Emily Dickinson, a creative poet during the mid-nineteenth century, wrote what many consider to be truly American poetry. To understand why Dickinson is considered a brilliant writer of American poetry, one must know about the time period in which she wrote her poetry. Dickinson wrote during the era of American literature known as the Age of Expansion (Perkins 869). This was during the first half-century after the Civil War to the First World War which was approximately 1865-1915 (Perkins 869). During this time period, American literature went through many drastic changes. American writers progressively moved from romanticism to realism (Perkins 870).
Realism was a much more realistic interpretation of humanity and its destiny (Perkins 870). This new approach addressed a larger and more general audience than the writings of the Romantic era (Perkins 870). Although Dickinson is considered a writer from the Age of Expansion, her style of writing combined elements from the Romantic and Realism eras (Perkins 872). Emily Dickinson was from the Amherst village which possessed a deeply rooted identity from Puritanical America (Perkins 872). Dickinson wrote with such a style and compassion that her poems are still among the most popular of all American poetry today. All but a few of her poems were published after her death.
This is a great symbol of American Patriotism for the fact that she wrote from the heart and not for a paycheck. All of the elements combined were poured into everyone of her works and because of this, Dickinson is a symbol of American poetry. Throughout Emily Dickinsons poetry there are three main themes that she addresses: death, love, and nature. Another aspect of Emily Dickinsons work that fascinates many critics is the importance an the impact of "the word" in her poetry.
In Donald E. Thackrey essay "The Communication of the Word," he talks about how "the power of the individual word, in particular, seems to have inspired her with nothing less than reverence" (Thackrey 51). Dickinson approached her poetry inductively, that is, she combined words to arrive at whatever conclusion the patterns of the words suggested, rather than starting out with a specific theme or message. Instead of purposefully working toward a final philosophical point, Dickinson preferred to use series of "staccato" inspirations (Thackrey 51). Dickinson frequently used words with weight in her work, and as a result her works usually cannot be grasped fully in one reading without dissecting each word individually. Often Dickinson would compile large, alternative word lists for a poetry before she would come to a decision on which word was "just right" for the impact she wished to achieve (Thackrey 52).
For example, this poem displays Dickinsons use of alternative, thesaurus-like lists: Had but the tale a thrilling, topic, hearty, bonnie, breathless, spacious, tropic, warbling, ardent, friendly, magic, pungent, winning, mellow teller All the boys would come Orpheus sermon captivated, It did not condemn. Eventually, Dickinson came to rest on the word "warbling," but one can see the meticulous care that she put into the decision on which word to use. Another poem of Dickinsons that shows her compositional method is "Shall I Take Thee" the Poet Said." In this poem, Dickinson discusses from where the power of the world comes. "Shall I take thee" the poet said To the propounded word. "Be stationed with the candidates Till I have further tried." The poet probed philology And when about to ring For the suspended candidate, There came unsummoned in That portion of the vision The word applied to fill. Not unto nomination The cherubim reveal.
In the preceding poem, one can see the artistic style come through her composition. The best representation of that particular idea comes from the author Donald Thackrey when he says, It is significant that the revealed word comes "unsummoned" in a flash of intuition. and yet the implication of the poem is that the revealing of the word must be preceded by the preparatory, conscious, rational effort of probing philology She [Dickinson] herself was well aware that inspiration, while all-sufficient when present, seldom came even to a great poet (Thackrey 53). Emily regarded the words she used as living entities that could have "being, growth, and immortality" (Thackrey 54).
This attitude toward language comes through clearly in the following six-line poem about the nature of the "word." A word is dead When it is said, Some say. I say it just Begins to live That day. The idea that the word comes from the experience behind it takes precedence over the notion that a word is wasted when the vocal chords stop moving. Words have connotations that encompass the "entire circumference" of the idea in addition to its denotative worth (Thackrey 54). The complexity of the single, written word defined the limits of communication between human beings and, therefore, symbolized the isolation of the individual concept that can be seen in Dickinsons personal, reclusive life. "The Love of Theea Prism Be: Men and Women in the Love Poetry of Emily Dickinson," an essay by Adalaide Morris, a feminist critic, examines how Dickinson views love with an allegorical neatness created in her poem "The Love of Theea Prism Be" (Morris 98).
Emily Dickinson believes that it is the prismatic quality of passion that matters, and the "energy passing through an experience of love reveals a spectrum of possibilities" (Morris 98). In keeping with her tradition of looking at the "circumference" of an idea, Dickinson never actually defines a conclusive love or lover at the end of her love poetry, instead concentrating on passion as a whole (Morris 99). Although she never defined a lover in her poems, many critics do believe that the object or focal point of her passion was Charles Wadsworth, a clergyman from Philadelphia. Throughout Emily life she held emotionally compelling relationships with both men and women.
The differences in the prismatic qualities of each type of relationship come through in Dickinsons prism imagery. Morris summarizes these differences in her essay: In one [male prism] the supremacy of the patriarch informs the rituals of courtship, family, government, and religion; in the other [female prism], the implied equality of sisterhood is played out in ceremonies of romantic, familial, social, and even religious reciprocity (Morris 103). In her poetry, Emily represents the males as the Lover, Father, King, Lord, and Master as the women take complimentary positions to their male superiors, and many times the relationship between the sexes is seen in metaphor women as "His Little Spaniel" or his hunting gun. The womans existence is only contingent to the encircling power of the man (Morris 104).
It could be noted that the relationship with her father created some of the associations that Dickinson used in her work, her father being involved in government, religion, and in control of the family. Dickinsons linked imagery in her male love poetry focuses on suns, storms, volcanoes, and wounds (Morris 100). There are always elements of disturbance or extremes and explosive settings. There are also repeated examples of the repression of love causing storm imagery to become "silent, suppressed" volcanic activity, something on the verge of explosion or activity. Of course, in the repressed individual the potential for explosion or action can be very dangerous, and frequently in Dickinsons work this kind of love relationship ends of with someone receiving a wound (Morris 100). The Imagery of Emily Dickinson, by Ruth Flanders McNaughton, in a chapter entitled "Imagery of Nature," examines the way the Emily Dickinson portrays nature in her poetry.
Dickinson often identified nature with heaven or God (McNaughton 33), which could have been the result of her unique relationship with God and the universe. There are a lot of religious images and allusions used in her poetry, such as the rainbow as the sign of the covenant God made with Noah. Dickinson always held nature in reverence throughout her poetry, because she regarded nature as almost religious. There was almost always a mystical or religious undercurrent to her poetry, but she depicted the scenes from an artistic point of view rather than from a religious one (McNaughton 34). One of the most obvious things that Dickinson did in her poetry was paying minute attention to things nobody else noticed.
She was obsessed with the minute detail of nature paying attention to things such as hills, flies, bumble bees, and eclipses. In these details, Dickinson found "manifestations of the universal" and felt the harmony that bound everything together (McNaughton 33). The small details and particulars that caught her eye were like "small dramas of existence" (McNaughton 39). Each poem was like a tiny micro-chasm that testified to Dickinsons life as a recluse. Dickinsons created "dramas" were not static, but everything from the images she used to the words she chose for impact contributed to a "moving picture" (McNaughton 39). In the following poem, Dickinson writes how nature acts as a housewife sweeping through a sunset: 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 raveling in, You dropped an amber thread; And now youve 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.
Dickinson artistically shows the "sunset in terms of house cleaning" (McNaughton 36). The themes of domestic life and housewifery are displayed in the preceding poem. Only somebody with the observational powers and original creativity like Emily Dickinson could see something so unique and refreshing in a sunset. Dickinson also saw nature as a true friend most likely because of her time spent alone with it.
She describes nature as a show to which she has gained admission. Dickinson saw friendship and entertainment in the world of trees, bees, and anthills. "The Bee is not Afraid of Me" is an excellent example of Dickinsons communion with nature. The bee is not afraid of me, I know the butterfly; The pretty people in the woods Receive me cordially. The brooks laugh louder when I come, The breezes madder play. Wherefore, mine eyes, thy silver mists Wherefore, O summers day Also, consider the minute detail that Dickinson pays the world of bugs and insects.
Convicted could we be Of our Minutiae, The smallest citizen that flies Has more integrity. And part of another poem: And then he drank a dew From a convenient grass, And then hopped side wise to the wall And let a beetle pass. Each of the previous four lines creates images and scenes from a kind of "miniature painting" that Dickinson works to create (McNaughton 39). More is achieved through the use of precise description than could be done by examining the philosophical aspects behind a nature. Dickinson always felt as if she were one of them, the creatures of nature, and she felt more at ease with her world of crickets, dew, and butterflies. Even though spending life as a recluse seems like undesirable to most people, our world owes a debt of gratitude to Emily Dickinson for the way she introduced us to her world of nature in such a different and special way.
It is quite obvious that if anyone portrays American poetry, Emily Dickinson does. Not only did she blend as an American poet in the Age of Expansion, but she stood out with her own originality. She was able to stand out as a brilliant woman in a unsteady and chauvinist time in American History. Emily Dickinsons works have been a model for perfection and originality of American poetry for many years and are showing no signs of ever fading away. Works Cited McNaughton, Ruth E. The Imagery of Emily Dickinson.
University of Lincoln, Nebraska, 1949. Morris, Adalaide. "The Love of Theea Prism Be." Feminist Critics Read Emily Dickinson. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983.
98-113. Perkins, George and Barbara Perkins. The American Tradition in Literature. Boston: McGraw Hill College, 1999. Thackrey, Donald E. "The Communication of the Word." Emily Dickinson: A Collection of Critical Essays.
Sewall. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1963. 51-69. McNaughton, Ruth E. The Imagery of Emily Dickinson. University of Lincoln, Nebraska, 1949.
Morris, Adalaide. "The Love of Theea Prism Be." Feminist Critics Read Emily Dickinson. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983. 98-113. Perkins, George and Barbara Perkins. The American Tradition in Literature.
Boston: McGraw Hill College, 1999. Thackrey, Donald E. "The Communication of the Word." Emily Dickinson: A Collection of Critical Essays. Sewall. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1963. 51-69..