Transcendental Legacy in Literature
Emily Dickinson grew up in a prominent and prosperous household in
Amherst, Massachusetts. Along with her younger siter Lavinia and older
brother Austin, she experienced a quiet and reserved family life headed
by her father Edward Dickinson. In a letter to Austin at law school,
she once described the atmosphere in her father's house as "pretty much
all sobriety." Her mother, Emily Norcross Dickinson, was not as powerful
a presence in her life; she seems not to have been as emotionally accessible
as Dickinson would have liked. Her daughter is said to have characterized
her as not the sort of mother "to whom you hurry when you are troubled."
Both parents raised Dickinson to be a cultured Christian woman who would
one day be responsible for a family of her own. Her father attempted
to protect her from reading books that might "joggle" her mind, particularly
her religious faith, but Dickinson's individualistic instincts and irreverent
sensibilities created conflicts that did not allow her to fall into
step with the conventional piety, domesticity, and social duty prescribed
by her father and the orthodox Congregationalism of Amherst.
The Dickinsons were well known in Massachusetts. Her father was a lawyer
and served as the treasurer of Amherst College (a position Austin eventually
took up as well), and her grandfather was one of the college's founders.
Although nineteenth-century politics, economics, and social issues do
not appear in the foreground of her poetry, Dickinson lived in a family
environment that was steeped in them: her father was an active town
official and served in the General Court of Massachusetts, the State
Senate, and the United States House of Representatives.
Dickinson, however, withdrew not only from her father's public world
but also from almost all social life in Amherst. She refused to see
most people, and aside from a single year at South Hadley Female Seminary
(now Mount Holyoke College), one excursion to Philadelphia and Washington,
and several brief trips to Boston to see a doctor about eye problems,
she lived all her life in her father's house. She dressed only in white
and developed a reputation as a reclusive eccentric. Dickinson selected
her own society carefully and frugally. Like her poetry, her relationship
to the world was intensely reticent. Indeed, during the last twenty
years of her life she rarely left the house.
Though Dickinson never married, she had significant relationships with
several men who were friends, confidantes, and mentors. She also enjoyed
an intimate relationship with her friend Susan Huntington Gilbert, who
became her sister-in-law by marrying Austin. Susan and her husband lived
next door and were extremely close with Dickinson. Biographers have
attempted to find in a number of her relationships the source for the
passion of some of her love poems and letters, but no biographer has
been able to identify definitely the object of Dickinson's love. What
matters, of course, is not with whom she was in love--if, in fact, there
was any single person--but that she wrote about such passions so intensely
and convincingly in her poetry.
Choosing to live life internally within the confines of her home, Dickinson
brought her life into sharp focus. For she also chose to live within
the limitless expanses of her imagination, a choice she was keenly aware
of and which she described in one of her poems this way: "I dwell in
Possibility." Her small circle of domestic life did not impinge upon
her creative sensibilities. Like Henry David Thoreau, she simplified
her life so that doing without was a means of being within. In a sense
she redefined the meaning of deprivation because being denied something--whether
it was faith, love, literary recognition, or some other desire--provided
a sharper, more intense understanding than she would have experienced
had she achieved what she wanted: "heaven,'" she wrote, "is what I cannot
reach!" This line, along with many others, such as "Water, is taught
by thirst" and "Success is counted sweetest / By those who ne'er succeed,"
suggest just how persistently she saw deprivation as a way of sensitizing
herself to the value of what she was missing. For Dickinson hopeful
expectation was always more satisfying than achieving a golden moment.
Writers contemporary to her had little or no effect upon the style
of her writing. In her own work she was original and innovative, but
she did draw upon her knowledge of the Bible, classical myths, and Shakespeare
for allusions and references in her poetry. She also used contemporary
popular church hymns, transforming their standard rhythms into free-form
Today, Dickinson is regarded as one of America's greatest poets, but
when she died at the age of fifty-six after devoting most of her life
to writing poetry, her nearly 2,000 poems--only a dozen of which were
published anonymously during her lifetime--were unknown except to a
small numbers of friends and relatives. Dickinson was not recognized
as a major poet until the twentieth century, when modern readers ranked
her as a major new voice whose literary innovations were unmatched by
any other nineteenth-century poet in the United States.
Dickinson neither completed many poems nor prepared them for publication.
She wrote her drafts on scraps of paper, grocery lists, and the backs
of recipes and used envelopes. Early editors of her poems took the liberty
of making them more accessible to nineteenth-century readers when several
volumes of selected poems were published in the 1890s. The poems were
made to appear like traditional nineteenth-century verse by assigning
them titles, rearranging their syntax, normalizing their grammar, and
regularizing their capitalizations. Instead of dashes editors used standard
punctuation; instead of the highly elliptical telegraphic lines so characteristic
of her poems editors added articles, conjunctions, and prepositions
to make them more readable and in line with conventional expectations.
In addition, the poems were made more predictable by organizing them
into categories such friends, nature, love, and death. Not until 1955,
when Thomas Johnson published Dickinson's complete works in a form that
attempted to be true to her manuscript versions, did readers have an
opportunity to see the full range of her style and themes.
. . . . Dickinson found irony, ambiguity, and paradox lurking in the
simplest and commonest experiences. The materials and subject matter
of her poetry are quite conventional. Her poems are filled with robins,
bees, winter light, household items, and domestic duties. These materials
represent the range of what she experienced in and around her father's
house. She used them because they constituted so much of her life and,
more importantly, because she found meanings latent in them. Though
her world was simple, it was also complex in its beauties and its terrors.
Her lyric poems captures impressions of particular moments, scenes,
or moods, and she characteristically focuses upon topics such as nature,
love, immorality, death, faith, doubt, pain, and the self.
Though her materials were conventional, her treatment of them was innovative,
because she was willing to break whatever poetic conventions stood in
the way of the intensity of her thought and images. Her conciseness,
brevity, and wit are tightly packed. Typically she offers her observations
via one or two images that reveal her thought in a powerful manner.
She once characterized her literary art by writing "My business is circumference."
Her method is to reveal the inadequacy of declarative statements by
evoking qualifications and questions with images that complicate firm
assertions and affirmations. In one of her poems she describes her strategies
this way: "Tell all the Truth but tell it slant--/ Success in Circuit
lies." This might well stand as a working definition of Dickinson's
Dickinson's poetry is challenging because it is radical and original
in its rejection of most traditional nineteenth-century themes and techniques.
Her poems require active engagement from the reader, because she seems
to leave out so much with her elliptical style and remarkable contracting
metaphors. But these apparent gaps are filled with meaning if we are
sensitive to her use of devices such as personification, allusion, symbolism,
and startling syntax and grammar. Since her use of dashes is sometimes
puzzling, it helps to read her poems aloud to hear how carefully the
words are arrange. What might seem intimidating on a silent page can
surprise the reader with meaning when heard. It's also worth keeping
in mind that Dickinson was not always consistent in her views and they
can change from poems, to poem, depending upon how she felt at a given
moment. Dickinson was less interested in absolute answers to questions
than she was in examining and exploring their "circumference."
Michael Myers,Thinking and Writing About Literature