Friday, May 13, 2011

Required Poet: Emily Dickinson

Turns out that Emily Dickinson wrote close to 1800 poems, despite the fact that only 12 or so of them were published while she was alive. And the good news is that for the purposes of the M.A. exam, we only have to read and be able to discuss nine of them.


Clearly we are dealing with poetry here, and because Dickinson's poetry contained such a wide array of themes, it cannot be confined into one specific genre. She has been grouped with the transcendentalists (think Emerson and Thoreau) who believe that there is an ideal spirituality that transcends the physical and can only be realized through intuition rather than the doctrines of established religions. Some critics disagree with this label as it applies to Dickinson; basically her thinking seems to go beyond transcendentalism and trying to gain spirituality by intuition. I did not know the woman, and know very little about her work, so I could not offer an opinion either way. I am sure there are very convincing arguments for both, but for now, I am not going to go with any specific genre and will just move on to themes.


Since I am attempting to eventually read all 1700+ poems of hers, so far the main themes I have noticed are bees, birds, death, religion, flowers, and immortality. Bees, birds, flowers, and other garden images are often emblematic of actions and emotions. Sometimes the "garden" is stated to be Eden, thus tying in her thoughts on religion. Death and mortality show up quite often and reflect her early and lifelong fascination with dying and death by various means which are themselves often reinforced by images of thirst and starvation. This will be discussed more when I talk about poem 280 “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain.”

Dickinson wrote many poems about the teachings of Jesus Christ and many are even addressed to him. Because of this, some critics want to place Dickinson in the poetic tradition of Christian devotion. She also stresses the Gospels' contemporary application with the use of wit and contemporary language.

Of course there are other themes in Dickinson's poems such as humor, puns, irony, and satire. And I could not possibly publish this post without also looking at her unusual use deployment of syntax and structure. The collection pictured above is a highly recommended collection for those that are interested in reading Dickinson with most of her original syntax. She used dashes extensively and seemed to capitalize whenever she pleased. She does not use pentameter but often goes more for trimeter, tetrameter, and even dimeter, but not regularly. Through the use of ballad stanza (ABCB) lines two and form will often rhyme, or maybe even just barely rhyme (slant rhyme), or not rhyme at all. And because of the use of ballad stanza, many of her poems can be sung to the melodies of popular hymns and folk songs such as "Amazing Grace" and "O Little Town of Bethlehem." Fascinating stuff.


Dickinson's poems tend to fall into three distinct periods: Pre-1861(conventional and sentimental), 1861-1865 (vigorous and emotional with fully developed themes of life and death), and post-1866 (it is estimated that two-thirds of her work was written before this year).

She was an admirer of Emerson, not so much of Whitman's (which is really interesting since they share an item number on the M.A. exam reading list) and was also influenced by Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre and Shakespeare.

The surge if posthumous publication is what gave Dickinson's poetry its first public exposure and it initially received mixed reviews. Her poetry started to gain more interest starting in the early 20th century and critics considered her to be essentially modern.

And now, I will attempt to explorer the nine specific poems chose for the M.A. exam. Thankfully, Dickinson was a fan of keeping it short and for the most part, also kind of fun...kind of. And once again I am going to stress that when it comes to poetry I have absolutely no clue what I am doing. So read the following interpretations at your own risk. You have been warned…

“Why – do they shut Me out of Heaven?” (248)

This one has a theme of general acceptance. Also, the word “bird” shows up in the first stanza, an image I have found Dickinson uses quite a bit. The speaker is insisting that if allowed into heaven, after apparently already having been shut out, that she won’t intrude, she won’t interrupt, and she won’t trouble them. Also, she insists that if she were on the other side of the door, she would not refuse the ones who have refused her.

“Over the fence – “ (251)

More garden imagery here, although for some reason that I cannot figure out she mentions strawberries specifically and uses their red color for the stain on her apron in the second stanza, without actually using the word “red.” The garden here seems to represent some kind of fantasy place that, although it seems the speaker made it up, is still fenced off. Also, God makes an appearance, at first as a disciplinarian, and then as a boy who would also have to climb the fence. Interesting…but I can’t for the life of me explain why.

“I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” (280)

This the first poem we have looked at that ends with a dash. Dickinson uses this device A LOT and it always feels to me like she is purposely leaving the poem without a sense of closure, as if it could go on. It portrays Dickinson’s fixation with death, and the funeral she speaks of seems to inside her trying to break out. Also, there is a linking between the funeral and reason in the first stanza, as if that is what is being carried through her by the funeral procession, and not a dead body. In the end, a “plank of reason” breaks and the narrator “dropped down” only to hit the World, and then it ends…it even ends with the word “then” with a dash following it. No clue what to make of that.

“Some keep the Sabbath going to church – “ (324)

This is one of the poems that make me see why people would see Dickinson as a Transcendentalist. Dickinson explores the difference between those who participate in organize religion regularly by going to a building, and those who “keep the Sabbath” all of the time on their own, without going to church, by keeping the divine always on their minds and worshipping on their own. The last two lines explain it the best for me, “So instead of getting to Heaven, at last -/ I’m going, all along.”

“After great pain a formal feeling comes – “ (341)

This one also ends with a dash, and explores Dickinson’s obsession with death and the process of dying. The very last line involves the final “letting go,” while most of the poem that precedes it goes through what I assume to be the final moments of someone’s life before succumbing to whatever it is that kills them. There are words like “nerves,” “stiff heart,” and “chill.”

“Much Madness is divinest Sense” (435)

Also ends with a dash, and has a great example of the slant rhyme that Dickinson seemed to so enjoy using. Line two ends with “eye,” while line four ends with “majority.” They don’t necessarily rhyme, but when the first stanza is read all together, it just seems to make sense to read the “y” in “majority” with the long “i” sound instead of the long “e.” And out of all of the poems of Dickinson’s on this list, this is my favorite because of the idea of “madness” being “divinest sense.” Also, the title line can also add to the argument for Dickinson being a Transcendentalist as it involves thinking being the way to go. Madness is not only sense, but divine sense, and regular sense is the “starkest madness.”

“I was the slightest in the House –“ (486)

Much like poem 248, this one has a slight theme of acceptance and also how the narrator insists that she would not take up much space or make much noise, and even that she “never spoke – unless addressed.” But because she is so “slight” and because she took up so little space, by her own effort mostly, in the last line the speaker remarks “How noteless – I could die.” So again, we get more death, but not the usual full-on exploration we get in a lot of her other poems that deal with death.

“The shut me up in Prose – “ (613)

Another ending with a dash, and another mention of a bird. This poem deals with other’s attempt (I guess) to discourage Dickinson from writing poetry. The narrator says it is like when she was put in a closet as a little girl because they liked her “still,” and she further likens it to someone placing a bird in a pound on grounds of treason. I guess the idea is that birds are meant to fly and have no place in a pound, just like she had not place in a closet as a little girl, and Dickinson had no place in prose.

“I dwell in Possibility –“ (657)

Dickinson again takes on the subject of Prose as “possibility” is a makes for a better house. Possibility becomes another one of Dickinson’s fantasy realms, except this time she has full control over it – she gives it numerous windows, great doors, only has the best guests, and in it, she has the ability to “gather Paradise;” and not just any paradise, but the capital “p” paradise. If poetry could allow me to do such a thing, I guess I would reject prose for it too…

That actually went much better than I thought it would. Seriously, I didn’t break out in tears of frustration once. Although next week I probably will as I am taking on Walt Whitman. That’s right, Mr. Leaves of Grass himself. I guarantee it will be painful.

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