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A Tentative Introduction to Emily Dickinson.

Need to say a couple of things before proceeding. Firstly this is a personal and subjective response to Dickinson's work. Secondly, I intend to talk about the work rather than the life except to note that Dickinson wrote in 19th century America and that most of her poetry was made during the American Civil War.

Usually the purpose of arduity is to try and provide some clarification of the work and to suggest some strategies that might help with reading. On this occasion I've decided to express my initial response more than providing much in the way of guidance. I'm also experiencing a degree of confusion that I, selfishly, need to get off my chest. For this reason what follows is even more provisional and speculative than usual.

At first the reaction was one of confusion and discomfort, I felt that I'd come across a complete body of work that epitomises Keston Sutherland's notion of 'wrongness' which I've adapted to mean poems that shouldn't work but do almost in spite of themeselves. This is not the same as work that is so bad that it is good because this kind of wrongness isn't bad or technically weak work but material that operates against any of the accepted aspects of poetry and the poetic form.

We now come to the arduity definition of what it is that makes a poem work or function. This is always tricky for me to articulate but, for me as a reader, a poem works if reading it brings about a feeling or a sense of satisfaction, that mytime wasn't wasted and that I have something to think about. I hope to set out why Dickinson's work meets all of these criteria despite her apparent absence of technique.

The first problem to surmount is that many of these poems don't make what we would consider to be sense, the second is that 'ordinary' words are used rather than what is thought of as poetic language. These two combine with a kind of partial opacity that draws the reader (me) in and then seems to alter his or her perspective on things in quite a fundamental way.

The God-related material is one of the more intriguing so we'll start with a shorter one of those from 1862:


    Embarrassment of one another
    And God
    Is Revelation's limit,
    Aloud 
    Is nothing that is chief,
    But still,
    Divinity dwells under seal.

Some of Dickinson's work contains only a line or so that seems odd or out of place but here the whole thing seems odd in itself. Fortunately, in the nineteenth century, an embarrassment could also be a hindrance and a state of confusion or puzzlement. In contemporary usage, embarrassment can be a state of social discomfort, the cause of that discomfort as well as someone or thing that is sufficently incompetent to cause an organisation to be embarrassed.

It seems to me that this tricky noun would be better unpicked if we knew who 'one another' referred to and why the sense 'leaps' into God, without any punctuation from the first to the second line. I'm tempted to think that the two here are our poet and her God and that embarrassment that each causes the other is both a blockage and a puzzlement. Christians often speaking of letting God into their hearts (or lives) and the ways in which these blocks or confusions may be overcome has always the subject of much preaching in most branches of the Christian faith.

God being the limit of reverlation seems reasonably straightforward because (for a Christian) God is the limit, there is nothing (at all) beyond God and revelations are meant to reveal things about God rather than move in some way beyond him. I am however, completely bewildered by what this statement may have to do with the first line. In an attempt to be less baffled (not a bad thing in itself....) I've now read the poem aloud now have a bit more of a clue. It become apparent that the first three lines should be thought of as a sentence so that it is this embarrassment between ourselves and God that may be the cause of this limit. If we extrapolate this and replace 'of' with 'between' then the hindrance, confusion, pusslement begins to make sense, doesn't it. If however 'of' stays then it refers to an embarrassment that belongs to us (humanity) and God. Of course, we may be dealing with the ambiguous in which case both readings might apply.

So, we come to revelation which is probly just ahead of divinity as the most laden, freighted (a favourite arduity term) noun in the poem. I'll deal with the religious connotations first, A revelation is a disclosure of something that was previously hidden or occluded and this disclosure, act of revealing, occurs by means of divine agency. There's also the Book od Revelations which deals with Last Things and the Day of Judgement. In the secular sense, a revelation is a surprising or unlikely outcome as in 'Southampton FC's progess in the Premier League this season has been a revelation'. In terms of the capital R and the religious context of the poem. Now, I've spent too much time with Jewish mysticism and the early Neoplatonists to get a clear 'handle' on the 19th century Christian view of this kind of uncovering so this is a problem. Going back to the earlier guess, it may be that the limit applies, instead of an absolute', to a holding back of what can be revealed because of the hindrance, confusion puzzlement. This only makes sense if the 'social discomfort' definition is place further in the background. The other possibility is that this barrier refers to the contents of the Book of Revelations and what it is able to disclose.

Before we get on to the second sentence and its various bafflements, I'm half-way to concluding that this kind of forensic reading might be the wrong way to approach Dickinson's work, that we ought to consider instead the gesture that the poem makes as a whole and worry less about meaning. Warming to my theme, this could (might) tell us a bit more about her intentions in producing this body of work. In this sense, this poem could be read as a broad and rough sketch of the provisional working through of her relationship with God in general and her own faith in particular. I realise and accept that this is a 21st century stance/perspective but I live in the 21st century and am unable to place myself in the readerly mode of the US in the 1860s. I'm not suggesting the detailed pursuit isn't in any way valid but approaching the work as a series of gestures is beginning to make, to this Dickinson newbie, as much sense.

'Aloud is exceptionally tricky and the only thing that immediately occurs to me is the contrast between prayer that is spoken and that which is carried out silently, within the person's head. If this is the case, the next line would seem to prioritise the silent over the spoken prayer. This may be chronic overredaing (a frequent arduity sin) but it's the only way that this confirmed atheist can get to grips with what might be going on.

We now come to what I'm provisionally thinking of as the psychological verse with a confessional 'twist'. The default arduity position is to be against the confessional, a position which is both subjective and unreasonable. My excuse is that this bias stems from one of my several work backgrounds (social work) which led me to the view that, sometimes, you can know far too much about some people and the sad fact that I no longer find personal disclosure in any way interesting. I'm afraid that, thus far, this is poem 561:


    I measure every Grief I meet
    With narrow, probing Eyes -
    I wonder if It weighs like mine - 
    Or has an Easier size.

    I wonder if They bore it long-
    Or did it just begin -
    I could not tell the Date of Mine - 
    It feels so old a pain - 

    I wonder if it hurts to live -
    And if They have to try -
    And whether - could They choose between -
    It would not be - to die-

    I note that Some - gone patient long -
    At length renew their smile -
    An imitation of a Light - 
    That has so little Oil -

    I wonder if when Years have piled - 
    Some Thousands - on the Harm -
    That hurt them early - such a lapse
    Could give them any Balm -

    Or would they go on aching still
    Through Centuries of Nerve -
    Enlightened to a larger Pain -
    In contrast with the Love -

    The grieved- are many - I am told -
    There is the various Cause - 
    Death - is but one -and comes but once
    And only nails the eyes -

    There's Grief of Want - and Grief of Cold -
    A sort they call "Despair" -
    There's Banishment from native Eyes =
    In sight of Native Air -

    And though I may not guess the kind-
    Correctly - yet to me
    A piercing comfort it affords -
    In passing Calvary -

    To note the fashions - of the Cross -
    And how they're mostly worn -
    Still fascinated to presume 
    That Some - are like my Own -

Compared with the first poem, this seems reasonably clear. Our poet is experiencing grief and considers the kinds of grief that are experienced by others. She finds some comfort in the realisation, helped by her think about the passion, that some people experience grief in similar ways to her. This isn't by any means a superficial analysis, the feeling that grief is eternal and all-consuming although wonder whether the passing of a 'pile' of years can provide some ease.

There are other things to think about, the apparently erratic rhyming scheme, the use of capitals for most, but not all, nouns and the reasons for this demarcation and the use of hyphens. There's also a few about the content:

Why are the poet's eyes said to be both narrow and probing?

Is the clumsiness of 'it would not be' deliberate in order to give emphasis to the view that suicide is a worse option?

'Centuries of Nerve' is obviously carefully chosen and does this signify a different aspect of grief or is it simply an attempt to get away from the expected but tired and over-used adjectives?

Is the relgious 'turn' at the end and 'add-on' to an otherwise secular poem or was it always intended to finish that way?

So, there is an element of the confessional in that Dickinson's own experience of grief frames the poem yet it isn't an extended description of her feelings but much more about the nature of grief. Of course, the usual ending is the power of religious faith and prayer to bring some relief but here it only enables her to 'presume' that others exdperience grief in the same way.

I find it satisfying and thought provoking, my own experience of grief leads me to believe that it changes over time but the 'weight' remains the same. I also feel that it's somehow right to continue to experience the initial pain. The above has prodded me to try and think more objectively about how I continue to feel more than thirty years after the event and why I'm still reluctant to try and diminish or alleviate the initial hurt and sense of absolute loss.

So, in conclusion, the initial experience of paying attention to Dickinson is proving very positive indeed especially as the work is persuading me to re-think my views and prejudices on form and because of the obvious honesty of the content. In fact, I'm so impressed that I've asked my loved ones for the Variorum edition for Xmas....