Emily Dickinson: Emotion And Imagery Through Simplicity Essay, Research Paper
Emily Dickinson: Emotion and Imagery Through Simplicity
At first glance Emily Dickinson’s poetry may seem sparse, simplistic, and devoid of much meaning. “The first reviews of Emily Dickinson’s work pronounced it ‘bad poetry . . . divorced from meaning, from grammar, from music, from rhyme: in brief, from articulate and intelligible speech’ (Wolosky, 161). However, upon looking closer one finds that “behind this mortal bone there knits a bolder one” (Dickinson, 86), and that Dickinson’s perspectives on life and nature compose some of the most beautiful poetry known to mankind. Emily Dickinson employs subtle imageries, striking emotions and morals, and erratic punctuation to ultimately produce a repertoire of definitive statements through simple diction.
“For Emily Dickinson secrets never lost their fascination” (Ward, 78). Dickinson uses subtle imagery and evasive phrasing to depict a scene or explain a moral. She perhaps described her art best herself when she wrote “Nature is a haunted house; but Art, a house that tries to be haunted”. Another especially puzzling example lies within the following poem:
It sifts from leaden sieves
It powders all the wood
It fills with alabaster wool
The wrinkles of the road.
It makes an even face
Of mountains and of plain,-
Unbroken forehead from the east
Unto the east again.
It reaches to the fence,
It wraps it, rail by rail,
Till it is lost in fleeces;
It flings a crystal veil
On stump and stack and stem,-
The summer’s empty room,
Acres of seams where harvests were,
Recordless but for them.
It ruffles wrists of posts,
As ankles of a queen,-
Then stills it artisans like ghosts,
Denying they have been. (Dickinson, 180).
Dickinson has just very aptly described snowfall without once using the words snow, cold, white, or winter. Mudge goes on to point out:
Many poems enlarge architectural fact to fit Emily’s
mood . . . but each varies the angle of approach,
illustrating a particular nuance of meaning (5).
Indeed, sometimes the reader doesn’t realize what he’s missing until he pays attention to the words. Birdsall of Brown University once remarked “to read even a few of Dickinson’s poems is to recognize at once the special intensity of her vision” (54). One
must peruse certain poems, as several of them have many or hidden meanings. In one much disputed poem, “One need not be a chamber to be haunted,” speculations over meaning vary from Dickinson lamenting the death of her father, the lost love of Charles Wadsworth, or even that she saw ghosts roaming the halls of her Amherst home. Part of the poem reads:
Ourself, behind ourself concealed,
Should startle most;
Assassin, hid in our apartment,
Be horror’ s least.
Through simple words, Dickinson creates a queasy feeling in the reader, easily causing suspicion of the stay of one’s own sanity. For Dickinson, Julasz says “the difference and similarities between mind and world are a central concern of consciousness” (73). It is perhaps through the scant, yet effective, wording of Dickinson that the reader is able to utilize his own perceptions and realize the images and scenes that her poetry creates.
In Dickinson’s poetry, she, almost painfully at times, exerts morals and emotions.
“Her effect of reality is achieved not by an accent on pleasure or pain but by her dramatic use of their interaction” (Anderson, 9). One of her most powerful poems reads:
To fight aloud is very brave,
But gallanter, I know,
Who charge within the bosom,
The calvary of woe.
Who win, and nations do not see,
Who fall, and none observe,
Whose dying eyes no country
Regards with patriot love.
We trust, in plumed procession,
For such the angels go,
Rank after rank, with even feet
And uniforms of snow. (Dickinson, 26).
In this poem, Dickinson compares the bravery of soldiers to the little triumphs of ordinary people. In the beginning she seems to almost be chastising the soldiers for their ostentatious displays of gallantry, but in the end, by creating a graveyard image, she equalizes all human beings; the foot of our graves being “even feet”, and the ground being “uniforms of snow.” Dickinson construes an obvious fear of God and of death and of falling short of his expectations thereafter; as is evident in her poem “Drowning is not so pitiful, as the attempt to rise.” She ends the poem by seemingly chastising humankind: “The Maker’s cordial visage/However good to see,/Is shunned, we must admit it,/Like an adversity” (Dickinson, 220). Again, it is probably Dickinson’s scant wording that allows the reader to more readily observe emotion and obvious lessons.
Emily Dickinson is perhaps most noted for maintaining a type of cadence through erratic punctuation and unique phrasing. Though her disregard for grammar at one time rendered her an immature poet, she was eventually recognized for being inhibitionless in her expression, and the misplaced punctuation indeed became her trademark, adding emphasis to the words. “Early in her career the ability to compact articulation in deceptively simple terms was fully developed” (Porter, 66) says one critic, while another comments:
Dickinson’s syntax constitutes an integral part of her
poetic meaning. The impulse of it’s disorders must be
sought in the image of the world she presents. And the
image is indeed a disrupted one (Wolosky, 162).
One example of Dickinson’s disrupted imagery is evident in the following poem:
Your riches taught me poverty.
Myself a millionaire
In little wealths-as girls could boast,-
Till broad as Buenos Ayre,
You drifted your dominions
A different Peru;
And I esteemed all poverty,
For life’s estate with you.
Of mines I little know, myself,
But just the names of gems,-
The colors of the commonest;
And scarce of diadems
So much that, did I meet the queen,
Her glory I should know:
But this must be a different wealth,
To miss it beggars so. (Dickinson, 132).
Dickinson first uses contrasting phrases such as “your riches taught me poverty” and “I esteemed all poverty”, and compares her love to exotic places. Then she goes on a different tangent and compares her wealth to that of the queen’s. After realizing the over all point of the poem, that her wealth in love is more important and treasured than that of even the queen’s, one hardly even notices the odd punctuation, but as marks of natural pause. One critic, Margaret Homans, has found
She rarely punctuates with periods, and her use of
them is the first sign of irony, as their authority and
finality suggest dogmatism . . . the exclamation marks
raise a facade of false assertiveness (141-142).
Others suggest a less complex explanation. “Dickinson’s major innovation is to substitute the rhetorical symbols for the conventional punctuation” (Wylder, 22). And still others argue that she is “. . . misread. [Many] of Emily’s most devoted admirers have read into her despairing cry ‘more than she ever dreamed of putting there’ (Faris, 274). However one chooses to interpret her stanzas, no one can argue the genuine talent for expression or actual thought and feeling put behind them.
Dickinson responded to the overbearing environment of her household and the explosive atmosphere of America during the Civil War by becoming more reclusive, during which time she wrote over 1,775 poems. “She took the poet’s path to peace . . . recording the steps in her poems” (Ward, vii). Her use of subtle imagery , unique punctuation, and undaunting emotion and morals gained her a place among America’s most lauded poets. Emily Dickinson as a poet achieves success by being quiet. The literary world in Europe had been overrun by rhyming, detailed, imagery. The new country of America called for a simpler, straightforward poetry, and Dickinson delivers it effectively.