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Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

January 1913

The Poetry of Emily Dickinson

by Martha Hale Shackford

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:--

COCOON

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:--

PARTING

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;
and

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.

The most apparent instances of this keen, shrewd delight in challenging convention, in the effort to establish, through contrast, reconcilement of the earthly and the eternal, are to be found in her imagery. Although her similes and metaphors may be devoid of languid aesthetic elegance, they are quivering to express living ideas, and so they come surprisingly close to what we are fond of calling the commonplace. She reverses the usual, she hitches her star to a wagon, transfixing homely daily phrases for poetic purposes. Such an audacity has seldom invaded poetry with a desire to tell immortal truths through the medium of a deep sentiment for old habitual things. It is true that we permit this liberty to the greatest poets, Shakespeare, Keats, Wordsworth, and some others; but in America our poets have been sharply charged not to offend in this respect. Here tradition still animates many critics in the belief that real poetry must have exalted phraseology.

The poem already quoted, ' Let down the bars, O Death!' has its own rustic vividness of association. Even more homely is the domestic suggestion wherewith the poet sets forth an eternally, profoundly significant fact:--

The trying on the utmost,
     The morning it is new,
Is terribler than wearing it
     A whole existence through
     

Surely such a commonplace comparison gives startling vividness to the innate idea. Many are the poetic uses she makes of practical everyday life:--

The soul should always stand ajar;
and

The only secret people keep 
Is Immortality;

and

Such dimity convictions,
     A horror so refined,
Of freckled human nature, 
     Of Deity ashamed;
     

and

And kingdoms, like the orchard,
Flit russetly away;

and

If I couldn't thank you,
     Being just asleep,
You will know I'm trying
     With my granite lip.
     

More significantly, however, than in these epithets and figures, irony and paradox appear in those analyses of truth where she reveals the deep note of tragic idealism:--

Not one of all the purple host 
Who took the flag to-day
Can tell the definition, 
So clear, of victory,

As he, defeated, dying, 
On whose forbidden ear 
The distant strains of triumph 
Break, agonized and clear;
and

Essential oils are wrung
The atter from the rose
Is not expressed by suns alone,
It is the gift of screws.

She took delight in piquing the curiosity, and often her love of mysterious challenging symbolism led her to the borderland of obscurity. No other of her poems has, perhaps, such a union of playfulness and of terrible comment upon the thwarted aspirations of a suffering soul as has this:--

I asked no other thing, 
No other was denied.
I offered Being for it;
The mighty merchant smiled.

Brazil? He twirled a button,
Without a glance my way:
'But, madam, is there nothing else
That we can show to-day?'

Since life seemed, to her, seldom to move along wholly simple and direct ways, she delighted to accentuate the fact that out of apparent contradictions and discords are wrought the subtlest harmonies:--

To learn the transport by the pain, 
As bend men learn the sun;

and

Sufficient truth that we shall rise--
Deposed, at length, the grave-- 
To that new marriage, justified
Through Calvaries of Love;

and

The lightning that preceded it
Struck no one but myself, 
But I would not exchange the bolt 
For all the rest of life.

The expectation of finding in her work some quick, perverse, illuminating comment upon eternal truths certainly keeps a reader's interest from flagging, but passionate intensity and fine irony do not fully explain Emily Dickinson 's significance. There is a third characteristic trait, a dauntless courage in accepting life. Existence, to her, was a momentous experience, and she let no promises of a future life deter her from feeling the throbs of this one. No false comfort released her from dismay at present anguish. An energy of pain and joy swept her soul, but did not leave any residue of bitterness or of sharp innuendo against the ways of the Almighty. Grief was a faith, not a disaster. She made no effort to smother the recollections of old companionship by that species of spiritual death to which so many people consent. Her creed was expressed in these stanzas:--

They say that 'time assuages,'-- 
     Time never did assuage;
An actual suffering strengthens, 
     As sinews do, with age.

Time is a test of trouble,
     But not a remedy.
If such it prove, it proves too 
     There was no malady.
     

The willingness to look with clear directness at the spectacle of life is observable everywhere in her work. Passionate fortitude was hers, and this is the greatest contribution her poetry makes to the reading world. It is not expressed precisely in single poems, but rather is present in all, as key and interpretation of her meditative scrutiny. Without elaborate philosophy, yet with irresistible ways of expression, Emily Dickinson's poems have true lyric appeal, because they make abstractions, such as love, hope, loneliness, death, and immortality, seem near and intimate and faithful. She looked at existence with a vision so exalted and secure that the reader is long dominated by that very excess of spiritual conviction. A poet in the deeper mystic qualities of feeling rather than in the external merit of precise rhymes and flawless art, Emily Dickinson's place is among those whose gifts are

Too intrinsic for renown.

The Atlantic Monthly; January 1913; The Poetry of Emily Dickinson; Volume 11, No. 1; pages 93-97.
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