Dickinson is indisputably the greatest woman poet, perhaps the greatest woman writer in the history of American literature, a fact that has stimulated a great deal of feminist interest in her work. Gender critics have sought to explore what is uniquely female in her poetic sensibility, and to consider her life and its choices for what they reveal about the options available or unavailable to women in her culture (and in American culture generally), and for the degree to which the choices that she made can be seen as the manifestations of a specifically feminine sensibility.
The first thing that any reader notices about Dickinson’s poetry is the uniqueness of its style, not only “ the rich silence “ they are made of, as Thackerey said, but also the profoundly personal and highly evocative way in which she uses language.
Throughout Emily Dickinson’s poetry there are three main themes that she addresses : death, nature and love, all of them leading the reader into a world of sensibility, charm and delicacy, a world of “ rich silence “ indeed.
One of the most fascinating things in Dickinson’s poetry is her overwhelming attention to detail, especially her insights to death. “ I’ve seen a dying eye “ is a poem about the nature of death, illustrating the sense of uncertainty and uncontrollability about death. The observer’s speech seems hesitant and unsure of what he or she is seeing, partly because of the dashes, but also because of the words used to describe the scene. As the eye is observed looking for something, then becoming cloudy and progressing through more obscurity until it finally comes to rest, the person observing the death cannot provide any definite proof that what the dying person saw was hopeful or disturbing. The dying person seems to have no control over the clouds covering his or her eye, which is frantically searching for something that it can only hope to find before the clouds totally consume it. Death, as an incontrollable force, seems to sweep over the dying. The idea that something exists after death is uncertain in this poem (the point of view is that of the observer). The observer sees in the first few lines “ I’ve seen a Dying Eye, / Run round and round a Room -- ] / In search of Something -- as it seemed. “
From the start, we assume that the eye is searching for evidence of an afterlife, but only the dying person knows for what the eye is searching. The reader gets a sense that the observer, who represents the living, knows what the dying eye is looking for, but because the observer is alive, the answer is hidden from his or her eyes. By using the word “seemed” , Dickinson, along with her ever-present dashes, injects an element of doubt in the speaker’s voice as to whether something does exist.
As in other Dickinson poems about death, there is a journey, however small, that the dying person embarks upon. Although it is not a life-long journey, as it was in “ Because I could not stop for death”© , the dying person did travel through the obscurity of the clouds searching for something. The eye’s journey through the clouds and the expanding obscurity represents the search for an existence after death. As the eye ran around the room the obseerver sees the eye’’s journey, “ Then Cloudier become -- / And then – obscure with Fog --.” It seems that the eye is still searching, while the clouds, re presenting death, close in around them. The most important part of the poem comes towards the end when the eye closes and ceases to search the room. “ And then – [the eye] be soldered down, / Without disclosing what it be / ‘Twere blessed to have seen --.”
The eye seems to be agitated and searching desperately for an afterlife existence.The dying persons’s eye is then “ soldered “ down and fails to let the observer know
what it saw, or if it saw anything. The use of the word “ solder “ implies to the reader that whatever answer the eye found beyond the clouds is now permanently sealed away from the living world.
A glimmer of hope remain at the end of this journey, according to Dickinson. In the last line, “ ‘Twere blessed to have seen -- , “ a hope hangs on the word “ blessed “, and that word sounds as a positive answer to the questions we ask.The other meaning that could be taken from that line is that what awaits us is not necessarily “ blessed “ or good, but that the observer thinks the dying person is now blessed because he or she finally knows the answer to the life-long question. It seems that Dickinson purposefully leaves the poem open-ended to keep that uncertainty alive in her poem. The only time the uncertainty of death is made certain is during that moment when our eyes begin their search through the engulfing clouds.
Considering more of her poems, death is always regarded as something natural and silent, which she peacefully accepts: “ Good-bye to the life I used to live, /And the world I used to know; / […] For we must ride to the Judgement , / And it’s partly down the hill.” (“ Farewell”)
Concerning the theme of love in her poems, Emily Dickinson believes that it is the prismatic quality of passion that matters, and the “ energy passing through an experience of love reveals a spectrum of possibilities”. In keeping with her tradition of looking at the “ circumference “ an idea, Dickinson never actually defines a conclisive love or lover at the end of her love poetry, instead concentrating on passion as a whole.Throughout Emily’s life she held emotionally compelling relationships with both men and women. The differerences in the prismatic qualities of each type of relationship come through Dickinson’s prism imagery. Adalaide Moris, a feminist critic, summarizes these differences in her essay “ The love of Thee – a Prism Be “ : “ In one [male prism] the supremacy of the patriarch informs the rituals of courtship, family, government, and religion; in the other [female prism], the implied equality of sisterhood is played out in ceremonies of romantic, familial,social, and even religious reciprocity.”
In her poetry, Emily represents the males as the Lover, Lord and Master as the women take complementary positions to their male superiors, and many times the relationship between the sexes is seen in metaphor – women as “ His Little Spaniel” or his hunting gun. The woman’s existence is only contingent to the encircling power of the man. Dickinson’s linked imagery in her male love poetry focuses on suns, storms, volcanoes, and life itself.© There are always elements of disturbance or extremes and explosive settings, but also an imagery of forever silence. There are also examples of the repression of love causing storm imagery to become “ silent, supressed “ volcanic activity – something on the verge of explosion or activity. Of course, in the repressed individual the potential for explosion or action can be very dangerous, and frequently in Dickinson’s work this kind of love relationship ends of someone receiving a wound: “ This, dost thou doubt, sweet? / Then have I / Nothing to show / But Calvary.”
Nature,the last theme in Dickinson’s poetry, is portrayed in a quiet, affectious and minutious manner. She often identified nature with heaven or God, which could have been the result of her unique relationship with God and the universe. She always held nature in reverence throughout her poetry, because she regarded nature as almost religious. One of the most obvious things that Dickinson did in her poetry was paying minute attention to things that nobody else noticed. She was obsessed with the details, paying attention to things such as hills, bumble bees, and eclipses. In these details, she found “ manifestations of the universal “ and felt the silent harmony that bound everything together. The small details and particulars that caught her eye were like “small dramas of existence “: “ Convicted could we be / Of our Minutiae, / The smallest citizen that flies / Has more integrity”.
In the following poem, Dickinson writes how nature acts as a housewife sweeping through the sunset : “ She sweeps with many-colored brooms, / And leaves the shreds behind; / Oh,housewife in the evening west, / Come back, and dust the pond! / You dropped a purple ravelling in, / You dropped a purple ravelling in, / You dropped an amber thread; / And now you’ve littered all the East / With duds of emerald! “
Dickinson artistically shows the sunset in terms of house cleaning. Only somebody with the observational powers and original creativity like Emily Dickinson could see something so unique and refreshing in a sunset. She also saw nature as a true friend most likely because of her time spent alone with it. She describes nature as a show to which she has gained admission, seeing friendship and entertainment in the world of trees, bees and anthills. “ The Bee is not Afraid of Me “ is an excellent example of her communion with nature: “ The bee is not afraid of me, / I know the butterfly; / The pretty people in the woods / Receive me cordially.
Each of the poems quoted creates images and scenes from a kind of “ miniature painting “ that Dickinson works to create. More is achieved through the use of precise description than could be done by examining the philosophical aspects behind a nature. She always felt as if she were one of them, the creatures of nature, and she felt more at ease with her world of crickets dew, and butterflies. Even though spending life as a recluse seems like undesirable to most people, our world owes a debt of gratitude to Emily Dickinson for the way she introduced us to her quiet world of nature,love and death in such a different and special way.
Primary sources :
Dickinson, Emily. The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1993.
Secondary sources :
McNaughton, Ruth E. The Imagery of Emily Dickinson. University of Lincoln, Nebraska, 1949
Morris, Adelaide. “ The Love of Thee – a Prism Be”. Feminist Critics Read Emily Dickinson. Ed. Suzanne Juhasz. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983
Myers, Michael. From Thinking and Writing About Literature.
© “ Because I could not stop for Death -- / He kindly stopped for me -- / The Carriage held but just Ourselves -- / and Immortality. […] Since then, -- ‘Tis Centuries – and yet / Feels shorter than the Day / I first surmised the Horses Heads / Were toward Eternity – “
© “ […] That I shall love always,/ I offer thee / That love is life, / And life has immortality.” ( “ That I did always love”)