Regarded as one of America’s greatest and most prolific poets, Emily Dickinson(1830-1886), lived a mostly reclusive life in New England, dedicating herself to writing. She composed almost 1800 poems, only ten of which were published during her lifetime.
Cristanne Miller is Edward H. Butler Professor and Chair of the English Department at University at Buffalo, the State University of New York. She is the author of, among other works, Emily Dickinson: A Poet’s Grammar and co-editor of The Emily Dickinson Handbook. She also edits the Emily Dickinson Journal.
Simply Charly: A question asked many times before, but the answer remains elusive: why so few of Emily Dickinson’s poems were published during her lifetime, all anonymously? Did she not consider them worthy of being made public?
Cristanne Miller: No one can say with certainty why Dickinson did not publish during her lifetime, but I think she knew her poetry was great and hoped it would someday be read appreciatively. Several other women, including women she admired like Elizabeth Barrett-Browning and women she knew like Helen Hunt Jackson, published poetry during this period. Judging from the extant correspondence, we know that Dickinson mailed about one-third of her poems in letters to friends, so she was clearly not opposed to sharing her work. Relatives have also passed on stories of Dickinson reading or performing poems informally for her family. Some of her friends passed her poems onto newspaper editors, who published them. Ten of Dickinson’s poems were published during her lifetime. When a poem appeared in a paper, it was typically picked up by other papers and republished (there was no restriction on such publication). This indicates that the poems might have been popular had she chosen to publish.
Some critics speculate that Dickinson chose to publish her poems privately in handwritten books, eschewing print publication because it would regularize features of her orthography and placement of words and lines on a page. Dickinson did object to one editorial change made by the Springfield Republican in its printing of her poem “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass” in 1866, but she did not object to any other regularization of her printed poems. Other critics speculate that Dickinson had ethical objections to submitting her work to the marketplace or trade. In a poem written in 1863, she writes, “Publication – is the Auction / Of the Mind of Man.” The poem goes on to say that “Poverty – be justifying / For so foul a thing // Possibly,” but that the speaker would rather “go // White – unto the White Creator – / Than invest – Our Snow – ”—or would rather die without publishing than “invest” poetry in the book trade. This diatribe against publication is the only poem she writes on this subject, and it is not consistent with the fact that she greatly admired other women (Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot, the Brontes) who published during their lifetimes.
Others argue that Dickinson did not choose to publish because she did not need the money, and as a prominent lawyer and politician’s daughter she did not think it seemly—or her family didn’t, and she did not feel strongly enough about it to oppose them. No one in her family or among her acquaintances, however, knew how much she had written. Susan Dickinson received the most poems in letters, and she received only a few hundred; Dickinson showed no one her manuscript books (booklets with sewn or folded pages to keep poems in good order). She wrote that “If Fame belonged to me, I could not escape her.” In another poem, she writes, “Fame is a fickle food / Upon a shifting plate . . . Men eat of it and die.” Yet the fact that Dickinson writes five poems about fame shows the topic was on her mind. Perhaps if Dickinson had a champion in the early 1860s who urged her to publish, she might have done so; Thomas Wentworth Higginson—the literary advisor she turned to in 1862—appreciated some aspects of her writing but apparently advised her against publishing. In 1884, Helen Hunt Jackson begged Dickinson to publish or let her (Jackson) publish her poems, saying that it is “a cruel wrong to your ‘day and generation’ that you will not give them light” but I think by this point—two years before her death—Dickinson was set in her decision not to publish.
SC: Dickinson’s poetry reflects her loneliness and—some say—unrequited love. She is portrayed as a recluse and an introvert. In your view, does this portrayal accurately reflect who she really was or is there another side to this enigmatic poet?
CM: As a young girl and youth, Dickinson was gregarious, lively, and had many friends. Nothing in her youthful behavior predicted that she would become extremely reclusive. Family members described Dickinson as withdrawing from the social world gradually. Dickinson’s sister Lavinia also never married and remained with her in their parents’ house; her brother and his wife (Dickinson’s best friend, Susan Gilbert Huntington Dickinson) lived next door. Both Lavinia and Susan were very active in Amherst’s social life and knew all the local gossip and news. I do not believe that Dickinson was lonely on a daily basis, or in ordinary ways. Deep thinkers, however, are probably generally lonely; even in our age of global transportation and communication overload, it’s difficult to find someone capable of profound intellectual and emotional exchange. Some critics believe Dickinson was psychologically incapable of a fully engaged social life; others that she was so deeply wounded by some experience that she withdrew from the world. It is my opinion that she experienced the vicissitudes of ordinary failures or intensity in relationship more deeply than most people, but also that she chose seclusion because of her passion to write. Housework and family care kept Dickinson very busy; the only way she could protect substantial time and emotional energy to write was by giving up other aspects of life that would drain her. Dickinson seemed to have felt that it was less of a sacrifice to give up a “normal” social life than to give up writing poetry.
Dickinson clearly experienced passionate, fulfilled love more than once in her life. She also clearly experienced love that was either unrequited or impossible or unequally returned. She loved her sister-in-law with a deep and abiding passion, and after the initial years of their friendship, Susan seemed not to have responded in kind. She may have felt intense infatuation for a married minister she met while visiting in Philadelphia, Charles Wadsworth, but I find it hard to believe that her brief and relatively formal encounter with him could lead to the profound love proposed by some scholars. Letters from the 1880s indicate that she loved and was loved by Judge Otis Lord, who apparently proposed to her. That she refused to marry him is of a piece with her refusing to publish; by this time in her life, she had established a life in which she was comfortable. If Dickinson were love-starved, or lonely in an ordinary kind of way, or unhappy with her life, she might at this point have changed it, but she didn’t. I do not see Dickinson as primarily unhappy, neurotic, or lonely. She writes many poems about suffering, pain, and death, and she writes many poems about the beauties of nature, and her love of life. Dickinson wrote that “to have lived is a Bliss so powerful we must die—to adjust it.”
SC: This leads to another question: can Dickinson’s life—or what we know of it—be used to explain her poetry, or, vice versa, can we shed light on her life by analyzing her poems?
CM: In 1862, Dickinson began what would become a life-long correspondence with Thomas Wentworth Higginson—a well-known abolitionist, women’s rights advocate, nature writer, and poet. She asked his advice about her poems, and then continued to send him poems for the rest of her life, even though she apparently never took what seemed to be his advice—namely, that she make her verse somewhat more conventional formally. This was the only correspondence in which she introduced herself as a poet and wrote with some regularity about writing. One thing she told Higginson early in their correspondence is that “When I state myself, as the Representative of the Verse—it does not mean—me—but a supposed person.” This, together with the fact that in several poems the speaker is identified as male, or as filling a position Dickinson never held—like “wife”—, suggests that she wrote from some perspectives that were not her own.
I think Dickinson also wrote to try out ideas, and to think through particular aspects of complex topics. No one poem on faith or on nature or on love represents everything Dickinson thought or imagined about these topics. Moreover, Dickinson changed her mind about some things over the nearly thirty years during which she saved the poems she wrote. In short, I think it is a mistake to read her poems simply as autobiographical.
On the other hand, we cannot help but learn about Dickinson from her poems, whether they are directly autobiographical. We learn about the ways she thought, the range of her imagination, the questions she asked—of herself, or of God. Her poems do not relate to her life on a daily basis. When she wrote “There is a pain—so utter—/ It swallows substance up,” we trivialize the poem, I think, if we imagine that it is about a particular pain that she experienced immediately before writing the poem. Knowing what such a painful experience might or might not have been, does not explain the poem or make it any more powerful. Yet such a poem makes it clear to us that Dickinson both experienced and thought astutely about pain, just as her many poems about flowers and bees let us know that she was an astute observer of nature and point back toward her excellent education in the sciences at Amherst Academy. Yes, we learn about the poet, her times, and her life from the poems, and the more we learn about her times, her culture, and life, the more attuned we can be to nuances in the poems.
SC: Dickinson moved away from the floridly romantic writing style of the Victorian era, preferring a more concise imagery and innovative style. She also made a rather unconventional use of broken rhyming, dashes, punctuation, random capitalization, etc. You wrote a book, “Emily Dickinson: A Poet’s Grammar.” What do you make of her out-of-the-box style?
CM: Dickinson’s style is great! The more I read nineteenth-century poetry, the more I think Dickinson’s most radical innovations were her concision and her use of disjunctive strategies (omitting transitional phrases, clarifying punctuation, and explanation of all kinds). Other poets of her time used irregular meters, capitalized keywords, used slant rhyme and non-standard punctuation (although not to the extent she did, or with as powerful an effect), and many poets wrote in a variation of ballad meter, combining trimeter and tetrameter lines in various combination. Dickinson was also extraordinary in her construction of metaphors that make radical links between disparate registers of language or fields of experience—like “sumptuous—Despair” or the marvelous final lines of “A Bird, came down the Walk,” which describe that transformation most of us see almost daily, when a bird that looks comical on the ground takes to flight. The speaker “offered [the bird] a Crumb,” and in response: “ . . he unrolled his feathers, / And rowed him softer Home – // Than Oars divide the Ocean, / Too silver for a seam, / Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon, / Leap, plashless as they swim.” This is really out of the box. Here Dickinson made masterful use of traditional poetic tools like rhythm, alliteration, and assonance (as a simple example, look at the way the long o sounds suggest the speaker’s wonder); at the same time she clustered metaphors combining color, texture (softness), the substantial quality of air (like water and earth, with “Banks” of light), and sound (the silence implied by “plashless”) to describe flight, a kind of movement that normally is not perceived as related to any of these elements. Dickinson constructed a concise, disjunctive, highly metaphorical poetic unique in the 1860s and 1870s, when she wrote the great majority of her poems; she also had a genius for rhythm and sound that makes even her relatively conventional formal structures unusually powerful. Not all her poems are equally successful, but there is nobody who writes like Dickinson at her best.
SC: Upon examination of the whole body of Dickinson’s work, is there cohesiveness or divergence of styles and characteristics between earlier and later poems? If the latter is true, are different styles borne out of her personal growth, or out of a natural progression of her work?
CM: Surprisingly, given the extent of criticism already written on Dickinson, no one has written a chronology of her stylistic practices. What is most distinctive remains cohesive throughout. Once Dickinson achieved her mature style (around 1860), she did not vary from it in primary ways. There are, however, minor changes. The early poems are more likely to use sentimental gestures and conceits, use more exclamation points, and tend to be relatively short (4-12 lines). Poems written between 1862 and 1866 or 1867 are often longer and often focus on a definition or narrative rather than a first-person narrative or response. Late poems tend to be very short and more aphoristic, and Dickinson used more periods to conclude poems from the mid-1870s on. During and following the Civil War, Dickinson wrote a great number of poems about death and suffering, and also several calling God’s judgment into question. She also wrote several early poems about religion, typically focused on comparisons of “heaven” with Amherst, or daily natural life. None of these generalizations holds true as a strict rule. Alfred Habegger’s biography, Emily Dickinson: My Wars Are Laid Away in Books, attends throughout to changes in Dickinson’s style and in the primary points of thematic focus from one period of her life to the next. David Porter’s The Art of Emily Dickinson’s Early Poetry focuses just on this period of her writing, defining “early” pretty broadly. There is no question that such changes have to do with personal growth—especially the move from the early explicit excitement or intensity of exclamation marks to the more laconic late aphorisms.
SC: In her era, given the mores of 19th century New England, would Dickinson’s work, in terms of style and content, be considered traditional or progressive?
CM: These are not the categories that most obviously fit Dickinson’s work. As I say above, Dickinson’s poetry resembles that of many of her contemporaries in experimentation with short-lined verse forms combining iambic and trochaic rhythms—a “short” line meaning anything less than a pentameter (10 syllables). She also wrote about many of the topics familiar to her contemporaries: death of loved ones, nature, love, faith. Unlike her immediate predecessor Walt Whitman, who constructed a new kind of verse by throwing out meter and rhyme altogether as structuring norms of his line and stanza, Dickinson stayed close to conventional forms, writing variations of hymn meters or the ballad in the vast majority of her poems. As she put it, she “could not drop the Bells whose jingling cooled [her] Tramp”; rhyme and meter seemed to enable her creativity and expressiveness. Yet, as I noted above, other aspects of Dickinson’s style were radically new and anticipated the aesthetics of modernist poets nearly half a century later.
Dickinson wrote some wholly sentimental poems—for example, “If I can stop one Heart from breaking.” Others express a peaceful contentment with an ordered world—like “Lightly stepped a yellow star,” which presents the coming of evening through domestic language, as if a family is coming home, and concludes “Father I observed to Heaven / You are punctual – .” Others express a Yankee shrewdness not associated with poetry, or sharp religious doubt identified with later Victorians and modernists, like Nietzsche, who began publishing in the 1870s. One undated poem reads in its entirety, “God is indeed a jealous God – / He cannot bear to see / That we had rather not with Him / But with each other play.” A late poem refers to the frost as a “blonde Assassin” beheading flowers “In accidental power,” observed by an “Approving God”—suggesting that God approves equally of death’s careless ending of human life. Such poems would no doubt have shocked many of her contemporaries. Perhaps the fact that an unmarried woman wrote poems of great erotic desire would also have been shocking; think of “Come slowly Eden” and “Wild nights – Wild nights! / Were I with thee / Wild nights should be / Our luxury!”
Generally, however, Dickinson’s work does not fit easily into standard categories of “conventional” and “progressive” because so much of it focuses on human emotion or private, individual experience that cannot be calibrated in relation to a politicized domestic or national issues. “After great pain, a formal feeling comes,” “Delight is as the flight,” “I can wade Grief,” “I stepped from Plank to Plank,” “Perception of an Object costs / Precise the Object’s loss” and other such poems analyze a particular kind of experience, or feeling, or aspect of perception. I think they would have had precisely the same powerful effect on conservative and progressive audiences in the nineteenth century as they do today.
SC: One course you taught at Buffalo was on (Walt) Whitman and Dickinson. That brings up a question of which poets (her contemporaries as well as those who preceded her) did she admire the most, and how had their poetry influenced her own?
CM: It’s hard to say that any single poet influenced Dickinson’s style. She was very fond of both Emerson’s and Longfellow’s poetry, and read them throughout her school years and young adulthood, when she was developing her own style. Emerson’s aphoristic brilliance may have had some influence, but Emerson’s poetry is more conventional than his prose, and Dickinson seemed to be showing Emerson up with her own greater formal inventiveness, playfulness, and imaginative depths in rewriting some of his poems—for example, his “Bacchus” in her “I taste a liquor never brewed – .” She mentioned Longfellow more than any other poet, and undoubtedly admired his fertile innovation with rhythms, especially in his short-lined poems. We know that Dickinson read Poe, but she claimed never to have read Whitman (she told Higginson “I never read his Book—but was told it was disgraceful”). She loved Shakespeare and, apparently told Higginson when he visited her that, after months of being deprived of reading because of treatment for eye problems, she “read Shakespeare and thought why is any other book needed.”
The only poets for whom Dickinson wrote poems of praise were female: Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Charlotte Bronte. The former was particularly important to Dickinson, although here perhaps the influence was as much in witnessing the fame of a female poet as in any stylistic feature. Dickinson wrote of Barrett Browning that she was “enchanted / When first a somber Girl – / I read that Foreign Lady,” describing the experience as one of “Conversion of the Mind,” “a Divine Insanity,” and Barrett Browning’s work as “Tomes of Solid Witchcraft,” resembling “Deity” in its immortality. Whether or not there is an autobiographical reference to a particular youthful moment of reading Barrett Browning’s work, the poem asserts unambiguously that Dickinson was inspired by reading it, and some critics claim that Dickinson borrowed images from Barrett Browning in several of her poems.
Dickinson read broadly and admired many writers. She had portraits of Barrett Browning, George Eliot, and Thomas Carlyle hanging in her bedroom. She mentioned scores of writers in her letters, including Keats, Tennyson, Robert Browning, Milton, and many popular poets and fiction writers. The Emily Dickinson Journal’s Spring 2010 issue will be devoted to the topic of Dickinson’s reading.
SC: One of your interests is the effect of the Civil War on U.S. poetry as a genre. Where does Dickinson, who was in her thirties during the war, fit in? Do any of her poems specifically address this theme?
CM: For years, readers of Dickinson assumed she all but ignored the war because none of her poems mention particular battles, generals, or name the war as such. Following Shira Wolosky’s Emily Dickinson: A Voice of War, there has been increasing attention to this topic. It is now acknowledged that the war had a tremendous impact on Dickinson, although most of her references to it are oblique. She wrote over half of her poems during the four years of the war, averaging the astonishing rate of almost a poem a day during 1863. During 1865 she wrote 229 poems. In 1866 and 1867, she wrote a respective 10 and 12, and in no other year of her life did she write over 48 poems—her typical output being 20-40 per year, according to Ralph W. Franklin’s 1998 dating of the poems. Poems like “When I was small, a Woman died – / Today – her Only Boy / Went up from the Potomac – ” and “It feels a shame to be Alive / When Men so brave – are dead – ” are unambiguously about the war. Others like “They dropped like Flakes – ” and “Whole Gulfs – of Red, and Fleets – of Red – / And Crews – of solid Blood – ” (describing a sunset) either describe battlefield death in relation to natural phenomena or a natural phenomenon as seen through the lens of the ongoing slaughter. The 1864 poem “Color – Caste – Denomination – / These – are Time’s Affair” unambiguously responds to the racial issues raised by the institution of slavery and its abolition, asserting that humans rise from the grave “Equal Butterfly” regardless of the color of their previous skin or “Chrysalis.” Other poems have no obvious reference to the war but are illuminated by understanding the context in which they were written. For example, the poem “A Toad, can die of Light / Death is the Common Right / Of Toads and Men” becomes a commentary on a military culture that glorifies self-sacrifice in battle as well as a poem about religious focus on an afterlife when read in the context of the Civil War. Dickinson protests against such glorification of death:
Why swagger, then?
The Gnat’s supremacy is large as Thine –
Life is a different Thing –
So measure Wine –
Naked of Flask – Naked of Cask –
Bare Rhine –
Which Ruby’s mine?
Read in the context of the Civil War, the last stanza’s declaration that life is measured by its quality, not its external trappings (“Naked of Flask – Naked of Cask”)—seems to assert racial equality. The “Bare” fluid of human life can only be “measure[d]” for its intrinsic value, for the quality of its living—not by external trappings or its mode of death. Neither Emily Dickinson nor any member of her family was an abolitionist preceding the war, and some comments in her letters are distinctly racist or elitist (primarily regarding the Irish). It was, however, common in the nineteenth century for people both to oppose the extension of slavery, or the institution itself, and to harbor racist assumptions of various kinds. Poems such as these indicate that when she thought explicitly about “Color” and “Caste,” Dickinson promoted equality.
Some critics argue that Dickinson’s poetry protests against all war. I find that her poems implicitly support Union goals. She clearly, however, questioned the necessity of the terrible death toll of the war and that this also made her question the goodness of a God that could allow such suffering. In the poem “It feels a shame to be Alive,” she asked: “Are we that wait – sufficient worth – / That such Enormous Pearl / As life – dissolved be – for Us – / In Battle’s – horrid Bowl?”
SC: You also authored a book titled “Feminist Measures: Soundings in Poetry and Theory.” Would you say Dickinson could be viewed as a feminist, either by the standards of the 19th century or today’s?
CM: Dickinson did not actively support the political campaign for women’s rights that was already underway during her youth, and some of her speakers take positions that might be called conventionally feminine—especially in relation to adoration of a more powerful male figure. On the other hand, one of the factors influencing her choice of Higginson as a potential mentor may have been his strong support of women’s education and political rights. Similarly, many more poems undercut or reversed expected power relationships between women and men. Like Melville’s Ahab, Dickinson was a “democrat to all above”; she was sensitive to all situations and relationships in which she as a woman was accorded less respect or opportunity than a man, but she was not overtly concerned with those who were in positions of less privilege than she enjoyed. She wrote frequently about power, but (like many of us) she recognized power by noting the ways in which she was prevented from manifesting it. She was not a social reformer. Consequently, I wouldn’t call her a “feminist” in her day or ours, despite her shrewd observations about power relationships between the sexes.
As was reasonable in her culture, Dickinson typically associated femininity and womanhood with powerlessness and therefore constructed oblique or disguised expressions of authority for herself through speakers who appeared to be weak, small, child-like, or otherwise associated with the feminine. In several poems, such speakers rebelled against a male figure of opposition in the poem’s plot—a father, lover, God, (masculine) death, bee, and so on. In “The Daisy follows soft the Sun –,” the daisy turns out to be plural (“We are the Flower”) and to be “Enamored of the parting West . . . Night’s possibility!” rather than the Sun, himself, who addresses her/them as “Marauder.” In an ugly duckling story, “God made a little Gentian,” the meek flower attempts to be the archetypal feminine beauty, “a Rose,” and fails, but when “The Frosts” of autumn come, and the other flowers die in the harsh climate, the gentian becomes a “Purple Creature / That ravished all the Hill,” commanding a respectful silence from those who had mocked her. The poem ends with a question that resonates as something between a challenge and a threat: “Creator – Shall I – bloom?”
In other poems, female subjects are more openly powerful. “A still – Volcano – Life – / . . . Too subtle to suspect / By natures this side Naples – ” may be quiet for years and then open its “lips that never lie” or “hissing Corals” with the result that “Cities – ooze away – .” Similarly, the “Life” that “stood – a Loaded Gun” is feminine in relation to its masculine “Owner,” and takes pride in the accuracy of its own powers, preferring to guard its “Master’s Head” over sharing his “Pillow.” As in most of Dickinson’s poems about gendered relationship, the feminine or female speaker seeks not power over a male counterpart but interdependent relationship. “I could suffice for Him, I knew – / He – could suffice for Me – ” balances the power of these “Hesitating Fractions” in a shifting relationship like that of the sea and the moon. Even the explicitly empowering poem “I’m ceded – I’ve stopped being Their’s – ,” in which the speaker declares her independence from “The name They dropped upon my face” and rises to her “Full,” “supremest name,” “Adequate – Erect,” concludes with the speaker’s choosing an emblem that is indistinguishable from her former “Crowned” state, the difference lying wholly in the fact that this time she has made a conscious choice of her “Rank.”
SC: Which contemporary poets have been/are influenced by Dickinson?
CM: The list is very long. Some contemporary poets who have written at length about Dickinson’s importance to them include Adrienne Rich, Charles Wright, Susan Howe, Alice Fulton, Jorie Graham, and Lucie Brock-Broido, but there are many others who acknowledge her influence or write of her with great praise.
Two books have been written on this subject. Sheila Coghill and Thom Tammaro’s Visiting Emily: Poems Inspired by the Life and Work of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Gardner’s A Door Ajar: Contemporary Writers and Emily Dickinson, and there is a special issue of the Emily Dickinson Journal on this topic (XV.2, 2006). The website Titanic Operas also contains references to several poets who claim Dickinson as a predecessor—at https://www.emilydickinson.org/titanic-operas.