The Essential Emily Dickinson


Written by Joyce Carol Oates

Between them, our great visionary poets of the American 19th century, Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) and Walt Whitman (1819-1892), have come to represent the extreme, idiosyncratic poles of the American psyche: the intensely inward, private, elliptical and "mystical" (Dickinson); and the robustly outward-looking, public, rhapsodic and "mystical" (Whitman). One declared: "I'm Nobody! Who are you?" The other declared: "Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos..." Both were poets whose commitment to poetry was absolute and uncompromising, and whose unconventional lives were so arranged that poetry, "the Soul at the White Heat" (Dickinson, 365, ca. 1862), took primacy over all else. (Neither married, for instance, and though Whitman may have boasted of progeny, there are no Whitman children on record. Emily Dickinson was surely celibate through her sequestered life.) When Dickinson died at the age of fifty-five, of Bright's disease, she had lived almost exclusively in her father's house (as she spoke of it) near a busy thoroughfare in the rural town of Amherst, Massachusetts, as a perpetual daughter of the well-to-do household who did not chafe at, but on the contrary celebrated, what Dickinson called "the Infinite Power of Home." If it seems almost too symbolically apt that the one great visionary is a woman and the other a man, and that each seems to have wished to promulgate an exaggeration of gender-type (the virgin, the "rough") it should be emphasized that Dickinson frequently employs a seemingly masculine persona, and most of her poems transcend gender; Whitman is proudly masculine"—yet his most subtle poems are suffused with an androgynous, even "feminine" sensibility. Dickinson and Whitman can be said to embrace the American cosmos, and their luminous poetry, misunderstood and even repudiated in the poets' lifetimes, possesses a remarkable contemporaneity in our own.

Though it was known among her family and friends that Emily Dickinson had written poems much of her life, the size of the cache discovered by her sister Vinnie after Dickinson's death astonished everyone: 1,775 poems of varying degrees of completeness and legibility, some of them scribbled on the backs of bills. (It was Dickinson's practice to write on scraps of paper that accumulated in her apron pockets during the course of a day, to be artfully assembled at night in the privacy of her room.) So considerable is the poet's posthumous fame that it comes as a revelation to many readers that Dickinson published fewer than twenty poems during her lifetime. Her obscurity as a poet at the time of her death surpassed even that of William Blake, the enigmatic purity of whose Songs of Innocence and of Experience suggests a kinship with Dickinson's work. Like the visionary Blake, long considered an eccentric, if not a madman, in the world's eyes, Dickinson was fascinated with the seductive interiority of the imagination: "Within is so wild a place," Dickinson declares. And, in language and imagery Blake would have understood:

Much Madness is divinest Sense-
To a discerning Eye—
Much sense—the starkest Madness...
'Tis the Majority
In this, as All, prevail—

(435, ca. 1862)

Contrary to popular legend, Emily Dickinson was by no means an absolute recluse; she frequently saw a number of Amherst friends and neighbors, participated in a busy household, and maintained friendly relations with several distinguished literary men of the day, two of whom were associated with the Springfield Daily Republican, a newspaper of national reputation. The third, T. W. Higginson, a writer for the Atlantic Monthly, has had the misfortune to enter literary history as the man who failed to recognize Dickinson's genius, but in fact, after Dickinson's death, at the urging of her editor Mabel Loomis Todd, Higginson was instrumental in getting Dickinson's "verse" (as it was condescendingly called) into print. At the time of their primarily epistolary relationship, however, through the 1860s, when Dickinson sent him more than 100 poems for commentary, Higginson was simply not discerning enough to rise above the conventional poetics of the day: he criticized Dickinson's metrics as "spasmodic" and attempted, with the good intentions of many an obtuse editor confounded by genius, to "correct" her experimental rhyming and syntax. Dickinson dealt with this disappointment by retreating from any active hope of seeing her poetry published, let alone appreciated; her refuge, and her strength, would lie in the subversive strategies of anonymity, invisibility, self-reliance. The poet is indeed, and ideally, "Nobody." Rejection is transposed into defiance: "I'm ceded—I've stopped being Theirs—" (508, ca. 1862). And, in images that conflate poet and female: "They shut me up in Prose—/ As when a Little Girl/ They put me in the Closet—/ Because they liked me 'still'—" (613, ca. 1862).

The poet goes farther, to suggest a radical distinction between two sorts of consciousness, two species of human being:

Best Witchcraft is Geometry
To the magician's mind—
His ordinary acts are feats
To thinking of mankind.

(1158, ca. 1870)

The witch-poet is the magician of words; ironically, another of her guises is that of a woman of her time, place, and social class. Look for her and she is—where?

I hide myself within my flower
That fading from your Vase,
You, unsuspecting, feel for me—
Almost a loneliness.

In characteristically bold imagery, the poet defines her repressed imagination: "My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun—/ In Corners—till a Day/ The Owner passed—identified—/ And carried Me away—"

(754, ca. 1863).

It is believed that Dickinson wrote as many letters as poems, of which approximately 1000 remain. The letters are as elliptical, rich in imagery, and as teasingly coy as the poems; here is part of a letter of 1862 to her literary friend Samuel Bowles, of the Daily Republican, at the time suffering from ill health:

Dear friend.
Are you willing? I am so far from Land—to offer you the cup—it might some Sabbath come my turn— Of wine how solemn—full! ...While you are sick—we—are homesick— Do you look out tonight? The Moon rides like a Girl—through a Topaz Town-I don't think we shall ever be merry again—you are ill so long -- When did the Dark happen?

Dickinson discovered, in adolescence, her distinctive voice, and the energies out of which she writes both poetry and prose are inclined to be romantically adolescent and rebellious; at once self-effacing and self-declaring. The air of deprivation that typifies the angrier of the poems is really self-deprivation, though attributed to other sources. Hunger—literal? sexual? a hunger for the manly attributes of freedom and power?—is a familiar motif of the poetry, set forth in brilliantly compact images:

It would have starved a Gnat
To live so small as I—
And yet I was a living Child—
With Food's necessity

Upon me—like a Claw—
I could no more remove
Than I could coax a Leech away-
Or make a Dragon—move

(612, ca. 1862)

"Gnat"—"Claw"—"Leech"—"Dragon": a child's inventory of monstrous forces to be exercised; by way of the poet's witchcraft-art, brought into control. For the poet is the "spider" as well, working at night in the secrecy of her room, unwinding a "Yarn of Pearl" unperceived by others and plying "from Nought to Nought/ In unsubstantial Trade—"

Dare you see a Soul at the White Heat?
Then crouch within the door—
Red—is the Fire's common tint—
But when the vivid Ore
Has vanquished Flame's conditions,
It quivers from the Forge
Without a color, but the light
Of unanointed Blaze.

(365, ca. 1862)

Literary fame is perhaps not the goal, but it seems to have been a subject to which the poet has given some thought: "Some—Work for Immortality—/ the Chiefer part, for Time—" (406, ca. 1862). And in a flight of speculative discretion:

Fame of Myself, to justify,
All other Plaudit be
Superfluous—An Incense
Beyond Necessity—

Fame of Myself to lack—Although
My Name be else Supreme—
This were an Honor honorless—
A futile Diadem—

(713, ca. 1863)

Yet more wryly in this late, undated poem that might have been written by a poet who had in fact enjoyed public acclaim:

Fame is a bee.
It has a song—
It has a sting—
Ah, too, it has a
wing.

(1763)

And what mysterious eloquence in this similarly late, undated poem, with its powerful Shakespearean resonance:

Fame is a fickle food
Upon a shifting plate
Whose table once a
Guest but not
The second time is set.

Whose crumbs the crows inspect
And with ironic caw
Flap past it to the
Farmer's Corn—
Men eat of it and die.

(1659)

As Mabel Loomis Todd remarked, "Emily was more interested in her poems than in any man."

The poet's willed anonymity/invisibility in her art requires an ascetic paring-back of all that is superfluous and distracting and merely "historical" (as opposed to "eternal"). Consequently, much of the external world, the "real" world one might say, is excluded from Dickinson's art; the national disgrace of slavery, the very fact of the Civil War, for instance, are not once named in her poetry though she was writing no less than a poem a day during the terrible years 1862-63. The very antithesis of the public-minded, war-conscious, rhapsodically grieving Walt Whitman! Dickinson never shied away from the great subjects of human suffering, loss, death, even madness, but her perspective was intensely private; like Rainer Maria Rilke and Gerard Manley Hopkins, she is the great poet of inwardness, of that indefinable region of the soul in which we are, in a sense, all one. This is an archetypal world in which "Great streets of silence [lead] away/ To Neighborhoods of Pause—" (1159, ca. 1891)

Measured against verse characteristic of her era, Emily Dickinson's poems constitute a kind of counter-poetry. Her miniaturist work is as radical and jarring as Cézanne's landscapes would have seemed to 19th-century eyes enamoured of the enormous, sublime landscapes of Frederic Edwin Church, Albert Bierstadt, and the Hudson Valley School. Just as the adolescent Emily Dickinson dared to reject Christianity and, in a church-centered village society, declined to attend church services, so too in her art, though she was exceedingly well-read in poetry (Shakespeare, Milton, Byron, Shelley, Goethe, the Brownings, Tennyson, Longfellow, Bryant, Emerson, for instance, as well as lesser, popular poets of her day), she rejected any semblance of orthodoxy. The very look of many of Dickinson's poems on the page is revolutionary: her seemingly breathless pauses and dashes, her odd, Blakean capitalizations, her disjointed phrases and radical variants of rhyme, rhythm, cadence—all point to a poet of unique, unnerving gifts. The signature Dickinson strategy of inverting syntax to call attention to perversities of meaning ("The most obliging Trap/ Its tendency to snap/ Cannot resist" [1340, ca. 1875]) has been traced by scholars to the poet's artful, sometimes playful, adaptation of the rules of Latin grammar for her own purposes. At times, Dickinson seems to anticipate the bold mimicry of childish speech and schizophrenic dream-babble that fascinated James Joyce in the latter part of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake:

This dirty—little—Heart
Is freely mine.
I won it with a Bun—
A Freckled shrine—

But eligibly fair
To him who sees
The Visage of the Soul
And not the knees.

(1311, ca. 1874)

Another "modernist" technique in Dickinson is the mimicry of quicksilver moments in which images, thoughts, sensations seem to fly through the poet's mind, recorded in the very instant of their manifestation: "The Red—Blaze—is the Morning—/ The Violet—is Noon—/ The Yellow—Day—is falling—/ And after that—is none—" (468, ca. 1862). And, in its entirety, this koan-like little gem: "The competitions of the sky/ Corrodeless ply." (1494, ca. 1880). Even in the finely chiseled, much-revised longer poems there is a trompe l'oeil quality, a brilliant mimesis of the ephemera of thought passing through a mind of surpassing discrimination.

Despite the transparency of Dickinson's poetry, in which the "personal" casts but the palest shadow, as in the finely crafted prose of Henry David Thoreau, one has a vivid sense of turbulent emotions, passion, loss. If this is a species of confessional poetry-and what intensely felt poetry is not confessional?—it has been purged of all pettiness and self-pity; the poem becomes a vehicle of exorcism through the very precision of its language, as in the much-debated poem whose first stanza is "Wild Nights!—Wild Nights!/ Were I with thee/ Wild Nights should be/ Our luxury!" (249, ca. 1861) but whose conclusion is wholly unexpected. Until fairly recent times in America, as elsewhere, premature death was not uncommon. Nor was it, one supposes, invariably perceived as "premature." Dickinson was literally surrounded by death from childhood onward; the deaths of family members, relatives, friends and Amherst neighbors; many of them, like her father's, unexpected, and never satisfactorily diagnosed ("apoplexy," the doctor decided). Then there were the slow sinkings-into-death endured by chronic invalids like Dickinson's mother, nursed by her daughter, until her death in 1881 when Dickinson was fifty-one years old. Many of Dickinson's most austere, accomplished poems can be considered deathbed or graveside elegies, responses to individual deaths that make no references to the specific; the imagery of death's ceremonial inevitability is never far distant from her imagination: "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,/ And Mourners to and fro" (280, ca. 1861); "Because I could not stop for Death—/ He kindly stopped for me—" (712, ca. 1863); "I heard a Fly buzz—when I died" (341, ca. 1862); "After great pain, a formal feeling comes—" (341, ca. 1862); "What care the Dead, for Chanticleer—/ What care the Dead for Day?" (592, ca. 1862); "I've seen a Dying Eye/ Run round and round a Room—" (547, ca. 1862). The poet is both observer and participant; death is the greatest of riddles, the most profound of ironies:

To eyelids in the Sepulchre—
How dumb the Dancer lies—
While Color's Revelations break—
And blaze—the Butterflies!

Dickinson has written as frankly of despair and the terror of spiritual collapse as any poet who has ever written, but the poet's cri de coeur transcends personal anguish to forge convictions, or hypotheses, regarding the general fate of mankind; as in the extraordinary poems of her most fertile, prolific decade, the 1860s: "The Brain, within its Groove" (556, ca. 1862); "There is a pain—so utter—/ It swallows substance up—" (599, ca. 1862); "I felt a Cleaving in my Mind—/ As if my Brain had split—" (937, ca. 1864); and, most terrifying of all, in the very grace of its utterance, "The first Day's Night had come—" (410, ca. 1862). And what tranquility of resignation, beyond tragedy, in this poem of two packed lines:

To Whom the Mornings stand for Nights,
What must the Midnights—be!

(1095, ca. 1866)

And this heartrending aside, in the midst of an elegy:

Oh Life, begun in fluent Blood,
And consummated dull!

(1130, ca. 1868)

Yet there is a side of Emily Dickinson that is not elegiac, nor even stoic and "profound"; her temperament was as much subversively playful as solemn, and even rather wicked, as in a number of her frankly funny asides on persons, customs, reigning orthodoxies she has observed. The first poem in this anthology, written when Dickinson was 19 years old, suggests both her precocious skill as a young poet and her mordant sense of humor ("The worm doth woo the mortal, death claims a living bride"); it demonstrates how confidently she could craft "verse" in swinging couplets. And how wise she was, to abandon the genre forever. I include it here, along with other of Dickinson's genial parodies and comic takes ("A Charm invests a face/ Imperfectly beheld—" [421, ca. 1862]) and corrosive theological aphorisms ("...The Maker's cordial visage,/ However good to see,/ Is shunned, we must admit it,/ Like an adversity" [1718, ca. ?]) to give the reader a sense of Dickinson's generally unacknowledged variation of voice; and, of course, because the poems merit attention. It seems instructive to know that in the year of miracles in which so many of her great elegiac poems were composed, 1862, Dickinson was capable of a Wildean sly good humor:

What Soft—Cherubic Creatures—
These Gentlewomen are—
One would as soon assault a Plush-
Or violate a Star—

(401, ca. 1862)

(How intriguing to note that, in these lines, the poet distinguishes herself from "gentlewoman" as from another species; and fantasizes, as from a male perspective, their "violation"!)

At the last, on her very deathbed, it was the droll miniaturist Dickinson who contemplated her fate, composing a final letter that reads as a perfect little poem, a gesture of the gentlest irony:

Little Cousins—
Called back—
Emily.
(May 1885)

"Called Back" was the title of a popular sentimental religious novel of the time, but it was, more significantly, a printer's term: printed material would be "called back" if typographical errors had been discovered.

There is no poet, and particularly no American poet, who has not been touched by Emily Dickinson. Like the flamboyant Dylan Thomas, though she is a far greater poet than Thomas, Dickinson is immensely seductive to young poets; one can admire her passionately, one can have virtually memorized any number of her poems, yet to be "influenced" by her is simply not possible. She is sui generis. To be influenced by Dickinson, as by Dylan Thomas, is a fatal error. (Unless, of course, one is a poet of genius oneself, like William Carlos Williams. Or, in her own mordant way, Sylvia Plath.)

I began reading Emily Dickinson as an adolescent, and have continued through my life; her work retains, for me, the drama and "white-hot" intensity of adolescence, like the work of Henry David Thoreau. Certain of Dickinson's poems are very likely more deeply imprinted in my soul than they were ever imprinted in the poet's, and inevitably they reside more deeply, and more mysteriously, than much of my own work. For the writer is, as Dickinson's poet-persona suggests, a creature forever in motion, calculating and breathless at once; casting out demons, joy, gems, "profundity" in skeins of language, then moving restlessly on. Her work, if it endures at all, can only endure, in Auden's striking phrase, "in the guts of the living."

The Essential Dickinson is, I suppose, a personal selection—yet not a private one. It includes the poems generally considered great-and they are many. It contains the much-anthologized; but it also contains the virtually-never-anthologized. Dickinson is one of very few poets whose work repays countless readings, through a lifetime. I am continually discovering poems I'd believed I knew, seeing them in a different light, from a different perspective. We return to Dickinson for that magical experience so famously described by Dickinson herself, in a letter to her would-be mentor T. W. Higginson:

If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way [sic] I know it. Is there any other way.

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