This 1961 edition of a selection of Dickinson’s poetry was lovely — rewarding — and a lot: 321 pages of plot or argument draw a reader through, while 321 pages of poetry are probably meant to be sampled, not read cover-to-cover over a few weeks. I may have mentioned this before, but, if not, let it be a reminder: if I am only going to read a poet once, I should read about a chapbook’s worth of poetry, not more (both overwhelming and dull on first sweep) or less (don’t get a sense of the poet’s range or broader concerns). Luckily, Dickinson is a poet I will come back to, so I am glad to have gotten a big-picture view before diving in with a magnifying glass (perhaps, first, by reading more of Helen Vendler’s Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries, which I’ve already found very fruitful and helpful, though I don’t agree with everything in it). Here, I’ll outline some of that big-picture view: I’d like to 1) point out some recurrent themes and how Dickinson approaches them, namely love, grief, nature, God, death, and opposites; 2) explore Dickinson’s use of abstraction; and 3) discuss her unconventional use of language.
Dickinson writes a lot about love, pointing out especially how she loves some individual (or individuals) more than God and Heaven and the agony and ecstasy of being unable to have a real relationship. I’ve heard various identities suggested for Emily Dickinson’s beloved, including her mentor Thomas Wentworth Higginson and a relative’s wife. I personally rather like the idea that he (or she) is entirely imaginary; in any event, Dickinson writes about how she writes poems from a constructed point of view and not her own. Regardless, she writes about feelings, distilled to the essentials, rather than about the beloved him/herself; she depicts an intensity of emotion divorced from the reality of her secluded life.
Her poems about grief and pain strike me as even more beautiful and less real, partly because I am by comparison calm (perhaps stolid), and what pain I feel usually seems interesting and stupid, not deep. Or, perhaps, it’s better to say her writing about pain makes me feel awe and admiration but not answering, sympathetic pain. Honestly, this makes her a more congenial writer to me. Writers who put me through their pain are hard to read, because pain is painful; writers who try to evoke pain and fail (even though they may well succeed for other readers) make me, to my shame, fight a sneer or, on good days, a cringe. Of Mice and Men succeeded, and I hated and admired it with equal intensity. Dickinson neither makes me weep nor makes me cringe; it seems to me her writing does not ask for empathy, at least of the “crawl into the well with me” variety. It asks for — acknowledgment? Admiration for depth and fortitude? Sympathetic awe at magnitude? She assumes the readers know the sort of pain she describes and says, “We both know what it is to experience heartbreak and can, perhaps, be friends over it” and not “ACH MY HEART IS BROKEN PLEASE CUT YOURSELF ON THE JAGGED EDGES!!!!!!!!!!!”
Dickinson is at her most concrete when she writes about nature; her descriptions of animals, plants, skies, and seasons are playful and evocative and seem intensely spiritual and/or Romantic without sounding at all like generic Romantic poetry about nature. Her connection to nature gives her, I believe she states in at least one poem, her model for what Heaven might be, which brings us to her religious poetry.
Emily Dickinson wrote a lot of poetry about Christianity. I’d estimate more than half of it is blasphemous, cynical, or at least intensely skeptical. She hopes for life after death, at least often, but she doesn’t have faith in it. Indeed, she writes, in one fine little poem,
“Faith” is a fine invention For Gentlemen who see! But Microscopes are prudent In an Emergency!
She writes, as I mentioned, about how she can’t love God as much as she loves a given person, and speculates that if God is all He’s cracked up to be, that will in some measure be allowed. She writes about how she’d be bored in Heaven. She pokes fun at Christian doctrine. At the same time, she writes such poems about faith and awe that it’s hard to believe religion doesn’t hold a powerful appeal to her. For instance, an old favorite of mine is,
I never saw a Moor — I never saw the Sea — Yet know I how the Heather looks And what a Billow be. I never spoke with God Nor visited in Heaven — Yet certain am I of the spot As if the Checks were given —
She writes about death, in, of course, “Because I could not stop for Death,” but also in many, many other poems. She seems to find it terrifying — occasionally beautiful, occasionally hopeful, often analogous to horrid inner states, but usually terrifying. I don’t know quite what to say about this, being lucky enough to live in a time and place (and mind) where death is not a constant presence — but it is a striking theme, and her handling of it goes considerably beyond the stereotypical “death comes to emperors and slaves alike” (though she does have at least one striking poem along those lines) or “life is short and youth is fleeting, so you should sleep with me!” (um, definitely not her style…).
The final theme, which I summarized under the word “opposites,” strikes me especially, and usually the particular opposites are pairs like misery/ecstasy, dearth/plenitude, hunger/fullness, poverty/wealth, and perhaps Hell/Heaven. She notes, almost always, how knowing the second is aided by the first. The famous poem
Success is counted sweetest By those who ne'er succeed. To comprehend a nectar Requires sorest need. Not one of all the purple Host Who took the Flag today Can tell the definition So clear of victory As he defeated – dying – On whose forbidden ear The distant strains of triumph Burst agonized and clear!
is only one of many of its kind, and the way her binaries describe one another and map neatly onto so many different kinds of experience demonstrates something about how abstraction works in her poetry, my penultimate topic.
Abstraction in writing can, I think, mean different things, and it’s still too much maligned in the poetry world, as far as I can tell, though more sophisticated poetry how-to’s these days tend to say not “run screaming from all abstraction,” which was, I think, at one point the doctrine, but “earn your abstractions and intermix them with the concrete.”
Dickinson does this last thing — sort of. At least, she uses concrete imagery often, sometimes exclusively. But, with the exception of her poems describing natural phenomena (often riddle-like), the majority of her poems (I would guess; I haven’t counted, but a spot check suggests this) speak in a seemingly authoritative voice about how certain emotions or experiences or ideas are universally (which is, in some measure, I think, a courteous way of veiling the self, but only in some measure). Sometimes she states this universal maxim (often surprising or paradoxical) outright, offering her images as supporting examples; sometimes she leaves the maxim to be descried through a thicker or thinner metaphorical veil. But, it seems to me, the metaphor rarely takes on a life of its own, her concrete imagery is clearly marshaled to serve her abstract point in any given poem; the abstraction does not emerge organically from a messy sea of concretes.
This is not to say her poetry is simplistic or trite, charges leveled against writing where the abstract rules the roost; it’s just that it’s spare. The complexities and ironies are foregrounded and analyzed, not left lying around. Inessential details, “mire and blood,” to quote Yeats, are left out. Her poems are not shaggy. The concept of mathematical elegance comes to mind.
Last, her use of language: whimsical and playful, elliptical, riddling, usually innovative, slightly but clearly deliberately off in grammar or usage, so very much hers that I don’t think I’ve read anything else whatsoever that sounds like her. This is what makes a Dickinson a Dickinson. It makes her poetry more difficult than it otherwise would be; but it does not just make her work indelible in my mind; it communicates a personality (or, at least, a persona) in a way no amount of mere description or explanation could.