces” and The Order of Things. Introducing the term Heterotopias, Foucault argues that the nineteenth century was an age concerned with the development of history (past time), while the twentieth century is an age of space as a domain of simultaneity and juxtaposition, whereby space becomes a means by which time is controlled, held and overcome (Foucault 1986, 23). ‘Heterotopology’, Foucault explains, represents the co-existence of many various incompatible spaces in a particular real place (Foucault 1986, 25). In The Order of Things, he gives the term further possibilities, arguing that heterotoplogy is the interweaving of disjunctive, fragmentary spaces in one impossible space, whereby heterotopology becomes a creation of an order and a sorting of priorities (Foucault 1994, 31ff.; 330ff.). Regardless of whether the experience is to take place in a real or in an impossible location, there is a strain on a complexity of contending spaces to be experienced together in one space, real or unreal. In The Order of Things, Foucault argues that various types of episteme relocate themselves in varied cultural spaces in different times. As such, Foucault’s ‘heterotopological space’ represents an awareness of the relations that can be established among fragments of space(s) along with contending thoughts and/or feelings, whereby the contest turns out to be among places that are repository locations of those thoughts/feelings. In the end, this is a definitely ‘psychological space’ which recognizes the simultaneity and co-existence of (present and re-lived past) thoughts, feelings, and actions, experienced altogether in an impossible (unreal) or even real location, depending on what ‘real’ means, as for example in the case of a dream/fantasy or, in Dickinson’s case, in a poem. While the mutual relation between one’s past and present is not the main concern of this paper, it is essential to underline the notion of the crowded human mind in which numerous thoughts and feelings coexist and retain the power for mutual effect, since, after all, these coexisting domains are (to be) considered as spaces altogether making the site called human brain.
In her poem 632, Dickinson uses the en rule “—” instead of full stops, reflecting the unlimited virtual space of the brain. The use of the en rule in a way that interrupts statements like “For—hold them—Blue to blue—” compartmentalizes each item to a block of its own as if they are placed on two different pans of the scale, a manner that facilitates investigating and understanding each alone and in relation to other. The en rule seems to identify the boundaries of such domains along with the symbolism of the entities mentioned. Nonetheless these boundaries are not separated by full stops but rather by dashes hence suggesting that, rather than separable, these domains are indivisible. The use of capital letters or small letters is balanced to maintain a fair weight as if a letter’s weight may differ if it is capital or small. For example “side by side” are both written with small letters whereas “Blue to Blue,” “Sponges—Buckets,” “Pound for Pound,” and “Syllable from Sound” are all written fairly and justly with capital letters to maintain the weight of the scale. In this poem, Dickinson compares the unlimited virtual space of the Brain to the sky, sea, and to God who are all spatialized and materialized. In the first stanza, both the brain and the sky are spatialized and materialized since they can be grabbed and placed side by side as if on a gigantic scale to compare their virtual space. The brain’s virtual space is found wider since it can contain the person and the sky as well.
In the second stanza, the Brain is compared to the sea. The brain’s virtual space is deeper than the physical space of the sea, again, as if both items (brain and sea) can be held and placed on a gigantic scale and compared to each other. Within its deep virtual space, the brain can absorb and contain the sea, just as sponges can absorb buckets of water. “Blue to Blue” probably implies that Dickinson imagines the Brain’s virtual space as transparent, and will, therefore, reflect the color of the sea, thus making it like a sponge that will absorb not only liquid but also its color. In addition, blue is the color of both sky and sea, thus reflecting how the brain can absorb both and the entities between, from blue to blue. Blue is also a spiritual color which fits the spirituality of the experience (Guerin, 158).
In the third stanza, the Brain is compared to God, the transcendental signified. Even God is materialized/spatialized and placed on the pan of the scale to be weighed Pound for Pound with the Brain. The Brain’s weight, Dickinson claims, will probably be equal to that of God, as it is “just the weight of God.” “[i]f they do” suggests that Dickinson doubts the possibility of any difference in weight between the brain and God. Such a difference, if it exists, will be similar to the difference of “Syllable from Sound.” Hitherto, the Brain has always been placed on the left pan of the scale, and it would, therefore, get the word “Syllable,” whereas God would get the word “Sound”. Hence, the Brain acquires the power for expression and writing and God receives the power for inspiration. Further, the Syllable can have more than one sound in it, so the Brain might even contain God just like it contained the sky, the sea, and the person. And as the brain is wider than the sky, a symbolic realm of the divine, it might also hint at the brain’s capacity to encapsulate the divine. Thus, the Brain’s supposed infinite virtual space perhaps lies behind Dickinson’s choice to end her poem with an en rule instead of a full stop.
Doubtlessly, the poem emphasizes an intellectual attitude towards man’s understanding of the external reality, the brain being the nodal point of reference and concern in the poem, in terms of its spatial location whether grammatically as the subject of all topic sentences of the three stanzas or even in its initial position in all stanzas. Nonetheless, in a manner that recalls Orwell’s ironic sense of equality where all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others, Dickinson here offers illusive comparisons where the brain is wider than but equal to the sky and deeper than but equal to sea, ending up to be having an equally significant weight like that of God, who supposedly created the brain, the sky, and the sea; perhaps even, having achieved equality with God, the brain gained the creative power needed for inventing/originating the sky and the sea, in addition to a more daring sense of the brain having created the notion of the divine, as the pagans’ need for divinity made them invent their own deities. Dickinson’s poem seems to raise more questions rather than provide answers, a matter that underlines a skeptical attitude. Is this an equality of man and God? Is this a secular ideology making the mind, rather than God, the transcendental signifier (not signified)? Is this a cognitive ideology which positions man’s intellectual response at the forefront of all meaning and significance? Or is it a religious speculation about man’s divine essence, being God’s deputy on earth?
Dickinson’s comparisons are logically problematic. In the first, the brain is wider than the sky but the two can still be put side by side and each can contain the other, as if the width of any is not permanent but interchangeable with the other. In the second, the brain is deeper than the sky but each may absorb the other, as if the depth of any can be lent to the other. In the third most problematic comparison, the brain and God are brought as equal though they might be different (‘And they will differ’) depending on, as seen above, an enigmatic comparison of syllable and sound. In the case of the syllable and the sound, it is not determined which stands for the brain and which for god except for the respective relation whereby the syllable is the brain and the sound the god. It might be said here that syllable and sound are dependent on each other for the syllable determines the pronunciation (sound) and vice versa particularly that the comparison between the brain and God (and syllable and sound) is brought in the light of the attribute of weight. Definitely, Dickinson’s notion of weight here transcends the literal sense.
Back to the first stanza and comparison, the phrase “And you – beside” might help shed light on some of the vagueness. It is noticeable that here lies the poem’s only reference to an addressee (suggesting a dialogue rather than monologue), the identity of whom is also muddled, whether another side of the self or another person, whose backgrounds (gender, age, religion, etc.) are unknown. The preposition ‘beside’ might suggest location, the addressee being the one who works behind the scenes to determine the relations and comparisons, or being left outside the argument. Nonetheless, the preposition may also suggest ‘addition’ where the addressee might be contained in the brain or sky, or even be equally capable of containing either. In the end, the containing/contained and absorbing/absorbed are dependent on who overwhelms/overrules the other. Man can be overwhelmed by the sky, the sea, and god or intellectually overwhelm all of them by his wider, deeper, and resounding thought. Such thought might be reflective of a secular note, but can also be a manifestation of a religious celebration of the notion of the divine in man, where the brain can lead to stronger hold on belief in God. Rather than sameness, the difference between the two (brain/God) is emphasized, for while the comparisons in the two earlier cases stresses likeness, in this last case it is difference that is highlighted. Further, while the effort is to show equality in the first two comparisons (As/As; side by side; the one the other), the challenge is to determine the difference in the third (from).
The poem moves across spaces, starts up in the sky and then moves down to the sea, finally resting with man and god, syllable and sound, a movement from heaven to earth, the final destination being the relation between man and the divine, as if in search for understanding this relation; the syllable and sound are attributes of verse, the poem and writing, where the concern of the journey, the wished-for understanding, is to be reflected in writing, in the poem. After all, Dickinson’s call for the reader to imagine or envision entities (‘put them side by side’), as Charles Anderson points out, is a trick that depends on symbolic representation and results in a magnification of “the value of the consciousness” (Anderson, 265). The creation of a hyperreal space such as the poem, where many incompatible spaces can be brought together and experienced simultaneously along with juxtaposition, turn heterotopology to be, as seen earlier, a creation of an order and a sorting of priorities, an intellectual activity which, in the poem, reveals the conflicting aspects of consciousness and unconsciousness. In the poem, Dickinson sets on a journey of symbolism, that targeting the hidden, mysterious, and mute unconscious, a major archetypal symbol for which is the sea.
Once again, the dashes are separations of equally and simultaneously active domains (heterotopological spaces) competing or coexisting in the brain (consciousness or unconsciousness). Contrary to the idea that reading Dickinson’s poem hurries the reader, because of the dashes, the en rules slow down the movement and provide a chance for deeper and thoughtful contemplation. This belongs to a notion of slowed movement which pertains to a relation between space and time. It is evident that the poem does not include any reference to time at all. It is wholly about space, real or imagined. When time is stilled, its movement impeded or hindered, the observer is given the chance to contemplate deeply the observed. Let us first consider the effect of a full stop instead of the en rule: a statement is reversible or alterable before reaching the full stop, and likewise the action might be, unless completed, for with a full stop the statement/action comes to a halt.
The connection between stilled time and spatial concern/observation brings into account Einstein’s theory of relativity, a matter that Ole Bay-Peterson examined in Eliot’s poetry while arguing that Einstein’s space-time continuum asserts that time does not develop and, rather, becomes a “static phenomena in which events manifest themselves in their totality” (Bay-Peterson, 153).The coexistence of the varied virtual domains (sites) turns the persona’s psyche into a stage/theatre full of action, dialogue, and negotiation between characters/objects from varied sites of his/her life. Gaston Bachelard, a significant persuasive champion of poetic space, emphasizes the psychological complexity of space while seeking to uncover “how can an image, at times very unusual, appear to be a concentration of the entire psyche?”; and in answering this question, he attests that: “the reader of poems is asked to consider an image not as an object and even less as the substitute for an object, but to seize its specific reality” (Bachelard, xviii; xix) Bachelard argues that one has “to relive it [experience] entirely”, a reliving enabled by spatializing and objectifying the relived, an act Bachelard calls “a localization”, or, as seen earlier, a repository location (Ibid., xxxii; 8; 9). In simple terms, the concentrated entire psyche is a state in which the contending poles of the self are experienced simultaneously. Dickinson’s persona unites the multilayered parts of the self as he/she visualizes and hence externalizes and objectifies the contending domains in his/her brain and then brings all to negotiate. Dickinson presents these domains/sites within a focused act of objectification. Therefore, the disclosed, partially separated sites of the self are problematized in the poem by Dickinson’s making of them objects and spaces experienced, to be experienced and re-experienced again and again, lived and relived in what might be called a ‘simultaneous recall’.
This attitude has a connection with ekphrasis. In fact, there are painterly (ekphrastic or visual) aspects in the poem such as the emphasis on size, shape, location and color (including the notion of absorption) as well as comparative visual effects, putting visual objects side by side, blue to blue, and pound for pound, in addition to the arrangement of the images: starting up with the sky moving down to the sea seems to reveal a painter’s attitude of assigning the objects of his/her painting the right location, sky coming at the top and the sea at the bottom. Spatialization and objectification reinforces the observer’s (as the persona comes to see or imagine the objectified and spatialized) ability to re-experience the contemplated object, which is no longer a distanced entity as the case is in photography, to which Angela Cozea attached a case of “emotional detachment” (Cozea, 210 ), Walter Benjamin a lack of “contingency” (Benjamin, 243), and Roland Barthes a sense of mourning called “flat death”. That is, the distance between the disclosed (objectified) experience and the reader vanishes and the latter experiences the disclosed, spatialized, and objectified entity as if real or, in cases of animates, alive. In the poem, the spatialized and objectified entities are not static as in a painting but are moveable, though within restricted spheres (within the stanza itself), to be positioned according to the observer’s wish as he/she compares each against the other.
Consequently, Dickinson’s persona moves across various spaces that make the boundaries of his/her journey wandering in search of an understanding of basic aspects of man’s life. Between the sky (the divine) and the sea (the natural/Nature) Dickinson attempts to comprehend or offer a meaning of/for life, an attempt she makes using (and emphasizing the significance) of the brain, the intellect. Dickinson’s persona oscillates amongst symbolic places, the multiple sites of the poem. He/she is a traveler revealing and/or gaining experience through interrelated journeys into various emblematic locations, seeking an understanding of man and the universe. Such wandering into spaces mirrors the intellectual virtual journey that takes place in the brain, space becoming hence a translation of the mysterious abstract notion, which preoccupies the persona’s intellectual faculty, into spacialized and objectified form to render it more graspable and intelligible. That is, the persona’s journey is a hyperreal wandering through multiple sites of heterotopic space, trying to achieve an insight or a comprehension which is only achievable, if at all possible, or at least the search for which is merely representable, in the hyperreal territory framed in the poem, which hence becomes a concentrated presentation of the contending domains in persona’s (un)conscious (entire psyche). These contending sites are symbolic of Dickinson’s intellectual, philosophic, and religious concerns mounting to her belief in the infinite possibilities of the human mind. In fact, Dickinson’s poem is written in an intellectual manner that escapes transcendental or finite explication, for it will then lose its main argument that every mind might be overtaken by, though still capable of overtaking any phenomenon. The analysis offered in this paper adopts, or falls within, both positions.
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. John Schmit asserts the significance of paying attention to syntax in Dickinson’s poetry, focusing on such aspects as elision and insertion, by which Dickinson “creates indeterminacy” and whereby the readers are forced to provide the uncertain details” (Schmit, 106).
. One may also refer to Thomas Hardy’s enigmatic doubtful religious questioning which features in his verse.
. Roxanne’s reading is motivated by a feminist stand. She asserts that Dickinson’s Christology foreshadows modern Christian feminist theologians, basically “setting earthly experience over [the] heavenly” (Roxanne, 317). In this regard, Landry Jordan has seen such a Christology of embodiment in the light of a lesbian strain: “the longing for a merging between two same-sex bodies—as the telos of experience” (Landry, 876).
. James Guthrie persuasively pursues a connection between Dickinson’s poem 642 “There is a flower that Bees prefer –” and Darwin’s The Origin of Species.
. The latter sense [the unreal] perhaps pertains to dreams, as might be figured out from Foucault’s following distinction and elaboration: “This problem of the human site or living space is… that of knowing what relates of propinquity, what types of storage, circulation, marking, and classification of human elements should be adopted in a given situation in order to achieve a given end or epoch as one in which space takes for us the form of relations of any sites” (Foucault 1986, 23).
. This distinctive psychological space, where the past retains a cause-effect relation with the present, was central in Freud’s discussion of memory and the unconscious: “There is a kind of forgetting which is distinguished by the difficulty with which the memory is awakened even by powerful external summons... A forgetting of this kind has been given the name of ‘repression’ in psychology… What is repressed, it is true, as a rule makes its way into memory without more ado; but it retains the capacity for effective action, and with the influence of some external event, it may one day bring about psychical consequences” (emphasis added, Freud, 34). The past maintains its significant influence on present action, a co-existence of the two. David Hume perceived the relation between past and present as a matter of causation: “Had we no memory, we never should have any notion of causation, nor consequently of that chain of causes and effects, which constitute our self or person.” (Quoted in Watt, 21; originally from Hume, Bk. I, pt. 4, sect. vi). St. Augustine’s remarks on memory seem relevant here; he thought of memory as a dualistic activity where one part of the mind recalls the past and the other listens, watches and reacts; for him, memory is “like a great field or a spacious palace, a storehouse for countless images of all kinds which are conveyed to it by the senses… When I use my memory, I ask it to produce whatever it is that I wish to remember…, allowing my mind to pick what it chooses, until finally that which I wish to see stands out clearly and emerges into sight from its hiding place… and as their place is taken they return to their place of storage, ready to emerge again when I want them” (emphasis added, Augustine, 214). Augustine’s perception bears emphasis on notions of object, place, and human senses, whereby the co-existing past and present are spatialized and objectified.
. In her exhaustive examination of Dickinson’s use of colors, Rebecca Patterson pays particular attention to blue, finding that while the color occurs in mostly happy contexts in Dickinson’s verse, its darker associations are also abundant, in connection with sky, heavens, and infinity (Patterson, 674).
. There is still an ongoing debate in linguistics about the definition of the ‘syllable’ and hence the statement on the difference – or lack of it—between syllable and sound is difficult to uncover unless one can find out the definition Dickinson adopted. William Sherwood postulates a double meaning: the brain “is inferior to God, for each syllable includes only a fraction of the total range of sound,” and yet “the syllable is the instrument by which sound is articulated” so “the mortal soul” must be “more perceptive and more intelligent” (Sherwood, 127-28). Beatrice Jacobson defines “sound” as “undifferentiated aural sensation” in contrast to the “syllable” as “a single unit of sound” with human-assigned “particular meaning” (Jacobson, 182-3). Jacobson concludes that the mind contains rather than encompasses God, just as syllables contain a single sound without reflecting the entire range of feasible sounds -- a comparison which validates “the God-like capacity of the mind” (Jacobson, 183).
. As for the symbolism of the sea as an archetypal reference to the unconscious, see Grimal; Jung; Natoli; Wright.
. In a pre-Deconstructive sense, this endless process of recall is similar to Derrida’s notion of the continuous play of the ‘centre’ that is “infinitely redoubling” (Derrida 1978, 297), a matter that keeps the text alive since “the absence of play and differance [is] another name for death” (Derrida 1978, 297).
. Barthes argues that the photograph creates a paradoxical reality as “it establishes not a consciousness of the being-there of the thing (which any copy could provoke) but an awareness of its having-been-there”, with a consequent psychological chasm between the ‘here-now’ and ‘then-there’ (Barthes, 44). For a comprehensive treatment of the issue see my book Cognitive Ekphrasis, particularly chapter one.
. For more on the cognitive essence of ekphrasis, see Nayef Al-Joulan’s argument that ekphrastic verse creates a discourse in which man and nature can express themselves in a context for intellectual appreciation (Al-Joulan).
. Interestingly, the brain is not engendered, with an equality of male and female.
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Short Biography Emily Dickinson
General Summary Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson, regarded as one of America’s greatest poets, is also well known for her unusual life of self imposed social seclusion. Living a life of simplicity and seclusion, she yet wrote poetry of great power; questioning the nature of immortality and death, with at times an almost mantric quality. Her different lifestyle created an aura; often romanticised, and frequently a source of interest and speculation. But ultimately Emily Dickinson is remembered for her unique poetry. Within short, compact phrases she expressed far-reaching ideas; amidst paradox and uncertainty her poetry has an undeniable capacity to move and provoke.
Early Life Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson was born on 10th December, 1830, in the town of Amherst, Massachusetts. Amherst, 50 miles from Boston, had become well known as a centre for Education, based around Amherst College. Her family were pillars of the local community; their house known as “The Homestead” or “Mansion” was often used as a meeting place for distinguished visitors including, Ralph Waldo Emerson. (although it unlikely he met with Emily Dickinson)
As a young child, Emily proved to be a bright and conscientious student. She showed a sharp intelligence, and was able to create many original writings of rhyming stories, delighting her fellow classmates. Emily’s father was strict and keen to bring up his children in the proper way. Emily said of her father. “his heart was pure and terrible”. His strictness can be shown through his censorship of reading materials; Walt Whitman for example was considered “too inappropriate” and novels had to be smuggled into the house. In response, Emily was highly deferential to her father and other male figures of authority. But in her own way she loved and respected her father, even if at times, he appeared to be aloof. At a young age, she said she wished to be the “best little girl”. However despite her attempts to please and be well thought of, she was also at the same time independently minded, and quite willing to refuse the prevailing orthodoxy’s on certain issues.
Religious Influence on the Poetry of Emily Dickinson
A crucial issue at the time was the issue of religion, which to Emily was the “all important question” The antecendents of the Dickinson’s can be traced back to the early Puritan settlers, who left Lincolnshire in the late 17th Century. Her antecedents had left England, so they could practise religious freedom in America. In the nineteenth- century, religion was still the dominant issue of the day. The East coast, in particular, saw a revival of strict Calvinism; developing partly in response to the more inclusive Unitarianism. Amherst College itself was founded with the intention of training ministers to spread the Christian word. Calvinism. By inclinination, Emily Dickinson would probably have been more at ease with the looser and more inclusive ideology of Unitarianism. However, the “Great Revival” as it was known, pushed the Calvinist view to greatest prominence.
Religious Belief - Emily Dickinson
The Calvinist approach to religion believed that men were inherently sinful and most humans were doomed to hell. There was only a small number who would be saved, and this could only be achieved by the adherent proclaiming his faith in Jesus Christ, as the true saviour. There was subtle, but concerted effort, to encourage people to declare themselves saved. Both, at school and at college, there would have been much of this subtle pressure put on Emily to join the “saved”; but this she never did. Her father was not too concerned with the religious views of his children even though, later in his life, he also accepted this belief. Thus, on the crucial issue of the day Emily was relatively isolated. Amongst other reasons, Emily could never accept the doctrine of “original sin”. Despite remaining true to her own convictions, Emily was left with a sense of exclusion from the established religion, and these sentiments inform much of her poetry. There is frequent reference to “being shut out of heaven”. Yet despite this rejection of the orthodox religion, there is much in her poetry which reveals a profoundly religious temperament. For Emily religious experience was not a simple intellectual statement of belief; it could be more accurately reflected in the beauty of nature, and the experiences of ecstatic joy. Yet, although her poetry expressed intense inner experiences, this separation from established religion is a factor in her uncertainties and fluctuations in sentiment, evident in many poems.
Emily was a bright conscientious student. At Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley, she was able to study a range of subjects from Latin to English Literature. However, her studies were often interrupted by ill health. After a persistent cough developed, her father decided to remove her from college and bring her back home. Thus she left without any formal qualifications, but she had at least been able to broaden her education and vocabulary.
Emily Dickinson’s later seclusion from society gives an impression of a life of austerity and simplicity. This has been romanticised, with the frequently cited preference for her wearing all white dresses. However, Emily was both a keen artist and accomplished musician. In her college years she enjoyed singing; making reference to the similarities between poetry and singing. She also had a sharp eye for beautiful art; this visual sense and her appreciation of bright colours being evident in many of her poems. Emily was also well read, choosing writers such as; Emerson, Thoreau, Dickens, John Ruskin, and nineteenth- century poets like the Browning’s and the Bronte sisters.
The poetry of Emerson was introduced to Emily by one of her brother’s friends, Benjamin Newton. Newton was a young law student, who was well versed in contemporary literature. He was one of the first people to recognise the poetic capacities of Emily, and encouraged her to write poetry. The works of other poets, in particular Emerson, were important for Emily Dickinson in opening up spiritual ideas beyond the strict Calvinism. Emily had innovative views and unorthodox beliefs, but she often doubted her own convictions; thus influences of Emerson and other poets were of great importance.
On returning home from college, Emily Dickinson learnt much of the domestic chores, helping her mother with cleaning, sewing and entertaining. She sought as much as possible to maintain the ideals of the early American travellers following principles of honesty, simplicity and high minded morals. Emily was said to be beautiful, with a soft voice and dark eyes. She dressed in a relatively simple way and surviving photos show she kept her hair in a simple straightened style (somewhat like the Puritan style).
Emily was quick witted and intelligent; she had a good sense of humour, but was often ill at ease in other people’s company. She gave the impression of being somewhat agitated and intense. Her friend and literary critic, Terence Higginson, would later say how tense the meeting with her was.
“I was never with anyone who drained my nerve power so much.” However, he did comment that this “little plain woman” was also ingenious, childlike and seemed very thoughtful of others.” Also, although she did feel awkward in some social situations, with her close friends and sisters she could easily indulge in innocent childlike humour.
Emily herself often thought of herself like a child; even tomboy and she referred to this in many of her poems. In this frame of mind, she portrayed a degree of vulnerability looking to others for protection. This was particularly marked in her relationship with her authoritarian father, whom she was eager to defer to.
For a time, her father served in the House of Representatives, and on occasion Emily visited Washington. It was here that she was able to come into contact with the charismatic preacher, the Reverend Charles Wadsworth. From her letters, it is clear she held him in high esteem, despite their apparent differences in theological beliefs. The 2 exchanged letters for many years, including responses to Emily’s request for spiritual guidance.
Emily Dickinson's Seclusion
Because of her discomfort and shyness in social situations, Emily gradually reduced her social contacts, going out less and less into society. By her late twenties, this has led to an almost complete seclusion; spending most of her time in the family house, rarely meeting others from outside a close family circle. Her sister explains this wasn’t a sudden decision, but a gradual process that happened over a period of time. However, despite the physical seclusion, Emily still maintained written contact with a variety of thought provoking people. It is also clear from her poetry that her decision to live life as a recluse did not close her mind, but in many ways allowed the flow of new avenues of thought and inner experiences.
Despite her family’s strong political tradition, Emily appeared unconcerned with politics. At the start of the American civil war she commented little on the event, and choose not to help the war effort, through making bandages. To be fair, this attitude of distancing from the war was quite common in the north. For example, her brother Austin choose to pay $500 to avoid military service; however as the war years advanced and Amherst experienced its first casualties of war, inevitably its citizens were drawn further into the conflict. Emily and her family, were particularly affected when friends of the family were killed in battle. Death of close friends was a significant feature of Emily’s life; many close to her were taken away. This inevitably heightened her interest, fascination and perhaps fear of death, which informed so much of her poetry. The Civil War years were also the most productive for Emily; in terms of quantity of poems, it appears Emily Dickinson was influenced imperceptibly by the atmosphere of War, even if it appeared somewhat distant to her.
As well as writing over 1,700 poems, Emily was a prolific letter writer; these letters giving her the opportunity for contact with others, that in other respects she denied herself. Her letters show her love of language and are often not too dissimilar to her style of poetry. She went to great length to express her personal sentiments of gratitude and love to others. Her letters to her sister in law Sue have often been interpreted as love letters, leading to speculation over her sexual bias. But it must be remembered this emotional style of writing and communicating was fairly common for the time. They should also be seen in regard to Emily’s other letters, which freely express intense emotional sentiments.
Many of her poems refer to an invisible lover, - an object of devotion. Biographers have inevitably speculated about who this is. There is strong evidence that towards the end of her life she had some kind of emotional relationship with Judge Otis Lord (many years her senior and highly respected within the community). However, the poetry of Emily Dickinson was often deliberately vague. The object of her devotion may have been no person in particular, but some unknown aspect of the divine.
Emily Dickinson died at the age of 55 from Bight’s disease, which is caused by kidney degeneration. Her doctor suggested that the accumulation of stress throughout her life contributed to her premature death.
Despite Emily’s seclusion and frail health, her poetry reveals that she did experience moments of great joy. Through nature and life she was able to glimpse into a mystic dimension beyond worldly distractions; although it is also clear this did not become a permanent feeling. For every ecstatic joy there seems to be a contrasting doubt and uncertainty. But she was able to offer a concise and direct revelation of thought provoking ideas through a powerful command of language. Even critics of her poetry, who point to inconsistencies in style and form, cannot deny the inherent power of her poetry and this explains the enduring popularity and success of her poetry.
My life closed twice before its close.
It yet remains to see
If immortality unveil
A third event to me,
So huge, so hopeless to conceive
As these that twice befell,
Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell.
After her death, her close sister Vinnie, had been instructed to burn her letters. In doing so she came across a box of 1,700 of Emily’s poems. Thankfully Vinnie ignored any request to burn old manuscripts. After a couple of years, Vinnie handed them to a family friend, Mabel Todd. Although Mabel had never met Emily, she had often been to Evergreens, the Dickinson family home. She typed up 200 letters becoming increasingly enthusiastic about the beauty and power of the poems. With the help and encouragement of Terrence Higginson, Emily’s long standing friend, the first edition of poems was published in 1893. Her poems soon received extraordinary praise from leading magazines and newspapers. The New York Times claimed Emily Dickinson would soon be known amongst the immortals of English speaking poets.
By: T.Pettinger 26/06/2006
• Emily Dickinson - Marnie Pomeroy ISBN 1-871551-68-4
• The Life of Emily Dickinson by Richard B Sewell (1974)
• The Poems of Emily Dickinson edited by R.W.Franklin (1998)
• Emily Dickinson at Amazon.co.uk
• Emily Dickinson at Amazon.com
• Emily Dickinson Electronic Archive
• Emily Dickinson Poetry at Poetseers
• Complete Poems at Bartleby
• The Spirituality of Emily Dickinson
• Poems Emily Dickinson
• Did Emily Dickinson want her poems published?
• Quotes of Emily Dickinson
< http://www.biographyonline.net/poets/emily_dickinson.html >
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