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’s Use Of The Dash Essay, Research Paper Kamilla Denman Unlike the exclamation mark, the dash that dominates the prolific period is a horizontal stroke, on the level of this world. It both reaches out and holds

’s Use Of The Dash Essay, Research Paper

Kamilla Denman

Unlike the exclamation mark, the dash that dominates the prolific

period is a horizontal stroke, on the level of this world. It both reaches out and holds

at bay. Its origins in ellipsis connect it semantically to planets and cycles (rather than

linear time and sequential grammatical progression), as well as to silence and the

unexpressed. But to dash is also "to strike with violence so as to break into

fragments; to drive impetuously forth or out, cause to rush together; to affect or qualify

with an element of a different strain thrown into it; to destroy, ruin, confound, bring to

nothing, frustrate, spoil; to put down on paper, throw off, or sketch, with hasty and

unpremeditated vigour; to draw a pen vigorously through writing so as to erase it; [is]

used as a euphemism for ‘damn,’ or as a kind of verbal imprecation; [or is] one of the two

signals (the other being the dot) which in various combinations make up the letters of the

Morse alphabet." Dickinson uses the dash to fragment language and to cause unrelated

words to rush together; she qualifies conventional language with her own different

strains; and she confounds editorial attempts to reduce her "dashed off "

jottings to a "final" version. Not only does she draw lines through her own

drafts but also through the linguistic conventions of her society, and her challenges to

God are euphemistic imprecations against conventional religion. Even the allusion to the

Morse alphabet is not entirely irrelevant: through her unconventional use of punctuation,

particularly the dash, Dickinson creates a poetry whose interpretation becomes a process

of decoding the way each fragment signals meaning.

Dickinson’s transition from a dominant use of the exclamation mark to a preference for

the dash accompanied her shift from ejaculatory poems, which seem outcries aimed with

considerable dramatic effect at God or others, to poems where the energies exist more in

the relationships between words and between the poet and her words. In this intensely

prolific period, Dickinson’s excessive use of dashes has been interpreted variously as the

result of great stress and intense emotion, as the indication of a mental breakdown, and

as a mere idiosyncratic, female habit. Though these speculations are all subject to

debate, it is clear that in the early 1860s Dickinson conducted her most intense

exploration of language and used punctuation to disrupt conventional linguistic relations,

whether in an attempt to express inexpressible psychological states or purely to vivify

language.

From "Emily Dickinson’s Volcanic Punctuation." The Emily Dickinson

Journal (1993).

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