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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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