Citation
Emily Dickinson and the art of evasion

Material Information

Title:
Emily Dickinson and the art of evasion
Creator:
Forman, Douglas Jon
Publication Date:
Language:
English
Physical Description:
vii, 166 leaves : ; 29 cm.

Subjects

Subjects / Keywords:
Autumn ( jstor )
Birds ( jstor )
Death ( jstor )
Literary criticism ( jstor )
Love ( jstor )
Nature ( jstor )
Poetics ( jstor )
Poetry ( jstor )
Soul ( jstor )
Sun ( jstor )
Dissertations, Academic -- English -- UF ( lcsh )
English thesis, Ph.D ( lcsh )
City of Gainesville ( local )
Genre:
bibliography ( marcgt )
non-fiction ( marcgt )

Notes

Thesis:
Thesis (Ph.D.)--University of Florida, 1998.
Bibliography:
Includes bibliographical references (leaves 160-165).
General Note:
Typescript.
General Note:
Vita.
Statement of Responsibility:
by Douglas Jon Forman.

Record Information

Source Institution:
University of Florida
Holding Location:
University of Florida
Rights Management:
Copyright [name of dissertation author]. Permission granted to the University of Florida to digitize, archive and distribute this item for non-profit research and educational purposes. Any reuse of this item in excess of fair use or other copyright exemptions requires permission of the copyright holder.
Resource Identifier:
029225946 ( ALEPH )
39546786 ( OCLC )

Downloads

This item has the following downloads:


Full Text









EMILY DICKINSON AND THE ART OF EVASION


BY

DOUGLAS JON FORMAN









A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY

UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA


1998













ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
I would like to thank my committee members, Marsha Bryant,

Chris Snodgrass, Anne Jones, and Ben Nelms. Their enthusiastic

readings of my work helped me to clarify my ideas, and their

willingness to correspond long distance is appreciated. I owe much of

my educational success to my friend, and the Chair of my committee,

Richard Brantley, who has helped me heroically in numerous ways.
He has been Advisor, Department Liaison, Cheerleader, Editor, and

Therapist, and his warmth, graciousness, and infectious enthusiasm

have kept me strong and focused. He is not only a great teacher; he is
a wonderful man.

I am deeply and forever grateful for the emotional and financial

support of my mother and father, Robert and Carlene Baime. Their

wisdom and understanding are limitless; they are my first and best

teachers; they are my foundation.

I come from a close-knit family, and I am continuously buoyed

by their love. My sisters, Robin, Karen, Jennifer, Melissa, and Rachel

have been steadfast friends and they have shown me how to

succeed. Charles Forman's common sense and gentle prodding kept
me focused. The friendship and generosity of my "brother" and ski

partner, Martin, was an anchor amid the chaos of graduate work. My

grandmothers, Hermelene Young and Harriet Forman, created a safe

place for me to dream; I wish they were here to share my success.








Finally, I could never have completed my work without Susan
and Kiyanna Hutchins, who entered my life two years ago, and taught
me how to love. They ignited the creative spark inside of me.
Selections from Emily Dickinson's poetry are reprinted by
permission of the publishers from The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed.
Thomas H. Johnson. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1955; and from The
Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson.
Copyright 1914, 1929, 1935, 1942 by Martha Dickinson Bianchi;
Copyright renewed 1957, 1963 by Mary L. Hampson. Reprinted by
permission of Little, Brown and Company.
Selections from Emily Dickinson's letters are reprinted by
permission of the publishers from The Letters of Emily Dickinson.
Ed. Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward. 3 Vols. Cambridge:
Harvard UP, 1958.














TABLE OF CONTENTS

page
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS ................................... ..... ..................... ii

A BBREV IA TIO N S ........................... ..... .................................................... v

A B ST R A C T ............................................ .......................................................... vi

CHAPTERS

1 INTRODUCTION .............................................................. ................. 1

T h esis ..... ................................... ......................................... .................. 1
O overview ............................ ...... ................................................. 12
Organization ............................................... ...................... 24
N otes ............................ ..... .............................................................. 29

2 DICKINSON'S PERSONAE ..................................... ................... 31

N otes ............................ ..... .............................................................. 69

3 THE LANGUAGE OF EVASION ...................... ................. 70

Notes ............................................. 109

4 NATURE REDEFINED .................................. ......................... 111

Notes ............................................. 148

5 CONCLUSION .......................................................... 150

W O RK S CITED ................................................. ............................. ........... 160

BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH ........................................................... 166













ABBREVIATIONS
The following texts of Emily Dickinson's poems and letters have
been used in this dissertation and will be cited by the abbreviations

listed in parentheses here.

The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. 3 Vols.
Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1955 (P); The Letters of Emily Dickinson.
Eds. Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward. 3 Vols. Cambridge:
Harvard UP, 1958 (L).













Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy

EMILY DICKINSON AND THE ART OF EVASION

By

Douglas Jon Forman

May, 1998

Chairman: Richard Brantley
Major Department: English

Emily Dickinson has long been saddled with a reputation that
hinders an honest appraisal of her poetry. She has been
characterized as an agoraphobic misfit, a lovelorn waif or, most
damaging, a raw, untutored poet whose genius is obvious but whose

craft is lacking. In Emily Dickinson and the Art of Evasion I argue,
conversely, that the way Dickinson presented herself and the way
she wrote combine to form a coherent strategy of dissent.

At the heart of my work is a reconception of evasion. I refute

canonical views that evasion necessarily connotes passivity, fearful

withdrawal, and surreptitious manipulation. Mindful that "evade"
stems from the Latin "evadere" which means to go out or walk, I
stress that Dickinson's evasiveness serves more positive aims:

intellectual expansion and reconnection with nature.

In chapter one, I show how Dickinson devises various selves both
to disrupt conventional expectations of a centered artistic voice, and








to experiment with different roles: the believer, the skeptic, the

spurned lover and the imperious queen. Refuting those that excuse

her poetry as debris from psychological trauma, I argue that

Dickinson carefully chose and established her multiple personae as

one part of a viable and courageous personal/artistic

phenomenology. The speakers in the letters and poems make sense

as art, even if they addle her critics.

In chapter two I illustrate how Dickinson's evasive techniques
bespeak a profound distaste for intellectual stagnation. In fact, she

manages to destroy the poem at the same time she is creating it,

poising herself for the next lyric adventure into the unknown.

In chapter three I explore Dickinson's fascination with transition
zones in nature: autumn, sunrise, and sunset. These examples of
organic evasion serve both as models for her verse (a sunset poem

may mimic the pace and evanescence of the sunset) and as
challenges: how does a poet render evasive moments without

compromising nature's mystery. Dickinson carefully balances her

need to speak with her contention that "true poems flee." The result

is the epitome of her evasive art.













CHAPTER 1
INTRODUCTION

Thesis
Poetry as a craft always entails, for Emily Dickinson, the
renunciation of naming--to the extent, indeed, that she questions the

validity of language altogether. This repeated questioning leads
ultimately to the "breakdown" at the end of the poem, where the

words end and a pregnant pause presages the world beyond
utterance. The truest poem, then, is that which is least like a poem:
"To see the Summer Sky / Is Poetry, though never in a book it lie-- /
True Poems flee--" (P 1472). In this truncated poem, Dickinson
stresses vision, claiming that the sight of the summer sky, rather
than one's verbal abstraction of it, is the true poem. To that end she
excises the description of the sky, and ends with the word "flee-" as
if the poet escaped from the poem into the silence of the summer

sky.
Dickinson still privileges the viewer/poet enough to give herself
the power of evaluation. After all, she could have simply said "the

Summer Sky is poetry," thereby obviating the need for a perceiver at
all. Instead, she claims that the act of viewing yields poetry. Thus

this poem manifests a paradox from which her evasive art springs:
she validates the role of the poet but limits the traditional scope of

her craft. In form and content, then, the poem inspires my definition








of her poetry; it requires the poet to silence herself in order to retain

the integrity of nature.

In deifying the remote, the unexplainable, and the yet to be
experienced, she succeeds in freeing her lyrics from traditional

landscape painting, but by adhering to her contention that the truest

poems are those not written, she questions the role of the poet as
singer. Like Frost's Oven Bird she "knows in singing not to sing" (12),

and the result is a movement towards silence, represented by the
greater brevity of the later poems.'
Even as we finally unburden Dickinson from a century-long
stereotype as an American Miss Havisham, scholarship continues to
bear the residue of biographical speculation. Critics display a
renewed focus on the poems, but many have merely superimposed
or projected the sensational aspects of her life on the art: they
assume the poetry reflects the agoraphobic abnormalities they find
in her life. Despite Dickinson's insistence that she endeavored to
write poems that "flee," her evasiveness constitutes, for most

readers, either a failure of execution or post-modern dislocation.
They will not concede that--to paraphrase Marianne Moore--these
omissions are no accident and, moreover, that Dickinson's new

reticence is the healing tissue that reconnects her to a world from

which inherited language alienated her.

Any criticism that attempts to resurrect T. S. Eliot's claim that
great poetry stems from "a continual extinction of personality" (53) is

neolithic. I find, in fact, a fruitful synergy between Dickinson's

personality and her poetry, and I encourage critics to approach her

life and letters as integral aspects of her art. I object, however, to








those who have generated crippling cause-and-effect theories that

skew her poetry by psychological maimings. Such approaches that
excavate specific traumas to explain the poems alienate readers from

what they are told is an aberrant artistic expression, and deflect
attention from the powerful linguistic strategies that could reshape

their own lives. Yes, Dickinson's life and verse are evasive, these

critics claim, but they invoke only negative, even pathological
connotations of the word.

John Cody is the most renowned progenitor of this reductive

theory. He claims "the profoundly disordered undercurrent one
senses in the life moves also through the poetry. Desolation,
hopelessness, and a fierce and frustrated longing arise from nearly
every page" (23). Cody earmarks an unsatisfying mother-daughter
relationship as the genesis for Dickinson's "ravenous search for
affection" that "saturate[s] the poetry and the letters" (39).
Suzanne Juhasz castigates Cody for "wreak[ing] havoc with the
context and content of her life and art," and for claiming that
Dickinson's failure as a woman led her to the "compensatory act of
poetry" (Introduction 4). Cody's assumption that her artistic

elusiveness and experimentation are subconscious expressions of
profound gender confusion misrepresents, according to Juhasz, the

optimistic and intentional nature of her artistic strategy; Dickinson's
decision to be an evasive poet was quite natural and understandable
given the "sex roles available to her" (Introduction 4).

Some have approached Dickinson with the assumption that

evasion, to cite the initial dictionary definition, is "an act or instance

of escaping, avoiding, or shirking something" (Random House 671).








Thomas Higginson, her earliest critic, found a "spasmodic" quality in

her verse which would hinder public consumption (L 265). New

Critics obsessed with establishing canons and keeping score, found it
difficult to rate a body of verse lacking in titles, thematic divisions

and dates (Blackmur 25-50; Anderson). Denis Donoghue dubbed her

mainly an epigrammatic poet whose poems habitually started with a

strong couplet, but finished weakly:

Where a poem has two or three stanzas, the first
is invariably the one that does the work, the others
tend to peter out or to dribble away as if the energy
leaked. She was in trouble whenever some little
thing had to be amplified, developed, teased. (123-24)
His condescension is obvious, as is his assumption that great poetry
must be amplified and developed. He assumes the shortness and
evanescence of her lyrics was a reflection of her inability to sustain
or develop an argument rather than a conscious choice of genre and

style. Donoghue revives the prejudice under which writers of lyric
poetry have always labored.
Margaret Dickie claims the lyric was a publically degraded form

in the nineteenth century because "it was regarded as insufficient to
express the new country" (7). She adds that the tendency "to judge
the greatness of a work by the greatness of its theme and length .

lingers in twentieth-century tastes as well" (7).

Donoghue, Blackmur, and Anderson censure Dickinson for
avoiding her responsibility as a poet to harness her creative fury,
regularize her music or, in Donoghue's criticism, to create essay-like

poems that evince seamless development of theme. Dickinson's

formal elusiveness, however, does not stem from a want of skill, as





5

these men suggest. I will argue that Dickinson intentionally practices

these stylistic innovations to evade limitation and expand the scope

of art.

Robert Weisbuch and David Porter believe Dickinson's evasion
constitutes "physical and mental escape" (Random House 671).

Weisbuch highlights a "sceneless" quality to her poems, a negative

landscape stripped of all sense of place (Dickinson 19). David Porter,
too, finds a language unhinged from reality, which reflects a

solipsistic and thus modern mind. I agree with Porter and Weisbuch
that this evasive Dickinson is germane, but I question Porter's

assertion that her evasion represents a state of confusion resulting
from a finless mind which sought no anchor in contemporary thought
or institutions; and Weisbuch, though correctly identifying
Dickinson's disinclination to provide the reader with traditional
scenic description, concludes that the poet found factual worlds

unsatisfying and strove to inhabit a cloistered poetic one of her
making: metaphors as bedfellows, so to speak. Porter feels her
evasion represents radical modernism. She eschews order, coherence,
closure and affirmation, he says, because she understood the futility

of such desires. He views evasion as an absence of a "life-centering
angle of vision" and as merely the "chatter of word play" (25).

Porter's simple diagnosis that a spurned Dickinson finds comfort
in the mind misjudges the outward reach and vision of her evasive

program. Porter fails to realize that Dickinson's purpose is to avoid
those dreaded "noons"--periods of intellectual and emotional stasis

that forbid progression. Porter's catastrophe theories about

Dickinson's poetics obscure the playfulness of this poet who uses








evasion to widen her physical and mental circumference, and thus to

affirm connections with nature.

These conclusions do not adequately explain a Dickinson whose

evasiveness is celebratory and inquisitive. Again, Weisbuch's and

Porter's readings bear the residue of Dickinson's biographical

stereotype; because she chose domestic seclusion, they assume her

poems register a distaste for a physical existence. Dickinson's

immersion in her natural world is more intense than a cursory

reading of the poems suggest. Evasion signals an effort to reconnect

the language of poetry to its origins in nature.

Several prominent critics have offered tidy dualisms in order to
"solve" Dickinson's poetry. To them her ambiguity is merely

traditional. Albert Gelpi locates in the poetry a half-pagan

faithfulness to the self, balanced by a longing for Christian belief
(91). Likewise Weisbuch suggests a similar "double consciousness"

comprised of equal parts transcendental bard and wounded outcast

(Dickinson 117). But Dickinson is more than a poet in stereo. She

moves, questions, and doubts, in order to avoid complacency or

acceptance of any one voice as truth. So successful is she at

undermining her own fictions that her constructs become no

constructs at all; the poem vanishes rather than adheres to

statement.

Gary Stonum views Dickinson's evasion as purposeful, yet argues

that her resistance to coherence is a premeditated strategy to lure

the reader into a co-creative role with the poet.2 Does Dickinson seem

quite so preoccupied with audience?








True, she sent poems to friends, but the inclusion of a poem in a

letter was not always a personal act (Shurr). Dickinson often sent the

same poem to more than one friend; thus her aim seems to disrupt
even the context of the poem, to sever all interrelations, and to allow

the poem to "flee" so to speak. I believe this practice extends to her

imagined audience as well. Stonum's "cutting edge" assessment of

Dickinson is really no different from Gelpi's or Weisbuch's. He sees a
romantic poet undermining her pretensions to immortality with a

realist's sense of limitations.
If not for the twenty-year restoration of Dickinson by feminist
critics, she might still be judged by these decidedly masculine
standards of creative success.3 Juhasz argues for an approach that
sees Dickinson's gender as a positive factor that engendered
"enormous achievements;" critics should assume that "her actions

make sense and that her actions and her poetry are related in a way
that also makes sense as well as art" (Introduction 2). Finally, all
positive and constructive Dickinson criticism stems from Juhasz's
following credo: "Dickinson's life was neither a flight, nor a cop-out,

nor a sacrifice, nor a substitution, but a strategy, a creation, for
enabling her to be the person she was" (Introduction 10). She was a
person who, according to Cristanne Miller, "attempts to build up the

possibilities of personal choice and control in her poems" (Critics

134).
All too often, however, feminist critics have forgotten Juhasz's
dictum, focusing instead on the poet's defiance and social handicaps--

her outsider status--rather than on the revolutionary aesthetics.

Joanne Feit Diehl echoes Porter's worries that Dickinson's poems are








"potentially dangerous and dangerously modern" because they

"speak repeatedly of a dislocation that neither depends upon nor

assumes a ground of common or shared experience" (Critics 163).

Like Porter, she frets about the negative aspects of this isolation.

Feminist criticism, too, gleans sustenance from those poems that
can be construed to have narrative roots. This trend funnels

attention toward a small portion of Dickinson's work and treats
poetry as if it were autobiographical prose.4 Granted, these poems

were ignored by New Critics who found confessional poetry
distasteful; feminist critics are justified in retrieving them. However,
by hunting down those poems that are ostensibly gender related,
feminists have contributed to a different kind of fragmentation of

Dickinson's work. Sandra M. Gilbert investigates the poems to
confront "the mystery of absence, the gap that haunts Dickinson's
own account of her life" (Critics 42), while Adalaide Morris is
compelled to discuss Dickinson's poems about love in the context of
her personal relationships with Susan Gilbert Dickinson and the
unknown "Master" (Critics 98-113). Stephanie Tingley discusses

poems from the Dickinson-Elizabeth Holland correspondence to gloss
Victorian gender conventions (195). Joanne Dobson suggests that

Dickinson's elliptical strategies emanate from a need to "address

proscribed areas of women's personal experience" (xvi). Such
inquiries subordinate the dynamics of language to a narrative of

gender empowerment.

Understandably, feminist criticism assumes a woman poet's
estrangement from the dominant cultural trends. But if Dickinson's

art is solely or primarily explained by social estrangement from








religious, national, or gender issues, we miss the phenomenological

rebellion, the restructuring of perception that underlies her historical
iconoclasm. Elaine Millard regrets that feminist criticism calcifies a
misleading stereotype about the woman poet: "She is a poor,
crazed creature, either abandoned or ignored by men, who turns to
writing as a last means of expressing frustration and rage at the
limited nature of her existence" (67). Millard adds that Dickinson's
expansion of the parameters of language is more important to
feminism than "the myth of seclusion, renunciation and loss" (73).
Therefore, though I remain indebted to feminist criticism, I
pursue an understanding of how Dickinson's language operates
regardless of subject matter. If she challenges nineteenth-century
gender codes, it is merely one ramification of her overarching desire
to expand the possibilities of poetic speech. Ironically, Dickinson
remains accessible to a wide range of sensibilities because she
practiced a continual reshaping of expression. To argue that this
unrest is linked to any specific rebellion contradicts her efforts.
Current theories display a post-feminist concern with the way
Dickinson's language works in all of her poems. Margaret Dickie
focuses on the lyric "I" to show Dickinson is the proponent of the
"unaccountable surplus" (19) that cannot fit into the nineteenth

century's available molds. Jane Eberwein argues that Dickinson
practices a "strategy of limitation" where she exaggerates the
restraints upon her speakers as a springboard to expansion (45).
Sharon Cameron finds purposeful evasion in both the fascicle
bindings of Dickinson's poems and in the poet's refusal to choose
among variant words. These writers enhance our understanding of








the poetry by seeng a sense of purpose in the evasiveness, beyond
mere escapism.
Another trend in Dickinson scholarship has issued from those
critics who have attempted to counter reductive theory by
excavating Dickinson's foundations in Victorian culture. Barton Levi
St. Armand and Judith Farr epitomize this type of salvage job, the
former focusing on the poet's participation in Victorians' fascination
with death, and the latter stressing connections between Dickinson
and the luminist painters of the period.
As much as I sympathize with the impulse of these studies--to
rescue Dickinson from those who see her as a rather depressing, self-
involved proto-modernist--I still claim, first, that profound changes
in nineteenth-century American society--the Civil War, growing
industrialism, immigration--received scant attention in her poems
and letters and, secondly, that for all the purported cultural referents
in a Dickinson poem, there is still a relentless effort on the author's
part not only to hide these connections, but also to avoid nineteenth-
century poetic practices and conventions altogether. Her half-hearted
participation in her culture and her studied avoidance of nineteenth-
century poetic forms evince a rebellious mind.
Dickinson of course could not help absorbing some shards of the
fractured culture, but any work that claims she celebrates Victorian
art is flawed. Could Dickinson have digested the tidy moralism of
Thomas Cole's "Voyage of Life" Series, as Farr states? In this famous
quartet of paintings by the luminist master, which metaphorically
depict a man's life through his journey from inland river to sea,
Cole's voyager glides safely through the waters of childhood with his








guardian angel, faces the joy of adolescence and the trials of

manhood alone, and is again joined by the guiding spirit in old age,

showing him the way to heaven. The symmetry and typology is neat

and clean: nature is a lush paradise for the child, an endless vista for

the youth, a foreboding maelstrom for the adult, and a pathway to

heaven for the time-worn man in old age.

Not only are Dickinson's natural metaphors less rigidly consistent
with our moods, her use of the sailor/sea metaphor, though frequent,

habitually leaves the spiritual quester awash in uncertainty, gaining
neither the final harbor of an embracing heaven, nor some
intermediary fellowship with other castaways. In her mind nature
can be hostile, or at best, indifferent to human experience, just as
likely beautiful when we suffer and dark when we celebrate. Even a
cursory reading of the popular "Because I Could not stop for death"
(not a sea poem, but the record of a journey, nonetheless) shows the
fundamental breach between Dickinson and the linear thinking of
Cole and other Victorian moralists. Unlike Cole's journeyer, who
survives the tempest-tossed waters of life to arrive in the hands of

ascending angels, the speaker in poem 712 submits to a carriage ride
toward immortality only to be cruelly delivered to her graveside and

the purgatorial awareness of her distance from God. Therefore, the

poet avoids Cole's tidy conclusion and concurrently manifests the
prime aspect of her poetry: evasion. Her protagonists are always left
questioning, searching, stripping and negating; the world they see is

in motion, and the poems themselves follow suit, reforming and

nearly disappearing before the reader.








Overview

Dickinson's poems generally register a hopefulness about the art

of evasion:

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant--
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind-- (P 1129)

Echoes of Emerson's "Circles" abound in this poem as Dickinson
asserts, ironically, that success (mainly she hopes to "succeed" the

reign of earnest Victorian truth-tellers) lies in being unassertive or
circuitous. The whole poem is a play on light and dark, but, as she

does in many of her other poems, the poet advocates darkness, with

only provisional forays into the truth. Thus Dickinson contradicts

Christian typology, traditional poetic rhetoric, and even the luminist

painters with whom Judith Farr links the poet, by shunning

illumination for salubrious confusion. We are all like children in that

our ability to receive enlightenment is faulty. We are flawed

receptacles. ("Delight" stands for our capacity to absorb light, which

Dickinson calls "infirm.") Lightning is an apt metaphor because it

reveals, especially at night, a hidden, secret world, but only briefly.

In the full light of day objects lose their power to enthrall, and we

become jaded and complacent about creation. To avoid the blindness

stemming from over-familiarity, we court the sporadic revelation of

lightning and cultivate selective blindness or indirection, as Dickinson

does in her poetry. We may glean a hint of subjectivity from the

word "slant," as the speaker suggests the perceiver must present the








world according to her own bias or impression which, though indirect
and thus evasive, is preferable to any doctrine.
Formally, this poem displays the techniques Dickinson habitually
uses to express evasion for the sake of possibility. We have the
telltale dashes but in this case only two, following "slant" and "blind."
The economy and placement suggest the promise and potential of an
imagination that gives reign to its peculiar bias and that ironically
chases the truth by deliberately refusing to "see" as others do. She
fittingly brings the reader not to heightened vision, but to enabling
blindness at the end. We are in effect those "children" left in the dark
to ponder the nature of light. She tries to undo even her emphatic
statement about the necessity of indirection in the first four lines by
suggesting in the second that telling it slant may be no more
powerful than a fib we conjure to placate a child's fear. She even
doubts the efficacy of doubting.
Too many critics miss the playfulness, irony and perpetual
refashioning that characterize a typical Dickinson poem. Farr, for
example, attempts to portray her as an artist in words who, like her
artistic contemporaries, saw great fame to be earned from replicating
nature's wonders; but far from being a mere copier, Dickinson
instead hopes to represent breakdown and change. In poem 307, she
chides the artist who courts immortality by remaining true to the
mimetic impulse:


The One who could repeat the Summer day--
Were greater than itself--though He
Minutest of Mankind should be--








And He--could reproduce the Sun--
At period of going down--
The Lingering--and the Stain--I mean--

When Orient have been outgrown--
And Occident--become Unknown--
His Name--remain--

Farr seems to take Dickinson at her word in this poem, claiming that
"on most occasions Dickinson's painter (or painter-poet) is more than

equal to the challenge of replicating, and thus honoring creation"

(260). Paraphrasing Dickinson she continues, "If the artist can

replicate a sunset his or her name will remain" (260).

Unfortunately Farr misses the complex web of sexual metaphors

in this poem which contradict the rather conventional reading she

offers. Had Farr explored the ramifications for Dickinson (and for this

poem in particular) of her remark that nineteenth-century landscape

painters viewed the sunset as "the emblem of the sublime, of passion

and terror joined in one awful moment" (260), she might have seen

that this poem represents the failure of the poet to reproduce (with)

nature. The poem begins with the singular poet (he) attempting to

dominate, impregnate or fertilize nature with his phallic imagination,

thereby creating a reproduction that contains elements, we presume,

of both the real sunset and the artist's imagination. The words
"reproduce," "stain," "period" and the phrase "going down" all suggest

a sexual subtext for what the artist attempts. Despite his efforts,

however, we see in the middle stanza nature's rejection of the artist's

seed represented by the bleeding out (the "period" and the "stain") or

symbolic menstruation of the sun as it "goes down." Nature proves

that her cycle is indifferent to the artist's desires; she does not need








his contribution to reproduce. "And He--could reproduce the Sun--"
but does not do so in any genuinely mimetic sense. In the end she is
"Unknown" to the artist (to "know" someone can mean to experience
sexual intercourse with that person), and he is left in isolation at the
end of the poem, just as he was in the beginning. Dickinson
underscores this point with the false note and truncated ending of
the last line, as if the artist is in the process of disappearing just as
she asserts his permanence. And though she does paint sunsets in
other poems, in this one she refrains from offering a reproduction,
reaffirming that any attempt would be both spurious and futile. In
this poem, one plus one equals one, or less than that, as the poet and
poem disappear so that Nature can speak for herself, and even she
flees.
This is a poem about reduction as power, but it also reflects on
the enduring tension between the American writer and the myth of a
virgin landscape.5 Farr historicizes Dickinson's artist as merely
another masculine subduer of nature. Dickinson confronts the blank
canvas hoping to "produce" a poem while preserving the unknowable
and essential wildness of nature. We outgrew the social and
intellectual trappings of Europe (the "Orient") and fled to the
unknown "Occident" but ruthlessly attempted to dilute the elixir that
healed our imperial scars in the first place. Dickinson alludes to our
expansionist history both to proclaim herself an intellectual
frontierswoman, and more importantly to separate herself from
those who believe the pathway to knowledge is through domination.
Dickinson would not have us master and recreate nature but








(representing a Native-American sensitivity) preserve its majesty
through experience and understanding.

Dickinson's main impulse is not to assert the power and authority
of the poet by establishing herself as a consistent interpretive
presence exuding wisdom and knowledge; instead, the astute reader

acknowledges Dickinson's ambivalence toward the persona of the
master poet as it is traditionally understood. Her tendency is to find

comfort and a deceptive power in poems where the perceiver is

limited or obviated in favor of a silence which convinces us of the
elusiveness of nature and identity. In fact, the poet's identity
dissipates with the poem because we can find no center, no

affirmation but the fact of evasion. Dickinson achieves her goal, then,
not exactly Emersonian transcendence but immersion, fluidity, and
ebb.

I must stress that this purposeful and provocative negation,
which invites comparison to Herman Melville's Bartleby, Ken Kesey's
Chief Bromden and Wallace Stevens's Snowman, is a grand gesture of
reduction, more sublime than any quick sprint to the truth. Just as
Bartleby forsakes copying to accomplish the one original, creative act
of his life (his own death), the speakers in Dickinson's poems disrupt
through evasion by preferring not to establish consistent identities.

Margaret Dickie claims these speakers "are always in process,
moving, and struck by the discontinuity of their experience" (9).

What Dickinson stresses, according to Dickie, with the poet's refusal
to pursue narrative self-development, is the "profligacy of the

individual" (171). Dickinson thereby contradicts the conception of a

representative self posited by Emerson and Whitman and thus








articulates "a sense of the open-endedness of identity that twentieth-

century philosophers were to posit ." (171).

Dickinson always feared that the written word could diminish the
wonder of the world and the electricity of affection. As early as her

late teens she only grudgingly submitted to traditional epistolary

practice, finding it hindered authentic communication:

I have written you a great many letters since you left
me--not the kind of letters that go in post-offices--
and ride in mail bags--but queer--little silent ones--
very full of affection--and full of confidence--but
wanting in proof to you--therefore not valid--
somehowyou will not answer them--and you would
paper, and inkletters--I will try one of those--tho' not
half so precious as the other kind. I have written those
at night--when the rest of the world were at sleep--
whenonly God came between us--and no one else
might hear. (L 81)
In this letter to her friend, Jane Humphrey, we witness the birth of
an evasive poet who justifies her later use of unique poetic themes
and formal techniques. Dickinson affirms that the true letter, which
embodies the visceral emotion she feels for her friend, must remain
unwritten, because any formal attempt at communication involves
editing or a lack of "confidence" on the part of the author. The halting

or "spasmodic" gait of this letter suggests the insufficiency of paper
and ink as the author struggles to transform nighttime epiphanies

into a more vulgar daytime prose. Poems are tainted when they
become merely another act of production.

Dickinson's claim that she had "written" these invisible letters to

Humphrey, also reflects a radical, anti-formalist notion of poetry
which she incorporates into her written work. Authorship includes

the intense love and longing Dickinson feels for her friend this night.








One's feeling is a poem, the most authentic and precious; therefore,

she will never try to over-explain or ornately orchestrate a poem

when excision can create the open spaces necessary for the
preservation of the precious emotional distillate that might be lost in

an earnest, direct, yet diffuse entreaty. Dickinson will not be silent,

but she shows that the evasiveness of her poems can, with only a
small diminishment, proclaim the overwhelming splendor and

disabling despair commingled in her experience of life. Thus her

short, evasive poems reveal the surfeit of meaning and emotion that
cannot be contained in language.
Unable to rely on formless, spiritual communication, an evasive
poet must satisfy herself with the telling of diluted pen and ink "lies"
in order to arrive at the truth. For Dickinson, the telling of lies, which
for her is writing poems, is one way to combat the entrenched
notions of truth which society holds sacred. Melvyn New discusses
this concept of "lying" and shows how it operates on both a cultural
and personal level. Taking a historical approach, New calls the notion

of an "intervening God" (9) only one of the lies we have told
ourselves. This lie has been superseded by the modern lie that

people are autonomous. Dickinson wrote at a time when those two
fictions were juxtaposed--belief in a controlling deity giving way to

belief in the autonomous God-like man of Stevens and Nietzsche. Her
poems become crucial fictions which attack the lie of an intervening
God, but refuse to accept the next cultural lie--the divinity of the

human imagination. Dickinson's poems alternately expose both lies,
never finding nor ever wanting to find the "unifying construct" (17)
New feels is an important organizing principle for any society.








New calls himself a "contrarian," preferring to "hover between

contradictory attitudes and tendencies" (9), rather than to embrace

one lie or another. He quotes Nietzsche in confirmation: "We negate

and must negate because something in us wants to affirm--

something that we do not know or see as yet" (23). Dickinson, too, is

a contrarian, revealing social lies by telling her own "lies" or poems--

fictions not necessarily dedicated to discovering any "unifying

vision." Dickinson is, to adopt a phrase from New, "always within the

lie (or play of lies), forever separated from whatever 'truth' we tell

to the next generation ." (17).

In "Circles," Emerson uses the word "abandonment" to describe
"the way of life" (178) that he follows. Dickinson underscores the

pleasure and pain to be gained from a life spent evading social and
artistic constraints, but she prefers to use the term "renunciation."

Formatted as one of her many "definition" poems, poem 745 keeps

redefining itself throughout, and the reader understands that
"renunciation" is a perpetual and nearly sacred habit:

Renunciation--is a piercing Virtue--
The letting go
A Presence--for an Expectation--
Not now--
The putting out of Eyes--
Just Sunrise--
Lest Day--
Day's Great Progenitor--
Outvie
Renunciation--is the Choosing
Against itself--
Itself to justify--
Unto itself--
When larger function--
Make that appear--
Smaller--that Covered Vision--Here--








Cynthia Griffin Wolff understandably reads this poem in a religious

context, making comparisons between the speaker's rejection of the

world and the abnegation of the saints. The "putting out of Eyes"

represents for her a "self mutilation," because by rejecting the world,
the saint/speaker has embraced "God's categories, which allow for

very little choice at all" (190). When one reads the poem narrowly

and tragically as a poem of emotional masochism however, one
misses Dickinson's insistence that renunciation in all forms is a

prelude to a new category--the "Covered Vision" enjoyed not only by
God and the saints, but also by the poet as well, if she dedicates
herself to avoiding conventional ways of seeing and naming and
instead creates poems as stripped of self-indulgence as are the lives
of saints.

Wolff claims Dickinson professed an unusual appetite for sight.6
Because of a breakdown in communication between the young Emily
and her mother, the poet becomes a visual glutton, one who displays
an "obsessive preoccupation with communication by seeing" and
"clamors for a kind of relationship that is primarily and essentially

visual" (55). I agree that "Dickinson's language of vision eclipses by

its frequency any other verbal pattern" (55), but Wolff fails to see
that infused in Dickinson's visual thirst is a fundamental

disinclination to slake it. Her true stimulant is the expectation of
vision, not vision itself, and thus she goes to great lengths to

maintain visual deprivation. For example, Dickinson uses letters as a
form of distancing, and prefers them over the many opportunities for

direct interview. She wrote many impassioned letters to Sue Gilbert

and other close neighbors bemoaning the lack of contact, but the








mixed heaven and hell of being apart inspired her more than a short

walk across the lawn to her brother's house.

The first three lines of the poem serve to encapsulate her
universal distaste for the finite, and the following words, "Not now,"

stand alone with solemn power, an admonition the speaker makes to

herself to avoid the comfort of supplied knowledge and worldly

vision. The phrase is both a promise of greater insight to come and
an embrace of the lost present. Thus, renunciation is "piercing" in

contradictory ways. An abstemious life is obviously painful--living
without physical indulgence can pierce one with grief and sadness.
More tantalizing to the poet, however, is the hope that renunciation
can be used to pierce or penetrate the border that separates the
quotidian and the spiritual.
This positive piercing includes the "putting out of Eyes." On the
surface, the meaning seems to be this: do not lustfully fixate on the
physical world (the sunrise, symbol of earthly beginnings), because
the pleasures of nature will seduce you into an acceptance of the
natural world as the final reality, a good in itself. The eyes do not

yield the vision necessary for eternity and the resurrection. Perhaps
one unfamiliar with Dickinson's poems would accept this reading, and

Wolffs analogy between renunciation and the saints makes it

plausible. Dickinson, however, never indulges in obsequious piety,
relinquishing her voice to the control of her Creator. On the contrary,
she is a battler, habitually deriding God and his indiscriminate

displays of love and cruelty. In the context of this poem, "the putting

out of Eyes" represents a rejection of our tendency to freeze
experience and label it. We view the beginning of day and call it








"sunrise," a tragic diminution of the actual event. The speaker does

not face a choice, as an ascetic would, of whether to worship God or

the sunrise; instead, the choice is between a mode of seeing that is

satisfied with "sunrise" and one which attempts a better

understanding of the dawn, stripped of its conventional labels, what

Wallace Stevens would call the "idea of the sun" ("Notes Toward a

Supreme Fiction" 3).

Dickinson often puns on the sounds of words, and the embedded
homonyms, "I's" and "ayes," affirm, on the one hand, that to earn

"covered vision" one must starve the ego, and on the other, that

negation as a mantra is actually an affirmation. Dickinson spent her

life saying "no" in her poetry, and exploring negative states of the

psyche; this leads many readers to construe her as a morbid poet

with a fascination and yearning for death.

But as this poem shows, these deaths are mainly symbolic
preludes to an anticipated higher state of consciousness. The speaker

hopes for a second sight that can only come into focus after the ritual

killing of the conventionally configured self burdened with a

jaundiced eye and a gluttonous appetite. She will speak a different

language, forgetting the one that left the creations of the world dry

and bloodless on the page. She does not call this new beginning

sunrise; instead, she fittingly refuses to name the spiritual dawn,

calling it simply "that Covered Vision," an oxymoron which suggests

that this symbolic death is both a loss of earthly sight and a

beginning of another kind of vision. The cryptic ending of the poem,

typical of Dickinson's compacted style, witnesses the speaker

accepting and beckoning to the expected reward for a life of








renunciation. Thus the poem brings us from the "Not Now" to the

"here"--to the portal of awakening. Dickinson's renunciation, then, is

an evasive technique that transforms sacrifice into dynamic

possibility.

Dickinson's force stems not only from her insistence on the

process of evasion but equally from her attempt to create a poetics of

evasion. Poets have continually touted the revolutionary potential of

a poem, but few have committed themselves to formal and

ideological trailblazing. Dickinson, however, confidently and

consistently forged her own language amid constant pressure from

friends to write more coherently and lyrically. Even at the age of 21,

she answers her brother Austin's paternalistic suggestion that she
write more simply with a highly sarcastic rejoinder:

you say you don't comprehend me, you want a simpler
style. Gratitude indeed for all my fine philosophy! .
As simple as you please, the simplest sort of simple--
I'll be a little ninny--a little pussy catty, a little Red
Riding Hood, I'll wear a bee in my Bonnet, and a Rose
bud in my hair, and what remains to do you shall be
told hereafter. (L 117)

Her stress on "little" represents both her frustration at being shut up

in prose, and a determined decision to thwart Austin by ironically

heeding his advice. Brilliantly, Dickinson parlayed smallness, excision

and compactness into a tremendous force--a deceptively complex

simplicity.

The progress of a Dickinson poem is never linear, but elliptical,

looping back to question its own rhetoric, then doubting the question.

She enforces Emerson's directive to "draw a new circle" (178). At the

end, the poem remains unsettled and thus evasive. Therefore, the








"failures" of her style are actually victories over the mundane and
the formulaic.

Poem 745 perfectly illustrates the confluence of evasive form and
evasive subject. At the beginning of the poem, renunciation is called

a virtue, a static thing, a noun. The infinitive, "to renounce," can be
read as giving up the noun, and the poet does just that, changing the
static "virtue" into a more active phrase--"the Choosing/Against
itself--" In fact the whole process of the poem is one of renunciation,
as Dickinson forsakes each proclamation for a new one. In essence,
the second half is a new poem, a rewriting of the first where
renunciation becomes more of a constant discipline than an abstract
"virtue." Because life is in motion, this new way of recording hopes to

render the world faithfully, renouncing presence for movement. She
so compacts the end of the poem and speaks so haltingly that we
approach the ultimate evasion or renunciation: the giving up of the
poem altogether in favor of "Covered Vision."

Organization
Thankfully, Dickinson's poetry is not only the province of
academic critics. Her art has been liberated, its vitality restored, by a
popular culture that refuses to accede to the theories of a Porter or a
Cody. References to Dickinson's poetry are appearing in middle-brow
culture with surprising frequency, unencumbered by the old

baggage. Julip, the protagonist of Jim Harrison's novella, uses the
collected poems as her personal Bible, randomly selecting a poem for
spiritual guidance. Ruby, in the film Ruby in Paradise, finds similar
solace in the poems. That both of these fictional characters are
women bespeaks a residual gender prejudice--that Dickinson is








essentially a women's poet--but any popular fiction which lauds her
language instead of citing her unique personal history is welcome.

Her grounding in popular culture bolsters my claim that evasion is
reconnective, not irresponsibly hermetic.
Therefore, I am convinced that people are returning to the poetry
instead of to the recluse, because she challenges us in ways her
contemporaries do not. Harold Bloom, designates Dickinson as not
only central to American literature, but as one of the twenty-six
most significant writers in western history (Canon). This new surge
of interest in the poet has occurred even though there are a host of
more easily digestible American writers. Ralph Waldo Emerson's
unruffled optimism should certainly appeal to late twentieth-century
polyannas wishing to avoid the troubles of our age. Thoreau will
always be the isolatoe's hero as well as the sage of any grass-roots
environmental movement. Big-hearted humanitarians and
democratic inclusionists will find "Song of Myself" a suitable anthem.
And Robert Frost's folksy intelligence and natural metaphors (though
they belie a more complex consciousness than is commonly
understood) will always be more comfortable for those adults whose
last excursion into poetry was in college or high school.
So if Dickinson does not lead us to Walden, the transparent
eyeball, a new America, or down the "road not taken," where does
she lead us? She beckons us into the labyrinth of the art of evasion.
The obfuscating residue that encrusts this term needs to be scraped
off, for beneath it is a root from which Dickinson's poetry stems.
Evasion comes from the Latin "evadere" (Random House 670),
meaning to go out, or walk, and it is this connotation of expansion








that coincides with Dickinson's language of circumference, not the

escapist caricatures that often accompany the term.

In his most radical essay, "Circles," Emerson cautions the reader

not to "set the least value on what I do, or the least discredit on what

I do not, as if I pretended to settle any thing as true or false. I

unsettle all things. No facts are to me sacred; none are profane; I

simply experiment, an endless seeker with no past at my back"

(176). Though Emerson is most often identified with self-reliance and

with his cry for representative men to lead a young America, a

radical idea has always suffused his work: that one's identity

displays a relentless mutability and indeed that inertia is a truth-

corrupting crutch. Yet always the optimist, Emerson rarely explored

the ramifications of his ethos of contradiction, instead clinging

desperately to "some principle of fixture or stability in the soul"

(176). He did not seem willing to confront the prospect of a rootless

self wandering amidst a random and indifferent universe. Emily

Dickinson confronted that very prospect, and she even relished the

confrontation.

Dickinson, as Dickie claims, disrupted many of the tenets of

Emerson's transcendentalism.7 But Dickinson valued Emerson, and

though she did not share his public concerns, she does, in many

ways, fulfill his requirements for a "circular philosopher" (176),

surpassing him in the extent to which she unsettles her readers with

her radical poetics and feminine notion of an uncentered self.

My contention, and the focus of this work, is that Emily Dickinson

strove to accomplish in poetry the endless experimentation and

avoidance of fixity which Emerson recommended in "Circles," that all








of the stylistic irregularities which many critics have seen as faults

or proof of an inferior maker are instead masterful techniques of this

poetics of evasion. Dickinson profoundly refigures the way an artist
represents the world. Though she practices many evasive techniques.

I divide my discussion of Dickinson's evasion into three broad

categories.

In chapter two, I examine the astounding array of speakers
Dickinson presents in her poetry and in her letters and I discover an

eccentricity of character that yields a concept of self more radical
than mere complexity. Though she presents a case for the
multifarious self through the many voices she creates and through
the roles she plays, ultimately what she persuades us of is the
unreliability of character in any guise. One of Dickinson's evasive
strategies, then, is to dissolve any trace of identity in her writing. An
individual letter or poem might register several voices whose atonal

collision transmutes into a harmonic destabilization of identity. We
hear the symphony, not the individual instruments. Her friends

(mostly men) habitually voiced their frustration with her vocal
range. Higginson said he was glad "not to live near her" (L 476), and
when she was young her brother Austin told her to tone down her

chorus of voices. Dickinson recognized her society as a force that

craved emotionless regularity, but rather than create a palatable
Emily for polite society, she chose to shatter social limitations
through lyric expansion.

In chapter three, I show how the structure and form of her

poetry, in conjunction with her radical speakers, form a deliberate
strategy of dissent. Donoghue believes Dickinson cannot write a long








poem, or use specific language well. But her poems do not end

weakly; instead, they represent a world that is forever avoiding

human attempts to know it. Dickinson educates us by leading the

reader from concrete statement or image toward either a negation of

statement or a blurring of the image. We may wish to believe the

world is immutable and reliable, that traditions and institutions

retain their mythic power eternally, but Dickinson not only questions

verities thematically but stylistically--the "breakdown" of the poem

is a conscious strategy to represent a world in flux. Dickinson's choice

of the lyric is not one of genre by default; she eschews the long poem

because, unlike the lyric, it requires limitation through consistent

character, plot and narrative closure. The excision of Dickinson's style

and the relative brevity of the lyric are actually the perfect tools to

represent an uncentered self and world. Critical rhetoric that

describes her as self-limiting is not quite accurate. Therefore, I see in

Dickinson's poems a strategy, apparent in every word choice or

unique punctuation, to enhance possibility.

In chapter four, I show how Dickinson's evasiveness extends to

the natural world she represents in her poems. Dickinson is not in

flight from the "real" world. Her powerful and abiding interest in

nature and her love for her friends and family show someone with

an outward vision, not a tortured recluse. And what she saw was a

world in flux, electric, tumultuous and infinitely hued. Understanding

the discoveries of modern geology (Sewall), Dickinson was the first

poet who attempts to render the world of Darwin in poetry, a world

of swiftly metamorphosizing particles and evolving forms. She

labored to create a poetics and a language that would represent the








world more accurately, that would be more than blandly mimetic-

picturesque. Dickinson's poems are more realistic, because in their

sceneless, mercurial way, they mimic a world in flux. Describing

sunrises, sunsets, seasonal changes, and birds in flight, requires a

more sophisticated style if one is to "capture" movement. Dickinson's

evasive art culminates in poems where the elusive speaker confronts

an equally slippery nature and attempts (or deigns) to represent it.

Notes

1 Not only does an individual Dickinson lyric evanesce, the sum of
her poems evince a trend toward self-silencing. One could argue that
the short, later lyrics represent a poet past her creative peak. I
believe, however, that she simply adhered to her evasive program.

2 The reader's role is more accurately a co-destructive one.
Dickinson coaxes the reader back to unmediated experience itself.
See Robert McClure Smith, The Seductions of Emily Dickinson
(Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1996) for Dickinson's effects on the
reader. Smith says "Dickinson's is an aesthetics of frustration: the
potential for reader enchantment is in precise relation to that
reader's inability to attain the satiated fulfillment of his or her
hermeneutic desire" (6).

3 Feminist Criticism is the bedrock upon which all positive
Dickinson criticism stands. Feminists were the first to suggest that
Dickinson's way of writing was a valid, alternative form of
communication stemming from a combination of her gender and
cultural situation. In Dickinson and the Boundaries of Feminist
Theory (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1991), Mary Loeffelholz Summarizes
recent feminist criticism of Dickinson: "Her words are now credited
with deconstructing binary gender opposition and rewriting the
conventionally gendered relationship between the poet and his muse,
the poet and his literary tradition" (1). In addition to the works cited
in my text, see Vivian R. Pollack, Dickinson, the Anxiety of Gender
(Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1984); Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The
Madwoman in the Attic: the Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-
century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale UP, 1979) and
Barbara Antonia Clarke Mossberg, Emily Dickinson: When a Writer is








a Daughter (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1982). Though I believe her
evasive poetics encompasses more than just gender difficulties, my
work builds on the understanding that Dickinson was not a flawed
poet.

4 Poem 754 ("My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun--"), has become a
touchstone for every critical enterprise because it has the requisite
combination of gender dynamics and violent imagery.

5 In The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral
Ideal in America (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1964), Leo Marx chronicles
nineteenth-century writers' responses to encroaching industrialism
and the ensuing loss of geographic and imaginitive space.

6 See James R. Guthrie, Emily Dickinson's Vision: Illness and
Identity in her Poetry (Gainesville: UP of Florida, 1998) for a
discussion of Dickinson's eye problems and how they might have
contributed to the frequency of optical metaphors in her poems.
Among dissenters is Margaret Dickie, who stresses Dickinson's use of
tactile metaphors in her discussion of the poet's letters and poems.
See Lyric Contingencies: Emily Dickinson and Wallace Stevens
(Philadelphia: Uof Pennsylvania P, 1991) (31-53).

7 Dickie cites several reasons. "Held up to the transcendental
ideal," she says, "Dickinson's lyric speakers will seem changeable and
duplicitous." Also, they "do not expand and grow in a narrative of self
development" like Thoreau. Finally, "Dickinson had the advantage of
a gender that would not permit her to use the Emersonian language
of the centered self" (9).














CHAPTER 2
DICKINSON'S PERSONAE
The speakers in Dickinson's letters are as elusive as those in her
poems. They are creative manifestations of an imagination that

resists straightforward communication. The recipient of a Dickinson
letter is presented with a boundless, compressed energy, and a
rapidity of voice changes that strain epistolary conventions. This

public subterfuge she practiced in her letters predates her poetry
and thus was the precursor for, and generated, her evasive art.

I focus on four situations in which Dickinson's speakers assert
their contradictions, unpredictability, and expansiveness: their
engagement with God, with a feminine other, with a masculine other,
and finally with different aspects of themselves. I link poem with
letter to underscore the consistency of her strategy. In each instance
evasion is a mature response, an expression of infinitude that results
from a preliminary dialogue with two seemingly exclusive choices:
submission or flight.

Contrariness was always a fundamental characteristic of
Dickinson's behavior. So rooted was this unruliness that even her

earliest letters display a mature revolt of the mind that cannot be
written off as childhood petulance. A youth spent defying social
pressure to accept Christ, and resisting the waves of passionate

religious fervor that overtook Amherst in the form of revivals,

initiated a life-long religious skepticism and an inquiry into God's








motives that many critics view as the central motivation in her
intellectual life.' She is not yet sixteen when, in a letter to her friend,
Abby Root. she appears to express anxiety about her religious
isolation:

Many conversed with me seriously and affectionately
and I was almost inclined to yeild (sic) to the
claims of He who is greater than I. How ungrateful
I am to live along day by day upon Christs (sic)
bounty and still be in a state of enmity to him
& his cause. Does not eternity appear
dreadful to you? It seems as if Death which all
so dread because it launches us upon an unknown
world would be a releif (sic) to so endless a
state of existence. (L 28)
Even at fifteen, Dickinson's anxiety about nonconformity is
superseded by an innate individualism, and she thus prefers
isolation to having her identity susbsumed by a "claim" and a "cause."
Her profession of guilt seems perfunctory and insincere, for as much
as she tries to remain humble and accepting, she cannot help her
skepticism. Dickinson's distaste, in this letter, for the Christian
concept of eternity, for the monotony and regularity of perfection,
adumbrates not only her poetic evasiveness, but also the modernism
of Wallace Stevens, whose "Sunday Morning" satirizes "paradise" and
claims instead that "death is the mother of beauty"
(88).2
Far from displaying mere childish opposition, Dickinson presents
a cogent critique of an ideology that expects flawed and changeable
human beings to yearn for, and seek to deserve, the stillness of
paradise. She is not seduced by a dogmatic promise of eternal life,
but by the prospect of the unknown, of change and death. This








current of vitality, this love of change and discovery, suffuses her life

and represents the best argument against those who find Dickinson

morbid and depressed. In this letter she delights in paradox, both

rhetorically--calling eternity a darkness and death a "relief"--and in

the presentation of a centerless and evasive self, at times pious, at

others, irreverent. The speaker in poem 413 echoes Dickinson's

distaste for a suffocating paradise, and hopes to flee from God and

his plan:

I never felt at Home--Below--
And in the Handsome Skies
I shall not feel at Home--I know--
I don't like paradise--

Because it's Sunday--all the time--
And Recess--never comes--
And Eden'll be so lonesome
Bright Wednesday Afternoons--

If God could make a visit--
Or ever took a Nap--
So not to see us--but they say
Himself--a Telescope
Perennial beholds us--
My self would run away
From Him--and Holy Ghost--and All--
But there's the "Judgment Day"!

The speaker is hardly self-pitying. She does not merely accept
her isolation, she chooses it and bristles instead at a God who would

manipulate her destiny while remaining deaf to her pleas and

prayers. God is more remote than a "distant--stately Lover" (P 357);

he is an emotionless scientific instrument who "Perennial beholds"

and will not release. Her first instinct is to evade, not only God, but
"All"--those who enforce religious compliance through intimidating








notions like "Judgment Day." Like the young Dickinson, this speaker

is not cowed; she prefers an enabling homelessness and the

possibility of damnation to the loneliness of being among tacit

believers.

Instead of succumbing to social pressures, the evasive Dickinson

challenges God and her friends, establishing and justifying her

position as a religious outsider. Though the following letter to Jane

Humphrey, written when the poet was nineteen, finds her more

isolated from her friends, she seems comfortable with her isolation:

Christ is calling everyone here, all my companions
have answered and I am standing alone in
rebellion, and growing very careless. I cant tell
you what they have found, but they think it is
something precious I think to receive it is
blessed--not that I know it from me, but from those
on whom change has passed. They seem so very tranquil,
and their voices are kind, and gentle, and the tears
fill their eyes so often, I really think I envy them. (L 94)
Dickinson professes to want this "sanctification" but the emphasis she

applies to "what," "they," and "me," and the rather amusing portrait

she paints of the perpetually kind and tearful believers gives the

passage the feel of a satire of Victorian piety very similar to Mark

Twain's send-up of the "death poet" Emmeline Grangerford in

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (ch. 17). The prevailing stereotype

of Dickinson as some lonely spiritual outcast loses force when one

confronts the pattern of humor and determination in these letters.

She cleverly avoids social pressure to become one of the teary by

publicly characterizing herself as in the midst of a struggle, while

privately forging a cogent response to Puritan hegemony.








Compare this to Thomas Hardy's late Victorian religious isolation

in "The Impercipient":

Why thus my soul should be consigned
To infelicity,
Why always I must feel as blind
To sights my brethren see,
Why joys they've found I cannot find,
Abides a mystery. (7-12)

Hardy's speaker feels his unbelief is a "shortcoming" and he

compares himself to a "bird deprived of wings" (29). Dickinson,

however, transforms skepticism into an abiding strength, a poetic

power source.
Dickinson's general distaste for religious authority grows more

focused, and in poem 401 she transforms her subtle, youthful

caricature of the saved ones into a direct caustic indictment, feeling
that such easily gained faith may be insincere or unsubstantial.

What Soft--Cherubic Creatures--
These Gentlewomen are--
One would as soon assault a Plush--
Or violate a Star--

Such Dimity Convictions--
A horror so refined
Of freckled Human Nature--
Of Deity--ashamed--

It's such a common--Glory--
A Fisherman's--Degree--
Redemption--Brittle Lady--
Be so--ashamed of Thee--
Dickinson implies that these spiritual infants tout God's benevolence

without having labored toward a true understanding of him; that

they have never simmered in a cauldron of Joban unbelief and

despair. What riles the speaker is not so much the conclusion (God is








good) but the process by which the women arrive at it. Cynthia
Griffin Wolff says that in the mid nineteenth-century "religion had

lost its primitive aspect, and the harsh discipline of the past had

softened into a creed of passive, unselective, universal love." She

claims this is one of those poems which "pulls violently against" the

instantaneous and beatific religious conversions Dickinson's friends

and contemporaries have experienced (260-61). Dickinson compares
the women to a star and a plush (presumably a pillow or couch made

of material with a raised nap), suggesting that they are expensively
showy, but the glitter or light is remote, dim and cold.

These women evoke comparison to E. E. Cumming's "Cambridge
ladies who live in furnished souls" (1). They practice the proper
charities but their involvement is detached and spiritless. With a
belief ungrounded in the passionate, even erotic nature of life, they
become hollow, wooden, partially dead women who raise daughters
equally unscentedd" and "shapeless" (4). In Cumming's poem the
moon--symbolic of love--"rattles like a fragment of angry candy"
(14) to express its frustration.

Similarly, the Gentlewomen are not the angels they appear to be.
Dickinson compares their convictions to "Dimity," a double-threaded

fabric which implies duplicity or paradox in their sweet nature. In
fact their angelic attitudes mask a distaste for the "freckled Human
Nature" for which Christ labored and died. These women also display

a lack of spiritual hardiness; the softness of their inner fabric cannot
stand up to the rigors of belief, the vicissitudes of a God who, when

he comes, assaults and violates. So actually God does not show

himself to the saccharine parishioners. They live and die in








ignorance, evincing a belief that remains essentially unravaged by

doubt.

Likewise, Dickinson attests in poem 216 that the "meek members

of the Resurrection" lie in their graves, ironically not resurrected at

all:

Safe in their Alabaster Chambers--
Untouched by Morning--
And untouched by Noon--
Lie the meek members of the Resurrection--
Rafter of Satin--and Roof of Stone!

Grand go the Years--in the Crescent--above them--
Worlds scoop their Arcs--
And Firmaments--row--
Diadems--drop--and Doges--surrender--
Soundless as dots--on a Disc of Snow--

For all their meekness, acceptance of doctrine, regular

churchgoing, and participation in revivals, they earn comfortable

graves. "Safe" because they no longer confront life's struggles or hear

the whisperings of doubt that must haunt their attestations of faith.

They remain "untouched" by the exhilarating pain of rebirth

(mornings), by pain and loss (mourning), and even by the fullness of

"noon."

Yet I envision a twofold indictment of meekness. Dickinson

describes the lives of these people as well as their soundless deaths.

They live in mausoleum-like homes, finding safety in their funereal

mansions. Their minds, their homes are "alabaster"--the whiteness or

purity is ornamental rather than substantial. They are untouched by

life while alive, denying the pageantry that swirls around them as

they quietly continue with their sacred and pious lives. "Touched"

carries echoes of lunacy, which Dickinson champions ("Much Madness








is divinest Sense--" (P 435)). Life should sear us, distract, transport

and enthrall us, yet the majority of us cower and accept monotony.

The first version of this poem, which was sent to her sister-in-law,

Susan Gilbert Dickinson, in a letter, stresses the parishoners'

ignorance of nature's grandeur, of the "sweet birds" and "the

babbling of the bee." The later version further emphasizes the meek

ones' insignificance amid a sidereal remoteness. The movements of

the universe, planets and stars, the passage of years and downfall of

empires, all occur as the staid and satisfied Puritans "lie" in their safe
chambers.

We should not overlook the dual meaning of "Lie." Dickinson
implies that the mental passivity of the parishoners--the robotic

obedience to church and society--is in a sense, a "lie." Dickinson

frequently redefines the concept of lying in her poetry (actually, she

wrote redefinition poems of all kinds, a characteristic of her

revolutionary mind), and here she avers that the truths dangled by

the church (the meek shall inherit the earth; obey God and receive

eternal life) are actually lies that the meek passionately repeat in

concert on Sunday mornings. The light fails to penetrate the sealed

coffins of their minds.

Conversely, the way to achieve truth is through Dickinson's brand

of lying. If the "meek members of the Resurrection" continually say
"yes" to God while refusing experience and skepticism they are

telling lies--thus effecting a virulent perpetuation of passive

behavior that exhibits no interest in delving into the mysteries of

God and eternity. Yet if one, like Dickinson, constantly questions and

confronts God, and exercises her imagination, she will gain greater








understanding. She says in a letter to Higginson that "it is difficult

not to be fictitious in so fair a place" (L 460), suggesting that the

niceties of Amherst society, which camouflage the realities of an

ambiguous, demanding religion, need the correctives of Dickinson's
lyric vision.

Dickinson always cultivated a multifaceted, diamond-like
hardness in her relationship with God, always preferring the pain of

discovery, probing the different facets of the relationship. So far I
have offered examples of Dickinson's satiric mode ranging from the

humorous to the caustic; but as I have argued, she is seldom satisfied
with a single perspective, and thus the religious poems and letters
demonstrate that same shifting and elusive voice we find in the rest
of her poetry. We must not allow the residue of early Dickinson
stereotypes (Virgin, Nun, Recluse) cloud our view of her life and

work. Our inability to locate a consistent atittude towards Protestant
scripture in Dickinson's poems and letters does not mean we are
dealing with a confused and lonely poet; rather, we must understand

that this pattern of evasion serves to keep "belief nimble" (L 728).
Keeping God and her acquaintances off guard by playing different

religious "roles"--obsequious believer, rebellious sinner, martyr,
powerful Goddess, etc.--the poet accomplishes two important goals:

first, she demonstrates a multi-dimensional self that disrupts social
expectations of sobriety and consistency, and secondly, she widens

her religious circumference and grows to understand and elude her
creator.

Dickinson was subversive, but not in a passive, hermetic way. She
performed her own deliberate, unstinting inquisition into the








practices of God by approaching him in different guises. By

reimagining the self, she unsettles the rhetorical conventions that

proscribe the relationship between humble supplicant and
omnipotent deity. God becomes more understandable, less remote, as

Dickinson explores, in herself, the same shifts in behavior and

identity she finds in him. If God is more human through his

alternating expressions of kindness, oppression, and indifference,

then Dickinson is increasingly ennobled and made powerful by her
compound personality. The gap has been narrowed.

This iconoclastic attitude was assumed when Dickinson was still a
young woman and formed the foundation for a life and art dedicated
to revisioning her culture. She displays her talent for dramatizing her
religious conflict in this 1851 letter to Abiah Root:

The shore is safer, Abiah, but I love to buffet the sea--
I can count the bitter wrecks here in these pleasant
waters, and hear the murmuring winds, but oh, I love
the danger! You are learning control and firmness.
Christ Jesus will love you more. I'm afraid he don't
love me any! (L 104)
Again, I read a determined, playful tone in this letter, which
questions the canonical understanding of Dickinson as woeful outcast.

Even Richard Sewall, her sympathetic biographer who often reminds
the reader of a Dickinson "family tendency toward hyperbole and

self drama" (331), oddly misses the dramatic performance of these
religious letters. Sewall tells us not to take Dickinson's poems about a

circumscribed childhood seriously, but he cites poem 959 as evidence

of her religious anxiety stemming from being "the only one in her
group of pious friends who could not (as she thought, from some

strange spiritual lack) accept Christ as her Saviour" (328).








Sewall is not alone; as Karl Keller aptly notes, most critics have

approached this poet with a "seriousness" that "has been deadly, as if

Emily Dickinson herself were" (4). Why do so many readers miss the
comic element, the evasive play which, mixed with a seriousness of

purpose creates poems with a rare flavor? Maybe this is Dickinson's

most unsettling act of camouflage; she insists that poetry is

sustenance, a life-affirming pilgrimage to the shrine of creativity and
love. Yet the insouciance with which she tinkers and even disposes of

her own creations threatens those of us who see her poems as shells
that must be rescued from the erosion of the sea. We appreciate the
beauty of the shell yet in abstracting it from the natural cycle of
creation and destruction we subvert Dickinson's natural philosophy,
which is to return the shell to the ocean, its creator/destroyer. She
saw nature and God busy destroying the very things to which they
gave life. There must have been some symmetry or benevolence in
this act of "cruelty" which she admired because she created poems

that carried in them the seeds of their disappearance. Playing the
executioner to her own poems helped her understand and overcome
her natural antipathy to a God and nature which nurture and
dispose. The profligacy nature shows on a regular basis--a field of

wildflowers crippled by a frost--is mimicked by Dickinson's attitude

toward her own poems. She unflinchingly sacrifices her ideas and
poems to the crucible of a higher process, the work of circumference.

Thus God and the poet are not antagonists, as Wolff would have
us think; instead, Dickinson emulates the conflated God/reaper and

excuses death because she is herself a killer of ideas. But this

intellectual suicide allows new ideas to gestate. The ingenuity and








attention to detail that both God and Dickinson manifest in their

creations are belied by the nonchalance with which they confront
their survival.

Therefore, Dickinson's playfulness and irreverence suffuse even

her most serious utterances and offer an example for American
modernists to follow. Think of Wallace Stevens' verbal eccentricities,

the masks he wears (The Comedian, The Snowman), the ascendancy
of the poet over God.

The missive to Root shows Dickinson at her theatrical best,
playing the role of suffering outcast for Root's benefit. In fact,
Dickinson often chooses Sundays, while the rest of her family is in
church, to write letters to friends, playfully posing as sinner who
makes her own use of the sabbath day. To John Graves she writes "it
is Sunday--now--John--and all have gone to church--the wagons
have done passing, and I have come out in the new grass to listen to
the anthems" (L 327). Of course the anthems to which she refers are
not church hymns but the evanescent sights and sounds of nature,
which she proceeds to catalogue.

Dickinson's paean to inscrutable and fleeting nature provides a
stark contrast to what she sees as the main activity of churchgoing:
"hoarding up great truths" (L 166). She relished only those "sermons

on unbelief" (L 311), which helped to confirm her life-long belief that
"Faith is Doubt" (L 830). She both chooses and thrives on her

recalcitrance, avoiding "firmness and control" and exhibiting little

yearning for Christ's love and the healing of her "spiritual flaw."

More than mere hyperbole, the above letter to Root can be read as an

embedded poem, a lyric performance featuring a brave and








somewhat reckless spiritual seeker. This section of the letter is also

set off by ellipses, emphasizing its separation from the rest of the

letter. This genre bending (the following chapter will more amply

discuss genre as an evasive device) combines with a wide range of

speaking voices to enhance Dickinson's evasiveness in spiritual

subject matter. These are in fact the salubrious "lies" Dickinson uses

to distort or ignore the facts of her life, to transcend the small circuit

of personality and widen her spiritual circumference. In imagery and

tone, the following poem recalls the previous letter:

Exultation is the going
Of an inland soul to sea,
Past the houses--past the headlands--
Into deep Eternity--
Bred as we, among the mountains,
Can the sailor understand
The divine intoxication
Of the first league out from land? (P 76)

From familiar physical surroundings, the romantic traveler flees,
embracing instead the abstraction "eternity." Dickinson adopts the

same metaphor she uses in the above letter of a sailor piloting his

ship to communicate that a journey toward eternity (or "sea," again

given no definite article) must begin with a psychic detachment from

the bonds of one's particular history and social experience.

Importantly, it is the caged "inland soul" (Amherst lies in a broad
valley surrounded on all sides by mountains), not the body which

exults and travels. Dickinson tirelessly practices this curious mix of

physical asceticism and imaginative vision and, as a result, both

attacks her Puritan heritage and upholds one of its key tenets. New

Englanders were bred to obey a rigorous program of physical self-








denial, to which Dickinson adheres, but they were also expected to

remain behind headlands, among mountains; in other words, to

accept an imaginative poverty as well, especially in terms of religious

thought and personal expression. We can view these "headlands" as

those pillars of Puritan intimidation which restrict free-thinking and

pressure their followers to be docile believers. But headlands might

also refer to the whole system of reasoned, rational thought, with
which Dickinson is frequently at odds. (Actually, for all their status

as town leaders, the other Dickinsons had their own private
frustrations with small town provincialism: Lavinia displayed hers
through a caustic tongue and a rabid protection of her sister's
privacy and character; Austin harbored artistic desires and entered a
torrid affair with Mabel Todd; and the father's long refusal to join the
church, his financial hunger, and political ambition were evidence of
a man who disliked a small society.)

She continually lauds the "going" over the staying in all her
poetry, stressing experiment, movement and change for its own sake,

allying herself with an Emersonian intellectual irresponsibility
founded on contradiction and defiance. Some of her poetic originality

may not make "sense" to hallowed Victorian intellectuals like
Higginson and, by using the word "intoxication," she recognizes that

experimentation and waywardness can be poisonous, but given her

options, she chose to release the "inland soul" from beneath the dark
shadows of Puritan breeding. The speakers of both the letter and
poem are therefore not outcasts but explorers.

Perhaps at the root of Dickinson's private struggle with her
ancestors' belief system is the rigid limited concept of the individual








that underlies Puritan thought. Each person is essentially a cauldron

that contains warring properties; the devil is intent on swaying one

from the path of rightousness. Little weight is given to one's

personality, differences, or evolutionary progress. One is either saved
or not. Dickinson's understanding of the self is too revolutionary to fit

in with Puritan essentialism. Wolff aptly recognizes that, for

Dickinson, any kind of religious conversion entails a "yielding of

identity" (271), and she intelligently discusses the poet's "horror" at
the brutality of a God who would demand this price, but Dickinson

emerges from Wolff's study as a person obsessed with abandonment.
Yet the poet transcends feelings of rejection to confront an
oppressive God with a staggering display of personality, of

changeable identity and a volley of dramatic personae designed to
combat society's expectations of propriety and femininity. She resists
both the treacly posturing and the austere piety of her friends and
instead argues for romantic sensibilities of the modern individual,
flinging lyric multiplicity in the face of Trinitarian control. "God was

penurious with me," she wrote to the Hollands, "which makes me
shrewd with him" (L 353).

Wolff does not acknowledge that whereas a single voice may
sound frustration and despair, the accumulation of voices is a direct

unwavering attack. In fact, Dickinson cultivates so many identities in
her poems that she ultimately has no single identity to sacrifice to
God, thus denying him ownership of her soul. Not God, but the poet,

answers the beseeching speaker of poem 49:

I never lost as much but twice,
And that was in the sod.
Twice have I stood a beggar








Before the door of God!

Angels--twice descending
Reimbursed my store--
Burglar! Banker--Father!
I am poor once more!

The speaker alludes to two kinds of deaths here, the death of

friends, which the speaker sees as a renewable resource, and a more

immediate and terrifying loss or bankruptcy which goes unnamed,

but which could be the loss of self or, more profoundly, the
emptiness or death of trust that results from recognizing that her

God is a harsh, unloving thief who grows rich from the foreclosure of

souls. In these poems which address the deity, God is often someone
who gives only to take away, whether it be a banker/burglar, a

sire/killer or, as in poem 335, a farmer who ironically creates life yet

engages in a miserly process of "stipulation" with his creations for

crumbs. Instead of timidly approaching the "door of God" with

methodical regularity, mourning losses and praying for sustenance,

Dickinson bravely becomes the reimburser; she gives life to a

manifold and evasive voice and changes the nature of her

relationship with God by restoring richness through immersion in

character and nature. This is a definitive step towards modernism,

where the poet, realizing that God cannot or will not reimburse an

individual for his losses, decides to wield the power herself.

From the adamant, petulant tone of the previous poem we move
to the modulated, imperious voice of the following oft-quoted lyric:

The Soul selects her own Society--
Then--shuts the Door--
To her divine Majority--
Present no more--








Unmoved--she notes the Chariots--pausing--
At her low Gate--
Unmoved--an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat--

I've known her--from an ample nation--
Choose One--
Then--close the Valves of her attention--
Like Stone-- (P 303)
The speaker is no longer bemoaning poverty, but coolly distancing

herself from God's subtly manipulative ways. As the Emperor, he

cajoles her with promises of spiritual wealth, but she fails to submit.

Her world is insular; she is the spider weaving, the disruptive lyric

storyteller who rejects the advances of the dominant creator. She is
the pupil who surpasses the master in evasiveness and self

possession, and by choosing the word "valves" instead of the variant

"lids," Dickinson highlights the machine-like indifference and

inscrutability of the speaker whose soul remains not only illegible to

God, but independent of the speaker herself. The decidedly industrial
"Valves" render God's chariots antiquarian and obsolete. God

approaches with an ancient gesture of male courting ritual that

carries a certain historical pressure to conform. She responds with

the baffling modern voice of the lyric creator. She has a choice, and

she chooses to shut the valves.

How does she hide herself? Through an evasive reductiveness
accomplished by multiplicity. The irony in the poem stems from

Dickinson's insistence that the "majority" is more impoverished than

the self, which harbors multitudes. Self and soul occupy different

realms and sometimes conflict. Her refusal to be swayed by

democratic majorities separates her from Whitman who, as a








journalist and public commentator, was greatly impressed by a

panorama of social movements and trends. His poetry reflects

temperance issues, slavery questions, and popular medicine, among

others (Reynolds). Dickinson chooses to understand the world

through the patient documentation of her changing identity.

Many critics like Farr and Wolff have observed the speaker's

rejection of God and society in this poem, Wolff stressing the sexual

nature of God's advances (199), while Farr reads it as a love poem

where the speaker plucks one from an "ample nation" (85). Both

critics agree, however, that the imperious narrator chooses a

companion with whom she can relate. But I believe it is more

accurate to read this poem as a self-reflexive exercise where the

burgeoning artist, resenting the influences of church and society,

chooses herself as friend, conspirator, lover. The soul, after choosing

"her own Society," makes the command to "present no more." She has

made her choice. Every entryway is sealed. Wolff notices the
"speaker's withdrawal by a radical reduction toward zero, both in

line length and in vowel sound" (199), but weakly posits the

existence of a soulmate, when the progress of the poem is toward

that very evasiveness she mentions. Farr, likewise, allows her

preoccupation with the identity of Dickinson's lover to cloud the

reading of the poem.

I must stress how definitively this barrage of voices distinguishes

her from those nineteenth-century poets who confront a God

weakened by the ascendency of scientific skepticism. We grow

familiar with the sullen, ironic speaker of Hardy's Godless universe

and the despair-drenched cadences of Tennyson's "In Memoriam,"








but I challenge anyone to read Dickinson's addresses to God and

glean a representive self from those lyrics. Note the "delirious"

exultation and fierce self-justification of "Mine--by the Right of the

White Election!" (P 528), or the quieter more humble self-possession
of the speaker in "I'm ceded--I've stopped being Theirs--" (P 508).

Wolff says that "Dickinson was obliged to invent other voices, which

could speak the language of daily life as it really was in mid-

nineteenth-century America" (168) but I believe she followed a
contradictory impulse, namely to convince us that the only self she
could represent was her own. Emerson often uses the first person
plural "we" to integrate peoples' experiences; Whitman always
chooses specific social referents to express his expansive personality.
Dickinson's "I" never strives for universality. Instead, she stresses
that we are all nobodies (P 288), discrete, unknowable entities whose
public labels cannot describe us. She dismantled the idea of
Emerson's and Whitman's representative man and almost
singlehandedly charted an alternative course for American poetry.
But while many critics acknowledge that she revolutionizes
devotional lyrics, they nevertheless claim she either represented the

plight of women in her time or her poetry serves as a repository for
Victorian culture. But it is also part of my thesis that Dickinson

strove to create a rival discourse to her culture, not to espouse it, and
that in doing so foreshadows those twentieth-century poets like
Stevens who cultivate a private language to replace the dominant

isms of their day.

Thus if any trend in Dickinson's life needs to be explained, it is

this steady progress toward isolation, which has fomented a flood of








misunderstanding around the poet. Some admire the dedicated,

uncompromising artist, while others cling to the great love lost

theory to explain her isolation. Yet few examine her growing

seclusion in conjunction with her coincidental delight in and creation

of poems and letters which plumb a wide range of voices. Yes,
Dickinson's behavior was peculiar, but rather than rejecting the

world, she was simply replacing the public self with a private one,

battling the world with subversive notions about representation. She
re-presented herself as a powerful conglomeration of identities, a

shifting and dangerous truthsayer whose avoidance of publicity and
capture was another way of demonstrating evasiveness. Rather than
mollify her society with consistency and convention, she embarks on
an artistic work which includes herself as a character.

In one of her early letters to Austin, she tries to assuage his
loneliness with her assurance that one's own company is superior to

the scores of inconsequential people he might meet: "they are very
little, very small indeed, I know that scores might vanish and nobody

would miss them, they fill so small a crevice in a world full of life."
In the letter she already sees herself as a character or friend,

someone with whom she can have some sort of camaraderie, and she
urges Austin to see himself the same way. At the same time banal

society becomes untenable for her: "we meet our friends, and a
constant interchange wastes tho't and feeling, and we are then

obliged to repair and renew--there isn't the brimfull feeling which
one gets away" (L 141). In another letter to Austin she relates how

she "saw the train move off, and then ran home again for fear

someone would see me, or ask me how I did" (L 254).








At the same time Dickinson begins to glean sustenance from this
social evasiveness, or what Jane Eberwein calls a "strategy of

limitation," she initiates an epistolary exploration of the many facets

of her personality, creating a second layer of elusiveness behind the

seclusion. Not a simple retreat from society, this isolation enables her

to flaunt her wit, emotional chiaroscuro, rebellious notions, and

formalistic ingenuity without the disruptive immediacy of personal

contact. The distance between self and other and the obliteration of
her public self form a huge canvas on which she paints an epic
panoply. The notion of the real Emily is obscured by the wildly
mercurial voice of the letters. These early letters, like the
impassioned love missives to Gilbert, are poetic performances that
portray the speaker in an array of guises. Her letters are so much
like her poems (and so different from other writers' correspondence)
that William Shurr felt comfortable publishing a trove of "new
poems" he found embedded in the letters.

So we find a fairly seamless and organic progression from public
evasiveness to epistolary poet. The early letter to Austin which
contains the poetic invitation to enter her "garden" has that air of

lyric introduction that we see in Frost's "The Pasture." Here is Frost:

I'm going out to clean the pasture spring;
I'll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):
I shan't be gone long.--You come too.
And here is Dickinson:

there is another sky ever serene and fair, and there is
another sunshine, tho' it be darkness there--never mind
faded forests, Austin, never mind silent fields--here
is a little forest whose leaf is ever green, here is a
brighter garden, where not a frost has been, in its








unfading flowers I hear the bright bee hum, prithee,
my Brother, into my garden come! (L 149)

Dickinson makes the classic romantic boast that her creations can

augment an unsatisfying reality, but unlike Wordsworth whose

poems recollected in tranquility reflect a patina of optimism and the

tinkering of the poet, Dickinson's poems and letters are essentially

ego-less manifestations of mutability and flight, not attempts to

order and reflect. This is a loaded introduction, then, because you

will not find the poet in the garden, as you might find the reliably

wise and weary Frostian narrator in his poems. Dickinson knows that

"to escape enchantment, one must always flee" (L 454), so even as

she beckons, she resists capture, visually and ideologically.

The enchantments from which she fled include men and women.

One was her intense love for Sue Gilbert. Another such enchantment

was her love for the Reverend Charles Wadsworth, whom she called

"My Philadelphia." One of Dickinson's favorite personae was the

passionate, unrequited lover, and she adopts this voice so often that

even St. Armand avers that the central narrative of the 1775 poems

is a love story between "Daisy and Pheobus" (82). Yet the dominant

feature of these love poems and letters is not the longing for another,

but the craving for privation manifested in the deliberateness with

which Dickinson avoids contact, preferring letters and verse.

The cycle of her love affair with Gilbert was rapid, but the stages

of this relationship, and all of her intense ones for that matter, follow

the same predictable, inexorable march toward evanescence that we

witness in the poems. First, Dickinson assaults her chosen one with

intense passion and a peremptory demand for emotional








compensation from the other. When the friend demonstrates an
inevitable failure to match the openness and proves his or her
unreliability, Dickinson, too, responds with flight represented by the
cryptic poetic voice, and sometimes a haughty detachment. Then she
begins the unwriting or deobjectification process whereby the world
recedes away from a voice which also succumbs to silence and flux.
The cycle repeats with a new attachment. The following two chapters
will examine the evasive lyric strategy: how the cycle of Dickinson's
personal relationships is mirrored in poems that cycle through
attraction, abandonment, flight and reduction. For now I will present
a few fled personal enchantments along with poems that especially
struggle with the allure of the other.
Dickinson's love, in her early twenties, for Susan Gilbert was so
rhetorically powerful that one could assume the affection was more
than familial or friendly. Betsy Erkilla claims that this "central and
troubled love relationship" with Gilbert transcends in power and
duration any of her heterosexual attachments (164). A few passages
from the letters suffice to demonstrate Dickinson's ardor:
When you come home, darling, I shant have your letters,
shallI, but I shall have yourself, which is more--Oh more,
and better, than I can even think! I sit here with my little
whip, cracking the time away, till not an hour is left
of it--then youare here! And Joy is here--joy now and
forevermore! (L 194)
I hope for you so much, and feel so eager for you, feel
that I cannot wait, feel that now I must have you--that
the expectation once more to see your face again, makes
me feel hot and feverish. (L 215)
Evidently Sue did not respond to Dickinson's onslaught of passion
with equal force, because a current of anxiety flows through the








letters: "I fall asleep in tears, for your dear face, yet not one word

comes back to me from the silent West" (L 315). Though Gilbert was

visiting relatives in Ohio, the "West" becomes for Dickinson a symbol

of Sue's remoteness, and the setting of their love into darkness.

A landmark letter to Sue at this time finishes the relationship

cycle Dickinson will repeat throughout her life. It begins, "Sue--you

can go or stay--There is but one alternative--We differ often lately,

and this must be the last." The letter ends with the following farewell

and a poem:

Few have been given me, and if I love them so, that for
idolatry, they are removed from me--I simply murmur gone,
and the billow dies away into the boundless blue, and no one
knows but me, that one went down today. We have walked
very pleasantly--Perhaps this is the point at which our paths
diverge--then pass on singing Sue, and up the distant hill I
journey on.
I have a Bird in spring
Which for myself doth sing--
The spring decoys.
And as the summer nears--
And as the rose appears,
Robin is gone.

Yet do I not repine
knowing that Bird of mine
Though flown--
Learneth beyond the sea
Melody new for me
And will return.

Fast in a safer hand
Held in a truer Land
Are mine--
And though they now depart,
Tell I my doubting heart
They're thine." (L 306)








The letter and poem form a microcosm of Dickinson's life. Having

perceived Gilbert's inconstancy, she recedes as well, into the
multifarious poetic voice. All of the trademark Dickinson grievances

are here: the loss of friends, her alienation from Christ, the

determination to survive the emotional carnage; the poem aptly

follows the self-pity, because in it, Dickinson converts actual distance

and loss into poetry, allowing us to witness the creative
requirements of this particular artist. She needs this reduction and

loss, this psychic amputation, out of which grows a commentary on
the evasive nature of life.

Is this a staged play? Does Dickinson manipulate her emotions to
spur poetry? The evidence is ample. In this instance, Dickinson
seems to understand that her "idolatry" pushes people away, yet she
continues to burden those chosen with a flood of love that no one
could withstand. When Sue turns off the emotional spigot, Dickinson
quickly and seamlessly nurtures poetry from the drought. Sue
becomes a bird who flees; the backdrop is the swiftness of seasonal
change and the unreliability of spring which "decoys" the existence of

death and decay to come. Thus the poet owns neither the "bird" nor
any evasive physical article, but she does locate in herself the power

to transform distance and flight into an evasive poetry. This poem

stresses the cyclical nature of loss and return. She will encounter
new opportunities to love and lose, all the while seeing her journey
optimistically as one which proceeds "up the distant hill." Dickinson

travels her circuit, seeking an ever-wider circumference.

Erkkila claims that "Dickinson's love for Sue was a form of saying
no to the masculine and heterosexual orders" of her time (165). In








fact, feminist critics habitually tout the power of Dickinson's speakers

to "transform and transcend" the "constraints of nineteenth-century

womanhood" (Gilbert, Critics 23). Dickinson achieves, however,

something far different and more radical than a "culture of affection

and dissidence" among women (Erkkila 162). If one scans the entire
range of her speakers, one sees that she shatters the concept of

community altogether by decentering herself from even a feminine
narrative of dissent. If there is a pattern, it is the rejection of all

limiting intimacies.
Let us examine instances where Dickinson beckons heterosexual
love only to enforce distance. Her late love affair with Otis Lord does
not reflect an inequity of emotion, but the interpersonal groove in
which Dickinson travels runs deep, and even this December romance
is wilted by Dickinson's refusal to indulge in pleasure and
commitment.

In her letters to Lord she made her feelings plain (she even
playfully proposed marriage): "I confess that I love him--I rejoice
that I love him--I thank the maker of Heaven and Earth--that gave

him me to love--" (L 614). Yet her assertion in this same letter that
she is "done with guises" is not finally genuine. Dickinson's life and

art consist of a series of guises aimed at evading capture.

Undoubtedly some abiding, counterbalancing impulse towards
consistency and openness runs through her verse and letters, but the
urge to flee and enforce longing is stronger. Another letter to Lord

finds Dickinson putting on the brakes to foment the pain that in turn

becomes art. This erotically charged refusal helps her maintain that
inspiring destitution of which she is so fond:








Don't you know you are happiest while I withhold and not
confer--dont you know that 'No' is the wildest word we
consign to Language? The 'Stile' is God's--My Sweet One--
for your great sake--not mine--I will not let you cross--but it
is all your's, and when it is right I will lift the Bars, and lay
you in the Moss-- (L 617)

Dickinson hopes to initiate Lord into the sweetness of an anguish she

has long savored. This sort of anguish spurs poems like the following:

Wild Nights--Wild Nights!
Were I with thee
Wild Nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile--the Winds--
To a heart in port--
Done with the Compass--
Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden--
Ah, the Sea!
Might I but moor--Tonight--
In Thee! (P 249)

Like the Lord letter, this-poem seems to represent a longing for

physical satisfaction with another which balances the many

Dickinson poems of quasi-masochistic pleasures. But also like the

Lord letter, the expression of desire belies the speaker's true

intention which is to remain in the tempest of desire. The speaker

expresses a wish or a possibility, and words like "luxury" (connoting

a surfeit, a gaudy excess which would appear heretical to the

stereotypical New Englander), and "moor" (being moored is also, in a

sense, being restrained or mired), suggest the speaker thrives on the

expectation of mooring rather than the actuality.

The paradoxical nature of the vocabulary reflects the divided

consciousness of a speaker whose gender is indeterminate or








changeable as well. Is the wildness of sexual abandonment actually a

weakness or expression of timidity? Is the apparent safety of

patient, ascetic, creative and spiritual discovery, done with chart and

compass, actually a daring rebellion? The "stately--shriven--

Company--" of pilgrims in poem 792 is Dickinson's metaphor for

genuine risk, and the last stanza of "Wild Nights!" supports it. The

speaker has imagined jettisoning his/her creative/spiritual quest for

a carnal embrace, yet at the portal of resignation, he/she laments the

loss of the creative self. The speaker comes to understand that if he

or she were to "moor" in a lover's arms, he or she would begin to long

for the sea ("Ah, the Sea!").

Dickinson therefore questions the nature of earthly paradise. Are
we happiest amid the painful labor of post-edenic expulsion? The

biblical Eden seems a stifling, limiting place, imperfect in its

perfection because it excludes pain, knowledge and thus growth. Her

speaker could renounce the chart and compass, ending the search for

spiritual fulfillment. The speaker could accept the earthly pleasures

of carnal communion, but the quest generates the art. As I will

discuss in the following chapters, Dickinson generally rejects all

periods of stasis in her poems noonss, mid-summers, moorings),

however alluring, because they oppress, smother and pervert the

efforts of her "wheel."

Dickinson's regard for Samuel Bowles may have lacked the

passionate intensity of the Lord affair (though Judith Farr targets

him as the object of the poet's "Master" letters), but an incident in

November of 1862 highlights the tragicomic nature of her

evasiveness. Having returned from Europe, Bowles visited his close








friends in Amherst. Emily had long awaited his return, and in her

letters ( as she had done with Sue Gilbert) spoke of the rapture she

would feel when they were reunited. Yet when he arrived at the

house, Dickinson found herself "unable to see him" (L 419). In her
stead, she sent a short note downstairs, and later followed it with a

longer, more heated letter to explain that she gave up her "part so

that [Vinnie and Austin] might have the more." But she absented

herself from the visit, not to benefit her siblings, but to enable the

kind of rhapsodic lyricism we find in the rest of the letter: "Did I not
want to see you? Do not the Phebes want to come? Oh They of little
faith! I said that I was glad that you were alive--Might it bear
repeating? Some phrases are too fine to fade--and Light but just
confirms them--" (L 419).

Dickinson astutely examines the various phases of feminine
growth such that she is viewed as a literary mother to such

twentieth-century poets as Adrienne Rich, but as soon as her female
speakers are drawn to new roles, they yearn to evade the new
constraints and expectations. Whether abandoning "paste" for "pearl"

(P 320), or rejecting the patriarchal ritual of baptism, naming, and
ownership for a "second Rank" (P 508), Dickinson's female speakers
habitually experience a gender transport which allows them the "Will

to choose, or to reject." The speaker is "ceded," not just conveyed or
transferred, but also "seeded" or planted with an autonomous will
which shall yield creative fruit.

Appropriately, Dickinson highlights the importance of the will
(rejecting Puritan notions of human self-determination) rather than
her new identity, which is as subject to expulsion as the first. The








"second rank" is only the second in an eternal succession of roles or

masks. Thus the speaker downplays rather than inflates the

importance of "Crown" in the final line of poem 508. Likewise the

speaker in this poem is ambivalent about her new status as "Wife":

I'm "wife"--I've finished that--
That other state--
I'm Czar--I'm "Woman" now--
It's safer so--
How odd the Girl's life looks
Behind this soft Eclipse--
I think that Earth feels so
To folks in Heaven--now--

This being comfort--then
That other kind--was pain--
But why compare?
I'm "Wife"! Stop there! (P 199)
The speaker claims to find "comfort" in this new state of

womanhood or matrimony; yet why do these titles appear in scare

quotation marks? They do so because they are still roles with

expectations and constraints. She does not feel comfortable, partly

because the parameters of these new states are still prescribed from

without, but also because her new life is "safer," "soft," and painless.

In the course of this short poem the speaker experiments with and

tires of the "Wife" role because it does not entail the kind of

individual struggle that convinces her she is alive. Being a "Wife" is a

kind of amputation from the body and the trials of earth that those

in heaven experience, and which might give anyone temporary

respite, but which will eventually cloy someone who is sated only by

variety. The speaker's rhetorical question to herself--"But why

compare?"--is the ultimate argument against wifehood, or heaven or








comfort; "we see--Comparatively--" Dickinson says in poem 534, and

to give up comparison or the freedom "to choose, or to reject" is to

renounce seeing or creating altogether. Her tepid attempt to convince

herself to accept her role and to "Stop there!" is ineffectual.

Dickinson's speakers do not stop for anything--death or God or man;

instead they remain faithful only to their impulses to flight and to

their own personal circuit. Though Dickinson habitually revels in

transport, her marriage poems present speakers who worry whether

this wedded state is merely another way for a woman to be

quantified.

For Dickinson, stoppage is monotony and her poems never extol a
consistent perspective on gender dynamics. In poem 190 the man

and woman change roles, then jettison roles altogether:

He was weak, and I was strong--then--
So He let me lead him in--
I was weak, and He was strong then--
So I let him lead me--Home. .
Day knocked--and we must part--
Neither--was strongest--now--
The rejection and deprivation she imposes in her relationships
with others thrusts Dickinson into an interior world where "other" is

merely another aspect of herself, and where Dickinson is even willing

to evade evasion:

Me from Myself--to banish--
Had I Art--
Impregnable my Fortress
Unto All Heart--

But since Myself--assault Me--
How have I peace
Except by subjugating
Consciousness?








And since We're mutual Monarch
How this be
Except by Abdication--
Me--of Me? (P 642)
Dickinson sees the mind as a divided country (perhaps the metaphor
for this poem was spurred by Civil War tension?) where warring
personalities surge into prominence only to be replaced by others in
a continuous thirst for sovereignty. This kind of evasiveness she

usually champions, but in this poem she imagines some kind of
unified and consistent self that will protect her from these assaults
on her heart.

United we stand, divided we fall? Not quite. Dickinson reaffirms
her evasiveness in this poem as she moves away from her original
wish for unity to question the efficacy of the "columnar self" (P 789).
Though assimilation into a single identity may deflect pain or injury,
this strength is illusory. Peace within a nation or amity between rival
selves requires choice, compromise and damage control, activities
antithetical to the Dickinson circuit. Dickinson accepts psychic
warfare if the result is enlightenment.
Whitman found strength in being "untranslatable" ("Song" 1323).
Dickinson also feared efforts to make her more easily understood, or
to change her multifarious nature. (A prescient apprehension, for
after her death, editors strove to sanitize and categorize her verse.)
In this poem she discovers that the strength she seeks is found in the
very divisiveness she originally bemoans. The "art" she hopes will
pare away troublesome selves is abandoned for the art we witness in
this poem: the portrayal of rival selves in perpetual tension.
Dickinson does not embrace, as Whitman does, the pallette of








American citizenry, but she does see the glittering facets of human

potential in the microcosm of the self.

Even the "Columnar Self" on which the speaker relies in poem
789, derives its solidity from a surfeit of personality rather than a

pared-down self: "That Granitic Base-- / Though None be on our

Side-- / Suffice Us--for a Crowd-- / Ourself." Dickinson is one of the

few poets whose speakers seem disembodied or somewhat detached

from another aspect of themselves, and some critics see this

schizophrenia as an infirmity. Yet her yearning to catalogue psychic

schisms speaks to both the modern need to scientifically analyze and

the romantic desire to seem unfathomable. Call it evasion through

exposure. Moreover, the musical variation of voice, by turns Gothic,
romantic, scientific, and sentimental, demonstrates Dickinson's

dogged exploitation of the lyric medium, when other poets staidly

whistle the same tune. We grasp at these tantalizingly

autobiographical lyrics to construct hypotheses of the poet's life, yet
the evasiveness frustrates us. We must view Dickinson's efforts as a

philosophy of art and of life that radically departs from her

contemporaries and even outstrips much modern criticism of her

writing.

Lets turn to those poems where the speaker inhabits more than

one identity or where there is some transition in personality. This

moment of transition, which Dickinson calls transport (the word

connotes both being altered and the corresponding rapture)

germinates the process of evasion; in fact, if a Dickinson poem has a

predictable aspect, it is the hunger for emotional alchemy and the

ecstasy it engenders, the expectation of a new emotion or experience.








Unlike Emersonian transcendence, which finds a person drained of

personality and at one with creation,3 transport allows an individual

to assume a different identity, to alter the mind's orientation, and

thus to evade the constraints of type. Sometimes the experience is

conventionally pleasurable:

Exhiliration is the Breeze
That lifts us from the Ground
And leaves us in another place
Whose statement is not found--

Returns us not, but after time
We soberly descend
A little newer for the term
Upon Enchanted Ground. (P 1118)
Here Dickinson pays homage to transport, and as is typical with her,

the change is not physical but spiritual. The imprecision of the nouns

(place, ground) puts the emphasis on motion verbs (lifts, leaves,

descends). Even the final "resting place" is temporary or "for the

term". In fact the "ground" is magical or "enchanted" because it is a

temporary state; Dickinson embeds the suggestion of intellectual

pollination in this poem. We are transported from a mature or even

stale view to be replanted in a foreign yet fertile pyschic landscape.

Return is not possible, only a continuous turning or troping.

Dickinson's play on the word "term" suggests this is a poem about the

domain of language and not physical space. We are "A little newer

for the term" (note the half rhyme term/turn), meaning we inhabit a

word or metaphor for a short time, and that term is our reality, a

more influential one than the accident of our physical habitat.

For Dickinson the premodernist, language creates reality; it does

not merely reflect, record or even influence it. In her hands the lyric








is a house within which the furniture is always being moved, the

walls repainted, knocked down. She uses words to create a persona,

and when she feels trapped she rewrites herself. When her "Brain
within its Groove / Runs evenly--and true" (P 556), she throws a
"splinter" in order to experience the directions to which her mind

swerves. One could imagine Dickinson exhorting the reader to "let a

Splinter swerve--" him. This is at the foundation of her evasive

strategy: because words create reality, one must fearlessly become
the kindly splinterer or killer of words in order to continuously
reform one's reality. Dickinson's only fidelity is to a poetry of self-
immolation, where the creation and assassination of ideas and
personae is performed at dizzying speeds and frequently in the space
of a short lyric. Critics have noticed this--Karl Keller calls her a "great
tease"--but few see the purposeful architect behind a life and poetry
that is "insufficient, incomplete, tentative, not really finished at all"

(2).
The fastidiousness with which Dickinson pursues this philosophy
of art and of life explains those poems for which she is most famous.

Few think of Dickinson as the "Debauchee of Dew" (P 214), or as one
typically transformed by exhilaration as in the above poem. Instead

they see her as one who mines the dark corridors of the mind. Far

too often we create the paradigm of a withdrawn and delicate
temperament overwhelmed by the vicissitudes of existence to explain
the experience of Emily Dickinson. But that is a naive assumption and

a trite archetype that distorts her wheel. These painful poems must
be filtered through the evasive lens. Dickinson indulges in an

elaborate dance, a game of hide and seek with horror, pain, despair








and death, which completes her circumference. "Exhiliration" is fine

but it rarely spurs one to change, so she coaxes, teases and

breathlessly awaits pain. The "Bandaged moments" described in

poem 512 are checkpoints on the way to discovery, and the speaker

betrays a morbid love affair with them, despite the encroaching

horror:

The soul has Bandaged moments--
When too appalled to stir--
She feels some ghastly Fright come up
And stop to look at her--

Salute her--with long fingers--
Caress her freezing hair--
Sip, Goblin, from the very lips
The Lover--hovered--o'er--
Unworthy, that a thought so mean
Accost a Theme--so--fair--
Dickinson's speakers are rarely naive; this "soul" has already

survived many assaults and awaits the impending fright with a

mixture of expectancy and dread. The text may suggest the soul
stands in fear, but the subtext reveals the poet's equanimity, her

understanding of horror's role in both life and the creative process.
We know the soul has confronted this villian before and survived. In

fact, being "bandaged" connotes both a post-traumatic healing and,

more subtly, a banding together or girding against the intruder. So, in

a sense, the arrival of "Fright" activates a certain survival instinct in

the soul and is therefore welcome. The poet recognizes this and

evades writing a conventional "fearful soul" poem. This more evasive

poem could be an example of how the Puritan tradition enabled

Dickinson's art--provided her with a lover/antagonist with whom to

grapple. The text supports this. "Appall" means to frighten, but at the








root of the word is to make pale or whiten. Perhaps fright has a

purifying effect as well.

In the second stanza, the personified "Fright" and the soul engage
in a macabre courtship ritual. The "Goblin" replaces the lover both

physically and metaphorically: fright replaces happiness and vice

versa in an endless revolution. The consummation with fear is a

necessary intercourse that is both revolting and fascinating. The poet

even instructs the "Goblin" to "Sip" from the victim's lips,
orchestrating an initiation into fear that results in a salubrious

maturity. Dickinson's penchant for these anti-love poems, where
some ghastly suitor phallically probes "with long fingers" the depths
of her soul, reflects her understanding of the muse. Dickinson does
not need to be lured into seduction by death and terror because she
seduces herself into the creative realm of mental anguish. The rest of
the poem demonstrates Dickinson's unique capacity to embrace both
terror and joy, while recognizing in terror a unique generative
wellspring:

The soul has moments of Escape--
When bursting all the doors--
She dances like a Bomb, abroad,
And swings upon the Hours,

As do the Bee--delirious borne--
Long Dungeoned from his Rose--
Touch Liberty--then know no more,
But Noon, and Paradise--
The Soul's retaken moments--
When, Felon led along,
With shackles on the plumed feet,
And staples, in the Song,

The Horror welcomes her, again,
These, are not brayed of Tongue--








This classic Dickinson circuit poem courses continuously through

imprisonment and freedom, entertains but then rejects the stop-time

fantasy of "Noon and Paradise" and finally ends with a clever couplet

that questions the whole tradition of sentimental love verse. The

puerile escapism in which the soul indulges in these central stanzas

would be invalid without the complementary horror. We see a classic

equipoise in this thrilling dance. Sometimes the soul is shackled and
terror runs free; other times the soul exults while the "felon" is "led

along." And yet the terror is not so terrible. The poet notices that the
"Felon" has "plumed feet," suggesting that frightful moments are as

inspiring to the pen or "plume" as happy ones, and maybe more so,
given that Dickinson has far more poems devoted to pain than to
pleasure.
Finally, the "Horror welcomes her," suggesting that the soul has at
least acquired a taste for pain and showed up on its doorstep for
more poetic fodder. Because the soul needs to know more than noon
and paradise (even manna would become bland in excess), the siren-
song of terror is a "staple" of her soul's diet. Dickinson recognizes she

is saying things no one wants to hear, in poems a gentile lady is not
supposed to write. She stridently brays the harsh truths, brings
"mean" thoughts to fair themes, allows pain to infiltrate the benignly

happy soul, and creates a poetry that evades our expectation of
comfort with every stylistic turn.

Far from being an isolating disability, the endless psychological
divisions of the self are a source of strength for her speakers whose

interactions with male, female, or divine figures necessitate a quiver

of arch voices. Dickinson welds her sophisticated understanding of








the self to a poetic style that is equally elusive, experimental, and

empowering.

Notes

1 The trend in Dickinson studies is to focus on her textual
indeterminacy and the original fascicle bindings of her poems, but
critics have always claimed that Puritanism provided a firm
structure against which she could experiment. Jane Donahue
Eberwein, Dickinson: Strategies of Limitation (Amherst: U of
Massachusetts P, 1985); Albert Gelpi, Emily Dickinson: The Mind of
the Poet (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1965); and Karl Keller, The Only
Kangaroo Among the Beauty: Emily Dickinson and America
(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1980) refuse to scrub the Christian
essence from her poetry. Keller even praises Puritanism for fostering
a "liberated womanhood" that enabled Dickinson to realize her
creative self (8).

2 I stress Dickinson's connections to Stevens for two reasons.
First, I contend that she adumbrates Stevens' modernist focus on the
interplay between language and reality. Secondly, I hope to show
that Dickinson's pre-modernism can produce an affirmative, playful
kind of modernism like Stevens' rather than a desperate, existential
type.

3 I am thinking of Emerson's famous articulation of the
transcendental experience: "I become a transparent eyeball; I am
nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate
through me; I am part or parcel of God" (24). Emerson is always more
interested in what joins people together, rather than what makes
each of us unique.













CHAPTER 3
THE LANGUAGE OF EVASION
For more than a century, Emily Dickinson's poems have remained

resistant to the unsympathetic and misguided attempts to

standardize them, and I like to think it has taken the world just that

long to amass the critical sophistication necessary to make amends to

Dickinson for the monolithic way her art has been handled. We

entertain a broader definition of art now; we might even say that

because we revere the ironic, experimental, and destructive art that

Dickinson practiced, we are predisposed to find genius where past

critics have catalogued shortcomings. But we are determined by our
critical age just as ineluctably as Blackmur and Anderson were

chained to theirs, and if our ears are particularly tuned to the fall of

Dickinson's "foot," then we both benefit. We have our poet and

Dickinson has her proper audience.

Joel Porte speaks promisingly about such renewal: "Like flowers

that have escaped from human cultivation and struck out for the

wild, literary texts can undergo strange transformations as they seek

their fortunes with new readerships in different times and places"

(9). Porte urges us to "cherish the opportunities for new life" (9) in

our great literature, and even though his reading of Dickinson is

surprisingly reactionary and reductive (he calls her the "Snow White

of her own immaculate fantasy" [260]), we can at least follow his
advice.








Thus I feel enabled by my critical age to discover throughout
these 1775 poems the hand of a confident, clever, and deliciously

devious poet, whose serious yet playful metaphysics reveal an
interplay between self and world unlike anything we see in any

other poet. The balance in a Dickinson poem between the poet's

vision and nature's attempt to obscure that vision is finely and

delicately maintained, and that balance results in the loss of
polarities and the emergence of that powerful Dickinson
circumference. Evasion is circumference, the disintegration of the

either/or, the ascendancy of linguistic motion, a movement outward
from the circumscribed self.

In the last chapter I discussed the multiple personae in
Dickinson's poems. Here, I focus on her double-barreled formal
strategy: the techniques she employs within an individual poem to
heighten elusiveness, and her original manner of self-publication,
what I call the "contexts" in which she presented her work. Internal
techniques include the rhythm or internal clock of the poem, abstract

words that connote awe and excess, compression/elision, avoidance
of narrative, tonal shifts, direct challenges to the reader, redefinition

of familiar terms, oxymoronic language, humor and riddle, and
finally, the sceneless landscape of her poems. Contextual evasion

comprises embedding and/or including poems in letters and forming
fascicle bindings to "hold" the poems.' I conclude the chapter by

reading her poems and her epistolary remarks pertaining to poetry,

and I argue that Dickinson's break with nineteenth-century cultural
norms was profound and pivotal for the course of American poetry.

Perhaps we will come to believe, as Christopher Benfey does, "that








her thinking is as sophisticated as that of other poets we are

accustomed to taking seriously as thinkers" (8).

The following definition poem is a good place to begin discussing

the techniques of evasion. Dickinson defines the poet and his art:

This was a Poet--It is That
Distills amazing sense
From ordinary Meanings--
And Attar so immense

From the familiar species
That perished by the Door--
We wonder it was not Ourselves
Arrested it--before--

Of Pictures, the Discloser--
The Poet--it is He--
Entitles Us--by Contrast--
To ceaseless Poverty--
Of Portion--so unconscious--
The Robbing--could not harm--
Himself--to Him--a Fortune--
Exterior--to Time-- (P 448)
This poem, which explains what a poet accomplishes and how he

interacts with his readers, begins with the curious juxtaposition in

the first line between "This" and "was." We are intrigued because

throughout the rest of the poem Dickinson refers to the poet in the

present tense. "This was a Poet--" Of course, Dickinson could be

stating the obvious fact that a poet's influence continues after his

death. But in mixing tenses, Dickinson does to us what her poet/God

does to his audience; she frustrates our expectations. She knows we

are tragically time-bound, time-obsessed, and one of her foremost

evasions is the timeless anti-clock of her poetic "calendar." Her dash

is only the most obvious deregulator of rhythm.2 In this poem tense-








play renders us "Exterior--to Time--;" add this to her habitual

disruption of logical connections, her refusal to instruct or offer

meanings and conclusions (the poet as liberator, not teacher) and we

are thrust into a psychic timewarp. This apparent disruption "Entitles
Us" to the enabling poverty of timelessness. We receive this wealth;

we are capitalized ("Us"); we experience a liberation from a great

barrier to knowledge: time.

In "Song of Myself." Whitman says, "I loafe and invite my soul, / I
lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass" (4-5).
Dickinson, though less serenely contemplative and more compressed
than Whitman, similarly forestalls, delays and postpones the
regularity of rhetoric.

The disruptor of time works in a variety of ways. First, he
transforms meanings, which are sterile, intellectual conclusions, into
"amazing sense." Again, Dickinson exploits the varied connotations of

words. In addition to extracting essence, "Distills" suggests that the
poet's creation both inebriates and instigates movement, or dis-stills,
while "amazing" carries not only the obvious sense, but also the
suggestion that good poetry deposits the reader in a maze, a

circuitous and confusing experience which forces us to reach the
truth only after repeated conjecture and failure.

Secondly, the poet hopes to nullify our tendency to classify and
narrow, that is, to transform a living miracle into a "familiar species"
which is not special at all. Such a tendency, she implies, results in a

perishing world. The poet transcends simple picture-making. He will
not freeze or idealize matter; instead, he will restore movement to








experience. Finally, he speaks in paradox: poverty is wealth, meaning

is senseless.

Dickinson tinkers with rhythm in order to suggest that in the

movement of the mind, time is irrelevant. Judy Jo Small derides

those who see this strategy as failure; Small lauds Dickinson's

tendency to "surprise closural expectations with abrupt stops,

anticlimactic deflation, or lingering unanswered questions" (175).

recognizing this practice as a general trend in modern art and poetry,

Small focuses, for example, on Dickinson's practice of partial rhymes

"to show how they cooperate with thematic and other factors in

achieving deliberately weak closure" (175). Partial rhyme, Small

says, "is more ambiguous and less stable in effect than full rhyme .

and may be felt in various contexts as gentler, weirder, more

discordant, or more elusive" (175).

Shira Wolosky, too, hears disorder in Dickinson's music,

particularly in the way the poet restructures Isaac Watts's hymns.

But Dickinson attempts more than a mere parody of Watts. Wolosky

rightly argues that in addition to "subvert(ing) his doctrinal

assertions," Dickinson "often proceeds to subvert her own

subversions" (232). Unfortunately where I see Dickinson slyly

evading her own incipient conclusions, Wolosky sees a "struggle,"

allying her with those critics who find Dickinson falling somewhat

short of her intentions. When Dickinson evades her own evasions she
is in total control.

The previous poem provides a fitting example of purposefully

dissonant partial rhyme. The second and fourth lines of the first

three stanzas fully rhyme, lulling the reader with clock-like








regularity. The pedestrian reader of Victorian poetry would expect

this seamless, soothing affirmation of the world as a place where

closure and coherence exist.3 Dickinson then "opens" the ending of

the poem with the partial harm/time rhyme (this ending does
"harm" the timing or harmony of the poem), thus shattering the

lullabye, and like the "Poet" of her poem, she restores richness to the
"poverty" of the familiar. Time cannot regulate life, and the aim of

the poems is to destroy that illusion. As she says to Susan Gilbert

Dickinson, "There is no first, or last, in Forever--It is Centre, there, all
the time--" (L 288). This exploration of the "centre" through the

deviation of the hymnal mode, according to Cynthia Griffin Wolff,
was "new enough to seem revolutionary, discordant" (186), but
Dickinson was less concerned with being defiant than with singing
her own tune.
This poem features quite a few examples of the Dickinsonian
evasions I catalogued earlier: the irregular timing, words and phrases
that denote obscurity, awe, and possibility, redefinition of cultural
concepts. But the list is not exhausted. The poems relentlessly
announce their evasiveness, and although Dickinson's style has been

well-described, I hope to represent these "irregularities" as a holistic
theory of art in complete accordance with the evasive personality I

documented in the previous chapter.

Even at the most basic grammatical level, Dickinson designs her
poetry to puzzle. Cristanne Miller's study of Dickinson's "grammar"

supports my claim that Dickinson deliberately creates an evasive

effect. First, Miller claims that Dickinson's "compression" or brevity
"could only result from fully conscious deviation from the poetic








language of the time" (26). Although I find it overly schematic to

conclude that Dickinson's style was a direct response to nineteenth-
century narrative or discursive poetry, Dickinson may indeed have

viewed such pontification as ironically unsuggestive and limited; she

did turn to a minimalist style that Miller says "allows for protective

ambiguity, conveys a sense of the speaker's withheld power, and

implies a profundity beyond the obvious import of its message" (27).
Thus Miller, in effect, finds an architecture of evasion in the poems,

and this is a welcome antidote to the flailing/failing school of
criticism. Dickinson's inscrutable speaker, playing her mysteries close
to the vest, embodies the evasive style.
Miller also cites "disjunction" (the abrupt shifts of tone, subject,
etc.) as a key feature of Dickinson's poetry. This feature"heightens
the effect of fragmentation and undercuts the reader's
expectation of finding ordered meaning" (45-46). Working to create
this disjunction is Dickinson's peculiar punctuation, which "teaches
the reader to trust the play of the mind" (51). Dickinson also
"deliberately overlaps nonspecific pronouns and definite pronouns

without antecedents thereby creating a quality of timelessness"
(76). Miller cites "This was a Poet--It is That" as an example.

All of these elements in her poetry combine to convince the
reader that Dickinson's is not an accidental poetry of failure.
"Dickinson's poetry," according to Miller, "rivals twentieth-century

poetry in its disruption of expected patterns of style and meaning"

(44). Indeed, Dickinson's multilayered, evasive technique, without

seeming pretentious, coy, or artificial, exceeds what even self-

conscious modernists attempt.4








All poetry is ambiguous, but Dickinson's brand seems particularly

purposeful and serpentine, the obscurity a calculated challenge to

both the reader's and the writer's inclination to seek intellectual

harbors. Maybe it is this stubborn, almost gleeful determination to

fling herself and the reader into the maelstrom of indecision that

prompts Camille Paglia to call her "a virtuoso of sadomasochistic

surrealism" (624). Poem 303 begins, "The Soul selects her own

society--." Does this mean the soul chooses itself, one other, more

than one? Is the fourth line ("Present no more--") a command or a

statement? The possible combinations form a dizzying array of

interpretations. But that is Dickinson's point. She seems to be
playfully referring to the range of linguistic choices available to poet

and reader throughout the poem, as well as to one's choice of

company in the final stanza: "I've known her --from an ample

nation-- / Choose One--". Not only does she maintain the ambiguity

she established earlier, but she puns on the act of choosing in several

ways.

First, one can read the line "Choose One--" unambiguously as a

reference to the choice of soulmate. But, as I have stated earlier, I

choose to read this line as if the soul is wedding herself, which leads

me to a more complex and playful obscurity. This line could stand

alone as an order to the reader to make a choice between rival

meanings in the poem. But even this imperative we cannot take

seriously because Dickinson refuses to make the choice herself. To

encapsulate the conundrum, the poet writes a poem about the

winnowing of choice, but then refuses to make the choice she

professes to desire. She then playfully asks the reader to make that








choice, knowing that the maze of selections she offers throughout the

poem makes selection impossible. So we are restored to an "ample

nation" of meanings, not an exclusionary choice. One aim of evasion,

then, is to provide possibilities, not to dictate a choice.

Dickinson often challenges the reader to make decisions she

knows to be impossible in order to reveal the danger and sterility of

choosing:

As if some little Arctic flower
Upon the polar hem--
Went wandering down the Latitudes
Until it puzzled came
To continents of summer--
To firmaments of sun--
To strange, bright crowds of flowers--
And birds, of foreign tongue!
I say, As if this little flower
To Eden, wandered in--
What then? Why nothing,
Only, your inference therefrom! (P 180)
This poem breaks all the rules. As I first read it, I immediately

donned my critical mantle, alert to every Dickinsonian buzz-word. Is

this a typically impoverished character, weaned on rock and ice, who,

when afforded a glimpse of paradise, finds it strange and alien? Is
Dickinson talking about the afterlife or about worldly bliss? Is the

reader the "Arctic flower" who wanders into the "strange" world of

the Dickinson poem? Of course, the poet has cleverly set her trap and

lured us into the web of her poem through her tantalizing riddle. She

knows we cannot help interpreting, concluding and perhaps even

making biographical connections to the poet. And just when we feel

comfortable and smug with our insights, she belittles the critical

activity in which we have assiduously engaged ourselves. The








metaphors point toward excess: "continents, firmaments and crowds."

Amid such dizzying, variegated paths of a Dickinson lyric, we reach

no conclusions, only "inferences." She rankles us because we are not

prepared for the poet to break the smooth surface of the lyric with

authorial intrusions. This glimpse into the poet's workshop and the

unedited quality of the poem is quite seditious and precocious,

prefiguring Stevens' ruminations and, significantly, those of a recent

American Poet Laureate, Robert Hass.

In his latest volume, for example, Hass writes a poem that begins,
"Maybe you need to write a poem about grace." He also writes

"Layover," and follows it with "Notes on 'Layover,'" which begins, "I

could have said that ." (1). Often Hass will break into the poem to

speak, and in one of his paranthetical remarks, he alludes to
Dickinson:

(What is the rhythm of that line? Oh, I see. Four and three,
Emily's line!--

There ought to be some single word
For the misery of divorce.
It dines upon you casually
duh--dduh--duh--duh--dduh--fierce/remorse/pierce/)
(From "Regalia For a Black Hat Dancer" 74-79)
Through Hass's evasiveness, his reluctance to make choices or polish

his verse, he continues Dickinson's legacy. Reviews of his book, Sun

Under Wood, register surprise at these techniques; David Barker calls

Hass's method "skeptical, self-disclosing, deconstructive," and notes

that "Dickinson's anthem meter haunts Hass or his text-in-delay"

(299, 301). Imagine the reaction of Dickinson's first readers, upon

reading her "text-in-delay."








In addition to writing poems of manifold choices, Dickinson also

selected common words and restored richness and strangeness to

them, not to redefine but to undefine and unconfine:

"Morning"--means "Milking"--to the Farmer--
Dawn--to the Teneriffe--
Dice--to the Maid--
Morning means just Risk--to the Lover--
Just revelation--to the Beloved--

Of course by containing morning within quotation marks, Dickinson
actually frees the word from monologic meaning, and she proceeds to
"define" it according to context. When morning is repeated a second
time the quotation marks are dropped because the word has become

so unfettered that morning can mean risk and revelation in addition
to the more obvious associations of milking and dawn.

In the second and final stanza, the process continues; the
language becomes more compressed; the pace quickens; we are

heading for an explosion:
Epicures--date a Breakfast--by it--
Brides--an Apocalypse--
Worlds--a Flood--
Faint-going Lives--Their Lapse from Sighing--
Faith--The Experiment of Our Lord-- (P 300)

Morning is gone,and in its place stand words of sweeping change and
destruction (flood and apocalypse). Yet the final two lines bring the

poem together by yoking two disparate reactions to the awesome
power of destruction and creation that each morning signals. The

faint-hearted sigh, and only through death do they achieve peace
and a release from struggle. But the faithful accept God's experiment

and the bravest rejoice in it.








Perhaps we sense an undercurrent of resentment towards God for
treating us as ingredients in this experiment. Ironically, and with

conspicuous formality, Dickinson refers to him as "Our Lord," but

countering these barbs is the experimental poem we are reading.

Dickinson's faith resides in the power of each new poem to incite

floods and apocalypse, the risk of the experiment worth the

revelation. Recall her definition of poetry and understand that bold

acts of poetic creation, like God's improvisations, do not pass through
our systems like pabulum; instead they teach us to embrace chaos
and change, the pain of renewal: mornings. Evasion absconds with
tired meanings and replaces them with a more muscular metaphor.
Dickinson injects these familiar syllables with a strange elixir.
Dickinson reconfigures meaning through a relentlessly
paradoxical and oxymoronic language, usually transforming words of
pain and restriction into empowering statements of determination.
Even if this evasion is figurative and intellectual, resulting in artistic
breakthroughs and an unfettered mind, we must not wish it were
more public. From her room and through her pen, Dickinson set new

parameters for the interior life. If one's life is physically cloistered,
hang tapestries: "How soft this Prison is / How sweet these sullen

bars" (P 1334). Are you seen as crazy, eccentric; is your mental state
questioned? Turn the tables on language and your accuser: "Much

Madness is Divinest Sense-- / To a discerning Eye-- / Much Sense--
the starkest Madness--" (P 435). If you are thrown into the

maelstrom of a horrible experience, plumb the depths of terror: "'Tis
so appalling--it exhilarates--" (P 281).








These are first-line, front-line manifestos of evasion; by yoking

incongruous states of feeling, by reversing the polarities of our

understanding. Dickinson ignites a spark which consumes both our
conceptions about poetry and the linguistic (and thus social) order

under which the poet labors. Like Whitman's embrace of the drifter

(Reynolds), Dickinson boldly allied herself with the mad and the

marginal, adopting the language of insanity for the purposes of her

art and risking the very condemnation and misunderstanding that
still occurs today. Her evasion blazes a trail through states of feeling
from which others retreat, and deposits her--and us--on a plateau of
imaginative expansion.
That Dickinson evades parochial creative modes by toppling the
structure of language is evidenced in the settings of her poems,
which eschew or bury social markers. Not only the clock of a
Dickinson poem, but the geography as well, immerse us in sensory
ataxia, but this "groping" is the prelude to a new way of seeing:

We grow accustomed to the Dark--
When Light is put away--
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Goodbye--

Appropriately, this poem begins with the speaker's departure from
the light, whether it be the glare of social expectations or the false

light of a spurious idea. Most Dickinson poems begin with a
renunciation, and in this case, the speaker renounces both the social

contract that binds people together for security and the comfort of an
inherited system of rules and codes. The speaker is only a visitor to

this deceptively illuminated world, who perhaps reluctantly steps








out into the metaphoric dark while the timid and selfish neighbor

clutches the lamp for her own security.

We all stumble out into the dark alone, without markers,
possessing only that buried potential to summon interior

illumination:

A Moment--We uncertain step
For newness of the night--
Then--fit our Vision to the Dark--
And meet the Road--erect-- (P 419)
Dickinson injects a certain muscularity, a physical determination on
the speaker's part to make things "fit" and to step "erect." This
determination belies the conspicuous metaphysical "scenelessness" of
the poem. Evasion is vital and active; Dickinson insists that the work
of the brain is strenuous, that psychic survival is every bit as
wrenching and admirable as the work of the peripatetic traveller
who swallows continents in an effort to gain knowledge and
experience. This refusal to give the reader the false comfort of

tangible places and things might alienate some, but Dickinson takes
the lamp away from us so that we "grope a little" with the
strangeness of a poetry that also beckons to us. She slyly claims we

might "hit a Tree / Directly in the Forehead--," perhaps suggesting
that both the reader and the groper must not rely on physical

guideposts; they are either ephemeral like the lamp, or they prove to
be obstacles to one's development of nocturnal radar, because we
clutch at them rather than embrace the dark.5 Inured to the

"Evenings of the Brain," we forget the light, and "Life steps almost

straight." (Naturally Dickinson would prefer a slightly awkward gait,

the enabling imperfection.)








The tree collision in poem 419 displays yet another example of

the evasive technique: humor and riddle. In the midst of a serious

meditation Dickinson will mellow the profundity with a few drops of

wit, satire, or self-effacement. Death poems particularly display some

element of odd or obtuse humor that eases the leaden weight of

morbidity, and tempers the prevailing tone. The middle stanza of the

following poem illustrates her practice:

We do not play on Graves--
Because there isn't Room--
Besides--it isn't even--it slants
And People come--

And put a Flower on it--
And hang their faces so--
We're fearing that their Hearts will drop--
And crush our pretty play--
And so we move as far
As Enemies--away--
Just looking round to see how far
It is--Occasionally-- (P 467)
Dickinson subtly satirizes the death-fearing adults by comically

contrasting the predictable mourners with the natively innocent

children who dare to play on graves. If children choose not to play

there it is for reasons other than fear. Perhaps their marbles will roll

off the mound, or they lack space to spread out. Adults teach

children not to play there for other reasons, and to have an

unhealthy respect for, and fear of death ("we move as far / As

Enemies--away--"). Dickinson provides an antidote both through her

poetic explorations of death and the comic situations in which she

sometimes places her protagonists.








She never treats death with sentimental reverence.6 In poem 465

the "Blue--uncertain stumbling Buzz--" of the fly replaces any
deathbed visions of heaven to which a different kind of poet might

resort. In poem 449 two people in adjoining tombs discuss their

reasons for their interment, and even the famous "Because I could

not stop for Death--" (P 712), though chilling, also presents a unique

situation: the post-mortem chariot ride, and a speaker who treats
death as if he were just another caller.

Humor also abounds in the non-death poems: The conspiratorial
whimsy of "I'm Nobody! Who are you?" (P 288) and the image of a
reeling poet drunk on nature in poem 214 ("Debauchee of Dew") are
memorable comic romps.
Perhaps her favorite comic form was the riddle because, as
Richard Sewall says, "On a higher level, the 'riddle' became
metaphoric of cosmic questions that, though they haunted Emily
Dickinson throughout her life, provided her very reason for being
and for writing poetry" (4). Because Dickinson presented herself as a
riddle (she described herself to Higginson in letter 268 as "small, like
the Wren, and my Hair is bold, like the Chestnut Bur--and my eyes,

like the Sherry in the Glass, that the Guest leaves--"), and because

she devoted herself to indirection as a means to discover truth, she

wrote poems teeming with overt and covert riddles.

Many readers are familiar with her depictions of hummingbirds,
snakes and the railroad train, all presented without referring to the

subject by name, but her poems also perplex with interior riddles as

well. In Dickinson's peculiar lexicon, words like snow, circumference,








circuit, and noon become riddles themselves, and her epigrammatic

poems beg to be decoded:

Experiment escorts us last--
His pungent company
Will not allow an Axiom
An Opportunity (P 1770)

Dickinson prefers the company of the pungentt experimenter to the

dry and peremptory axiom. (Perhaps this is self escorting self?) She

cleverly reverses scientific practice by moving from conclusion

backwards to hypothesis. She might entertain a few axioms, but she

will leave the dance with the livelier experiment. That Dickinson

makes this choice every time (her poems often start with a solid

axiom she proceeds to debunk) represents the daring, evasive riddler
in the heart of the poet.

Given that Dickinson's experimental style elides the normal uses
of language in order to restore perplexity to our search for truth, we

might assume that the contexts in which she placed her poems reveal

yet another level of evasion. Her refusal to publish, the unknown

purposes of the fascicles, the poems which emerge from letters, all

enhance the evasive style of the poems.

Dickinson's only purposeful "publishing" of her poetry was in

letters she wrote to friends and family and those poems she sent to

Higginson for review. Her refusal to publish is a highly evasive act,

but not for the obvious reason that she was shy about her work, or

unsure of her talent. This was not a negative, reactive, and cloistered

escape. On the contrary, Dickinson wanted to play with the context of

her poems, to guard against giving words a rigid and terminal body,

what Dickinson calls "Corporeal illustration" (P 709). The poems'








evasive punch is diluted when they are typeset in a book or

periodical.7

We have regularized her upward and downward slanting marks

into dashes, commas and periods as we have seen fit, robbing them
of the energy and furtiveness they retain in the manuscripts.8 Also,

Dickinson would have had no control over the neighborhood in which

her poems resided. If they appeared in a magazine, what poems
would precede or follow hers? Under what heading or introduction

were they to be placed? By including them in letters and hiding them
in the text as well, Dickinson could control the reverberations of text
colliding with context, and she could alter the settings, thereby
changing the sense. The poems in the Johnson edition, stripped of
their epistolary context, retain their elusiveness, yes, but they reflect
a certain cold sterility. The very publishing history of Dickinson's
poems (their unshakeable identifications with arbitrary numbers in a

volume that ignores their origins), has engendered the kind of
criticism of her work that I hope to amend: that no blood flowed
through her veins, that her art, to quote a reactionary view of Joel
Porte's, is "a ghostly storm making a ghost of whatever it touches"

(256).

Evasion emits warmth; positive and playful despite its negations,
it is a way to embrace the world on its own terms, not to avoid it.

Many of these poems have lives whose stories are never told, or are
too quickly forgotten. Poems that mention, or which are addressed to,

Sue Gilbert or her brother, Austin, seem oddly unsupported or

forcibly muted in the collected poems, abstracted from their soil like








plants pulled from their roots, like hothouse poems. This one,

included in letter 229 to Samuel Bowles, serves my purpose:

Would you like Summer? Taste of our's--
Spices? Buy, here!
IIl! We have Berries, for the parching!
Weary! Furloughs of Down!
Perplexed! Estates of Violet--Trouble ne'er looked on
Captive! We bring Reprieve of Roses!
Fainting! Flasks of Air!
Even for Death--a Fairy Medicine--
But, which is it--Sir? (P 691)
Was this poem meant to be stripped of its context? In the letter

that precedes it. we learn that it is winter, that Bowles is sick, and

that this poem is offered as a summer balm for his illness. But we

discover other subtexts as well. She says this letter is a "prayer that
goes not down--when they shut the church--," which breathes a

pagan spirit into the poem. Also, knowing Dickinson's affection for

Bowles, the promise of sensuous gluttony in the poem carries a hint

of the sexual and provocative.9 The conspicuous use of the pronoun
"we" throughout the poem is matched in the letter, and clashes with

the intimacy of the genre and the exotic/erotic tone of the lyric.

Dickinson subsumes the personal in the collective to create an

ambiguous message. Much of this is lost when we isolate the poem.

Another short letter-cum-poem to Bowles, resounds with a much

more cryptic and metaphysical timbre. She begins the letter with a

hushed and stately "Thank you," and follows it with this poem and

short addendum:

"Faith" is a fine invention
When Gentlemen can see--
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency.








You spoke of the "East." I have thought about it this winter. Dont
you think you and I should be shrewder, to take
the Mountain Road?
That Bareheaded life--under the grass--worries one like a
Wasp. The Rose is for Mary.
Emily (L 220)
As is typical in Dickinson's evasive art, her psychic needle swiftly

arcs through all compass points, never locking on one direction. She

looks downward to death, east to the resurrection, up toward

paradise; she delves inside of things (the microscope), while

entertaining the embracing all of pure faith. But these are all

inventions or metaphors that Dickinson fashions to assist her inquiry,

not specific destinations. Cynthia Griffin Wolff, in her treatment of
this poem, tellingly makes no distinction between the poem and the

buttressing text (248). Are we sanctioned to separate them? One can

argue that this is a single poem, and the split text represents the

poet's refusal to choose her genre, thereby creating tension and

mimicing the many choices in the letter. Again, evasion blurs

distinctions, eschews choices, invents and reinvents. Her practice of

bouncing poem off letter is yet another example of the strategy.

Not only did Dickinson "publish" her poems in letters, she often
sent the same poem to different people, sometimes changing the

wording or punctuation, sometimes omitting a stanza or two. She sent

the following quatrain (with a change of pronouns) to both Higginson,

on the death of his wife (L 517), and to Harriet and Martha Dickinson

as a more general valediction on lost relatives (L 518):

Perhaps she does not go so far
As you who stay--suppose--
Perhaps come closer, for the lapse
Of her corporeal clothes--








I admit the contexts change the poem's sense only slightly, but

this practice reveals much about Dickinson's relationship with her

creations. Though many poets might view a poem as a temporary

verbal accretion whose status as a finished artifact must be

questioned, they nonetheless usually complete poems and publish

them without continuing to recreate them. Dickinson continually

melts down her poems, or parts of them in order to reshape them,

with obviously little intellectual attachment to them as artifacts. This

allies her with Whitman, whose repeated revisions of Leaves of Grass

have left us to make choices among versions. But Dickinson does not

proliferate variants to coerce choice, but rather to present art as
process, to liberate herself from the need to choose; she wants poetry

to be like an unharnassable force of nature, a brief illumination in a

string of lights showering into our minds:

To pile like Thunder to its close
Then crumble grand away
While Everything created hid
This--would be Poetry-- (P 1247)
Dickinson's lyrics, strung together, are like blasts of thunder, a

musical archipelago; the variant words she includes in many of her

poems are the cacophonous echoes within each blast. Like Charles

Ives's modernist symphonies, the melodic line is assaulted by

dissonant intrusions. Of course the "would" represents her perpetual

yearning and her understanding that true poetry does not issue from

pens, but is a conflation of God and Love as she says in the second

stanza.

Another unfortunate editing practice has been the elimination of

variants in any trade volume of Dickinson's poetry. One would have








to either buy the very expensive three volume scholarly edition or

have access to a university library to read the poems with their
variants. Dickinson purposely did not choose between variant words;
thus she created elusiveness, depth and infinitude. As Sharon
Cameron asserts, "it is impossible to say where the text ends because
the variants extend the text's identity in ways that make it seem
potentially limitless" (5). Like the limitless identity Dickinson
presented to the world, the poems, too, "embody the problem of
identity" (4). Dickinson, however, does not see identity as
problematic; variants are opportunities to enlarge the identity or
circumference of a poem or its speaker. A poem becomes a variant of
itself, by altering a word, and of course there are the variant words
themselves, which add a certain afterlife to the poem. In Hart Crane's
elegy, "To Emily Dickinson," he says that "no flower yet withers in
your hand" (9), an astute observation that life emitted from her pen.
She briefly held but did not contain.
Dickinson, in a radical epistolary practice, hid poems, formatted
as prose, in the text of her letters. Some of these were excavated by
Johnson and included in the 1775 poems, but only recently, through
William Shurr's work, do we see an effort to extract more (498 to be
exact) and to promote them as part of the Dickinson canon.
Shurr's work gratifies, especially in the discovery of epigrams
and riddles (some of the longer poems he extracts, moreover, beg our
indulgence to be considered as such), and I agree that "in Dickinson's
practice the border between the two genres was easily permeable"

(4), but having made this assertion, he takes the wrong tack, one that
leaves him as out to sea as other critics who ignore context. Shurr








argues (perhaps to validate his own study) "that her poems had a

kind of separate existence apart from the particular letters in which

they might be imbedded" (5). Instead of asserting their discrete,

freestanding status, he undoubtedly should have noted and framed

these poems, and then explored the verbal and aural surroundings in

which Dickinson placed them.

Dickinson was not indifferent to the settings of her poems, as
Shurr claims. She saw the various stages for her poems as an

opportunity to multiply meaning and enhance evasion. Poems
become players/actors themselves, filling a role in a larger drama,
which is constantly changing. These poems are not meant as
soliloquies, but as words within a web of speech.
Though Shurr rightly insists on the "evanescence of the
borderline" between the poems and letters (6), he ultimately
reaffirms the conservative editorial practices he chastizes, for he
ignores the context. Printing these poems separately, he calcifies the
very borders Dickinson strove to dissolve.
Recently, critics have applied themselves to the fascicle packets

in which Dickinson "organized" her poetry. Scholars understandably
conjure varied theories about the fascicles' thematic coherence. R.W.

Franklin, who reorganized the poems in the proper fascicles after

they had been disbound by previous editors, offered little critical
commentary, but he did conjecture that Dickinson's packets were
partly an effort to "reduce disorder in her manuscripts" (1). Franklin

acknowledged, however, that more sophisticated critical inquiry is

necessary: "In general, we need to understand why she assembled








the fascicles--by what principles and for what purposes--and to have

them available in the way she viewed them" (1).

Dorothy Huff Oberhaus finds a "deep structural and thematic
unity" in the fortieth and final fascicle (3). Ironically, her cutting

edge work on the fascicles yields a fairly traditional view of the poet:
that her donneess, her forms, and many of her most arresting tropes

place her within the tradition of Christian devotion" (3). In fact the
final fascicle is more than a discrete thematic whole, Oberhaus says;

it is the "triumphant conclusion of a spiritual and poetic
pilgrimage that begins with the first fascicle's first poem" (3).

While Oberhaus recognizes that the fascicle "does not so much
'tell' as 'hide' its meaning" (9). we must turn to Sharon Cameron to
understand how radically evasive and duplicitous the fascicles are.

One can deduce from the title of her book. Choosing Not Choosing,
that Cameron thinks Dickinson thwarts closure and theme in the

fascicles and variants, by unfettering the traditionally bounded lyric
form:

I shall argue that words that are variants are part of the
poem outside of which they ostensibly lie, as poems in
the same fascicle may sometimes be seen as variants of
each other. The difficulty in enforcing a limit to the
poems turns into a kind of limitlessness, for it is
impossible to say where the text ends because the
variants extend the text's identity in ways that make
it seem potentially limitless. (5-6)
By creating a structure that denies the efficacy of structure, form,
and limit, Dickinson accomplishes on this larger scale what she

effects in the language of each poem, what Cameron calls the
"violation" of "categorical limits" and other terms of measurement be

they spatial, temporal, or textual.




Full Text
xml version 1.0 encoding UTF-8
REPORT xmlns http:www.fcla.edudlsmddaitss xmlns:xsi http:www.w3.org2001XMLSchema-instance xsi:schemaLocation http:www.fcla.edudlsmddaitssdaitssReport.xsd
INGEST IEID EGJSPVHAG_V80GQ2 INGEST_TIME 2013-10-10T01:19:25Z PACKAGE AA00017627_00001
AGREEMENT_INFO ACCOUNT UF PROJECT UFDC
FILES


135
beautiful symbol for this kind of deceptively powerful, intensely-
compacted, tightly-wound kernel of lyric explosiveness), and through
surfeit ("Gush after Gush"), the reader/lover is overwhelmed by the
layers of song. The apparent supplication of the bird or bard, then, is
illusory, as Dickinson transforms evasion from a trope of edgy flight,
into a powerful, confounding presence.3 Dickinson's poems of "daisies,
birds and bees," laments Millard, have encouraged some critics to
view her as "a naive and untutored poet" because, like Higginson,
they "ignore the formal qualities of the verse" (75). Dickinson, of
course, recognized the hidden power in these superficially "naive"
poems (as her chillingly serious warning to Samuel Bowles about
doubting her "snow" (L 250) reminds us).
Though this poem sparkles with tension between two different
types of language or ways of knowing, though her "yoking together
of discordant discourses is disconcerting" (Millard 74), and though
she revels in the indeterminacy of an ever-unfolding lyric
symphony, Dickinson does not reject science or empiricism for some
voodoo mysticism or transcendental disembodiment, nor does she
suggest that the tools of reason be relegated to the ideological scrap
heap.4 Richard Brantley has eloquently presented, after all,
Dickinson's "broadly experiential vision" ("Dickinson" 246), and he
has offered a valid framework for understanding and even unifying
Dickinson's apparently "discordant" voices through what he calls an
"experiential continuum that joins empirical philosophy at oné end to
evangelical faith at the other" ("Dickinson" 250).
I too believe that through an ensemble of voices and personae, a
paradoxical unity emerges. I share with Brantley a desire to

EMILY DICKINSON AND THE ART OF EVASION
BY
DOUGLAS JON FORMAN
A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
1998

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
I would like to thank my committee members, Marsha Bryant,
Chris Snodgrass, Anne Jones, and Ben Nelms. Their enthusiastic
readings of my work helped me to clarify my ideas, and their
willingness to correspond long distance is appreciated. I owe much of
my educational success to my friend, and the Chair of my committee,
Richard Brantley, who has helped me heroically in numerous ways.
He has been Advisor, Department Liaison, Cheerleader, Editor, and
Therapist, and his warmth, graciousness, and infectious enthusiasm
have kept me strong and focused. He is not only a great teacher; he is
a wonderful man.
I am deeply and forever grateful for the emotional and financial
support of my mother and father, Robert and Carlene Baime. Their
wisdom and understanding are limitless; they are my first and best
teachers; they are my foundation.
I come from a close-knit family, and I am continuously buoyed
by their love. My sisters, Robin, Karen, Jennifer, Melissa, and Rachel
have been steadfast friends and they have shown me how to
succeed. Charles Forman's common sense and gentle prodding kept
me focused. The friendship and generosity of my "brother" and ski
partner, Martin, was an anchor amid the chaos of graduate work. My
grandmothers, Hermelene Young and Harriet Forman, created a safe
place for me to dream; I wish they were here to share my success.
11

Finally, I could never have completed my work without Susan
and Kiyanna Hutchins, who entered my life two years ago, and taught
me how to love. They ignited the creative spark inside of me.
Selections from Emily Dickinson's poetry are reprinted by
permission of the publishers from The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed.
Thomas H. Johnson. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1955; and from The
Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson.
Copyright 1914, 1929, 1935, 1942 by Martha Dickinson Bianchi;
Copyright renewed 1957, 1963 by Mary L. Hampson. Reprinted by
permission of Little, Brown and Company.
Selections from Emily Dickinson's letters are reprinted by
permission of the publishers from The Letters of Emily Dickinson.
Ed. Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward. 3 Vols. Cambridge:
Harvard UP, 1958.

TABLE OF CONTENTS
page
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS ü
ABBREVIATIONS v
ABSTRACT vi
CHAPTERS
1 INTRODUCTION 1
Thesis 1
Overview 12
Organization 24
Notes 29
2 DICKINSON'S PERSONAE 31
Notes 69
3 THE LANGUAGE OF EVASION 70
Notes 109
4 NATURE REDEFINED Ill
Notes 148
5 CONCLUSION 150
WORKS CITED 160
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH 166

ABBREVIATIONS
The following texts of Emily Dickinson's poems and letters have
been used in this dissertation and will be cited by the abbreviations
listed in parentheses here.
The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. 3 Vols.
Cambridge: Harvard UP. 1955 (P); The Letters of Emily Dickinson.
Eds. Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward. 3 Vols. Cambridge:
Harvard UP, 1958 (L).
v

Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy
EMILY DICKINSON AND THE ART OF EVASION
By
Douglas Jon Forman
May, 1998
Chairman: Richard Brantley
Major Department: English
Emily Dickinson has long been saddled with a reputation that
hinders an honest appraisal of her poetry. She has been
characterized as an agoraphobic misfit, a lovelorn waif or, most
damaging, a raw, untutored poet whose genius is obvious but whose
craft is lacking. In Emily Dickinson and the Art of Evasion I argue,
conversely, that the way Dickinson presented herself and the way
she wrote combine to form a coherent strategy of dissent.
At the heart of my work is a reconception of evasion. I refute
canonical views that evasion necessarily connotes passivity, fearful
withdrawal, and surreptitious manipulation. Mindful that "evade”
stems from the Latin "evadere" which means to go out or walk, I
stress that Dickinson's evasiveness serves more positive aims:
intellectual expansion and reconnection with nature.
In chapter one, I show how Dickinson devises various selves both
to disrupt conventional expectations of a centered artistic voice, and
vi

to experiment with different roles: the believer, the skeptic, the
spurned lover and the imperious queen. Refuting those that excuse
her poetry as debris from psychological trauma, I argue that
Dickinson carefully chose and established her multiple personae as
one part of a viable and courageous personal/artistic
phenomenology. The speakers in the letters and poems make sense
as art, even if they addle her critics.
In chapter two I illustrate how Dickinson's evasive techniques
bespeak a profound distaste for intellectual stagnation. In fact, she
manages to destroy the poem at the same time she is creating it,
poising herself for the next lyric adventure into the unknown.
In chapter three I explore Dickinson's fascination with transition
zones in nature: autumn, sunrise, and sunset. These examples of
organic evasion serve both as models for her verse (a sunset poem
may mimic the pace and evanescence of the sunset) and as
challenges: how does a poet render evasive moments without
compromising nature's mystery. Dickinson carefully balances her
need to speak with her contention that "true poems flee." The result
is the epitome of her evasive art.

CHAPTER 1
INTRODUCTION
Thesis
Poetry as a craft always entails, for Emily Dickinson, the
renunciation of naming—to the extent, indeed, that she questions the
validity of language altogether. This repeated questioning leads
ultimately to the "breakdown" at the end of the poem, where the
words end and a pregnant pause presages the world beyond
utterance. The truest poem, then, is that which is least like a poem:
"To see the Summer Sky / Is Poetry, though never in a book it lie— /
True Poems flee—" (P 1472). In this truncated poem, Dickinson
stresses vision, claiming that the sight of the summer sky, rather
than one's verbal abstraction of it, is the true poem. To that end she
excises the description of the sky, and ends with the word "flee-" as
if the poet escaped from the poem into the silence of the summer
sky.
Dickinson still privileges the viewer/poet enough to give herself
the power of evaluation. After all, she could have simply said "the
Summer Sky is poetry," thereby obviating the need for a perceiver at
all. Instead, she claims that the act of viewing yields poetry. Thus
this poem manifests a paradox from which her evasive art springs:
she validates the role of the poet but limits the traditional scope of
her craft. In form and content, then, the poem inspires my definition
1

2
of her poetry; it requires the poet to silence herself in order to retain
the integrity of nature.
In deifying the remote, the unexplainable, and the yet to be
experienced, she succeeds in freeing her lyrics from traditional
landscape painting, but by adhering to her contention that the truest
poems are those not written, she questions the role of the poet as
singer. Like Frost's Oven Bird she "knows in singing not to sing" (12),
and the result is a movement towards silence, represented by the
greater brevity of the later poems.1
Even as we finally unburden Dickinson from a century-long
stereotype as an American Miss Havisham, scholarship continues to
bear the residue of biographical speculation. Critics display a
renewed focus on the poems, but many have merely superimposed
or projected the sensational aspects of her life on the art: they
assume the poetry reflects the agoraphobic abnormalities they find
in her life. Despite Dickinson's insistence that she endeavored to
write poems that "flee," her evasiveness constitutes, for most
readers, either a failure of execution or post-modern dislocation.
They will not concede that—to paraphrase Marianne Moore—these
omissions are no accident and, moreover, that Dickinson's new
reticence is the healing tissue that reconnects her to a world from
which inherited language alienated her.
Any criticism that attempts to resurrect T. S. Eliot's claim that
great poetry stems from "a continual extinction of personality" (53) is
neolithic. I find, in fact, a fruitful synergy between Dickinson’s
personality and her poetry, and I encourage critics to approach her
life and letters as integral aspects of her art. I object, however, to

3
those who have generated crippling cause-and-effect theories that
skew her poetry by psychological maimings. Such approaches that
excavate specific traumas to explain the poems alienate readers from
what they are told is an aberrant artistic expression, and deflect
attention from the powerful linguistic strategies that could reshape
their own lives. Yes, Dickinson's life and verse are evasive, these
critics claim, but they invoke only negative, even pathological
connotations of the word.
John Cody is the most renowned progenitor of this reductive
theory. He claims "the profoundly disordered undercurrent one
senses in the life moves also through the poetry. Desolation,
hopelessness, and a fierce and frustrated longing arise from nearly
every page" (23). Cody earmarks an unsatisfying mother-daughter
relationship as the genesis for Dickinson's "ravenous search for
affection" that ”saturate[s] the poetry and the letters" (39).
Suzanne Juhasz castigates Cody for "wreakfing] havoc with the
context and content of her life and art," and for claiming that
Dickinson's failure as a woman led her to the "compensatory act of
poetry" (Introduction 4). Cody's assumption that her artistic
elusiveness and experimentation are subconscious expressions of
profund gender confusion misrepresents, according to Juhasz, the
optimistic and intentional nature of her artistic strategy; Dickinson's
decision to be an evasive poet was quite natural and understandable
given the "sex roles available to her" (Introduction 4).
Some have approached Dickinson with the assumption that
evasion, to cite the initial dictionary definition, is "an act or instance
of escaping, avoiding, or shirking something" (Random House 671).

4
Thomas Higginson, her earliest critic, found a "spasmodic" quality in
her verse which would hinder public consumption (L 265). New
Critics obsessed with establishing canons and keeping score, found it
difficult to rate a body of verse lacking in titles, thematic divisions
and dates (Blackmur 25-50; Anderson). Denis Donoghue dubbed her
mainly an epigrammatic poet whose poems habitually started with a
strong couplet, but finished weakly:
Where a poem has two or three stanzas, the first
is invariably the one that does the work, the others
tend to peter out or to dribble away as if the energy
leaked. . . . She was in trouble whenever some little
thing had to be amplified, developed, teased. (123-24)
His condescension is obvious, as is his assumption that great poetry
must be amplified and developed. He assumes the shortness and
evanescence of her lyrics was a reflection of her inability to sustain
or develop an argument rather than a conscious choice of genre and
style. Donoghue revives the prejudice under which writers of lyric
poetry have always labored.
Margaret Dickie claims the lyric was a publically degraded form
in the nineteenth century because "it was regarded as insufficient to
express the new country" (7). She adds that the tendency "to judge
the greatness of a work by the greatness of its theme and length . . .
lingers in twentieth-century tastes as well" (7).
Donoghue, Blackmur, and Anderson censure Dickinson for
avoiding her responsibility as a poet to harness her creative fury,
regularize her music or, in Donoghue's criticism, to create essay-like
poems that evince seamless development of theme. Dickinson's
formal elusiveness, however, does not stem from a want of skill, as

5
these men suggest. I will argue that Dickinson intentionally practices
these stylistic innovations to evade limitation and expand the scope
of art.
Robert Weisbuch and David Porter believe Dickinson's evasion
constitutes "physical and mental escape" (Random House 671).
Weisbuch highlights a "sceneless" quality to her poems, a negative
landscape stripped of all sense of place (Dickinson 19). David Porter,
too, finds a language unhinged from reality, which reflects a
solipsistic and thus modern mind. I agree with Porter and Weisbuch
that this evasive Dickinson is germane, but I question Porter’s
assertion that her evasion represents a state of confusion resulting
from a finless mind which sought no anchor in contemporary thought
or institutions; and Weisbuch, though correctly identifying
Dickinson's disinclination to provide the reader with traditional
scenic description, concludes that the poet found factual worlds
unsatisfying and strove to inhabit a cloistered poetic one of her
making: metaphors as bedfellows, so to speak. Porter feels her
evasion represents radical modernism. She eschews order, coherence,
closure and affirmation, he says, because she understood the futility
of such desires. He views evasion as an absence of a "life-centering
angle of vision" and as merely the "chatter of word play" (25).
Porter's simple diagnosis that a spurned Dickinson finds comfort
in the mind misjudges the outward reach and vision of her evasive
program. Porter fails to realize that Dickinson's purpose is to avoid
those dreaded "noons"—periods of intellectual and emotional stasis
that forbid progression. Porter's catastrophe theories about
Dickinson's poetics obscure the playfulness of this poet who uses

6
evasion to widen her physical and mental circumference, and thus to
affirm connections with nature.
These conclusions do not adequately explain a Dickinson whose
evasiveness is celebratory and inquisitive. Again, Weisbuch's and
Porter's readings bear the residue of Dickinson's biographical
stereotype; because she chose domestic seclusion, they assume her
poems register a distaste for a physical existence. Dickinson's
immersion in her natural world is more intense than a cursory
reading of the poems suggest. Evasion signals an effort to reconnect
the language of poetry to its origins in nature.
Several prominent critics have offered tidy dualisms in order to
"solve" Dickinson's poetry. To them her ambiguity is merely
traditional. Albert Gelpi locates in the poetry a half-pagan
faithfulness to the self, balanced by a longing for Christian belief
(91). Likewise Weisbuch suggests a similar "double consciousness"
comprised of equal parts transcendental bard and wounded outcast
(Dickinson 117). But Dickinson is more than a poet in stereo. She
moves, questions, and doubts, in order to avoid complacency or
acceptance of any one voice as truth. So successful is she at
undermining her own fictions that her constructs become no
constructs at all; the poem vanishes rather than adheres to
statement.
Gary Stonum views Dickinson's evasion as purposeful, yet argues
that her resistance to coherence is a premeditated strategy to lure
the reader into a co-creative role with the poet.2 Does Dickinson seem
quite so preoccupied with audience?

7
True, she sent poems to friends, but the inclusion of a poem in a
letter was not always a personal act (Shurr). Dickinson often sent the
same poem to more than one friend; thus her aim seems to disrupt
even the context of the poem, to sever all interrelations, and to allow
the poem to "flee" so to speak. I believe this practice extends to her
imagined audience as well. Stonum's "cutting edge" assessment of
Dickinson is really no different from Gelpi’s or Weisbuch's. He sees a
romantic poet undermining her pretensions to immortality with a
realist's sense of limitations.
If not for the twenty-year restoration of Dickinson by feminist
critics, she might still be judged by these decidedly masculine
standards of creative success.3 Juhasz argues for an approach that
sees Dickinson's gender as a positive factor that engendered
"enormous achievements;" critics should assume that "her actions
make sense and that her actions and her poetry are related in a way
that also makes sense as well as art" (Introduction 2). Finally, all
positive and constructive Dickinson criticism stems from Juhasz's
following credo: "Dickinson's life was neither a flight, nor a cop-out,
nor a sacrifice, nor a substitution, but a strategy, a creation, for
enabling her to be the person she was" (Introduction 10). She was a
person who, according to Cristanne Miller, "attempts to build up the
possibilities of personal choice and control in her poems" (Critics
134).
All too often, however, feminist critics have forgotten Juhasz's
dictum, focusing instead on the poet's defiance and social handicaps—
her outsider status—rather than on the revolutionary aesthetics.
Joanne Feit Diehl echoes Porter's worries that Dickinson's poems are

8
"potentially dangerous and dangerously modern” because they
"speak repeatedly of a dislocation that neither depends upon nor
assumes a ground of common or shared experience" (Critics 163).
Like Porter, she frets about the negative aspects of this isolation.
Feminist criticism, too, gleans sustenance from those poems that
can be construed to have narrative roots. This trend funnels
attention toward a small portion of Dickinson's work and treats
poetry as if it were autobiographical prose.4 Granted, these poems
were ignored by New Critics who found confessional poetry
distasteful; feminist critics are justified in retrieving them. However,
by hunting down those poems that are ostensibly gender related,
feminists have contributed to a different kind of fragmentation of
Dickinson's work. Sandra M. Gilbert investigates the poems to
confront "the mystery of absence, the gap that haunts Dickinson's
own account of her life" (Critics 42), while Adalaide Morris is
compelled to discuss Dickinson's poems about love in the context of
her personal relationships with Susan Gilbert Dickinson and the
unknown "Master" (Critics 98-113). Stephanie Tingley discusses
poems from the Dickinson-Elizabeth Holland correspondence to gloss
Victorian gender conventions (195). Joanne Dobson suggests that
Dickinson's elliptical strategies emanate from a need to "address
proscribed areas of women’s personal experience" (xvi). Such
inquiries subordinate the dynamics of language to a narrative of
gender empowerment.
Understandably, feminist criticism assumes a woman poet’s
estrangement from the dominant cultural trends. But if Dickinson's
art is solely or primarily explained by social estrangement from

9
religious, national, or gender issues, we miss the phenomenological
rebellion, the restructuring of perception that underlies her historical
iconoclasm, Elaine Millard regrets that feminist criticism calcifies a
misleading stereotype about the woman poet: "She is ... a poor,
crazed creature, either abandoned or ignored by men, who turns to
writing as a last means of expressing frustration and rage at the
limited nature of her existence" (67). Millard adds that Dickinson's
expansion of the parameters of language is more important to
feminism than "the myth of seclusion, renunciation and loss" (73).
Therefore, though I remain indebted to feminist criticism, I
pursue an understanding of how Dickinson’s language operates
regardless of subject matter. If she challenges nineteenth-century
gender codes, it is merely one ramification of her overarching desire
to expand the possibilities of poetic speech. Ironically, Dickinson
remains accessible to a wide range of sensibilities because she
practiced a continual reshaping of expression. To argue that this
unrest is linked to any specific rebellion contradicts her efforts.
Current theories display a post-feminist concern with the way
Dickinson’s language works in all of her poems. Margaret Dickie
focuses on the lyric "I" to show Dickinson is the proponent of the
"unaccountable surplus” (19) that cannot fit into the nineteenth
century's available molds. Jane Eberwein argues that Dickinson
practices a "strategy of limitation" where she exaggerates the
restraints upon her speakers as a springboard to expansion (45).
Sharon Cameron finds purposeful evasion in both the fascicle
bindings of Dickinson's poems and in the poet’s refusal to choose
among variant words. These writers enhance our understanding of

10
the poetry by seeng a sense of purpose in the evasiveness, beyond
mere escapism.
Another trend in Dickinson scholarship has issued from those
critics who have attempted to counter reductive theory by
excavating Dickinson's foundations in Victorian culture. Barton Levi
St. Armand and Judith Farr epitomize this type of salvage job, the
former focusing on the poet's participation in Victorians’ fascination
with death, and the latter stressing connections between Dickinson
and the luminist painters of the period.
As much as I sympathize with the impulse of these studies—to
rescue Dickinson from those who see her as a rather depressing, self-
involved proto-modernist—I still claim, first, that profound changes
in nineteenth-century American society—the Civil War, growing
industrialism, immigration—received scant attention in her poems
and letters and, secondly, that for all the purported cultural referents
in a Dickinson poem, there is still a relentless effort on the author's
part not only to hide these connections, but also to avoid nineteenth-
century poetic practices and conventions altogether. Her half-hearted
participation in her culture and her studied avoidance of nineteenth-
century poetic forms evince a rebellious mind.
Dickinson of course could not help absorbing some shards of the
fractured culture, but any work that claims she celebrates Victorian
art is flawed. Could Dickinson have digested the tidy moralism of
Thomas Cole's "Voyage of Life" Series, as Farr states? In this famous
quartet of paintings by the luminist master, which metaphorically
depict a man's life through his journey from inland river to sea,
Cole's voyager glides safely through the waters of childhood with his

guardian angel, faces the joy of adolescence and the trials of
manhood alone, and is again joined by the guiding spirit in old age,
showing him the way to heaven. The symmetry and typology is neat
and clean: nature is a lush paradise for the child, an endless vista for
the youth, a foreboding maelstrom for the adult, and a pathway to
heaven for the time-worn man in old age.
Not only are Dickinson's natural metaphors less rigidly consistent
with our moods, her use of the sailor/sea metaphor, though frequent,
habitually leaves the spiritual quester awash in uncertainty, gaining
neither the final harbor of an embracing heaven, nor some
intermediary fellowship with other castaways. In her mind nature
can be hostile, or at best, indifferent to human experience, just as
likely beautiful when we suffer and dark when we celebrate. Even a
cursory reading of the popular "Because I Could not stop for death"
(not a sea poem, but the record of a journey, nonetheless) shows the
fundamental breach between Dickinson and the linear thinking of
Cole and other Victorian moralists. Unlike Cole's journeyer, who
survives the tempest-tossed waters of life to arrive in the hands of
ascending angels, the speaker in poem 712 submits to a carriage ride
toward immortality only to be cruelly delivered to her graveside and
the purgatorial awareness of her distance from God. Therefore, the
poet avoids Cole's tidy conclusion and concurrently manifests the
prime aspect of her poetry: evasion. Her protagonists are always left
questioning, searching, stripping and negating; the world they see is
in motion, and the poems themselves follow suit, reforming and
nearly disappearing before the reader.

12
Overview
Dickinson's poems generally register a hopefulness about the art
of evasion:
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind— (P 1129)
Echoes of Emerson's "Circles" abound in this poem as Dickinson
asserts, ironically, that success (mainly she hopes to "succeed" the
reign of earnest Victorian truth-tellers) lies in being unassertive or
circuitous. The whole poem is a play on light and dark, but, as she
does in many of her other poems, the poet advocates darkness, with
only provisional forays into the truth. Thus Dickinson contradicts
Christian typology, traditional poetic rhetoric, and even the luminist
painters with whom Judith Farr links the poet, by shunning
illumination for salubrious confusion. We are all like children in that
our ability to receive enlightenment is faulty. We are flawed
receptacles. ("Delight" stands for our capacity to absorb light, which
Dickinson calls "infirm.”) Lightning is an apt metaphor because it
reveals, especially at night, a hidden, secret world, but only briefly.
In the full light of day objects lose their power to enthrall, and we
become jaded and complacent about creation. To avoid the blindness
stemming from over-familiarity, we court the sporadic revelation of
lightning and cultivate selective blindness or indirection, as Dickinson
does in her poetry. We may glean a hint of subjectivity from the
word "slant," as the speaker suggests the perceiver must present the

13
world according to her own bias or impression which, though indirect
and thus evasive, is preferable to any doctrine.
Formally, this poem displays the techniques Dickinson habitually
uses to express evasion for the sake of possibility. We have the
telltale dashes but in this case only two, following "slant" and "blind."
The economy and placement suggest the promise and potential of an
imagination that gives reign to its peculiar bias and that ironically
chases the truth by deliberately refusing to "see" as others do. She
fittingly brings the reader not to heightened vision, but to enabling
blindness at the end. We are in effect those "children" left in the dark
to ponder the nature of light. She tries to undo even her emphatic
statement about the necessity of indirection in the first four lines by
suggesting in the second that telling it slant may be no more
powerful than a fib we conjure to placate a child's fear. She even
doubts the efficacy of doubting.
Too many critics miss the playfulness, irony and perpetual
refashioning that characterize a typical Dickinson poem. Farr, for
example, attempts to portray her as an artist in words who, like her
artistic contemporaries, saw great fame to be earned from replicating
nature's wonders; but far from being a mere copier, Dickinson
instead hopes to represent breakdown and change. In poem 307, she
chides the artist who courts immortality by remaining true to the
mimetic impulse:
The One who could repeat the Summer day—
Were greater than itself—though He
Minutest of Mankind should be—

14
And He—could reproduce the Sun—
At period of going down—
The Lingering—and the Stain—I mean—
When Orient have been outgrown—
And Occident—become Unknown—
His Name—remain—
Farr seems to take Dickinson at her word in this poem, claiming that
"on most occasions Dickinson's painter (or painter-poet) is more than
equal to the challenge of replicating, and thus honoring creation"
(260). Paraphrasing Dickinson she continues, "If the artist can
replicate a sunset ... his or her name will remain" (260).
Unfortunately Farr misses the complex web of sexual metaphors
in this poem which contradict the rather conventional reading she
offers. Had Farr explored the ramifications for Dickinson (and for this
poem in particular) of her remark that nineteenth-century landscape
painters viewed the sunset as "the emblem of the sublime, of passion
and terror joined in one awful moment" (260), she might have seen
that this poem represents the failure of the poet to reproduce (with)
nature. The poem begins with the singular poet (he) attempting to
dominate, impregnate or fertilize nature with his phallic imagination,
thereby creating a reproduction that contains elements, we presume,
of both the real sunset and the artist's imagination. The words
"reproduce," "stain," "period" and the phrase "going down" all suggest
a sexual subtext for what the artist attempts. Despite his efforts,
however, we see in the middle stanza nature's rejection of the artist's
seed represented by the bleeding out (the "period" and the "stain") or
symbolic menstruation of the sun as it "goes down." Nature proves
that her cycle is indifferent to the artist's desires; she does not need

15
his contribution to reproduce. "And He—could reproduce the Sun—"
but does not do so in any genuinely mimetic sense. In the end she is
"Unknown" to the artist (to "know" someone can mean to experience
sexual intercourse with that person), and he is left in isolation at the
end of the poem, just as he was in the beginning. Dickinson
underscores this point with the false note and truncated ending of
the last line, as if the artist is in the process of disappearing just as
she asserts his permanence. And though she does paint sunsets in
other poems, in this one she refrains from offering a reproduction,
reaffirming that any attempt would be both spurious and futile. In
this poem, one plus one equals one, or less than that, as the poet and
poem disappear so that Nature can speak for herself, and even she
flees.
This is a poem about reduction as power, but it also reflects on
the enduring tension between the American writer and the myth of a
virgin landscape.5 Farr historicizes Dickinson's artist as merely
another masculine subduer of nature. Dickinson confronts the blank
canvas hoping to "produce” a poem while preserving the unknowable
and essential wildness of nature. We outgrew the social and
intellectual trappings of Europe (the "Orient”) and fled to the
unknown "Occident" but ruthlessly attempted to dilute the elixir that
healed our imperial scars in the first place. Dickinson alludes to our
expansionist history both to proclaim herself an intellectual
frontierswoman, and more importantly to separate herself from
those who believe the pathway to knowledge is through domination.
Dickinson would not have us master and recreate nature but

16
(representing a Native-American sensitivity) preserve its majesty
through experience and understanding.
Dickinson's main impulse is not to assert the power and authority
of the poet by establishing herself as a consistent interpretive
presence exuding wisdom and knowledge; instead, the astute reader
acknowledges Dickinson's ambivalence toward the persona of the
master poet as it is traditionally understood. Her tendency is to find
comfort and a deceptive power in poems where the perceiver is
limited or obviated in favor of a silence which convinces us of the
elusiveness of nature and identity. In fact, the poet's identity
dissipates with the poem because we can find no center, no
affirmation but the fact of evasion. Dickinson achieves her goal, then,
not exactly Emersonian transcendence but immersion, fluidity, and
ebb.
I must stress that this purposeful and provocative negation,
which invites comparison to Herman Melville’s Bartleby, Ken Kesey's
Chief Bromden and Wallace Stevens's Snowman, is a grand gesture of
reduction, more sublime than any quick sprint to the truth. Just as
Bartleby forsakes copying to accomplish the one original, creative act
of his life (his own death), the speakers in Dickinson's poems disrupt
through evasion by preferring not to establish consistent identities.
Margaret Dickie claims these speakers "are always in process,
moving, and struck by the discontinuity of their experience" (9).
What Dickinson stresses, according to Dickie, with the poet’s refusal
to pursue narrative self-development, is the "profligacy of the
individual" (171). Dickinson thereby contradicts the conception of a
representative self posited by Emerson and Whitman and thus

17
articulates "a sense of the open-endedness of identity that twentieth-
century philosophers were to posit . . (171).
Dickinson always feared that the written word could diminish the
wonder of the world and the electricity of affection. As early as her
late teens she only grudgingly submitted to traditional epistolary
practice, finding it hindered authentic communication:
I have written you a great many letters since you left
me—not the kind of letters that go in post-offices—
and ride in mail bags—but queer—little silent ones—
very full of affection—and full of confidence—but
wanting in proof to you—therefore not valid—
somehowyou will not answer them—and you would
paper, and inkletters—I will try one of those—tho' not
half so precious as the other kind. I have written those
at night—when the rest of the world were at sleep—
whenonly God came between us—and no one else
might hear. (L 81)
In this letter to her friend, Jane Humphrey, we witness the birth of
an evasive poet who justifies her later use of unique poetic themes
and formal techniques. Dickinson affirms that the true letter, which
embodies the visceral emotion she feels for her friend, must remain
unwritten, because any formal attempt at communication involves
editing or a lack of "confidence" on the part of the author. The halting
or "spasmodic" gait of this letter suggests the insufficiency of paper
and ink as the author struggles to transform nighttime epiphanies
into a more vulgar daytime prose. Poems are tainted when they
become merely another act of production.
Dickinson's claim that she had "written" these invisible letters to
Humphrey, also reflects a radical, anti-formalist notion of poetry
which she incorporates into her written work. Authorship includes
the intense love and longing Dickinson feels for her friend this night.

18
One's feeling is a poem, the most authentic and precious; therefore,
she will never try to over-explain or ornately orchestrate a poem
when excision can create the open spaces necessary for the
preservation of the precious emotional distillate that might be lost in
an earnest, direct, yet diffuse entreaty. Dickinson will not be silent,
but she shows that the evasiveness of her poems can, with only a
small diminishment, proclaim the overwhelming splendor and
disabling despair commingled in her experience of life. Thus her
short, evasive poems reveal the surfeit of meaning and emotion that
cannot be contained in language.
Unable to rely on formless, spiritual communication, an evasive
poet must satisfy herself with the telling of diluted pen and ink "lies”
in order to arrive at the truth. For Dickinson, the telling of lies, which
for her is writing poems, is one way to combat the entrenched
notions of truth which society holds sacred. Melvyn New discusses
this concept of "lying" and shows how it operates on both a cultural
and personal level. Taking a historical approach, New calls the notion
of an "intervening God" (9) only one of the lies we have told
ourselves. This lie has been superseded by the modern lie that
people are autonomous. Dickinson wrote at a time when those two
fictions were juxtaposed—belief in a controlling deity giving way to
belief in the autonomous God-like man of Stevens and Nietzsche. Her
poems become crucial fictions which attack the lie of an intervening
God, but refuse to accept the next cultural lie—the divinity of the
human imagination. Dickinson's poems alternately expose both lies,
never finding nor ever wanting to find the "unifying construct” (17)
New feels is an important organizing principle for any society.

19
New calls himself a "contrarian," preferring to "hover between
contradictory attitudes and tendencies" (9), rather than to embrace
one lie or another. He quotes Nietzsche in confirmation: "We negate
and must negate because something in us wants to affirm—
something that we do not know or see as yet" (23). Dickinson, too, is
a contrarian, revealing social lies by telling her own "lies" or poems—
fictions not necessarily dedicated to discovering any "unifying
vision." Dickinson is, to adopt a phrase from New, "always within the
lie (or play of lies), forever separated from whatever 'truth' we tell
to the next generation . . ." (17).
In "Circles," Emerson uses the word "abandonment" to describe
"the way of life" (178) that he follows. Dickinson underscores the
pleasure and pain to be gained from a life spent evading social and
artistic constraints, but she prefers to use the term "renunciation."
Formatted as one of her many "definition" poems, poem 745 keeps
redefining itself throughout, and the reader understands that
"renunciation" is a perpetual and nearly sacred habit:
Renunciation—is a piercing Virtue—
The letting go
A Presence—for an Expectation—
Not now—
The putting out of Eyes—
Just Sunrise—
Lest Day-
Day's Great Progenitor—
Outvie
Renunciation—is the Choosing
Against itself—
Itself to justify—
Unto itself—
When larger function—
Make that appear—
Smaller—that Covered Vision—Here—

20
Cynthia Griffin Wolff understandably reads this poem in a religious
context, making comparisons between the speaker's rejection of the
world and the abnegation of the saints. The "putting out of Eyes"
represents for her a "self mutilation," because by rejecting the world,
the saint/speaker has embraced "God's categories, which allow for
very little choice at all" (190). When one reads the poem narrowly
and tragically as a poem of emotional masochism however, one
misses Dickinson's insistence that renunciation in all forms is a
prelude to a new category—the "Covered Vision" enjoyed not only by
God and the saints, but also by the poet as well, if she dedicates
herself to avoiding conventional ways of seeing and naming and
instead creates poems as stripped of self-indulgence as are the lives
of saints.
Wolff claims Dickinson professed an unusual appetite for sight.6
Because of a breakdown in communication between the young Emily
and her mother, the poet becomes a visual glutton, one who displays
an "obsessive preoccupation with communication by seeing" and
"clamors for a kind of relationship that is primarily and essentially
visual" (55). I agree that "Dickinson's language of vision eclipses by
its frequency any other verbal pattern" (55), but Wolff fails to see
that infused in Dickinson’s visual thirst is a fundamental
disinclination to slake it. Her true stimulant is the expectation of
vision, not vision itself, and thus she goes to great lengths to
maintain visual deprivation. For example, Dickinson uses letters as a
form of distancing, and prefers them over the many opportunities for
direct interview. She wrote many impassioned letters to Sue Gilbert
and other close neighbors bemoaning the lack of contact, but the

21
mixed heaven and hell of being apart inspired her more than a short
walk across the lawn to her brother's house.
The first three lines of the poem serve to encapsulate her
universal distaste for the finite, and the following words, "Not now,"
stand alone with solemn power, an admonition the speaker makes to
herself to avoid the comfort of supplied knowledge and worldly
vision. The phrase is both a promise of greater insight to come and
an embrace of the lost present. Thus, renunciation is "piercing" in
contradictory ways. An abstemious life is obviously painful—living
without physical indulgence can pierce one with grief and sadness.
More tantalizing to the poet, however, is the hope that renunciation
can be used to pierce or penetrate the border that separates the
quotidian and the spiritual.
This positive piercing includes the "putting out of Eyes." On the
surface, the meaning seems to be this: do not lustfully fixate on the
physical world (the sunrise, symbol of earthly beginnings), because
the pleasures of nature will seduce you into an acceptance of the
natural world as the final reality, a good in itself. The eyes do not
yield the vision necessary for eternity and the resurrection. Perhaps
one unfamiliar with Dickinson's poems would accept this reading, and
Wolff's analogy between renunciation and the saints makes it
plausible. Dickinson, however, never indulges in obsequious piety,
relinquishing her voice to the control of her Creator. On the contrary,
she is a battler, habitually deriding God and his indiscriminate
displays of love and cruelty. In the context of this poem, "the putting
out of Eyes" represents a rejection of our tendency to freeze
experience and label it. We view the beginning of day and call it

22
"sunrise," a tragic diminution of the actual event. The speaker does
not face a choice, as an ascetic would, of whether to worship God or
the sunrise; instead, the choice is between a mode of seeing that is
satisfied with "sunrise" and one which attempts a better
understanding of the dawn, stripped of its conventional labels, what
Wallace Stevens would call the "idea of the sun" ("Notes Toward a
Supreme Fiction" 3).
Dickinson often puns on the sounds of words, and the embedded
homonyms, "I's" and "ayes," affirm, on the one hand, that to earn
"covered vision" one must starve the ego, and on the other, that
negation as a mantra is actually an affirmation. Dickinson spent her
life saying "no" in her poetry, and exploring negative states of the
psyche; this leads many readers to construe her as a morbid poet
with a fascination and yearning for death.
But as this poem shows, these deaths are mainly symbolic
preludes to an anticipated higher state of consciousness. The speaker
hopes for a second sight that can only come into focus after the ritual
killing of the conventionally configured self burdened with a
jaundiced eye and a gluttonous appetite. She will speak a different
language, forgetting the one that left the creations of the world dry
and bloodless on the page. She does not call this new beginning
sunrise; instead, she fittingly refuses to name the spiritual dawn,
calling it simply "that Covered Vision," an oxymoron which suggests
that this symbolic death is both a loss of earthly sight and a
beginning of another kind of vision. The cryptic ending of the poem,
typical of Dickinson's compacted style, witnesses the speaker
accepting and beckoning to the expected reward for a life of

23
renunciation. Thus the poem brings us from the "Not Now" to the
"here"—to the portal of awakening. Dickinson's renunciation, then, is
an evasive technique that transforms sacrifice into dynamic
possibility.
Dickinson's force stems not only from her insistence on the
process of evasion but equally from her attempt to create a poetics of
evasion. Poets have continually touted the revolutionary potential of
a poem, but few have committed themselves to formal and
ideological trailblazing. Dickinson, however, confidently and
consistently forged her own language amid constant pressure from
friends to write more coherently and lyrically. Even at the age of 21,
she answers her brother Austin's paternalistic suggestion that she
write more simply with a highly sarcastic rejoinder:
you say you dont comprehend me, you want a simpler
style. Gratitude indeed for all my fine philosophy! . . .
As simple as you please, the simplest sort of simple—
I'll be a little ninny—a little pussy catty, a little Red
Riding Hood, I'll wear a bee in my Bonnet, and a Rose
bud in my hair, and what remains to do you shall be
told hereafter. (L 117)
Her stress on "little" represents both her frustration at being shut up
in prose, and a determined decision to thwart Austin by ironically
heeding his advice. Brilliantly, Dickinson parlayed smallness, excision
and compactness into a tremendous force—a deceptively complex
simplicity.
The progress of a Dickinson poem is never linear, but elliptical,
looping back to question its own rhetoric, then doubting the question.
She enforces Emerson’s directive to "draw a new circle" (178). At the
end, the poem remains unsettled and thus evasive. Therefore, the

24
"failures" of her style are actually victories over the mundane and
the formulaic.
Poem 745 perfectly illustrates the confluence of evasive form and
evasive subject. At the beginning of the poem, renunciation is called
a virtue, a static thing, a noun. The infinitive, "to renounce," can be
read as giving up the noun, and the poet does just that, changing the
static "virtue" into a more active phrase—"the Choosing/Against
itself—" In fact the whole process of the poem is one of renunciation,
as Dickinson forsakes each proclamation for a new one. In essence,
the second half is a new poem, a rewriting of the first where
renunciation becomes more of a constant discipline than an abstract
"virtue." Because life is in motion, this new way of recording hopes to
render the world faithfully, renouncing presence for movement. She
so compacts the end of the poem and speaks so haltingly that we
approach the ultimate evasion or renunciation: the giving up of the
poem altogether in favor of "Covered Vision."
Organization
Thankfully, Dickinson's poetry is not only the province of
academic critics. Her art has been liberated, its vitality restored, by a
popular culture that refuses to accede to the theories of a Porter or a
Cody. References to Dickinson’s poetry are appearing in middle-brow
culture with surprising frequency, unencumbered by the old
baggage. Julip, the protagonist of Jim Harrison's novella, uses the
collected poems as her personal Bible, randomly selecting a poem for
spiritual guidance. Ruby, in the film Rubv in Paradise, finds similar
solace in the poems. That both of these fictional characters are
women bespeaks a residual gender prejudice—that Dickinson is

25
essentially a women's poet—but any popular fiction which lauds her
language instead of citing her unique personal history is welcome.
Her grounding in popular culture bolsters my claim that evasion is
reconnective, not irresponsibly hermetic.
Therefore, I am convinced that people are returning to the poetry
instead of to the recluse, because she challenges us in ways her
contemporaries do not. Harold Bloom, designates Dickinson as not
only central to American literature, but as one of the twenty-six
most significant writers in western history (Canon). This new surge
of interest in the poet has occurred even though there are a host of
more easily digestible American writers. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s
unruffled optimism should certainly appeal to late twentieth-century
polyannas wishing to avoid the troubles of our age. Thoreau will
always be the isolatoe's hero as well as the sage of any grass-roots
environmental movement. Big-hearted humanitarians and
democratic inclusionists will find "Song of Myself” a suitable anthem.
And Robert Frost's folksy intelligence and natural metaphors (though
they belie a more complex consciousness than is commonly
understood) will always be more comfortable for those adults whose
last excursion into poetry was in college or high school.
So if Dickinson does not lead us to Walden, the transparent
eyeball, a new America, or down the "road not taken," where does
she lead us? She beckons us into the labyrinth of the art of evasion.
The obfuscating residue that encrusts this term needs to be scraped
off, for beneath it is a root from which Dickinson's poetry stems.
Evasion comes from the Latin "evadere" (Random House 670),
meaning to go out, or walk, and it is this connotation of expansion

26
that coincides with Dickinson's language of circumference, not the
escapist caricatures that often accompany the term.
In his most radical essay, "Circles," Emerson cautions the reader
not to "set the least value on what I do, or the least discredit on what
I do not, as if I pretended to settle any thing as true or false. I
unsettle all things. No facts are to me sacred; none are profane; I
simply experiment, an endless seeker with no past at my back"
(176). Though Emerson is most often identified with self-reliance and
with his cry for representative men to lead a young America, a
radical idea has always suffused his work: that one's identity
displays a relentless mutability and indeed that inertia is a truth¬
corrupting crutch. Yet always the optimist, Emerson rarely explored
the ramifications of his ethos of contradiction, instead clinging
desparately to "some principle of fixture or stability in the soul"
(176). He did not seem willing to confront the prospect of a rootless
self wandering amidst a random and indifferent universe. Emily
Dickinson confronted that very prospect, and she even relished the
confrontation.
Dickinson, as Dickie claims, disrupted many of the tenets of
Emerson's transcendentalism.7 But Dickinson valued Emerson, and
though she did not share his public concerns, she does, in many
ways, fulfill his requirements for a "circular philosopher" (176),
surpassing him in the extent to which she unsettles her readers with
her radical poetics and feminine notion of an uncentered self.
My contention, and the focus of this work, is that Emily Dickinson
strove to accomplish in poetry the endless experimentation and
avoidance of fixity which Emerson recommended in "Circles," that all

27
of the stylistic irregularities which many critics have seen as faults
or proof of an inferior maker are instead masterful techniques of this
poetics of evasion. Dickinson profoundly refigures the way an artist
represents the world. Though she practices many evasive techniques,
I divide my discussion of Dickinson's evasion into three broad
categories.
In chapter two, I examine the astounding array of speakers
Dickinson presents in her poetry and in her letters and I discover an
eccentricity of character that yields a concept of self more radical
than mere complexity. Though she presents a case for the
multifarious self through the many voices she creates and through
the roles she plays, ultimately what she persuades us of is the
unreliability of character in any guise. One of Dickinson's evasive
strategies, then, is to dissolve any trace of identity in her writing. An
individual letter or poem might register several voices whose atonal
collision transmutes into a harmonic destabilization of identity. We
hear the symphony, not the individual instruments. Her friends
(mostly men) habitually voiced their frustration with her vocal
range. Higginson said he was glad "not to live near her" (L 476), and
when she was young her brother Austin told her to tone down her
chorus of voices. Dickinson recognized her society as a force that
craved emotionless regularity, but rather than create a palatable
Emily for polite society, she chose to shatter social limitations
through lyric expansion.
In chapter three, I show how the structure and form of her
poetry, in conjunction with her radical speakers, form a deliberate
strategy of dissent. Donoghue believes Dickinson cannot write a long

28
poem, or use specific language well. But her poems do not end
weakly; instead, they represent a world that is forever avoiding
human attempts to know it. Dickinson educates us by leading the
reader from concrete statement or image toward either a negation of
statement or a blurring of the image. We may wish to believe the
world is immutable and reliable, that traditions and institutions
retain their mythic power eternally, but Dickinson not only questions
verities thematically but stylistically—the "breakdown" of the poem
is a conscious strategy to represent a world in flux. Dickinson's choice
of the lyric is not one of genre by default; she eschews the long poem
because, unlike the lyric, it requires limitation through consistent
character, plot and narrative closure. The excision of Dickinson's style
and the relative brevity of the lyric are actually the perfect tools to
represent an uncentered self and world. Critical rhetoric that
describes her as self-limiting is not quite accurate. Therefore, I see in
Dickinson's poems a strategy, apparent in every word choice or
unique punctuation, to enhance possibility.
In chapter four, I show how Dickinson's evasiveness extends to
the natural world she represents in her poems. Dickinson is not in
flight from the "real" world. Her powerful and abiding interest in
nature and her love for her friends and family show someone with
an outward vision, not a tortured recluse. And what she saw was a
world in flux, electric, tumultuous and infinitely hued. Understanding
the discoveries of modern geology (Sewall), Dickinson was the first
poet who attempts to render the world of Darwin in poetry, a world
of swiftly metamorphosizing particles and evolving forms. She
labored to create a poetics and a language that would represent the

29
world more accurately, that would be more than blandly mimetic-
picturesque. Dickinson's poems are more realistic, because in their
sceneless, mercurial way, they mimic a world in flux. Describing
sunrises, sunsets, seasonal changes, and birds in flight, requires a
more sophisticated style if one is to "capture" movement. Dickinson's
evasive art culminates in poems where the elusive speaker confronts
an equally slippery nature and attempts (or deigns) to represent it.
Notes
1 Not only does an individual Dickinson lyric evanesce, the sum of
her poems evince a trend toward self-silencing. One could argue that
the short, later lyrics represent a poet past her creative peak. I
believe, however, that she simply adhered to her evasive program.
- The reader's role is more accurately a co-destructive one.
Dickinson coaxes the reader back to unmediated experience itself.
See Robert McClure Smith, The Seductions of Emily Dickinson
(Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1996) for Dickinson's effects on the
reader. Smith says "Dickinson's is an aesthetics of frustration: the
potential for reader enchantment is in precise relation to that
reader's inability to attain the satiated fulfillment of his or her
hermeneutic desire" (6).
3 Feminist Criticism is the bedrock upon which all positive
Dickinson criticism stands. Feminists were the first to suggest that
Dickinson's way of writing was a valid, alternative form of
communication stemming from a combination of her gender and
cultural situation. In Dickinson and the Boundaries of Feminist
Theory (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1991), Mary Loeffelholz Summarizes
recent feminist criticism of Dickinson: "Her words are now credited
with deconstructing binary gender oppositions and rewriting the
conventionally gendered relationship between the poet and his muse,
the poet and his literary tradition" (1). In addition to the works cited
in my text, see Vivian R. Pollack, Dickinson, the Anxiety of Gender
(Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1984); Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The
Madwoman in the Attic: the Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-
century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale UP, 1979) and
Barbara Antonia Clarke Mossberg, Emily Dickinson: When a Writer is

30
a Daughter (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1982). Though I believe her
evasive poetics encompasses more than just gender difficulties, my
work builds on the understanding that Dickinson was not a flawed
poet.
4 Poem 754 ("My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun—"), has become a
touchstone for every critical enterprise because it has the requisite
combination of gender dynamics and violent imagery.
5 In The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral
Ideal in America (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1964), Leo Marx chronicles
nineteenth-century writers’ responses to encroaching industrialism
and the ensuing loss of geographic and imaginitive space.
6 See James R. Guthrie, Emily Dickinson's Vision: Illness and
Identity in her Poetry (Gainesville: UP of Florida, 1998) for a
discussion of Dickinson's eye problems and how they might have
contributed to the frequency of optical metaphors in her poems.
Among dissenters is Margaret Dickie, who stresses Dickinson’s use of
tactile metaphors in her discussion of the poet’s letters and poems.
See Lyric Contingencies: Emily Dickinson and Wallace Stevens
(Philadelphia: Uof Pennsylvania P, 1991) (31-53).
7 Dickie cites several reasons. "Held up to the transcendental
ideal,” she says, "Dickinson’s lyric speakers will seem changeable and
duplicitous." Also, they "do not expand and grow in a narrative of self
development" like Thoreau. Finally, "Dickinson had the advantage of
a gender that would not permit her to use the Emersonian language
of the centered self" (9).

CHAPTER 2
DICKINSON’S PERSONAE
The speakers in Dickinson’s letters are as elusive as those in her
poems. They are creative manifestations of an imagination that
resists straightforward communication. The recipient of a Dickinson
letter is presented with a boundless, compressed energy, and a
rapidity of voice changes that strain epistolary conventions. This
public subterfuge she practiced in her letters predates her poetry
and thus was the precursor for, and generated, her evasive art.
I focus on four situations in which Dickinson's speakers assert
their contradictions, unpredictability, and expansiveness: their
engagement with God, with a feminine other, with a masculine other,
and finally with different aspects of themselves. I link poem with
letter to underscore the consistency of her strategy. In each instance
evasion is a mature response, an expression of infinitude that results
from a preliminary dialogue with two seemingly exclusive choices:
submission or flight.
Contrariness was always a fundamental characteristic of
Dickinson's behavior. So rooted was this unruliness that even her
earliest letters display a mature revolt of the mind that cannot be
written off as childhood petulance. A youth spent defying social
pressure to accept Christ, and resisting the waves of passionate
religious fervor that overtook Amherst in the form of revivals,
initiated a life-long religious skepticism and an inquiry into God’s

32
motives that many critics view as the central motivation in her
intellectual life.1 She is not yet sixteen when, in a letter to her friend,
Abby Root, she appears to express anxiety about her religious
isolation:
Many conversed with me seriously and affectionately
and I was almost inclined to yeild (sic) to the
claims of He who is greater than I. How ungrateful
I am to live along day by day upon Christs (sic)
bounty and still be in a state of enmity to him
& his cause. . . Does not eternity appear
dreadful to you? It seems as if Death which all
so dread because it launches us upon an unknown
world would be a releif (sic) to so endless a
state of existence. (L 28)
Even at fifteen, Dickinson's anxiety about nonconformity is
superseded by an innate individualism, and she thus prefers
isolation to having her identity susbsumed by a "claim" and a "cause."
Her profession of guilt seems perfunctory and insincere, for as much
as she tries to remain humble and accepting, she cannot help her
skepticism. Dickinson's distaste, in this letter, for the Christian
concept of eternity, for the monotony and regularity of perfection,
adumbrates not only her poetic evasiveness, but also the modernism
of Wallace Stevens, whose "Sunday Morning" satirizes "paradise" and
claims instead that "death is the mother of beauty”
(88).2
Far from displaying mere childish opposition, Dickinson presents
a cogent critique of an ideology that expects flawed and changeable
human beings to yearn for, and seek to deserve, the stillness of
paradise. She is not seduced by a dogmatic promise of eternal life,
but by the prospect of the unknown, of change and death. This

33
current of vitality, this love of change and discovery, suffuses her life
and represents the best argument against those who find Dickinson
morbid and depressed. In this letter she delights in paradox, both
rhetorically—calling eternity a darkness and death a "relief"—and in
the presentation of a centerless and evasive self, at times pious, at
others, irreverent. The speaker in poem 413 echoes Dickinson's
distaste for a suffocating paradise, and hopes to flee from God and
his plan:
I never felt at Home—Below—
And in the Handsome Skies
I shall not feel at Home—I know—
I don't like paradise—
Because it's Sunday—all the time—
And Recess—never comes—
And Eden'll be so lonesome
Bright Wednesday Afternoons—
If God could make a visit¬
or ever took a Nap—
So not to see us—but they say
Himself—a Telescope
Perennial beholds us—
My self would run away
From Him—and Holy Ghost—and All-
But there's the "Judgment Day"!
The speaker is hardly self-pitying. She does not merely accept
her isolation, she chooses it and bristles instead at a God who would
manipiulate her destiny while remaining deaf to her pleas and
prayers. God is more remote than a "distant—stately Lover" (P 357);
he is an emotionless scientific instrument who "Perennial beholds"
and will not release. Her first instinct is to evade, not only God, but
"All"—those who enforce religious compliance through intimidating

34
notions like "Judgment Day." Like the young Dickinson, this speaker
is not cowed; she prefers an enabling homelessness and the
possibility of damnation to the loneliness of being among tacit
believers.
Instead of succumbing to social pressures, the evasive Dickinson
challenges God and her friends, establishing and justifying her
position as a religious outsider. Though the following letter to Jane
Humphrey, written when the poet was nineteen, finds her more
isolated from her friends, she seems comfortable with her isolation:
Christ is calling everyone here, all my companions
have answered . . . and I am standing alone in
rebellion, and growing very careless. ... I cant tell
you what they have found, but they think it is
something precious ... I think to receive it is
blessed—not that I know it from me, but from those
on whom change has passed. They seem so very tranquil,
and their voices are kind, and gentle, and the tears
fill their eyes so often, I really think I envy them. (L 94)
Dickinson professes to want this "sanctification" but the emphasis she
applies to "what," "they," and "me," and the rather amusing portrait
she paints of the perpetually kind and tearful believers gives the
passage the feel of a satire of Victorian piety very similar to Mark
Twain's send-up of the "death poet" Emmeline Grangerford in
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (ch. 17). The prevailing stereotype
of Dickinson as some lonely spiritual outcast loses force when one
confronts the pattern of humor and determination in these letters.
She cleverly avoids social pressure to become one of the teary by
publicly characterizing herself as in the midst of a struggle, while
privately forging a cogent response to Puritan hegemony.

35
Compare this to Thomas Hardy's late Victorian religious isolation
in "The Impercipient":
Why thus my soul should be consigned
To infelicity,
Why always I must feel as blind
To sights my brethren see,
Why joys they've found I cannot find,
Abides a mystery. (7-12)
Hardy’s speaker feels his unbelief is a "shortcoming" and he
compares himself to a "bird deprived of wings" (29). Dickinson,
however, transforms skepticism into an abiding strength, a poetic
power source.
Dickinson's general distaste for religious authority grows more
focused, and in poem 401 she transforms her subtle, youthful
caricature of the saved ones into a direct caustic indictment, feeling
that such easily gained faith may be insincere or unsubstantial.
What Soft—Cherubic Creatures—
These Gentlewomen are—
One would as soon assault a Plush—
Or violate a Star-
Such Dimity Convictions—
A horror so refined
Of freckled Human Nature—
Of Deity—ashamed—
It's such a common—Glory—
A Fisherman's—Degree-
Redemption—Brittle Lady—
Be so—ashamed of Thee—
Dickinson implies that these spiritual infants tout God's benevolence
without having labored toward a true understanding of him; that
they have never simmered in a cauldron of Joban unbelief and
despair. What riles the speaker is not so much the conclusion (God is

36
good) but the process by which the women arrive at it. Cynthia
Griffin Wolff says that in the mid nineteenth-century "religion had
lost its primitive aspect, and the harsh discipline of the past had
softened into a creed of passive, unselective, universal love." She
claims this is one of those poems which "pulls violently against" the
instantaneous and beatific religious conversions Dickinson's friends
and contemporaries have experienced (260-61). Dickinson compares
the women to a star and a plush (presumably a pillow or couch made
of material with a raised nap), suggesting that they are expensively
showy, but the glitter or light is remote, dim and cold.
These women evoke comparison to E. E. Cumming's "Cambridge
ladies who live in furnished souls" (1). They practice the proper
charities but their involvement is detached and spiritless. With a
belief ungrounded in the passionate, even erotic nature of life, they
become hollow, wooden, partially dead women who raise daughters
equally "unscented" and "shapeless" (4). In Cumming's poem the
moon—symbolic of love—"rattles like a fragment of angry candy"
(14) to express its frustration.
Similarly, the Gentlewomen are not the angels they appear to be.
Dickinson compares their convictions to "Dimity," a double-threaded
fabric which implies duplicity or paradox in their sweet nature. In
fact their angelic attitudes mask a distaste for the "freckled Human
Nature" for which Christ labored and died. These women also display
a lack of spiritual hardiness; the softness of their inner fabric cannot
stand up to the rigors of belief, the vicissitudes of a God who, when
he comes, assaults and violates. So actually God does not show
himself to the saccharine parishioners. They live and die in

37
ignorance, evincing a belief that remains essentially unravaged by
doubt.
Likewise, Dickinson attests in poem 216 that the "meek members
of the Resurrection" lie in their graves, ironically not resurrected at
all:
Safe in their Alabaster Chambers-
Untouched by Morning—
And untouched by Noon-
Lie the meek members of the Resurrection-
Rafter of Satin—and Roof of Stone!
Grand go the Years—in the Crescent—above them—
Worlds scoop their Arcs—
And Firmaments—row—
Diadems—drop—and Doges—surrender—
Soundless as dots—on a Disc of Snow—
For all their meekness, acceptance of doctrine, regular
churchgoing, and participation in revivals, they earn comfortable
graves. "Safe" because they no longer confront life's struggles or hear
the whisperings of doubt that must haunt their attestations of faith.
They remain "untouched" by the exhilarating pain of rebirth
(mornings), by pain and loss (mourning), and even by the fullness of
"noon."
Yet I envision a twofold indictment of meekness. Dickinson
describes the lives of these people as well as their soundless deaths.
They live in mausoleum-like homes, finding safety in their funereal
mansions. Their minds, their homes are "alabaster"—the whiteness or
purity is ornamental rather than substantial. They are untouched by
life while alive, denying the pageantry that swirls around them as
they quietly continue with their sacred and pious lives. "Touched"
carries echoes of lunacy, which Dickinson champions ("Much Madness

38
is divinest Sense—" (P 435)). Life should sear us, distract, transport
and enthrall us, yet the majority of us cower and accept monotony.
The first version of this poem, which was sent to her sister-in-law,
Susan Gilbert Dickinson, in a letter, stresses the parishoners'
ignorance of nature's grandeur, of the "sweet birds" and "the
babbling of the bee." The later version further emphasizes the meek
ones' insignificance amid a sidereal remoteness. The movements of
the universe, planets and stars, the passage of years and downfall of
empires, all occur as the staid and satisfied Puritans "lie" in their safe
chambers.
We should not overlook the dual meaning of "Lie." Dickinson
implies that the mental passivity of the parishoners—the robotic
obedience to church and society—is in a sense, a "lie." Dickinson
frequently redefines the concept of lying in her poetry (actually, she
wrote redefinition poems of all kinds, a characteristic of her
revolutionary mind), and here she avers that the truths dangled by
the church (the meek shall inherit the earth; obey God and receive
eternal life) are actually lies that the meek passionately repeat in
concert on Sunday mornings. The light fails to penetrate the sealed
coffins of their minds.
Conversely, the way to achieve truth is through Dickinson's brand
of lying. If the "meek members of the Resurrection" continually say
"yes" to God while refusing experience and skepticism they are
telling lies—thus effecting a virulent perpetuation of passive
behavior that exhibits no interest in delving into the mysteries of
God and eternity. Yet if one, like Dickinson, constantly questions and
confronts God, and exercises her imagination, she will gain greater

39
understanding. She says in a letter to Higginson that "it is difficult
not to be fictitious in so fair a place" (L 460), suggesting that the
niceties of Amherst society, which camouflage the realities of an
ambiguous, demanding religion, need the correctives of Dickinson's
lyric vision.
Dickinson always cultivated a multifaceted, diamond-like
hardness in her relationship with God, always preferring the pain of
discovery, probing the different facets of the relationship. So far I
have offered examples of Dickinson’s satiric mode ranging from the
humorous to the caustic; but as I have argued, she is seldom satisfied
with a single perspective, and thus the religious poems and letters
demonstrate that same shifting and elusive voice we find in the rest
of her poetry. We must not allow the residue of early Dickinson
stereotypes (Virgin, Nun, Recluse) cloud our view of her life and
work. Our inability to locate a consistent atittude towards Protestant
scripture in Dickinson's poems and letters does not mean we are
dealing with a confused and lonely poet; rather, we must understand
that this pattern of evasion serves to keep "belief nimble" (L 728).
Keeping God and her acquaintances off guard by playing different
religious "roles"—obsequious believer, rebellious sinner, martyr,
powerful Goddess, etc.—the poet accomplishes two important goals:
first, she demonstrates a multi-dimensional self that disrupts social
expectations of sobriety and consistency, and secondly, she widens
her religious circumference and grows to understand and elude her
creator.
Dickinson was subversive, but not in a passive, hermetic way. She
performed her own deliberate, unstinting inquisition into the

40
practices of God by approaching him in different guises. By
reimagining the self, she unsettles the rhetorical conventions that
proscribe the relationship between humble supplicant and
omnipotent deity. God becomes more understandable, less remote, as
Dickinson explores, in herself, the same shifts in behavior and
identity she finds in him. If God is more human through his
alternating expressions of kindness, oppression, and indifference,
then Dickinson is increasingly ennobled and made powerful by her
compound personality. The gap has been narrowed.
This iconoclastic attitude was assumed when Dickinson was still a
young woman and formed the foundation for a life and art dedicated
to revisioning her culture. She displays her talent for dramatizing her
religious conflict in this 1851 letter to Abiah Root:
The shore is safer, Abiah, but I love to buffet the sea--
I can count the bitter wrecks here in these pleasant
waters, and hear the murmuring winds, but oh, I love
the danger! You are learning control and firmness.
Christ Jesus will love you more. I’m afraid he don’t
love me any! (L 104)
Again, I read a determined, playful tone in this letter, which
questions the canonical understanding of Dickinson as woeful outcast.
Even Richard Sewall, her sympathetic biographer who often reminds
the reader of a Dickinson "family tendency toward hyperbole and
self drama" (331), oddly misses the dramatic performance of these
religious letters. Sewall tells us not to take Dickinson's poems about a
circumscribed childhood seriously, but he cites poem 959 as evidence
of her religious anxiety stemming from being "the only one in her
group of pious friends who could not (as she thought, from some
strange spiritual lack) accept Christ as her Saviour" (328).

41
Sewall is not alone; as Karl Keller aptly notes, most critics have
approached this poet with a "seriousness" that "has been deadly, as if
Emily Dickinson herself were" (4). Why do so many readers miss the
comic element, the evasive play which, mixed with a seriousness of
purpose creates poems with a rare flavor? Maybe this is Dickinson's
most unsettling act of camouflage; she insists that poetry is
sustenance, a life-affirming pilgrimage to the shrine of creativity and
love. Yet the insouciance with which she tinkers and even disposes of
her own creations threatens those of us who see her poems as shells
that must be rescued from the erosion of the sea. We appreciate the
beauty of the shell yet in abstracting it from the natural cycle of
creation and destruction we subvert Dickinson’s natural philosophy,
which is to return the shell to the ocean, its creator/destroyer. She
saw nature and God busy destroying the very things to which they
gave life. There must have been some symmetry or benevolence in
this act of "cruelty" which she admired because she created poems
that carried in them the seeds of their disappearance. Playing the
executioner to her own poems helped her understand and overcome
her natural antipathy to a God and nature which nurture and
dispose. The profligacy nature shows on a regular basis—a field of
wildflowers crippled by a frost—is mimicked by Dickinson's attitude
toward her own poems. She unflinchingly sacrifices her ideas and
poems to the crucible of a higher process, the work of circumference.
Thus God and the poet are not antagonists, as Wolff would have
us think; instead, Dickinson emulates the conflated God/reaper and
excuses death because she is herself a killer of ideas. But this
intellectual suicide allows new ideas to gestate. The ingenuity and

42
attention to detail that both God and Dickinson manifest in their
creations are belied by the nonchalance with which they confront
their survival.
Therefore, Dickinson's playfulness and irreverence suffuse even
her most serious utterances and offer an example for American
modernists to follow. Think of Wallace Stevens' verbal eccentricities,
the masks he wears (The Comedian, The Snowman), the ascendancy
of the poet over God.
The missive to Root shows Dickinson at her theatrical best,
playing the role of suffering outcast for Root's benefit. In fact,
Dickinson often chooses Sundays, while the rest of her family is in
church, to write letters to friends, playfully posing as sinner who
makes her own use of the sabbath day. To John Graves she writes "it
is Sunday—now—John—and all have gone to church—the wagons
have done passing, and I have come out in the new grass to listen to
the anthems” (L 327). Of course the anthems to which she refers are
not church hymns but the evanescent sights and sounds of nature,
which she proceeds to catalogue.
Dickinson’s paean to inscrutable and fleeting nature provides a
stark contrast to what she sees as the main activity of churchgoing:
"hoarding up great truths" (L 166). She relished only those "sermons
on unbelief" (L 311), which helped to confirm her life-long belief that
"Faith is Doubt" (L 830). She both chooses and thrives on her
recalcitrance, avoiding "firmness and control" and exhibiting little
yearning for Christ's love and the healing of her "spiritual flaw."
More than mere hyperbole, the above letter to Root can be read as an
embedded poem, a lyric performance featuring a brave and

43
somewhat reckless spiritual seeker. This section of the letter is also
set off by ellipses, emphasizing its separation from the rest of the
letter. This genre bending (the following chapter will more amply
discuss genre as an evasive device) combines with a wide range of
speaking voices to enhance Dickinson's evasiveness in spiritual
subject matter. These are in fact the salubrious "lies" Dickinson uses
to distort or ignore the facts of her life, to transcend the small circuit
of personality and widen her spiritual circumference. In imagery and
tone, the following poem recalls the previous letter:
Exultation is the going
Of an inland soul to sea,
Past the houses—past the headlands—
Into deep Eternity-
Bred as we, among the mountains,
Can the sailor understand
The divine intoxication
Of the first league out from land? (P 76)
From familiar physical surroundings, the romantic traveler flees,
embracing instead the abstraction "eternity." Dickinson adopts the
same metaphor she uses in the above letter of a sailor piloting his
ship to communicate that a journey toward eternity (or "sea," again
given no definite article) must begin with a psychic detachment from
the bonds of one's particular history and social experience.
Importantly, it is the caged "inland soul" (Amherst lies in a broad
valley surrounded on all sides by mountains), not the body which
exults and travels. Dickinson tirelessly practices this curious mix of
physical asceticism and imaginative vision and, as a result, both
attacks her Puritan heritage and upholds one of its key tenets. New
Englanders were bred to obey a rigorous program of physical self-

44
denial, to which Dickinson adheres, but they were also expected to
remain behind headlands, among mountains; in other words, to
accept an imaginative poverty as well, especially in terms of religious
thought and personal expression. We can view these "headlands" as
those pillars of Puritan intimidation which restrict free-thinking and
pressure their followers to be docile believers. But headlands might
also refer to the whole system of reasoned, rational thought, with
which Dickinson is frequently at odds. (Actually, for all their status
as town leaders, the other Dickinsons had their own private
frustrations with small town provincialism: Lavinia displayed hers
through a caustic tongue and a rabid protection of her sister's
privacy and character; Austin harbored artistic desires and entered a
torrid affair with Mabel Todd; and the father's long refusal to join the
church, his financial hunger, and political ambition were evidence of
a man who disliked a small society.)
She continually lauds the "going" over the staying in all her
poetry, stressing experiment, movement and change for its own sake,
allying herself with an Emersonian intellectual irresponsibility
founded on contradiction and defiance. Some of her poetic originality
may not make "sense" to hallowed Victorian intellectuals like
Higginson and, by using the word "intoxication," she recognizes that
experimentation and waywardness can be poisonous, but given her
options, she chose to release the "inland soul" from beneath the dark
shadows of Puritan breeding. The speakers of both the letter and
poem are therefore not outcasts but explorers.
Perhaps at the root of Dickinson's private struggle with her
ancestors' belief system is the rigid limited concept of the individual

45
that underlies Puritan thought. Each person is essentially a cauldron
that contains warring properties; the devil is intent on swaying one
from the path of rightousness. Little weight is given to one's
personality, differences, or evolutionary progress. One is either saved
or not. Dickinson's understanding of the self is too revolutionary to fit
in with Puritan essentialism. Wolff aptly recognizes that, for
Dickinson, any kind of religious conversion entails a "yielding of
identity" (271), and she intelligently discusses the poet's "horror" at
the brutality of a God who would demand this price, but Dickinson
emerges from Wolffs study as a person obsessed with abandonment.
Yet the poet transcends feelings of rejection to confront an
oppressive God with a staggering display of personality, of
changeable identity and a volley of dramatis personae designed to
combat society's expectations of propriety and femininity. She resists
both the treacly posturing and the austere piety of her friends and
instead argues for romantic sensibilities of the modern individual,
flinging lyric multiplicity in the face of Trinitarian control. "God was
penurious with me," she wrote to the Hollands, "which makes me
shrewd with him" (L 353).
Wolff does not acknowledge that whereas a single voice may
sound frustration and despair, the accumulation of voices is a direct
unwavering attack. In fact, Dickinson cultivates so many identities in
her poems that she ultimately has no single identity to sacrifice to
God, thus denying him ownership of her soul. Not God, but the poet,
answers the beseeching speaker of poem 49:
I never lost as much but twice,
And that was in the sod.
Twice have I stood a beggar

46
Before the door of God!
Angels—twice descending
Reimbursed my store—
Burglar! Banker—Father!
I am poor once more!
The speaker alludes to two kinds of deaths here, the death of
friends, which the speaker sees as a renewable resource, and a more
immediate and terrifying loss or bancruptcy which goes unnamed,
but which could be the loss of self or, more profoundly, the
emptiness or death of trust that results from recognizing that her
God is a harsh, unloving thief who grows rich from the foreclosure of
souls. In these poems which address the deity, God is often someone
who gives only to take away, whether it be a banker/burglar, a
sire/killer or, as in poem 335, a farmer who ironically creates life yet
engages in a miserly process of "stipulation" with his creations for
crumbs. Instead of timidly approaching the "door of God" with
methodical regularity, mourning losses and praying for sustenance,
Dickinson bravely becomes the reimburser; she gives life to a
manifold and evasive voice and changes the nature of her
relationship with God by restoring richness through immersion in
character and nature. This is a definitive step towards modernism,
where the poet, realizing that God cannot or will not reimburse an
individual for his losses, decides to wield the power herself.
From the adamant, petulant tone of the previous poem we move
to the modulated, imperious voice of the following oft-quoted lyric:
The Soul selects her own Society-
Then—shuts the Door—
To her divine Majority—
Present no more—

47
Unmoved—she notes the Chariots—pausing—
At her low Gate-
Unmoved—an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat-
Eve known her—from an ample nation—
Choose One-
Then—close the Valves of her attention—
Like Stone— (P 303)
The speaker is no longer bemoaning poverty, but coolly distancing
herself from God's subtly manipulative ways. As the Emperor, he
cajoles her with promises of spiritual wealth, but she fails to submit.
Her world is insular; she is the spider weaving, the disruptive lyric
storyteller who rejects the advances of the dominant creator. She is
the pupil who surpasses the master in evasiveness and self
possession, and by choosing the word "valves" instead of the variant
"lids," Dickinson highlights the machine-like indifference and
inscrutability of the speaker whose soul remains not only illegible to
God, but independent of the speaker herself. The decidedly industrial
"Valves" render God's chariots antiquarian and obsolete. God
approaches with an ancient gesture of male courting ritual that
carries a certain historical pressure to conform. She responds with
the baffling modern voice of the lyric creator. She has a choice, and
she chooses to shut the valves.
How does she hide herself? Through an evasive reductiveness
accomplished by multiplicity. The irony in the poem stems from
Dickinson’s insistence that the "majority" is more impoverished than
the self, which harbors multitudes. Self and soul occupy different
realms and sometimes conflict. Her refusal to be swayed by
democratic majorities separates her from Whitman who, as a

48
journalist and public commentator, was greatly impressed by a
panorama of social movements and trends. His poetry reflects
temperance issues, slavery questions, and popular medicine, among
others (Reynolds). Dickinson chooses to understand the world
through the patient documentation of her changing identity.
Many critics like Farr and Wolff have observed the speaker's
rejection of God and society in this poem, Wolff stressing the sexual
nature of God’s advances (199), while Farr reads it as a love poem
where the speaker plucks one from an "ample nation" (85). Both
critics agree, however, that the imperious narrator chooses a
companion with whom she can relate. But I believe it is more
accurate to read this poem as a self-reflexive exercise where the
burgeoning artist, resenting the influences of church and society,
chooses herself as friend, conspirator, lover. The soul, after choosing
"her own Society," makes the command to "present no more." She has
made her choice. Every entryway is sealed. Wolff notices the
"speaker's withdrawal by a radical reduction toward zero, both in
line length and in vowel sound" (199), but weakly posits the
existence of a soulmate, when the progress of the poem is toward
that very evasiveness she mentions. Farr, likewise, allows her
preoccupation with the identity of Dickinson's lover to cloud the
reading of the poem.
I must stress how definitively this barrage of voices distinguishes
her from those nineteenth-century poets who confront a God
weakened by the ascendency of scientific skepticism. We grow
familiar with the sullen, ironic speaker of Hardy’s Godless universe
and the despair-drenched cadences of Tennyson's "In Memoriam,"

49
but I challenge anyone to read Dickinson's addresses to God and
glean a representive self from those lyrics. Note the "delirious"
exultation and fierce self-justification of "Mine—by the Right of the
White Election!" (P 528), or the quieter more humble self-possession
of the speaker in "I'm ceded—I've stopped being Theirs—" (P 508).
Wolff says that "Dickinson was obliged to invent other voices, which
could speak the language of daily life as it really was in mid-
nineteenth-century America" (168) but I believe she followed a
contradictory impulse, namely to convince us that the only self she
could represent was her own. Emerson often uses the first person
plural "we" to integrate peoples' experiences; Whitman always
chooses specific social referents to express his expansive personality.
Dickinson's "I" never strives for universality. Instead, she stresses
that we are all nobodies (P 288), discrete, unknowable entities whose
public labels cannot describe us. She dismantled the idea of
Emerson's and Whitman's representative man and almost
singlehandedly charted an alternative course for American poetry.
But while many critics acknowledge that she revolutionizes
devotional lyrics, they nevertheless claim she either represented the
plight of women in her time or her poetry serves as a repository for
Victorian culture. But it is also part of my thesis that Dickinson
strove to create a rival discourse to her culture, not to espouse it, and
that in doing so foreshadows those twentieth-century poets like
Stevens who cultivate a private language to replace the dominant
isms of their day.
Thus if any trend in Dickinson's life needs to be explained, it is
this steady progress toward isolation, which has fomented a flood of

50
misunderstanding around the poet. Some admire the dedicated,
uncompromising artist, while others cling to the great love lost
theory to explain her isolation. Yet few examine her growing
seclusion in conjunction with her coincidental delight in and creation
of poems and letters which plumb a wide range of voices. Yes,
Dickinson's behavior was peculiar, but rather than rejecting the
world, she was simply replacing the public self with a private one,
battling the world with subversive notions about representation. She
re-presented herself as a powerful conglomeration of identities, a
shifting and dangerous truthsayer whose avoidance of publicity and
capture was another way of demonstrating evasiveness. Rather than
mollify her society with consistency and convention, she embarks on
an artistic work which includes herself as a character.
In one of her early letters to Austin, she tries to assuage his
loneliness with her assurance that one's own company is superior to
the scores of inconsequential people he might meet: "they are very
little, very small indeed, I know that scores might vanish and nobody
would miss them, they fill so small a crevice in a world full of life."
In the letter she already sees herself as a character or friend,
someone with whom she can have some sort of camaraderie, and she
urges Austin to see himself the same way. At the same time banal
society becomes untenable for her: "we meet our friends, and a
constant interchange wastes tho't and feeling, and we are then
obliged to repair and renew—there isn't the brimfull feeling which
one gets away" (L 141). In another letter to Austin she relates how
she "saw the train move off, and then ran home again for fear
someone would see me, or ask me how I did" (L 254).

51
At the same time Dickinson begins to glean sustenance from this
social evasiveness, or what Jane Eberwein calls a "strategy of
limitation," she initiates an epistolary exploration of the many facets
of her personality, creating a second layer of elusiveness behind the
seclusion. Not a simple retreat from society, this isolation enables her
to flaunt her wit, emotional chiaroscuro, rebellious notions, and
formalistic ingenuity without the disruptive immediacy of personal
contact. The distance between self and other and the obliteration of
her public self form a huge canvas on which she paints an epic
panoply. The notion of the real Emily is obscured by the wildly
mercurial voice of the letters. These early letters, like the
impassioned love missives to Gilbert, are poetic performances that
portray the speaker in an array of guises. Her letters are so much
like her poems (and so different from other writers' correspondence)
that William Shurr felt comfortable publishing a trove of "new
poems" he found embedded in the letters.
So we find a fairly seamless and organic progression from public
evasiveness to epistolary poet. The early letter to Austin which
contains the poetic invitation to enter her "garden" has that air of
lyric introduction that we see in Frost's "The Pasture." Here is Frost:
I'm going out to clean the pasture spring;
I'll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):
I shan't be gone long.—You come too.
And here is Dickinson:
there is another sky ever serene and fair, and there is
another sunshine, tho' it be darkness there—never mind
faded forests, Austin, never mind silent fields—here
is a little forest whose leaf is ever green, here is a
brighter garden, where not a frost has been, in its

52
unfading flowers I hear the bright bee hum, prithee,
my Brother, into my garden come! (L 149)
Dickinson makes the classic romantic boast that her creations can
augment an unsatisfying reality, but unlike Wordsworth whose
poems recollected in tranquility reflect a patina of optimism and the
tinkering of the poet, Dickinson's poems and letters are essentially
ego-less manifestations of mutability and flight, not attempts to
order and reflect. This is a loaded introduction, then, because you
will not find the poet in the garden, as you might find the reliably
wise and weary Frostian narrator in his poems. Dickinson knows that
"to escape enchantment, one must always flee" (L 454), so even as
she beckons, she resists capture, visually and ideologically.
The enchantments from which she fled include men and women.
One was her intense love for Sue Gilbert. Another such enchantment
was her love for the Reverend Charles Wadsworth, whom she called
"My Philadelphia." One of Dickinson's favorite personae was the
passionate, unrequited lover, and she adopts this voice so often that
even St. Armand avers that the central narrative of the 1775 poems
is a love story between "Daisy and Pheobus" (82). Yet the dominant
feature of these love poems and letters is not the longing for another,
but the craving for privation manifested in the deliberateness with
which Dickinson avoids contact, preferring letters and verse.
The cycle of her love affair with Gilbert was rapid, but the stages
of this relationship, and all of her intense ones for that matter, follow
the same predictable, inexorable march toward evanescence that we
witness in the poems. First, Dickinson assaults her chosen one with
intense passion and a peremptory demand for emotional

53
compensation from the other. When the friend demonstrates an
inevitable failure to match the openness and proves his or her
unreliability, Dickinson, too, responds with flight represented by the
cryptic poetic voice, and sometimes a haughty detachment. Then she
begins the unwriting or deobjectification process whereby the world
recedes away from a voice which also succumbs to silence and flux.
The cycle repeats with a new attachment. The following two chapters
will examine the evasive lyric strategy: how the cycle of Dickinson's
personal relationships is mirrored in poems that cycle through
attraction, abandonment, flight and reduction. For now I will present
a few fled personal enchantments along with poems that especially
struggle with the allure of the other.
Dickinson's love, in her early twenties, for Susan Gilbert was so
rhetorically powerful that one could assume the affection was more
than familial or friendly. Betsy Erkilla claims that this "central and
troubled love relationship" with Gilbert transcends in power and
duration any of her heterosexual attachments (164). A few passages
from the letters suffice to demonstrate Dickinson's ardor:
When you come home, darling, I shant have your letters,
shalll, but I shall have yourself, which is more—Oh more,
and better, than I can even think! I sit here with my little
whip, cracking the time away, till not an hour is left
of it—then youare here! And Joy is here—joy now and
forevermore! (L 194)
I hope for you so much, and feel so eager for you, feel
that I cannot wait, feel that now I must have you—that
the expectation once more to see your face again, makes
me feel hot and feverish. ... (L 215)
Evidently Sue did not respond to Dickinson's onslaught of passion
with equal force, because a current of anxiety flows through the

54
letters: "I fall asleep in tears, for your dear face, yet not one word
comes back to me from the silent West1' (L 315). Though Gilbert was
visiting relatives in Ohio, the "West" becomes for Dickinson a symbol
of Sue's remoteness, and the setting of their love into darkness.
A landmark letter to Sue at this time finishes the relationship
cycle Dickinson will repeat throughout her life. It begins, "Sue—you
can go or stay—There is but one alternative—We differ often lately,
and this must be the last." The letter ends with the following farewell
and a poem:
Few have been given me, and if I love them so, that for
idolatry, they are removed from me—I simply murmur gone,
and the billow dies away into the boundless blue, and no one
knows but me, that one went down today. We have walked
very pleasantly—Perhaps this is the point at which our paths
diverge—then pass on singing Sue, and up the distant hill I
journey on.
I have a Bird in spring
Which for myself doth sing—
The spring decoys.
And as the summer nears—
And as the rose appears,
Robin is gone.
Yet do 1 not repine
knowing that Bird of mine
Though flown—
Learneth beyond the sea
Melody new for me
And will return.
Fast in a safer hand
Held in a truer Land
Are mine—
And though they now depart,
Tell I my doubting heart
They're thine." (L 306)

55
The letter and poem form a microcosm of Dickinson's life. Having
perceived Gilbert's inconstancy, she recedes as well, into the
multifarious poetic voice. All of the trademark Dickinson grievances
are here: the loss of friends, her alienation from Christ, the
determination to survive the emotional carnage; the poem aptly
follows the self-pity, because in it, Dickinson converts actual distance
and loss into poetry, allowing us to witness the creative
requirements of this particular artist. She needs this reduction and
loss, this psychic amputation, out of which grows a commentary on
the evasive nature of life.
Is this a staged play? Does Dickinson manipulate her emotions to
spur poetry? The evidence is ample. In this instance, Dickinson
seems to understand that her "idolatry" pushes people away, yet she
continues to burden those chosen with a flood of love that no one
could withstand. When Sue turns off the emotional spigot, Dickinson
quickly and seamlessly nurtures poetry from the drought. Sue
becomes a bird who flees; the backdrop is the swiftness of seasonal
change and the unreliability of spring which "decoys" the existence of
death and decay to come. Thus the poet owns neither the "bird" nor
any evasive physical article, but she does locate in herself the power
to transform distance and flight into an evasive poetry. This poem
stresses the cyclical nature of loss and return. She will encounter
new opportunities to love and lose, all the while seeing her journey
optimistically as one which proceeds "up the distant hill." Dickinson
travels her circuit, seeking an ever-wider circumference.
Erkkila claims that "Dickinson's love for Sue was a form of saying
no to the masculine and heterosexual orders" of her time (165). In

56
fact, feminist critics habitually tout the power of Dickinson's speakers
to "transform and transcend" the "constraints of nineteenth-century
womanhood" (Gilbert, Critics 23). Dickinson achieves, however,
something far different and more radical than a "culture of affection
and dissidence" among women (Erkkila 162). If one scans the entire
range of her speakers, one sees that she shatters the concept of
community altogether by decentering herself from even a feminine
narrative of dissent. If there is a pattern, it is the rejection of all
limiting intimacies.
Let us examine instances where Dickinson beckons heterosexual
love only to enforce distance. Her late love affair with Otis Lord does
not reflect an inequity of emotion, but the interpersonal groove in
which Dickinson travels runs deep, and even this December romance
is wilted by Dickinson's refusal to indulge in pleasure and
commitment.
In her letters to Lord she made her feelings plain (she even
playfully proposed marriage): "I confess that I love him—I rejoice
that I love him—I thank the maker of Heaven and Earth—that gave
him me to love—" (L 614). Yet her assertion in this same letter that
she is "done with guises" is not finally genuine. Dickinson’s life and
art consist of a series of guises aimed at evading capture.
Undoubtedly some abiding, counterbalancing impulse towards
consistency and openness runs through her verse and letters, but the
urge to flee and enforce longing is stronger. Another letter to Lord
finds Dickinson putting on the brakes to foment the pain that in turn
becomes art. This erotically charged refusal helps her maintain that
inspiring destitution of which she is so fond:

57
Don't you know you are happiest while I withhold and not
confer—dont you know that 'No' is the wildest word we
consign to Language? . . . The 'Stile' is God’s—My Sweet One—
for your great sake—not mine—I will not let you cross—but it
is all your's, and when it is right I will lift the Bars, and lay
you in the Moss— (L 617)
Dickinson hopes to initiate Lord into the sweetness of an anguish she
has long savored. This sort of anguish spurs poems like the following:
Wild Nights-Wild Nights!
Were I with thee
Wild Nights should be
Our luxury!
Futile—the Winds—
To a heart in port—
Done with the Compass-
Done with the Chart!
Rowing in Eden—
Ah, the Sea!
Might I but moor—Tonight-
In Thee! (P 249)
Like the Lord letter, this poem seems to represent a longing for
physical satisfaction with another which balances the many
Dickinson poems of quasi-masochistic pleasures. But also like the
Lord letter, the expression of desire belies the speaker's true
intention which is to remain in the tempest of desire. The speaker
expresses a wish or a possibility, and words like "luxury" (connoting
a surfeit, a gaudy excess which would appear heretical to the
stereotypical New Englander), and "moor” (being moored is also, in a
sense, being restrained or mired), suggest the speaker thrives on the
expectation of mooring rather than the actuality.
The paradoxical nature of the vocabulary reflects the divided
consciousness of a speaker whose gender is indeterminate or

58
changeable as well. Is the wildness of sexual abandonment actually a
weakness or expression of timidity? Is the apparent safety of
patient, ascetic, creative and spiritual discovery, done with chart and
compass, actually a daring rebellion? The "stately—shriven—
Company—" of pilgrims in poem 792 is Dickinson's metaphor for
genuine risk, and the last stanza of "Wild Nights!" supports it. The
speaker has imagined jettisoning his/her creative/spiritual quest for
a carnal embrace, yet at the portal of resignation, he/she laments the
loss of the creative self. The speaker comes to understand that if he
or she were to "moor" in a lover's arms, he or she would begin to long
for the sea ("Ah, the Sea!").
Dickinson therefore questions the nature of earthly paradise. Are
we happiest amid the painful labor of post-edenic expulsion? The
biblical Eden seems a stifling, limiting place, imperfect in its
perfection because it excludes pain, knowledge and thus growth. Her
speaker could renounce the chart and compass, ending the search for
spiritual fulfillment. The speaker could accept the earthly pleasures
of carnal communion, but the quest generates the art. As I will
discuss in the following chapters, Dickinson generally rejects all
periods of stasis in her poems (noons, mid-summers, moorings),
however alluring, because they oppress, smother and pervert the
efforts of her "wheel."
Dickinson's regard for Samuel Bowles may have lacked the
passionate intensity of the Lord affair (though Judith Farr targets
him as the object of the poet's "Master" letters), but an incident in
November of 1862 highlights the tragicomic nature of her
evasiveness. Having returned from Europe, Bowles visited his close

59
friends in Amherst. Emily had long awaited his return, and in her
letters ( as she had done with Sue Gilbert) spoke of the rapture she
would feel when they were reunited. Yet when he arrived at the
house, Dickinson found herself "unable to see him" (L 419). In her
stead, she sent a short note downstairs, and later followed it with a
longer, more heated letter to explain that she gave up her "part so
that [Vinnie and Austin] might have the more." But she absented
herself from the visit, not to benefit her siblings, but to enable the
kind of rhapsodic lyricism we find in the rest of the letter: "Did I not
want to see you? Do not the Phebes want to come? Oh They of little
faith! 1 said that I was glad that you were alive—Might it bear
repeating? Some phrases are too fine to fade—and Light but just
confirms them—" (L 419).
Dickinson astutely examines the various phases of feminine
growth such that she is viewed as a literary mother to such
twentieth-century poets as Adrienne Rich, but as soon as her female
speakers are drawn to new roles, they yearn to evade the new
constraints and expectations. Whether abandoning "paste" for "pearl"
(P 320), or rejecting the patriarchal ritual of baptism, naming, and
ownership for a "second Rank" (P 508), Dickinson's female speakers
habitually experience a gender transport which allows them the "Will
to choose, or to reject." The speaker is "ceded," not just conveyed or
transfered, but also "seeded" or planted with an autonomous will
which shall yield creative fruit.
Appropriately, Dickinson highlights the importance of the will
(rejecting Puritan notions of human self-determination) rather than
her new identity, which is as subject to expulsion as the first. The

60
"second rank" is only the second in an eternal succession of roles or
masks. Thus the speaker downplays rather than inflates the
importance of "Crown" in the final line of poem 508. Likewise the
speaker in this poem is ambivalent about her new status as "Wife":
I'm "wife"—I've finished that—
That other state—
I'm Czar—I'm "Woman" now—
It's safer so—
How odd the Girl's life looks
Behind this soft Eclipse—
I think that Earth feels so
To folks in Heaven—now—
This being comfort—then
That other kind—was pain—
But why compare?
I'm "Wife"! Stop there! (P 199)
The speaker claims to find "comfort" in this new state of
womanhood or matrimony; yet why do these titles appear in scare
quotation marks? They do so because they are still roles with
expectations and constraints. She does not feel comfortable, partly
because the parameters of these new states are still prescribed from
without, but also because her new life is "safer," "soft," and painless.
In the course of this short poem the speaker experiments with and
tires of the "Wife" role because it does not entail the kind of
individual struggle that convinces her she is alive. Being a "Wife" is a
kind of amputation from the body and the trials of earth that those
in heaven experience, and which might give anyone temporary
respite, but which will eventually cloy someone who is sated only by
variety. The speaker's rhetorical question to herself—"But why
compare?"—is the ultimate argument against wifehood, or heaven or

61
comfort; "we see—Comparatively—" Dickinson says in poem 534, and
to give up comparison or the freedom "to choose, or to reject" is to
renounce seeing or creating altogether. Her tepid attempt to convince
herself to accept her role and to "Stop there!" is ineffectual.
Dickinson's speakers do not stop for anything—death or God or man;
instead they remain faithful only to their impulses to flight and to
their own personal circuit. Though Dickinson habitually revels in
transport, her marriage poems present speakers who worry whether
this wedded state is merely another way for a woman to be
quantified.
For Dickinson, stoppage is monotony and her poems never extol a
consistent perspective on gender dynamics. In poem 190 the man
and woman change roles, then jettison roles altogether:
He was weak, and I was strong—then—
So He let me lead him in—
I was weak, and He was strong then—
So I let him lead me—Home. . .
Day knocked—and we must part—
Neither—was strongest—now—
The rejection and deprivation she imposes in her relationships
with others thrusts Dickinson into an interior world where "other" is
merely another aspect of herself, and where Dickinson is even willing
to evade evasion:
Me from Myself-to banish—
Had I Art-
Impregnable my Fortress
Unto All Heart—
But since Myself—assault Me—
How have I peace
Except by subjugating
Consciousness?

62
And since We're mutual Monarch
How this be
Except by Abdication—
Me—of Me? (P 642)
Dickinson sees the mind as a divided country (perhaps the metaphor
for this poem was spurred by Civil War tension?) where warring
personalities surge into prominence only to be replaced by others in
a continuous thirst for sovereignty. This kind of evasiveness she
usually champions, but in this poem she imagines some kind of
unified and consistent self that will protect her from these assaults
on her heart.
United we stand, divided we fall? Not quite. Dickinson reaffirms
her evasiveness in this poem as she moves away from her original
wish for unity to question the efficacy of the "columnar self" (P 789).
Though assimilation into a single identity may deflect pain or injury,
this strength is illusory. Peace within a nation or amity between rival
selves requires choice, compromise and damage control, activities
antithetical to the Dickinson circuit. Dickinson accepts psychic
warfare if the result is enlightenment.
Whitman found strength in being "untranslatable" ("Song" 1323).
Dickinson also feared efforts to make her more easily understood, or
to change her multifarious nature. (A prescient apprehension, for
after her death, editors strove to sanitize and categorize her verse.)
In this poem she discovers that the strength she seeks is found in the
very divisiveness she originally bemoans. The "art" she hopes will
pare away troublesome selves is abandoned for the art we witness in
this poem: the portrayal of rival selves in perpetual tension.
Dickinson does not embrace, as Whitman does, the pallette of

63
American citizenry, but she does see the glittering facets of human
potential in the microcosm of the self.
Even the "Columnar Self" on which the speaker relies in poem
789, derives its solidity from a surfeit of personality rather than a
pared-down self: "That Granitic Base— / Though None be on our
Side— / Suffice Us—for a Crowd— / Ourself." Dickinson is one of the
few poets whose speakers seem disembodied or somewhat detached
from another aspect of themselves, and some critics see this
schizophrenia as an infirmity. Yet her yearning to catalogue psychic
schisms speaks to both the modern need to scientifically analyze and
the romantic desire to seem unfathomable. Call it evasion through
exposure. Moreover, the musical variation of voice, by turns Gothic,
romantic, scientific, and sentimental, demonstrates Dickinson's
dogged exploitation of the lyric medium, when other poets staidly
whistle the same tune. We grasp at these tantalizingly
autobiographical lyrics to construct hypotheses of the poet’s life, yet
the evasiveness frustrates us. We must view Dickinson's efforts as a
philosophy of art and of life that radically departs from her
contemporaries and even outstrips much modern criticism of her
writing.
Lets turn to those poems where the speaker inhabits more than
one identity or where there is some transition in personality. This
moment of transition, which Dickinson calls transport (the word
connotes both being altered and the corresponding rapture)
germinates the process of evasion; in fact, if a Dickinson poem has a
predictable aspect, it is the hunger for emotional alchemy and the
ecstasy it engenders, the expectation of a new emotion or experience.

64
Unlike Emersonian transcendence, which finds a person drained of
personality and at one with creation,3 transport allows an individual
to assume a different identity, to alter the mind's orientation, and
thus to evade the constraints of type. Sometimes the experience is
conventionally pleasurable:
Exhiliration is the Breeze
That lifts us from the Ground
And leaves us in another place
Whose statement is not found—
Returns us not, but after time
We soberly descend
A little newer for the term
Upon Enchanted Ground. (P 1118)
Here Dickinson pays homage to transport, and as is typical with her,
the change is not physical but spiritual. The imprecision of the nouns
(place, ground) puts the emphasis on motion verbs (lifts, leaves,
descends). Even the final "resting place" is temporary or "for the
term". In fact the "ground" is magical or "enchanted" because it is a
temporary state; Dickinson embeds the suggestion of intellectual
pollination in this poem. We are transported from a mature or even
stale view to be replanted in a foreign yet fertile pyschic landscape.
Return is not possible, only a continuous turning or troping.
Dickinson's play on the word "term” suggests this is a poem about the
domain of language and not physical space. We are "A little newer
for the term" (note the half rhyme term/turn), meaning we inhabit a
word or metaphor for a short time, and that term is our reality, a
more influential one than the accident of our physical habitat.
For Dickinson the premodernist, language creates reality; it does
not merely reflect, record or even influence it. In her hands the lyric

65
is a house within which the furniture is always being moved, the
walls repainted, knocked down. She uses words to create a persona,
and when she feels trapped she rewrites herself. When her "Brain
within its Groove / Runs evenly—and true" (P 556), she throws a
"splinter" in order to experience the directions to which her mind
swerves. One could imagine Dickinson exhorting the reader to "let a
Splinter swerve—" him. This is at the foundation of her evasive
strategy: because words create reality, one must fearlessly become
the kindly splinterer or killer of words in order to continuously
reform one's reality. Dickinson's only fidelity is to a poetry of self-
immolation, where the creation and assassination of ideas and
personae is performed at dizzying speeds and frequently in the space
of a short lyric. Critics have noticed this—Karl Keller calls her a "great
tease"—but few see the purposeful architect behind a life and poetry
that is "insufficient, incomplete, tentative, not really finished at all"
(2).
The fastidiousness with which Dickinson pursues this philosophy
of art and of life explains those poems for which she is most famous.
Few think of Dickinson as the "Debauchee of Dew" (P 214), or as one
typically transformed by exhilaration as in the above poem. Instead
they see her as one who mines the dark corridors of the mind. Far
too often we create the paradigm of a withdrawn and delicate
temperment overwhelmed by the vicissitudes of existence to explain
the experience of Emily Dickinson. But that is a naive assumption and
a trite archetype that distorts her wheel. These painful poems must
be filtered through the evasive lens. Dickinson indulges in an
elaborate dance, a game of hide and seek with horror, pain, despair

66
and death, which completes her circumference. "Exhiliration" is fine
but it rarely spurs one to change, so she coaxes, teases and
breathlessly awaits pain. The "Bandaged moments" described in
poem 512 are checkpoints on the way to discovery, and the speaker
betrays a morbid love affair with them, despite the encroaching
horror:
The soul has Bandaged moments—
When too appalled to stir—
She feels some ghastly Fright come up
And stop to look at her—
Salute her—with long fingers—
Caress her freezing hair—
Sip, Goblin, from the very lips
The Lover—hovered—o'er—
Unworthy, that a thought so mean
Accost a Theme—so—fair—
Dickinson's speakers are rarely naive; this "soul'' has already
survived many assaults and awaits the impending fright with a
mixture of expectancy and dread. The text may suggest the soul
stands in fear, but the subtext reveals the poet’s equanimity, her
understanding of horror's role in both life and the creative process.
We know the soul has confronted this villian before and survived. In
fact, being "bandaged" connotes both a post-traumatic healing and,
more subtly, a banding together or girding against the intruder. So, in
a sense, the arrival of "Fright" activates a certain survival instinct in
the soul and is therefore welcome. The poet recognizes this and
evades writing a conventional "fearful soul" poem. This more evasive
poem could be an example of how the Puritan tradition enabled
Dickinson's art—provided her with a lover/antagonist with whom to
grapple. The text supports this. "Appall" means to frighten, but at the

67
root of the word is to make pale or whiten. Perhaps fright has a
purifying effect as well.
In the second stanza, the personified "Fright" and the soul engage
in a macabre courtship ritual. The "Goblin" replaces the lover both
physically and metaphorically: fright replaces happiness and vice
versa in an endless revolution. The consummation with fear is a
necessary intercourse that is both revolting and fascinating. The poet
even instructs the "Goblin" to "Sip" from the victim's lips,
orchestrating an initiation into fear that results in a salubrious
maturity. Dickinson's penchant for these anti-love poems, where
some ghastly suitor phallically probes "with long fingers" the depths
of her soul, reflects her understanding of the muse. Dickinson does
not need to be lured into seduction by death and terror because she
seduces herself into the creative realm of mental anguish. The rest of
the poem demonstrates Dickinson's unique capacity to embrace both
terror and joy, while recognizing in terror a unique generative
wellspring:
The soul has moments of Escape—
When bursting all the doors—
She dances like a Bomb, abroad,
And swings upon the Hours,
As do the Bee—delirious borne—
Long Dungeoned from his Rose-
Touch Liberty—then know no more,
But Noon, and Paradise—
The Soul's retaken moments—
When, Felon led along,
With shackles on the plumed feet,
And staples, in the Song,
The Horror welcomes her, again,
These, are not brayed of Tongue—

68
This classic Dickinson circuit poem courses continuously through
imprisonment and freedom, entertains but then rejects the stop-time
fantasy of "Noon and Paradise" and finally ends with a clever couplet
that questions the whole tradition of sentimental love verse. The
puerile escapism in which the soul indulges in these central stanzas
would be invalid without the complementary horror. We see a classic
equipoise in this thrilling dance. Sometimes the soul is shackled and
terror runs free; other times the soul exults while the "felon” is "led
along." And yet the terror is not so terrible. The poet notices that the
"Felon" has "plumed feet," suggesting that frightful moments are as
inspiring to the pen or "plume" as happy ones, and maybe more so,
given that Dickinson has far more poems devoted to pain than to
pleasure.
Finally, the "Horror welcomes her," suggesting that the soul has at
least acquired a taste for pain and showed up on its doorstep for
more poetic fodder. Because the soul needs to know more than noon
and paradise (even manna would become bland in excess), the siren-
song of terror is a "staple" of her soul's diet. Dickinson recognizes she
is saying things no one wants to hear, in poems a gentile lady is not
supposed to write. She stridently brays the harsh truths, brings
"mean" thoughts to fair themes, allows pain to infiltrate the benignly
happy soul, and creates a poetry that evades our expectation of
comfort with every stylistic turn.
Far from being an isolating disability, the endless psychological
divisions of the self are a source of strength for her speakers whose
interactions with male, female, or divine figures necessitate a quiver
of arch voices. Dickinson welds her sophisticated understanding of

69
the self to a poetic style that is equally elusive, experimental, and
empowering.
Notes
1 The trend in Dickinson studies is to focus on her textual
indeterminacy and the original fascicle bindings of her poems, but
critics have always claimed that Puritanism provided a firm
structure against which she could experiment. Jane Donahue
Eberwein, Dickinson: Strategies of Limitation (Amherst: U of
Massachusetts P, 1985); Albert Gelpi, Emily Dickinson: The Mind of
the Poet (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1965); and Karl Keller, The Only
Kangaroo Among the Beauty: Emily Dickinson and America
(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1980) refuse to scrub the Christian
essence from her poetry. Keller even praises Puritanism for fostering
a "liberated womanhood" that enabled Dickinson to realize her
creative self (8).
2 I stress Dickinson's connections to Stevens for two reasons.
First, I contend that she adumbrates Stevens' modernist focus on the
interplay between language and reality. Secondly, I hope to show
that Dickinson's pre-modernism can produce an affirmative, playful
kind of modernism like Stevens’ rather than a desparate, existential
type.
3 I am thinking of Emerson's famous articulation of the
transcendental experience: "I become a transparent eyeball; I am
nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate
through me; I am part or parcel of God" (24). Emerson is always more
interested in what joins people together, rather than what makes
each of us unique.

CHAPTER 3
THE LANGUAGE OF EVASION
For more than a century, Emily Dickinson's poems have remained
resistant to the unsympathetic and misguided attempts to
standardize them, and I like to think it has taken the world just that
long to amass the critical sophistication necessary to make amends to
Dickinson for the monolithic way her art has been handled. We
entertain a broader definition of art now; we might even say that
because we revere the ironic, experimental, and destructive art that
Dickinson practiced, we are predisposed to find genius where past
critics have catalogued shortcomings. But we are determined by our
critical age just as ineluctably as Blackmur and Anderson were
chained to theirs, and if our ears are particularly tuned to the fall of
Dickinson's "foot," then we both benefit. We have our poet and
Dickinson has her proper audience.
Joel Porte speaks promisingly about such renewal: "Like flowers
that have escaped from human cultivation and struck out for the
wild, literary texts can undergo strange transformations as they seek
their fortunes with new readerships in different times and places"
(9). Porte urges us to "cherish the opportunities for new life” (9) in
our great literature, and even though his reading of Dickinson is
surprisingly reactionary and reductive (he calls her the "Snow White
of her own immaculate fantasy" [260]), we can at least follow his
advice.
70

71
Thus I feel enabled by my critical age to discover throughout
these 1775 poems the hand of a confident, clever, and deliciously
devious poet, whose serious yet playful metaphysics reveal an
interplay between self and world unlike anything we see in any
other poet. The balance in a Dickinson poem between the poet's
vision and nature’s attempt to obscure that vision is finely and
delicately maintained, and that balance results in the loss of
polarities and the emergence of that powerful Dickinson
circumference. Evasion is circumference, the disintegration of the
either/or, the ascendancy of linguistic motion, a movement outward
from the circumscribed self.
In the last chapter I discussed the multiple personae in
Dickinson's poems. Here, I focus on her double-barreled formal
strategy: the techniques she employs within an individual poem to
heighten elusiveness, and her original manner of self-publication,
what I call the "contexts" in which she presented her work. Internal
techniques include the rhythm or internal clock of the poem, abstract
words that connote awe and excess, compression/elision, avoidance
of narrative, tonal shifts, direct challenges to the reader, redefinition
of familiar terms, oxymoronic language, humor and riddle, and
finally, the sceneless landscape of her poems. Contextual evasion
comprises embedding and/or including poems in letters and forming
fascicle bindings to "hold" the poems.1 I conclude the chapter by
reading her poems and her epistolary remarks pertaining to poetry,
and I argue that Dickinson's break with nineteenth-century cultural
norms was profound and pivotal for the course of American poetry.
Perhaps we will come to believe, as Christopher Benfey does, "that

72
her thinking is as sophisticated as that of other poets we are
accustomed to taking seriously as thinkers" (8).
The following defintion poem is a good place to begin discussing
the techniques of evasion. Dickinson defines the poet and his art:
This was a Poet—It is That
Distills amazing sense
From ordinary Meanings—
And Attar so immense
From the familiar species
That perished by the Door—
We wonder it was not Ourselves
Arrested it—before—
Of Pictures, the Discloser—
The Poet—it is He—
Entitles Us—by Contrast—
To ceaseless Poverty—
Of Portion—so unconscious—
The Robbing—could not harm—
Himself—to Him—a Fortune-
Exterior—to Time— (P 448)
This poem, which explains what a poet accomplishes and how he
interacts with his readers, begins with the curious juxtaposition in
the first line between "This" and "was." We are intrigued because
throughout the rest of the poem Dickinson refers to the poet in the
present tense. "This was a Poet—" Of course, Dickinson could be
stating the obvious fact that a poet's influence continues after his
death. But in mixing tenses, Dickinson does to us what her poet/God
does to his audience; she frustrates our expectations. She knows we
are tragically time-bound, time-obsessed, and one of her foremost
evasions is the timeless anti-clock of her poetic "calendar." Her dash
is only the most obvious deregulator of rhythm.2 In this poem tense-

73
play renders us "Exterior—to Time—;" add this to her habitual
disruption of logical connections, her refusal to instruct or offer
meanings and conclusions (the poet as liberator, not teacher) and we
are thrust into a psychic timewarp. This apparent disruption "Entitles
Us" to the enabling poverty of timelessness. We receive this wealth;
we are capitalized ("Us"); we experience a liberation from a great
barrier to knowledge: time.
In "Song of Myself," Whitman says, "I loafe and invite my soul, / I
lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass" (4-5).
Dickinson, though less serenely contemplative and more compressed
than Whitman, similarly forestalls, delays and postpones the
regularity of rhetoric.
The disruptor of time works in a variety of ways. First, he
transforms meanings, which are sterile, intellectual conclusions, into
"amazing sense." Again, Dickinson exploits the varied connotations of
words. In addition to extracting essence, "Distills" suggests that the
poet's creation both inebriates and instigates movement, or dis-stills,
while "amazing" carries not only the obvious sense, but also the
suggestion that good poetry deposits the reader in a maze, a
circuitous and confusing experience which forces us to reach the
truth only after repeated conjecture and failure.
Secondly, the poet hopes to nullify our tendency to classify and
narrow, that is, to transform a living miracle into a "familiar species"
which is not special at all. Such a tendency, she implies, results in a
perishing world. The poet transcends simple picture-making. He will
not freeze or idealize matter; instead, he will restore movement to

74
experience. Finally, he speaks in paradox: poverty is wealth, meaning
is senseless.
Dickinson tinkers with rhythm in order to suggest that in the
movement of the mind, time is irrelevant. Judy Jo Small derides
those who see this strategy as failure; Small lauds Dickinson's
tendency to "surprise closural expectations with abrupt stops,
anticlimactic deflation, or lingering unanswered questions" (175).
recognizing this practice as a general trend in modern art and poetry,
Small focuses, for example, on Dickinson's practice of partial rhymes
"to show how they cooperate with thematic and other factors in
achieving deliberately weak closure" (175). Partial rhyme, Small
says, "is more ambiguous and less stable in effect than full rhyme . . .
and may be felt in various contexts as gentler, weirder, more
discordant, or more elusive" (175).
Shira Wolosky, too, hears disorder in Dickinson's music,
particularly in the way the poet restructures Isaac Watts's hymns.
But Dickinson attempts more than a mere parody of Watts. Wolosky
rightly argues that in addition to "subvert(ing) his doctrinal
assertions," Dickinson "often proceeds to subvert her own
subversions" (232). Unfortunately where I see Dickinson slyly
evading her own incipient conclusions, Wolosky sees a "struggle,"
allying her with those critics who find Dickinson falling somewhat
short of her intentions. When Dickinson evades her own evasions she
is in total control.
The previous poem provides a fitting example of purposefully
dissonant partial rhyme. The second and fourth lines of the first
three stanzas fully rhyme, lulling the reader with clock-like

75
regularity. The pedestrian reader of Victorian poetry would expect
this seamless, soothing affirmation of the world as a place where
closure and coherence exist.3 Dickinson then "opens" the ending of
the poem with the partial harm/time rhyme (this ending does
"harm" the timing or harmony of the poem), thus shattering the
lullabye, and like the "Poet" of her poem, she restores richness to the
"poverty" of the familiar. Time cannot regulate life, and the aim of
the poems is to destroy that illusion. As she says to Susan Gilbert
Dickinson, "There is no first, or last, in Forever—It is Centre, there, all
the time—" (L 288). This exploration of the "centre" through the
deviation of the hymnal mode, according to Cynthia Griffin Wolff,
was "new enough to seem revolutionary, discordant" (186), but
Dickinson was less concerned with being defiant than with singing
her own tune.
This poem features quite a few examples of the Dickinsonian
evasions I catalogued earlier: the irregular timing, words and phrases
that denote obscurity, awe, and possibility, redefinition of cultural
concepts. But the list is not exhausted. The poems relentlessly
announce their evasiveness, and although Dickinson's style has been
well-described, I hope to represent these "irregularities" as a holistic
theory of art in complete accordance with the evasive personality I
documented in the previous chapter.
Even at the most basic grammatical level, Dickinson designs her
poetry to puzzle. Cristanne Miller's study of Dickinson's "grammar"
supports my claim that Dickinson deliberately creates an evasive
effect. First, Miller claims that Dickinson's "compression" or brevity
"could only result from fully conscious deviation from the poetic

76
language of the time" (26). Although I find it overly schematic to
conclude that Dickinson's style was a direct response to nineteenth-
century narrative or discursive poetry, Dickinson may indeed have
viewed such pontification as ironically unsuggestive and limited; she
did turn to a minimalist style that Miller says "allows for protective
ambiguity, conveys a sense of the speaker's withheld power, and
implies a profundity beyond the obvious import of its message" (27).
Thus Miller, in effect, finds an architecture of evasion in the poems,
and this is a welcome antidote to the flailing/failing school of
criticism. Dickinson's inscrutable speaker, playing her mysteries close
to the vest, embodies the evasive style.
Miller also cites "disjunction" (the abrupt shifts of tone, subject,
etc.) as a key feature of Dickinson's poetry. This feature"heightens
the effect of fragmentation . . . and undercuts the reader's
expectation of finding ordered meaning" (45-46). Working to create
this disjunction is Dickinson's peculiar punctuation, which "teaches
the reader to trust the play of the mind” (51). Dickinson also
"deliberately overlaps nonspecific pronouns and definite pronouns
without antecedents . . . thereby creating a quality of timelessness"
(76). Miller cites "This was a Poet—It is That" as an example.
All of these elements in her poetry combine to convince the
reader that Dickinson's is not an accidental poetry of failure.
"Dickinson's poetry," according to Miller, "rivals twentieth-century
poetry in its disruption of expected patterns of style and meaning"
(44). Indeed, Dickinson's multilayered, evasive technique, without
seeming pretentious, coy, or artificial, exceeds what even self-
conscious modernists attempt.4

77
All poetry is ambiguous, but Dickinson's brand seems particularly
purposeful and serpentine, the obscurity a calculated challenge to
both the reader’s and the writer's inclination to seek intellectual
harbors. Maybe it is this stubborn, almost gleeful determination to
fling herself and the reader into the maelstrom of indecision that
prompts Camille Paglia to call her "a virtuoso of sadomasochistic
surrealism" (624). Poem 303 begins, "The Soul selects her own
society—." Does this mean the soul chooses itself, one other, more
than one? Is the fourth line ("Present no more—") a command or a
statement? The possible combinations form a dizzying array of
interpretations. But that is Dickinson's point. She seems to be
playfully referring to the range of linguistic choices available to poet
and reader throughout the poem, as well as to one's choice of
company in the final stanza: "Tve known her —from an ample
nation— / Choose One—". Not only does she maintain the ambiguity
she established earlier, but she puns on the act of choosing in several
ways.
First, one can read the line "Choose One—" unambiguously as a
reference to the choice of soulmate. But, as I have stated earlier, I
choose to read this line as if the soul is wedding herself, which leads
me to a more complex and playful obscurity. This line could stand
alone as an order to the reader to make a choice between rival
meanings in the poem. But even this imperative we cannot take
seriously because Dickinson refuses to make the choice herself. To
encapsulate the conundrum, the poet writes a poem about the
winnowing of choice, but then refuses to make the choice she
professes to desire. She then playfully asks the reader to make that

78
choice, knowing that the maze of selections she offers throughout the
poem makes selection impossible. So we are restored to an "ample
nation" of meanings, not an exclusionary choice. One aim of evasion,
then, is to provide possibilities, not to dictate a choice.
Dickinson often challenges the reader to make decisions she
knows to be impossible in order to reveal the danger and sterility of
choosing:
As if some little Arctic flower
Upon the polar hem—
Went wandering down the Latitudes
Until it puzzled came
To continents of summer—
To firmaments of sun—
To strange, bright crowds of flowers—
And birds, of foreign tongue!
I say, As if this little flower
To Eden, wandered in—
What then? Why nothing,
Only, your inference therefrom! (P 180)
This poem breaks all the rules. As I first read it, I immediately
donned my critical mantle, alert to every Dickinsonian buzz-word. Is
this a typically impoverished character, weaned on rock and ice, who,
when afforded a glimpse of paradise, finds it strange and alien? Is
Dickinson talking about the afterlife or about worldly bliss? Is the
reader the "Arctic flower” who wanders into the "strange" world of
the Dickinson poem? Of course, the poet has cleverly set her trap and
lured us into the web of her poem through her tantalizing riddle. She
knows we cannot help interpreting, concluding and perhaps even
making biographical connections to the poet. And just when we feel
comfortable and smug with our insights, she belittles the critical
activity in which we have assiduously engaged ourselves. The

79
metaphors point toward excess: "continents, firmaments and crowds."
Amid such dizzying, variegated paths of a Dickinson lyric, we reach
no conclusions, only "inferences." She rankles us because we are not
prepared for the poet to break the smooth surface of the lyric with
authorial intrusions. This glimpse into the poet's workshop and the
unedited quality of the poem is quite seditious and precocious,
prefiguring Stevens' ruminations and, significantly, those of a recent
American Poet Laureate, Robert Hass.
In his latest volume, for example, Hass writes a poem that begins,
"Maybe you need to write a poem about grace." He also writes
"Layover," and follows it with "Notes on 'Layover,'" which begins, "I
could have said that . . ." (1). Often Hass will break into the poem to
speak, and in one of his paranthetical remarks, he alludes to
Dickinson:
(What is the rhythm of that line? Oh, I see. Four and three,
Emily's line!—
There ought to be some single word
For the misery of divorce.
It dines upon you casually
duh--dduh--duh--duh--dduh--fierce/re morse/pierce/)
(From "Regalia For a Black Hat Dancer" 74-79)
Through Hass’s evasiveness, his reluctance to make choices or polish
his verse, he continues Dickinson's legacy. Reviews of his book, Sun
Under Wood, register surprise at these techniques; David Barker calls
Hass's method "skeptical, self-disclosing, deconstructive," and notes
that "Dickinson's anthem meter haunts Hass or his text-in-delay"
(299, 301). Imagine the reaction of Dickinson's first readers, upon
reading her "text-in-delay."

80
In addition to writing poems of manifold choices, Dickinson also
selected common words and restored richness and strangeness to
them, not to redefine but to undefine and unconfine:
"Morning"—means "Milking"—to the Farmer-
Dawn—to the Teneriffe—
Dice—to the Maid-
Morning means just Risk—to the Lover-
Just revelation—to the Beloved—
Of course by containing morning within quotation marks, Dickinson
actually frees the word from monologic meaning, and she proceeds to
"define” it according to context. When morning is repeated a second
time the quotation marks are dropped because the word has become
so unfettered that morning can mean risk and revelation in addition
to the more obvious associations of milking and dawn.
In the second and final stanza, the process continues; the
language becomes more compressed; the pace quickens; we are
heading for an explosion:
Epicures—date a Breakfast—by it—
Brides—an Apocalypse-
Worlds—a Flood—
Faint-going Lives—Their Lapse from Sighing—
Faith—The Experiment of Our Lord— (P 300)
Morning is gone,and in its place stand words of sweeping change and
destruction (flood and apocalypse). Yet the final two lines bring the
poem together by yoking two disparate reactions to the awesome
power of destruction and creation that each morning signals. The
faint-hearted sigh, and only through death do they achieve peace
and a release from struggle. But the faithful accept God's experiment
and the bravest rejoice in it.

81
Perhaps we sense an undercurrent of resentment towards God for
treating us as ingredients in this experiment. Ironically, and with
conspicuous formality, Dickinson refers to him as "Our Lord," but
countering these barbs is the experimental poem we are reading.
Dickinson's faith resides in the power of each new poem to incite
floods and apocalypse, the risk of the experiment worth the
revelation. Recall her definition of poetry and understand that bold
acts of poetic creation, like God's improvisations, do not pass through
our systems like pabulum; instead they teach us to embrace chaos
and change, the pain of renewal: mornings. Evasion absconds with
tired meanings and replaces them with a more muscular metaphor.
Dickinson injects these familiar syllables with a strange elixir.
Dickinson reconfigures meaning through a relentlessly
paradoxical and oxymoronic language, usually transforming words of
pain and restriction into empowering statements of determination.
Even if this evasion is figurative and intellectual, resulting in artistic
breakthroughs and an unfettered mind, we must not wish it were
more public. From her room and through her pen, Dickinson set new
parameters for the interior life. If one’s life is physically cloistered,
hang tapestries: "How soft this Prison is / How sweet these sullen
bars" (P 1334). Are you seen as crazy, eccentric; is your mental state
questioned? Turn the tables on language and your accuser: "Much
Madness is Divinest Sense— / To a discerning Eye— / Much Sense—
the starkest Madness—" (P 435). If you are thrown into the
maelstrom of a horrible experience, plumb the depths of terror: "'Tis
so appalling—it exhilarates—" (P 281).

82
These are first-line, front-line manifestos of evasion; by yoking
incongruous states of feeling, by reversing the polarities of our
understanding, Dickinson ignites a spark which consumes both our
conceptions about poetry and the linguistic (and thus social) order
under which the poet labors. Like Whitman's embrace of the drifter
(Reynolds), Dickinson boldly allied herself with the mad and the
marginal, adopting the language of insanity for the purposes of her
art and risking the very condemnation and misunderstanding that
still occurs today. Her evasion blazes a trail through states of feeling
from which others retreat, and deposits her—and us—on a plateau of
imaginative expansion.
That Dickinson evades parochial creative modes by toppling the
structure of language is evidenced in the settings of her poems,
which eschew or bury social markers. Not only the clock of a
Dickinson poem, but the geography as well, immerse us in sensory
ataxia, but this "groping" is the prelude to a new way of seeing:
We grow accustomed to the Dark—
When Light is put away—
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Goodbye—
Appropriately, this poem begins with the speaker's departure from
the light, whether it be the glare of social expectations or the false
light of a spurious idea. Most Dickinson poems begin with a
renunciation, and in this case, the speaker renounces both the social
contract that binds people together for security and the comfort of an
inherited system of rules and codes. The speaker is only a visitor to
this deceptively illuminated world, who perhaps reluctantly steps

83
out into the metaphoric dark while the timid and selfish neighbor
clutches the lamp for her own security.
We all stumble out into the dark alone, without markers,
possessing only that buried potential to summon interior
illumination:
A Moment—We uncertain step
For newness of the night—
Then—fit our Vision to the Dark—
And meet the Road—erect— (P 419)
Dickinson injects a certain muscularity, a physical determination on
the speaker's part to make things "fit" and to step "erect." This
determination belies the conspicuous metaphysical "scenelessness" of
the poem. Evasion is vital and active; Dickinson insists that the work
of the brain is strenuous, that psychic survival is every bit as
wrenching and admirable as the work of the peripatetic traveller
who swallows continents in an effort to gain knowledge and
experience. This refusal to give the reader the false comfort of
tangible places and things might alienate some, but Dickinson takes
the lamp away from us so that we "grope a little" with the
strangeness of a poetry that also beckons to us. She slyly claims we
might "hit a Tree / Directly in the Forehead—," perhaps suggesting
that both the reader and the groper must not rely on physical
guideposts; they are either ephemeral like the lamp, or they prove to
be obstacles to one's development of nocturnal radar, because we
clutch at them rather than embrace the dark.5 Inured to the
"Evenings of the Brain," we forget the light, and "Life steps almost
straight." (Naturally Dickinson would prefer a slightly awkward gait,
the enabling imperfection.)

84
The tree collision in poem 419 displays yet another example of
the evasive technique: humor and riddle. In the midst of a serious
meditation Dickinson will mellow the profundity with a few drops of
wit, satire, or self-effacement. Death poems particularly display some
element of odd or obtuse humor that eases the leaden weight of
morbidity, and tempers the prevailing tone. The middle stanza of the
following poem illustrates her practice:
We do not play on Graves—
Because there isn't Room—
Besides—it isn't even—it slants
And People come—
And put a Flower on it—
And hang their faces so—
We're fearing that their Hearts will drop—
And crush our pretty play—
And so we move as far
As Enemies—away—
Just looking round to see how far
It is—Occasionally— (P 467)
Dickinson subtly satirizes the death-fearing adults by comically
contrasting the predictable mourners with the natively innocent
children who dare to play on graves. If children choose not to play
there it is for reasons other than fear. Perhaps their marbles will roll
off the mound, or they lack space to spread out. Adults teach
children not to play there for other reasons, and to have an
unhealthy respect for, and fear of death ("we move as far / As
Enemies—away—"). Dickinson provides an antidote both through her
poetic explorations of death and the comic situations in which she
sometimes places her protagonists.

85
She never treats death with sentimental reverence.6 In poem 465
the "Blue—uncertain stumbling Buzz—" of the fly replaces any
deathbed visions of heaven to which a different kind of poet might
resort. In poem 449 two people in adjoining tombs discuss their
reasons for their interment, and even the famous "Because I could
not stop for Death—" (P 712), though chilling, also presents a unique
situation: the post-mortem chariot ride, and a speaker who treats
death as if he were just another caller.
Humor also abounds in the non-death poems: The conspiratorial
whimsy of "I'm Nobody! Who are you?" (P 288) and the image of a
reeling poet drunk on nature in poem 214 ("Debauchee of Dew") are
memorable comic romps.
Perhaps her favorite comic form was the riddle because, as
Richard Sewall says, "On a higher level, the 'riddle' became
metaphoric of cosmic questions that, though they haunted Emily
Dickinson throughout her life, provided her very reason for being
and for writing poetry" (4). Because Dickinson presented herself as a
riddle (she described herself to Higginson in letter 268 as "small, like
the Wren, and my Hair is bold, like the Chestnut Bur—and my eyes,
like the Sherry in the Glass, that the Guest leaves—"), and because
she devoted herself to indirection as a means to discover truth, she
wrote poems teeming with overt and covert riddles.
Many readers are familiar with her depictions of hummingbirds,
snakes and the railroad train, all presented without refering to the
subject by name, but her poems also perplex with interior riddles as
well. In Dickinson's peculiar lexicon, words like snow, circumference,

86
circuit, and noon become riddles themselves, and her epigrammatic
poems beg to be decoded:
Experiment escorts us last—
His pungent company
Will not allow an Axiom
An Opportunity (P 1770)
Dickinson prefers the company of the "pun"gent experimenter to the
dry and peremptory axiom. (Perhaps this is self escorting self?) She
cleverly reverses scientific practice by moving from conclusion
backwards to hypothesis. She might entertain a few axioms, but she
will leave the dance with the livelier experiment. That Dickinson
makes this choice every time (her poems often start with a solid
axiom she proceeds to debunk) represents the daring, evasive riddler
in the heart of the poet.
Given that Dickinson's experimental style elides the normal uses
of language in order to restore perplexity to our search for truth, we
might assume that the contexts in which she placed her poems reveal
yet another level of evasion. Her refusal to publish, the unknown
purposes of the fascicles, the poems which emerge from letters, all
enhance the evasive style of the poems.
Dickinson's only purposeful "publishing" of her poetry was in
letters she wrote to friends and family and those poems she sent to
Higginson for review. Her refusal to publish is a highly evasive act,
but not for the obvious reason that she was shy about her work, or
unsure of her talent. This was not a negative, reactive, and cloistered
escape. On the contrary, Dickinson wanted to play with the context of
her poems, to guard against giving words a rigid and terminal body,
what Dickinson calls "Corporeal illustration" (P 709). The poems'

87
evasive punch is diluted when they are typeset in a book or
periodical.7
We have regularized her upward and downward slanting marks
into dashes, commas and periods as we have seen fit, robbing them
of the energy and furtiveness they retain in the manuscripts.8 Also,
Dickinson would have had no control over the neighborhood in which
her poems resided. If they appeared in a magazine, what poems
would precede or follow hers? Under what heading or introduction
were they to be placed? By including them in letters and hiding them
in the text as well, Dickinson could control the reverberations of text
colliding with context, and she could alter the settings, thereby
changing the sense. The poems in the Johnson edition, stripped of
their epistolary context, retain their elusiveness, yes, but they reflect
a certain cold sterility. The very publishing history of Dickinson's
poems (their unshakeable identifications with arbitrary numbers in a
volume that ignores their origins), has engendered the kind of
criticism of her work that I hope to amend: that no blood flowed
through her veins, that her art, to quote a reactionary view of Joel
Porte's, is "a ghostly storm making a ghost of whatever it touches"
(256).
Evasion emits warmth; positive and playful despite its negations,
it is a way to embrace the world on its own terms, not to avoid it.
Many of these poems have lives whose stories are never told, or are
too quickly forgotten. Poems that mention, or which are addressed to,
Sue Gilbert or her brother, Austin, seem oddly unsupported or
forcibly muted in the collected poems, abstracted from their soil like

88
plants pulled from their roots, like hothouse poems. This one,
included in letter 229 to Samuel Bowles, serves my purpose:
Would you like Summer? Taste of our's—
Spices? Buy, here!
Ill! We have Berries, for the parching!
Weary! Furloughs of Down!
Perplexed! Estates of Violet—Trouble ne'er looked on
Captive! We bring Reprieve of Roses!
Fainting! Flasks of Air!
Even for Death—a Fairy Medicine—
But, which is it—Sir? (P 691)
Was this poem meant to be stripped of its context? In the letter
that precedes it, we learn that it is winter, that Bowles is sick, and
that this poem is offered as a summer balm for his illness. But we
discover other subtexts as well. She says this letter is a "prayer that
goes not down—when they shut the church—," which breathes a
pagan spirit into the poem. Also, knowing Dickinson's affection for
Bowles, the promise of sensuous gluttony in the poem carries a hint
of the sexual and provocative.9 The conspicuous use of the pronoun
"we" throughout the poem is matched in the letter, and clashes with
the intimacy of the genre and the exotic/erotic tone of the lyric.
Dickinson subsumes the personal in the collective to create an
ambiguous message. Much of this is lost when we isolate the poem.
Another short letter-cum-poem to Bowles, resounds with a much
more cryptic and metaphysical timbre. She begins the letter with a
hushed and stately "Thank you," and follows it with this poem and
short addendum:
"Faith" is a fine invention
When Gentlemen can see—
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency.

89
You spoke of the "East." I have thought about it this winter. Dont
you think you and I should be shrewder, to take
the Mountain Road?
That Bareheaded life—under the grass—worries one like a
Wasp. The Rose is for Mary.
Emily (L 220)
As is typical in Dickinson's evasive art, her psychic needle swiftly
arcs through all compass points, never locking on one direction. She
looks downward to death, east to the resurrection, up toward
paradise; she delves inside of things (the microscope), while
entertaining the embracing all of pure faith. But these are all
inventions or metaphors that Dickinson fashions to assist her inquiry,
not specific destinations. Cynthia Griffin Wolff, in her treatment of
this poem, tellingly makes no distinction between the poem and the
buttressing text (248). Are we sanctioned to separate them? One can
argue that this is a single poem, and the split text represents the
poet's refusal to choose her genre, thereby creating tension and
mimicing the many choices in the letter. Again, evasion blurs
distinctions, eschews choices, invents and reinvents. Her practice of
bouncing poem off letter is yet another example of the strategy.
Not only did Dickinson "publish" her poems in letters, she often
sent the same poem to different people, sometimes changing the
wording or punctuation, sometimes omitting a stanza or two. She sent
the following quatrain (with a change of pronouns) to both Higginson,
on the death of his wife (L 517), and to Harriet and Martha Dickinson
as a more general valediction on lost relatives (L 518):
Perhaps she does not go so far
As you who stay—suppose—
Perhaps come closer, for the lapse
Of her corporeal clothes—

90
I admit the contexts change the poem’s sense only slightly, but
this practice reveals much about Dickinson's relationship with her
creations. Though many poets might view a poem as a temporary
verbal accretion whose status as a finished artifact must be
questioned, they nonetheless usually complete poems and publish
them without continuing to recreate them. Dickinson continually
melts down her poems, or parts of them in order to reshape them,
with obviously little intellectual attachment to them as artifacts. This
allies her with Whitman, whose repeated revisions of Leaves of Grass
have left us to make choices among versions. But Dickinson does not
proliferate variants to coerce choice, but rather to present art as
process, to liberate herself from the need to choose; she wants poetry
to be like an unharnassable force of nature, a brief illumination in a
string of lights showering into our minds:
To pile like Thunder to its close
Then crumble grand away
While Everything created hid
This—would be Poetry— (P 1247)
Dickinson's lyrics, strung together, are like blasts of thunder, a
musical archipelago; the variant words she includes in many of her
poems are the cacophonous echoes within each blast. Like Charles
Ives's modernist symphonies, the melodic line is assaulted by
dissonant intrusions. Of course the "would" represents her perpetual
yearning and her understanding that true poetry does not issue from
pens, but is a conflation of God and Love as she says in the second
stanza.
Another unfortunate editing practice has been the elimination of
variants in any trade volume of Dickinson's poetry. One would have

91
to either buy the very expensive three volume scholarly edition or
have access to a university library to read the poems with their
variants. Dickinson purposely did not choose between variant words;
thus she created elusiveness, depth and infinitude. As Sharon
Cameron asserts, "it is impossible to say where the text ends because
the variants extend the text's identity in ways that make it seem
potentially limitless" (5). Like the limitless identity Dickinson
presented to the world, the poems, too, "embody the problem of
identity" (4). Dickinson, however, does not see identity as
problematic; variants are opportunities to enlarge the identity or
circumference of a poem or its speaker. A poem becomes a variant of
itself, by altering a word, and of course there are the variant words
themselves, which add a certain afterlife to the poem. In Hart Crane’s
elegy, "To Emily Dickinson," he says that "no flower yet withers in
your hand" (9), an astute observation that life emitted from her pen.
She briefly held but did not contain.
Dickinson, in a radical epistolary practice, hid poems, formatted
as prose, in the text of her letters. Some of these were excavated by
Johnson and included in the 1775 poems, but only recently, through
William Shurr's work, do we see an effort to extract more (498 to be
exact) and to promote them as part of the Dickinson canon.
Shurr's work gratifies, especially in the discovery of epigrams
and riddles (some of the longer poems he extracts, moreover, beg our
indulgence to be considered as such), and I agree that "in Dickinson's
practice the border between the two genres was easily permeable"
(4), but having made this assertion, he takes the wrong tack, one that
leaves him as out to sea as other critics who ignore context. Shurr

92
argues (perhaps to validate his own study) "that her poems had a
kind of separate existence apart from the particular letters in which
they might be imbedded" (5). Instead of asserting their discrete,
freestanding status, he undoubtedly should have noted and framed
these poems, and then explored the verbal and aural surroundings in
which Dickinson placed them.
Dickinson was not indifferent to the settings of her poems, as
Shurr claims. She saw the various stages for her poems as an
opportunity to multiply meaning and enhance evasion. Poems
become players/actors themselves, filling a role in a larger drama,
which is constantly changing. These poems are not meant as
soliloquies, but as words within a web of speech.
Though Shurr rightly insists on the "evanescence of the
borderline" between the poems and letters (6), he ultimately
reaffirms the conservative editorial practices he chastizes, for he
ignores the context. Printing these poems separately, he calcifies the
very borders Dickinson strove to dissolve.
Recently, critics have applied themselves to the fascicle packets
in which Dickinson "organized" her poetry. Scholars understandably
conjure varied theories about the fascicles' thematic coherence. R.W.
Franklin, who reorganized the poems in the proper fascicles after
they had been disbound by previous editors, offered little critical
commentary, but he did conjecture that Dickinson's packets were
partly an effort to "reduce disorder in her manuscripts" (1). Franklin
acknowledged, however, that more sophisticated critical inquiry is
necessary: "In general, we need to understand why she assembled

93
the fascicles—by what principles and for what purposes—and to have
them available in the way she viewed them" (1).
Dorothy Huff Oberhaus finds a "deep structural and thematic
unity" in the fortieth and final fascicle (3). Ironically, her cutting
edge work on the fascicles yields a fairly traditional view of the poet:
that her "donnees, her forms, and many of her most arresting tropes
place her within the tradition of Christian devotion" (3). In fact the
final fascicle is more than a discrete thematic whole, Oberhaus says;
it is the "triumphant conclusion ... of a spiritual and poetic
pilgrimage that begins with the first fascicle’s first poem" (3).
While Oberhaus recognizes that the fascicle "does not so much
'tell' as 'hide' its meaning" (9), we must turn to Sharon Cameron to
understand how radically evasive and duplicitous the fascicles are.
One can deduce from the title of her book, Choosing Not Choosing,
that Cameron thinks Dickinson thwarts closure and theme in the
fascicles and variants, by unfettering the traditionally bounded lyric
form:
I shall argue that words that are variants are part of the
poem outside of which they ostensibly lie, as poems in
the same fascicle may sometimes be seen as variants of
each other. . . . The difficulty in enforcing a limit to the
poems turns into a kind of limitlessness, for . . . it is
impossible to say where the text ends because the
variants extend the text's identity in ways that make
it seem potentially limitless. (5-6)
By creating a structure that denies the efficacy of structure, form,
and limit, Dickinson accomplishes on this larger scale what she
effects in the language of each poem, what Cameron calls the
"violation" of "categorical limits" and other terms of measurement be
they spatial, temporal, or textual.

94
Dickinson also evades another context, that of cultural limits, as I
have suggested in previous chapters. Critics have tried to make her
fit a variety of historical narratives, artistic affiliations, or
conversely, they have placed her in opposition to everything,
including herself. Although I focus on the techniques of evasion
rather than on Dickinson's cultural standing, she was a New England
poet who lived during a renaissance of American Literature, amidst
the turmoil of the Civil War and the excitement of geographic and
industrial expansion. So how does my theory of evasion relate to her
cultural moment? Can we place Dickinson accurately in the narrative
of American poetry; did she consider herself a player in this drama?
In "The Poems of Our Climate," Wallace Stevens locates the
particular dilemma of the American poet who is co-seduced by a
European tradition that reveres order and a pioneer heritage that
exalts spontaneity, boldness and risk. Using an arrangement of "pink
and white carnations" in a white, water-filled porcelain bowl to
represent poetic order, precision and simplicity, Stevens realizes "one
would want more, one would need more, / More than a world of
white and snowy scents" (16-17). He prefers the untutored chaos of
the fallen world:
There would still remain the never-resting mind,
So that one would want to escape, come back
To what had been so long composed.
The imperfect is our paradise.
Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds. (18-24)
This stanza is powerfully Dickinsonian. Stevens lauds the restless
mind, the "escape" and return that characterizes the evasive

93
the fascicles—by what principles and for what purposes—and to have
them available in the way she viewed them" (1).
Dorothy Huff Oberhaus finds a "deep structural and thematic
unity" in the fortieth and final fascicle (3). Ironically, her cutting
edge work on the fascicles yields a fairly traditional view of the poet:
that her "donnees, her forms, and many of her most arresting tropes
place her within the tradition of Christian devotion" (3). In fact the
final fascicle is more than a discrete thematic whole, Oberhaus says;
it is the "triumphant conclusion ... of a spiritual and poetic
pilgrimage that begins with the first fascicle’s first poem" (3).
While Oberhaus recognizes that the fascicle "does not so much
'tell' as 'hide' its meaning" (9), we must turn to Sharon Cameron to
understand how radically evasive and duplicitous the fascicles are.
One can deduce from the title of her book. Choosing Not Choosing,
that Cameron thinks Dickinson thwarts closure and theme in the
fascicles and variants, by unfettering the traditionally bounded lyric
form:
I shall argue that words that are variants are part of the
poem outside of which they ostensibly lie, as poems in
the same fascicle may sometimes be seen as variants of
each other. . . . The difficulty in enforcing a limit to the
poems turns into a kind of limitlessness, for . . . it is
impossible to say where the text ends because the
variants extend the text's identity in ways that make
it seem potentially limitless. (5-6)
By creating a structure that denies the efficacy of structure, form,
and limit, Dickinson accomplishes on this larger scale what she
effects in the language of each poem, what Cameron calls the
"violation" of "categorical limits" and other terms of measurement be
they spatial, temporal, or textual.

96
of poetic structuring. Just as Stevens finds "delight" in "flawed words
and stubborn sounds," Dickinson finds "revery"—which has it roots in
the Middle English "rever," to speak wildly— a sufficient and more
plausible substitute for a sweeping pronouncement about nature.
Perhaps this kind of breakdown or radical revisioning of the
poem in process is peculiarly American; perhaps evasion, instead of
literary genuflection, is our heritage. Many critics have attempted to
bathe Dickinson in just this light. Porter, rather dourly, appropriates
her for membership in the self-immolating American modernists
club and suggests that her fanciful musing and kinetic speech
ungrounded in tradition represents armageddon for American poets
who, following her lead, embrace chaos.
Robert Weisbuch provides a more elaborate and more optimistic
theory for Dickinson's Americanness (Double-Cross). He suggests
American political independence applies to the literary world as well.
Conscious that an infant literary culture might mimic European
forms, Emerson and his contemporaries forcibly tried to create a
culture that reflected native speech, geography and politics. Because
they did not want to ape their British cousins, they had little cultural
tradition on which to draw; they were trying to plant seeds in barren
ground.
However, being what Weisbuch calls "American actualists" (207),
Emerson, Whitman and Dickinson saw the possibilities inherent in a
fresh start. If there were any burden, it lay on the pens of the British
writers who had cultural constraints and homage to pay. The
American writers, instead of faithfully recreating the world, used
their imaginations to forge a history, facing the emptiness with gusto.

97
They see themselves as epitomizing "cultural earliness" (122); there
is work to be done and few rules to follow. Allied to the concept of
earliness, is Weisbuch's definition of "futurism" (154), which
connotes a perpetual looking-forward, even after death. American
poets abhor finality and relish work in progress and the process of
becoming. Dickinson's every poem asserts futurism, Weisbuch says,
by her use of the dash (168).
Other critics connect Dickinson to a wide range of American
cultural touchstones. Karl Keller works backward to the Puritans
Bradstreet, Taylor and Edwards, in order to locate Dickinson's
"darker, more conservative New England temperament" (4). Farr
finds that the poet's references to light reflect the Luminist painters'
concerns. According to St. Armand, Dickinson shares the nineteenth
century's preoccupation with death. And Joanne Feit Diehl, with a
nod to Harold Bloom's "Anxiety of Influence," highlights her
deconstruction of the British Romantics (Imagination!.
While such cultural connections are useful and enlightening, their
very method precludes any deep understanding of Dickinson's
poetry. Dickinson, according to Robert Smith, thwarts such
approaches:
I would suggest that the affinities such studies
trace between the poet's culture and her text are
of limited validity due to the implicit determinism
of their method. The central problem with these
critical texts is their monologic ambition. Each
assumes that literary text and history can be
distinguished as foreground and background and
that the devices through which the text refracts
or reflects the contextual background are therefore
easily observable for the critical analyst. (19)

98
I would add an important distinction that reflects my thesis: all of
these studies assume that Dickinson wrote passively, that she reacted
to a suffocating world and summoned a response to it. One can
imagine a New Yorker cartoon: We look over Dickinson's shoulder;
she holds a list with two columns. On the left, "Things I don't like,"
and under it, "Puritanism", "men that say 'what' to me," "women that
talk a lot," God, winter. And on the right, the first line of a poem that
grapples with each pet peeve. Yes, there are such reactive poems in
her canon, and this study suggests certain cultural issues with which
Dickinson did grapple; evasive poetry becomes, in its maturity, an
active force, an aim in itself, a way of suspending meaning and time,
a way of communing with the larger questions of existence. Dickinson
was too mercurial and elusive to subsume her identity in a
movement either to make the world safe for American poetry or to
champion religious dissent.
I find evidence that Dickinson was not preoccupied with writing
against her time or in support of some ism. from her reading habits.
She read widely and well: George Eliot, the Brownings, Thomas
Carlyle (Sewall 668-705). What has embarrassed some critics,
however, is that she also read a lot of uninspired popular fiction and
was often effusive in her praise of this "mediocrity." She even chose,
as the epitaph for her tombstone, the phrase, "Called Back," which is
the title of a popular book by Hugh Conway that she called a
"haunting story" (L 962). If Dickinson were dedicated to razing the
cultural standards of her time, would she have reacted with such
equanimity to such art? The evasive poems she so carefully honed (I
am aware of the oxymoronic idea that one can craft formlessness)

99
form a very private and personal language that do not require a
corresponding villain to give them purpose.
Dickinson, in her most famous poem on the subject of American
individualism, supports the veracity of a home-grown vision, while
understanding that even such a fresh concept as "American
Literature" is a limitation she will not accept:
The Robin’s my Criterion for Tune—
Because I grow—where Robins do—
But, were I Cuckoo born—
I'd swear by him—
The ode familiar—rules the Noon—
The Buttercup's, my Whim for Bloom—
Because, we’re Orchard sprung—
But, were I Britain born,
I'd Daisies spurn—
None but the Nut—October fit—
Because, through dropping it,
The Seasons flit—I'm taught—
Without the Snow's tableau
Winter, were lie—to me—
Because I see—New Englandly—
The Queen, discerns like me—
Provincially— (P 285)
On one level this poem obviously supports a home-grown aesthetic.
As Margaret Dickie observes, "she has picked up her standards and
the language that encodes them from her neighborhood." But
Dickinson is not, says Dickie, "identifying her purpose with the New
England way" so much "as she is equating sight with site" (39-40).
True, but on another level this poem is best understood as eschewing
all sight as myopic, all view points as limited and "provincial." What
her vision teaches her is that things fly, die, fall and fade; the poem
scans the seasons and Dickinson offers us the appropriate symbol for
each—"Robin" for spring, "Buttercup" for summer, "Nut" for autumn,

100
and snow for winter. She evinces, however, little faith in these tired
metaphors, in the stagnation of "Noon" and "The ode familiar;" she
cleverly chooses the most hackneyed seasonal symbols to emphasize
what happens when provincial views become entrenched and tired.
In the kind of poetry she rejects, a robin becomes a "Criterion"—a
rather closed and "crit"ical system of evaluation. The progress away
from familiar odes and toward evasion continues as Dickinson sees a
buttercup as a "Whim," and the process of naming whimsical, rather
than as a "Criterion." She writes a standard nature poem and razes it
simultaneously—an evasive tour de force. She reserves her respect
and admiration for the primal power of flitting and metamorphosis.
That is the true Dickinson idiom.
Grammatically, too, the poem grows more whimsical and playful
as Dickinson quickly undermines the tidy symbolism with a
Hopkinsian sprung-rhythm, words which, like the seasons, dart and
flit. She rather ludically rhymes snow with "tableau" and pokes fun
at those that teach simplified fallacies, like winter=snow and
autumn=nut.
The evasive roguishness of this poem prompted Suzanne Juhasz
to isolate its comic properties, and she rightly views the poem as a
tease and a riddle, but oddly, she calls the speaker of this poem a
"New England hick" and a "local yokel" preoccupied with thumbing
her nose at British hegemony (Comic Power 29-30). But this is not a
poem sporting a Huck Finn narrator artfully making boobs out of
supposedly cultured adults. Dickinson certainly does not "privilege
things" after the manner of William Carlos Williams (Comic Power
31) as Juhasz contests. (She tiresomely injects her own gender

101
concerns into the poem as well, claiming the speaker is
"uncomfortable" in "stiff corsets and high-heeled shoes" fComic Power
29]). Dickinson's speaker is more than a nascent feminist; she is a
poet revelling in playful evasion and in her realization that truth
does not inhere in things but in the process of creation and
destruction.
This famous poem, then, indicates that Dickinson's project was
personal, not a contribution to a public effort to forge an American
voice. (The whole point of being an American actualist, as Weisbuch
claims, is to reject all isms, schools and ologies.) Dickinson was
meticulously original and disregarded, for the most part, the sylistic
conventions of her avowed favorite authors. She told Higginson that
she "never consciously touchjes] a paint mixed by another person" (L
271). Of course no writer escapes the subconscious imprinting of her
time, and as Smith says the works of Armand and others are
"invaluable contributions to Dickinson scholarship" (197), but we
need to recognize the limitations inherent in these works in order to
elucidate Dickinson's radicalism. Dickinson’s vision of poetry and the
role of the poet clash with a variety of influences and traditions:
American and British Romanticism, New England Puritanism,
industrial and westward expansion. Art and Science.
Perhaps it is futile to conjecture how Dickinson became this kind
of poet. What frustrates me most, however, is that even sympathetic
critics view her novel art as arising from a variety of social and
personal maimings. Robert Greenberg, who recognizes Dickinson's
poetry as a "protomodernist" triumph, nonetheless clings to time¬
worn explanations of her "disconnection": the lack of "psychological

102
nourishment" from her family; the religious isolation; "the lack of a
sustaining tradition in English or American letters for a woman lyric
poet" (156-58). I do not discount the effects of culture and family on
one's behavior, but critics are extreme and misguided if they feel
these "pronounced psychic wounds" (156) enabled her unique
approach to verse. Of course Greenberg is obligated by his
disconnection/reconnection theme to present Dickinson's artistic
awakening as if she were overcoming a handicap or a psychic limp.
We witness, instead, the onslaught of a highly developed and
powerful new aesthetic, born not of weakness nor through
tremendous anguish, but presented with confidence and unity.
Perhaps I am making overly great claims for her poetry, but as we
see from Cameron, Oberhaus, Eberwein and feminist critics like
Juhasz, we are not obligated by history to view Dickinson's poetry as
a failure because it does not adhere to traditional rules of closure and
organization.
Dickinson's comments about her poetry affirm that she was
confident in her remarkable style. Many quote in isolation the shy
and docile query from Dickinson to Higginson in letter 260 as proof
of her artistic insecurity: "Are you too deeply occupied to say if my
Verse is alive?" But this was merely a way to get Higginson's
attention which, once she had, she proceeded to manipulate with lies,
obfuscation and rhetoric. Ten days later, in letter 261, Dickinson
responded to Higginson's request for biographical facts with tactical
evasion. When he asked her age she responded, "I made no verse—
but one or two—until this winter—Sir—." Not only did she answer in
terms of poetic age, she fibbed about the number of poems she had

103
written (nearly 300). He asked about her "companions." She
responded, "Hills—Sir—and the Sundown." This direct indirection
culminates in the final line of the letter, with a line that exudes
confidence, authority and challenge, cloaked in polite solicitation: "Is
this—Sir—what you asked me to tell you?"
Dickinson plays with Higginson. The repeated, slightly mocking
"Sir," always separated by dashes, lets him know that on both an
artistic and personal level, she has mastered a language and an art
that has self-sufficient authority. She continues this mix of obedience
and recalcitrance in succeeding letters, seeking his criticism while
claiming a certain indifference or immunity from it: "perhaps you
smile at me. I could not stop for that—My Business is Circumference-
(L 268). A letter written at about the same time to Dr. and Mrs.
Holland asserts a similar intention: "Perhaps you laugh at me!
Perhaps the whole United States are laughing at me too! I can't stop
for that! My business is to love" (L 269).
The term "stop" signifies more than the cessation of writing; it is
the stillness of death and the acceptance of limitation. Dickinson’s
evasion is a mental joy ride, an intellectual agility, a lyric hunger and
curiosity which compelled her to write nearly two thousand
movements that embody change and ebb. Dickinson obviously balked
at the "stops" Higginson may have suggested, because her poems
continue to reflect no effort to control her "little Force" (L 271).
Dickinson resumes the game with Higginson (she seemed to slyly
coax men into playing the dominant tutorial roles they felt
comfortable with, only to ambush them with her pugnacious
determination) by including two poems in letter 271 that asks, "Are

104
these more orderly? I thank you for the Truth—." One of those poems
begins: "I cannot dance upon my Toes— / No Man instructed me—,"
which totally belies her request for guidance and lets Higginson
know, that she excels at this art despite the lack his or another man's
instruction.
According to Dickinson, poetry is not orderly reflection, or polite
mastery of verse forms containing the requisite allusions to the
classics, but a dangerous power current, crackling with terror, awe¬
inspiring. To Higginson she wrote that "Nature is a Haunted House—
but Art—a House that tries to be haunted" (L 459a) and, writing to
his wife, Higginson recalled Dickinson's view of poetry: "If I read a
book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm
me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head
were taken off, I know that is poetry" (L342a).
Dickinson also told him how she was "much in the Woods as a
little Girl," and though she was warned of the danger, "she met no
one but Angels" (L 271). This metaphoric story suggests that she was
always at home in the wilderness, poetically and ideologically, and it
comments on both the Puritan tradition and Nathaniel Hawthorne's
Young Goodman Brown, who finds the devil, his representatives and
the dark side of the human pysche in the New England forest.
Dickinson did not deny the presence of evil, as Whitman often did;
she merely refused to classify experience into a simple duality. And
the mysterious darkness did not abash her. She allowed chaos to be
chaos and found edification in its labyrinthean corridors. She
maintained this idea into her later years when she wrote to her
cousins that "awe impels the work" (L 891).

105
Dickinson's poems on poetry reveal a similar belief in poetry's
power.10 They also reveal that the poem and the poet be evasive
formally, that they fail, in a sense, to upstage or supersede the world
they represent.
In poem 448 ("This was a Poet—"), Dickinson's evasive poet
wields prodigious weapons, but she fails to assert the immortality of
the poems themselves. Are her seers always this empowered? How
important are the integrity and survival of the poems? Dickinson's
metaphoric choices in her poetry poems reveal a carefree insouciance
about poems as artifacts, while maintaining passionate gravity about
the act of evasive verse-making. In poem 883, the poet serves
simply as a facilitator:
The Poets light but Lamps—
Themselves—go out—
The Wicks they stimulate—
If vital Light
Inhere as do the Suns—
Each Age a Lens
Disseminating their
Circumference-
One might think Dickinson subjugates the poet in favor of her
creations, but by comparing poetry to light, specifically the light of
suns, she identifies art as heat, power and nourishment. Poems are
ashes, detritus, slag; but the example of poetry is the intangible,
dimensionless light, evasive, but "vital" and thus eternal.
As with most of her poems, size here belies complexity. Judith
Farr whitewashes the subtleties by insisting that the "prismatic glass
surrounding a lamp is the enlargement in reputation the good poet
experiences in 'Each Age"’ (325). Dickinson does not address a poet's

106
reputation, but she does present an intractable tension between the
self-sufficiency of the poetic act and the "disseminating" role of the
"Age." Like the sun, poetry is a strong self-generating and primal
power that does not need an audience or an effect to justify its
existence. Dickinson assumes a certain passive indifference on the
part of the poet. She need not pander to a public or concern herself
with reputation, because true poetry, she believes, is not calculated,
but inevitable, irrevocable brilliance. A poet could no more restrict
the primal flow of utterance than the sun could regulate the emission
of light and heat. And she certainly cannot control how her words are
scattered and sown by the random winds of social pollination.
So the evasive poet augments her elusiveness by relinquishing
control over everything but the fulmination of her art. The
movement of poetry between the "in here" and out there, like the
flow of light or heat, is instigated by the poet, but eventually
becomes a mutable energy whose influence is ongoing and manifold.
One might counter that Dickinson was an occasional poet whose
epistolary inclusions were commonplace. Indeed, she sent poems to
the bereaved and the sick, to new mothers and fathers, on
anniversaries and birthdays, but she also recycled her poems and
applied them to a variety of occasions, as we have seen. She is the
cultural alchemist, or, to use one of her muscular metaphors, the
poet/smith who reshapes familiar materials through the fire and
intense pressure of her morphic mind.
Though Dickinson writes lyrics about poetry that trumpet the
eminence of the poet, they are usually undermined by a desire for
poetic failure, for silence and misunderstanding. This voice of artistic

107
refusal is the mature, evasive voice that Dickinson develops to
maintain the vitality of experience and the natural world, while still
satisfying her need to speak.
Perhaps readers are familiar with the confident speakers of "I
shall keep singing!" (P 250), "I reckon—when I count at all— / First-
Poets—Then the Sun— / Then Summer—Then the Heaven of God—"
(P 569), and "The Brain—is wider than the Sky—" (P632), but the
following poem is more typical:
The Tint I cannot take—is best—
The Color too remote
That I could show it in Bazaar—
A Guinea at a sight— (P 627)
The evasive poet exults in the limitation of her grasp; she does not
mourn the failure of language nor does she valorize artistic
incompetence. Dickinson simply will not trespass upon the
immaterial and untranslatable truths which hover outside the lip of
the poem, the ken of the poet. Her poem does not confine nature in
its form, treat it like a commodity, or assume a proprietary tone. The
art of evasion suggests but does not confirm, and the world retains
its mystery, the poet, her awe.
The speaker of poem 441 might be "out of the loop" but must we
see her as petulant and self-pitying because nature hides its secrets?
She understands nature's evasions and fashions her art in honor of
its remoteness:
This is my letter to the World
That never wrote to Me—
The simple News that Nature told—
With tender Majesty
Her message is committed
To Hands I cannot see—

108
For love of Her—Sweet—countrymen—
Judge tenderly—of Me
Dickinson's "letter" is not a dialogue or a rendering, not the "Planet on
the Table" as Wallace Stevens confidently dubbed his work. In fact,
Dickinson asks to be judged "tenderly" because she, too, practices the
indirection that makes nature so majestic. She says elsewhere that
she fears a "Man of frugal Speech—" because she believes "He is
Grand—" (P 543), and she admires "The Martyr Poets" because they
"did not tell— / But wrought their Pang in syllable—" (P 544). She
does not write a traditional letter of connection and intimacy; instead
she alters the role of the poet by subjugating statement or "telling" to
a primal "pang." We sense a grandness in the capacious silence of a
Dickinson poem.
Dickinson wonders if the letter is even worth writing, when
natufe has already perfected the evasive language. The Northern
Lights in poem 290 display "An Unconcern so sovereign" that the
poet first tries to emulate, but then bows to. Her poems are
"Menagerie" when compared to the "Competeless Show" of the lights.
But we must remember that Dickinson writes a poem about poetry's
shortcomings, just as she writes a poem about not wanting to write
poetry:
Nor would I be a Poet—
It's finer—own the Ear-
Enamored—impotent—content— (P 505)
Evasion is the strategy that links these two opposing desires, the
quest for majestic silence and the impulse to sing. She devised an art
that was both bold, in that she did not play the wise bard, and
respectful of a nature whose grandeur she hoped to preserve.

109
Dickinson knew her art was unique, her views, unsettling. She wrote
to Mrs. Holland: "Should I spell all the things as they sounded to me,
and say all the facts as I saw them, it would send consternation
among more than the 'Fee Bees'!" (L 820). She still does. The poems I
discuss in the following chapter, Dickinson's great non-
representational odes to nature, contain all the evasive power of this
poet, and portray the natural world in a way that expands what
poetry can do.
Notes
1 Early editors dismantled the packets of poems that Dickinson
had sewn together. R. W. Franklin reconstructed them; see The
Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson 2 Vols. (Cambridge: Harvard UP,
1981). Many critics, including Sharon Cameron in Choosing Not
Choosing: Dickinson's Fascicles (Chicago: Chicago UP, 1992) and
Dorothy Huff Oberhaus in Emily Dickinson's Fascicles: Method and
Meaning (University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1995), inquire
whether there are thematic links within and between the fascicles.
2 See Paul Crumbley, Inflections of the Pen: Dash and Voice in
Emily Dickinson (Lexington: U of Kentucky P, 1997) for a discussion
of the ways Dickinson's dash effects the vocal rhythms of the poem.
3 Higginson represented his culture’s fondness for artistic control
and predictability when he wrote Dickinson that she was
"uncontrolled" (L 265). She slyly responded that she had no
"tribunal," implying that her art was not likely to receive a fair
evaluation from her "peers."
4 By not avowing fidelity to a school of poetry and, thankfully, by
resisting Higginson’s advice, Dickinson's "style" always seems
inevitably and naturally hers. Her poetry does not represent a
mannered and artful attempt to be modern, in the same way that
Ezra Pound's Imagism or William Carlos Williams "Red Wheelbarrow"
style does.

5 Dickinson vehemently denied Higginson's assertion that she
must desire to get out of the house and see people. Higginson quotes
her as saying '"I never thought of conceiving that I could ever have
the slightest approach to such a want in all future time’ (& added) 'I
feel that I have not expressed myself strongly enough'" (L 342a).
Dickinson's isolation from the false illumination of social interaction
was a conscious choice that enabled her art.
6 Though her letters show the proper respect for her friend’s
losses, Dickinson's comic treatment of death represents her evasion
of a society obsessed with the subject. In addition to Barton Levi St.
Armand's study: The Soul's Society: Emily Dickinson and her Culture (
New York: Cambridge UP, 1984), see Gary Wills, Lincoln at
Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America (New York: Touchstone-
Simon, 1992) 63-89. Wills illustrates how the memorial at
Gettysburg was influenced by a culture that planned cemeteries, like
Mt. Auburn outside Boston, to be places of retreat and contemplation.
7 Here is Dickinson's response to Higginson's advice that she
postpone publishing her poems: "I smile when you suggest that I
delay 'to publish'—that being foreign to my thought as Firmament to
Fin—" (L 265). Dickinson characterized being solicited for poems as
being asked for her "Mind" (L 261).
8 In Paul Crumbley's study of Dickinson (see note 2), he has
made an effort to restore the dashes to manuscript accuracy. He
claims that the angles of the dashes are purposeful, and that they
"expand rather than restrict voicing options" (1).
9 Judith Farr makes an extended case for Samuel Bowles as the
unknown "Master" to whom Dickinson addressed many letters. See
The Passion of Emily Dickinson (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992).
' 0 Dickinson's poetry displays a preoccupation with the craft of
poetry and the role of the poet which presages the modernist credo
that art is important for its own sake. Poetry is often the main or
implied subject of the poem which reflects Dickinson's thoughtfulness
about her vocation.

CHAPTER 4
NATURE REDEFINED
Dickinson has always been considered a "Nature" poet, but often
in a treacly, celebratory way. One of the important undertakings of
Dickinson's feminist critics has been to document her estrangement
from the inherited Western discourse on nature, which includes the
feminization of the earth, and the deeply entrenched symbolic
alliance between masculinity and light. Wendy Barker's work is
based on this assumption that Western cultures have invested the
Sun with male sexual resonance that is considered positive. Because
women are excluded from this dominant Judeo-Christian paradigm,
they are likely to perceive light in more threatening or predatory
terms. Thus "Dickinson's crises of light are characterized by her
uniquely female position in relation to a decidely male solar power"
(11).
Joanne Feit Diehl isolates the schism between Dickinson and such
British Romantics as Keats and Wordsworth, who form a composite
male adversary that is both sexually and ideologically dangerous
(Imagination!. Wordsworth can sanction a basically benevolent
natural world that yields her riches to the male poet's penetrating
gaze, and Keats’ distant female muse, often conflated with nature, is
unavailable to a female poet.
Being a woman enabled, even fomented, Dickinson's evasion of
the gendered tropes that characterize timidly predatory nature

112
poetry. Dickinson's ludditic refusal to thrust a creative buzzsaw into
the wilderness counters Whitman's and Emerson's jingoistic embrace
of industrial expansion, and frees her to develop a metaphoric
alternative to the dualism in which many writers wallow. One might
assume that a female writer would find power in the dark tropes to
which her sex has been relegated, would secure the night, the moon
and the dark recesses of the brain for her metaphoric home. Yes,
Dickinson adopts this strategy in some of her poems, but (and this
represents her evasive triumph) we never see her unequivocally
invest her imagination in the very symbolic structure that oppressed
her to begin with, even if she does subvert it in some poems by
gleaning power from the dross of the patriarchal foundry. Instead,
Dickinson becomes the genetrix of a new metaphoric structure that
alchemizes the tautologic rigidity of the male/female, light/dark
binaries.
Many feminist critics, eager to have Dickinson battle male power
from the shadows, magnify the adversarial warriors in her poems,
while silencing the transformer. Why should Dickinson renounce her
claim to sunlight, simply because of an arbitrary symbolic tradition?
Barker's work is important because she affirms that Dickinson does
not feel obligated to choose a faction in a stale war. Instead the poet
"was able so brilliantly to transform and transcend the normative
metaphoric patterning of her culture" (185). More importantly,
Dickinson's accomplishment transcends its gendered origins. What
begins as a feminine response to male power evolves into a
metaphoric strategy that allows all of us, "whether female or male" to

1 13
"change the meaning of our environments, the meanings of cultural
values and practices" (Barker 185).
So, though Dickinson's fear of the seductively intense noon
(Barker cites letter 93, where Dickinson calls a lover a "man of noon,"
as evidence that she conflates solar intensity with male sexuality) is
engendered partly by a fear of erotic possession, the evasive rapidity
of the linguistic shapechanging loses its sexual context, and becomes
a fluid circuit. Dickinson's poems thus inhabit neither day nor night;
the middle zone of noon becomes allied with turbidity, bloated
satiety, lazy intellectual acceptance. The alternative? Dickinson found
her metaphor in the lean, fluid, compact yet sublime border zones
between the various noons. Neither day nor night, neither female nor
male, neither possessed nor possessing, these cusps represent the
permeable membranes between distinct zones, a climactic period
where substantial change occurs in a short time, such as the time it
takes to read a Dickinson poem.
Dickinson's many poems about sunrise, sunset, autumn, Indian
summer, spring, all cusp times, show her fascination with the
metaphoric possibilities for her own experience. Mary Loeffelholz
argues that Dickinson's early poems are mainly "blocked quests into
nature" (8) and that they "call the wished-for plenitude of
Emersonian natural beginnings into doubt" (12). Indeed, Dickinson’s
poems about autumn show a development similar to the arc of her
personal relationships, the early ones present a bitter speaker whose
beloved summer is taken away by an unfeeling God, while the later
poems show admiration for, and emulation of, autumn. In this early

poem, God is a hoaxter, teasing the speaker with a return to Indian
summer, just as he teases her with the hope of resurrection:
These are the days when Birds come back—
A very few—a Bird or two—
To take a backward look.
These are the days when skies resume
The old—old sophistries of June—
A blue and gold mistake.
Oh fraud that cannot cheat the Bee—
Almost thy plausibility
Induces my belief.
Till ranks of seeds their witness bear—
And softly thro’ the altered air
Hurries a timid leaf.
The speaker envisions herself a bird (later, a child) teased by a
return of warm weather in the midst of fall, but metaphorically, this
balmy intrusion represents for the speaker the false promise of
resurrection during a time of decay. The beautiful, clearly-etched
skies of June, like the warm autumn days, are "sophistries," topically
ravishing but signifying neither heaven nor God's grace. In fact, the
sweet air is "altered" by these spurious signs of hope; it exudes the
rankness of death. Dickinson underscores the terminal, futile nature
of our quest for immortality by ending each of the first five stanzas
with a period, which is unusual for her. There is a closed-minded
anger in the first four stanzas, a deeply personal, almost bitter
response.
The final two stanzas, however, radically alter the prevailing tone
of resentment mixed with disillusion. Cynthia Griffin Wolff says "the
end is so loosely connected to the earlier portion that a reader may
be justifiably confused about its relevance" (309):

115
Oh Sacrament of summer days,
Oh Last Communion in the Haze-
Permit a child to join.
Thy sacred emblems to partake—
Thy consecrated bread to take
And thine immortal wine! (P 130)
Wolff guesses that the "yearning to partake . . . may pertain not
to a promised rebirth through Christ, but rather to that never-ending
life in art itself” (308). In a manner, yes. The final two stanzas
represent a turning away from the angry, reactive strategy of the
beginning. Though she has still not arrived at the evasive level of her
later poems, she yearns to join the evasive play of God and nature;
she is a neophyte evasive lyricist, but even in this poem, she has
eluded both standard nature paeans, and jolted the reader with the
disconnection of the final stanzas.
Dickinson discovers a plenitude of sorts, a possibility, in a
different kind of nature poem. Instead of parodying the typical
success stories of those romantics who connect with nature, or
instead of ruing the ruthlessness of fall, she finds an artistic metier
in this convulsive cusp:
The name—of it—is "Autumn"—
The hue—of it—is Blood—
An Artery—upon the Hill—
A Vein—along the Road-
Great Globules—in the Alleys—
And Oh, the Shower of Stain—
When Winds—upset the Basin—
And spill the Scarlet Rain—
It sprinkles Bonnets—far below—
It gathers ruddy Pools—
Then—eddies like a Rose—away—
Upon Vermilion Wheels— (P 656)

For Dickinson, this transition between summer and winter is
characterized by violent change, not by the smooth transition that
Keats envisions in "To Autumn": "Season of mists and mellow
fruitfulness, / Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun" (1-2); Keats
downplays the approaching winter, sees autumn as a gentle reaper.
Wallace Stevens comes closer to Dickinson's sense; his repeated
refrain, "Farewell to an idea . . in "Auroras of Autumn" harks back
to her gothic valediction.
Already we encounter the first evasion, the refiguration of a
social metaphor. Keats presents the sun and earth in their
traditionally gendered roles; the male sun germinates the female
land to "fill all fruit with ripeness to the core; / To swell the gourd,
and plump the hazel shells" (6-7). Countering this overt sexual
coupling in the Keats' poem, is Dickinson's bloodbath. Summer was a
time of fullness and quiet, but Dickinson is repulsed by this stasis,
and turns to a metaphor that amends Keats'. Why the rather macabre
metaphor? Dickinson advocates linguistic and perceptual violence to
wrench us from our mental summers. Autumn is a necessary killing
of summer and Dickinson, admiring and emulating this executioner,
also kills the word "Autumn" (quoted to show her distance from the
common meaning), severing it from the syrupy romantic rhetoric
that determines it. Hue obviously means tint, but the Old English
usage of hue for outcry or yell and the homonym "hew" resonate as
well. Also, if this poem amends the male/female fertilization trope of
Keats, then the bleeding represents the enduring separation of artist
and nature, an unfertilization poem.

117
The evasive qualities of autumn (Keats’ feminized autumn is seen
"asleep" or "drows'd," while Dickinson's genderless "it" constantly
moves) do not send the viewer into a despondent or churlish funk as
they do to Stevens' speaker. The romantic "I" is absent, but
comfortably so; there is no overt struggle for perspective by a
powerful seer. Dickinson does not crave, like Keats, the affirmation of
nature, the comforting union of the poet and pliant nature. Notice the
contrast between poem 656 and Dickinson’s earlier autumn poems
where the speaker beseeches a powerful male deity: "Grant me, Oh
Lord, a sunny mind— / Thy windy will to bear!" (P 131). Being a
woman, how could she ascribe to a Keatsian sexual metaphor that
requires the feminine to submit to a phallic creative impregnator?
Keats envisions an autumn which awaits the predatory artist
("whoever seeks abroad may find" [13]), while Dickinson's
ungendered autumn "eddies like a Rose—away—." The only way that
nature and the poet conjoin is in their hewing of contentment, their
dual fidelity to evasion.
Unlike the earlier poems (130 and 131), where the speaker
requests a traditional sacrament and wishes for a baptismal initiation
into, and communion with, the creative world of God (and by
extension the creative world of art), this poem recognizes that a
baptism of this magnitude requires a fresh metaphor, not a trickle on
the forehead or a taste of diluted wine. Dickinson’s rites jolt and
ambush, even injure. Baptism by blood paradoxically cleanses
through its earthy density, tethers us to the changeable earth,
releases us from the wish for some cosmic purity, the dilution or
sterility of water gone, the weight of blood, ascendent. The metaphor

1 18
is cleansed; autumn is reduced to a repetitive "it" and the motion of
blood. The world, though falling, ascends through violence, just as the
poem elevates by killing our cherished notions of art.
This strategy of refiguring linguistic symbols like "Autumn"
typifies Dickinson’s evasive poetry. We are not inflexibly bidden to
rummage through some cultural repository of approved images for
autumn: Golden fields of grain, rustling leaves, a pumpkin patch.
Language can level with soporific predictability, or it can transform.
Why not blood? Blood is basic, Everything is built on it—even this
poem. Dickinson matches autumn's evasiveness with her own. She
does not build an argument, ponder her relation to the event, or
provide snapshots. Instead the poem has a speed and volition of its
own, a movement. She lights a fire and urges it to spread, engulfing
even the poem in its rampage. Vermilion (the color Dickinson
attaches to the season) is produced by a reaction between sulfur and
mercury (Random House 2114), two substances that represent speed
and ignition.
Even for Dickinson poems, these anti-odes to autumn move
swiftly and do their business quickly:
It can't be "Summer"!
That—got through!
It's early—yet—for "Spring"!
There's that long town of White—to cross—
Before the Blackbirds sing!
It can't be "Dying"!
It's too Rouge—
The Dead shall go in White—
So Sunset shuts my question down
With Cuffs of Chrysolite! (P 221)

I 19
Dickinson allows herself just so much poetic conceit. This poem is
a question without the answer. Sunset may shut the day down, but
Dickinson throughout has shut the poem off from making claims
about the nature of autumn. Instead she defines by telling us what
fall is not. Evasion is a dismantling, with only incipient restructuring.
As she says in a letter to the Hollands, "the imperceptible has no
external face" (L 391), and the facelessness of autumn remains. But
this is typical Dickinson. Her poems inhabit the rapidly changing
moment she cannot categorize; they embody it rather than trying to
stem it or rationalize it. Each poem is a running question, a breathless
query. She does not take the matter up on reflection; the poem ends
when the natural event does.
There is always more for the traditional poet to do in summer,
more to describe, but paradoxically, this is the least challenging time
for an evasive poet like Dickinson. Poem 956 has more reportage
qualities than the autumn poems, in fact the poem is "full" like
summer with scenes of squirrels, bird, bees and ripe flowers. But
Dickinson wants to give the slip to this kind of fullness, because
plenitude does not fuel her art. Visions of stasis rule the poem: "the
Rose is ripe ... the Bee hangs all Noon ... the Berries stare," and we
hear a desperate boredom in the speaker's tone; her heart is not in
the descriptions. Dickinson undermines the nature of summer as a
time of richness and contentment. The poem begins with the
plaintive "What shall I do when the Summer troubles—" and ends
with a desire to flee, to be in flux:
Twouldn’t afflict a Robin-
All his Goods have Wings—

120
I—do not fly, so wherefore
My Perennial Things?
It is a hallmark of all her cusp poems, especially those about
sunsets, that the rhetorical flight of the poem matches the natural
event. Dickinson's letters sparkle with sunrise and sunset metaphors;
the sun's arc seems to provide the apt symbol for the mobile creator.
A letter to Higginson contains the following lines, formatted as
poetry:
To wane without disparagement
In a dissembling hue
That will not let the eye decide
If it abide or no (L 486)
Though Dickinson's quatrain refers partly to poets' legacies, we
can make connections between the "dissembling" twilight and
Dickinson's lyric strategy. First, like a sunset, Dickinson's poem can be
initially vivid and explosive, only to fade gradually into silence. All of
this change is packed into few words. But the salient congruity is the
obscurity of the message. Dickinson's poems are potent mixes of
"fading things, and things that do not fade" (L 185); the resulting
elixir causes us to grope for tangible sounds and meanings that elude
us. She told Higginson that "Nature is a Haunted House—but Art—a
House that tries to be haunted" (L 459A). Reading her poems is like
walking through a haunted house, but one at a carnival. Armies of
ghouls are arrayed to startle and awe us; the effects are powerful but
ephemeral and artificial; while the poem's waxing and waning is
accomplished through verbal play, the sunset is the real thing.
Nonetheless, the evasive speakers seem healed through a
symbiosis, a confluence between the poet and dissembling nature. A

prevailing critical view is that Dickinson and nature were
adversaries: nature pirated the beauty and replaced it with snow and
ice. But they were actually conspirators. If God insists on creating a
fading pyrotechnic show each evening, Dickinson implies, she will
construct a poem that achieves the same effects.
Two other comments from Dickinson's letters illuminate these sun
arc poems. To Samuel Bowles she wrote that "Confidence in Daybreak
modifies Dusk" (L 193), and to Professor Joseph Chickering she
claimed she "never sowed a seed unless it was perennial—and that is
why my garden lasts” (L989). Dickinson's "confidence" in rebirth
allows her to face death with a fascinated regard, and I mean death
in a variety of manifestations: corporeal death, the loss of hope, the
end of a poem, and all the minor and major casualties of life she
faces with equanimity because she knows further incarnations will
ascend. (If they do not, she will create them.)
From this position it is not a large leap to a poetry that enacts
small deaths in every poem but then sets a new cycle in motion.
Dickinson's "garden"—her poetry—lasts, but not in the sense that it
endures, or will be read in the future. Her evasive art is self¬
generating; the cycle of each poem follows the seed-flower-compost
cycle that enables the next poem to thrive. Her 1775 poems could
easily have been 3000. They adhere to a process that makes the
form inevitable, yet flexible.
Are these lyrics variations of each other, similar in movement,
differing only in the occasion? The "juggler" in the following poem is
both nature and the poet who scatters brilliant lights that burn, then
fade into darkness:

122
Blazing in Gold and quenching in Purple
Leaping like Leopards to the Sky
Then at the feet of the old Horizon
Laying her spotted Face to die
Stooping as low as the Otter's Window
Touching the Roof and tinting the Barn
Kissing her Bonnet to the Meadow
And the Juggler of Day is gone (P 228)
Like the act of juggling, the poem does not pause. There are no
commas or dashes or periods. Dickinson juggles the words of the
poem as the sun's light throws the day into optic confusion. The
gerundic style places the poem firmly in the present tense—
Dickinson cares little about what lies outside the moment. As in the
autumn poems, the self is in the background, secreted; there is no "I"
relating personal responses. Likewise, nature creates her effects
while retaining her mystery and obscurity. There is a certain
intimacy to the sun's activity—the "touching" and "kissing"—but this
only serves to highlight the paradoxical inscrutability of nature, the
fleeting, yet sempiternal, course of time. Nature can kiss, touch, and
caress, but be gone before the warmth sinks in. But Dickinson, too,
plays the remote lover as well, speaking so personally at times, yet
through the evasive medium of her poetry, remaining forever
unreachable.
Yet nature and Dickinson are more than just remote lovers. They
share a dangerous, carnivorous quality as well. Why does the
"leopard" look in the otter's lair? Nature feeds on itself, to be reborn
in a similar but also different way, just as Dickinson consumes
aspects of herself and her poems to recreate herself in each new
verse. Each new day is in many respects an analogue of the days
which have passed, and Dickinson's poems all share that structure of

123
evasion, the cyclical process. When Sharon Cameron claims that
Dickinson's poems are all versions of each other, this is what she
means.
Other sunset poems reenforce the bond between poetic and solar
effects. The sun as untidy housewife in the following poem is an apt
metaphor for the poet:
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 an Amber thread—
And now you've littered all the East
With Duds of Emerald!
And still, she plies her spotted Brooms,
And still the Aprons fly,
Till Brooms fade softly into stars—
And then I come away— (P 219)
Like the previous poem, this poem showcases an antic creator who
values movement and believes beautiful art need not be orderly and
precise. Nor need all art spring from salons and cosmopolitan
capitals. The frank domesticity of the image (Elizabeth Phillips
discovers that Dickinson's housework "gave her character as a poet
and gave her writing character" [6]), and the purposeful rejection of
silky rhyme in favor of "duds" posits an art that is much closer to the
"spotted" essence of nature than the rarefied sterility of culture.1 Just
as the sun litters the landscape, Dickinson refuses to clean up. This is
a different kind of creator. In place of the masculine, orderly,
dominating, apollonian or phoebean archetype, this female prodigal

124
maddeningly squanders her materials, showing little interest in
didactic art forms and bombastic attempts at perfection.
The last two lines achieve the non-closure that Dickinson strives
for. The rather homespun tool the domestic artist uses transforms
into "stars," but more than a simple suggestion that untidy art is best,
this trope highlights Dickinson's program: that by creating disorder,
the poet establishes a remoteness that spurs more creative disorder.
The last line underscores this oxymoronic assertion. After viewing
the sunset, the speaker appears only to disappear, as if taking a cue
from the evanescing light. Dickinson juxtaposes "come" and "away" to
mirror the effect of the star, which seems so close, an intimate friend,
but is in fact so far away, it might be already extinguished.
Most of her sunset poems show a deliberate sketchiness, never a
still-life, always an impressionistic portrait on the verge of
movement: "A slash of Blue / A sweep of Gray—'' (P 204). The poem
cannot arrest the movement, nor can it contain teeming nature:
"Whole Gulfs—of Red, and Fleets—of Red— / And Crews—of solid
Blood—" (P 658). Sometimes Dickinson surpasses evasive
impressionism by questioning whether the poet can even offer an
impression:
I'll tell you how the Sun rose—
A Ribbon at a time—
The Steeples swam in Amethyst—
The news, like Squirrels, ran—
The Hills untied their Bonnets—
The Bobolinks—begun—
Then I said softly to myself—
"That must have been the Sun"!
But how he set—I know not—
There seemed a purple stile
That little Yellow boys and girls

125
Were climbing all the while—
Till when they reached the other side,
A Dominie in Gray-
Put gently up the evening Bars—
And led the flock away— (P 318)
The sunrise/sunset poems are about margins between the visible
and secreted, and the speaker of this poem, underscoring the fluidity
of nature, describes the sun's movement. She begins confidently: "I'll
tell you how the Sun rose—," but her ensuing description undercuts
the self confidence. First, the next five lines never become integrated,
because the poet cannot do more than record her quick impressions
in the face of a rapidly changing light. The dashes at the end of each
line suggest these observations are dashed off; no time to reflect,
hone, or transform impression into conviction. Also, despite her
intentions, the poet can only tell us how the objects in the landscape
change; she fails to describe the sun and the light. No wonder that
the middle of the poem finds the speaker questioning not only her
ability to "tell," but the identity of the very thing she thought she
was seeing.
In the second part of the poem, the speaker is more tentative;
instead of the masterful poet of the first line, she becomes one of the
children led away by the schoolmaster. In its evanescence the sun
becomes a teacher or "Dominie" whose gray vestments reflect the
margin or muting between the black and white views the poet or
observer must balance. The poet's two extreme statements in this
poem—that she can tell us, and that she cannot—find a middle. The
text surrounding these polarities in fact hovers between triumphant
affirmation and impotent negativity. Even though "Bars" are erected

126
to obscure the poet's vision, she can still look between them and, like
the sun, take frozen or stilled things and set them in motion.
Dickinson's evasions are many in this poem: her refusal to weave
together the strands of her observations; the abrupt reevaluation of
her own statements; and the fading of the poem, like a light being
slowly dimmed. Her reticence sometimes prompts her to omit even
those few observations we see in the previous poem. The result is
severe compression:
It rises—passes—on our South
Inscribes a simple Noon—
Cajoles a Moment with the Spires
And infinite is gone— (P 1023)
Perhaps this is one of those abbreviated winter days in New England
when the sun, in its equatorial arc, seems barely to rise above the
horizon. To do more than curtly record its swift passing would
represent a poetic conceit that Dickinson never favors. The brevity of
the poem and the present tense action match the short stay of the
sun, which does not even linger long enough to be named.
Why does the sun "cajole . . . with the spires?" What does it hope
to gain through its flattery of the church steeples? Maybe Dickinson
feels that religious aspiration needs to be coaxed from darkness,
needs the playful light of the sun to illuminate rigid orthodoxies.
Whatever the reason, the sunlight dominates humans and the
landscape in these poems, replacing institutional Christian instruction
as guide and teacher. Not a preacher, but the sun, convinces us of our
"ignorance":
An ignorance a Sunset
Confer upon the Eye—
Of Territory—Color—

127
Circumference—Decay—
Its Amber Revelation
Exhilirate—Debase—
Omnipotence' inspection
Of Our inferior face—
And when the solemn features
Confirm—in Victory—
We start—as if detected
In Immortality— (P 552)
This ignorance is not perjorative. It is conferred upon us like a
title or a blessing. Dickinson always views the loss of knowledge, the
clouding of the "Eye," as a "Revelation." The poet is paradoxically
inspired by being "debased" or thrown from the firmness of her
sensory foundations. In the other sunset poems, landscape and
animals are colored, changed; here, the human face is bathed in
immortality. Something like a religious confirmation has occurred,
where the viewer is initiated into a world of suspended meanings.
One final poem, though it is not a sunset poem per se, explains
Dickinson's diurnal liminality as a poetic strategy. I have mentioned
that Dickinson often conflates noon and summer as a seductive yet
ultimately stifling, monotonous, and uncreative time. She imagines, in
poem 1056, a "Zone whose even Years / No Soltice interrupt— /
Whose Sun constructs perpetual Noon." But she knows this "Summer
set in Summer" is an artificial and stagnant "construct" that limits
creativity. Instead of imagining a purified world where
"Consciousness—is Noon," Dickinson takes her cue from the painful,
actual and slanted world:
There's a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons—
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes—

128
Heavenly Hurt, it gives us—
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the Meanings, are—
None may teach it—Any—
'Tis the Seal Despair—
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air—
When it comes, the Landscape listens—
Shadows—hold their breath—
When it goes, 'tis like the Distance
On the look of Death— (P 258)
Such a poem, along with "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain" (P 280)
and "Pain—has an Element of Blank—" (P 650), prompts critics to
characterize Dickinson as a connoisseur of despair and psychic
breakdown. Viewed in the context of her evasive strategy, however,
the slant of light does not oppress in the sense that it silences her
voice; no, it elicits evasive poetry because the light exhibits the
laudable indirection she touts in many poems, and in the following
letter to her cousins:
I hear robins a great way off, and wagons a great
way off, and rivers a great way off, and all appear
to be hurrying somewhere undisclosed to me. Remoteness
is the founder of sweetness; could we see all we hope,
or hear the whole we fear told tranquil, like another
tale, there would be madness near. (L 388)
Dickinson's remote winter light is the founder of more than
sweetness; it is her muse. Evasiveness is a slanted view that conflates
all manner of polarities, and forbids definition of any one element. In
this poem alone, the oxymorons "heavenly hurt" and "imperial
affliction," along with the synesthetic idea of light having heft,

129
represent Dickinson's effort to portray cusp times, or fading
moments, as an imbroglio of powerful sensations.
The adjective "certain," in the first line, refers not only to a
specific kind of light, but also to its validity; "a certain" light is also
certain light. Ironically, Dickinson feels a supernatural presence most
tangibly in barren winter when days are short and the sunset
spreads a lonely purple glow. Certainty or authenticity increases as
the day ebbs from noon (and the year travels far from the summer
solstice, that stagnant time when the sun shines most directly).
Winter is more majestic in its aura of deprivation. We are sated in
summer, cradled in the panoply of earth's flowering, when the need
for God slackens and death seems far away. The restraint of the
Cathedral tune, too, suggests withheld power. Matching a word
(cathedral) that suggests a weighty, gothic and European
magnificence, with the almost airy and lilting connotation of "tune,"
Dickinson confirms that sublimity can arrive in incongruous
packaging.2
1 find another example of Dickinson's appetite for jolts of remote
power in her reference to scarring. A scar signals physical injury, but
Dickinson's concerns are metaphysical, and because "heavenly hurt"
does not imprint us with any external record of its occurrence, it
becomes more authentic to her. The sun is so remote in winter it fails
to burn the skin; but it leaves a much greater "internal difference," as
do "Cathedral Tunes," hummingbirds, the Northern Lights, Dickinson's
poems, or anything else that defies our attempts to record or capture
it.

130
A scar also represents healing, however, and Dickinson illustrates
that evasion does not mean despair by introducing a persona that
exploits a process of death and renewal. Studies like Barker's Lunacy
of Light, that offer a female poet vs. male solar power as context for
understanding these poems, need some modification. We could read
this poem as an example of an omniscient God withdrawing his life-
giving warmth in an act of miserly spite or phallic power, but
throughout the whole poem, and in the final stanza in particular, the
speaker shows no defiance or willingness to blame the sun. In fact
we sense an anticipatory excitement, as the earth and the people
await the light. They "hold their breath," and we, because of
Dickinson's skillfull placement of dashes, hold ours too. We see here
another example of Dickinson's speaker placing herself in a
spiritual/physical border zone and, in a manner, even
recommending it in language. After all, the sun is immobile; it does
not withdraw. It is the earth whose orbit takes it far from the direct
light.
Dickinson's personae follow ever-expanding orbits or "circuits"
that send them to remote corners of the spiritual universe, places
that strain the poet's voice. The immateriality of the ending is suited
to the intangibility of the experience. People are simply "us" or mere
"shadows"; the earth, just "landscape." While some might conjecture
that humans become shadows because of the oppression of the
afternoon light, I see shadowy transformation as one of the benefits
of an evasive approach to art and life. Dickinson suggests we are
non-existent without the slant of light, or any experience that
reenforces sublime remoteness; when the light comes we become

131
that aspect of ourselves we share with Nature—our shadowy spirit
selves, our always decaying/becoming, infinitely-hued selves. Our
bodies cease to breathe because we are wholly spirit, liberated from
the constraints of the "mortal coil," and when the light retracts, and
our breath is restored (notice while we are shadow we share one
collective breath), we are thrust back into our separate selves. Our
connection with spiritual force is broken.
Dickinson always prepares herself for, and hungrily seeks,
natural examples of evasion. Seasonal transformations and sunsets,
as we have seen, provide models for her poems and affirmation of
her philosophy. Just as in chapter two I proposed that one level of
evasion can be found in her role-playing, both in her life and in her
poems, so her poems about birds and spiders further complement
the human dimension of evasion. She finds in their actions a laudable
creative/destructive impulse. If an evasive poet needs natural
examples, they are ubiquitous.
Birds have always been grist for the poetic mill. They sing; they
soar; they migrate; and the analogical possibilities are only too
obvious. Dickinson's birds, however, are of a different feather, more
like the aviary figurations of modern poets like Frost and Stevens
than like Keats's "light-winged Dryad of the trees" ("Nightingale" 7)
whose "pouring forth . . . [of] ecstasy" (57-58) is in tune with Keats's
flights of rhetoric. Wordsworth's birds in "Lines Written in Early
Spring," moreover, are merely part of the tableau of the season,
somewhat alienated from the poet:
The birds around me hopped and played,
Their thoughts I cannot measure:—
But the least motion which they made,

132
It seemed a thrill of pleasure. (13-16)
The mathmematically precise tension in this poem between
humankind's inherent cruelty ("what man has made of man"), and
the goodness of nature (represented by the birds), is an equation
Dickinson would never wish to duplicate. Her kinship with nature not
so neat as his. Here is Wordsworth again: "The redbreast sings from
the tall larch / That stands beside our door. / There is a blessing in
the air" ("To My Sister"3-5). This scripted joy-of-nature poem in
which the bird contributes to the growing ecstasy of the scene
typifies a kind of nature-in-waiting attitude that many Romantic
poets assume. But the very thing that Dickinson admires about her
bird is that she, like the poet herself, does not wait around to be
captured, or for her song and movement to be recorded:
She staked her Feathers—Gained an Arc-
Debated—Rose again—
This time—beyond the estimate
Of Envy, or of Men—
And now, among Circumference—
Her steady Boat be seen—
At home—among the Billows—As
The Bough where she was born— (P 798)
Wordsworth's poem situates the bird close to the poet's door and
thus its song is audible. Wordsworth intimates that the bird sings for
the poet, whereas the aim of Dickinson's bird is to confute the
estimation of the poet, to travel outside the confines of the home
"bough," and if the bird is metaphor for the poet, then the contrast is
fitting. For all the reputed novelty of Romantic Poetry, Wordsworth,
even from the beginning, was a traditional, home-bound Poet
Laureate, for his bird sings by the door. Dickinson's bird sings from

133
the margins or "circumference," seeks out decidedly unavian venues
in which to sing, debates with herself, and takes risks. If there is a
steadiness, it is in the bird's determination to sing differently and to
sing for itself. Thus Dickinson anticipates the modern belief that
poetry is its own subject and needs no external validation.
Dickinson's bird is also careful not boast or brag; she is
comfortable with singing her subversive song in relative anonymity:
I was a Phoebe—nothing more—
A Phoebe—nothing less—
The little note that others dropt
I fitted into place— (P 1009)
This auto-elegiac poem reflects Dickinson's quiet attempt to make
something new from old fragments. If this poems reflects on her
past, it also looks forward to new ways of singing, to the modernist
view that the poet is simultaneously nothing and all. If we need
corollaries to Dickinson's birds we can find them in Wallace Stevens's
"casual flocks of pigeons" who "make / Ambiguous undulations as
they sink, / Downward to darkness, on extended wings" ("Sunday
Morning" 118-20), or in Frost's "Oven Bird" who "knows in singing
not to sing" (12).
Dickinson’s bird in poem 798 renounces a public forum for her
song, but in poem 861 the bird/poet submits to a lover/taxidermist's
dissections and emerges all the more powerfully evasive and
baffling in her nakedness:
Split the Lark—and you’ll find the Music-
Bulb after Bulb, in Silver rolled—
Scantily dealt to the Summer Morning
Saved for your Ear when Lutes be old.
Loose the Flood—you shall find it patent—
Gush after Gush, reserved for you—

134
Scarlet Experiment! Sceptic Thomas!
Now, do you doubt that your Bird was true?
Sarah Orne Jewett's 1886 story, "A White Heron" tells the story of a
young country-girl, Sylvia, who resists the charming young male
hunter/taxidermist when he arrives to "bag" the elusive heron. The
man tries to coax from Sylvia the bird's hiding-place, and although
she is partly seduced by his urban flair and scientific knowledge, she
understands that she and the bird share a sylvan cabala. Therefore,
she silences his phallic gun in a rather predictable way. She hides
from his predatory attempts and refuses to reveal the bird's hiding
place.
Conversely, Dickinson's bird/poet allows herself to be rent and
analyzed; actually, she challenges the reader/dissecter to a contest of
language. His is the rhetoric of business and science (patent;
experiment; sceptic) whose goal is to codify, rate. The singer counters
with a more sophisticated weapon (again, evasion is aggressive): the
multi-layered, creative self, expressed in the language of excess and
recklessness. The reader is ill advised to approach the poem or the
psyche with the tools of rational inquiry, for what lay under the
knife is a compound vision and a complexity of nuanced note and
echo that multiplies meaning and beauty at a dizzying pace.
Elaine Millard asserts that Dickinson's "language, even when it
presents itself at its most direct and simplest, becomes, as one reads
on, paradoxically more elusive, more evasive" (73). What could be
more direct than the first line of this poem: "Split the Lark—and
you'll find the Music—"? Yet in the second line Dickinson already
begins her evasions—the music is eternally blooming (the bulb is a

135
beautiful symbol for this kind of deceptively powerful, intensely-
compacted, tightly-wound kernel of lyric explosiveness), and through
surfeit ("Gush after Gush"), the reader/lover is overwhelmed by the
layers of song. The apparent supplication of the bird or bard, then, is
illusory, as Dickinson transforms evasion from a trope of edgy flight,
into a powerful, confounding presence.3 Dickinson's poems of "daisies,
birds and bees," laments Millard, have encouraged some critics to
view her as "a naive and untutored poet" because, like Higginson,
they "ignore the formal qualities of the verse" (75). Dickinson, of
course, recognized the hidden power in these superficially "naive"
poems (as her chillingly serious warning to Samuel Bowles about
doubting her "snow" (L 250) reminds us).
Though this poem sparkles with tension between two different
types of language or ways of knowing, though her "yoking together
of discordant discourses is disconcerting" (Millard 74), and though
she revels in the indeterminacy of an ever-unfolding lyric
symphony, Dickinson does not reject science or empiricism for some
voodoo mysticism or transcendental disembodiment, nor does she
suggest that the tools of reason be relegated to the ideological scrap
heap.4 Richard Brantley has eloquently presented, after all,
Dickinson's "broadly experiential vision" ("Dickinson" 246), and he
has offered a valid framework for understanding and even unifying
Dickinson's apparently "discordant" voices through what he calls an
"experiential continuum that joins empirical philosophy at oné end to
evangelical faith at the other" ("Dickinson" 250).
I too believe that through an ensemble of voices and personae, a
paradoxical unity emerges. I share with Brantley a desire to

136
emphasize Dickinson's poetry of the earth, to find the sensual roots in
these misunderstood poems. But while Brantley chooses to read her
poems in the context of Anglo-American Romanticism, in fact, as a
culmination of that tradition, I argue that Dickinson, by "push[ing]
language to the limits of what can be said'' (Millard 73), linguistically
separates herself from her Romantic precursors.
The unity she achieves through her evasive art is not the
Emersonian harmony between an enthusiastic observer and dynamic
nature. She achieves unity in her poems by countering nature's
elusiveness with a language that reenforces the tentativeness of
perception and the inscrutability of identity. Dickinson finds a certain
comfortable, romantic unity in the disunified world of nineteenth-
century scientific discovery. Brantley astutely hints that Dickinson’s
"imagination could go so far as to serve as the harbinger of a neo-
Romantic age" ("Dickinson" 245). I hope that by allying Dickinson
with Wallace Stevens and contemporary poets like Amy Clampitt and
Robert Hass, among others, I am arguing for a healthy and vibrant
neo-Romantic tradition in Modern American Poetry of which
Dickinson is the inspiration.
Two bird poems in particular reenforce Dickinson's assertion that
a person, a bird, or a poem can and should be simultaneously visible
and evasive. Poem 500, featuring the hummingbird, praises
transcience, fluidity and change. The bird's devotion to eternal search
and revolution is uncompromising and reflects both Dickinson's
desire for physical experience and her impatience with prolonged
contact to any one experience:

137
Within my Garden, rides a Bird
Upon a single Wheel—
Whose spokes a dizzy Music make
As 'twere a travelling Mill—
He never stops, but slackens
Above the Ripest Rose—
Partakes without alighting
And praises as he goes,
Till every spice is tasted—
And then his Fairy Gig
Reels in remoter atmospheres—
And I rejoin my Dog,
And He and I, perplex us
If positive, 'twere we—
Or bore the Garden in the Brain
This Curiosity—
But He, the best Logician,
Refers my clumsy eye—
To just vibrating Blossoms!
An Exquisite Reply!
The hummingbird, an obvious image for the poet, is visible in the
beginning of the poem, but his movement is dizzying and he samples
the pleasures of the garden only briefly, obliquely, with a
Dickinsonian reluctance to drink too deeply, feast too fully. In fact
the bird (he) "slackens" (an obvious sexual metaphor) at the very
moment he partakes of the flower; the intercourse is brief and
displays the evasive conundrum: he wants to taste the fruits but
knows that any prolonged indulgence will distract him from the
progress of his circuit. Movement is progress, according to Emerson,
and "there is no sleep, no pause, no preservation, but all things
renew, germinate and spring" (155). The speaker shows admiration
for the perpetual movement of the bird, but notes too the somewhat

138
melancholy backward slackening, the refusal to perch and the
unrelenting avoidance of sustained contact. One must applaud
Dickinson's toughness, bravery and determination to modify
Emerson's roseate philosophy of spiritual expansion. She never
assumes that circumference proceeds in gleeful ease; each flower
that the bird forsakes becomes yet another abandoned experience in
the coffer of the past, the Tennysonian "death in life."
Dickinson of course wagers that these small renunciations are
worth the expansiveness she seeks, and using her favorite
vocabulary of wheels, spokes, and mills to convey the efficacy of
poetic search, she follows the bird from its relatively modest
circumference in the "garden" to the vaster circuit of "remoter
atmospheres." Again the role of the poet, as Dickinson fashions it, is
to "partake without alighting," in other words, to practice an ever
increasing circumference or range of knowledge. "The life of man,"
says Emerson, "is a self-evolving circle, which, from a ring
imperceptibly small, rushes on all sides outwards to new and larger
circles, and that without end" (147). That Dickinson views this "larger
circle" as "remote" reflects her tough-minded understanding that
evasion requires a separation from public realms, from mainstream
notions of art.
The bird's dedication to remote climes, its determination to taste
"every spice" without judgment or preference, yields a music of
"praise" that reflects Dickinson's poetic aim as well. All of her poems,
even those devoted to despair and insanity, are paeans to the varied
spices in life's garden. Thus she refutes the critical implication that
she is morbid or depressed. Dickinson contributes to the mystery and

139
sanctity of the bird by refusing to describe it in detail. It remains
colorless and formless, a truly evasive being who, like Dickinson,
replaces physical presence with the vibration of music. (Recall the
anti self-portrait she composes for Higginson in letter 268.) The
bird's stature increases as its visibility decreases. We arrive at the
ending of the poem understanding that physical smallness belies
spiritual sophistication (Eberwein). The poet trains her "clumsy eye"
not on the singer's body but on language and the musical
reverberations it makes.
The more well known hummingbird poem explores similar
ground. Dickinson declines to describe the bird more fully than as
flashes of color and movement, which are always changing or
evanescing:
A Route of Evanescence
With a revolving Wheel—
A Resonance of Emerald—
A Rush of Cochineal—
And every Blossom on the Bush
Adjusts its tumbled Head—
The mail from Tunis, probably,
An easy Morning's Ride— (P 1463)
Dickinson offers as little definition as possible while still creating a
poem and communicating with the reader. Just as the union between
bird and flower is abrupt and jostling, so is the encounter between
the poet and the object, the poet and the reader. Dickinson chooses to
undescribe as she describes; her poems briefly achieve form only to
break towards formlessness and enigma. What critics such as
Donoghue and Blackmur have seen as a failure of execution (her
poems start concretely and end abstractly) is actually a purposeful

140
assembly that achieves the surrender of form, closure, and regularity
to experiential menagerie.
This poem displays exotic language and places (Emerald,
Cochineal, [a red dye made from the female bodies of Mexican
insects,] and Tunis) to underscore the flamboyance and far-reaching
arc of the bird's travels. But this bird ”contain[s] multitudes"
(Whitman 1316). Dickinson augments this foreign language with a
certain folksiness of image and diction toward the end of the poem,
and she employs a random rhyming scheme throughout. At the
route/root of evanescence or evasion is a "revolving" panoply of
styles, explorations, and tongues, a broadly inclusive strategy of life
and of art.
In the following poem, Dickinson examines birds' migratory
nature and finds in the disruption of this north/south, escape-and-
return pattern, a way to explore a variety of tensions: between
struggling life and easeful death, social custom and free will,
movement and stasis:
'Tis not that Dying hurts us so
'Tis Living—hurts us more—
But Dying—is a different way—
A Kind behind the Door—
The Southern Custom—of the Bird—
That ere the Frosts are due—
Accepts a better Latitude—
We—are the Birds—that stay.
The Shiverers round Farmers' doors—
For whose reluctant Crumb—
We stipulate—till pitying Snows
Persuade our Feathers Home. (P 335)

141
In the beginning of the poem, Dickinson sees dying as more secret
and mysterious than life, but also more "kind" because it releases us
from the daily struggle to survive both physically and emotionally.
This compares to bird migration in the following way: flying south
relieves the birds from the cold and food shortage of a northern
winter, where they must rely on the munificence of the farmer for
their sustenance. Why remain in such a hostile climate when the
south offers so much? There is ample food, fellowship with one's
kind, being part of a flock and working in consort with others to
arrive in the south. These birds "accept a better latitude"
geographically, but the migrators also reap a wider range of choices
for food, companionship, and movement.
After leading the reader into an acceptance of death's kindliness
by comparing it to a bird's flight south, however, Dickinson corrects
herself and jolts us with the portentious line: "We—are the Birds—
that stay." She importantly punctuates this line with one of her rare
periods to suggest the finality of her decision to choose evasion as
her guide and her "latitude" even if it means suffering certain
deprivation. Many questions come to mind with this abrupt poetic
turn. Why does the speaker reject beckoning death as the speaker
does in poem 712? Why does she choose to stay north, to eschew this
kind migration for the expectation of penury and loneliness? And
finally, why is a movement south considered a death; why does the
speaker yearn to put her lips to the frost, while her fellow fliers
sample the waters of the Hippocrene?
Simply the word "south" conjures, for many poets of northern
blood, a mythic blooming oasis which entices with the promise of

142
sensual bombardment, a balm for the wounds of snow and ice, for a
soul crusted in rime, for forced isolation, disease and death. Keats,
Stevens and Crane all became enchanted with a tropical paradise at
some point in their lives—the ultimate romantic escape. Yet these
poets woefully find that their southern fruit, once tasted, has a
poisonous residue. Their creativity suffers amid such fullness. The
poetic imagination needs deprivation, a spiritual and physical
winter/barenness against which to strive. Stevens recognizes that
requirement in "Farewell to Florida" and Dickinson, during her
furthest excursion south remarked from Washington that she found
the "southern” spring alien and discomfiting (Sewall 445).
The rest of this poem, beginning with the speaker’s avowal to
remain north, claims that the south encourages poetic death, while
conversely, the north is the "better latitude." First, we know that
being a conforming member of a flock was never Dickinson’s habit.
That most birds fly south (to use the metaphor of the poem) is
enough for her to recoil from this practice. The premature acceptance
of spiritual doctrines and intellectual "truths” might be customary for
most, but the speaker prefers to remain alone in her famous
skepticism, to forge her own unique brand of communication with
God (disguised in the poem as the farmer) with whom she bargains
for a "reluctant crumb." The southern movement of the others can be
seen as a desire to envision a more benevolent or pliant God than the
speaker can acknowledge. Dickinson's God/muse cannot be wholly
loving, warm and comforting because such beatitude inspires nothing
so much as silence.

143
These bird anchorites fashion their own process towards spiritual
and intellectual growth instead of adopting the unthinking migration
of the flock, who choose to bask in the warm ignorance of religious
complacency. The stipulators know that blind faith is no faith at all,
and their brand of communication with the farmer (ironic that a
farmer who nurtures the earth can be so miserly with its harvest) is
more apt to lead them to a truer understanding of the world.
Dickinson, like the birds, is too recalcitrant, too much the contrarian
to surrender in total obedience without equal compensation from the
farmer. Her lyric queries and confrontatons are her stipulations with
God.
The ending of the poem provides yet one more shift. The few
birds that stay past the frost are eventually "persuaded" home by
"pitying snows." The image tempers the enthusiasm one might have
for the brave birds, because they join the rest of the flock in the
south at a great distance from the farmer. Home (the characteristics
of which remain vague, in keeping with Dickinson's "sceneless" style)
is sadly separated from the creative ground of winter. What
promised to be a growing rapport between God and the skeptic
stemming from iconoclastic stipulation becomes, instead, a flight to
the kind of eternal, ignorant slumber experienced by the speaker in
poem 712: an eternity in the grave. At least, Dickinson questions
whether the renunciations inherent in the evasive program weigh
too heavily on the individual, and whether one's best intentions to
stand alone wither under the relentless impetus toward comfort and
sociability.

144
Though these bird poems explore the dark side of the evasive
life-style, Dickinson generally confronts homelessness with
equanimity. Her faith in language allows her to see nature's opacity
and indirection as less a threat than an enigma. That faith requires a
different art to approach mystery. Dickinson creates a unique
personal art by listening to her inner voice: "’The Tune is in the Tree-
/ The Skeptic—showeth me— / 'No Sir! In Thee!'" (P 526).
Not only does Dickinson exploit and adapt the bird/poet analogy
in her evasive lyrics; she extends her admiration to the spider, in
which she finds yet another apt metaphor for her flexible resiliency:
The Spider as an Artist
Has never been employed—
Though his surpassing Merit
Is freely certified
By every Broom and Bridget
Throughout a Christian Land-
Neglected Son of Genius
I take thee by the Hand— (P 1275)
Dickinson's claim of kinship with the spider is an
acknowledgement of her quietly revolutionary verse, which she
practices in the remote corners of the domestic scene. Though spiders
are hardly evil or threatening creatures (at least those indigenous to
New England), they do shock and weave their webs in the clean
corners of the household. Frustrated cleaners, after the initial fear,
will destroy the web, hardly realizing the spider kills a wide array of
pests. The evasive poet follows similar practices and confronts equal
risks. With her weavings, she undermines the orderly nature of
nineteenth-century social and artistic mores by questioning the
existence of an orderly universe with a benevolent God and by

145
attacking strict gender roles. Contemporaries may try to brush the
artist aside as eccentric or "spasmodic," but her weaving continues.
The spider as an "artist" bears an Emersonian cast as well. The
spider creates his art out of himself, as opposed to those whom
Dickinson implicitly censures with her sarcastic use of the phrase
"Christian Land" (in mock capitals), suggesting the denizens of this
realm receive their wisdom second-hand. Instead of creating their
own webs, they contentedly remain dead flies in an old story. The
spider’s merit as an artist is in proportion to his defiance of society.
That so many devote themselves to destroying his creations attests
to his dangerous, revolutionary character.
Dickinson draws on traditional figurations of the spider in
mythology as well. Penelope's artful deferral of the suitors in The
Odvssev. where she postpones choosing a new husband until she
weaves a death shroud for Laertes, comments on Dickinson's practice.
Just as Penelope "unwove each night what she had woven during the
day" (Hamilton 204), Dickinson dismantles the poem as she writes it,
resisting those who would capture her mind and isolate her thought.
Arachne, a simple peasant girl in Latin mythology, challenged the
Goddess Minerva to a weaving contest; when the maiden matched
Minerva's weavings in all respects, the Goddess in anger "slit the web
from top to bottom and beat the girl around the head with her
shuttle" (Hamilton 288). Arachne hanged herself in shame and
Minerva, repenting, changed Arachne into a spider so she could
weave once again. Though Dickinson was hardly a poor peasant girl,
as a woman poet, weaving at night, outside the inner circles of her
culture, she might have felt a similar mixture of hubris and humility.

146
Her consultation of Higginson, and his gentle disapproval thrust her
back into the semi-private sphere in which she was comfortable.
Weaving functions as a form of speech and an act of revenge in
the story of the tongueless Philomela who names her rapist and
silencer, Tereus, by constructing an elaborate tapestry of the crime
(Hamilton 270-71). (In poem 605, Dickinson refers to the spider's
web as a tapestry.) Dickinson recognizes the revelatory power of
weaving to dismantle lies masquerading as truth. More powerful
than direct speech, the indirection of weaving ironically carries more
immediacy.
And yet another aspect of the spider/poet comparison merits
examination. In using the spider, Dickinson (unknowingly, of course)
seized upon the central symbol of many Native-American cultures of
the Southwest.5 Various Pueblo tribes, the Laguna in particular, focus
their legends around the avatar of the Spider-Goddess, who weaves
the story of the tribe's culture (Silko). Laguna art comprises both the
"story1' or oral record of the community, which, like the web, is
always expanding and changing, and sand paintings and artworks
left to the mercy of the elements. The story is inclusive; the tribe
rejects nothing as inconsequential to the community record, and each
member is encouraged to contribute to the lore by relating hunting
episodes, visionary experiences, or Goddess sightings. No more
weight is given to an elder's than to a child's account, and, more
importantly, the tribe makes no effort to "pursue the truth."
Contradiction aids understanding.
Dickinson shares with these tribes a concern for an open-ended,
mutable art, one that counters the preoccupations of a rational

147
society. She recognizes the stake a "Christian Land" has in hierarchy,
obedience, sanctioned versions of the truth, and preservation of
property. Thus the influence of the spider/weaver who attempts to
confront society's rigidity is subversive; with her stress on
experiment and change is revolutionary.
Dickinson's critique of society—and her refusal to submit to its
laws, both literary and social—continue in 1275 with her contrast of
the words "employment" and "freedom." The spider, like the
maverick artist, "has never been employed" by the society at large
because abstract genius is not valued by a "Christian Land"
predisposed to award those who conform to accepted notions of
religion and of domestic life. But the spider/poet also steadfastly
declines to work at the bidding of such a society. Though the culture
eradicates the work of the spider, whose weavings boast no
mercantile value, the spider will reweave, always listening to the
promptings of its own creative genius, impervious to a society which
remains insensitive to authentic spirituality:
The Spider holds a Silver Ball
In unperceived Hands—
And dancing softly to Himself
His Yarn of Pearl—unwinds—
He plies from Nought to Nought-
In unsubstantial Trade—
Supplants our tapestries with His—
In half the period—
An Hour to rear supreme
His Continents of Light-
Then dangle from the Housewife's Broom—
His Boundaries—forgot— (P 605)

148
Dickinson sees, here, a relentless explosion of boundaries in the
natural world; flooding and bleeding is rampant in the sunset or in
the change of seasons, and the poetic structures we habitually build
to contain such excess can only hold a small bit of the energy. An
architect might design a building to follow the contours of the land,
and Dickinson creates an evasive style to match the evasiveness she
sees in the flight of the hummingbird and the patterns of the spider.
Her art is grounded in reality, but in a reality she knows to be fluid,
deceptive, and unreliable. Her passionate faithfulness to nature in all
its guises is witnessed in an art that finds a form and language equal
to elusive phenomena.
Notes
^ Dickinson's popularity among academics and general readers is
due to her unique blend of demanding linguistic practices and
unmenacing subject matter. Though her style requires concentration,
her allusions are mostly biblical, and her themes reflect universal
concerns like love, death, and nature. Her speech can be anti-poetic;
she deflates high-art pretensions and makes common speech viable
as poetic language. In this respect, Dickinson has more in common
with Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams, whose intellectual
seriousness coexists with an accessibilty that blurs high and middle¬
brow distinctions.
2 Dickinson, herself, is an example of the sublime arriving in a
surprising package. This is her most enduring triumph: she teaches
us that smallness, a local focus, and living a limited public life do not
preclude spiritual sophistication or emotional fulfillment. Nineteenth-
century American Literature is filled with authors who ponder grand
historical themes; Dickinson shows us that our own personal tunes
can be transcendent symphonies if we dedicate ourselves to rigorous
scrutiny of our personal experiences.
3 Though Dickinson seems to suggest that the physical range of
birds is enviable, her evasiveness has less to do with physical travel
and movement than with linguistic change and motion. Dickinson

149
enacts her dramas with a magicians skill; like the hummingbird, her
poetry is all the more elusive for being available to us.
4 Richard Sewall discusses Dickinson's strong background in the
natural sciences she received at Amherst Academy under the
tutelage of Edward Hitchcock who "inspired a whole generation with
a love of nature that combined a sense of its sublimity with an
accurate knowledge of its parts and processes . . (342). See The Life
of Emily Dickinson (1974. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1980) 342-57.
5 There is no evidence that Dickinson professed an affinity for
Native American perspectives, but her understanding of the
relationship between humans and nature comports with theirs'.
Dickinson, as much as Thoreau, provides an early alternative to the
expansionist views of her time and her poetry forms a foundation
upon which American nature writers are still building.

CHAPTER 5
CONCLUSION
Dickinson presents "an identity that is always a process of
becoming," which grows "by an addition that is not an evolution
toward some state of perfection but a constant moving on" (Dickie
169). Even death does not silence or stifle Dickinson's speakers. Thus
I find it important that a critic be less concerned with describing the
development of a particular persona than with the language
Dickinson uses to subvert a given belief in order to create new ones.
Millard says that "such lines of enquiry, locating themselves in
the language of the text, rather than some guessed at hidden prior
cause, do better justice to the power and range of Dickinson's poetry"
(73). That "the critical emphasis is shifted towards perceiving textual
difficulties" (73) urges us to view her poems, not as biographical, but
in the context of traditional lyric poetry which "desires a stripping-
away of the details associated with a a socially specified self in order
to reach its desired all-purpose abstraction" (Vendler 3). Post¬
feminist critics like Millard, Dickie, Cameron, and Oberhaus, while
acknowledging gender influences, urge us to view Dickinson's
language as a triumph that liberates and promotes self-growth for
anyone willing to heed her example. As Vendler says, "the pronouns
T and 'you' are tracks along which any pair of eyes can go, male or
female, black or white, Jewish or Catholic, urban or rural" (2).
150

151
Dickinson exploits the potential of the traditional, deceptively
intimate lyric genre, but if Dickinson is increasingly relevant to us, it
is because her evasive language and techniques are a radical
augmentation of a genre that expresses anonymity and spontaneity,
but whose nineteenth-century practitioners spoke in stale language
that defeated its very flexibility and potential. Dickinson's
contemporaries viewed her peculiar voice as arcane and disjunctive,
but her poems were timely because they fit a society that was
becoming increasingly fragmented but less hierarchical, a world that
promised greater mobility and a culture that was constantly
reshaping itself. Dickinson might have written little about social
developments, but her art reflects and anticipates the rapidity of
change and invention that characterize the modern era.
If Dickinson was misunderstood in the nineteenth century, she is
nonetheless a powerful influence on contemporary American poets,
and she is a main reason why the dominant American lyric is
versatile, playful, and yes, even optimistic. While I do not quite share
Harold Bloom's obsession for establishing literary lineage (he often
invokes a Dickinson-Stevens-Crane-Ashbery nexus when reviewing
poetry), I find Dickinson's influence on the robustness of
contemporary poetry evidence enough that her evasiveness was not
the dead end, the self-reflexive vacuum Porter says it was; it is a
vital seed that bears fruit even now. After all, what Richard Brantley
says of empiricism and evangelicalism-that they are "not modes of
abstract contemplation but ways of knowing" (Antiphonv 245)—
applies to evasion as well.

152
A short catalogue of contemporary poets and their connections to
Dickinson should allow us to elevate her to the same pedestal
enjoyed by Whitman. Dickinson is rightly considered a great poet,
but while Whitman is lauded as a creator of the American idiom, a
prophet who represents our identity as a nation, Dickinson is often
seen as too quirky or anomalous to stand for anything.
(Unfortunately, men are too often chosen to be representative or
central firgures; woman are marginal, eccentric figures. Robert D.
Richardson, Jr. notices the injustice of Emerson's fame, compared
with his brilliant Aunt Moody's anonymity). Whitman's efforts to
synthesize the polarities of the American experience comports with
theoretical ideals of this country and explains his popularity in the
classroom and for speechwriters. But Dickinson’s compact, slippery
and personal poems strike me as the voice of us as individuals, how
we think and speak and try to plumb a complex world. Richard
Tillinghast's commentary on the poet William Logan (as quoted by
Brantley) helps me to argue that it is Dickinson more than Whitman
that contemporary poets hear:
Although Richard Tillinghast concludes that Logan's
"urge to conceal" wins out over his "desire to reveal
or communicate," Tillinghast concludes that this is
as it should be, "since concealment provides mystery,
compels fascination," and since concealment is often
"the only way to be true to recalcitrant or complex
material." (Antiphonv 12)
Logan's "urge to conceal" is a central trait of contemporary
American poetry that comes directly from Dickinson, and it contrasts
with the main impulse in Whitman's poetry, which is to expect that
simple announcement solves complexities. David S. Reynolds remarks

153
that "fearing extremes, [Whitman] began tentatively testing out
statements that balanced opposite views, as though simple rhetorical
juxtaposition would dissolve social tensions" (119).
If Whitman is always the uniter, the peacemaker, and the
moderator (Reynolds cites these lines from Whitman's notebooks: "I
am the poet of slaves and of the masters of slaves, / I go with the
slaves of the earth equally with the masters" [119].), then Dickinson
is the disrupter, the dismantler, and the obscurer. As the primal anti¬
bard of American poetry she is congenial to today's poets who
cultivate private languages because they understand the naivete of
trying to create, like Whitman, a universal one. Modern readers of
American poetry need to be multilingual within their own tongue
and to cultivate "learned strategies" (Millard 64) to read modern
poetry. What Michelle Yeh says about the difference between
modern and classical Chinese poetry applies to American poetry as
well:
The disjunctive semantic structure of the [modern]
poem draws the reader's attention to the reading
process itself. Whereas the reader of classical poetry
plays an active role in the sense that he or she must
draw upon an abundant background in literature
(including poetic conventions and traditional symbols)
and other areas of culture, the reader of the modern
poem helps create meaning rather than passively
receiving it. (10)
We find aspects of Dickinson's art and thought in a variety of
contemporary work. Christopher Benfey notes that Dickinson is one
of Amy Clampitt's major influences, and part of his commentary on
Clampitt's endings could apply to Dickinson: "Reluctant to end her
poems on too emphatic a note, she almost always (the incidence is

154
astonishing) introduces some sort of negative or private locution, an
'un-' or a '-less,' into her concluding lines" ("Nowhere" 8). Clampitt
favors deconstructed endings that suggest a broadening. The speaker
in "Beach Glass" sees in the "shuffling" of the ocean an apt metaphor
for the kind of intellectual open-endedness Dickinson clung to. She
concludes thus:
The process
goes on forever: they came from sand,
they go back to gravel
along with the treasuries
of Murano, the buttressed
astonishments of Chartres,
which even now are readying
for being turned over and over as gravely
and gradually as an intellect
engaged in the hazardous
redefinition of structures
no one has yet looked at. (36-48)
Clampitt perceives a world and its thinkers in such constant and
relentless upheaval that the "intellect[s]" tend to raze structures they
have not even built. Sacred art topples. The uncapitalized lines lend a
uniformity to thought: the ideas in the poem are just so much
compost to be turned over. Dickinson, too, often seems to be ahead of
herself in her poems, her own appointed scout, ready to slay even
the most rudimentary theories.
Clampitt's evasive endings diffuse statement and emphasize
disruption. In "A Hairline Fracture," a broken relationship reveals a
world forever riven. The couple is "undone," "unmollified," and
"nowhere / in the universe would the bone again be knit / or the rift
be closed" (33-35). Clampitt truly follows Dickinson's lead. Benfey
says, "motion is her motto. . . . Whatever is marmoreal in her poetry

155
she wants to revert to flux. . . . She is in love with hyphens,
parentheses, dashes-anything that melts words together" ("Nowhere"
8).
Kay Ryan views nature "from an angle of vision that Emerson and
Dickinson would have approved" (Bloom). Indeed, Ryan’s aphoristic,
compressed style that abounds in puns and invented words is
updated Dickinson:
Intention doesn't sweeten.
It should be picked young
and eaten. Sometimes only hours
separate the cotyledon
from the wooden plant.
Then if you want to eat it,
you can't. ("Intention")
Ryan brilliantly highlights the evanescence and breakdown that
defines life's processes; she breaks the verbal structure of the poem.
Like Dickinson, Ryan prefers to communicate inscrutability through
style rather than through theme or narrative. The two longest words
in the poem, "intention" and "cotyledon," are young, incipient
metaphors (cotyledon is the rudimentary leaf on a seed plant) whose
freshness inevitably breaks down into the blatantly monosyllabic
shards at the end of the poem. The lyric, too, seems nipped in the
bud, as intention quickly transforms into the artist’s muteness.
Ryan's understated descriptions underscores nature's varied hues
and reminds one of Dickinson's mimetic strategy:
If the moon happened once,
it wouldn't matter much,
would it?
One evening's ticket
punched with a
round or crescent.

156
You could like it
or not like it,
as you chose.
It couldn't alter
every time it rose;
it couldn't do those
things with scarves
it does. ("If the Moon Happened Once")
Ryan believes, as Dickinson does, that variety, in repetition
intensifies mystery, and she emphasizes the point by describing the
phases of the moon as something nature does with "scarves." I am
reminded of Dickinson’s sunset poems, where nature is seen as a
"juggler" or "sweeper." Both poets link the chameleon showmanship
of nature with the same quality in the poet. The repeat performances
of the sun and moon engender the fascination and interest that one
occurrence wouldn't; likewise, a panoply of variegated lyrics (and, in
Dickinson's case, the inconsistent speakers) dumbfound and amaze
readers.
Frequent asides, authorial intrusions, and "notes" on certain
poems formatted as poems themselves (for example: "Iowa City:
Early April" and "A Note on 'Iowa City: Early April'") constitute
Robert Hass's evasions in his new volume, Sun Under Wood. The
reader asks: If both "poems" are worth printing, which is the poem
and which is the superfluous material? (Significantly, the poem is
undedicated while the notes are dedicated to E.O. Wilson.) Which
speaker is "truthful," the plain-speaking voice of the notes, or the
stylized one in the "primary" text? This practice opens the borders of
the lyric, just as Dickinson’s variants multiply the potential meanings
of her poems. Hass, like Dickinson, eschews the either/or for the

157
both/and. Rather than editing, he promotes the equality of all
expression.
Hass also cultivates the deceptively revelatory and confessional
voice that Dickinson created and which, through the practice of
Wallace Stevens, A.R. Ammons and John Ashbery, among others, has
become a major feature of the American lyric. This voice
paradoxically achieves an intensity of secrecy and privacy by what
appears at first to be a desire to connect with the reader. The more
information the poem seems to yield, the less it actually presents a
persona or reveals a center. Ashbery, in particular, tirelessly
reshapes the lyric 1. According to Nicholas Jenkins, Ashbery's poems
are characterized by "self evasion and self renewal. . . . Ashbery is
moored in, or tied to, the state of 'starting out'—bound, that is to a
practice of endless renewal" (14). If contemporary poets remain
confident that the first person singular can be used as a cloaking
device, they have Dickinson to thank.
Finally, I refer to the late Jane Kenyon, whose apocalyptic visions
of nature and unabashed conflation of God and creation reflect a pain
and healing cycle that we find, too, in Dickinson's poems. Kenyon
often beckons or accepts darkness, pain and violence because she
believes, like Dickinson, that the way to enlightenment is through
immersion in harrowing experience. In one of her powerful,
incantatory poems she repeats the refrain, "Let Evening Come”
because, as she says, "God does not leave us / comfortless" (17-18).
Again and again in her poetry the natural metaphor heals the poet's
torn psyche, even if nature has been responsible for the rending to
begin with.

158
Kenyon's local excursions (she, like Dickinson was often
accompanied by her dog) represent her circumference, a private
route of examination that finds world enough in the small circuit of
one's locale; we all witness creation, miracles, and armageddon every
day, in our own back yards. Grounded in the urgings of Emerson's
"Nature," Kenyon's speakers seek an "original relation to the
universe" (21) and feel that God is manifested in natural forms
rather than through religious ritual. The speaker in "Depression in
Winter" tastes despair, sanctuary, and renewal in one brief ramble:
There comes a little space between the south
side of the boulder
and the snow that fills the woods around it.
Sun heats the stone, reveals
a crescent of bare ground: brown ferns,
and tufts of needles like red hair,
acorns, a patch of moss, bright green....
I sank with every step up to my knees,
throwing myself forward with a violence
of effort, greedy for unhappiness—
until by accident I found the stone,
with its secret porch of heat and light,
where something small could luxuriate, then
turned back down my path, chastened and calm.
Kenyon suffered profoundly from intense, disabling bouts of
depression for years before fighting the leukemia that would
eventually kill her. Poems like "Depression" and "Having it Out with
Melancholy" are raw and agonizing but, like Dickinson in her times of
suffering, Kenyon never blames nature for its indiscriminate
processes; instead she draws absolution and power from the same
well that tasted of pain, and thus she reaffirms Dickinson's assertion
in the poem 677:

159
To be alive—is Power-
Existence—in itself—
Without a further function—
Omnipotence—Enough—
To be alive—and Will!
'Tis able as a God—
The Maker—of Ourselves—be what—
Such being Finitude!
Dickinson's poetry is not anti-social, gendered protest, solipsistic
or selfish in any pejorative sense, verbally hollow or abstract,
disconnected from the actual, or irresponsible to the "requirements"
of good poetry. The two stanzas above represent a stylistic and
thematic balance between her first assertion that merely
experiencing the universal spirit is empowering enough, and her
coincident exclamation of "will" to express her individual voice.
Dickinson does not shroud the world with poetic ego; on the contrary,
she believes, as Emerson does, that each person is responsible for
liberating the divine inside herself, and for being her own maker.
The dynamism of the created world is acutely alive to us because of-
-not despite—her fluid mind.

WORKS CITED
Anderson, Charles. Emily Dickinson's Poetry: Stairway of Surprise.
New York: Holt, 1960.
Baker, David. "Romantic Melancholy, Romantic Excess." Rev. of
Sun Under Wood, by Robert Hass. Poetry August 1997: 288-301.
Barker, Wendy. Lunacy of Light: Emily Dickinson and the Experience
of Metaphor. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1987.
Benfey, Christopher. Emily Dickinson and the Problem of Others.
Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1984.
—. ’"Nowhere Wholly at Home'." Rev. of The Collected Poems of
Amv Clampitt. New York Times 9 Nov. 1997, sec. 7: 8.
Blackmur, Richard. Language as Gesture. New York: Columbia UP,
1981.
Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. New
York: Oxford UP, 1973.
—. The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages. New
York: Harcourt, 1994.
Brantley, Richard E. Anglo-American Antiphonv: The Late
Romanticism of Tennyson and Emerson. Gainesville: UP of
Florida, 1994.
—. "Dickinson the Romantic." Christianity and Literature 46
(1997): 243-71.
Budick, E. Miller. Emily Dickinson and the Life of Language: A Study
in Symbolic Poetics. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1985.
Cameron, Sharon. Choosing Not Choosing: Dickinson's Fascicles.
Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992.
Clampitt, Amy. The Collected Poems of Amv Clampitt. New York:
Knopf, 1997.
Cody, John. After Great Pain: The Inner Life of Emily Dickinson.
Cambridge: Belknap-Harvard UP, 1971.

161
Crane, Hart. The Complete Poems and Selected Letters and Prose of
Hart Crane. Ed. Brom Weber. New York: Anchor-Doubleday,
1966.
Crumbley, Paul. Inflections of the Pen: Dash and Voice in Emily
Dickinson. Lexington: Uof Kentucky P, 1997.
Cummings, E. E. Complete Poems. San Diego: Harcourt, 1980.
Dickie, Margaret. Lvric Contingencies: Emily Dickinson and Wallace
Stevens. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1991.
Dickinson, Emily. The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Eds. Thomas H.
Johnson and Theodora Ward. 3 vols. Cambridge: Harvard UP,
1958.
—. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. 3 vols.
Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1955.
Diehl, Joanne Feit. Dickinson and the Romantic Imagination.
Princeton: Princeton UP, 1981.
'"Ransom in a Voice': Language as Defense in Dickinson's
Poetry." Feminist Critics Read Emily Dickinson. Ed. Suzanne
Juhasz. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1983. 156-75.
Dobson, Joanne. Dickinson and the Strategies of Reticence: The
Woman Writer in Nineteenth-Century America. Bloomington:
Indiana UP, 1989.
Donoghue, Denis. Connoisseurs of Chaos: Ideas of Order in Modern
American Poetry. 1964. New York: Columbia UP, 1984.
Eberwein, Jane Donahue. Dickinson: Strategies of Limitation.
Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1985.
Eliot, T. S. The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism. 1920.
London: Methuen, 1986.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Selections form Ralph Waldo Emerson: An
Organic Anthology. Ed. Stephen E. Whicher. 1957. Boston:
Houghton, 1960.
Erkkila, Betsy. "Homoeroticism and Audience: Emily Dickinson's
Female 'Master'." Dickinson and Audience. Eds. Martin Orzeck
and Robert Weisbuch. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1996.
161-180.

162
Farr, Judith. The Passion of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge:
Harvard UP, 1992.
Franklin, R. W. The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson. 2 vols.
Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1981.
Frost, Robert. The Poetry of Robert Frost. Ed. Edward Connery
Lathem. 1969. New York: Holt, 1979.
Gelpi, Albert J. Emily Dickinson: The Mind of the Poet. Cambridge:
Harvard UP, 1965.
Gilbert. Sandra M. "The Wayward Nun Beneath the Hill: Emily
Dickinson and the Mysteries of Womanhood." Feminist Critics
Read Emily Dickinson. Ed. Suzanne Juhasz. Bloomington:
Indiana UP, 1983. 22-44.
Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic:
The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary
Imagination. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.
Greenberg, Robert M. Splintered Worlds: Fragmentation and the
Ideal of Diversity in the Work of Emerson. Melville. Whitman, and
Dickinson. Boston: Northeastern UP, 1993.
Guthrie, James R. Emily Dickinson's Vision: Illness and Identity in
her Poetry. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 1998.
Hamilton, Edith. Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes.
New York: Mentor-New American Library, 1969.
Hardy, Thomas. The Complete Poems of Thomas Hardy. Ed. James
Gibson. 1976. New York: Collier-Macmillan, 1982.
Harrison, Jim. Julip. New York: Houghton, 1994.
Hass, Robert. Sun Under Wood. Hopewell: Ecco, 1996.
Jenkins, Nicholas. "A Life of Beginnings." Rev. of The Mooring of
Starting Out, by John Ashbery. New York Times 4 Jan. 1998,
sec. 7: 14-15.
Jewett, Sarah Orne. "A White Heron." The Norton Anthology of
American Literature. 3rd ed. Vol. 2. New York: Norton, 1989.
484-490.

163
Juhasz, Suzanne. "The Big Tease" Comic Power in Emily Dickinson.
Eds. Juhasz, Cristanne Miller, and Martha Nell Smith. Austin:
U of Texas P, 1993.
—. Introduction. Feminist Critics Read Emily Dickinson. Ed. Juhasz.
Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1983. 1-21.
Keats, John. Poetical Works. Ed. H. W. Garrod. 1956. Oxford:
Oxford UP, 1987.
Keller, Karl. The Only Kangaroo Among the Beauty: Emily Dickinson
and America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1979.
Kenyon, Jane. Otherwise: New and Selected Poems. St. Paul:
Gray wolf, 1996.
Loeffelholz, Mary. Dickinson and the Boundaries of Feminist
Theory. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1991.
Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral
Ideal in America. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1964.
Millard, Elaine. "Frames of Reference: The Reception of, and
Response to, Three Women Poets." Literary Theory and Poetry:
Extending the Canon. Ed. David Murray. London: Batsford, 1989.
Miller, Cristanne. Emily Dickinson: A Poet's Grammar. Cambridge:
Harvard UP, 1987.
—. "How 'Low Feet' Stagger: Disruptions of Language in Dickinson's
Poetry." Feminist Critics Read Emily Dickinson. Ed. Suzanne
Juhasz. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1983. 134-155.
Morris, Adalaide. "'The Love of Thee—a Prism Be': Men and Women
in the Love Poetry of Emily Dickinson." Feminist Critics Read
Emily Dickinson. Ed. Suzanne Juhasz. Bloomington: Indiana UP,
1983. 98-113.
Mossberg. Barbara Antonia Clarke. Emily Dickinson: When a Writer
is a Daughter. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1982.
New, Melvyn. Telling New Lies: Seven Essays in Fiction. Past and
Present. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 1992.
Oberhaus, Dorothy Huff. Emily Dickinson's Fascicles: Method and
Meaning. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1995.
Phillips, Elizabeth. Emily Dickinson: Personae and Performance.
University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1988.

164
Poliak. Vivian R. Dickinson: The Anxiety of Gender. Ithaca:
Cornell UP. 1984.
Porte, Joel. In Respect to Egotism: Studies in American Romantic
Writing. Cambridge: Cambridge UP. 1991.
Porter, David. Dickinson: The Modern Idiom. Cambridge: Harvard
UP, 1981.
Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography.
New York: Knopf, 1995.
Richardson, Robert D. Jr. Emerson: The Mind on Fire. Berkeley:
U of California P, 1995.
Rubv in Paradise. Dir. Victor Nunez. With Ashley Judd, Todd Field,
and Bentley Mitchum. 1993.
Ryan, Kay. Elephant Rocks. New York: Grove. 1996.
St. Armand, Barton Levi. The Soul's Society: Emily Dickinson and
Her Culture. New York: Cambridge UP, 1984.
Sewall, Richard B. The Life of Emily Dickinson. 1974. Cambridge:
Harvard UP, 1994.
Shurr, William H., ed. New Poems of Emily Dickinson. Chapel Hill:
U of North Carolina P, 1993.
Silko, Leslie Marmon. "Landscape, History, and the Pueblo
Imagination." The Norton Book of Nature Writing. Eds. Robert
Finch and John Elder. New York: Norton, 1990. 882-894.
Small, Judy Jo. Positive as Sound: Emily Dickinson's Rhyme. Athens:
Uof Georgia P, 1990.
Smith, Robert McClure. The Seductions of Emily Dickinson.
Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1996.
Stevens, Wallace. The Palm at the End of the Mind: Selected Poems
and a Plav. Ed. Holly Stevens. New York: Knopf; Vintage-Random,
1972.
Stonum, Gary Lee. The Dickinson Sublime. Madison: U of
Wisconsin P, 1990.

165
Tingley, Stephanie. '"My Business is to Sing': Emily Dickinson's
Letters to Elizabeth Holland." Dickinson and Audience. Eds.
Martin Orzeck and Robert Weisbuch. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan
P, 1996. 181-199.
Vendler, Helen. Soul Savs: On Recent Poetry. Cambridge: Belknap-
Harvard UP, 1995.
Weisbuch, Robert. Atlantic Double-Cross: American Literature and
British Influence in the Age of Emerson. Chicago: U of Chicago P
1986.
—. Emily Dickinson's Poetry. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1975.
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. 1855. Ed. Malcolm Cowley.
1959. New York: Penguin, 1987.
Wills, Gary. Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America.
New York: Touchstone-Simon, 1992.
Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. Emily Dickinson. 1986. New York: Knopf;
Reading: Addison, 1988.
Wolosky, Shira. "Rhetoric or Not: Hymnal Tropes in Emily Dickinson
and Isaac Watts." New England Ouaterlv 61 (1988): 214-32.
Wordsworth, William. Selected Poems and Prefaces. Ed. Jack
Stillinger. Boston: Riverside-Houghton, 1965.
Yeh. Michelle. Modern Chinese Poetry: Theory and Practice Since
1917. New Haven: Yale UP, 1991.

BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH
Douglas Jon Forman was born in New York City and grew up in
rural New Jersey. After attending the University of Florida for one
year, he transferred to Cornell University, where he received a B.A.
in English in 1985. He worked as a reporter for a weekly newspaper
in New Jersey before attending New York University for his M.A.,
which he received in 1990.
He returned to the University of Florida in 1990, where he taught
Nature Writing and American Literature while pursuing his Ph.D.,
which he received in 1998. He has lived and worked in Kittery Point,
Maine, since 1995, near his ancestral roots and amid the New
England landscape he loves.
166

I certify that I have read this study and that in my opinion it
conforms to acceptable standards of scholarly presentation and is
fully adequate, in scope and quality, as a dissertation for the degree
of Doctor of Philosophy.
Professor of English
I certify that I have read this study and that in my opinion it
conforms to acceptable standards of scholarly presentation and is
fully adequate, in scope and quality, as a dissertation for the degree
of Doctor of Philosophy.
Chris Snodgrass j
Professor of English
I certify that I have read this study and that in my opinion it
conforms to acceptable standards of scholarly presentation and is
fully adequate, in scope and quality, as
of Doctor of Philosophy.
dissertation for the degree
Anne Jones 'J
Associate Professor of English
I certify that I have read this study and that in my opinion it
conforms to acceptable standards of scholarly presentation and is
fully adequate, in scope and quality, as a dissertation for the degree
of Doctor of Philosophy. .
‘yP/ J/UAsLi
Marsha Bryant " /j
Associate Professor ^of English

I certify that I have read this study and that in my opinion it
conforms to acceptable standards of scholarly presentation and is
fully adequate, in scope and quality, as a dissertation for the degree
of Doctor of Philosophy.
Ben Nelms
Professor of Instruction
and Curriculum
This dissertation was submitted to the Graduate Faculty of the
Department of English in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and
to the Graduate School and was accepted as partial fulfillment of the
requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy.
May, 1998
Dean, Graduate School

LD
1780
199?
,p7*L y
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
iiiiniiiiiiiiiiiiiMiiiiiiiiiiiwu
3 1262 08554 7577

LD
1780
199?
,p7*L y
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
iiiiniiiiiiiiiiiiiMiiiiiiiiiiiwu
3 1262 08554 7577