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

The sacred or falling sickness was always unnameable when it struck a female.

(Lives like Loaded Guns– page 138)

So far in the sequence we have seen authors attribute Emily Dickinson’s withdrawal from society as an agoraphobic reaction to patriarchy (The Mad Woman in the Attic) or as a response to the intense pain of forbidden love (The Passion of Emily Dickinson).

Even the more recent book, published in 2004, A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson, is still backing the agoraphobic horse after quoting from Amy Lowell’s 1918 speculation (page 26): ‘There is a high probability that she suffered from agoraphobia. At the very least, she suffered from extreme social shyness.’

Is there an elephant in the room here that no one thought to mention until Lyndall Gordon came along in 2010 with her explosive potential myth-shaker, Lives like Loaded Guns.

Lives like Loaded Guns

Lyndall Gordon begins to build her case for a different explanation by reminding us (page 116) that Emily Dickinson always liked ‘to tell it slant.’

She asks us what explanation can we plausibly suggest for Emily Dickinson’s use of expressions such as ‘Throe’ and ‘a Cleaving in my Mind’? Is there a better fit than epilepsy? She adds other quotations into the mix (page 117): ‘it’s as though the body is a house haunted by an Assassin of the Brain, who prowls its corridors until the tormented Body “borrows a Revolver“ and prepares for a secret shoot-out behind a bolted door.’

There are, on page 125, six quotes including the word ‘fit.’ She feels that (page 126) ‘she never got over her fear of ‘it’ and in time her constant apprehension of “a fitting” turns out to be “terribler” than when it’s on – when she’s “wearing it.” The full text here is:

While we were fearing it, it came—
But came with less of fear
Because that fearing it so long
Had almost made it fair—

There is a Fitting—a Dismay—
A Fitting—a Despair
’Tis harder knowing it is Due
Than knowing it is Here.

The Trying on the Utmost
The Morning it is new
Is Terribler than wearing it
A whole existence through.

She spells out the implications (page 117):

If this, at least in part, is what was secret, the conditions of Dickinson‘s life make sense: sickness is a more sensible reason for seclusion than disappointed love. A seizure can happen with little warning: about a minute. Too short a time to take cover. This is why those who keep the condition secret would fear to go out, even to join callers in the parlour.… What seemed eccentric was simply dread.

Where else does she look for evidence to support this theory?

She agrees that anything conclusive is hard to come by because (page 119) ‘females especially provoked genteel aversion as they broke the rules of ladylike control. Families therefore colluded to keep the condition a lifelong secret. Dickinson’s poetry speaks of a “reticent“ volcano.’ And adds (page 123) ‘Because the diagnosis was rarely uttered, still less put on paper, there is little chance of explicit evidence.’

She refers to Emily Dickinson’s visit to Dr James Jackson in September 1851 (page121). Gordon argues that ‘it could have been Dr Jackson who persuaded Emily Dickinson to accept the prospect of seclusion and singleness in the hope of doing something with the intellectual and creative creative gifts that this doctor had the capacity to discern…’ She feels also that:

Dr Jackson’s authority would have weighed with Mr Dickinson, who agreed to relieve his daughter of the household tasks and empty social gatherings she loathed. . . He indulged the priority she wished to give to poetry and promoted mild exertion in the fresh air: daily walks with her dog Carlo… and her taste for gardening.

There is only one piece of tangible piece of evidence within her grasp (page 121) and it concerns the prescription he made out which has almost miraculously survived. Gordon feels this piece of paper ‘is a crucial clue to Dr Jackson‘s diagnosis. What he prescribed was half an ounce of glycerine diluted with two and a half ounces of water.’ She accepts that glycerine had many uses. However, one of the medical uses in Dickinson’s day was indeed for epilepsy, even though in today’s terms its past efficacy is seen (page 122) basically as a placebo. Apparently, Emily Dickinson used the prescription until 1853 with diminishing confidence.

What reasons do we have apart from the indirect hints in the poems and the possibly reputation-protecting seclusion, to justify thinking that glycerine was not being prescribed for something else other than epilepsy?

Gordon quotes Dr Hirschhorn as asking an extremely pertinent question (ibid.): ‘why did Dickinson persist in asking Austin to send her this medication from Boston even though there was an adequate drugstore at home in Amherst?’ She accepts that the ‘question of secrecy about her medication is… still open’ but adds that ‘the undeniable stigma of epilepsy could be the answer, given its shaming associations at that time…’

She finds at least one compensation for Dickinson’s not having been born when more powerful medications were used (page 123) ‘Since poetry was all important to Dickinson, it was in a sense fortunate that she lived before barbiturates came into use in 1912 for, in sedating the brain, the drugs dulled it.’

Gordon then turns to a more familiar theme, though still linking it with her diagnosis of epilepsy rather than agoraphobia (page 124):

‘I like the look of agony,’ [Dickinson] said, because agony opened up what lies beyond the limits of language: visionary states of mind she would not otherwise have comprehended and which became prime material for poems. We might guess that during the four years when she produced so much of her greatest work, her sickness was at its height. In later years it was less active, as was her poetic output. By her fifties, the ‘Torrid Noons’ [dates from 1884] of her early thirties had ‘lain there Missles by — .’

This explanation differs from Farr’s view that it was the putting to bed of the pain of her two unfulfilled romantic attachments, one to Sue, her sister-in-law, and the other to the Master, that led to the decline in her creativity. It also discounts the correlation we will be discussing between her peak creativity and the American Civil War described in A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson. However, the three possible explanations may be complementary rather than contradictory. All the factors could well have played a part.

Gordon has one more card up her sleeve. This relates to Dickinson’s well-documented supposed eye problem for which she went for treatment in 1864 and 1865. Gordon plausibly questions (page 127) whether her eye treatment alone could ‘necessitate such prolonged stays in Boston, when the distance from Amherst was not so great as to prevent her father is coming and going? Commonsense suggests a major disability, and a concerted attempt at a cure.’

Gordon finds plausible evidence for supposing this treatment might have ended her most creative period (page 130). Her lack of progress was attributed to her own lack of motivation and cooperation. ‘In the end Dr Williams’s cure was so ineffectual that he fell back on a standard defence: blame the victim,’ and ‘further subscribed to the current medical view that too much thinking could damage a woman.’ He forbad her to read! ‘His prohibitions put an end to the booklets,’ those mini-compilations of her poems, , knows as fascicles,that she stitched together. ‘She never resumed this alternative to publication, and though she did continue to write poems, the great surge of the early 1860s came to an end.’

She goes on to adduce evidence for their being two other members of the Dickinson family with epilepsy (page 132-138). As epilepsy has a ‘genetic component’ this perhaps strengthens her case.

I have come away persuaded that Gordon is right to raise the possibility of epilepsy, though conclusive proof will probably remain indefinitely elusive. Some are already hotly contesting the theory. For example, Hirschhorn et al. in Perspect Biol Med.(2013) consider they have refuted Gordon’s claims on ‘scientific, clinical, and biographical grounds.’ Time will tell.

Another Isolating Factor

Either way, the theory does not diminish the relevance of patriarchy, thwarted romance and the Civil War as other factors contributing to Dickinson’s power as a poet and her pain as an isolated human being. Rather it may enrich our understanding both of the possible source of the spiritually loaded poems, given, for example, the possibility of quasi-mystical states being induced by an epileptic fit, and of those particular poems that might have inspired directly by her more disturbing experiences of the fits themselves. I think this is one of those cases where biographical details can remove rather than create a veil between the reader and a full understanding of a poem.

There is one other possible factor contributing to her isolation and her suffering which needs to be added in here: her relationship with her father. Pollak and Moore draw into their account of her life some quotations from her letters, which, even allowing for her obvious ironic exaggeration at times, have potentially disturbing implications. For example (page 28):

Fathers (sic) real life and mine sometimes come into collision, but as yet, escape unhurt!

And more unsettling still (page 29):

[A]fter tea I went to see Sue – had a nice little visit with her – then went to see Emily Fowler, and arrived home at 9 – found Father in great agitation at my protracted stay – and mother and Vinny [her sister] in tears, for fear that he would kill me.

In the end, in terms of the basic tenor of this sequence of posts, notwithstanding the likely contribution made to her isolation and pain by patriarchy, cultural and personal, and by a possible anxiety problem, for me the epilepsy theory added a layer of richness to my understanding of her poetry. I’ll quote one poem that illustrates this to finish this post with, and before we move on next time to one last candidate waiting in the queue to explain her Everest of productivity in the Civil War years.

I have already referred to this poem once in this sequence. It is a favourite of mine. As a brilliant rendering of her inscape it is hard to match, so whatever facilitated the isolation that fostered it and which she shared with other writers – a repressive environment for women, agoraphobia, epilepsy, thwarted passion or war – the pain of it all engendered many poems like this. At times she celebrated that.

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through –

And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum –
Kept beating – beating – till I thought
My mind was going numb –

And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space – began to toll,

As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race,
Wrecked, solitary, here –

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing – then –

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

[I]n turning inward, Dickinson gained unique insights into the human psyche.

(Pollak and Noble in A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson,page 45)

The Passion of Emily Dickinson 

As I indicated at the end of the last post, I am looking at another book this time. Unlike Gilbert and Gubar, with their focus on patriarchy in The Mad Woman in the Attic, Judith Farr, in her book The Passion of Emily Dickinson,spends most of her time in the first two thirds of her book unpicking delicate strands of evidence to help us guestimate to whom some of Emily Dickinson’s poems were addressed.

Though fascinating from a biographical point of view, whether Emily Dickinson was writing a poem to Sue or to the Master doesn’t really matter to most of us as aficionados of her work. For us, what counts is to be able to allow the poem to impact as strongly as possible on our consciousness through the lens of our current understanding. Admittedly sometimes biographical details can shed light upon the meaning of poem: but all too often they constitute a veil between it and us. A great poem almost always transcends even the writer’s conscious intentions and understanding. That’s what makes it great. If anyone can capture all its meaning in words it might as well have been written in prose.

For these reasons, I am skipping over the whole of the first part of her book and homing in on where I feel most at home, with what Farr has to say about Emily Dickinson as poet of the interior in relation to time, nature and eternity.

The beginning of this exploration comes at page 247 when Farr writes:

She did have a poetic ‘project,’ and throughout her oeuvre it is perceptible. This was to depict ‘Eternity in Time.’

She continues (pages 247-48):

[H]er feelings result in a radiant conception of immortal life. . . . There is nothing morbid about this dream vision. … It is love, and the painful longing issuing from it, that gave Dickinson her vision of eternity. . . If Dickinson’s poetic productivity largely ceased after 1868, the reason had to do with the assimilation of her two great passions for Sue and for Master.

I will come on later in more details as to why I think this is yet another over-simplification of why she may have fallen away from her peak after the mid-1860s.[1]I’m not denying though that love and loss were part of the grit that helped form the pearls of her poetry. I concur with Farr when she writes (page 251):

[S]he had to grieve before she could continue to develop (and the grief was itself a means of developing).

Pollak refers (page 6) to ‘Dickinson’s incremental knowledge of the house of pain.’

Her love of poetry and her perception of its links with love, as we have already noted contrasted with her loathing of domestic chores (page 255):

Her prevailing conception of love inspiring art enables Dickinson to write her final sentences. There eternity is felt in time, and its sea is linked to her work.… Her vision was of the next world next to her as she did her housework, all that baking, canning, cleaning, and sewing so balefully recorded in her letters.

Nature was crucial to her, as it had been to the Brontës and to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, because for her (page 294) ‘nature offers clues about infinity.’ This was even to the extent that (page 302):

The horizon was a point of order for landscape painters like Church. For poets like Dickinson, it was the point of fusion of this world and the next.

Which finally brings me to two specific poems.

This is the first, an intensely powerful poem of sacrificial separation.

There came a Day at Summer’s full,
Entirely for me—
I thought that such were for the Saints,
Where Resurrections—be—

The Sun, as common, went abroad,
The flowers, accustomed, blew,
As if no soul the solstice passed
That maketh all things new

The time was scarce profaned, by speech—
The symbol of a word
Was needless, as at Sacrament,
The Wardrobe—of our Lord—

Each was to each The Sealed Church,
Permitted to commune this—time—
Lest we too awkward show
At Supper of the Lamb.

The Hours slid fast—as Hours will,
Clutched tight, by greedy hands—
So faces on two Decks, look back,
Bound to opposing lands—

And so when all the time had leaked,
Without external sound
Each bound the Other’s Crucifix—
We gave no other Bond—

Sufficient troth, that we shall rise—
Deposed—at length, the Grave—
To that new Marriage,
Justified—through Calvaries of Love—

Farr writes (pages 305-06) that, while being on the one hand plighting ‘troth on earth,’ it also records a quasi-religious ‘ceremony or compact of renunciation.’ She summarises it by saying:

This may have looked like an ‘accustomed’ sunny day when her flowers bloomed as usual, but it has marked her own movement from spring to summer: from girlhood to womanhood, from the old life to the sacred new one.

Nature is here contrasted with the spiritual by its ignorance of the day’s significance, its beauty notwithstanding. While her hope for her love’s fulfillment in the afterlife is its main theme, there is the implication that this separation is at least part of the crucible for her future poetry.

Before moving onto the next poem I want to quote in full, I need to refer briefly to two others: ‘I cannot live without You’ and ‘Behind Me – dips Eternity.’ As Farr explains (page 308) the first poem is important because it is describing ‘the surrender of a love that is morally forbidden.’ This is one of the sources of the grief referred to earlier. The second is important for present purposes because the opening stanza captures vividly her fusion of nature and eternity:

Behind Me– dips Eternity –
Before Me – Immortality –
Myself – the Term between –
Death but the Drift of Eastern Gray,
Dissolving into Dawn away,
Before the West begin –

Farr goes into much detail about how the Luminist paintings of Frederick Edwin Church and Thomas Cole, with which Emily Dickinson was deeply familiar, play on these tropes. I will shortly be coming onto how nature and women were similarly seen, and in my view still continue to be seen, as objects of exploitation during this period and beyond.

It’s probably also worth including here Eberwein’s view, expressed in A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson (page 79), that ‘For Emily Dickinson, then, the essence of religious experience remained in that haunting question, “Is immortality true?”’

Capturing the Inscape

I now need to illustrate the other powerful capacity her poems have: to capture inner states. It will also serve as a useful pointer towards the next book I’ll be considering: Lives like Loaded Guns.

A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things gives a powerful account, similar to the one in John Fitzgerald Medina’s Faith, Physics & Psychology, of the so-called Enlightenment’s rapacious attitude to nature, expressed all too often in sexual terms. Patel and Moore write (page 53):

The second law of capitalist ecology, domination over nature, owed much to Francis Bacon (1561–1626)… He argued that “science should as it were torture nature’s secrets out of her.’ Further, the ‘empire of man’ should penetrate and dominate the “womb of nature.“

For them, ‘The binaries of Man and Woman, Nature and Society, drank from the same cup.’ I think their meaning would have been more faithfully represented if they had written ‘Society and Nature’ in that order. Even so their point is reasonably clear.

They share Medina’s distrust for our Cartesian legacy (page 54):

[H]ere was an intellectual movement that shaped not only ways of thinking but also ways of conquering, commodifying and living. This Cartesian revolution accomplished four major transformations, each shaping our view of Nature and Society to this day. First, either–or binary thinking displaced both–and alternatives. Second, it privileged thinking about substances, things, before thinking about the relationships between those substances. Third, it installed the domination of nature through science as a social good.

Finally, the Cartesian revolution made thinkable, and doable, the colonial project of mapping and domination.

This maps onto McGilchrist’s thinking about left-brain and right-brain differences and how the holistic, intuitive and empathic processes of our minds, which were in the past sometimes dismissively referred to as ‘feminine,’ and which tune into the ambiguous subtlety of reality, have been misguidedly subordinated to those arrogantly over-confident, logical, serial and linguistic processes, which hopelessly oversimplify reality and are sometimes complacently referred to as ‘masculine.’

I agree that Emily Dickinson, though she ultimately transcended them, was shaped by these crude ideological forces within a capitalist nonegalitarian culture that sees nature and humanity (women and ‘natives’ particularly) instrumentally, as thingsto be exploited for some kind of purely material advantage, rather than as beings to be valued for their own sake and nurtured with love and respect. As the Universal House of Justice has pointed out in The Promise of World Peace, capitalism is as flawed as communism, because both are equally materialistic ideologies:

The time has come when those who preach the dogmas of materialism, whether of the east or the west, whether of capitalism or socialism, must give account of the moral stewardship they have presumed to exercise.

That Dickinson was able to retreat from these repressive pressures into Vesuvial creativity is both a blessing to her, that helped compensate for her pain, and a gift to us now as we confront our generation’s variants of a toxic culture. She can inspire us to also strive to turn our pain in the face of abuses into creativity.

Her social isolation, a characteristic that fascinates me as my Solitarios sequence testifies, may have brought at least one other crucial benefit, beyond giving her creativity space to flourish in a general sense. It may have made her more sensitively attuned to her inscape than most of us will ever be.

I heard a Fly buzz– when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –

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

I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –

With Blue – uncertain – stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –

Not only is this one of my favourite Emily Dickinson poems, but it is a significant one as we begin to transition to Lives like Loaded Guns. Farr pins down its crucial characteristic (page 310): ‘In such poems Emily Dickinson investigates the nature of consciousness by analysing its recession.’ As many people know it’s not the only one. Most famously there is also ‘I felt a funeral in my brain.’ More of that later.

Why she should be so interested in recessions of consciousness, Farr does not explain except in terms of her interest in death. She apparently called her poems (page 328) ‘bulletins from immortality.’

In the next post we will begin to close in on where all these ideas are leading.

Footnote

[1]. Between 1861, the year the American Civil War started, and 1865, the year it ended, she wrote something in the region of 936 of her 1789 poems, ie 52%. She was writing at an approximate rate of 187 poems per year. After the war was over, her average rate was 32 poems per year. That may not, though, have been the only factor.

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Cotton Merchants in New Orleans – Degas (For source of image see link)

The bees of my reflection had been busy gathering insights from the flowers of other writers’ gardens and I was poised to begin pulling them all together into a blog sequence about Emily Dickinson – a close follow up to my ramblings about the value of the feminine perspective, when I was derailed. Nothing unusual there, then, I know.

This wasn’t just a penny on my line of thought, though – more like a tree. And that’s a carefully chosen word, as you will see. No rhyme intended.

When you read something that confirms you in your struggles, the exhilaration you feel is amazing. A few days ago, thumbing through a magazine I receive in hard copy, before recycling it I had one such moment when I read Victoria James’s words:

Psychology writer and Guardian journalist Oliver Burkeman . . . recently spent three hours standing in front of a painting, Edgar Degas’s Cotton Merchants in New Orleans. “I spent the first 45 minutes regretting the choice. It’s just three men in a room. There’s not enough going on. It’s claustrophobic. You feel jumpy at first. You feel like you’ve got to be doing something more productive. It gets harder and harder – and then, after a while, it’s not so difficult any more. The second hour is much harder than the third.”

Burkeman is not a masochist of a peculiarly artistic stripe. He was intrigued by the practise of a Harvard art history professor, Jennifer Roberts, who sends her students to stand in front of an artwork of their choosing – just one – for three hours. The goal, he explains, is to discover “whether, at the end of it, you’ve achieved insights that you wouldn’t in a shorter period of time”.

What Burkeman found was that he was discovering details in the painting that a cursory glance simply didn’t reveal: “Deliberate ambiguities. Shapes that echo other shapes. Aspects that seem almost like an optical illusion, when you give it your full attention.”

Fascinating in itself, the experience also furnishes an excellent metaphor for what we can do, when we stop trying to do everything. “The reason that patience and stillness are so important right now,” says Burkeman, who is working on a new book about time, “is that the whole direction of culture is the opposite. You’d think we should be able to relax – we’ve got technology to do things and do them faster. But that is exactly nobody’s experience. The faster that technology drives us, the more impatient we are.”

In a moment I will try and explain why I reacted in the way did, what it was exactly that derailed me.

It certainly had nothing to do with my Jackson Pollock moment sometime in the 60s in the Tate (there was no Tate Modern in those days). An art teacher colleague of mine was dismayed that I did not like Pollock’s technicolour holographic snail trails. He took me to a gallery and stood me in front of a painting more than twice my size and insisted that I stand there looking at it for at least half-an-hour, which I dutifully did. Sadly, its beauty continued to elude me.

I’m sharing that to show that I was not primed by prior experience to enthuse at the idea of standing in front of a picture for three hours, watching dry paint. A lot of related water has passed under my bridge since the Pollock disappointment, though. And that’s where some of my more recent experiences come into the mix.

Pond near Adhisthana Buddhist Centre

Recently, I was asked to run a workshop for an interfaith day at the Adhisthana Buddhist Centre near Ledbury. I used a method of engaging as a group with spiritual texts, pioneered by the Bahá’í community of Colombia, that I heard about more than twenty years ago. I call it something like consultative reflection.

This is the method we used. The topic was Emptiness and Silence.

Instructions

In turn each person reads a quotation out loud. The one who first reads the quote acts as a group leader for the consultation on that quote.

First, people ask for or offer clarification of any words that are difficult to understand.

Then each person re-reads the quote before sharing one response (s)he has to the quote. Every one in turn expresses their responses to the quote in this same way, whether as thoughts, feelings, intuitions or whatever. All group members should at least read part if not all of the quotation even if they feel they will have nothing to share after doing so.

This goes on until all the members feel they have said all that they wish to say or time has run out. There are no right or wrong answers during this process. It is an opportunity to reflect deeply and share the result.

Efforts should be made not to respond to what others have said but simply to focus on one’s reaction at the time one reads the quote again. Attention should be paid to what implications the quote has for our own lives and to suggestions as to how we might apply what we have learned.

The group leader’s only job is to see that everyone follows these rules, i.e. reads the quote or at least part of it prayerfully and shares one (and only one) response without referring to what others have said!

And this is the quote we focused on:

The essence of true safety is to observe silence, to look at the end of things and to renounce the world.

It’s from theTablets of Bahá’u’lláh  – page 158.

The time was too short for each group to work on more than this one quote.

The reaction was intriguing but not unexpected as I’d used this approach before. People to begin with were somewhat incredulous, even impatient with the whole idea. Why would you keep reading and re-reading the same words over and over again in this way? The words were simple and the text was short. Surely we’d all got the drift the first time round.

I had explained the need for patience so this diverse group of people persisted for more than half an hour. At the end, the majority sat there stunned.

‘Wow!’ is a one word summary of their reaction.

‘That was amazing! I never realised that there was so much to understand in that short quotation,’ was one person’s view. ‘I’m going to do this again with my friends.’

‘Can you do it by yourself?’ another asked.

‘You can,’ I responded, ‘but it’s harder to keep going without the combined energy of a group. It has the same effect though if you do.’

I did the same exercise a fortnight later in Wales at a weekend school using the title Gardening the Heart. Same results though again there were one or two people for whom it never clicked. But, as I am not a believer in the dogma that one size fits all, that didn’t surprise me either. What was perhaps more surprising was that by far the greater majority once more loved it and got the point big time.

It’s important to remember though that it only works if the group sticks by all the rules for the whole time.

Where this took me next I’m saving till next time.

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

[Emily Dickinson] conceived of herself as a martyr poet.

(Pollak and Noble in A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson page 55)

At the end of my sequence on the value of the feminine perspective I indicated that I would be returning to that theme. It was already clear to me by that point that I could not leave the topic behind until I had done justice to the unique and compelling voice of Emily Dickinson. As will become conspicuously apparent, Dickinson also had a fascinating quality that links her with Los Solitarios.

I intend to do this by taking, mostly in sequence, the perspectives of four very different books about the poet (their publication dates will prove significant later): The Mad Woman in the Attic (1994 first edition: also 2000 edition), The Passion of Emily Dickinson  (1994), Lives like Loaded Guns (2010) and A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson (2004).  

The Mad Woman in the Attic

Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, in the last chapter of their uneven but compelling analysis of Victorian patriarchy and its impact upon women, pin their colours firmly to the mast early on in terms of how they see Emily Dickinson (page 583):

Emily Dickinson herself became a mad woman – became, as we shall see, both ironically a mad woman (a deliberate impersonation of a mad woman) and truly a mad woman (a helpless agoraphobic, trapped in a room in her father’s house).

As we shall see later, when we look at Lives like Loaded Guns,this may be simplifying the situation in at least one crucial respect.

Their feminist take on the matter is summarized when they write (page 384):

. . . the verse-drama into which she transformed her life enabled her to transcend… the ‘double bind’ of the woman poet: on the one hand, the impossibility of self-assertion for a woman, on the other hand, the necessity of self assertion for a poet.

But there were significant costs to what they see as a strategy which Dickinson was forced to choose.

The persona she adopted became a prison (page 591):

. . . while freeing her from the terrors of marriage and allowing her to ‘play’ with the toys of Amplitude, the child mask. . . eventually threatened to become a crippling self.

Also, there was a painful irony at work (page 595):

As a girl, Dickinson had begged to be kept from ‘what they call households,’ but ironically, as she grew older, she discovered that the price of her salvation was her agoraphobic imprisonment in her father’s household, along with a concomitant exclusion from the passionate drama of adult sexuality.

She was painfully aware of the effects upon her of patriarchy (page 606):

She went on to analyse with terrible clarity not only her imprisonment in romantic plots but the patriarchal structures she knew those plots reflected. . . “Is it because, as a woman, I am bound by a physical law, which prevents the soul from manifesting itself?“

She celebrated pain as leading to art (page 612):

From the centre of this cave of flame the poet speaks with a priestess’s oracular voice, … describing the smithy in which her art and her soul are purified: ‘Dare you see a Soul at the white heat?/Then crouch within the door – …’

They spell out an important insight into the creative process exemplified by Dickinson (pages 612-13):

. . . she is a prophet of Imagination whose brain is a furnace in which the gross materials of life are transformed into the products (the refined ore) and the powers (the designated light) of art.

They deal at some length with the paradoxes connected with white (pages 615-23). It frequently represents both creative energy and the loneliness ‘Romantic creativity may demand.’ It’s ‘a two-edged blade of light associated with . . . both triumph and martyrdom.’ It’s ‘not just a sign of her purity but the emblem of her death.’

A key passage lists a collection of powerful associations (pages 621-23):

Impersonating simultaneously a “little maid“ in white, a fierce virgin in white, a nun in white, a bride in white, a mad woman in white, a dead woman in white, and a ghost in the white, Dickinson seems to have split herself into a series of incubae, haunting not just her father’s house but her own mind.

They then shift into an intriguing way of describing this, which resonates both with the work of Pessoa, and his heteronyms, a focus of interest for me, and of course my own relatively light-hearted exploration of my own sub-personalities, My Parliament of Selves. They state:

The ambiguities and discontinuities implicit in her white dress became, therefore, as much signs of her own psychic fragmentation as of society’s multiple (and conflicting) demands upon women. . . . In addition, and perhaps most frighteningly, they dramatised an ongoing quarrel within that enigmatic self which became the subject of much of Dickinson’s most pained and painful poetry.

They quote a famous poem in support, after first quoting Harriet Beecher Stowe (page 624):

‘ what a fool is he, who locks his door to keep out spirits, who has in his own bosom a spirit he dare not meet alone.’ And here is Dickinson, on an equally terrible haunting:

One need not to be a Chamber – to be Haunted –
One need not be a House –
the Brain has Corridors – surpassing
Material Place –

They grimly summarise their conclusion (page 631):

It is in her own body, her own self, that her many selves are imprisoned or buried; she is their grave, tomb, and prison.

This gels with Vivian Pollak’s description of Emily Dickinson as ‘[a] poet of the inner civil war.’ (From A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson – page 3).

Before I move on to look at The Passion of Emily Dickinson,I think it will be useful to check out briefly some ideas expressed by Raj Patel and Jason Moore in A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things.

Emily Dickinson looked across the Atlantic to the work of the Brontës, George Eliot and Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Pollak – page 5), and resonated to their struggle with the English version of patriarchy (Sandra Gilbert & Susan Gubar: Chapters 15 and 16). Coverture is one example, whose persisting impact I had until now failed to recognize as such (page 125):

New traditions of control put bourgeois women in a bind, particularly in England. The law there enshrined coverture – the status of a married woman, including the placing of her person and property under her husband’s authority. . . . Coverture persisted from the Middle Ages into the nineteenth century. So great was its power to rob women of rights and identity, campaigners against it called it ‘civil death.’ It is from this institution that a wife’s taking of her husband‘s name originates.

The control women surrendered made marriage uninviting. Marry they none the less did (page 127):

Yet even as the economic imperatives for women to choose marriage increased, so did the covering philosophy describing this choice as uncoerced. This . . . mirrors the relations of workers under capitalism, who needed to appear free agents at least in theory, even if their freedom boiled down to the choice of working for a pittance, starving to death, or serving in a debtors’ prison.

Housework, something against which Emily Dickinson rebelled, was (page 129): ‘considered precisely beyond the domain of wage work, a favour that women did for men, akin to the free gift that nature offered enterprise.’

We will be coming back to nature as well.

In the next post I will take a look at The Passion of Emily Dickinson.

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Dear Miss Dickinson v3

(The picture is of Morning, a painting by Frederic E. Church photographed from the front cover of The Passion of Emily Dickinson by Judith Farr)

We’re now at the end of the summer break. In September I will be posting a sequence on Emily Dickinson – this poem was triggered by my revisiting her poetry.

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As usual I’m going to take a break for most of this month. The footfall on this blog is light over summer so I’ll pick up again at the end of August with some thoughts about Emily Dickinson.

Happy holidays to every one!

 

 

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