Essay on the poetry of Emily Dickinson
View: Poems of Emily Dickinson
It is well known that in her lifetime Emily Dickinson only had a very small number of poems published (fewer than 20) and even these were heavily edited for the benefit of contemporary sensibilities. However the prospect of fame and prestige seemed to hold little if any motivation to one of America’s greatest poets, who preferred instead the anonymity and privacy of near seclusion. It was not until shortly after her death in 1886 that her friends Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson co edited and produced a complete set of her poems. Even publishing the poetry of Emily Dickinson was not straightforward as she used unusual punctuation, often preferring dashes to commas. Her unusual script was difficult to decipher and most problematically she often listed several alternative phrases for the same poem with no clear guidance about which the poet preferred.
The initial translations of Emily Dickinson’s poems have been criticised over time for straying from the intent of the originals. However in 1955 Thomas H. Johnson was able to republish the poetry of Emily Dickinson, leaving them as close to the originals as possible. He also reduced the manuscript variants of the poems to a single text each. The total number of poems was 1,775 and this numbering has been a way of categorizing them.
Many poems of Emily Dickinson, especially the earlier ones suggest to readers that she suffered some kind of romantic disappointment to some particular person This has led many biographers to endlessly speculate about possible lovers, although there is little conclusive proof for anyone in particular. It is also worth bearing in mind that when Emily Dickinson uses the prefix ‘I’ in her poetry it is often uncertain whether she refers to herself or more generally the reader. Nevertheless from around 1862 there is an increased emphasis on a shift from human love to a mystical devotion. In the absence of meaningful human attachments she shifts her focus to perhaps the only real alternative – the Divine Mystery.
‘Title divine – Is Mine!’
‘The wife – without the sign!’
‘Empty my Heart, of Thee-
Its single Artery –
Begin, and leave Thee out-
Simply Extinction’s Date-
Like much devotional poetry the interpretation of her intent could to a large extent be determined by the preconceptions of the reader. This poem however makes a strong allusion to a hidden consciousness.
I know that He exists.
Somewhere – in Silence –
He has hid his rare life
From our gross eyes.
This devotion to the eternal, mystic dimension beyond time and beyond death is also a product of her inner experiences which often left her dazzled by the hidden ecstasy of life.
Yet despite profound inner revelations, which left her with a taste of immortality, it is clear these did not become a permanent reality. It is as if she often doubted her own glimpses of a life beyond the mundane. As Sri Chinmoy observes:
‘her mind violently refused to believe in the authenticity of Emily’s illumining, fulfilling and immortalising experiences.
The mind stood adamant between the finite and the Infinite, between the body and vital and the heart and soul,
between the consciously known world and the unconsciously known world’
– Sri Chinmoy (2)
This reflects in the inherent paradoxes and apparent contradictions within her poetry.
Emily Dickinson has been described as one of America’s greatest religious poets. However it is important to understand what we mean by religious, especially in the social and religious melting pot of 19th Century America. She lived through a period of tumultuous change. 1865 was the height of the American civil war; Darwin was developing his theory of evolution, symbolic of the new scientific rationalism. Religious questions were especially prominent, her generation saw an increasing division between the puritanical Calvinism of New England and the new liberalising influence of Transcendentalism, epitomised by Emerson. It is highly likely that Emily Dickinson read Ralph Waldo Emerson although it is uncertain whether she had access to Walt Whitman. Whitman a leading light in the formation of the Early American poetry may not have been read in her household, being deemed to be too subversive.
Despite the conflicting pressures and influences of society, Emily Dickinson displayed a remarkable independence of spirit and was a unique innovator in the field of poetry; both through form and subjects. Emily Dickinson more than any other female poet, redefined the subjects and style that could be associated with a woman writer.
Her poems are revelatory of her hidden joy and are glimpses of an immortal consciousness.
‘Behind Me – dips Eternity-
Before Me – Immortality –
Myself – the term between –
T’was my last gratitude
When I slept – at night-
T’was the first Miracle
Let in – with Light –
Yet amidst the intense inner revelations and wonderment of life there is powerful scepticism and uncertainty. She frequently alludes to being ‘shut out of heaven’. This may have stemmed from her own doubts about her inner experiences. It may also have been a reaction to her disenfranchisement with the established religion she was brought up with.
But the inherent paradox and contradiction of Emily Dickinson makes for arresting poetry; with fluidity of language and metaphor she moves effortlessly between the holiest experience and the mundane pessimism of life’s potential futility.
Her seeming fluctuations of belief and intent create a dynamic contrast within the poetry, which leaves the reader inspired to formulate his own understanding. Yet amidst this ebb and flow she at times reveals a divine experience with the mantric certainties of a true Seer poet.
Because I could not stop for Death-
He kindly stopped for me-
The carriage held but just Ourselves-
T is so much joy! ‘T is so much joy!
If I should fail, what poverty!
And yet, as poor as I
Have ventured all upon a throw;
Have gained! Yes! Hesitated so
This side the victory!
The precision and feeling in her poem stretch both the imagination but also delight in encompassing the material and mundane as Ted Hughes said of her poetry
‘She grasped the ‘centre’ and the ‘circumference’ of things – to use 2 of her favourite expressions
– as surely as human imagination ever has.’
Never bogged down in philosophy or moralizing she deliberately dances from apocalyptic vision to self-abnegation and uncertainty. Such a poetic stance is not easy to manifest. Far ahead of her time she uses metaphor, language and form in a unique style, symbolic of a powerful vitality and energy that maybe unexpected from her near seclusion from life.
One cannot read the poetry of Emily Dickinson without being struck by her interest, almost obsession with death. It was not that she feared death, more so she hoped death was perhaps a solution a way forward from the impediments of human life and human frailties.
‘I died for Beauty – but was scarce adjusted in the Tomb
When One who died for Truth, was lain
In an adjoining Room – ‘
Commentators may take different things from the poetry of Emily Dickinson but over 100 years after her death, she is held in wide regard -a Seer poet who contemplates death and immortality – engaging the reader in his own musings and contemplations.
- Emily Dickinson Poetry at Poetseers
- Emily Dickinson Poetry at Amazon
- Emily Dickinson Archives
- Emily Dickinson at Modern Poetry
(1) A Choice of Emily Dickinson’s Verse. Selected with an Introduction By Ted Hughes (1968)
(2) Philosopher-Thinkers: The Power-Towers Of The Mind And Poet-Seers: The Fragrance-Hours Of The Heart In The West
(3) Emily Dickinson – Selected Poems Everyman Library