by Joyce Carol Oates
Originally published in Critical Inquiry, Summer 1987. Reprinted in (Woman) Writer.
Emily Dickinson is the most paradoxical of poets: the very
poet of paradox. By way of voluminous biographical material, not to mention the extraordinary intimacy of her poetry, it would seem that we know everything about her: yet
the common experience of reading her work, particularly if
the poems are read sequentially, is that we come away
seeming to know nothing. We would recognize her inimitable voice anywhere—in the "prose" of her letters no less
than in her poetry—yet it is a voice of the most deliberate,
the most teasing anonymity. "I'm Nobody!" is a proclamation to be interpreted in the most literal of ways. Like no other poet before her and like very few after her—Rilke comes most readily to mind, and, perhaps, Yeats and Lawrence— Dickinson exposes her heart's most subtle secrets; she confesses the very sentiments that, in society, would have embarrassed her dog (to paraphrase a remark of Dickinson's to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, explaining her aversion for the company of most people, whose prattle of "Hallowed things" offended her). Yet who is this "I" at the center of experience? In her astonishing body of 1,775 poems Dickinson records what is surely one of the most meticulous examinations of the phenomenon of human "consciousness" ever undertaken. The poet's persona—the tantalizing "I"—seems, in nearly every poem, to be addressing us directly with perceptions that are ours as well as hers. (Or his: these "Representatives of the Verse," though speaking in Dickinson's voice, are not restricted to the female gender.) The poems' refusal to be rhetorical, their daunting intimacy, suggests the self-evident in the way that certain Zen koans and riddles suggest the self-evident while being indecipherable. But what is challenged is, perhaps, "meaning" itself:
Wonder—is not precisely Knowing
And not precisely Knowing not —
A beautiful but bleak condition
He has not lived who has not felt —
Suspense — is his maturer Sister —
Whether Adult Delight is Pain
Or of itself a new misgiving —
This is the Gnat that mangles men
(1331, ca. 1874)
In this wonder there is a tone of the purest anonymity, as if the poet, speaking out of her "beautiful but bleak condition," were speaking of our condition as well. Dickinson's idiom has the startling ring of contemporaneity, like much of Shakespeare's; she speaks from the interior of a life as we might imagine ourselves speaking, gifted with genius's audacity and shorn of the merely local and time-bound. If anonymity is the soul's essential voice—its seductive, mesmerizing, fatal voice—then Emily Dickinson is our poet of the soul: our most endlessly fascinating American poet. As Whitman so powerfully addresses the exterior of American life, so Dickinson addresses—or has she helped create?—its unknowable interior.
No one who has read even a few of Dickinson's extraordinary poems can fail to sense the heroic nature of this poet's quest. It is riddlesome, obsessive, haunting, very often frustrating (to the poet no less than to the reader), but above all heroic; a romance of epic proportions. For the "poetic enterprise" is nothing less than the attempt to realize the soul. And the attempt to realize the soul (in its muteness, its perfection) is nothing less than the attempt to create a poetry of transcendence—the kind that outlives its human habitation and its name.
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.
Least Village has its Blacksmith
Whose Anvil's even ring
Stands symbol for the finer Forge
That soundless tugs — within —
Refining these impatient Ores
With Hammer, and with Blaze
Until the Designated Light
Repudiate the Forge —
(365, ca. 1862)
Only the soul "at the white heat" achieves the light of "unanointed Blaze"—colorless, soundless, transcendent. This is the triumph of art as well as the triumph of personality, but it is not readily achieved.
Very often the "self" is set in opposition to the soul. The personality is mysteriously split, warring: "Of Consciousness, her awful Mate/ The Soul cannot be rid —" And: "Me from Myself — to banish —/ Had I Art —" A successful work of art is a consequence of the integration of conscious and unconscious elements; a balance of what is known and not quite known held in an exquisite tension. Art is tension, and poetry of the kind Emily Dickinson wrote is an art of strain, of nerves strung brilliantly tight. It is compact, dense, coiled in upon itself very nearly to the point of pain: like one of those stellar bodies whose gravity is so condensed it is on the point of disappearing altogether. How tight, how violent, this syntax!—making the reader's heart beat quickly, at times, in sympathy with the poet's heart. By way of Dickinson's radically experimental verse—and, not least, her employment of dashes as punctuation—the drama of the split self is made palpable. One is not merely told of it, one is made to experience it.
Anything less demanding would not be poetry, but prose the kind of prose written by other people. Though Dickinson was an assured writer of prose herself, "prose" for her assumes a pejorative tone: see the famously rebellious poem in which the predicament of the female (artist? or simply "female"?) is dramatized—
They shut me up in Prose —
As when a little Girl
They put me in the Closet —
Because they liked me "still" —
Still! Could themself have peeped —
And seen my Brain — go round—
They might as wise have lodged a Bird
For Treason — in the Pound —
Himself has but to will
And easy as a Star
Abolish his Captivity —
And laugh — No more have I —
(613, ca. 1862)
Prose it might be speculated—is discourse; poetry ellipsis. Prose is spoken aloud; poetry overheard. The one is presumably articulate and social, a shared language, the voice of "communication"; the other is private, allusive, teasing, sly, idiosyncratic as the spider's delicate web, a kind of witchcraft unfathomable to ordinary minds. Poetry, paraphrased, is something other than poetry, while prose is paraphrase. Consequently the difficulty of much of Dickinson's poetry, its necessary strategies, for the act of writing is invariably an act of rebellion, a way of (secretly, subversively) "abolishing" captivity:
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With expression kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—
(1129, ca. 1868)
Surely there is a witty irony behind the notion that lightning can be domesticated by way of "kind explanations" told to children; that the dazzle of Truth might be gradual and not blinding. The "superb surprise" of which the poet speaks is too much for mankind to bear head-on—like the Medusa it can be glimpsed only indirectly, through the subtly distorting mirror of art.
Elsewhere, in a later poem, the poet suggests a radical distinction between two species 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 "witchcraft" of art is (mere) geometry to the practitioner: by which is meant that it is orderly, natural, obedient to its own rules of logic; an ordinary event. What constitutes the "feat" is the relative ignorance of others—non-magicians. It is a measure of the poet's modesty that, in this poem and in others, she excludes herself from the practice of witchcraft, even as she brilliantly practices it. Dickinson is most herself when she stands, like us, in awe of her remarkable powers as if sensing how little she controls them; how little, finally, the mute and unknowable Soul has to do with the restless, ever-improvising voice. "Silence," says the poet, "is all we dread./ There's Ransom in a Voice —/ But Silence is Infinity./ Himself have not a face" (1251, ca. 1873).
Is the poet's anonymity in her art a conscious decision, or does this voice require a paring back of all that is presumably superfluous and distracting? (Which is to say, most of the world: the Civil War, it has been frequently noted, is not once named in Dickinson's poetry, though the poet wrote no less than a poem a day in the terrible years 1862-63.) Like Emerson in his terse, elliptical poems of "transcendence"—which Dickinson had read—the poet refines herself of the close-at-hand, the local, in order to meditate upon the universal: one would not know she was a daughter of Amherst, Massachusetts, an articulate citizen of a specific society. "I hide myself within my flower," the poet says in an enigmatic little poem of 1864, "That fading from your Vase,/ You, unsuspecting, feel for me —/ Almost a loneliness" (903). How perfectly the romance of Dickinson's poetry is suggested here, with what tenderness the poet anticipates our longing to know her: our loneliness (which is surely Dickinson's loneliness as well) in our relationship to her. Poetry of such precision excludes even the poet— consumes his heart away, as Yeats observed. Is this self-love, or the doomed love of Narcissus, that most misunderstood of mythological figures, for the seductive image he could not have known was his own? It would be a rare artist who does not fall under the enchantment of the unconscious, in the white heat of the enterprise we call "creative." The artist willingly effaces the merely personal self in the service of what can feel like an impersonal force, an interior Vesuvius or a still calm "disseminating" light—
The Poets light but lamps —
Themselves — go out —
The Wicks they stimulate —
If vital Light
Inhere as do the Suns —
Each Age a Lens
(883, ca. 1864)
But should the poet be tempted to step forward and declare herself, should she truly lay bare her heart (as Poe suggested the most courageous of writers might attempt), here is a pithy little warning:
A Charm invests a face
Imperfectly beheld —
The Lady dare not lift her Veil
For fear it be dispelled —
But peers beyond her mesh —
And wishes — and denies —
Lest Interview — annul a want
That Image — satisfies.
(421, ca. 1862)
One should keep in mind that this witty poem was written by a woman called "eccentric"—"partially cracked" even, unfairly, "insane." A woman who chose in her maturity to live cloistered in her father's house and to withdraw from the presence of most visitors; a woman who chose, rather like Melville's stubborn Bartleby the Scrivener, not to play the game as others conspicuously played it, yet arranged some of her household appearances as theatrical events, costumed in white and carrying flowers. Dickinson's awkward relationship with the perplexed Higginson suggests the soundness of her judgment in stating that "Interview [may] annul a want/ That Image — satisfies." She understood that Emily Dickinson in her person could not be equal to Emily Dickinson in her poetry. The "self" and the "Soul" are too radically adverse.
In a later poem the bold statement is made:
A Counterfeit—(a Plated Person) —
I would not be —
Whatever strata of Iniquity
My Nature underlie—
Truth is good Health — and Safety, and the Sky.
How meagre, what an Exile — is a Lie,
And Vocal — when we die —
(1453, ca. 1879)
How much wiser, after all, the poet's anonymity.
Readers generally accept literature's subjects as given and inevitable. But the writer knows how permeable is the "self" of early years, how chancy influences—influences that may last a lifetime, or in fact define a lifetime; how what is random and arbitrary and merely luck (that there was an actor capable of playing Falstaff, for instance; that James Joyce's perpetually indebted father scraped up enough money to send his eldest son to the Jesuits, and not out to learn a useful trade) is read, in retrospect, romantically, as Fate. What is to be done with accident except transform it—romantically—into Fate? For most writers the desire to write—or the need, or the lust—precedes its subject; one reaches out for a subject so that one's "voice" will be given a coherent form, and lifted, and refined, and again refined, out of the inchoate passions of the unconscious. To say that the creative impulse predates its expression is to say something so very simple—that the singer must be able to breathe before
singing, for instance, or that we must walk before we can run—that it is invariably misunderstood. Form and content are usually gracefully matched, in a successful work of art yet "form" surely brings "content" into being—indeed, it makes "content" possible. Just as the brain filters out the blooming buzz of confusion of the world so that we can undertake the various processes called thinking, so the artist's expectations in terms of form (which is to say: what has been done before, and how can I alter it?) bring content into focus.
We are speaking of the artist's presumed "egocentricity"—that pejorative but surely misunderstood word. To be centered upon one's own ego is no more unnatural—no less a necessity—than to be centered in one's own brain, in one's own body. Who will nourish you, if not you? Who can spin in orbit about that kernel of yourself that both is, yet is not, you—the "soul"? To say that the kingdom of God is within is, in one sense, to speak simply in metaphor, and very simply. To say that most people are very rarely interested in the kingdom of God (at least as it lies within, and not without) is to speak the most obvious truth: left to oneself, with no companions, no distractions, nothing to do but "create," the average person would very likely go mad. Not other people, as Sartre said, but the absence of other people constitutes Hell. Is there a psychological equivalent of the neurophysiological phenomenon called the "ganzfeld," a completely patternless visual field which, when contemplated for some twenty minutes, generates the eerie sensation of blindness of "blank-out"? (Without image and especially without movement, the mechanism for seeing seems to evaporate: you don't know if your eyes are open or closed, and can't control your eyes' muscular movements.) If the artist is considered more egocentric than most people, it is perhaps because the prolonged contemplation of interior worlds does not evoke terror, or boredom; the ego is porous enough to be mesmerized by unconscious contents, yet strong enough not to be overwhelmed by them. And who among us can resist the unconscious when it is most potent, most turbulent, at white heat, flooding consciousness with its unsought images, phrases, near-audible voices?
Picasso, speaking of the motive for art, has said:
I paint the way some people write their autobiography. The paintings, finished or not, are the pages of my journal, and as such they are valid. The future will choose the pages it prefers. It's not up to me to make the choice. I have the impression that time is speeding on past me more and more rapidly. I'm like a river that rolls on, dragging with it the trees that grow too close to its banks.... I carry all that along with me and go on. It's the movement of painting that interests me, the dramatic movement from one effort to the next.... I have less and less time, and yet I have more and more to say, and what I have to say is, increasingly, something about what goes on in the movement of my thought. I've reached the moment, you see, when the movement of my thought interests me more than the thought itself.
This is an expression of the most supreme confidence; a manifesto of the artist's absolute authority. Not all art is self-referential—not all art is autobiography-in-progress—but all art springs from the artist's fascination with the "movement of thought" of which Picasso speaks. Otherwise there would be no art, for out of what would it spring? The external world possesses no soul.
The motive for Emily Dickinson's poetry is very likely a motive close to Picasso's, for clearly it is the poet's interior experience that fascinates. Improvisation and impersonation, submitted to a rigorous method of revision; the braiding together of disparate fragments jotted down over a period of time even years: the task is to make of the finite, infinity; and of the self's dying, immortality. In her most euphoric states it is not uncommon for the poet to feel queenly: "Title divine —is mine!/ The Wife — without the Sign!/ Acute Degree —conferred on me —/ Empress of Calvary!" Yet the practice of her craft is generally a homely one, performed with unfailing skill, in the secrecy of her room:
A Spider sewed at Night
Without a Light
Upon an Arc of White.
If Ruff it was of Dame
Or Shroud of Gnome
Himself himself inform.
(1138, ca. 1869)
The activity is ceaseless; as much a part of oneself as one's very face. "Immortality" is language for the poet—what must be fended off is silence. Yet Dickinson is well aware of the dangers of self-consumption:
The Mind lives on the Heart
Like any Parasite —
If that is full of Meat
The Mind is fat.
But if the Heart omit
Emaciate the Wit —
The Aliment of it
(1355 ca. 1876)
The relationship between the conscious ego (mind) and the unconscious self or soul (heart) has never been more succinctly or forcefully argued. What is remarkable about Dickinson's career is the fact that, living so fierce an interior life as Dickinson did, with virtually no stimulus apart from human relationships of a domestic and social kind, and what she might have read, or heard, of the larger world, she did not burn herself out as so many lyric poets have done. Nor did she reach the point of repudiating her "masterful images" like the elder Yeats, who says so poignantly in "The Circus Animals' Desertion" that, now his ladder's gone, "I must lie down where all the ladders start/ In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart." There is a diminution in the number of poems Dickinson wrote in the years beyond 1862-63 but hardly a diminution in quality, as some critics have suggested.
"Winter under cultivation," says the poet in a late, undated, two-line poem, "Is as arable as Spring."
It has frequently been observed that most women are deprived of experiences in the "great" world of politics, history, combat, and that their vision, if not their art, has suffered as a consequence. But it is not often observed that the woman artist who stays close to home, in a protective—and even claustral—atmosphere, has many advantages inaccessible to men. She moves with instinctive certainty in a private, domestic, scaled-down world her masculine equivalent can only attempt to imagine; if, like Emily Dickinson, she remains unmarried and enjoys a certain level of economic freedom, she can spend a good deal of her time looking inward, contemplating what in another era would be called the soul and the soul's relationship to God. The traditional goal of the religious contemplative—the realization of God— is not precisely the poet's goal, but the means are nearly identical. If Emily Dickinson is the single American poet who most closely resembles Rilke in her obsessive preoccupation with states of consciousness and in the astonishing refinements of her perceptions, it is surely because the presumed limitations of her sex and her social position allowed her the sanctity of this kind of freedom. The routine of household tasks—numbing, or oddly comforting?—the cyclical nature of domestic employment—the sense that one has a place, a role, that is given by birth, and not to be challenged: these provide an ideal foreground for the woman of genius to contemplate her art. In her peculiar family situation Emily Dickinson must be seen as singularly fortunate. What other life would have yielded, for her, such riches? Like Emily Bronte, whom she much admired, Dickinson had no need to leave home, for the soul's passions are as readily at hand at home, as elsewhere.
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 —
As Sponges — Buckets —do—
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 —
(632, ca. 1862)
Flannery O'Connor, an involuntary recluse (she was confined for most of her adult life to her mother's house in Milledgeville, Georgia, a sufferer from the incurable wasting disease lupus), once noted with characteristic irony that her life would be of no possible interest to biographers, limited, as it was, to a space circumscribed by house, dairy barn, and chicken coop. Yet O'Connor too must have been nourished by her environment: how else can we account for the highly original and idiosyncratic body of fiction she produced?—and the leisure that allowed her to spend six weeks on a single short story? Even Alice James, the younger sister of William and Henry, managed, while confined to her invalid's couch, to write a diary of exceptional worth, in language that, page for page, paragraph for paragraph, challenges that of her famous brothers. And we are well aware of the many precautions Leonard Woolf was obliged to take, to provide for Virginia Woolf the domestic tranquillity she required in order to write. Vulnerable as Leonard seems to feminist charges in recent years, it does remain an indisputable fact that Virginia did write her books, after all.
The life of a man or woman of genius must be seen as the necessary complement of the art. One has no more right to speak condescendingly of the life as of the art, for it is the life that makes the art possible: we live the lives we live in order to produce the art of which we believe ourselves capable. How absurd then to label Emily Dickinson a madwoman (an agoraphobic) simply because she declined to participate in the conventional life of her time and place. She knew the society she was denying herself, after all; and in refusing to see those individuals (like Samuel Bowles) for whom she felt intense emotion, she was hoarding her energies, asserting her control. (As Dickinson's editor, Mabel Loomis Todd, observed, "Emily was more interested in her poems than in any man.") In withdrawing from society in her distinctly female way she was setting her boundaries very much as Henry David Thoreau had done in his characteristically masculine way, yet no one has ever suggested that Thoreau was mad. (Thoreau set his boundaries with enviable precision, in absolutely straightforward prose: "The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad.")
Because Dickinson never left her father's house (as she was inclined to call it) for very long and, in later years, did not leave it at all, the energies out of which she writes are inclined to be romantically adolescent and rebellious. The air of deprivation that so much characterizes the angrier of the poems is really self-deprivation, though attributed to other sources. Hunger—literal? sexual? a hunger for 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
Nor like the Gnat — had I —
The privilege to fly
And seek a Dinner for myself —
How mightier He — than I —
Nor like Himself— the Art
Upon the Window Pane
To gad my little Being out —
And not begin—again —
(612, ca. 1862)
It is one of the marvels of Dickinson's poetry that, fueled by such impotence, poems of great passion emerge, "breathless" in the characteristically Dickinsonian manner, yet finely honed, cool, even icy—
I'm ceded — I've stopped being Theirs —
The name They dropped upon my face
With water, in the country church
Is finished using, now,
And They can put it with my Dolls,
My childhood, and the string of spools,
I've finished threading— too —
—with two stanzas to follow in which the poet claims a second, and higher, baptism: "Crowned — Crowing — on my Father's breast —/ A half-unconscious Queen —" (508, ca 1862). And there is the famous declaration of the self's supreme independence:
Much Madness is divinest Sense —
To a discerning Eye —
Much sense — the starkest Madness —
'Tis the Majority
In this, as All, prevail —
Assent — and you are sane —
Demur — you're straightway dangerous —
And handled with a Chain —
(435, ca. 1862)
If one were obliged to say what Emily Dickinson's poems as a whole are about, the answer must be ambiguous. The poems are in one sense about the creation of the self capable of creating in turn this very body of poetry. For poetry does not "write itself"—the mind may feed on the heart, but the heart is mute, and requires not only being fed upon but being scrupulously tamed. Like virtually all poets of genius, Emily Dickinson worked hard at her craft. Passion comes unbidden—poetry's flashes of great good luck come unbidden—but the structures into which such flashes are put must be intellectually interesting. For the wisdom of the heart is after all ahistorical—it is always the same wisdom, one might say, across centuries. But human beings live in time, not simply in Time. The historical evolution of one's craft cannot be ignored: in creating art one is always, in a sense, vying for space with preexisting art. Emily Dickinson is perhaps our greatest American poet not because she felt more deeply and more profoundly than other people, or even that she "distilled amazing sense from ordinary Meanings," but that she wrote so well.
Dickinson discovered, early on, her distinctive voice—it is evident in letters written when she was a girl—and worked all her life to make it ever more distinctive. She was the spider, sometimes 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 —" but she was far more than merely the spider: she is the presence, never directly cited, or even hinted at, who intends to dazzle the world with her genius. Literary fame is not precisely a goal, but it is a subject to which the poet has given some thought: "Some — Work for Immortality —/ the Chiefer part, for Time—/ "He—Compensates —immediately—/ The former — Checks — on Fame —" And, more eloquently in these late, undated poems that might have been
written by an elder 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
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.
Dickinson's specific practice as a writer might strike most people as haphazard, if not wasteful, but clearly it was the practice most suited to her temperament and her domestic situation. During the day, while working at household tasks, she jotted down sentences or fragments of sentences as they occurred to her, scribbling on any handy scrap of paper (which suggests the improvised, unplanned nature of the process). Later, in her room, she added these scraps to her scrapbasket collection of phrases, to be "used" when she wrote poetry or letters. Both Dickinson's poetry and prose, reading as if they were quickly—breathlessly—imagined, are the consequence of any number of drafts and revisions. As biographers have noted, a word or a phrase or a striking image might be worked into a poem or a letter years after it was first written down: the motive even in the private correspondence is to create a persona, not to speak spontaneously. And surely, after a point, it was not possible for Dickinson to speak except by way of a persona. She addresses posterity—in fact, us, her admiring readers—over , the shoulder, so to speak, of her unsuspecting correspondents. "Master," feeling the weight of a lonely woman's fantasy of passion and submission, could not have guessed how he was codified, a character in a drama not of his own devising.
In any case, the result is a body of poetry like no other. Its silences are no less potent than its speech. Slant meaning and slant rhyme contribute to the poems' suggestion of dramatic situations of the most teasing subtlety— here is a life that is a "Loaded Gun," yet writ so small it can fit into a woman's sewing basket, along with other scraps of material. From time to time there emerge mysterious "Representatives of the Verse"—"supposed persons"—an "I" that may be an attitude rather than a specific person—but, so far as literal meaning is concerned, one poem will cancel out another. It is perhaps this very drama that constitutes the poems' true subject: the self's preoccupation with the Soul, and the anguish and delight of its roles. The method is diaristic in practice, the scrupulous recording of the "unremitting Bass/ And Blue Monotony" of daily domestic life, even as it analyzes those terrible times (moments? hours? days? entire seasons?) in which the heart turns "convulsive" in learning "That Calm is but a Wall/ Of unattempted Gauze/ An instant's Push demolishes/ A Questioning — dissolves" (928, ca. 1864). The quest is no less epistemological than personal and emotional. It is at that point of juncture that the quest becomes our own as well as the poet's.
If Emily Dickinson suffered a breakdown of some kind, as a number of the poems vividly suggest, the experience is brilliantly translated into art. Indeed, these poems of disintegration and halting reintegration are among her most powerful, making her the unwitting precursor of any number of contemporary poets:
There is a pain — so utter —
It swallows substance up —
Then covers the Abyss with Trance —
So Memory can step
Around —across — upon it—
As one within a Swoon —
Goes safely — where an open eye —
Would drop Him —Bone by Bone.
(599, ca. 1862)
I felt a Cleaving in my Mind —
As if my Brain had split—
I tried to match it — Seam by Seam —
But could not make them fit.
The thought behind, I strove to join
Unto the thought before —
But Sequence ravelled out of Sound
Like Balls — upon a Floor.
(937, ca. 1864)
And what is perhaps the most terrifying poem on this subject by any poet:
The first Day's Night had come —
And grateful that a thing
So terrible — had been endured —
I told my Soul to sing —
She said her Strings were snaps —
Her Bow — to Atoms blown —
And so to mend her — gave me work
Until another Morn —
And then — a Day as huge —
As Yesterdays in pairs,
Unrolled its horror in my face —
Until it blocked my eyes —
My Brain—begun to laugh —
I mumbled— like a fool —
And tho' 'tis Years ago — that Day —
My Brain keeps giggling — still.
And Something's odd — within —
That person that I was —
And this One — do not feel the same —
Could it be Madness — this?
(410, ca. 1862)
In this extraordinary poem the speaker not only succumbs to the unspecified "terrible thing" but suffers a violent and seemingly irreparable splitting of the self. The Soul cannot sing; poetry is not possible as a means of articulating grief; yet—and here is the poet's triumphant irony—madness becomes poetry in its very expression of paralysis. The brilliance of the poem betrays its origins, for here, as elsewhere, the poet's stubborn self survives, altered, stronger:
After great pain, a formal feeling comes —
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs —
The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore,
And Yesterday, or Centuries before?
The Feet, mechanical, go round —
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought —
A Wooden way
A Quartz contentment, like a stone —
This is the Hour of Lead —
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow —
First — Chill — then Stupor — then the letting go —
(341, ca. 1862)
Dickinson's greatness as a poet, however, lies in the amplitude of her poetry. She is the celebrant not only of hazardous states of the psyche but of the psyche's possible wholeness, that mysterious integration of the personality that has its theological analogue in the concept of grace. As the work of art most succeeds when a delicate balance is struck between that which is known, and conscious, and that which is not yet known, and unconscious, so the psyche seems to be at its fullest when contradictory forces are held in suspension. This mystical state is frequently the subject of lyric poetry because it is so notoriously difficult to describe except in the briefest of spaces. As a state of mind rather than an arid intellectual concept it is evanescent, though its power to transform the entire personality has been documented (by, among others, William James in his classic of American psychology, The Varieties of Religious Experience). If the mystical experience is attached to an external source it tends to have a public character, often aggressively so: one is converted, saved, born again. One becomes then a proselyte for the new belief. If the mystical experience is a consequence of the individual's own efforts—bound up, perhaps, with the intense but initially undefined desire to create art—it tends to have a deeply introspective and private character; and if there is any significant "external" object it is likely to be nature. The mystical impulse is to transcend time—and nature, unlike human beings, does not appear to age.
There are numerous poems that suggest that Emily Dickinson realized, at various points in her life, such states of wholeness and integration. If these poems are not among her most memorable, it is primarily because "ecstasy" and "bliss" are not readily exportable experiences: it is tragedy, as Yeats observed, that breaks down the dikes between human beings. But one cannot doubt the poems' sincerity:
You'll know it — as you know 'tis Noon —
By Glory —
As you do the Sun —
By Glory —
As you will in Heaven —
Know God the Father — and the Son.
By intuition, Mightiest Things
Assert themselves — and not by terms —
"I'm Midnight" — need the Midnight say —
"I'm Sunrise" — Need the Majesty?
Omnipotence — had not a Tongue —
His lisp — is Lightning — and the Sun —
His Conversation — with the Sea —
"How shall you know"?
Consult your Eye!
(420, ca. 1862)
And even more explicit still, this poem of more than twenty years later:
Take all away from me, but leave me Ecstasy,
And I am richer then than all my Fellow Men —
Ill it becometh me to dwell so wealthily
When at my very Door are those possessing more,
In abject poverty —
(1640, ca. 1885)
On the whole, however, Emily Dickinson's naturally skeptical imagination—her "Sweet Skepticism," as she calls it— saves the great body of her work from the dogma of mere statement. The self-righteous, hectoring, frequently insufferable smugness of most religious (and "mystical") verse is contrary to her temperament:
Of Paradise' existence
All we know
Is the uncertain certainty —
But its vicinity infer,
By its Bisecting
(1411, ca. 1877)
Though "God" is frequently evoked in the poetry, one is never quite certain what "God" means to Dickinson. A presence? an experience? an outdated tradition? In these late undated poems the poet takes a heretic's playful stance:
God is indeed a jealous God —
He cannot bear to see
That we had rather not with Him
But with each other play.
A Letter is a joy of Earth —
It is denied the Gods —
Death—that obsessive theme of the poetry!—did not intimidate Dickinson at the end. Her final letter, written on her deathbed to her cousins Loo and Fanny Norcross, is a perfect little poem, typically Dickinson, a gesture of the gentlest irony:
Called back —
An early poem by William Carlos Williams in honor of Emily Dickinson is both an imaginative commentary on Dickinson's life and an attempt to wed Dickinson's voice with the poet's own. It is a curious work, a not entirely successful experiment—
TO AN ELDER POET
To be able
and not to do it
Still as a flower
a flower spent
with heat —
in the rain
Whiter than day
shaken by the rain
But Williams cannot approximate Dickinson; the poem merely suggests her life (as it merely suggests her art).
Dickinson of course has no heirs or heiresses. In the minuteness of their perceptions and the precision of their images one might think of Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, the early Anne Sexton, and, certainly, Sylvia Plath, but so far as the development of American poetry is concerned, Emily Dickinson really leads nowhere since she herself is the highest embodiment of the experimental method she developed. Genius of her kind is simply inimitable. In this too Dickinson is Whitman's opposite: Whitman's heirs are ubiquitous. Whitman transformed American poetry forever, Dickinson sets an aesthetic standard no other poet dares approach. She is perfection, an end stop, as perhaps she anticipated: "Nobody!" as the emblem of the absolutely inviolable, incomparable self.
What one absorbs from Dickinson's poetry is something more valuable than an artistic method—a quality of personality and vision unlike any other; a heightened sense of the mind's uncharted possibilities; a triumphant sense that the solitary soul, confronted with the irrefutable fact of mortality, can nonetheless define its own "Superior instants." Here is an American artist of words as inexhaustible as Shakespeare, as ingeniously skillful in her craft as Yeats, a poet whom we can set with confidence beside the greatest poets of modern times. Out of hunger, pain, anguish, powerlessness—the paradoxical abundance of art.