Emily Dickinson: The Quasi-modern Muse
By Christine Bychowski
The modernist period, stretching from the late 19th century to approximately 1960, is a very distinct phase in the progression of American literature, employing the use of novel literary techniques which stray away from the traditional literary styles observed in the time preceding the period. Modernist writers explore new styles themes, and content in their compositions, encompassing issues ranging from race (Kate Chopin) to gender (H.D.) to sexuality (James Baldwin), as well as many others. The Modernist movement, however novel and unique, did not develop spontaneously. A few writers leading up to the movement exhibit obvious modernist views in their writing. These include male writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman, both of which had literature widely published through out their lives, influencing modernist writers to come. There is also, however, another writer who, though lesser known to the earliest modern composers, was one of the first female writers to show an obvious propensity towards modernist ideals; Emily Dickinson. Though chronologically placed in the Romantic period, Emily Dickinson’s poetry, most published after her death beginning in 1890, exemplifies many modernist tendencies. Her stylistic oddities, such as her interesting diction, capitalization, rhythms, and use of the dash, as well as her feminist views, detach Dickinson from the other poets of her time. Once finally published posthumously, Dickinson’s writings came to influence modernist writers through out the 20th century. One writer in particular who “was immensely influenced by Dickinson’s poetry and sought to probe the extreme reaches of consciousness and truth just as Dickinson had” (Langdell, 84) is Adrienne Rich, a feminist modernist writer who was published beginning in the 1950’s through today. Rich, a writer extremely interested in Emily Dickinson’s life and poetry, was also deeply influenced by her. Rich composed poems, essays, and criticism about Dickinson, borrowed lines from her poetry, and even drew parallels between her own life and Dickinson’s. Similarities between the two poets also extended to style within their writing, as well as modernist themes that both advocate, especially feminism.
To understand the extent that Dickinson’s modernist tendencies shine through in Adrienne Rich’s writings, it is important to first explore the impact Dickinson had on Rich’s life and compositions in general. It is no accident that Rich adapts styles and themes from Dickinson’s poetry; many parallels can be drawn between Dickinson’s and Rich’s life, including how “she [like Dickinson] set herself apart [from society’s framework] in order to define her own emotional and social territory” (Martin, 171). Also, both writers revered and feared their fathers, even though both chose to pit themselves “in opposition to [their fathers], to live according to [their] own premises” (Langdell, 166). Although Rich states that she could not have lived her life the way Emily Dickinson does in her essay “Vesuvius at Home: the Power of Emily Dickinson (1975),” she also admits that she has “come to understand her necessities [and] could have been a witness in her defense” (Rich, 158). Rich admires Dickinson, even calling some poems of her own mere “imitations” (Rich, 159) of those Dickinson wrote, as well as identifying her as a unique voice in her literary time period, saying,
[…] she turned her lens both on her personal moment, and on
eternity. She had to make herself like that, embracing her
own authority and linguistic strangeness, or she’d have
joined the ranks of sad, fluent female singers of her North
American century. She wanted more for poetry than that.
More for herself. (Rich, What is Found There 233)
Even without observing these parallels, one can see how Emily Dickinson certainly influenced Rich from the poems Rich composed specifically about her, some of which include part four of “Snapshots of a Daughter in Law,” from the collection by the same name, as well as “I Am In Danger- Sir-,” from Necessities of Life. The title “I Am In Danger- Sir-” is actually borrowed from a line of a letter to T.W. Higginson from Dickinson. The poem reads:
"half-cracked" to Higginson, living,
afterward famous in garbled versions,
your hoard of dazzling scraps a battlefield,
now your old snood
mothballed at Harvard
and you in your variorum monument
equivocal to the end -
who are you?
Gardening the day-lily,
wiping the wine-glass stems,
your thought pulsed on behind
a forehead battered paper-thin,
you, woman, masculine
for whom the word was more
than a symptom --
a condition of being.
Till the air buzzing with spoiled language
sang in your ears
and in your half-cracked way you chose
silence for entertainment,
chose to have it out at last
on your own premises. (33)
In this poem, Rich shows how Emily Dickinson continued writing poetry, even in the face of being thought of by Higginson and the world as “half-cracked.” She shows how Emily was against the norms of society at that time by commenting on how, even though she was a writer and was fond of words, her ability was not some kind of sickness (“for whom the word was more/ than a symptom—”), and would not weaken her mind, as was thought in Dickinson’s time. She also points out how Dickinson defied social norms and wrote poems anyway, “on [her] own premises” meaning both her own terms, as well as secluded, inside her own house. Rich paints Dickinson in a favorable light, praising Dickinson for being not an invalid as many people thought, but a genius. She said, “I have a notion that genius knows itself; that Dickinson chose her seclusion, knowing she was exceptional and knowing what she needed” (Rich, On Lies, Secrets, and Silence 160). The influence Emily Dickinson had on the life of modernist writer Adrienne Rich, as well as Rich’s opinions of her give a base on which to relate how the two authors’ modernist styles and themes are tied together. Emily Dickinson can be thought of as Rich’s muse- an author of which she thought so highly of as to write essays and poetry about her, mimicking her style in many ways, and praising her ideals, which seemed to line up impeccably with her own.
In the eyes of Adrienne Rich, Emily Dickinson is a “beginner.” “[B]eginners,” she says, “aren’t starters-out on a path others have traveled. They are openers of new paths, those who take the first steps […]” (Rich, What is Found There 91). Rich truly believes Emily Dickinson to be modern, or at least one of the founders of the modernist movement. She also states in “Vesuvius at Home: the Power of Emily Dickinson (1975)” that she believes Dickinson “[invented] a language more varied, more compressed, more dense with implications, more complex of syntax, then any other American poetic language to date” (Rich, On Lies, Secrets, and Silence 163). Many of these same stylistic innovations and literary devices which can be observed in Emily Dickinson’s poetry are also apparent in the poetry of Adrienne Rich. The dash for example, is one of Dickinson’s most controversial and enigmatic forms of punctuation. A good example of Dickinson’s use of the dash occurs in poem number 435, in which Dickinson describes her plight of rebellion against social norms:
Much Madness is divinest Sense –
To a discerning Eye –
Much Sense - the starkest Madness –
’Tis the Majority
In this, as All, prevail –
Assent – and you are sane –
Demur – you’re straightaway dangerous –
And handled with a Chain – (#435)
The dashes in this poem are certainly used quite frequently, and in unorthodox places, seeming to indicate a pause, but not necessarily a full stop. In the few of her poems that were published in Dickinson’s lifetime, as well as the subsequent volumes published after her death by her sister Lavina and others, the odd punctuation, capitalization, and diction were heavily edited. 1955, however, Dickinson was finally published “unedited” by a man named Thomas H. Johnson. Adrienne Rich’s later poems, those written around 1965 and after make use of pauses that are said to be “[…] probably a descendant of Dickinson’s dash” (qtd. in Langdell, 89). This can be seen in a small excerpt of the poem “Nightbreak” from Leaflets, the first of Rich’s collections to contain poems with these such breaks:
Something broken Something
I need By someone
I love Next year
will I remember what
This anger unreal […]
Here, Rich’s use of the pause is just as mysterious as Dickinson’s dash. Again, as with Dickinson, it seems to indicate a pause, or full stop. This, combined with the enjambment that Rich uses gives the poem a more fractured and “brash spirit” which “echos Dickinson’s ‘lonesome glee’” (qtd. in Langdell, 88) in her dash-filled precursors.
Many other literary devices abound as well in both Rich’s and Dickinson’s writings, including metaphor and oxymoron. Dickinson uses metaphor in nearly all of her poetry. One of the most obvious ways in which this can be seen is the plurality of her pronouns. When Dickinson uses “he” or “she” in a poem, quite often she is not necessarily referring to an actual person, but may instead be referring to “God,” an aspect of society, or another issue important to her. Wendy Martin also notes in American Triptych that both authors use nature to “[link] the female body with the physical landscape to create metaphors of female power” (171). An example of a startling metaphor can be found in the poem entitled “Because I could not stop for Death,” in which Death is actually personified as a driver of a carriage. In this poem Dickinson describes the end of life as a sort of carriage ride with death “toward eternity.” Another literary device tied closely with metaphor is the use of “the paradox” through oxymorons. Dickinson is especially noted for this, using images which cause the reader to ponder about the deeper meaning of the poetry and look past the surprising diction combinations toward the aim of the poem. This use of oxymoron is especially apparent in the poem “This World is not Conclusion,” an excerpt of which is provided here:
To guess it, puzzles scholars—
To gain it, Men have borne
Contempt of Generations
And Crucifixion, shown—
Faith slips—and laughs, and rallies—
Blushes, if any see—
Plucks at a twig of Evidence—
And asks a Vane, the way— (#501)
In this poem, which speaks about religion, and how it puzzles scholars, we see the surprising contradiction of “Faith” slipping. Ordinarily, in religion, one of the things that is supposed to be the most strong is your faith. How then, is it right that faith “slips”? Dickinson uses this oxymoron here, along with metaphor and personification in order to point out that religion is elusive and puzzling, and because so, something supposedly strong, like faith, “slips— and laughs. And rallies— / Blushes if any see.” This use of oxymoron could also be a subtle attack on the church itself, or those in it. In Dickinson telling us that Faith has slipped, and “Plucks at a twig of Evidence” she criticizes those who let their faith slip and then try to look at the little evidence there is for their religion. Such surprising imagery was not very common in the poetry preceding Dickinson, but became more popular in the modernist period. Rich employs the use of the same types of oxymorons through out her poems to “fuse the polarizations of male oppositional thought in an effort to erase the traditional subordination of women to men and nature to culture” (Martin, 171). One of her metaphorical poems which “contains an extraordinary portrait in which a woman’s face and body and the words she speaks are fused with the landscape” (Martin, 222) uses a few oxymorons, and is titled “Coast to Coast.” In it Rich describes a “fog-hollowed” and “burning cold,” strong images which help to convey her purpose to the readers.
Of all similarities between Adrienne Rich’s and Emily Dickinson’s writings, Rich would probably concede that the most fundamentally important of all are both writers’ feminist ideals and themes within their poems. Rich and Dickinson were both feminists in their own way; Dickinson, though quiet and reserved, “[did] not permit her personal responses [in her life] to be extinguished by external authority” (Martin, 86), and Rich, an open feminist activist, devoted her life to working for the betterment of female-kind. “Like Dickinson, Rich rebels against male authorities and commits herself to the primacy of her own perception” (Martin, 182). Both writers, who are known to be blunt about the truth, as well as “delighted to shock or scandalize” (Langdell, 129) simply wish to tell of hardships women face, Rich especially focusing on empowering the woman to stand up, and face male “authority.” A wonderful poem exemplary of Dickinson’s type of feminism has the first line of “My Life had stood— a Loaded Gun” in which Dickinson describes herself as a “Loaded Gun.”
My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun—
In Corners—till a Day
The Owner passed—identified—
And carried Me away
Though I than He—may longer live
He longer must—than I—
For I have but the power to kill,
Without—the power to die— (#754)
In this poem, Dickinson shows the reader how she is not the typical 19th century woman. Instead of getting married, having children, or doing housework, she instead writes. Dickinson’s will to write is described here her “Owner,” who one day picked her up. It is as though Dickinson is possessed with the want, and even the need to write, as expressed in the last verse, when she tells that she simply must not let the verse die inside of her. Adrienne Rich shared Dickinson’s need of creative expression without the world’s view on women bearing down on her. “Throughout her poetic career, Adrienne Rich has explored her ideas and feelings about womanhood and female roles, about the use of will and creative intelligence to accomplish global change by re-visioning the world from a new perspective […]” (Langdell, 2). In Rich’s collection of poems called Diving Into the Wreck, she expresses her feminist leanings especially well in her poem by the same name. In describing a supposed dive into a shipwreck at sea, she presents the metaphor that the shipwreck is actually “women” in general. Rich portrays the wreck with feminine overtones, and describes it as “ a drowned face […] with open eyes/ whose breasts still bear the stress/ whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies/ obscurely inside barrels.” The “cargo” that Rich describes is all of the creativity and power that lies inside of every woman, trapped by the norms of society. Rich goes on to say, “we are the half destroyed instruments,” reinforcing this view, and filling the reader with a sense of sadness for women, even now.
Emily Dickinson and Adrienne Rich are both remarkable poets. Dickinson’s poetics- her language, style, and themes- point true north to the modernist movement that succeeded her, in a sense making her “our first great modern” (Porter, 241). These modernist qualities were later adapted and built upon by modernist feminist writer Adrienne Rich who adopted Dickinson as her muse. Both writers employed the use of strategic pauses, metaphor, and the powerful oxymoron, while also encompassing feminist themes. The similarities between the two writers confirm that Emily Dickinson, writing in the romantic period, was truly a quasi modernist, and an obvious precursor to those writers which are labeled “modernist” today.
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© Christine Bychowski