Emily Dickinson: Rebel Woman Poet
Emily Dickinson fits the archetypal female author of her era in many ways. Like Emily Bronte, she never married. Like Virginia Woolf, she had no children. Along with Woolf, Emily and Charlotte Bronte as well as countless other distinguished women authors of this time, she suffered rejection of her literary achievements from a patriarchal system which attempted to censor not only what a woman could write but attempted to prevent them from writing at all. Like so many other female authors, she was told that her writing was not ‘good enough.’ Inevitably this meant that her writing did not conform to patriarchal standards; perhaps she did not write like a man or the way a man believed a woman should write.
But, rejection to Emily’s writing went beyond even the customary denunciation of women authors of the era. Emily’s style of writing was a defiant one. Her prose did not even conform to what was (and predominately still is) considered the appropriate style for poetry. Her gait was called “spasmodic” by the literary mentor whom she chose for herself, Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Final Harvest, vii). And even though Wentworth asked to see more of her work, Emily refused. She knew that her work would not be accepted unless she altered it to fit the mainstream poetic style of that period and she was not about to sacrifice or adjust her passion and her unique style simply for literary recognition or notoriety and fame. This, she clarifies;
We never know how high we are/ Till we are asked to rise/ And then if we are true to plan/ Our statures touch the skies-/The Heroism we recite/ Would be a normal thing/ Did not ourselves the Cubits warp/ For fear to be a King- (Final Harvest, 439. 254).
This aptly demonstrates her aversion to “selling out” or compromising to fit a cookie-cutter mold of what editors, publishers and even other writers adhered to as gospel for poets of her time, especially women. Even though she was fully aware that her work was high enough to touch the sky, “true to plan” and her words were “heroic,” she was content to live a simple life and indeed was afraid to be a “King”, or to pay the price of fame. Perhaps it was her plan all along that her poetry be published after her death whenever she would not have to endure the spotlight, to ensure that her “increasingly reclusive,” self-induced solitude never be disrupted and that she never become someone she was not in order to please others. Or perhaps she was resigned to keeping her poetry, her own private thoughts, her deepest personal feelings, to herself (Woman Poet, 111).
Moreover, Dickinson revolted against the very premise of society’s archetypal woman. Emily’s ideas on everything from sex to religion shattered illusions during her lifetime and continue to do so even today. Dickinson’s greatest contribution to English prosody was the expansion she gave to metrical and rhyme patterns. She expanded the range and variations of what the English verse allowed by using measures found in her hymn book as well as adopting her own style which laid the foundation for poets and poetry. The rich overtones found in poetry today can be attributed primarily to Emily Dickinson’s defiant attitude and uniqueness (Final Harvest, xi).
Radical and uncensored, she refused to conform to tradition. She chose solitude (indeed she breathed it) as opposed to notoriety. Her acute sensitivity and intensity dictated that she live a secluded existence. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, met her in 1870 and declared; “I never was with anyone who drained my nerve power so much. Without touching her, she drew from me…” (Final Harvest, viii). Her nature thrived on seclusion and was crucial to her creative achievements. Critic David Porter described her as “hyperconscious, […], autogenous, turned inward…” (Emily Dickinson: Woman Poet, 31). She reveled in her solitude, her words, her thoughts, the modest confinement of her silent little world and she lived vicariously through the uninhibited and infinite expansiveness of her luminous mind. No one but Emily herself can so eloquently explain the artistic temperament and the crucial act of writing without disruption as she does in the following poem: (Final Harvest, 228.388).
The missing All-prevented Me/ From missing minor Things. /
If nothing larger than a World’s/ Departure from a Hinge-/
Or Sun’s extinction, be observed-/ ‘Twas not so large that I/
Could lift my Forehead from my work/ For curiosity.
To further expand on her personal choice to live a secluded lifestyle with a select few friends, family and acquaintances, which also echoes her poetry’s recurring theme of less is more, she says; “The soul selects her own society-/ Then-shuts the Door-/ To her divine majority/ Present no more” and declares that she is “unmoved” by “Chariots” or “Emperors” (Final Harvest, 95. 55.).
She loved words and writing with a passion most would find incomprehensible. Her ideas on life, death, love and religion were so far advanced for her time that her poetry could not even be published until after her death in 1886. She cherished nature and became an existentialist “in a period of transcendentalism” during her era in New England. Dickinson was indeed in awe of nature and through it found her deep spiritualism.
Although raised as a Christian, like many writers of her time (and today), she questioned the existence of a God who was so wrathful that he could impart such intense pain and suffering on humankind. She could “dimly recollect a Grace-/ I think,-they call it “God”- (Harvest, 89. 50, 51). She questions, challenges and rebels against a God she professes to revere but struggles to understand because of his unjust and harsh judgments. She happily substitutes and reveres the beauty of the environment and all creatures, even the tiniest insect, which she apparently still believes are created by, if not God, then a higher being. Her views on this seem to waver, for she makes mention of God and Jehovah countless times throughout her poetry. She appears to be searching for the truth or a truth of her own, as in excerpts from the two poems quoted below;
I cautious scanned my little life/ […]/ From what would last till Heads like mine/ Should be a-dreaming laid/ […] A cynic I became. / […] whether deity’s guiltless/ My business is to find-/ (Harvest, 31.18-19).
An Unconcern so sovereign/ To Universe, or me-/ Infects my simple spirit/With Taints of Majesty/ Till I take vaster attitudes-/ And strut upon my stem-/ Disdaining men and Oxygen, for arrogance of them-/My splendors are Menagerie-/ But their Completeless Show/ Will entertain the centuries/ When I, am long ago, / An island in dishonored Grass-/ Whom none but Beetles- know (Harvest, 87. 49-50).
Paula Bennett, Professor of English at Southern Illinois University and author of Emily Dickinson: Woman Poet elaborates on the manner in which Dickinson “takes God to task for the arbitrariness of His ways.” She quotes the poem “It always felt to me-a wrong” in which Dickinson admonishes God for allowing Moses “to see-the Canaan” but not enter. Dickinson continues to vent her rage at this injustice, proclaiming that she herself would have “banned the Tribes-/ And ushered Grand Old Moses/ In Pentateuchal Robes” and criticizes what she passionately deems as the unfairness of such harsh judgment; “My justice bleeds-for Thee!” (Woman Poet, 66, 67).
In addition to Dickinson’s views on God and organized religion, Bennett also ascertains that Dickinson sexual preference, as indicated by her poetry, was that of a homoerotic nature. Bennett bases this analysis on “image patterns whose sexual significance may have been hidden from the poet on a conscious level [therefore] it is bound to seem speculative” (Woman Poet, 154). Bennett refers to Dickinson’s continual use of “small round objects” such as pearls, berries, peas, etc. as well as her mention of “crumbs” to substantiate her claim that Dickinson, likely subconsciously is utilizing these to describe the female genitals. There appear to be no poems of a homoerotic nature in Final Harvest nor could Bennett seem to substantiate this claim with poems or letters Dickinson sent to relatives and friends quoted in Woman Poet p.150-180.
Dickinson’s reference to objects found in the environment is consistent with her strong devotion to nature found throughout her poetry. Her allusion to flowers and what Bennett refers to as feminine objects is not only a testimony of her love for nature but also signifies her preference for female company over males which can either be construed as a sexual interest or strong platonic relationships or both.
“Wild Nights” is probably the most ardent poem of a romantic nature which Dickinson wrote. Clearly she is speaking to a lover although it is uncertain whether the lover be male or female, when she pronounces; “Wild Nights-Wild Nights! /Were I with thee/ […] Rowing in Eden-/Ah, the Sea! / Might I but moor-Tonight-/In Thee!” (Final Harvest, 58.32.) Regardless of her sexual preference, Dickinson evidently found men to be, if not somewhat threatening, unnecessary, at least in the traditional sense, and an enigma of sorts. She says;
“I’m wife-I’ve finished that-/ That other state/ I’m czar-I’m “woman” now-It’s safer so-” (Harvest, 39. 22) and on marriage and the archetypical woman; “An infinite Tradition/ As Cinderella Bays/ […]/ Of Blue Beard’s Galleries/ Elate us- till we almost weep-/ So plausible they seem” (Harvest, 94. 54).
Dickinson’s emotions were of such an intense nature that many would find them incomprehensible. She says;
“The soul has bandaged moments-/ When to appalled to stir/ [ …] /The soul has moments of escape-/ When bursting all the doors-/ She dances like a Bomb, abroad, / And swings upon the Hours […] When shackles on the plumed feet, / And staples, in the Song, / The Horror welcomes her, again” (Harvest, 206. 126-127).
Dickinson not only appears to take exception to God and the patriarchal system, both of which mutually humbled and empowered her writing, but also to men and women in general, of whom she quipped; “talk of hallowed things, aloud-and embarrass my dog. He and I don’t object to them, if they’ll exist their side”(Woman Poet, 122) Her distaste for loud, narrow-minded, arrogant people as opposed to quiet, humble, philosophical beings is also apparent in her poem, thick with bristly sarcasm;
“I fear a Man of frugal speech-/I fear a silent Man-/ Haranguer I can overtake-/ Or Babbler-entertain-/ But he who weigheth-While the Rest-/ Expend their further pound-/ Of this Man-I am wary-/ I fear that He is Grand” (Final Harvest, 221. 136).
Her preference for solitude, Bennett expands, was indicative that Dickinson, “like Milton, […] seem[ed] to be moving to a religion of one” (Woman Poet, 122). Her love of nature was her saving grace, so to speak. Her poetry is filled with a passion for her environment and no animal or insect, including bats or rats, was too small or repulsive to be admired.
The manner in which she described a rainstorm in “It sounded as if the Streets were running” was not short of astonishing. As she articulates “And then- the Streets stood still-/ Eclipse was all we could see at the window/ And Awe-was all we could feel” (Final Harvest, 496. 283). The preoccupation with death found in many of her poems fuses with her fondness for animals and insects in “I heard a fly buzz-when I died-/” as is particularly telling in the descriptively chilling last verse:
With Blue-uncertain stumbling Buzz-/ Between the light-and me- /And then the Windows failed-and then/ I could not see to see-” (Harvest, 184. 111-112).
As an existentialist, she turned her spirituality to nature, which was the focus of the majority of her poems. Dickinson took great delight and comfort in the beauty of the environment as well as all animals, none being too miniscule or repulsive. She wrote up to “six poems apiece on fourteen species of flowers…two dozens poems on assorted other creatures as well: cats, caterpillars, spiders, worms, snakes, crickets, butterflies and fireflies (Woman Poet, 103)”. She even wrote about the lowly rat. She indeed loved all creatures.
Her love of nature can be experienced throughout her poetry and she seems to have particularly loved the beauty of spring. In her poems she repeatedly mentions the month of March, as in; “A light exists in Spring / […] When March is scarcely here/ […] That Science cannot overtake/ But Human Nature feels.” She grieves over the enormity of the loss of this short-lived beauty “It passes and we stay” and “A quality of loss/ Affecting our Content/ As trade had suddenly encroached/ Upon a Sacrament ” (Harvest, 331. 201).
Dickinson’s preoccupation with death, her love of nature, her issues with religion and God as well as men are all foreshadowed by the intensity of her personality which shines through in all of her poetry. Her most endearing quality appears to have been her ability to play. Her acutely sensitive and rebellious, intuitive nature are her strong character traits. Her extraordinary talent for writing and her dedication to her craft as well as her refusal to relinquish her individuality and style are all precious gifts she bestowed upon humanity through her ground-breaking poetry.
I quote the first two verses of “We dream-” (Harvest, 15. 132-133), which is a brief culmination of who Emily Dickinson was and why she shall continue to live on in our hearts and souls forever;
We dream-it is good we are dreaming-/ It would hurt us-were we awake-/
But since it is playing-kill us, / And we are playing-shriek-/
What harm? Men die-externally-/ It is truth-of Blood-/
But we-are dying in a Drama-/ And Drama-is never dead.
Bennett, Paula. Emily Dickinson: Woman Poet. Iowa: University of Iowa Press, 1990.
Dickinson, Emily. Final Harvest: Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. New York:
Little, Brown and Company, 1962
Sharon Lynn Van Meter