Emily Dickinson was yet another idiosyncratic New Englander, remarkable for her poetic innovations. If Gerald Manley Hopkins introduced a concept called sprung rhythm, Dickinson engaged in what might be termed sprung language. A simple but delightful example of her technique occurs in Nobody
I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us — don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.
How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!
The technique is delightful, using words and phrases (too, pair, us) to involve the reader with the writer. The conspiracy is entrenched by the startling use of ‘frog’ for those in the public eye, followed by the splendidly illuminating comparison of their activities to croaking to an admiring bog,
This combination of direct statement and oblique suggestion could also provide a novel perspective on nature and our reactions to it. The strange insights she offers have a lasting impact.
THE MORNS are meeker than they were,
The nuts are getting brown;
The berry’s cheek is plumper,
The rose is out of town.
The maple wears a gayer scarf, 5
The field a scarlet gown.
Lest I should be old-fashioned,
I ’ll put a trinket on.
No one else would have in such a matter of fact manner juxtaposed the darker colours of autumn, with no roses, with the ripening berries and the vivid colours of the changing leaves. To move from there to the idea of the poet wanting to keep up with nature by putting on jewellery is sublimely idiosyncratic.
The technique could also be effective in expressing more subtle emotions. These seem to be based on personal experience, and indeed her life could well have been the subject of a novel by Henry James. That most impressive of New England writers (or rather writers initially from New England, since he settled down in England and should be seen as essentially an English writer) was a master in expressing unrequited passion combined with restrained dignity.
According to Harold Bloom, citing what he calls the best biography of Dickinson, after a ‘frustrated love’ for a married man, she was deeply in love with a much older Judge, though Bloom suggests that the ‘close relationship’ between them dated from after the death of his wife. Whether this love was ‘fulfilled’ as Bloom thinks it was is not certain, but she certainly brings to readers an acute consciousness of suppressed and sustained passion.
NOT with a club the heart is broken,
Nor with a stone;
A whip, so small you could not see it,
I ’ve known
To lash the magic creature 5
Till it fell,
Yet that whip’s name too noble
Then to tell.
Magnanimous of bird
By boy descried, 10
To sing unto the stone
Of which it died.
The instruments she mentions seem emotions or actions, but then startlingly she suggests she is talking about a person, whose identity she will not reveal. This is followed by the strange equation of her magnanimity with that of a bird stoned by a boy, an action which can have no redeeming explanation. I can only hope that neither of the men Bloom mentions were the inspiration for this poem.
But Bloom does have an interesting point, when he suggests that Dickinson became a recluse because she ‘feared her own erotic power’. Certainly a very short poem that Bloom thinks depicts her erotic relationship with Judge Lord suggests the destructive impact of the expression of Love in a moment of emotional excess, the Glee that Bloom calls ‘an intoxication of unprecedentedness, her joy and delight in her own autonomy and inventiveness’. One gets the impression that she is not in love with a person, but rather with the idea of love. And that idea was a solipsistic one, delighting in her own emotional, or more accurately her mental, state.
His voice decrepit was with Joy—
Her words did totter so
How old the News of Love must be
To make Lips elderly
That purled a moment since with Glee—
Is it Delight or Woe—
Or Terror—that do decorate
This livid interview—
This sense of inner satisfaction, based on the excesses of solitude, informs one of her best known poems. I have read a commentary that I think totally misses the point in saying the Dickinson is fantasizing about being a ballerina, and then adds that perhaps she is talking of the impact she might make through her poetry. On the contrary the point is that, while her Glee might express itself publicly if she had the skills to perform, she finds fulfillment in herself, as good as that provided by any Opera, even though no one knows the Art she is referring to – obviously, because it is purely internal.
I cannot dance upon my Toes—
No Man instructed me—
But oftentimes, among my mind,
A Glee possesseth me,
That had I Ballet knowledge—
Would put itself abroad
In Pirouette to blanch a Troupe—
Or lay a Prima, mad,
And though I had no Gown of Gauze—
No Ringlet, to my Hair,
Nor hopped to Audiences—like Birds,
One Claw upon the Air,
Nor tossed my shape in Eider Balls,
Nor rolled on wheels of snow
Till I was out of sight, in sound,
The House encore me so—
Nor any know I know the Art
Nor any Placard boast me—
It’s full as Opera—
Her strong sense of her individuality also informed her religious faith. Though she saw herself as a Christian, she did not get carried away by the evangelical fervor that swept up many of her family and friends at the time. Instead she was very clear about the fact that enjoying creation was the best route to salvation. So she chooses a bird, the Bobolink, to sing for her and enjoys the Holy Day, the Sabbath, under the trees. The Wings that she claims she wears are I think a suggestion that she is all ready to travel to Heaven, and that while traditional Christianity means hoping ‘at last’ to get to Heaven, she is well on her way there already.
“Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –
I keep it, staying at Home –
With a Bobolink for a Chorister –
And an Orchard, for a Dome –
Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice –
I just wear my Wings –
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton – sings.
God preaches, a noted Clergyman –
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –
I’m going, all along.”
Another poem celebrates different times of day, and in saying that these remind us of paradise, also raises the question of how we would prepare for something even greater. To me this is Dickinson wryly reminding us that, if we want even more than the joys the world offers us, we ourselves need to be transformed.
“Heaven” has different Signs—to me—
Sometimes, I think that Noon
Is but a symbol of the Place—
And when again, at Dawn,
A mighty look runs round the World
And settles in the Hills—
An Awe if it should be like that
Upon the Ignorance steals—
The Orchard, when the Sun is on—
The Triumph of the Birds
When they together Victory make—
Some Carnivals of Clouds—
The Rapture of a finished Day—
Returning to the West—
All these—remind us of the place
That Men call “paradise”—
Itself be fairer—we suppose—
But how Ourself, shall be
Adorned, for a Superior Grace—
Not yet, our eyes can see—
What might be described as Dickinson’s almost pantheistic vision, her idea that God dwelt in the world and was always with us comes out most clearly in a poem she wrote about the Advent, the period in which Christians prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ on Christmas Day.
The Infinite a sudden Guest
Has been assumed to be —
But how can that stupendous come
Which never went away
For Dickinson, the Infinite was an integral part of the world as we experience it – which also explains why she stresses the internal, as much as the world around us which we, or rather the all important individual, experiences.