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British Association for American Studies


Michael Allen, Emily Dickinson as an American Provincial Poet


Michael Allen, Emily Dickinson as an American Provincial Poet

BAAS Pamphlet No. 14 (First Published 1985)

ISBN: 0 946488 04 5
  1. Introduction
  2. The Provincial Stigma: Acceptance and Transformation
  3. British Models and American Attitudes
  4. The Uses of Provincial Society
  5. Reader as Collaborator: Emily Dickinson’s Alternative Audiences
  6. The Poetry and its Tensions
  7. The Poetry and its Genres
  8. Conclusion
  9. Guide to Further Reading
  10. Notes
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1: Introduction

Reading T. H. Johnson’s one volume edition of Emily Dickinson’s Complete Poems is a unique experience, disturbing as well as satisfying. Even here [1] (let alone in the same editor’s three volume variorum edition), the 1775 untitled poems suggest her solitary creative activity in her bedroom in Amherst and the build-up of packets of poems in drawers and cupboards to await her death. The insistent originality of her rhythms, imagery and notation reminds us of her intransigent refusals to emend as friends suggested or to deliver poems into the hands of newspaper editors who might not respect her punctuation.[2] The poems are a monument to her faith in her own ultimate ascendency (“If fame belonged to me I could not escape her”[3]): the vigorous endeavours of successive editors to put them before the reading public are as nothing compared to that enormous faith. Indeed that faith (and all its attendant doubt) is ultimately her proposed and enacted subject.

No single poem can adequately represent a poet whose work is so various. But her best-known poem (712) would illustrate some of her characteristic effects and show how that ultimate theme emerges through them. Here is the first stanza:

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.

The poet’s use of dashes is, as Johnson says in introducing the Complete Poems , “a musical device,” a way of establishing a rhythmical staple which can be subsequently varied. But at the same time it defines a speech-rhythm. It is because of the dash at the end of line one that the iambic jog-trot of line two is idiomatically transformed, giving “kindly” its heavy stress, its irony and its precise social nuance. The last line combines a flicker of inevitability (derived from the rhyme) with the impromptu quality of an afterthought (because of the dash after “Ourselves”). The speaker is setting out on her journey with a perfunctory nod towards “Immortality” (the chaperon, an appendage to ‘be taken for granted). The speaker is allowed a full-stop (a punctuation mark which never appears again in the poem) and later on we will recognise this as an indication that such easy confidence is inappropriate to the excursion.

All the variations on the poem’s initial rhythm reinforce this combination of the casual and the preordained. The dash in the first line of stanza two throws the stress firmly onto “He,” giving the driving initiative to Death:

We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My Labor and my Leisure too,
For His Civility –

The line-end position of “put away” gives a great intensity to the speaker’s counter-strategy which reaches beyond effort and relaxation to a single attentive and creative purpose. This we can only associate with the stylistic progress of the poem, establishing as it does an idiom so precisely and giving such an epigrammatic equality of dismissal (enforced by alliteration) to “Labor” and “Leisure.” In the next two stanzas an almost automatic rehearsal of childhood and maturity seems to be contained by an expected stanza-break and then is thrown into question by the,overspill effect at the beginning of stanza four:

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain
We passed the Setting Sun
Or rather – He passed Us –
The Dews drew quivering and chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –

This disturbing reassessment of the situation is not entirely unexpected. There was a change into half-rhyme after the too easily assured first stanza to prepare us for it. Its reverberations now move in two directions: back through “sun” to “gazing grain” (surrealistically accusing) to the complacent mood of setting out; forward (the nightdress introducing dream-like erotic overtones, expectant and fearful) to the final tableau:

We paused before a House that seemed
A swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –

Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –

The grotesque substitution of repetition for rhyme in the penultimate stanza is such a break with normal poetic decorum that at first it seems as unacceptable as the choked horror at living burial it enacts. Whether the poem’s excursion, so delicately balanced between the provisional and the permanent, can survive such bathos seems in doubt. But there is just enough momentum in the developing play of dashes against hymn-book iambic to effect the transition from stanza to stanza (a two beat becoming a three beat):

The Cornice – in the Ground –
Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet .

It is because the poem’s characteristic movement (and half-rhyme) survives such an assault on decorum that we can accept the speaker’s emergence into suspended animation. The rhythmical triumph guarantees both her hard-won politesse and the traditional literary figure (of the chariot of the Muses?) with which the poem closes.

What might puzzle a literary historian here is the combination of a mannered idiom (which might almost be seventeenth- or eighteenth century) with highly individualistic modes that read like modernism. How could something at once so socially precise and so idiosyncratically subjective emerge in mid-nineteenth century New England? Even with a poem as autonomous as this one the circumstances which brought it into existence ask to be considered. And this is much more the case as one registers Emily Dickinson’s qualities over a wide range of poems and accepts how many interesting but uncertain and fragmentary pieces one has to deal with. They all demand an extension of our curiosity towards her life. More than that, they indicate the need for a view of nineteenth century literary culture which can explain their genesis.

For me the essential clue is provided by one of Morse Peckham’s powerful insights. The “cognitively estranged” writer in the later nineteenth century was, in Peckham’s view, bearing witness to a cultural crisis; he or she found it necessary to assert continually the invalidity and in authenticity of the dominant and central values and patterns of social interaction in that age.[4] Peckham says that such writers achieved this subversive purpose by withdrawing into isolation from the social and cultural mainstream which enforced the values they could only oppose and by constructing and playing in life and art what Peckham calls an anti-role. Emily Dickinson’s case suggests that we should add to the list of such anti-roles (the artist as Dandy, the artist as Bohemian, the artist as Virtuoso) another strategic construct, the artist as Provincial.

In all such cases it is important that the alienated creative individual is embracing a role which the discourse of the cultural mainstream has invented as a focus of scorn, derision or disapproval; and embracing it in order to demonstrate his supremacy through it. He is saying with Shylock “the villainy you teach me I will execute; and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.” All writers with literary ambition (even if they claim to have no care for publication or eschew publication altogether) are sitting down alone at their writing-tables to cope with the rules and assumptions of address within their actual society (though not necessarily to obey or respect them). As Peckham says, completely intransigent opposition to the dominant social modes of one’s age could achieve an authentic triumph neither culturally nor artistically because the writer has to cope not only with immense pressure coming from society but also with the attendant pressure emanating from within himself’ all kinds of situation eliciting modes in himself which he finds unacceptable. This is because he has, inevitably, internalised his society’s rules and assumptions, the things that Lionel Trilling (rather extending the term’s usual meaning) calls “Manners” and which as Trilling says “draw the people of a culture together and … separate them from the people of another culture.” (Trilling goes on to describe these crucial codes very carefully as “the part of a culture which is not art, or religion, or morals, or politics, and yet it relates to all these highly formulated departments of culture.”)[5]

By embracing the role pejoratively defined by the central culture and playing it to the full, Bohemian or Dandy could both acknowledge and defy the mainstream rules and assumptions, thus dramatising the tensions which accompany the assertion of a new and subversive social and artistic identity. And so could the “Provincial,” though the deviant role he or she has chosen is less flamboyant. The appeal of Emily Dickinson’s Complete Poems seems to me inseparable from the appeal of precisely such a sense of identity, emerging, as all anti-roles do, out of its opposite, transforming a weakness into a strength through creative activity.

2: The Provincial Stigma:Acceptance and Transformation

Like her fellow New-Englander, James Russell Lowell, Emily Dickinson saw the literary tradition she was to contribute to as centred in Britain and going back to Shakespeare.[6] The pressures against which she would have to fight in the course of cultural and artistic self-definition were powerful both in the, at the time, fairly coherent Anglo-American literary establishment, and in middle-class society at large.

As a nineteenth century social idea, the pejorative notion of “provincial,” “pertaining to a narrow and limited environment,” appealed to that sense of superiority on grounds of mobility and wide acquaintance with the best people on which middle and upper class people increasingly thrived socially. Their own presumably broad and expansive environment they could see as “cosmopolitan” or “metropolitan,” their way of life as “urbane.”[7] The terms appropriate to this way of thinking were self-consolidatingly (or condescendingly) relative and offered their users a kind of sociological myth in which “la cite’ des lumieres” and “le desert provinciale” figured as the worldly equivalents for paradise and purgatory (or hell for those whose provincial immobility was complete).[8] For intellectuals and artists, such socially accepted, opposed or overlapping “catchwords” (A.O. Lovejoy)[9] offered the idea of the whole world as a structured hierarchical system of places. One’s art, one’s style, one’s flow of thought, it was assumed, would profit from location in, or free access to, places high up in the hierarchy like Paris or London. Those doomed to places lower down could be pitied or patronised. The fatal effects of their unfortunate location (or their lack of travel funds) could be detected in their art. And in the constantly interacting communion between artist and culture, writer and reader, the obsession with advantageous location was a ready bond.

Quentin Skinner has suggested that while we can trace the interplay of such assumptions within a culture and from part to part of that culture, it is very difficult to know how widespread and powerful they were at a particular time.[10] But any reader sensitive to the tones with which “manners” are invested in nineteenth century novels, magazines, journals, letters and diaries will have little doubt that notions of “provincialism” (or “provinciality,” attempts to maintain this distinction seem never to have succeeded) were important to literary minded writers and readers as well as, beyond them, to the whole classes to which they belonged. Such usage would be largely (though not exclusively) that of people rising in the social scale who wanted to ally themselves with a longer established upper class and consolidate themselves against those who came beneath. It grew from what Trilling calls “an uneasy pride of status. It always asks ‘Do I belong – do I really belong? And does he belong?’ “[11] “Provincial” was, as Carl Amery[12] puts it, a collective prejudice like “nigger,” the result of and the excuse for discrimination. It was a way of choosing a scapegoat and unloading on him or her some of the burden of social tension.

One can see too why this line of demarcation would be important to intellectuals and particularly to literary intellectuals. A new kind of cosmopolitan literary intellectual (J.R. Lowell, Arnold and James are the ‘first important ones) was asserting the need to maintain “standards” in literary culture. Such critics wanted to promote the values of a literary elite in the face of the relativity and diversity of the situation in which “a free intelligentsia … recruited from constantly varying social strata and life-situations” plays off various possible modes of thought and experience in order to compete for the favour of the public. (Karl Mannheim)[13] They wanted to strengthen their own hands as writers and critics by insisting that the art that they felt to be good was objectively so. But they were in fact looking for support to their potential audience’s cruder impulses also, bringing to the aid of their literary standards the latent snobbishness of the European (and East-Coast American) class system.

The terms I am concerned with were particularly suited to such a purpose at the time since “provincial” and “urbane” had been used in English to describe crudity or polish of a literary style for a hundred years before they acquired their nineteenth century social resonances. Arnold (with his gift for “finding a single convenient name for a complex of features plainly listed”[14]) produced the key formulation for English speaking readers in the course of popularising the critical terminology of Sainte-Beuve.[15] The provincial note, he said, occurred in the writer “left too much to himself” with “ignorance and platitude all round him,” too far from a “supposed centre of correct information, correct judgement, correct taste.” Writing produced in such circumstance would, he said, exaggerate “the value of its ideas” or rather “give one idea too much prominence at the expense of others.”

The essay which expounded these views, “On the Influence of Academies,” appeared in Britain in the Cornhill Magazine for August, 1864 and in America in Littell’s Living Age for September of that year, and then in Arnold’s first series of Essays in Criticism (1865), which circulated widely in both countries. The terms of this essay were powerfully influential. It was one of the “theoretically sophisticated legitimations” that emerge at particular times (according to Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckman)[16] to integrate the loose assemblages of codes, manners, myths and values which make up what most people “know” about their own society. Before Arnold’s essay set out on its way to influence, a well-travelled visitor to the Bronte’s in Haworth can be found suggesting that their fiction-making was “like growing potatoes in a cellar.” It was the activity of those who are provided with no interests “in actual life.”[17] In the wake of Arnold’s essay this extraordinary (and very common) idea that the non-mobile provincial was somehow cut off from “actual life” can be given all the confidence and precision which comes with a well-made theory: a reviewer in an 1885 Edinburgh Review found in George Eliot’s letters from Geneva:

for the first time a glimpse of her, apart from the everlasting thinkings which make her letters to the Bray family and the other intellectuals of Coventry read like so many little essays. Here, in a strange place and new atmosphere, she has life itself and other living creatures to think of and the change is extremely agreeable. (161, 532)

Here is Arnold’s characteristic linking of the ponderous over-abstract style with the situation too far from cosmopolitan centres, lively writing with the move towards them. Of course the native English metropolitan way of thinking about such matters was still powerful. For Thackeray and his circle, for instance, it was London that was important: they operated similar but less sophisticated distinctions to dignify their own ethos and patronise a Charlotte Bronte[18] or a Thomas Hardy. And what the Brontes visitor meant by “actual life” and the Reviewer by “life itself and other living creatures” is illuminated by one of Hardy’s early experiences. He tried to explain to Thackeray’s daughter that his interest in London fashionable society was so slight that he felt unsure of his vocation as a novelist. “Certainly,” Miss Thackeray responded discouragingly, “a novelist must necessarily like society.”[19] The assumption that metropolitan (or cosmopolitan) life and society were the only life and society (whether crudely or elegantly formulated) gave particularly flamboyant expression to the discriminatory mythology of mobile urban literary people.

The destructive and undermining energies that threatened an ambitious locally rooted writer (whose art might be uniquely dependent on its growth within a particular terrain, a provincial society) were thus rather overwhelming, and Arnold’s formulation expressed them and fed on them. Emily Dickinson was alert to the discriminatory pressures we are concerned with six years before she acquired her copy of Essays in Criticism (First Series). (Sewall, Life, p.678n.) In a poem written in 1860 the daisy which she consistently used to image her own most modest poetic stance (a modified equivalent of Gray’s flower “wasting its sweetness in the desert air”) is “Except for winds – provincial.” (154) Her letters provide frequent prose equivalents of this trope in the period in which her overriding creative drive became clear and strong. She is painfully self deprecating in explaining her literary ambitions to the well-travelled Dr. and Mrs. J.G. Holland in 1861: “Perhaps you laugh at me! Perhaps the whole United States are laughing at me too!I can’t stop for that!” (Letters, p.413) And a few days later she used almost identical words (omitting the reference to the United States and confessing her ignorance of the English literary scene) in asking T.W. Higginson, the Boston literatus, to be her artistic “preceptor.”

It was at about this time that she wrote the lines (441) in which her “countrymen” are entrusted with the delivery of her “letter to the World” and she had recently explained to her brother and sister-in-law that she wanted her writing to make them proud “sometime – a great way off.” (Letters, p.380) Higginson, the representative of the “World” from which she felt she was excluded, saw himself as a cosmopolitan. He thought himself, in fact, a better cosmopolitan than James since “to be really cosmopolitan a man must be at home even in his own country.”[20] He found Amherst, the small provincial town, stifling. (Sewall, Life, p. 171) (James, writing at about the same time in similar terms, surmised that the smallness and sameness and dullness of provincial Lichfield, Samuel Johnson’s birthplace, would turn an intellectual appetite “sick with inanition” and probably occasioned Johnson’s subsequent “almost ferocious fondness for London.”)[21]

Higginson was always brandishing before Emily Dickinson the cultural advantages of Boston (the characteristic assumption being that she was in the wrong place). She resolutely and repeatedly refused his invitations (Letters, pp.450, 453, 460) and Higginson seemed for one moment to admit that his premise might be wrong (though the very form of the admission bears witness to the importance of the premise): “it isolates one anywhere to think beyond a certain point or to have such flashes as come to you – so perhaps the place does not make much difference.” (Letters, p.461) Most of Higginson’s letters to her at this time do not survive but he seems, on the strength of his cosmopolitan credentials, to have been urging on her the advantages which would accrue to her style and rhythm if she would at least take guidance from the literary custom and tradition of which he was a custodian. His situation anticipates that of Bridges in his correspondence with Hopkins, fascinated by this original talent yet unable to forget his role as a representative of “those who love a continuous literary decorum and are grown to be intolerant of its absence.”[22] And her resistance to urbane conventionalism was quite as intransigent as that of Hopkins (despite her apparent humility in her original approach to Higginson).

She refuses to alter her rhythms (which he complains are spasmodic) and explains that what is involved is not in the least the ignorance of “Customs” that he imputes to her (Letters, pp.409, 412): she sees the decorum he wants to impart as irrelevant to her purposes. However quaint and whimsical their expression, her letters to him insist over and over again on the overriding authority of her own gifts. It is fairly clear where Hopkins found the certainty to resist the pressures of the Anglo-American urbane poetic; it is much less clear where Emily Dickinson found a similar (if less invincible) confidence and this is a question I hope to answer in this pamphlet. When Higginson wrote about their encounters late in the century he still assumed (with Arnold and Bridges) that there was such a thing as “correct judgement, correct taste”: “I tried a little – a very little – to lead her in the direction of rules and traditions; but I fear it was only perfunctory, and that she interested me more in her – so to speak – unregenerate condition.”[23] The patronisingly tolerant note here is that of a man sure of the evaluative superiority his mobility invests him with. James saw the “cosmopolitan spirit” as breeding (in the cosmopolitan) a tolerant awareness of the merits of a wide variety of different ways of life. It made, he said patronisingly, “downright preference really very hard.”[24]

Almost from the first, Emily Dickinson’s creative confidence was rooted in her immobility. She would become a fixed point around which the daily light and shadow, the recurrent seasons, of her native terrain could pivot. This central imaginative impulse was obviously in stark opposition to the dominant and central patterns of social interaction of the age, with their heavy emphasis on centralisation and mobility in the direction of the centres. In her youth we find her excitedly writing to her brother that, “The world is full of people travelling everywhere” (Letters, p. 137); a very early poem has a telltale reference (unique in its openness to such a possibility) to “Fern odors on untravelled roads.” (140) But “untravelled roads” soon became part of the world of social and sexual achievement which is renounced by her mature poetry. The snow which is always such a powerful symbol of her own voluntary or necessary (the issue is usually ambiguous) exclusion from physical fulfilment and social interaction obliterates all hint of possible mobility:

… It fills with Alabaster Wool
The Wrinkles of the Road –
It makes an Even Face
Of Mountain, and of Plain –
Unbroken Forehead from the East
Unto the East Again – (311)

The lover, desired yet banned, who is so central a figure in her poetry is not only distant but mobile and this mobility becomes poetically equated with all his other forbidden attractions:

I envy Seas whereon He rides –
I envy Spokes of Wheels
Of Chariots, that Him convey –
I envy Crooked Hills
That gaze upon His journey –
How easy All can see
What is forbidden utterly
As Heaven – unto me! (498)

And throughout her work the symbolic distinction between migratory and non-migratory birds emphasises her acceptance of immobility:

The Southern Custom – of the Bird –
That ere the Frosts are due –
Accepts a better Latitude –
We – are the Birds – that stay. (335)

Her serious commitment to poetry and her serious commitment to fixed location seem to have twined together by 1861:

I shall keep singing!
Birds will pass me
On their way to Yellower Climes –
Each – with a Robin’s expectation –
I – with my Redbreast –
And my Rhymes… (250)

She is clearly comparing herself with more geographically favoured poets (the “Redbreast,” an embarrassingly mawkish fumble, is her own “freckled Bosom” of poem 1737). In a considerable number of poems cosmopolitan mobility (associated with birds, sea, winds, long journeys, Elizabeth Barrett Browning) is contrasted with this determined fixity.One can see how the combination of poetic vocation and commitment to place made her vulnerable to discriminatory pressures from the mainstream culture. A poem written shortly after number 250 begins as a self-consolidating defence against the pejorative force of the word “provincial” and ends by rescuing the word from its pejorative meaning and insisting on the anti-role she intends to play in art and life:

The Robin’s my Criterion for Tune –
Because I grow – where Robins do –
But, were I Cuckoo born –
I’d swear by him –
The ode familiar – rules the Noon –
The Buttercup’s, my Whim for Bloom –
Because, we’re Orchard sprung –
But were I Britain born,
I’d Daisies spurn –
None but the Nut – October fit –
Because, through dropping it,
The Seasons flit – I’m taught –
Without the Snow’s Tableau
Winter, were lie – to me –
Because I see – New Englandly –
The Queen, discerns like me –
Provincially – (285)

This is as theoretical as Emily Dickinson ever became and her way of making her case here is dependent on a use of language which is concerned less to represent concepts than to enact them. Poetic originality is seen as stemming from fidelity to the local terrain and community tradition’ (“we’re Orchard sprung, “-New Englandly-“) which condition its exact perceptions. If this is a limitation then a similar limitation governs those closer to the cultural centres even at the highest point of the social hierarchy there. (Notice how unselfconsciously the definite article in the penultimate line places Emily Dickinson’s work within the ambit of Anglo-American Victorian literature.) Like Hawthorne in Our Old Home[25] she obviously felt that if any centre were even to be envisaged it must be in Old England rather than Higginson’s Boston. So far one can trace the “argument” of the piece. But it is only by reading the lines as poetry that the reader can see how a naive unconfidence of tone, which knows itself to be provincial in the pejorative sense, generates its own transformation from its unpromising materials until the older, more confident meaning of “provincially” is restored.

The quaintness of the idiom and the arbitrariness of the “natural history” should not be allowed to conceal the modernity of the point of view. In terms of social mythology Emily Dickinson’s modulation of tone is expressing the same kind of ambiguous provincial’s self assertiveness as Hardy was when he sent Clym Yeobright to Paris. (Expecting to find the,re a richer and higher culture than his own, the hero of The Return of the Native came to the conclusion that the cosmopolitan life was “not better than the one he had known before, it was simply different.”) (Book 3 Ch. 1) Later in his literary career Hardy provided a more confident and passionate exposition of the adversary role out of which he wrote, explicitly confronting establishment assumptions (though with in-built concessions to them):

Arnold is wrong about provincialism if he means anything more than a provincialism of style and manner in exposition. A certain provincialism of feeling is invaluable. It is of the essence of individuality and is largely made up of that crude enthusiasm without which no great thoughts are thought, no great deeds done.[26]

This is fighting talk by the most powerful proponent of the anti-role that we are concerned with before William Faulkner.[27] But Emily Dickinson’s pioneering piece is more subtle. It was obviously crucially important for her future achievement that the Amherst poet had the confidence to articulate such a rationale before she entered into dialogue with the “cultural centres” in the person of a Boston cosmopolitan.

3: British Models and American Attitudes

Where had she gained this confidence? Ultimately, as we will see, she found it in her own local society which, as poem 285 rightly insists, conditioned her growth, her learning, her basic perceptions. But as an aspiring writer (and in the context of nineteenth century Anglo American literary culture, which at least since Byron had encouraged aspiring writers to combine literary performance with a literary lifestyle) she found valuable models for her developing stance in the work and life of the Brontes. As with all models for a literary life-style, how far the models occasioned self-recognition in the Amherst spinster and how far imitation is the kind of chicken and egg question it is very difficult to decide precisely. All one can do is set down the correspondences. On the evidence of her poems, her letters and her friends (who approved Higginson’s reading of “No Coward Soul is Mine” at her funeral[28]) the Brontes (especially Emily) were of central importance to Emily Dickinson. In 1858 (when she was just beginning to devise what was to become her own characteristic life-style) she gave a copy of Mrs. Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Bronte to her closest Amherst friend, her sister-in-law Susan Dickinson.[29]

Now this book (published in 1857) was a revolutionary document in Victorian literary history because it surreptitiously but powerfully challenged the metropolitan or cosmopolitan assumptions which so much of Victorian literary culture casually took for granted. Of course, Mrs. Gaskell is careful to do conventional obeisance to these assumptions: if there is coarseness in Charlottes’s novels one is to blame the outspoken provincial society she grew up in, of which the few men she talked with were unfortunately representative. But an inference about the effect of the sisters’ provincial milieu which touches on Charlotte Bronte herself and not just her characters, can be made by the reader when Mrs. Gaskell says that “people in London, smooth and polished as the Athenians of old” were astonished to be confronted with “the uprising of an author capable of depicting with accurate and Titanic power the strong, self-reliant, racy, and individual characters which were not, after all, extinct species but lingered still in existence in the North.”

Emily Dickinson certainly took this inference: the year after penning her own commitment to seeing “New Englandly” she was referring to the Brontes enthusiastically as “the Yorkshire girls” (Letters, p.437) (Mrs. Gaskell’s antitheses still seem to haunt her phrasing when, in apologising to Higginson for expressing her idiosyncratic views, she asks him to blame “the bleak simplicity that knew no tutor but the North.”) (Letters, p.49l) And many of the elements of her own life-style (and strategy for creation) were very similar to those of “gigantic Emily Bronte” (Letters, p.721) whose poetry, as Mrs. Gaskell reported Charlotte’s words, was “not at all like the poetry women generally write” but “condensed and terse, vigorous and genuine.”[30] In preferring her dog to other companions, in her dislike of travel and town circles and her withdrawal from local society, in her reluctance to publish the poems she had secretly written, the Emily Bronte of Mrs. Gaskell’s portrait certainly seems to have had an influence. And what is closer to the nub as far as Emily Dickinson’s intransigence is concerned, Emily Bronte in Mrs. Gaskell’s account repudiated the “rules and traditions” of a French literary education when they were presented to her by M. Heger in Belgium. She said that she saw no good to be derived from the method of imitating the style of master works; by adopting it, in her view, she and her sister would “lose all originality of thought and expression.”

Emily Dickinson responded to Higginson’s advice with similar astringency: “I haven’t that confidence in fraud which many exercise… I never consciously touch a paint, mixed by another person.” (Letters, p.415) It is important here to notice that Mrs. Gaskell’s Lee presents two versions of the provincial anti-role, one (Charlotte) more tractable than the other, and that the Amherst writer had been “ecstatic” about Jane Eyre as early as 1849. (Letters, p.77) Her strategy of withdrawal was both more ambivalent and more histrionic (the white veil, the communication through a screen or from a landing) than that of her Haworth namesake. It is reminiscent of the way Jane Eyre isolates herself from Rochester’s visitors, remaining in her room, sitting at windows or in alcoves, preserving herself for her art (which Rochester recognises to be original) and for the growing relationship with him. The Bronte life-style allowed Emily Dickinson to identify in herself not only an intransigence like Emily Bronte’s but also a vein of feminine subordination like that in Charlotte’s novels. “I had no Monarch in my life, and cannot rule myself,” she explained to Higginson in August 1862 (Letters, p.414); he was only one of several men whom she cajoled into playing the role of “Master” (Letters, pp.333, 373) which Rochester and M. Paul play for Charlotte’s heroines.

It is not part of my purpose to explain the unresolved psychological conflict which lay deep in Emily Dickinson’s personality. My interest begins at the point where the conflict manifests itself in her literary life-style with its combination of unconfidence and intransigence. Some such strategy of creative withdrawal was called for by her own situation. She was impatient with the obviousness and longwindedness of most of Amherst social intercourse (“I don’t speak things like the-rest’)[31] and the literal-minded religiosity of her family (“They are religious – except me – and address an Eclipse, every morning – whom they call their ‘Father”‘). (Letters, p.404) Company seemed to exhaust the energy she needed for her literary enterprise.[32] But the British model gave shape to her own sense of artistic self-realization. When she gave Mrs. Gaskell’s Life to Sue Dickinson (her most respected and favoured reader as we shall see) she was to some extent begging her mutely to notice the precedent it offered for her own prospective literary strategy.

It is that strategy that makes her stand out like a sore thumb from the main lines of American literary history. She was born too soon (1830) to be contemporary with “Local Colorists” like John Hay (b. 1838), Edward Eggleston (b. 1837), G.W. Cable (b. 1844), Alice Brown (b. 1857) and Sarah Orne Jewett (b. 1849). She was born too late to belong with the writers to whom F.O. Matthiessen in his book of that name attributed the “American Renaissance”: Emerson (b. 1803), Hawthorne (b. 1804), Melville (b. 1819), Whitman (b. 1819), Thoreau (b. 1817). The group of writers she was closest to in place and time (and they were older than her) were the Boston literary men who contributed to the Atlantic Monthly and other journals: people like James Russell Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, William Ellery Channing and, of course, Higginson (who probably mattered to her, as we shall see, more for what he represented than for who he was).

In some ways her regionalism anticipated that of the “Local Colorists.” But with exceptions (like Sarah Orne Jewett) these writers presented their local terrain not in terms of a post-colonial relationship between Old and New England but as part of a thriving, growing and above all integrated whole. (The Civil War was not far behind them.) As Martin S. Day says, the wedding of Frowenfeld and Clotilde in Cable’s novel The Grandissimes (1880) is given a characteristic representative quality: in it we are to see the union of new Americanness with old New Orleans regionalism.[33] How widespread among the wider American reading public such nationalistic literary attitudes were is open to debate. What is clear from the content of a successful mass-journal like Harper’s is that the popular audience was now avid for picturesque local detail. Whether it was of Lincolnshire, the Isle of Wight, Upper New York State, Virginia, the Scottish Highlands, Haverhill, Mass., the upper Thames, Canada, St. Louis or Yorkshire (places that on various pretexts were described and sometimes pictured in Harper’s for 1883-4) did not seem to matter. It is not surprising then that the first published selection of Emily Dickinson’s poems, their local flavour emphasised in a section called “Nature,” had a considerable success (with readers rather than reviewers) in 1890.

In the writers of the “Renaissance” generation, artistic engagement with the local terrain was subordinated either to the search for a Transcendentalist ethic and metaphysic (as in Emerson) or for a regional historical and cultural tradition (as in Hawthorne). Thoreau comes closest to Emily Dickinson in his thinking:

If these fields and streams and woods, the phenomena of nature here, and the simple occupations of the inhabitants should cease to interest and inspire me, no culture or wealth would atone for the loss… If Paris is much in your mind, if it is more and more to you, Concord is less and less, and yet it would be a wretched bargain to accept the proudest Paris in exchange for my native village.[34]

The pragmatism and particularity of Walden (1854) grows out of such a view. But a sentence I left out above reveals by its moralistic tenor Thoreau’s kinship with Emerson, his distance from Emily Dickinson: “I fear the dissipation that travelling, going into society, even the best the enjoyment of intellectual luxuries, imply.” These would not have been Emily Dickinson’s reasons for avoiding mobility and society. She thought her own society “the best” as we shall see and her irony would have triumphantly embraced words like “dissipation” and “luxuries” to express her own imaginative appetites.

What about the literary group to which she was closest? Apart from the dialogue with Higginson, and her acquaintance with some occasional participants in the Boston scene like Josiah Holland and Helen Hunt Jackson, Emily Dickinson’s main link with the neighbouring intellectual centre was the regular arrival in the house of the family copy of the Atlantic Monthly. Not only the first contact with Higginson but strange enthusiasms for little known American writers like Harriet Prescott Spofford emerged from her reading in its pages. But when one sees Emily Dickinson in the context provided by contemporary Boston one becomes conscious of superficial affinities and underlying contrasts. And it is the difference of her strategic thinking from Lowell’s that counts.

In the first place, Lowell’s sense of the relationship between England and America was cosmopolitan: as Henry James pointed out in an obituary,[35] Lowell saw the two nations as a single community of language and manners. Emily Dickinson saw her own local community as defining an identity quite different from that which would obtain . . . were I Britain born.” Lowell’s sense of regional identity, while it can espouse a Yankee humour akin to hers in the Biglow Papers, often comes to rest in “the idea of the great puritan effort” which New Englanders had embodied “in a living commonwealth.”[36] This was a frequent stress among the Boston writers. “There was a Puritan spirit as well as a Puritan commonwealth” says a reviewer in the North American Review for 1857. From both, he claimed fervently, had come “the results in which we glory.” (84, 428) Now, despite her deep apprehension and dramatisation of the spirit of Connecticut valley religion, Emily Dickinson was deliberately cool on this. She spoke of Puritanism as “old fashioned” (Letters, p.699) and said of her own inheritance of ancestral traits: “My Puritan Spirit ‘gangs’ sometimes ‘aglay.'”(Letters, pp.797-98) The coy echo of Burns (an insistently different regional adjunct to the English literary tradition) suggests stylistically how she saw herself in this respect.

Regional allegiance for the Boston writers was a way of reconciling the opposing pulls of the Westward nation and Europe. Their literary nationalism was half-hearted. The Crevecoeurian resonances of an article in the Atlantic titled “The New World and the New Man” diminish considerably when the writer takes the Rev. Francis Higginson (Emily’s ancestor) as its hero. (He appears proclaiming that “a sup of New England air is better than a whole flagon of old English ale.”) Halfway through the article the author admits that “we are still dwelling chiefly on the New England type”. (2, l 858, 521)

The reason for such hugging of the eastern seaboard becomes clear when another Atlantic contributor in 1860 suggests that “the American character is now generally acknowledged to be the most cosmopolitan of modern times.” (5, 257) A capacity to combine discrete national identity with cosmopolitanism is at a premium in the Atlantic. Matthew Arnold is praised there in 1865 for his ability to be cosmopolitan and characteristically English at once. Neither the Atlantic nor the North American Review showed any hesitation about accepting Arnold’s definition and approving his pejorative sense of “provincial” when reviewing Essays in Criticism. Such ready acceptance of the discriminatory attitude in the journals of her closest literary centre must have reinforced for Emily Dickinson the sense of inferiority instilled not just by her own copy of Essays in Criticism but by a whole culture; it must also have emphasised the need for a stand of her own.

The salutary vitality of that stand is most clearly visible if one sets it alongside the position taken by Oliver Wendell Holmes in his articles for the Atlantic, “The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table” (and later “the Professor at the Breakfast Table”). The dialogue form of these pieces is useful to their author: other participants at breakfast can present stock positions – America is the only place where man is full-grown, Boston is “the remote provincial corner of a provincial nation” – before the Professor or the Autocrat gives forth. In the most widely applauded and locally quoted of these articles (1, 1857-8, 734-44) two such minor speakers introduce the extreme positions of the debate: Paris, says the first, “is a heavenly place after New York and Boston.” The second airs the notion that Boston State House is the hub of the solar system. The Autocrat then enters the discussion and by suggesting that all towns and cities have the latter kind of self-centred view of themselves establishes that his own is to be a moderate and common-sense attitude to the issue. Boston “has some right to look down on the mob of cities” by virtue of its superior monthly publications, command of spelling, its fish-market and its fire department. Under cover of this kind of irony the speaker presents a model of literary culture as Boston displays it. Boston “drains a large water-shed (New England) of its intellect and will not itself be drained” (by New York). Whether this is a good thing or not is not decided: “There can never be a real metropolis in this country until the biggest centre can drain the lesser ones of their talent and wealth.” One can only assume that the Autocrat regards this process as healthy as far as Boston is concerned, unhealthy if that city is to be suborned by New York. (At this point the argument seems characterised less by irony than by evasion.) In all events he hates “the little toad-eating cities” that resist the process (even if quiet can be found there). Emily Dickinson, living in the watershed and refusing to bring her “talent” to the centre on Higginson’s invitation, focusing her art in the life of one of “the little toad-eating cities” was preparing to exemplify a very different approach to the literary possibilities of the region.

4: The Uses of Provincial Society

Her attraction to the strategies of writers like the Brontes and George Eliot is, of course, susceptible of a different explanation. Her “interest in English writers of her time,” says Karl Keller, is largely “an interest in the recognition of female accomplishment.”[37] Of course, her femininity is a crucial aspect of Emily Dickinson. (See Guide to Further Reading.) But I suspect that my account of the influences of the Bronte~s on the Amherst poet has already demonstrated how inseparable are femininity and provincial rootedness in these cases. Indeed, the concurrence of female accomplishment and creative use of the provincial milieu to oppose the values of the “centres” (in Jane Austen, the Brontes, George Eliot, Mrs. Gaskell) may well be the English literary phenomenon we really need to acknowledge here.

A common way for provincial writers to outface snobbish discrimination from the cultural centres was to identify themselves with a local gentry. When Charlotte Bronte was attacked by London reviewers she appealed from their judgement to that of “ancient East Lancashire families”: “the question arises, whether do the London critics, or the old Northern squires, understand the matter best?”[38] The words “ancient” and “squires” here suggest validation for her values from old provincial codes; so, in the novels, do the rooted vitality and sophistication she gives to her invented local squires Rochester and Yorke when seen in contrast to the enervate and unoriginal spirit that people like the Sympsons (Shirley, Ch.26) bring from the South of England. Even Hardy, in the Life he wrote for publication under his second wife’s name, was to appeal to the notion of a provincial aristocracy, tracing his own parental line to the le Hardys of Jersey “an old family of spent social energies”[39] (and concealing beneath this fraudulence his real credentials as a representative of rural society).

Behind all such defences lurks the nostalgic idea of”a rural society separate from the urban social community” and still to be found intact in England or the Old New England town or the Southern slave plantation (Max Weber[40]). James, visiting Ludlow, was conscious of traces of a “society good of its kind on which a provincial aristocracy had left so sensible a stamp as to enable you to measure both the grand manners and the small ways.”[41] The components of such a society were disappearing at different times in different places and as Raymond Williams shows[42] there was always an element of nostalgic fiction making in accounts of it. James, from his thoroughgoing cosmopolitan perspective, could discount its attractions: it was probably very boring, he said. But the notion of such a society offered an honorific self-image to the provincial middle and upper middle classes. For literary minded country people, Jane Austen’s novels would dramatise such a self-image showing this society, “good of its kind,” resisting the mobile bourgeoisie like Mrs. Elton and superficial metropolitans like the Crawfords.

There is no doubt that Emily Dickinson’s Amherst offered itself for interpretation in such terms. A commentator in the 1860’s found it “really charming in its simplicity, geniality and intellectuality It was, of course, a somewhat provincial society, but it was sound to the core, educated, refined and at times approached brilliancy. When I went to New York later to reside, I found nothing better.”[43] John W. Burgess was an American Southerner and so had his own cultural reasons (like the Nashville Agrarians later) for promoting an honorific view of gentry-led rural societies. He must have responded favourably to the way the New England town observed rural pietieS (Emily Dickinson’s grandfather, father and brother, for instance, were successively known as “the Squire.”) (Sewall, Life, pp.8, 41-42, 295-99) He portrays her sister-in-law, Susan Dickinson, as “a really brilliant and highly cultivated woman of great taste and refinement” with “a very keen and correct appreciation of what was fine and admirable”.

As “the social leader of the town,” Susan, he says, was “decidedly aristocratic in her tastes”: her friends were “generally scions of the best American families or men who had distinguished themselves highly.”[44]

His sense of the social potential of the role of provincial aristocrat, the dignity and elegance it could give to an immobile life-style, was shared by his hostess. Before settling in Amherst Susan Dickinson had enjoyed to the full the theatre and opera in Baltimore, aware that she might “not always be so situated, that I can see much of this big world of ours.”[45] Once at the centre of Amherst society, however, she attributed to its social rituals (and thereby to her own central part in them) a great deal of dignity and some sophistication:

When the evening came an interesting dinner party of men, at our own house, caught the spirit of the wicked precedent about to be established, and insisted upon strolling up to overlook the dancing … As this happened also to be the night of the President’s [of Amherst College] reception, is it strange that there were wonderings with aspersions cast on the distinguished men who failed to appear on that honourable occasion?[46]

She does her best (by means of a style which it would be unfair to fault because it doesn’t quite achieve the measured elegance it is looking for – her talents after all, were social -) to give the Amherst status-hierarchy equivalence with that of the “big world” beyond. She had been pleased, obviously, to meet in Paris “another old habitue’ of our house and the mansion,” she tells one of her special friends, Samuel Bowles Jr. in 1870.[47] (He had earlier written, perhaps tactfully, of finding Boston society inferior to that of Paris on the one hand and on the other to that of her own Amherst circle.)[48] And from her sense of her own established social position came her frequent clear and assured directives on the correct relation between the sexes. Her daughter is advised, for instance, in dealing with a suitor:

the part of his letter which was meant to be rude was the emphasis he laid on his evening with Mrs. Todd after what I had said to him of her. You would flatter him by showing pique or in any way – so two weeks hence write him a brilliant letter such as he could not write.[49]

Leyda’s selection from her letters and occasional writings does give a vivid impression of her activities in maintaining in almost the “aristocratic” way envisaged by the Southern observer the idea of Amherst as a society “good of its kind.” Only an occasional shrillness (in the last quotation one should note in her defence that her husband’s mistress is involved) reminds one of Mrs. Elton rather than Emma, reveals that Susan climbed socially to become a Dickinson, hints at what Trilling called “an uneasy pride of status.”[50]

To what extent did Emily Dickinson share her sister-in-law’s sense of participation in “good society,” gain artistic confidence from her own inherited place in it to stand up to Higginson and his cosmopolitan standards?

Her letters to members of the local community have none of the kind of appeal to a shared code of elegant manners which Sue Dickinson fostered in Amherst. Emily’s aunt Elizabeth was at the age of nineteen practising in her sentences the arch assertiveness of manner to which the family status entitled them all: “I am not in the habit of writing to gentlemen more than once if I do not get an answer. However I will not censure you …” (Letters, p.6) In contrast the tenor of the poet’s epistolary style is always purely personal, involves the “I” and the “Thou” of the correspondence and no one else. Yet there is no doubt that the elegance and assurance of a “society good of its kind” emerges in her poetry. I am not thinking only of the satiric poems which note “What Soft – Cherubic Creatures -/These Gentlewomen are -” (401) or see that

She dealt her pretty words like Blades –
How glittering they shone –
And every One unbared a Nerve
Or wantoned with a Bone – (479)

In her poem about the snake, for instance, drawing-room wariness of an attractive but untrustworthy gentleman (like that Sue recommended to her daughter) is enacted by the precise social language, the placing of “Fellow” at the end of the line:

But never met this Fellow
Attended, or alone
Without a tighter breathing…

The analogy with polite society is already implicit when more acceptable, harmless (but boring) animal companions are greeted, the speaker’s relief at the freedom to patronise emerging in the verbal extravagance:

I feel for them a transport Of cordiality … (986)

The social resonance of sexual challenge can haunt her landscape. The perfidious “Light” in poem 812 is personified ambivalently at first: it may be a suitor and possible lover lurking about the house, it may be an intruder of distinctly lower class:

It waits upon the Lawn…
It almost speaks to you.

And the social nuance here anticipates the trenchantly superior yet infinitely bereaved conclusion: As Trade had suddenly encroached Upon a Sacrament. In one of her best-known poems the gaucheness of a phrase she uses twice in her letters (“I can’t stop for that”) (Letters, pp.412, 413) is transformed and dignified by the conventions and courtesies of a mannered society:

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just ourselves –
And Immortality – (712)

(“Immortality” is, of course, the chaperon.) Her most intimate disclosures may generalise outwards from the furnishings of her father’s house towards ancestral society:

We outgrow love, like other things
And put it in the Drawer –
Till it an Antique fashion shows –
Like Costumes Grandsires wore. (887)

Even in depressed and purposeless isolation her protagonist remains part of a carefully mannered community:

I tie my Hat – I crease my Shawl
Life’s little duties do – precisely –
As the very least
Were infinite – to me –

I put new Blossoms in the Glass –
And throw the old – away –
I push a petal from my Gown
That anchored there – I weigh
The time ’twill be till six o’clock
I have so much to do –
And yet – Existence – some way back –
Stopped – struck – my ticking – through – (443)

The very rhythms in all these examples are redolent with strong social assurance. They are at the opposite pole from those in which a consciously naive jauntiness accompanies “The simple News that Nature told – With tender Majesty” on its way to Higginson and his kind. (Some of her best poems of course achieve the impact of primitive painting with such coy rhythmical effects by placing a naive child-speaker at the centre of a recognisably formal social situation.)

The absence from the letters of such social resonances is not difficult to explain. The letters were only one remove from the intensity and unpredictability of feeling which left her vulnerable to the point of emotional nakedness in proximity to people.[51] She could just master the necessities of relationship in such oblique, idiosyncratic and ambiguous prose. A letter was “the mind alone without corporeal friend.” (Letters, p.460) Poems, however, were at two removes, were constructed fictions:

The Vision – pondered long –
So plausible becomes
That I esteem the fiction – real –
The Real – fictitious seems – (646)

The “I” of her poetry was, as she said, not “Herself” but a formally necessary construct, a “supposed person.” (Letters, p.412) What is more, her fictions were metrical fictions. Everything that went on behind her closed bedroom door (or in her head as she walked in the garden) when poetry was under construction was governed by the animating order and vitality of rhythm. And once her apprentice days were over her staple metres were not the “mainstream” rhythms of Mr. and Mrs. Browning or Keats (though her capacity for versatility and experiment must not be ignored): they were to be found in her hymnal (if they did not echo through her head from a childhood’s regular attendance at “Meeting”). They were eighteenth century rhythms which could be refined when she wished to invoke the balance and antithesis of a mannered society; yet they could be simple when simplicity was required, implicitly recalling the religious tradition which had bound the whole people of her region together at a deeper level than that at which the upper class now expressed its superior status. They could thus be used to undermine such superiority as well as to share it.

5: Reader as Collaborator: Emily Dickinson’s Alternative Audiences

Social assurance idiomatically expressed enters poetry through something that might be called collaboration. It may be little more than envisaging an audience and choosing a sympathetic reader. Or it may be a great deal more, and, as Raymond Williams says, go “beyond conscious cooperation . . . to effective social relations in which, even while individual projects are being pursued, what is being drawn on is trans-individual, not only in the sense of shared (initial) forms and experiences, but in the specifically creative sense of new responses and formation.”[52] The mainstream assumption about this was that social confidence was transmuted into stylistic confidence in the salons and coteries of the centres where the socially prestigious and the artistically talented could congregate while their distinctive graces rubbed off on each other. Even the peasant poet, according to this way of thinking, while he might bring to his work a strong folk inheritance, would perfect his style under the aegis of central elite standards as Clare did in the Fitzwilliam residence at Milton.[53] But the growth of the rebellious anti-role we are concerned with, the provincial literary life-style, was accompanied by collaboration in smaller, tighter, semi-incestuous groupings: Wordsworth and Dorothy, perhaps; the Brontes; Hardy and Emma (whose mutual influence is charted by Robert Gittings[54] and evidenced in Emma’s Some Recollections[55]). In all these cases an early intense familial and imaginative bonding was sabotaged by later events yet laid a collaborative foundation for later artistic practice.

Any attempt to explain how the “I” of Emily Dickinson’s poetry functions at times in a context of strong traditional social awareness has to recognise the collaborative importance of her relationship with Sue Dickinson. Apart from Higginson, only Sue was given any kind of real entree to the poet’s imaginative life. (Samuel Bowles, the other serious contender, she kept at arms length because of his inclination to tamper with her poems and print the revised versions in his newspaper, The Springfield Republican. (Sewall, Life, pp.475-6) And while Higginson received altogether 102 poems, Sue Dickinson received 276 in a constant flow throughout the poet’s creative life. (Sewall, pp.659, 430) Sue, “the social leader of the town” was thus Emily Dickinson’s most steadily envisaged audience.

We begin to understand why she rated so highly when we understand something of ‘her initial significance for the poet. Emily herself, the Squire’s daughter, had been notable among the other Amherst girls for her brilliance and wit before her withdrawal into creative seclusion began. (Sewall, p.8) Her original intensity of feeling towards Sue Dickinson met some kind of obstacle in its early years (during Sue’s engagement to and immediately after her marriage with Emily’s brother Austin). Whether Sue’s now foreordained status as the Squire’s lady had anything to do with it or not, about this time Emily began to send her poems which suggest that she saw their roles as related, Sue being the one who would triumph in life while she, the “I” of the poems, triumphed in art. The first such justification of her ascetic strategy, “Success is counted sweetest” (67) ends:

Not one of all the purple Host
Who took the Flag today
Can tell the definition
So clear of Victory
As he defeated – dying –
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear!

The implication of the poem (as part of a continuing correspondence), is that the poet will “define” the social and sexual triumph which she imagines her ex-classmate merely living. Another poem (299) addressed as a letter to Sue, “Your Riches-taught me-Poverty” (Letters, p.400), contrasts with Sue’s “Dominions,” “Queen”-like Glory” and “Wealth” the poet’s ascetically derived and consolatory “knowledge”:

That there exists – a Gold –
Altho’ I prove it, just in time
Its distance – to behold –

A third piece was sent to Sue and signed “Emily” (Sewall, p.21 1). It begins “I showed her Heights she never saw – (446) and presents the poet as having believed that imaginative ascendency would justify her own supremacy in the relationship with Sue. It was, the poem suggests, when she was rejected on these terms that she imposed on herself the ascetic penalty which released her poetry:

And then I brake my life – and Lo,
A Light, for her, did solemn glow,
The larger, as her face withdrew –

Only the first of these pieces is an objectively realised poem: the other two are half-coherent personal documents. But taken together they do explain how Sue’s continued availability as a reader could have been crucial to Emily’s literary enterprise. They suggest that there was some kind of complementarity between Emily’s creative vocation and the social ascendency of her sister-in-law which laid the foundations of an effective literary collaboration.

Sue Dickinson was the poet’s only discriminating critic and audience until 1861. But in that year Sue, rejecting two successive drafts of a final stanza for poem 216, “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers,” said of the first stanza “You never made a peer for that verse and I guess your kingdom doesn’t hold one.” Emily’s reply is characteristically ambiguous, grateful for the praise yet chafing a little at the critical reservations. In it she says “Could I make you and Austin – proud – sometime – a great way off- twould give me taller feet”(Letters, pp.379-380) and shortly after this she wrote the first of many letters to her cosmopolitan mentor Higginson. Accepting in the light of his (probably quite as discouraging) comments that she should not try for immediate publication, she entered, under the influence of conflicting forces, her period of most intense and powerful creation.

Higginson, then, entered her life as the representative of the literary centres “a great way off’ and he offered as a correspondent the prospect which she subsequently kept in view of an alternative audience for her work. Susan’s continued acceptability as an audience, however, if measured by the steady flow of poems and as Richard Sewall says (Life, p.201), the virtuosity of Emily’s messages to her, was not in question. “To Miss You Sue is power. The stimulus of Loss makes most Possession mean,” she wrote in a letter of 1871. (Letters, p.489) “Power” and “mean” are the two crucial words here, focusing as they do on the imaginative enterprise which was fed by the relationship. But there is no suggestion with Sue (as there is with other correspondents) that letters are preferable to visits. “To see you unfits for staler meetings” she told Sue in 1870. (Letters, p.477) The keynote of Emily’s later letters to Susan was, as Sewall says, “admiration and gratitude” on Emily’s part for the privilege of”living near Sue.” (Life, p.202) Her creative retreat (she did not go even to Susan’s house next door for fifteen years) did not preclude an interest in people:

The Show is not the Show
But they that go –
Menagerie to me
My Neighbor be – (1206)

So her sister-in-law’s visits would be doubly welcome. Susan Dickinson would bring with her her lively commitment to social occasions and social ascendency: and as Sewall says “The qualities that irritated many people in town … Emily apparently cherished as welcome change from the usual Amherst fare.” (Life, p.202) But this very infusion of social energy made its creative contribution (like everything in her life). According to John Burgess, Sue had a very “vivid imagination” and narrative gifts with which “if she had had sufficient application” she could have “rivalled Cervantes”[56] and Emily Dickinson recorded a similar tribute. “With the exception of Shakespeare”, she quaintly and concisely put it to Sue, “You have told me of more knowledge than anyone living.” (Letters, p.755)

Karl Keller’s account of the poet’s circle of literary friends[57] confirms the unique importance among them of Sue and Higginson while recognising some of the ways she learned to keep her distance even from them. Social and literary responsiveness were combined in Sue’s stimulus rather as they were in Charlotte Bronte’s contribution to the social dimension of Wuthering Heights:

Emily would never go into any sort of society herself’ and whenever I went I could on my return communicate to her a pleasure that suited her, by giving the distinct faithful impression of each scene I had witnessed. When pressed to go, she would sometimes say, “What is the use? Charlotte will bring it all home to me.”[58]

While the Amherst relationship lacked the warmth and mutuality the Bronte sisters could depend on, Sue’s creative awareness and her tone of social and moral superiority would reinforce at once in the poet the sense of social and the sense of imaginative status. At the same time it is worth noting that after the instances mentioned earlier there is no record of Emily asking Sue for specific advice about her work. Finally, as T.H. Johnson says, she had to trust her own judgement just as she had with Higginson.[59]

In both cases it seems to have been mainly the stimulating intellectual focus, the audience that could be personalised in the individual, which made her alternative readers important to Emily Dickinson. Both readers were capable of the specialised literary response that can be questioning as well as approving. Both therefore offered her the elements of what Raymond Williams calls collaboration. Johnson[60] says that once Higginson had discounted the possibility of publication and shown his timidity and imperceptiveness the relationship with him became a game which she played methodically until her death. But this is to reckon without the vulnerability of the writer, the writer’s need for an audience, however defective. Emily Dickinson told Higginson later that when he responded to her first letter he “saved her life.” (Letters, pp.460, 649) Such was her need at that point for the alternative audience. Its availability was, as we shall see, from then on reflected in the poetry. The poet’s steady attentions to Higginson represented for her the necessities of competing within the Anglo-American literary community, however painful the sense it sometimes gave her of her own inadequacy. The alternative pole of her creative life was personalised in her relationship with Sue Dickinson: through her she was able to maintain her access to the drive and confidence which status in a society “good of its kind” could instil.

6: The Poetry and its Tensions

That she was emotionally predisposed to look in these two directions for attention is beyond dispute. Two polar attitudes can be detected in the poetry she wrote or preserved before the crucial letter to Higginson, one of anxious humility and one of pert superiority. From about 1856 the latter tendency sought its confirmation in verbal felicity as the poet withdrew from society to make her lexicon, as she told Higginson, her “only companion.” (Letters, p.404) The effect in the spasmodic and very uneven poetry of these years is to present us with achieved moments of elegant superiority, sharp polysyllabic words embroidering grace-notes on an insistent first-person singular:

…..My departing blossoms
Obviate parade. (18)
Wherefore my baffled ‘fingers
Thy perplexity? (69)
….Almost thy plausibility
Induces my belief. (130)

“I,” “Me” and “my” are the forms usually assimilated to such effects: the plural (a kind of royal “we”) can be wittily used to modify polysyllabic assurance with the broader social verities implicit in hymn-book rhythm and rhyme:

To hang our head – ostensibly –
And subsequent to find –
That such was not the posture
Of our immortal mind -… (105)

The alternative note of humility comes to birth in early poems addressed to her brother. At first it is untroubled and genuinely childlike. It is the natural voice of communication within the family clan: “We’re all unlike most everyone,” she had written to Austin at the age of 22, “and are therefore more dependent on each other for delight,” and shortly afterwards: “I wish we were always children, how to grow up I don’t know.” (Letters, pp.239, 241) This is the tone that flows unselfconsciously into her poems addressed to Austin, and the earliest ones she wrote for Sue. By 1861 she is ‘sufficiently the selfconscious artist to use it in constructing a fiction:

Over the fence –
Strawberries – grow –
Over the fence –
I could climb – if I tried, I know –
Berries are nice!

But – if I stained my Apron –
God would certainly scold!
Oh, dear, – I guess if He were a Boy –
He’d – climb – if He could! (251)

And this kind of child-persona was to offer a mask for similarly powerful subconscious materials from time to time from then on. But when she speaks now in less of an assumed voice her tone begins to bear the anxious weight of her sense that she should apologise to genteel readers for the distance between the world of her imagery and the cultural centres:

I’ve known a Heaven, like a Tent –
To wrap its shining Yards –
Pluck up its stakes, and disappear –
Without the sound of Boards
Or Rip of Nail – or Carpenter –
But just the miles of Stare –
That signalize a Show’s Retreat –
In North America – (243)

Compare with the uneasy cadence of that phrase the concluding line of a poem about an Amherst funeral, “There’s been a Death, in the Opposite House”:

..There’ll be that Dark Parade –
Of Tassels – and of Coaches – soon
Its easy as a Sign –
The Intuition of the News –
In just a Country Town – (389)

What is involved is the coy address of the provincial to the cosmopolitan which becomes explicit at about the time of her first letter to Higginson (1862):

This is my letter to the World
That never wrote to Me –
The simple News that Nature told –
With tender Majesty
Her Message is committed
To Hands I cannot see –
For love of Her – Sweet – countrymen –
Judge tenderly – of Me (441)

A tone of voice has here expanded to fill a poem, a cadence has achieved appropriate content. It is the tension between these two polar impulses of style that gives Emily Dickinson’s poetry from about this time its capacity for irony, ambiguity and unconventional syntax. Here, for instance, is poem 303 (which Johnson dates sometime in 1862):

The Soul selects her own Society –
Then – shuts the Door –
To her divine Majority –
Present no more –
Unmoved – she notes the Chariots – pausing –
At her low Gate –
Unmoved – an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat –
I’ve known her – from an ample nation –
Choose One –
Then – close the Valves of her attention –
Like Stone –

There are no extremes of verbal sophistication and naivety. But one can hear in stanzas two and three a wishful consciousness of the “World” and the “countrymen” of “This is my letter…..”:

……. the Chariots – pausing –
At her low Gate –
…… an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat –
I’ve known her – from an ample nation –
Choose One…

The alternative impulse towards superiority and exclusiveness becomes the major emphasis of the poem:

The Soul selects her own Society –
Then – shuts the Door
Unmoved – she notes the Chariots…
Unmoved – an Emperor be kneeling
[i.e. though an Emperor should be kneeling]

But the knotted intensity of the poem grows from its use of language and imagery which can accommodate major and minor emphases. The first stanza, for instance, goes on

Then – shuts the Door –
To her divine Majority –
Present no more –

Is this, we have to ask, “Majority” as in poem 435

(‘Tis the Majority
In this, as All, prevail –
Assent – and you are sane -)?

If it is, then the “divine Majority” is the (democratic) “ample nation” of stanza 3, and the soul is assumed to have already captured the nation’s heart (“her divine Majority”) even though she denies her queenly presence. “Present” in this reading is the participle. An alternative meaning for “majority” however provides a reading which is more in keeping with the poem’s peremptory opening: “Do not try to introduce other candidates for the soul’s approval once she has come of age as a divine individual!” “Present” has now become imperative, the rhythm of the line much more forceful. The poet’s ready resort to the ambiguities her lexicon primed her with (a habitual practice) guarantees that while we prefer this second reading we cannot entirely exclude the first, especially when we find that it anticipates the poem’s final image:

I’ve known her – from an ample nation –
Choose One –
Then – close the Valves of her attention –
Like Stone-

“Like Stone -” suggests the heroic intransigence of the individual act of choice; along with “Valves” however it allows the subordinate recognition that petrified or fossilised valves could not be opened even if the decision (and flow of human sympathy) were reversed. In this context the repeated “Unmoved” in stanza two becomes less ritually portentous, taking on the same kind of ambiguity as that in poem 216 (“Safe in their Alabaster Chambers”) – not only “resolute” but also ‘incapable of being touched by human feeling”:

Unmoved – she notes the Chariots – pausing
At her low Gate –
Unmoved – an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat –
Safe in their Alabaster Chambers –
Untouched by Morning –
And untouched by Noon –
Lie the meek members of the Resurrection – ..

Thus the tense little poem accommodates and reintegrates the poet’s two primary social stances.

It was this poetic method that allowed the poet to give structured verbal play to the provincial anti-role without simplifying the internal conflict between the local culture which secured her status and the cosmopolitan culture which belittled it. Karl Mannheim sees as a classic and often repeated cultural situation the one in which the mythology of the dominant caste of a static rural society (doomed to decline) encounters that of a larger more mobile urban stratum: for a member of the older group, he says, “two modes of explanation will collide in thinking about every object.”[61] This was Emily Dickinson’s predicament. She escaped from the traumatic social pressures of her marginality into the creative isolation in which she could write her poetry: her practice of the latter on her own terms provided what Berger and Luckmann call a finite province of meaning, an enclave within the paramount reality’ of common experience.[62] But, as Mannheim says,

The fact that we give names to things which are in flux implies inevitably a certain stabilisation created along the lines of collective activity. The derivation of our meanings emphasises and covers up, in the interest of collective action, the perpetually fluid process underlying all things.[63]

The poet’s withdrawal into isolation, his facility within the poetic “enclave” does not mean immunity from social pressures. His language, imagery, syntax have to envisage a collectivity, an audience however small, by which they can be understood. For Emily Dickinson, constructing in what so many of her poems describe as “silence” the fictions which gave order to her experience, there were two overlapping “collectivities,” that represented by the good society of her locality and that of the genteel literary audience. Each could be summed up in the person of a representative reader. There are a number of extraordinarily alienated poems written in this period of tension which will be discussed later (Chapter 7 (iv)); and it is impossible to decide whether they are written out of damaged or renounced personal relationships, neurotic mental states or the struggle with words itself. A fair copy of 1864 which revises and amends part of one of them (No. 280, “I felt a Funeral in my brain”[64]) is less puzzling and could easily be the poet’s retrospective analysis of the way her cultural dilemma affected her attempt to write poetry:

I felt a Cleaving in my Mind –
As if my Brain has 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)

All one can say in this connection, of course, is that the poem could well be a description of her epistemological predicament. There can be little doubt, however, that her experimental language was an attempt to accommodate such a double perspective to her own satisfaction.

Though “The Soul Selects Her Own Society” undeniably reflects the tensions I am concerned with, it could be argued that the poem is flawed because of them. The ambiguity of the fourth line of the poem becomes ineffective when the poem is read aloud, the primary meaning scanning “Present/no more” and the secondary meaning “Present/no more.” Two more completely successful later poems show the same opposed cultural forces producing a richer and more coherent structural equilibrium. Poem 742, “Four Trees – upon a Solitary Acre,” (c.1863) seems to find in the trees an emblem of a detached and stoical life-style rather like that of the poet herself. The poem has elements of the kind of deference to the cosmopolitan reader which we know Emily Dickinson was now capable of. But they are balanced in its structure against an extraordinary stabilising confidence which has other sources. It is worth noting the human and social reciprocities that are dramatised in stanza 3:

The Acre gives them – Place –
They – Him – Attention of Passer by –
Of Shadow, or of squirrel, haply –
Or Boy-

Considerable dignity in the first line is weighed against the fussy rhythms of the second and third lines, the awkwardly mumbled “haply.” But “Boy,” which seems to receive inferior status from the syntax even to “Squirrel,” gains renewed weight from its place in the curtailed final line. (We remember that the “Boy” is a frequent alter-ego for this poet as in poem 986.) Everything here is dramatically alive, and although the life grows from the writer’s feeling of inferiority in relation to her sophisticated reader, a larger poetic movement accommodates the spasm of unconfidence about the worth of her local materials and (by implication) her art. (The mode has none of the predictability of allegory yet the “Acre” is not too far from representing the first of these and the trees the second.)

The sense of balance in this stanza is derived from that which is present in the poem as a whole. The poem can be read in two ways – as if there was a full stop at the end of the first stanza (in which case it is the poet’s naive and charming plea for the significance of the trees and everything they may represent) or as if there were a colon at that point (in which case the last three stanzas summarise an argument, are what the trees, in their mute existence, “Maintain”):

Four Trees – upon a solitary Acre –
Without Design
Or Order, or Apparent Action –
Maintain –
The Sun – upon a Morning meets them –
The Wind –

No nearer Neighbor – have they –
But God –
The Acre gives them – Place –
They – Him – Attention of Passer by –
Of Shadow, or of Squirrel, haply –
Or Boy –
What deed is Theirs unto the General Nature –
What Plan
They severally – retard – or further –
Unknown –

The second of these possible readings eliminates the powerful but idiosyncratic use of “Maintain” as an intransitive verb and reconciles “Without Design” in stanza one with “Plan… Unknown” in stanza four. It allows a mocking and enlivening social awareness to play over stanzas two and three. Yet the tentative movement of the individual stanzas, the firm pause at the end of each, are too strong to let the second reading completely overpower the first and one is glad that the final stanza with its exclamatory “What”s and the portentous and verb-free “Unknown” fails to clinch the more schematic possibility. We, marginally prefer one reading yet cannot entirely exclude the other: necessities deep in the poem itself work to exclude both the ingratiating naivety of the first possibility and the over schematic sophistication of the second.

The poet’s mannered society and its norms operate in “The Soul Selects its Own Society” and “Four Trees…” as a counterweight to the pressures of the discriminatory cosmopolitan literary situation. These are technically lyric poems whose angular and uncompromising language is given density and irony by the need to accommodate these alternate impulses. Poem 1100, “The Last Night that she lived,” (c. 1866) because it takes its essential shape from a social situation, accommodates the tensions rather differently, though their effect is again visible in the language. Implicit in the tone of the poem’s opening is the deferential assumption that its occasion, a country death bed, is only deserving of the attention of sophisticated readers because certain special insights into “Nature’s” ways ensue:

The last Night that She lived
It was a Common Night
Except the Dying – this to Us
Made Nature different
We noticed smallest things –
Things overlooked before
By this great light upon our Minds
Italicized – as ’twere.

There is a hint here of the “simple News that Nature told” which the poet elsewhere feels is all she has to pass on to the “World.” The freshness and originality of perception which are attributed to the “We” of the poem by virtue of a universalising occasion, however, are die-stamped with considerable verbal authority and poise by that daring and synthesising “Italicized.” The apologetic cough with which the stanza ends does not (and is not intended to) entirely re-establish the speaker’s humble bearing, her stipulated unassuming approach to the exacting reader. The “We” of the poem incorporates an “I” whose shaping awareness promises to undercut and transcend the naive traditionally religious terminology (“this great light upon our Minds”) which would normally be common to the group. As in the other two poems examined, alternative verbal possibilities which have to be actively excluded emerge from the writer’s marginal position and intensify the poetic effect:

As We went out and in
Between Her final Room
And Rooms where Those to be alive
Tomorrow were, a Blame
That Others could exist
While She must finish quite
A Jealousy for Her arose
So nearly infinite –

The ghost of a conventional pious response (to be jealous of rather than ‘for Her”) is raised and given body by the resonance of a popular rhyme-word in hymns, “infinite,” and the arrangement of the sentence over the two stanzas. It is, however, excluded as we follow the syntactically necessary equation between the “Blame” and the “Jealousy” which insists that the latter is on behalf of the dying person, while the (almost) tri-syllabic rhyme linking “finish quite” with “infinite” pushes the latter word away from religious conventionality and towards its root meaning. Our informant, the “we” she is uneasily part of, the outsiders (“Those to be alive/Tomorrow”), the dying woman are elegantly disposed in a structured ironic relationship to each other which leaves no space for a condescending or patronising response. The energy released by this balancing act is carried forward by the action to be dispersed in the fluid syntax of the final stanza:

And We – We placed the Hair –
And drew the Head erect –
And then an awful leisure was
Belief to regulate –

The last two lines can in fact only mean one thing in the context of this return from the frontiers of experience but the placing of “was” in the penultimate line gives to the preferred reading of the last line the tenor of irrelevance.

7: The Poetry and its Genres

Poems with these tense linguistic qualities punctuate the Complete Poems at regular intervals from 1861 on. They help to explain why Emily Dickinson has been seen as a precursor of twentieth century “modern” poetry: and I have suggested reasons for thinking that they emerged as she countered an awareness of the daunting Anglo-American genteel audience with her sense of alternative sustenance within the local community. Such language is, of course, the exception rather than the rule. Its regular recurrence is part of the strange cyclic pattern of development in the course of which about half a dozen different kinds of poem appear and reappear throughout the Complete Poems. Both the nature of these (roughly distinct but overlapping) genres of poem and their incidence offer further witness to the tension in Emily Dickinson’s audience-attitudes with which I am concerned. I shall look first at the genres:

(i) Naive Pastoral.

These poems are limpidly lucid. They essentially defer to the cosmopolitan reader’s discriminatory impulse and ask for special terms from the reader, claiming that their lack of sophistication is compensated for by the special local knowledge of “Nature” they have to offer. The flavour of this appeal (to precisely the kind of reader Higginson represented) can be gauged from a selection of first lines:

I’ll tell you – how the Sun rose – (318)

I know a place where Summer strives. . . (337)

There is a flower that Bees prefer – (380)

This is my letter to the World (441)

Nature – the Gentlest Mother is (790)

The Only News I know. .. (827)

This group of poems represents Emily Dickinson’s most extreme concession to her contemporary readers: both the popularity of the genre when the poetry was first published and its lack of linguistic idiosyncrasy, humour or irony make it difficult to understand Higginson’s timidity about championing these poems at least, when Emily’s sister, Lavinia, first approached him about publication. In the process whereby (as with Clare, Emily Bronte and Hopkins) provincialisms” were edited out of the poems so as not to disturb the genteel reader these poems probably suffered least.

(ii) Love Poems.

Another recognisably Victorian mode is that of related love lyrics, all hinting obliquely at a semi-fictional and incompletely explained personal situation which prevents the consummation of the speaker’s love. A study of the various drafts of Emily Dickinson’s love poems in the three-volume edition of the poems shows that she was steadily converting her affectionate, dependent or passionate feelings towards many people, friends, acquaintances, relatives and possible lovers into semi-fictional poems of this genre. Emily Bronte’ and the Brownings would have offered precedents here. Many of these poems would not have been out a place in a Victorian anthology. Some of them rather unsatisfactorily use a Puritan theological framework to amplify their romantic feeling (No. 664,’ ‘Of all the Souls that stand create-“) or to justify the permanent separation she needed to impose on her lovers (No. 640, “I cannot live with You-“). The best of them allow a precise social awareness to puncture the tendencies to pathetic fallacy or mawkish posturing common to the mode. In poem 348, for instance, the inevitable seasonal behaviour of natural creatures is compared to social “good manners” which, if lacking special sensitivity to the sufferer, are ultimately protective of the individual (and stabilise by suggesting a scale of maturity and immaturity):

They’re here, though; not a creature failed –
No Blossom stayed away
In gentle deference to me –
The Queen of Calvary –
Each one salutes me, as he goes,
And I, my childish Plumes,
Lift, in bereaved acknowledgement
Of their unthinking Drums –

(iii) Naive-voice fictions.

A deferential “little girl” or “simple narrator” voice is assumed (as though the recalcitrant anti-Victorian muse is pretending to be good and to know its provincial place). The “tale” however, a visit to the sea (520), a carriage-drive with Death (712), a dying person’s account of her death (465), an encounter with a snake (986), a self-undermining argument for the existence of God (338), is the vehicle for a grimly ironic vision the full force of which escapes the narrator but not the reader. (It often embodies powerful unconscious materials.) The ambiguities of these pieces reside in their plot rather more than in their language. In poem 465, for instance, the King” awesomely awaited by the narrator and the mourners may, after all, be not Christ but Death:

The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –

The author’s verbal superiority, her analytic control of life is withdrawn from the scene; in its absence these poems are strongly visual in the way of some primitive or surrealist paintings: the exaggerated versions of powerful and fixed social patterns within which the uncomprehending narrator is suspended give the poems an extraordinary nightmare quality.

(iv) Crisis poem. (1861-4)

These poems can be seen as pre-modern in their symbolist exploration of some kind of living death, emotional catastrophe or breakdown of epistemological categories. The essentials of the mode go back to Coleridge and De Quincey and can be found in Poe or Thomson’s “City of Dreadful Night”: but the prosaic speech rhythms and half-rhymes distinguish Emily Dickinson’s tentative pieces from the more usual melodramatic and sonorously metrical treatments of such material. Clusters of shifting symbols (bells, clocks, voyages, shipwrecks, voices, silences) embody the mind’s attempt to come to terms with total flux; but what appeal are the precisely mannered matter-of-fact voice in which they are presented and the homely concrete metaphors to which they are wedded:

I saw no Way – The Heavens were stitched –
I felt the Columns close –
The Earth reversed her Hemispheres –
I touched the Universe –
And back it slid – and I alone –
A Speck upon a Ball –
Went out upon Circumference –
Beyond the Dip of Bell – (378)

This precision of tone and image adds psychological authenticity

(But, most like Chaos – Stopless – cool –
Without a Chance, or Spar –
Or even a Report of Land –
To justify – Despair. (510)

and psychological intensity:

Then Space – began to toll,
As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear… (280)

(v) Extended Metaphor.

There is a sense, of course, in which category (iii) poems and category (iv) poems are also extended metaphors. They achieve this respectively by the construction of a significant story (“I started Early – Took my Dog/And visited the Sea”) and by focusing on a significant psychological situation. Neither proposes itself as an extended metaphor as do restrained and logically developed pieces like “We grow accustomed to the Dark -/ When Light is put away-” (419) or “I Years had been from Home… (609) The poems I want to group here are those that use a central metaphor in this very conscious way to achieve their own discrete and autonomous life. The best ones tend to elaborate a startling central conceit set up in their first line:

Before I got my eye put out . . . (327)

One need not be a Chamber – to be Haunted – (670)

My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun – (754)

I read my sentence – steadily – (412)

The first three of these command a combination of surprise and inevitability because of the way the concrete implications of the conceit are teased out as the poem develops. In the fourth, the dramatically heightened image of the court of law is humorously jettisoned to achieve the understatement of the final lines:

I made my soul familiar – with her extremity –
That at the last, it should not be a novel Agony –
But she, and Death, acquainted –
Meet tranquilly, as friends –
Salute, and pass, without a Hint –
And there, the Matter ends –

The power of the poem which is an extended metaphor lies iii its independence of explicit statements of value (including those of the conflicting value systems which complicated the author’s creative predicament). Emily Dickinson is at her most versatile in this mode: one last variation which might be mentioned is her use of a neutral and unspecified pronoun to represent the (unidentified) subject of the poem’s metaphor:

(It dropped so low – in my Regard –
I heard it hit the Ground –
And go to pieces on the Stones
At bottom of my Mind –
Yet blamed the Fate that flung it – less
Than I denounced Myself,
For entertaining Plated Wares
Upon my Silver Shelf -) (747)
or its (unidentified) object, e.g. poem 359, “I gained it so-.”

(vi) Extended simile; poems of definition; riddles.

These poems all construct a poetic image which represents an explicitly stated concept. They may rely heavily on simile itself: the soul’s flight is compared to that of a balloon (1630) or “The Leaves”

like Women interchange
Exclusive Confidence –
Somewhat of nods and somewhat
Portentous inference. (987)

A number of poems rely on “As if’ as an opening gambit and some of them (for instance, “As if I asked a common Aims,” No. 323) do not disclose what they are about and are not completely distinct from my previous category. But the borderline I am concerned with is clear in a case like this:

As if the Sea should part
And show a further Sea –
And that – a further – and the Three
But a presumption be –
Of Periods of Seas –
Unvisited of Shores –
Themselves the Verge of Seas to be –
Eternity – is those – (695)

The substance of the poem is like a set of Chinese boxes, but it is really meant to indicate what Eternity is like: it reverses the formula but is otherwise identical with the “poems of definition” which begin “Exultation is the going/Of an inland soul to sea … (76) or “Presentiment – is that long Shadow – on the Lawn-/Indicative that Suns go down -.” (764) The riddles which seem to me to belong here (for many of Emily Dickinson’s poems of all kinds have a riddling quality) are those which have a specific answer (usually drawn from “natural history”): the “answer” to poem 1463 for instance is “a humming bird,” the answer to poem 560 is “Halley’s Comet.”

(vii) Descriptive, meditative, satiric, didactic and aphoristic poems.

It will probably be apparent by now that I see the various genres of poem as constituting a spectrum of types. Those I have placed first come closest to the appropriate appeal a poet like Emily Dickinson could make to her contemporary readers. Those at the centre of the spectrum (Types (iii), (iv) and (v)) are the-poems that might be called pre-modernist in character. Their ambiguities reflect the poet’s attempt to write at once for both the envisaged readers like Higginson and for others whose tastes were more like her own and who she located (by way of Sue Dickinson) in the local community. Categories (vi) and (vii) are increasingly like pre-romantic poetry in their procedures. In category (vii) birds, butterflies, cats, clergymen, society ladies, life’s vicissitudes, love, faith, death, art, time are treated in a style that is generalised, elegant (at best) and either epigrammatic or strongly antithetical. These are the poems which emerged in the mood (touched off by the continuing relationship with her most consistent reader) in which she exercised her ascendency as the first lady of a largely imaginary hierarchic local community where precise eighteenth century values could be imagined to prevail. Whereas in the middle of the spectrum her rhythmical concern was to introduce by means of her idiosyncratic punctuation a counter-rhythm to the iambic, and rhyme was slackly modified into half-rhyme or intermittently disappeared, here the pointed effect of iambic metre and sharp alternation of full-rhyme and half-rhyme (or insistent full rhyme) rely heavily on conventional expectations:

Upon Concluded Lives
There’s nothing cooler falls –
Than Life’s sweet Calculations –
The mixing Bells and Palls –
Makes Lacerating Tune –
To Ears the Dying Side –
Tis Coronal and Funeral –
Saluting – in the Road – (735)

These are the poems that have their roots most unambiguously in the good society” whose values and wisdom the speaker is in a position to arbitrate. They offer a sane and subtle but abstract commentary on what one might call “life after the event.” Their capacity for generalisation can treat with wise and humane common-sense broad areas of experience (“After great pain, a formal feeling comes-“) (341) or result in the knotted aphoristic linking of traditional oppositions:

Water, is taught by thirst.
Land – by the Oceans passed.
Transport – by throe -… (135)

In both these cases, however, though the procedures may be akin to those of pre-romantic poetry, they look for their vitality to the narrow but deep reaches of Emily Dickinson’s most authentic experience:

This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go – (341)

… Transport – by throe –
Peace – by its battles told –
Love, by Memorial Mold –
Birds, by the Snow. (135)

8: Conclusion

T.H. Johnson’s editorial work has established a provisional order of composition for the twenty years of the poet’s endeavours so that we are able to see how the different kinds of poem recur (or are taken up again for revision) during that time and the sense of a continuous creative process is not affected by the fact that we are often dealing with a poetry of false starts, tailings off, jottings, good lines in bad poems. What is striking is that all the genres I have described seem to emerge and reemerge in a cyclic way as though they are the product of some kind of gestation process. This explains why “poems expressing the poet’s more childish and undeveloped characteristics and poems upon which the sentimentality of her time left its mark are often followed or preceded by poems which define and express the very nearly indefinable and inexpressible.”[65] (Louise Bogan)

It is my contention that no purely literary critical account of the pattern of the Complete Poems can do justice to what is expressed (and sometimes finely embodied) there. This is particularly the case when the critic follows the tradition of Arnold in attempting to recreate at the provincial artist’s expense “that sense of absoluteness which seems necessary to a robust culture”[66] to quote one of the foremost twentieth century exponents of that tradition. It is this absoluteness that Yvor Winters is insisting on when he pursues Arnold’s “note of provinciality” (he calls it “countrified eccentricity”) through Emily Dickinson’s poems, wondering if it lingers in even her best poems as a “fine defect.”[67] R. P. Blackmur diagnoses a “playfulness”[68] in her work which he similarly deplores. And both by implication blame a surrounding “ignorance and platitude…” too far from a’ ‘supposed, centre of correct information, correct judgement, correct taste. (Arnold) “Barren” and “harsh” are Winters’s adjectives for the New England society which according to Blackmur “had no tradition to teach her” that poetry was a “rational and objective art.”[69] It is not enough to say against such critics, as Sewall does (Life, pp.8-9), that there was nothing provincial about Emily Dickinson’s interests or her circle; one must recognise the importance of her creative refusal to accept the subordinate role that Arnold’s terminology (and the social impulses it satisfied) operated to impose, her active rejection of the framework itself. Her value, her heroism if you like, can only be measured by the tension between her vulnerability and her successful moments of accomplished poise. These, the good poems, good stanzas, good lines even, are finally inseparable from the complete sequence of the Poems and are essentially associated with the anti-role she learned to play.

9. Guide to Further Reading

The one volume Complete Poems (1960, 1970) is the basic text but the three volume edition may attract the reader who wonders about variant readings and reworking of poems or is interested in the gestation process of the poetry. (Such a reader might also be interested in R.W. Franklin’s edition of The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson (2v., Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1981).)

As the reader’s own responses to the poetry accumulate, he may find some of the following volumes of criticism stimulating. Essays by R.P. Blackmur, Yvor Winters and above all Allen Tate (the last two, critics who had not the advantage of Johnson’s text) are conveniently collected in a Twentieth Century Views volume edited by R.B. Sewall. Good studies with their own special emphases are Karl Keller’s The Only Kangaroo Among the Beauty: Emily Dickinson and America (1979) and David Porter’s Dickinson, The Modern Idiom (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard UP, 1981). Porter discusses the importance of Emily Dickinson’s “radical female awareness” (pp.280-290), a quality shared by the other three works of criticism I want to mention, Brita Lindberg-Seyersted’s The Voice of the Poet: Aspects of Style in the Poetry of Emily Dickinson (Uppsala: Almqvist, 1968) Dolores Dyer Lucas’s Emily Dickinson and Riddle (De Kalb, Illinois: Northern Illinois UP, 1969) and Inder Nath Kher’s The Landscape of Absence: Emily Dickinson’s Poetry (New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1974).

Ambiguity, so important to the poetry, is a crucial characteristic also of the Letters (1958)3 (absolutely essential reading as one tries to establish a context for the poetry). A typical example of such ambiguity is Dickinson’s reference in April 1862 to “a terror – since September – I could tell to none.” (Letters, p.404) A disappointed passion for a man or a woman, anticipation of death or of mental instability, acknowledgement of the awesome responsibility of her art? Many interpretations are possible. And such cryptic morsels readily find their way into the texture of approaches to her life and art which insist (for instance) that she was painfully wakened to homosexual self-awareness or psychologically damaged by her mother’s coldness to her or traumatically conscious of her feminine identity.

The three works I am thinking of, The Riddle of Emily Dickinson by Rebecca Patterson (London: Gollancz, 1953) After Great Pain by John Cody (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1971) and Emily Dickinson: When a Writer is a Daughter by Barbara A.C. Mossberg (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana UP, 1982) represent perfectly legitimate approaches to literary biography. But the irreduceable amount of ambiguity in the materials for a Dickinson “Life” does make particularly welcome the moderation and scrupulousness of the editors of the Letters when they turn to biography: T.H. Johnson, Emily Dickinson: An Interpretive Biography (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1960) and Theodora Ward, The Capsule of the Mind: Chapters in the Life of Emily Dickinson (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1961). It also makes Richard B. Sewall’s biography (1976) with its tolerant plurality of insight, its wise recognition of the limits off actual certainty, an essential tool. Sewall, for instance, weighs exactly the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments of Rebecca Patterson and God’,’. In response to a fascinating book like Ruth Miller’s (1968) he is able to reinforce her documentation of Emily Dickinson’s burning desire to publish her poems, while remaining tellingly sceptical,about her theory that the poems were bound into little books (“fascicles”) by their author in obedience to their structured arrangement in extended lyric sequences.

The other invaluable biographical aid is Jay Leyda’s The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson (1960). It is a bed-rock source for the realities of the poet’s milieu precisely because it makes no effort to stipulate that this or that component of her day-to-day life actually figured in her consciousness. Jack L. Capps’s Emily Dickinson’s Reading, 1836-1886 (Cambridge Mass.: Harvard UP, 1966) does make a scholarly approach to an aspect of her consciousness which can be quite unambiguously explored.

A final return to the text. Time and the satisfaction of many readers (as well as my own delight) seem to me to have justified the principles upon which T.H. Johnson produced his editions of the Poems (principles which are explained in his “Introductions”). But I should ,Just mention R.W. Franklin’s The Editing of Emily Dickinson: A Reconsideration (Madison, Milwaukee and London: Wisconsin UP, 1967). It argues, contrary to my own view, that Johnson’s editing of the poems missed a fine opportunity to eliminate Emily Dickinson’s eccentricities of notation and provide a text with orthodox punctuation.

10. Notes

  1. (Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown, 1960; London: Faber, 1970). Quotations are all from this edition and are identified in brackets by the poem numbers there assigned. (Details of the three volume edition are given at note 59 below.) Back
  2. Richard B. Sewall. The Life of Emily Dickinson (London: Faber, 1976), p. 583-8, 475- 6. (Subsequent references to this work will be given in brackets in the text.) Back
  3. T.H. Johnson and Theodora Ward, eds.. The Letters of Emily Dickinson (Cambridge. Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1958), p.408. (The title of this work will be abbreviated throughout to Letters and references will. whenever possible, be given in brackets in the body of the text.) Back
  4. Morse Peckham: ‘Reflections on Historical Modes in the Nineteenth Century,’ Stratford-on-Avon Studies, 15: Victorian Poetry (London: Arnold 1972), pp. 291-292. Back
  5. “Manners, Morals and the Novel,” The Liberal Imagination (London: Secker & Warburg, 1951), p.207. Back
  6. Compare Lowell’s literary pantheon as he describes it in the North American Review (69, 202) with hers as she explains it in the Letters (pp. 401. 491). Back
  7. In The Century Dictionary ed. William Dwight Whitney (New York: the Century Co.; London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1889-91). p.48. The definition ”narrow, unenlightened” is illustrated from J..J. Shorthouses novel Countess Eve (Edinburgh, 1888): “A society perfectly provincial. with no thought, with no hope, beyond its narrow horizon.” Back
  8. I have adapted these terms from those employed by J.F. Gravier in his Paris et le Desert Francais. (Paris: Flammarion, 1947) though his interest in the historical development of the “mythe parisien” (p. 170) and its world-wide equivalents (p. 121) is subordinate to his concern with the present need for decentralisation. Back
  9. Essays in the History of Ideas. (New York: Braziller, 1955), pp. xii-xiii. Back
  10. “Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas.” History and Theory 8 (1969), 39. Back
  11. Trilling, p. 209. Back
  12. “The Provincial Person and his Fate,” Carl Amery, ed, Die Provinz: Ktitik Einer Lebensform, (Munchen: Nymphenburger. 1964), pp.  5-6. Back
  13. Ideology and Utopia, translated by Louis Wirth and Edward Shils (London: Kegan Paul, 1936), pp. 10-11. Back
  14. John Holloway, The Victorian Sage: Studies in Argument (London: Macmillan, 1953), p. 224. Back
  15. R.J. Super, ed., Matthew Arnold: Lectures and Essays in Criticism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1962), pp. 467-68. Back
  16. The Social Construction of Reality (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971), p. 83. Back
  17.  Mary Taylor, quoted in Clement Shorter. The Brontes’ Life and Letters. (London:Hodder& Stoughton, 1908), vol. 1, p. 82. Back
  18. Winifred Gerin, Charlotte Bronte (London: OUP, 1967), pp. 40-45, 431-6. Back
  19. F.E. Hardy, The Early Life of Thomas Hardy (London: Macmillan, 1928), pp. 137-38. Back
  20. Quoted Leon Edel, “Introduction,” Bodley Head Henry James, vol. 1 (London: Bodley Head, 1967), p. 8. Back
  21. English Hours, ed. Alma Louise Lowe (London: Heinemann, 1960), pp. 47-48. Back
  22. “Preface to Notes,” Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. Robert Bridges (London: Humphrey Milford, 1918), p. 97. Back
  23. T.W. Higginson, “Emily Dickinson’s Letters,” Atlantic Monthly, 68 (1891), 448. Back
  24. English Hours, pp. 29-30. Back
  25. ” …the central spot of all the world (which, as Americans have at present no centre of their own, we may allow to be somewhere in the vicinity, we will say, of Saint Paul’s Cathedral).” Our Old Home and English Notebooks (Boston and Cambridge Mass: Houghton, 1883), p. 255. Back
  26. F. E. Hardy, p. 189. Back
  27. See Cleanth Brooks, William Faulkner, the Yoknapatawpha Country (New Haven: Yale UP, 1963), Chapter l: “Faulkner the Provincial.” Back
  28. Jay Leyda, The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson (New Haven: Yale UP, 1960), vol. 2, pp. 474-5. Index entries under Bronte in Leyda, Letters and Sewall provide ample confirmation of the general point. Back
  29. Leyda, vol. 1, p. 361. Back
  30. Life of Charlotte Bronte (London, 1857), vol. 1, p.  334, quoting from the “Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell” attached to the 1850 edition of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey. E. D. quotes the “Biographical Notice,” Letters, p. 722. Back
  31. Clara Newman Turner, “My Personal Acquaintance with Emily Dickinson,” quoted Leyda, vol. 2, p. 481. Back
  32. T.H. Johnson, “Introduction,” Letters, p. xv. Back
  33. A Handbook of American Literature (St Lucia, Queensland: Queensland UP; 1975), p. 156. Back
  34. The Heart of Thoreau’s Journal, ed. Odell Shepard (Boston and New York: Houghton Miffiin, 1927), pp. 236-37. Back
  35. Atlantic Monthly 69 (1892), 35-50. Back
  36. North American Review 69 (1849), 202. Back
  37. The Only Kangaroo aAmong the Beauty: Emily Dickinson and America. (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins UP, 1979), p. 328. Back
  38. Gaskell, vol. 2, p. 151. Back
  39. F.E. Hardy, Early Life of Thomas Hardy, P.S. Back
  40. “Capitalism and Rural Society in Germany,” From Max Weber, ed. H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (New York: OUP, 1958), p. 363. Back
  41. English Hours, p. 149. Back
  42. The Country and the City (London: Chatto, 1973), pp. 9-12. Back
  43. John W. Burgess, Reminiscences of An American Scholar (New York: Columbia UP, 1934). Back
  44. Burgess, pp. 60-61. Back
  45. Leyda, Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson, vol. 1, p. 221. Back
  46. Leyda, vol. 2, p. 276. Back
  47. Leyda, vol. 2, p. 150. Back
  48. Leyda vol 2, p. 75. Back
  49. Leyda vol 2, p. 445. Back
  50. Trilling, Liberal Imagination, p. 207. Back
  51. T.H. Johnson, “Introduction,” Letters, p. xv. Back
  52. Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford: OUP, 1977), p. 195. Back
  53. Eric Robinson and Geoffrey Summerfield, “Introduction,” Selected Poems and Prose of John Clare (London: OUP, 1967) pp. xviii, xxiv. Back
  54. Young Thomas Hardy (London: Heinemann 1975), pp. 145-7, 151-2, 192-3, 198. Back
  55. Some Recollections by Emma Hardy ed. Evelyn Hardy and Robert Gittings (London: OUP, 1961). Back
  56. Burgess, p. 60. Back
  57. The Only Kangaroo Among the Beauty, pp. 184-221. Back
  58. Shorter, Brontes’ Life and Letters, vol. 2, p. 85. Back
  59. “Introduction,” The Poems of Emily Dickinson (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard UP, 1958), vol. 1, p. xxvii. Back
  60. “Introduction,” Poems vol. 1, p. xxviii. Back
  61. Ideology and Utopia, p. 8. Back
  62. The Social Construction of Reality, p. 39. Back
  63. Ideology and Utopia, p. 20. Back
  64. Ruth Miller, The Poetry of Emily Dickinson (Middletown, Conn: Wesleyan UP, 1968), p. 128 demonstrates this connection. Back
  65. Louise Bogan, “A Mystical Poet,” Emily Dickinson, a Collection of Critical Essays, ed. R.B. Sewall (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1963), p. 141. Back
  66. F.R. Leavis, New Bearings in English Poetry (London: Chatto, 1954), p.91. Back
  67. In Defense of Reason (Denver: Swallow, 1947), pp.284-286. Back
  68. “Emily Dickinson’s Notation,” Kenyon Review, 18 (1956), 235. Back
  69. Language as Gesture (London: Allen & Unwin, 1961), pp.49-50. Back

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