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A hero should always stand up for what they believe in and inspire others to do the same. In a time where American writers modeled their works after European literature, Emily Dickinson was able to break through the mold and illustrate a uniquely American take on writing, specifically poetry. She garnered much criticism through her use of poetic idiosyncrasies including “odd punctuation-heavy on dashes-and her peculiar use of capitalization” (DiYanni 911), both of which were used to “convey complex states of mind and feeling” (DiYanni 911) that assist in characterizing Dickinson through her views on death, love, nature, and the human state of mind.
Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts on December 10, 1830 and attended Amherst Academy. She was an extremely shy person who “lived a life of seclusion, leaving Massachusetts only once and rarely leaving her father’s house during the last fifteen years of her life” (DiYanni 909). In stark contrast to her dull existence, Dickinson’s mind was stimulating; granted, she explored and reflected heavily upon the “poetry of John Keats and Robert Browning, the prose of John Ruskin and Sir Thomas Browne, and the novels of George Eliot and Charlotte and Emily Brontë” (DiYanni 909). Similarities between her and fellow poet Walt Whitman were also commented on: the King James translation of the Bible greatly influenced their respective works and both are considered the pioneers of American poetry as we know it today, with each contributing to poetry something “new, fresh, and strikingly original” (DiYanni 910) through dissimilar means of achieving it. Unlike Whitman’s lengthy and straightforward poems, Dickinson’s poems are brief and “squeeze moments of intensely felt life and thought into tight four-line stanzas that compress feeling and condense thought” (DiYanni 910) in order to meditate on the essential events in life.
Dickinson often personifies death in various outward appearances in her poems. One such poem is “Because I could not stop for Death”, which is composed of six quatrains, or four-line stanzas. In stanza one, the narrator-apparently a woman-is greeted by Death, who is personified as a gentleman. He is escorted by a carriage wherein immortality is also a passenger. The narrator’s journey begins in stanza two, in which she and death are traveling at a leisurely pace, suggesting a slow death for the narrator. During her journey in stanza three, the narrator sees a “School”, “Fields of Gazing Grain”, and the “Setting Sun”, which symbolizes the different stages of her life: childhood, represented by the recess scene; adulthood- signified by the “gazing” grain, which suggests looking backing on her life and maturity; and the impending arrival of death, which is signified by the “setting sun”. In the fourth stanza, the sun is personified as a person who is leaving and the narrator is left shivering because her “gown” and “tippet” is insufficient for the weather and is more appropriate for a wedding, which symbolizes a new beginning. The narrator and her fiancé Death get married and arrive at their new home in stanza five; a “House that seemed A Swelling of the Ground” (“Because I could not stop for Death” 810), which implies a grave and also the ending of the narrator’s life. The narrator seems to be enjoying the afterlife; centuries have passed, however, it all feels shorter than a day to her. The use of an extended metaphor and the overall story reflects the narrator’s and Dickinson’s welcoming of death as a natural part of the life cycle and their acceptance of it.
“Wild Nights-Wild Nights!” is not a love poem you’d typically expect from Emily Dickinson because the eroticism subtly implied in the work simply does not correlate with Dickinson’s unadulterated persona. The poem begins with the stanza “Wild Nights-Wild Nights! / Were I with thee/ Wild Nights should be/ Our luxury!” (“Wild Nights-Wild Nights!” 918) This suggests the speaker is currently detached from the person she is addressing to in the poem and can only imagine what would’ve happened if they were to be reunited. “Luxury” has a very ambiguous meaning to it in this stanza. Although, according to contemporary definition, it refers to overindulgence, its archaic denotation suggests lechery or lust, which Dickinson would have been able to utilize for her purposes. The second stanza is “Futile-the Winds-/ To a Heart in port-/ Done with the Compass-/ Done with the Chart!” (“Wild Nights-Wild Nights!” 918). The first and second line of the stanza alludes to the narrator’s faithfulness and attachment towards a man referred to as “thee”, for even strong winds cannot impede her longing for him, while the third and fourth stanza refers to how she doesn’t need the “compass” or “chart” to guide her anymore because she’s already found what she wants. The final stanza subtly insinuates sexual intercourse in its description of “Rowing in Eden”, which suggests a paradise, “Ah, the Sea!” which implies an indication of ecstasy, and “Might I but moor-Tonight-/ In Thee!”, which denotes the actual act itself. This poem sheds light to a side of Emily Dickinson one might not expect from her sheltered and reclusive life, but she is able to manipulate diction and punctuation in such a way that the reader is able to partake in the speaker’s whole-hearted wishes and intense desires.
Although Dickinson’s poems reflect her religious beliefs in orthodox Christianity, it is “her love for nature [that] separates her from her Puritan precursors, allying her instead with such transcendentalist contemporaries as Emerson, Whitman, and Thoreau, though her vision of life is
starker than theirs.” (DiYanni 911) That passion for nature is expressed in “I taste a liquor never brewed”. The poem starts with the line “I taste a liquor never brewed-” (“I taste a liquor never brewed” 917), which is, in itself, an apparent contradiction that goes against the physical realms of reality and implies an intoxication without physical alcohol involved. It later goes on to state that “From Tankards scooped in Pearl-/ Not all the Vats upon the Rhine/ Yield such an Alcohol!” (“I taste a liquor never brewed” 917) which further emphasizes the idea that the speaker does not actually ingest any physical liquor. The lines “Inebriate of Air-am I-/ And Debauchee of Dew-” (“I taste a liquor never brewed” 917) wittily implies that the speaker is “drunk” on nature. The narrator goes on to say that she is “Reeling-thro endless summer days-/ From inns of Molten Blue-” (“I taste a liquor never brewed” 917), which means she is drunk from summer’s delights and the “inns of molten blue” vividly illustrates the sky. The third stanza, “When ‘Landlords’ turn the drunken Bee/Out of the Foxglove’s door-/ When Butterflies-renounce their “drams”-I shall but drink the more!” (“I taste a liquor never brewed” 917) suggests that the speaker will be high on life and/or nature indefinitely until foxgloves stop blooming and until butterflies stop collecting “drams”, or nectar. The final stanza reflects the speaker’s never-ending enthusiasm for nature because it will cease “Till Seraphs swing their snowy Hats-/ And Saints-to windows run-/ To see the little Tippler/ Leaning against the-Sun-” (“I taste a liquor never brewed” 917), which an elaborate and shrewd way of saying never. The ideas presented through the metaphors and the comparisons between the narrator, which do not involve the reflection and learning through nature that the Transcendalist writers experienced, allows Dickinson to describe the environment around her in vivid detail, and in doing so, allows the reader to grasp Dickinson’s appreciation for nature and all the joy it brings to her.
Emily Dickinson’s unorthodox approach to poetry inspired other poets to do the same, one of whom was Billy Collins, the author of “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes”. Unlike the sexual innuendo the title suggests, it is actually a guide for interpreting the works of Emily Dickinson. The first stanza and second stanza, “First, her tippet made of tulle, / easily lifted off her shoulders and laid/ on the back of a wooden chair. / And her bonnet, / the bow undone with a
light forward pull,” (Collins 944) suggests the turning of the book cover to expose the contents of the book just like how removing a scarf would also reveal the neck, chest, and shoulder areas. While the pulling of the bow’s meaning is ambiguous, it could possibly signify the use of a ribbon as a bookmark; the strings of a bonnet bow hang down like a bookmark and also hold the bonnet in place, which correlates to how a bookmark holds your place in a book. The third stanza, “Then the long white dress, a more/ complicated matter with mother-of-pearl/ buttons down the back,/ so tiny and numerous that it takes forever/ before my hands can part the fabric,/ like a swimmer’s dividing water,/ and slip inside,” (Collins 945) goes into the detail of describing the actual pages of the poetry. The “long white dress” represents the pages of the novel, “mother-of-pearl buttons” signifies the words on the page, and the buttons are “tiny and numerous” because Dickinson is rather articulate. It “takes forever before my hands can part the fabric, like a swimmer’s dividing water, and slip inside” (Collins 945) because the reader has to interpret the meanings of the words before he or she is able to analyze the poem as a whole. “You will want to know/that she was standing/ by an open window in an upstairs bedroom, / motionless, a little wide-eyed, / looking out at the orchard below, / the white dress puddled at her feet/on the wide-board, hardwood floor,” (Collins 945) is the stanza that follow it and the “upstairs bedroom” could represent Emily Dickinson’s psychological state and the orchard could refer to Eden or even maybe allude to one of Dickinson’s approximately 1700 other poems. In the next stanza, “The complexity of women’s undergarments/ in nineteenth-century America/ is not to be waved off,/ and I proceeded like a polar explorer/ through the clips, clasps, and moorings,/ catches, straps, and whalebone stays/sailing toward the iceberg of her nakedness,” (Collins 945) illustrates the rigorous inspection that readers must endeavor in order to truly comprehend Dickinson’s works. By “proceeding through clips, clasps, and moorings, catches, straps, and whalebone stays,” (Collins 945) the reader is able to reveal the “iceberg of her nakedness,” and also the meaning of the poem as was intended by Dickinson. The two stanzas to follow provide insights into events occurring in either Dickinson’s personal life or poetry. The reappearance of the orchard and the introduction of a dash in the sixth stanza emphasize the fact that Dickinson must have written a poem concerning an orchard. An allusion to Dickinson’s “I heard a fly buzz when I died,” is made when the speaker refers to seeing “a fly buzzing in a windowpane,” and which could also denote the death of Emily Dickinson. The final stanza contains numerous allusions to other works of Dickinson. The line “hope has feathers” comes from the title of her work “Hope Is The Thing With Feathers” and the line “that life is a loaded gun/ that looks right at you with a yellow eye” is restated almost word for word in her poem “My life had Stood- a Loaded Gun-.” Emily Dickinson’s influence on the writing style of Billy Collins is especially apparent; although “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes” does not incorporate the brevity typified by Dickinson’s poems, Collins is able to incorporate numerous metaphors and allusions to her poetry in order to extensively analyze the complex thought process and rousing expressiveness involved in creating and evaluating the works of Dickinson, but in doing so, allows him to fully comprehend and appreciate the person Emily Dickinson was as a poet and a human being.
The poetry of Dickinson is written in such a way that the reader is left with a deep impression of her emotional state at the time of its conception. Of equal importance was Emily Dickinson’s delving into of the human mind. “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” is an example of one of her poems that illustrates the workings of the mind, specifically during its downfall. The opening stanza makes use of metaphors to depict the breakdown of the mind through the loss of rational thought. The first line of the stanza, “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,” reflects the idea, while the “Mourners” represent the events that led to the narrator’s psychological demise and
“treading” refers to how the proceedings are “floating” in her head and she is contemplating over them. It is not until “Sense” breaks through that the narrator realizes her imminent mental downfall. In the next stanza, the speaker makes use of the funeral metaphor presented in the
previous stanza in order to describe the actual experience of losing her mind. A vivid contrast is made when a funeral, which is usually marked by a still silence, is compared next to the “beating” drum that is a detriment to not only the narrator’s mind, but also to her physical senses as she tries to absorb everything she is experiencing. The torture the narrator conveys expands into the next stanza when she also expresses the loss of her soul, in which her sanity is being buried and her soul is being trampled upon the incessant annoyance of the clattering made by the “creaking” “Boots of Lead”. Dickinson makes use of description that appeals to the auditory system by stating that the noise that constantly ravages the speaker’s mind has grown so loud and encompassing that “the Heavens were a Bell/And Being, but an Ear” (“I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” 920). Her mental and physical state is “wrecked” and “solitary” just like the seemingly nonexistent silence. All signs of sanity present in the speaker’s mind are lost when the only thing preventing her complete psychological devastation, reason, has been shattered. As a result, she “plunges” deeper and deeper into madness. The poem ends on a very ambiguous note, with the word “then” unable to clearly convey what has happened afterwards. It also clearly illustrates the depth to which Dickinson explored the internal world of the human mind and, with the constant appeal to the auditory senses, exposed her belief that it was no different than the external physical world.
Emily Dickinson brings to American literature and poetry a fresh breath of air. Unwilling to conform like other American authors before her and defiant to succumb to the criticism of others, she continued “breaking the formal rules of conventional poetic expectations” (DiYanni 909) in order to create poetry that was deeply rooted in her beliefs, thoughts, and emotions. Her poems focused on the matters that were most important at hand and close to her:
death as something not to be feared, sexual desires as a profession of love, the enthralling and invigorating effect nature has on people, and the fascinating appeal in unraveling the intricate workings of the human mind; all of which allowed readers to infer the views and disposition of Dickinson without actually meeting her face to face and which accommodated Dickinson’s reserved nature. Who could’ve known that originality and sticking to your beliefs could result in such a dramatic impact on poetry as we know it today?
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