Sunday, January 24, 2010

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson is among my favorite poets, which makes it difficult to write about her. The relationship between her work to some internal conception I have about what a poem should be or do renders dispassionate analysis a daunting task.

Dickinson, as you may know, led what many consider a cramped and narrow life. She never married, lived with her parents and family in Massachusetts her entire adult life, and never pursued advanced studies or travels. However, her poetry is so abundant in experience that people have been trying to ferret out the secret encounters and passions that seem to have animated her ever since she gained posthumous renown.

Dickinson preserved her poems in little sewn-and-bound packages known as “fascicles” to scholars. Mainstream publishers have never seen fit to publish Dickinson’s work as it is presented in them. All of the widely available editions of her poetry are heavily edited and change the punctuation, word order, and line breaks of many poems.

In publishers’ moderate defense, the fascicles are very formally innovative in a way that would be difficult to reproduce, even today. I took a graduate seminar on her poetry, and for that class, we read photocopies of the fascicles (which have been published in a multi-volume work that can be found in many academic libraries) alongside published renditions. I recall one poem with a final line that wound around the body of the poem and read upside down atop the first line.

I thought this and other textual innovations were clearly intentional, i.e. not intended to save space or so written because she’d come to the end of a line, but the students in the class were divided. As with so many literary issues, it’s not a resolvable dispute.

I’m getting a little off topic and starting to write myself in circles here, as I feared I might. This is not intended as a comprehensive or even multi-faceted examination of Dickinson’s poetry. There aren’t enough hours in the day, and you’d probably stop reading long before I reached my conclusions.

You can read my own introductory dithering as a strategy for avoiding lengthy comment on the foregoing poem You might notice that it’s kind of dirty, a poem that lends credence to the “Emily Dickinson secretly had a wild sex life” theory of her biography.

I’m not above prurient concerns, but the sexiness isn’t, for me, the key to its appeal. Rather, it’s the elation, the subtle unpacking of exhilarative moments, which make it so compelling. By the end of the poem, the transformative power of the sea seems to have erased all confining boundaries, leaving the speaker in a position of absolute freedom and agency.


I started Early - Took my Dog -
And visited the Sea -
The Mermaids in the Basement
Came out to look at me -
And Frigates - in the Upper Floor
Extended Hempen Hands -
Presuming Me to be a Mouse -
Aground - upon the Sands -
But no Man moved Me - till the Tide
Went past my simple Shoe -
And past my Apron - and my Belt
And past my Bodice - too -
And made as He would eat me up -
As wholly as a Dew
Upon a Dandelion's Sleeve -
And then - I started - too -
And He - He followed - close behind -
I felt His Silver Heel
Upon my Ankle - Then my Shoes
Would overflow with Pearl -
Until We met the Solid Town -
No One He seemed to know
And bowing - with a Mighty look -
At me - The Sea withdrew –

Emily Dickinson on Wikipedia

Emily Dickinson on


  1. Unpacking... what a perfect word... like a box of great images and feelings... each taken out in its time... lovely Sunday present!

  2. Why thank you! I hope the rest of your weekend is similarly lovely. :)