The Poetry of Emily Dickinson


Not long ago a distinguished critic, reviewing Father Tabb's poetry, remarked, 'At his most obvious affinity, Emily Dickinson, I can only glance. It seems to me that he contains in far finer form pretty much everything that is valuable in her thought.' Are we thus to lose the fine significance of poetic individuality? A poet is unique, incomparable, and to make these comparisons between poets is to ignore the primary laws of criticism, which seeks to discover the essential individuality of writers, not their chance resemblances. It is as futile as it is unjust to parallel Father Tabb's work with Emily Dickinson's: his is full of quiet reverie, hers has a sharp stabbing quality which disturbs and overthrows the spiritual ease of the reader. Emily Dickinson is one of our most original writers, a force destined to endure in American letters.

There is no doubt that critics are justified in complaining that her work is often cryptic in thought and unmelodious in expression. Almost all of her poems are written in short measures, in which the effect of curt brevity is increased by her verbal penuriousness. Compression and epigrammatical ambush are her aids; she proceeds, without preparation or apology, by sudden, sharp zigzags. What intelligence a reader has must be exercised in the poetic game of hare-and-hounds, where ellipses, inversions, and unexpected climaxes mislead those who pursue sweet reasonableness. Nothing, for instance, could seem less poetical than this masterpiece of unspeakable sounds and chaotic rhymes:--


Drab habitation of whom? 
Tabernacle or tomb, 
Or dome of worm, 
Or porch of gnome, 
Or some elf's catacomb.

If all her poems were of this sort there would be nothing more to say; but such poems are exceptions. Because we happen to possess full records of her varying poetic moods, published, not with the purpose of selecting her most artistic work, but with the intention of revealing very significant human documents, we are not justified in singling out a few bizarre poems and subjecting these to skeptical scrutiny. The poems taken in their entirety are a surprising and impressive revelation of poetic attitude and of poetic method in registering spiritual experiences. To the general reader many of the poems seem uninspired, imperfect, crude, while to the student of the psychology of literary art they offer most stimulating material for examination, because they enable one to penetrate into poetic origins, into radical, creative energy. However, it is not with the body of her collected poems but with the selected, representative work that the general reader is concerned. Assuredly we do not judge an artist by his worst, but by his best, productions; we endeavor to find the highest level of his power and thus to discover the typical significance of his work.

To gratify the aesthetic sense was never Emily Dickinson's desire; she despised the poppy and mandragora of felicitous phrases which lull the spirit to apathy and emphasize art for art's sake. Poetry to her was the expression of vital meanings, the transfer of passionate feeling and of deep conviction. Her work is essentially lyric; it lacks the slow, retreating harmonies of epic measures, it does not seek to present leisurely details of any sort; its purpose is to objectify the swiftly-passing moments and to give them poignant expression .

Lyric melody finds many forms in her work. Her repressed and austere verses, inexpansive as they are, have persistent appeal. Slow, serene movement gives enduring beauty to these elegiac stanzas:--

Let down the bars, O Death! 
The tired flocks come in 
Whose bleating ceases to repeat,
Whose wandering is done.

Thine is the stillest night, 
Thine the securest fold; 
Too near thou art for seeking thee, 
Too tender to be told.

The opposite trait of buoyant alertness is illustrated in the cadences of the often-quoted lines on the hummingbird:--

A route of evanescence
With a revolving wheel; 
A resonance of emerald, 
A rush of cochineal.

Between these two margins come many wistful, pleading, or triumphant notes. The essential qualities of her music are simplicity and quivering responsiveness to emotional moods. Idea and expression are so indissolubly fused in her work that no analysis of her style and manner can be attempted without realizing that every one of her phrases, her changing rhythms, is a direct reflection of her personality. The objective medium is entirely conformable to the inner life, a life of peculiarly dynamic force which agitates, arouses, spurs the reader.

The secret of Emily Dickinson's wayward power seems to lie in three special characteristics, the first of which is her intensity of spiritual experience. Hers is the record of a soul endowed with unceasing activity in a world not material, but one where concrete facts are the cherished revelation of divine significances. Inquisitive always, alert to the inner truths of life, impatient of the brief destinies of convention, she isolated herself from the petty demands of social amenity. A sort of tireless, probing energy of mental action absorbed her, yet there is little speculation of a purely philosophical sort in her poetry. Her stubborn beliefs, learned in childhood, persisted to the end,--her conviction that life is beauty, that love explains grief, and that immortality endures. The quality of her writing is profoundly stirring, because it betrays, not the intellectual pioneer, but the acutely observant woman, whose capacity for feeling was profound. The still, small voice of tragic revelation one hears in these compressed lines:--


My life closed twice before its close;
     It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
     A third event to me,

So huge, so hopeless to conceive,
     As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven,
     And all we need of hell.

For sheer, grim, unrelieved expression of emotional truth there are few passages which can surpass the personal experience revealed in the following poem:--

Pain has an element of blank; 
It cannot recollect 
When it began, or if there were 
A day when it was not.

It has no future but itself,
Its infinite realms contain
Its past, enlightened to perceive
New periods of pain.

Her absorption in the world of feeling found some relief in associations with nature; yet although she loved nature and wrote many nature lyrics, her interpretations are always more or less swayed by her own state of being. The colors, the fragrances, the forms of the material world, meant to her a divine symbolism; but the spectacle of nature had in her eyes a more fugitive glory, a lesser consolation, than it had for Wordsworth and other true lovers of the earth.

Brilliant and beautiful transcripts of bird-life and of flower-life appear among her poems, although there is in some cases a childish fancifulness that disappoints the reader. Among the touches of unforgettable vividness there are:--

These are the days when skies put on
The old, old sophistries of June,--
A blue and gold mistake;


Nature rarer uses yellow
     Than another hue;
Leaves she all of that for sunsets,--
     Prodigal of blue

Never has any poet described the haunting magic of autumnal days with such fine perception of beauty as marks the opening stanzas of 'My Cricket':--

Farther in summer than the birds, 
Pathetic from the grass, 
A minor nation celebrates 
Its unobtrusive mass.

No ordinance is seen,
So gradual the grace,
A pensive custom it becomes,
Enlarging loneliness.

Most effective, however, are those poems where she describes not mere external beauty, but, rather, the effect of nature upon a sensitive observer:--

There's a certain slant of light, 
On winter afternoons, 
That oppresses, like the weight 
Of cathedral tunes.

Heavenly hurt it gives us;
We can find no scar,
But internal difference
Where the meanings are.

None may teach it anything, 
'T is the seal, despair,-- 
An imperial affliction 
Sent us of the air.

When it comes, the landscape listens,
Shadows hold their breath;
When it goes, 't is like the distance
On the look of death.

It is essentially in the world of spiritual forces that her depth of poetic originality is shown. Others may describe nature, but few can describe life as she does. Human nature, the experiences of the world of souls, was her special study, to which she brought, in addition to that quality of intensity, a second characteristic,--keen sensitiveness to irony and paradox. Nearly all her perceptions are tinged with penetrating sense of the contrasts in human vicissitude. Controlled, alert, expectant, aware of the perpetual compromise between clay and spirit, she accepted the inscrutable truths of life in a fashion which reveals how humor and pathos contend in her. It is this which gives her style those sudden turns and that startling imagery. Humor is not, perhaps, a characteristic associated with pure lyric poetry, and yet Emily Dickinson's transcendental humor is one of the deep sources of her supremacy. Both in thought and in expression she gains her piercing quality, her undeniable spiritual thrust, by this gift, stimulating, mystifying, but forever inspiring her readers to a profound conception of high destinies.

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