Today I’m going to talk about one of my favorite poets of all time: Emily Dickinson. Earlier this term I was assigned to read many, many poems by Dickinson for my Writing Feminisms tutorial, which felt more like reading for pleasure rather than reading to write an essay. After having done more research about her life and writing, I’m excited to discuss her important and remarkable contribution to establishing a tradition of women’s writing.
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) was an American poet born and raised in Puritan New England, specifically in Massachusetts. She was considered to be a kind of recluse during her lifetime and only about a dozen of her 1,775 poems were actually published while she was alive. Today she is written about and taught in classrooms alongside male poets such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson who are considered to be part of the (male-dominated) Western literary canon. However, she was treated much differently than these male poets and had to face many more obstacles in order to be taken even somewhat seriously as a poet.
From a distance, it can seem as though Dickinson was playing into a persona of being a naive, young, ignorant figure. She often called herself “Miss Dickinson” in letters to editors and other correspondents, whereas male poets would undoubtedly have been referred to by their last names. She would also feign ignorance of how to write poetry, even though she clearly knew that she was creating an innovative, unique, experimental form. She asked editors for advice and pretended shock at their criticism, claiming she didn’t know she had erred when she didn’t consistently use iambic pentameter or proper rhyme schemes in her poetry. But why would this poetic genius pretend to be anything but?
Answer: because it was the only way she would be taken remotely seriously (read: even taken into consideration) by men who controlled the poetic sphere at the time. Living in Puritan New England meant rigid enforcement of traditional gender roles; however, Dickinson was not married and didn’t seem to plan on getting married any time soon. If she could not play the role of the “good wife,” than she must find another role to play: the naive, youthful girl. This would allow her to get feedback on her poetry without making men like Thomas Wentworth Higginson, an editor, feel directly challenged or threatened by her skill, intellect, and promising potential as a poet.
Her subversion of established conventions of the male poetic tradition can be seen in her irregular rhyme schemes (often called slant rhyme), inconsistent meter, focus on topics like death from a woman’s perspective. In the following poem that I wrote about for class, we can see how she uses the juxtaposition of biblical language and imagery of crowns, monarchs, and individual sovereignty to push back against traditional values of Puritan New England:
I’m ceded – I’ve stopped being Theirs –
The name They dropped upon my face
With water, in the country church
Is finished using, now,
And They can put it with my Dolls,
My childhood, and the string of spools,
I’ve finished threading – too –
Baptized, before, without the choice,
But this time, consciously, of Grace –
Unto supremest name –
Called to my Full – The Crescent dropped –
Existence’s whole Arc, filled up,
With one small Diadem.
My second Rank – too small the first –
Crowned – Crowing – on my Father’s breast –
A half unconscious Queen –
But this time – Adequate – Erect,
With Will to choose, or to reject,
And I choose, just a Crown –
I love Emily Dickinson’s poetry for many reasons, but perhaps most of all because she was such a fascinating person in real life. She is a perfect example of quiet, subdued resistance– just because these men did not realize that they were being challenged does not mean that the resistance wasn’t there, contributing to a tradition of women’s writing that is still with us today.
What are your thoughts on Emily Dickinson and her poetry? Do you have a favorite Dickinson poem? Let me know in the comments section below!