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Posts Tagged ‘Betsy Erkkila’

The only authenticated portrait of Emily Dickinson later than childhood. (For source of image see link)

‘A poet of the inner civil war.’

(A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson  – page 3)

For present purposes we are now on the brink of the last disclosure. For UK readers of Emily Dickinson the American Civil War can easily become the mastodon hidden in the attic. I think it did for me. This is no longer true for me at least, thanks to Shira Wolosky, one of the writers in A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson .

As we will see, for Dickinson the Civil War had an additional stress. She wasn’t sure whether the objectives of the war were worth all the consequent loss of life. Along with all the other possibilities we have explored, this tested various dimensions of her faith – in life, in love and in immortality. And she was not alone. Dickinson crystallised the prevalent atmosphere of doubt into her poems, capturing her state of mind many times with uncanny and haunting precision.

Shira Wolosky

I’ve already mentioned the startling fact of her poetic productivity during the war years, but I’ll repeat it again here in Wolosky’s words in A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson (page 107):

[M]ore than half of her poetic production coincides with years of the Civil War, 1861 to 1865. The years immediately preceding the war… were also the years which Thomas Johnson identifies with “the rising flood of her talent,“ as well as with the beginning of her reclusive practices.

There was an amazing peak in 1863 alone. Betsy Erkkila describes it as follows, in a later chapter (page 158):

[O]f the 1789 poems in Franklin’s variorum edition, over half were written during the years of the Civil War between 1861 and 1865; and of these, almost 300 were written in 1863, a year of crisis and turning point in the war, when even Union victories such as Gettysburg had become scenes of horrific bloodletting and mass death on both sides.

It is not surprising that one of the main concerns of these poems is ‘theodicy’ (page 111):

Dickinson’s war poems generally attempt to make out “the anguish in this world“ and to decipher whether it has “a loving side.“ This would mean its fitting into some wider schema, some purpose that would justify suffering…

This was a testing struggle as in war death is (page 112) ‘arbitrary and recalcitrant.’ In fact (page 125):

The Civil War reached levels of carnage before unknown, made possible both by new technology and new strategies of total warfare, in combination with a profound ideological challenge to American national claims and self identity, political and religious.

There is an intriguing consequence of this (page 114), ‘it is, oddly, just where poems are most personal in terms of Dickinson’s suffering, but they are also most culturally engaged.’ The intense resonance of the poet’s mind to the climate of the times is captured in poem after poem.

Religion was a lifelong issue for Dickinson. In many ways it ‘fails her’ (page 116) and her work ‘repeatedly rehearses her reasons for both asserting and denying a divine order, in constant countertension.’ She also raises questions about (page 117) the extent to which’ art can indeed serve as figure for faith’ and ‘in text after text, she returns again to religious premises and promises; again finding them wanting; again finding them necessary.’

At exactly this point a bluebottle landed on the page at the exact paragraph I was dictating into my phone. It rubbed it forelegs together in typical fly fashion. Just as I got out of Notes on my phone and into my camera, a plane flew growling overhead and the breeze flipped my page, and the fly was gone. It felt like a typical Emily Dickinson joke.

One of the challenges war poses (page 119) is that ‘the self is called upon to place life second to, or in service of, community, in the name of a greater purpose.’ Wolosky feels that Dickinson is crushed between these pressure points (page 124):

Dickinson here situates herself at the very clash of contending impulses. Her self, on the one hand, remains independent, even defiant, of society’s claims, with a courage of judgement that is unwavering. On the other hand, she is also sceptical of selves that are invested only in themselves, without reference, or devotion, to anything beyond the self. She is critical, that is, of both social authority and also absolute selfhood.

Her poems are again often masterpieces of inner ambivalence, products of a mind torn between two opposing forces within the individual and within society.

A key passage in the Bahá’í International Community’s document The Prosperity of Humankind examines this same problem, the individual versus society, from the perspective of consultation and its correlate, justice (Section II):

At the group level, a concern for justice is the indispensable compass in collective decision making, because it is the only means by which unity of thought and action can be achieved. Far from encouraging the punitive spirit that has often masqueraded under its name in past ages, justice is the practical expression of awareness that, in the achievement of human progress, the interests of the individual and those of society are inextricably linked. To the extent that justice becomes a guiding concern of human interaction, a consultative climate is encouraged that permits options to be examined dispassionately and appropriate courses of action selected. In such a climate the perennial tendencies toward manipulation and partisanship are far less likely to deflect the decision-making process.

It is not a problem that is going to be easily solved: it requires a fundamental collective shift in consciousness.

Poetry often captures the priceless values of both a human life and its sacrifice. As Wolosky puts it, referring to The Martyr Poets (page 125): ‘As in many war poems, self is at once granted enormous value, and yet a value that emerges in self-effacement – indeed, in martyrdom, as witness to others at the cost of self.’

Dickinson’s brief poem reads:

The Martyr Poets — did not tell —
But wrought their Pang in syllable —
That when their mortal name be numb —
Their mortal fate — encourage Some —

The Martyr Painters — never spoke —
Bequeathing — rather — to their Work —
That when their conscious fingers cease —
Some seek in Art — the Art of Peace —

It is perhaps not entirely surprising either that in addition to theodicy as a theme, her poems should also manifest disruptions to the 19thCentury standard verse forms (page 126):

Many have been struck by Dickinson’s apparent modernity; by how her strained and difficult forms – at once contained within and yet strenuously recasting hymnal metres and modes – seem to foreshadow the radical experimentation of twentieth century poetics.

She goes onto explain exactly why this might be the case (my emphases):

[This seems] rooted in the ways Dickinson’s work represents an intersection between historical, metaphysical, and aesthetic forces when these are under extraordinary pressure, and specifically, when long-standing, traditional assumptions regarding the basic frameworks for interpreting the world are challenged to the point of breakage. Dickinson‘s work is among the first directly to register the effects on poetic language of such breakdown. Articulate language depends on, even as it expresses and projects, the ability to conceive reality as coherent and meaningful. . . Such “splitting apart of the communion“ between paradigm and world, metaphysics and history, marks modern experience.

Wolosky points out the parallels with Europe’s experience of the Second World War, quoting Theodor Adorno’s words (page 127) which describe how ‘Our metaphysical faculty is paralysed because actual events have shattered the basis on which speculative metaphysical thought could be reconciled with experience.’ She feels Dickinson’s work ‘reveals and dramatises . . . the consequences of such paralysis and assault on the very structure and language of poetry,’ and describes her texts as ‘battlefields between contesting claims of self and community, private and public interest, event and design, metaphysics and history, with each asserted, often against the other.’

This is another challenge Dickinson rises to in expressing her inscape: how to wrench her poetic forms into expressions of dislocated anguish without losing hold completely on its opposite.

As someone old enough to have lived through the traumatised aftermath of the Second World War, while too young to have consciously responded to the war itself, such poems resonate strongly with me. Why I respond more positively to her poems as against, for example, Randall Jarrell’s The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner, is I think because she holds both memories of harmony in balance with the terrifying disjunctive present through her fractured hymnal verse forms. Jarrell, and other modernists, seem to have given up the struggle to capture some hope of balance or redress. Jarrell’s poem reads:

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from the dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

Wolosky concludes that (ibid):

Emily Dickinson’s texts are battlefields between contesting claims of self and community, private and public interest, event and design, metaphysics and history, with each asserted, often against the other.

Bodies lie in front of the Dunker Church on the Antietam Battlefield.LIBRARY OF CONGRESS. For source of image see link.

Three Other Points of View

There are three other authors in this book whose insights I need to draw on now before concluding this sequence of posts – Betsy Erkkila, Cheryl Walker and Cristanne Miller.

Erkkila subscribes to the idea that these were traumatic times and seeking definitively to label any one aspect as key may well prove impossible (page 150):

‘I have a Terror…’ Dickinson wrote to Higginson in April 1862, ‘and so I sing as the Boy does by the Burying Ground — because I am afraid –.’ Whatever the sources of Dickinson’s ‘terror’ – a personal love crisis, a failure of religious belief, the advent of the Civil War, the collapse of an older New England social order, the horrifying prospect of everlasting ‘Death,’ metaphysical angst, or all these together – her poems powerfully register the disintegrative psychic, emotional, and bodily effects of social transformation and political crisis that marked Dickinson’s years of greatest productivity during and after the Civil War.

She agrees that Dickinson’s religious faith was severely tested and in conventional terms was broken, but also without her having anything with which to replace it (pages 153-54:

[S]he expresses the pain of living in an era of unbelief… As someone who could not believe in either the saving Christian orthodoxy of the past or the progressive demographic ideology of the future, Dickinson gives voice in her poems to the spooked interiors of ante- and postbellum America, the spectres of unmeaning, abjection and death that stalked the American landscape during the Civil War . . .

In consequence, Erkkila believes, she (page 156) ‘turned to writing as a kind of aesthetic substitution, a means of suffering the inner emotional life of the war through writing.’

A complicating factor to her experience of the war concerns her attitude to the question of slavery (page 170):

[I]n a public letter about the 4th of July celebration in Belchertown in 1855, Edward Dickinson [her father] expressed hope that “by the help of Almighty God, not another inch of our soil heretoforeconsecratedto freedom, shall hereafterbe polluted by the advancing tread of slavery“… Although Dickinson opposed the expansion of slavery into the territories, he also opposed the abolitionist goal of immediate emancipation of Southern slaves. For him as for many in the NT Balham area, including Lincoln, antislavery zeal was under written by fear that the white American Republic would be ‘polluted’ by the ‘advancing tread’ of blacknessinto the new states. Emily Dickinson appears to have shared her father’s anxiety about the pollution of the American republic.

In a note at the end of her chapter Erkkila spells out some implications of this for her attitude to the war, in the context of the seven out of 10 poems she published during the Civil War. Her reasons for publication are unclear and may not have been to support the Union cause, as some have argued (page 172- my emphasis):

If she did contribute these poems voluntarily, and there is no evidence for this, they were more likely sent to support the sick, wounded, and dying, who were sacrificing their lives in support of a cause that was – in Dickinson’s view — at best questionable.

I think we must accept that this would have had the effect of making the war more traumatic for her, not less, even if we cannot share her alleged ambivalence about abolition in the form she saw unfolding.

Interestingly (page 163), she stopped making the fascicles in 1864, before the War closed. Erkkila feels that ‘her letters and poems served – especially during and after the war – as prayer, medicine, consolation, gift, and cure,’ and (page 164) ‘she was looking to art – to poetry writing – as a means of overcoming not only “Death” but also the lack of higher meaning, order, and value in the world.’

Cheryl Walker flags up three points of interest here.

First there is (page 178) ‘Dickinson’s infatuation with Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh.’ My earlier sequence explains why this would be of interest to me at least.

The second takes us back to Gubar and Gilbert’s The Mad Woman in the Attic (page 179):

Women poets were largely inhibited by two tenets of bourgeois ideology; one, that women violated the ‘cult of true womanhood’ . . .  by writing for a public audience; and two, that, when they did write, women poets must avoid transgressing the boundaries of their allotted sphere.

This may go some way towards explaining Dickinson’s reluctance to publish, but cannot be the whole story as her poem suggests:

Publication – is the Auction
Of the Mind of Man –
Poverty – be justifying
For so foul a thing

Possibly – but We – would rather
From Our Garret go
White – unto the White Creator –
Than invest – Our Snow –

And finally, and perhaps  most importantly of all, she in her turn concludes, quoting Camille Paglia (page 181): ‘without her struggle with God and father, there would have been no poetry…’

Cristanne Miller reinforces Dickinson’s anticipations of modernism (page 205):

[M]any critics have argued that Dickinson participated in the modernising climate of her times by creating a protomodernist lyric, a poetry that rebels against ‘patriarchal’ metres, conventions of punctuation, grammar, rhyme, or even print to construct a new kind of poem. . . . The extreme compression of Dickinson’s language and its multiple forms of disjunction – grammatical, syntactic, tonal, and logical – strikingly anticipate features of modernist verse.

And about her feminism she writes (page 225):

Dickinson’s feminism was as complex and contradictory as other aspects of her art: while the poet’s life and poetry are feminist in some respects, she was in other ways more conservative socially and politically than many of her female contemporaries, who chose to publish poems of explicit cultural and political critique – albeit in less interesting verse forms.

Her poetry does not so openly rebel either (page 227):

[S]he wrote largely in ballad form or using other fundamentally regular rhythmic and rhyming patterns, which she disrupted continuously, in sly ways. . . . Fox-like, she appeared to conform while rebelling indirectly, through omission, dissonant or slant-rhymes, irony, and wit.

So?

Where does all this leave me?

Yes, it’s clear that there could be at least four major factors influencing Dickinson’s themes and forms: the repression of women, disappointed passion, epilepsy as a stigmatising illness and the American Civil War. It is safe to conclude also, on the basis of the timing of her output, that the Civil War had perhaps the greatest impact. The following diagram attempts to capture them.

It is perhaps worth spelling out some assumptions linked to the factors. It is the timing of the Civil War and the episodes of disappointed love that are often adduced to help interpret a poem. The restrictive conventions imposed upon women are quoted as relevant to some of her references to ‘white’ as of course is faith, death and immortality. Whether her apparently chosen seclusion is to be explained by her epilepsy or by agoraphobia is still an open question. Seclusion, a quality she shares to some degree with other major writers, is generally accepted as the key to her power as a poet of the interior. The exact impact of the slave question is also  not entirely resolved in terms of the Civil War and its meaning for her.

So, I must ask, is her elliptical and slanting style the result of thwarted and socially unacceptable passion – a love ‘that dared not speak its name’ in both the case of Sue and a probably married man? Could she not speak more directly about almost anything because she was a woman, because she was epileptic or because she knows she is being ‘heretical’? Or was it the result of unbearable anguish in the face of the Civil War’s inescapable acting out of man’s inhumanity to man?

Whatever the answers to any of these questions turn out to be, I feel that it is beyond reasonable doubt that among her poems are unquestionable masterpieces that remain as relevant to us now in our age of war, uncertain faith and questionable ideologies, as they were when she wrote them. They pull me into her passionate intense interior with a power that would be hard to resist, even if I wanted to.

I am setting myself the task of re-reading the 294 poems that are labelled in my R. W. Franklin edition as having been written in 1863, to see what I now make of them in the light of all this recent reading about her.

It’s high time I let her speak to me herself.

Unexpected Coda

As a Bahá’í though, I can’t resist mentioning, before I close, that 1863 was the very year Bahá’u’lláh declared his Mission, His divinely ordained responsibility to convey to humanity a vision of the future that held out hope of resolving the major war-engendering and repressive tendencies of our times. This all-too-obvious connection with the peak of Dickinson’s productivity did not occur to me until after I had made my plan, probably because I was not expecting any such thing as I pursued this investigation.

Just when she, a possibly self-incarcerated prisoner in her own home in Amherst, was grappling, through her most prolific period of creativity, with the titanic and traumatic challenges her country was facing, a prisoner in exile in Baghdad, shortly to begin a deportation that would eventually consign Him and all His closest family to the disease-ridden prison city of Akka, was openly proclaiming for the first time His world-embracing, world-healing Message, one that she was never in a position to hear, even though (op. cit.: page 85) ‘Many of her contemporaries (notably Shakers, Millerites, and Adventists) awaited imminent fulfilment of revelation with Christ’s second coming.’ She was only 14 when their very public disappointment of 1844 occurred.

The essence of His message can perhaps be best summarised briefly here by quoting from The Hidden Words (Arabic No. 68 – there is more at this link):

O CHILDREN OF MEN! Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other. Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were created. Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest. Such is My counsel to you, O concourse of light! Heed ye this counsel that ye may obtain the fruit of holiness from the tree of wondrous glory.

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