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The extent of Emily Dickinsons poetry

Info: 3622 words (14 pages) Essay
Published: 1st Jan 2015 in English Literature

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Poetry, I am of the opinion is a soulful artistic expression. The creation of poetic expression is a journey wherein the body and soul of the poet or rather literary artistic transcends from his immediate reality in to a world wherein limitations of thought and expressions cease to exist liberating the artist from the shackles of logic which forever are known to limit his thoughts, purpose and expression. Poets have since ages penned out rhythmic verses which have enriched not only their lives during the process of penning their poetic thoughts but that of their readers too especially the ones who dwell in admiration of poetic works.

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The outstanding elements of poetic compositions are the fact that they by and large break free from the monotony of presenting life in all practicality but create an aura of realm combined with enigma around man, nature or anything abstract which the poet desires to convey. Poetry does also serve the purpose of drawing man out of his self-created obsessive materialistic world he takes pleasure and pain dwelling in with the assumption that, that is the very purpose or rather bane of his existence.

The aspect of poetry which captures my inert attention is the varied compositions of metaphysical poet. The metaphysical conceit employed by metaphysical poets could be comprehended as a terminology found to be in association with poets of the 17th century. Metaphysical conceit is defined and understood as metaphors which have a conceptual relationship between differing aspects in comparison. The beauty of this aspect is that a conceit is a comparison wherein we are to have an acceptance of likeness being highly conscious of its unlikeness. Well, metaphysical conceit defines poetry in its best possible way as poetry by nature and definition defies generally accepted truth and logic which creating a truth of a poetic differing kind.

“a conceit is a comparison whose ingenuity is more striking than its justness”

Helen Gardner.

A very common exemplification of metaphysical conceit is that of “The Flea” by John Donne. The poem is penned about a flea which has bitten the speaker and his lover and an argument of sorts is created wherein the lover essentially feels that his lover has no reason to refuse him sexual pleasure although they are not bound in matrimony.

   “Oh stay! three lives in one flea spare

Where we almost, yea more than married are.

    This flea is you and I, and this

Our marriage-bed and marriage-temple is.”

The imagery has abundance of realm and hence this work of John Donne has immortalized itself in the world of poetic art, an arena dwelled in by the likes of Emily Dickinson, Andrew Marvell and George Herbert.

When I stumbled upon one of the works of Emily Dickenson, I found myself left spellbound. My research further led me to the discover the fact that she conceptually drew inspiration from metaphysical poets like John Donne, Andrew Marvel and many others who were 17th century poets. Emily Dickinson, in the nineteenth century admired and got inspired by seventeenth century poets. I further gathered that she incorporated her stylization, thoughts and beliefs by employing metaphysical conceit, a style primarily adopted by metaphysical poets. Thus my research led me to connect Emily Dickinson to metaphysical poetry.

Emily Dickenson was creativity personified! Her name spells splendor. She by stature is characterized as being one of greatest American poets of the 19th century. Undoubtedly a poet of the highest caliber led a life of austerity but gave the world poetic creativity of the highest order. She gained her inspiration from the English metaphysical poets of 17th century. Her Puritan upbringing could also be credited for her works which had an immense content of metaphysical conceit. She was in awe of the works of poets such as John Keats, Robert and Elizabeth Browning. She led a life devoid of matrimonial bliss as she discovered true bliss and harmony in her artistic expressions of poetry, gardening and friendships.

“Not knowing when the dawn will come, I open every door”

                                                          Emily Dickinson

This expression of Emily Dickinson gives us an insight which is in all clarity about this poetess who sought a multitude of avenues to quench her artistic or rather poetic thirst. She was an evangelist seeking glory not for her worldly self but her soul which remained famished all the time for literary beauty which she could incorporate in her works. An important aspect of this poet which needs to be noted is the fact that she never published her works. Poetry was her path to attain salvation, her path of spirituality or liberation of the soul. During her lifetime, around ten of her poems were published without her consent and after her death 1700 poems were discovered which startled the world. This lays emphasis on the fact that she never sought fame or glory which she could have attained with ease by publishing her works or revealing it to the world. All she cared for was enriching her life through her poems. Penning poems was her way of living life, undoubtedly to the fullest!

Emily Dickinson could relate and comprehend works of metaphysical poets. She found meaning and purpose in metaphysical poetry. This led to her being inspired consciously and sub-consciously into penning poems which were highly metaphysical in content.

Comparative Analysis:

As a matter of a habitual artistic process, Emily’s mind led her to create a dual world or “double estate” as termed by critics on similar lines to that of George Herbert wherein the world was considered to be “furnished with the infinite” and “God was her old neighbor” and death, pain, agony and grace were interpreted as fleshy neighbors. A majority of Emily’s poems were dominated by a metaphysical ideology of a “compound vision”. This made provision for presentation and placement of the eternal with the transient, facts thrown light upon by mystery and the foreign being explained by familiar.

She to a high magnitude believed in metaphysical experiences creating a sense of serene unity incorporating them in her perception of life and her content of poetic verses. She would term the march of the cavalry as an “infinite march” and the “diagram of rapture” stemming out from her practices of metaphysical unity. She had her own perception or definition of man’s relationship with God and that of God with nature. Being raised in a stern Dickinson household she developed a strong religious base hold mainly on Connecticut lines being from there by origin. She indulged in meditative activities since a very early age attempting to understand man’s purpose and definition of life.

“I think of the grave very often”

A high level of sensitivity prompted the above remark of the then twenty one year old Emily who maturity surfaced in the shape of witty double consciousness similar to that of Vaughan

“Through all this fleshy dress/Bright shootes of everlastingnesse”

Emily, being primarily concerned with the seventeenth century felt passionate in the microcosm of the self. This passion was believed to have provided thoughts and subsequently material for artistic creation which are now considered a novelty hardly prevalent and observant in today’s day and age. Emily found herself to be in poise or conflict between skepticism and faith, desire and renunciation, optimism and pessimism and hence she found an emotional release like Donne through her poems of paradox, metaphysical conceit:

“Much Madness is Divinest Sense…”- “I cannot live with you…It would be life”

For the sake of exemplification, “Because I could not stop for death” penned by Emily Dickinson and John Donne’s “Death be not proud” present the conceptual ideology of death of these to individualistic poets who had differing perceptions yet bore certain similarities. The dual poets present death not as an abstract idea or a finality of life but as an individual thereby making a personification of sorts. Emily Dickinson speaks of death in the third person while Donne figuratively employs Apostrophe while addressing it. Donne, during his time which happened to be the seventeenth century perceived death of its relativity in position and context to eternity while Emily penning her poems in the nineteenth century being inspired by Donne and the likes of him especially the ones with metaphysical mindsets and creativity presented death with a perspective of time.

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Structurally poems of Dickinson are short and stanzas are brief. There is a high degree of inconsistency in the rhyme schemes with many stanzas adorning an ABCB pattern while some failing to rhyme at all. The sound of the poetic expressions is influenced by the structure of the stanzas. Her poems were penned by her in iambic pentameter. There is accentuation of the second syllable of every foot. The short lines create an effect of the verses being sing-song especially the rhyming lines. “Because I could not stop for death” is an ode to death. It does not have a traditional format having twenty lines instead of fourteen. Her sonnets are observed to follow Shakespearean, Italian or French styles.

Differences and similarities could be also observed in Emily Dickinson’s and George Herbert’s work. The similarity lies in the fact that both of them commenced as metaphysical poets but Emily Dickinson remained one for the rest of her life but George Herbert switched from metaphysical poetry to simpler and comprehensive form of poetry. Herbert initially produced one after the other poetry containing metaphysical conceit in depth but later the realization dawned upon him that as a Christian poet being metaphysical in poetry was in a way being contrived and self-regarding but the need of the day was to be more simplistic and practice self-effacement. Herbert’s Jordan I and Jordan II are poems which would present his evolvement into a poet stepping from one arena to another. In Jordan I, Herbert pens about the art of penning poems while Jordan II is more autobiographical in nature. In contrast to this, Emily Dickinson’s poetry is self-reflective if not autobiographical of her thoughts. Herbert believed in Christianity and considered Jesus Christ as God whereas Emily Dickinson refused to accept God in Christian form but personified God. Her thoughts and ideologies contradicted the conventional idea and acceptance of God.

Hence, though Emily Dickinson and George Herbert bear similarity as far as being metaphysical poets, the latter’s drift from poems containing metaphysical conceit to the ones projecting a simplistic form of narrative brings about the line of demarcation. Simple poetry does not imply simple minded poetry. Emily’s poems have noted at times to be structurally and phrased simple but the meaning many at times ends up being hermetic and complex.

In Jordan I, Herbert conveys simplistic ideas in a complicated way intertwining them with extreme metaphysical conceit. His second stanza is about the glorification of “Christ”: “to clothe the Sun”. He means Son of God as the Sun has its own glory. The absurdity lay visible. Similarly, John employs such kind of word play in “The Coronet”.

Herbert indulges in figurative Apostrophe unlike Emily Dickinson. This approach of his is noted in his poem “The Collar”. Herbert professes through this poem that he hears the voice of God and this voice tells him that everything around is a pretense. He is specifically asked by God to pen poetry about love to attain God’s acceptance. Herbert penned such kind of poetry to add realm to his work and he too was convinced a great deal about his literary produce which was more of his beliefs than imagination. Emily’s imagination grew to such an extent that she seemed to dwell in a parallel world.

Another point of analysis could be further noted in Emily Dickinson poems. A couple of Emily Dickinson’s poems, “Because I Could Not Stop For Death” and “I Heard A Fly Buzz-When I Died,” are both about one of life’s facts and few certainties: the element of death. But, that is where the commonness ceases. Though the dual poems were penned less than a year apart by the same poet, their concepts and ideologies about what lies after death vary. The first one, there appears to be life post death, but in the other there is nothing. Several numbers of clues in each of the pieces assist the readers to ascertain which poem believes in what. 

In the piece, “Because I Could Not Stop For Death,” we are being told the tale of a woman who is being taken away by Death. This is our first indication that this poem believes in an afterlife. In most religions, where there is a grim reaper like specter, this entity will deliver a person’s soul to another place, usually a heaven or a hell. 

“Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain, 

But am betrothed unto Your enemy; 

Divorce me, untie or break that knot again; 

Take me to You, imprison me, for I, 

Except You enthrall me, never shall be free,”

(Donne 9). 

Donne’s Batter my Heart projects the view point of a sinner wherein the protagonist of the poem, who has sinned is stating is lack of control over his actions as he is devoid of control over his body and begs God to purify his soul. The titular concept has dept and depicts man desiring to be saved. The imagery used is extremely high and the reader can with ease visualize the imagery intended by Donne. The content is hard hitting and the poetic phrasing is strong. Comparatively Emily Dickinson’s phrasing is mild but the content or idea she wishes to convey is deep hidden to the extent of being abstract compelling the reader into repetitive reading in order to comprehend and create a sense of visual imagery which necessitates complete comprehension. Another point of distinction is the fact that Donne through Batter my Heart has his protagonist conversing with God; thereby Apostrophe is utilized figuratively and in Emily Dickinson’s After a great pain, a formal feeling comes, she is extremely verbose and descriptive and the pain is borne by the protagonist who does not seek divine intervention but endures it to such an extent that after the pain is gone there is an amount of numbness. This poem of her is typically different than her regular styling and structuring. There lacks order in structure, rhyme scheme and format. Probably the content of this poem, she felt demanded such irregularities. The aspect to be noted here is the fact that if “After a great pain, a formal feeling comes” were to be compared analytically with Donne’s “Batter my Heart”, one would observe the similarity with respect to sufferance of pain in the dual poems but the noted aspect of differentiation is the fact that Donne has his protagonist pleading with God, our creator to relieve him of his misery whereas Emily never mentions God directly or indirectly as she failed to have the conventional belief of God and hence her protagonist dwells in his agony without seeking divine intervention. This poem specifically works towards creating a high sense of imagery. An imagery of a funeral is created by her. The “Wooden Way”, as quoted by her gives us the image of a wooden casket and the phrase “like a stone” give us the visual of a headstone. An aspect to be duly noted is the fact that every part of the body is objectively fragmented like “the stiff heart”, “the feet, mechanical”.

Emily Dickinson’s “You left me” could be very well compared with Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”. Without an element of doubt both the poem by the respective poets could be characterized as metaphysical poetry. Thematically love is pre-dominant. The element binding both the poems together is the fact that the dwell inertly and deeply into the essence of love. The point of demarcation is the fact the stylization differs and importantly the imagery has varying differences thereby bringing out the distinctive characteristics of both the poets. “To His Coy Mistress is undoubtedly a metaphysical poem which has an argument which is explicit in with the speaker is pleading with the lady to accede to his plea for passion. It is a whimsical statement with humorous hyperbolic intent bringing out a serious issue about the uncertainty of life and our limited time on earth and the fact that pleasure of life pass on quickly and are gone before we even realize the same. Carpe diem is the thematic approach or in order words primarily it means seize the day and make the best of the available opportunities.

Marvel’s poem differ essentially content wise from that of Emily Dickinson on account of the sexual content he tends to present in a multitude of his poem. This is the primary reason for his poetic works not failing to have inclusion in the textbooks of secondary school students. His works contrast with his family background and upbringing. Marvel was a Puritan and the son of a Calvinist Anglican Preacher.

“Had we but world enough and time.”

“To His Coy Mistress” is a poem intended to be seductive but presented in a non-romantic form with deliberation and intent.

The imagery it creates is that of lust but at the same time the poet makes a conceited effort to bring out his belief that life is too short and one should enjoy the pleasure of life without guilt for the same.

“You left me” by Emily Dickinson presents melodrama on a larger canvas. The poem as her signature style is is short precise and split in two verse. I verse presents a differing concept. In the first verse she refers to love in context of the Heavenly power, Lord Almighty, God and in the second verse she confronts and lay blame on her lover for the agony he is causing her for having left her to bear the pain till eternity. It was rumored that Emily never got married but was in a relationship twice. Failure of both the relationship caused her sorrow and creation of such tragic love poems such as “You left me” was to depict her pain. The imagery in this poem is simple to the extent of being non-existent. In the first verse, she refers to God and God being abstract, the reader is giving the liberty to create or possess his own sense of imagery and in the second stanza element of nature such as the sea is utilized to portray her extent of sorrow. Here the imagery of sea is very well created to associate it with the extent of pain.


On a conclusive note, Emily Dickinson achieved recognition on account of her brilliance and utility of diamond-hard linguistic presentation. She often penned her thoughts aphoristically, which in all essence meant compressing a great amount of substance in very little number of dialects. The kind of imagery she created through her composition was unique leaving the reader spellbound. Her poem, at the very first instance or reading might leave the reader perplexed as the aspect of comprehension of her poems at the first reading is very little. In order to enter the world or the mind of Emily Dickinson, the reader has to appreciate her perception of life and every aspect of it from a metaphysical stance as she greatly admired metaphysical poets such as John Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan and Andrew Marvel. Her source of inspiration did not imply or mean replication of their works but way of comprehending their ideologies and creating a perception of her own which at times ran parallel or otherwise with their concepts and understanding. Her poems undoubtedly display her extraordinary skills of observation and the art of being ornate and verbose. Her imagination led her many times into territories which were never tread upon. Some of her poetic works include bizarre death- fantasies and thought proving metaphorical conceits but at the same time she wrote about nature which was in total contrast to her poems relating to death.

A matter of debate often does arise when works of Emily Dickinson and all the other poets such as John Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan and Andrew who were characterized as being metaphysical poets. All these poets dealt with the phenomenon of death by indulging in personification of the same whereas primarily and universally death is understood as being abstract. We as readers and admirers of art often present the question whether such personification are made to make death more acceptable. Does personification glorify death or present it as an invisible enemy meant to battle with and gain control over? Do poets as many appear to be are in total comprehension of death thus giving them the right to project death the way they think it is and be in expectance of the world to accept and appreciate their perception which undoubtedly influence many and all.


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