Out of the closet

Tom Paulin

  • Emily Dickinson by Helen McNeil
    Virago, 208 pp, £3.50, April 1986, ISBN 0 86068 619 1
  • Emily Dickinson: Looking to Canaan by John Robinson
    Faber, 191 pp, £3.95, August 1986, ISBN 0 571 13943 4
  • Emily Dickinson: A Poet’s Grammar by Christanne Miller
    Harvard, 212 pp, £15.95, July 1987, ISBN 0 674 25035 4
  • Emily Dickinson: The Poet on the Second Story by Jerome Loving
    Cambridge, 128 pp, £20.00, April 1987, ISBN 0 521 32781 4

In a recipe for turnip soup the cookery writer Ambrose Heath asserted that turnips have ‘an entirely masculine flavour, peppery and very definite’. For several centuries male writers have been saying much the same thing about poems: from Dryden to Hopkins and beyond, adjectives like ‘masculine’, ‘virile’, ‘manly’ were used freely as value-judgments in critical discourse. As Helen McNeil points out in her centenary study, Emily Dickinson entered the 20th century seeming to have written a series of ‘over-sensitive, coy, rather ill-disciplined poems’. Feminist critics have challenged this sexist view of her writing, and argued that she radically undermines traditional masculine values. In another centenary study, however, John Robinson insists that she is a timeless lyric poet whose work is not ‘centrally representative of women’. Robinson’s refusal to consider Dickinson’s polemical and subversive imagination is disappointing, but it can be argued that certain writers identify with various generic categories – national, sexual, political – while others identify against them: I would no more want to publish a book of essays entitled We Men, than I would want to identify with one called We Irish. Dickinson referred to God as ‘Burglar! Banker – Father!’ and in many of her poems she identifies herself against the dominant masculine values of 19th-century American culture. She searched for role models among famous women writers of her day – George Eliot, the Brontës, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Yet as Christanne Miller points out, Dickinson didn’t actively support the political campaign for women’s rights ‘or, apparently, sympathise with women generally’. It is in the radical new language of the poems themselves that the battle against the father is fought.

Take this wry lyric:

Our lives are Swiss –
So still – so Cool –
Till some odd afternoon
The Alps neglect their Curtains
And we look farther on!

Italy stands the other side!
While like a guard between –
The solemn Alps –
The siren Alps
Forever intervene!

Switzerland typifies Protestant patriarchy and we can see how those values are expressed and enforced in a section of the Swiss Civil Code entitled ‘General Effects of Marriage’:

160. The husband is the head of the conjugal union. He chooses the place of abode and duly provides for the maintenance of wife and children.

161. The wife acquires the husband’s surname and citizenship. She must to the extent of her ability assist him by word and deed in his effort to maintain the home. She has the management of the household affairs.

162. The husband represents the conjugal union. He is also personally liable for his own acts whatever may be the system under which the matrimonial property is held.

For Dickinson, our lives are Swiss, like watches or legal codes. Everything is staked out for us in the high-precision language of legal draughtsmanship and cultural engineering. According to Article 166 of the Code, a wife can exercise ‘more extensive powers’ only with the ‘express or tacit consent’ of her husband. It is the more extensive powers that ‘we’ – i.e. women – look beyond the Alps for. The poem is primarily addressed to a specifically female experience: a supposedly more ‘universal’ reading of the poem as articulating any experience of being trapped in a routine boredom has the effect of denying its polemical pitch. Such a reading would fail to notice that Dickinson is inverting the traditional image of woman as ‘siren’ and applying it to the male solemnity and custodial presence of the Alps.

At roughly the same time (probably in 1859), Dickinson wrote another poem which plays with conventional gender imagery by first giving the ‘immortal’ Alps bonnets and sandals and then inquiring:

Meek at whose everlasting feet
A Myriad Daisy play –
Which, Sir, are you and which am I
Upon an August day?

By posing this provocative question in such a flippant manner, Dickinson unsettles the Rock of Ages and challenges Calvinist assumptions about social roles. And the confident feisty address of the poem, its intent dashes, novel use of the indefinite article in the second line, and explosive freedom from standard punctuation, substitute an oral style for the Swiss precision of printed text. Dickinson’s poems are poised between existing as a series of individual speech-moments and a gathering of familiar letters. Miller points out that Dickinson’s habit of leaving variant word choices marked in the margins of bound manuscript copies of her poems serves to multiply meaning, and aligns this habit with Julia Kristeva’s argument that multiple meaning and the fragmentation of formal syntax challenge the ‘phallic’ posture of mastery and control in language and so allow for the creation ‘of new and unprivileged meanings’.

Only seven of Dickinson’s poems were published during her lifetime, and her dislike of seeing them become printed texts must have been caused partly by a wish never to see them subordinated to a ‘Swiss’ – i.e. male – editorial control. As a puritan writing to the moment, she is hostile to the formal tyranny of print which arrests the pure process, the intense now, of letter-writing and speech. Although Dickinson’s poems are shaped by the New England vernacular, she appears to have viewed letter-writing as superior to speech because of speech’s debt to ‘attitude and accent’. A letter ‘always feels to me like immortality because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend’. One could argue, however, that Dickinson is searching in her poems for a type of gestural language which combines accent, attitude and physical gesture:

The only Ghost I ever saw
Was dressed in Mechlin – so –
He wore no sandal on his foot –
And stepped like flakes of snow –

The use of ‘– so –’ shows a wish to incorporate a hand gesture into the poem and this gives it an extraordinary presence, as if her living voice is addressing us as we read. This is one extreme of puritan authenticity, and its origin may be traced to that codifier of male dominance in marriage, St Paul.

In II Corinthians iii, Paul seeks to abolish the distinction between readers of written texts or ‘epistles of commendation’ and the writers of such texts. He asserts that ‘ye’ – the Corinthians he is addressing – are ‘our epistle written in our hearts’, and he proceeds to draw a distinction between letters written with ink or ‘in tables of stone’ and those letters written ‘with the Spirit of the living God ... in fleshy tables of the heart’. This is an antinomian, born-again attitude which dedicates itself to ‘the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.’ Paul contrasts this new spiritual text with the ‘ministration of death, written and engraven in stones’ (the Mosaic Law). Reading Dickinson, we seem to melt through the mortal legalism of engraved or printed text to catch the sure inflections of a new testifying voice. Print is like the ‘veil’ which Paul states Moses put over his face so that the children of Israel ‘could not steadfastly look to the end of that which is abolished’. The old Mosaic printed law, or veil which remains ‘untaken away in the reading of the old testament’, is abolished by both apostle and poet and replaced by a new libertarian speech – ‘great plainness of speech’, as Paul terms it. That plain speech is evident in the flowing airy script of Dickinson’s manuscripts, which are now reproduced photographically in the Belknap edition.[*]

Although Dickinson refused to be saved, her imagination gongs with a Calvinist sense of the terrors of consciousness and a Pauline affirmation of glorious living speech. The convinced idealism of her language rejects both rigid masculine legalism – for example, the Swiss Civil Code – and the ‘Dimity convictions’ mocked in the poem which begins:

What Soft – Cherubic Creatures –
These Gentlewomen are.

As Miller shows, the language of traditionally ‘feminine’ gentleness was recommended in a series of 19th-century American advice books to women which gave frequent instructions on language use, tonal inflection and manner of speaking. In Mrs Gilman’s Recollections of a Southern Matron women were told that the ‘three golden threads’ which wove domestic happiness (every ‘true woman’s’ goal) are ‘to repress a harsh answer, to confess to a fault, and to stop (right or wrong) in the midst of self-defence, in gentle submission’. The advice of The Mother’s Assistant and Young Lady’s Friend was ‘Always conciliate,’ and The Lady’s Amaranth stated that a woman governs by ‘persuasion ... The empire of woman is an empire of softness ... her commands are caresses.’ As with Ambrose Heath’s idea of turnips (‘harshness softened with butter’), domestic life is seen as a still, cool empire of caressing speech. This is the cultural status quo from which Dickinson’s exclamatory, interrogative, often wildly erotic language perpetually liberates itself. For such an imagination, conventional sentence structure is a type of prison sentence and Dickinson seeks to break free from its prosiness:

They shut me up in Prose –
As when a little Girl
They put me in the Closet –
Because they liked me ‘still’.

In a related poem she links her coming out of the closet with an apparently contradictory and conservative idea of habitation:

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House that Prose.

This ironic idea of dwelling in possibility is related to the theme of Being in Dickinson’s poetry, and we can contrast her exploration of this subject with the sinister conservatism of Heidegger’s philosophy of Being. For Heidegger, Das Wesen des Bauens ist das Wohnenlassen (the essence of building is letting dwell), and he insists on the authority with which ‘the forces stemming from earth and blood’ imbue dwellings. Lacking those mystic forces, stations, autobahns, stadiums and warehouses are merely buildings: they are not dwellings. For Heidegger, peasant costumes, crafts, an old cottage in the Black Forest, embody the idea of dwelling. Although Dickinson draws on folklore and ideas of natural magic, her writing is thrown towards the future in its insistent contemporaneity. Her imagination dwells only on the instant of its perceptions and has no sense of a hallowed ancestral past. It exists in a condition of profound ontological insecurity and unfinished knowing, where the Angst of consciousness is often imaged as oppression, threat, terror – that ‘certain Slant of light’ which oppresses like the ‘Heft’ of cathedral tunes.

This well-known image expresses Dickinson’s perception of what Heidegger terms the ‘ontic’ character of the world; like Robert Browning, she employs organ music as a metaphor for consciousness as process. Dickinson’s poems are impatient of ideas of rational control and unambiguous meaning. They push language to its limits and disrupt standard grammar, syntax and typography (her early editors, like John Clare’s, imposed normative patterns on the poems). For Dickinson, as for the poets of post-war Eastern Europe, the act of writing is a process of deconstruction which witnesses against inherited institutions. Those poets write always out of a consciousness of the pervasive power of the state; Dickinson’s consciousness is directed at the power of culture to enforce gender roles and circumscribe her freedom.

In a now classic letter to Susan Gilbert, the close friend who was to marry her brother, Austin, Dickinson expresses her critical vision of the institution of marriage, that empire of subordinate softness which she dedicated her life to refusing:

I have always hoped to know if you had no dear fancy, illumining all your life, no one of whom you murmured in the faithful ear of night – and at whose side in fancy, you walked the livelong day; and when you come home, Susie, we must speak of these things. How dull our lives must seem to the bride, and the plighted maiden, whose days are fed with gold, and who gathers pearls every evening; but to the wife, Susie, sometimes the wife forgotten, our lives perhaps seem dearer than all others in the world; you have seen flowers at morning, satisfied with the dew, and those same sweet flowers at noon with their heads bowed in anguish before the mighty sun; think you these thirsty blossoms will now need naught but – dew? No, they will cry for sunlight, and pine for the burning noon, tho’ it scorches them, scathes them; they have got through with peace – they know that the man of noon, is mightier than the morning and their life is henceforth to him. Oh, Susie, it is dangerous, and it is all too dear, these simple trusting spirits, and the spirits mightier, which we cannot resist! It does so rend me, Susie, the thought of it when it comes, that I tremble lest at sometime I, too, am yielded up. Susie, you will forgive me my amatory strain – it has been a very long one, and if this saucy page did not here bind and fetter me, I might have had no end.

This is a visionary analysis of marriage as a sacrifice to patriarchy whereby millions of women’s lives are absorbed into the dominating ‘man of noon’. These dependent lives, lives without autonomy (i.e. ‘peace’), are implied in Dickinson’s frequent images of sun and wind scorching or pummelling grass, flowers, trees. In the poem ‘He fumbles at your Soul’ the power is that of a revivalist preacher whose windy words and thunderbolt of damnation ‘scalps your naked Soul’. This type of power – male power – is intent on destroying personal autonomy and is essentially a social force, a culturally-created, conditioned and conditioning force.

Dickinson therefore abolishes the distinction between nature and culture which conservative apologists make and writes them as one:

I suppose the time will come
Hinder it a little
When the Corn in Silk will dress
And in Chintz the Apple.

The silky corn and chintzy apple figure as images in a commercial for bridal costumes, and Dickinson’s laidback irony fuses this with the brilliantly ambiguous image of the snow-covered earth:

I believe the Day will be
When the Jay will giggle
At his new white House the Earth
That, too, halt a little.

A house for newly-weds, a new grave, an institution like the white mansion on Pennsylvania Avenue – the jay is giggling at the idea of marriage here. Dickinson’s last line, with its wry combination of dentals and labials and its bunched stresses, is a perfectly poised speech moment, one of her wittiest and most beautiful refusals to conclude a poem. All her writing expresses a desire to be unfettered.

For Dickinson, the world is ‘not Conclusion’ and she views it as a universe of unrelenting spiritual process, where tempests ‘mash’ the air and imaginary creatures ‘chuckle’ on the roofs. Her Calvinist nightmare contains an alert awareness of evil and a psychologically analytic idea of the individual soul. Its pressure can be felt in this passage from a letter to a friend, Abiah Root, whom Dickinson was to drop after her marriage to the no doubt peppery and definite Reverend Samuel Strong:

When I am not at work in the kitchen, I sit by the side of mother, provide for her little wants – and try to cheer, and encourage her. I ought to be glad, and grateful that I can do anything now, but I do feel so very lonely, and so anxious to have her cured. I hav’nt repined but once, and you shall know all the why. While I washed the dishes at noon in that little ‘sink-room’ of our’s, I heard a well-known rap, and a friend I love so dearly came and asked me to ride in the woods, the sweet-still woods, and I wanted to exceedingly – I told him I could not go, and he said he was disappointed – he wanted me very much – then the tears came into my eyes, tho’ I tried to choke them back, and he said I could, and should go, and it seemed to me unjust. Oh I struggled with great temptation, and it cost me much of denial, but I think in the end I conquered, not a glorious victory Abiah, where you hear the rolling drum, but a kind of a helpless victory, where triumph would come of itself, faintest music, weary soldiers, nor a waving flag, nor a long-loud shout. I had read of Christ’s temptations, and how they were like our own, only he did’nt sin; I wondered if one was like mine, and whether it made him angry – I couldnt make up my mind; do you think he ever did?

The eager puritan address of Dickinson’s rapid prose surrounds domesticity with ideas of temptation, Christ, sin, then relaxes for a moment in that lovely phrase, ‘the sweet-still woods’, which points toward the infinite possibilities of erotic desire in the verse.

Dickinson’s subversion of insistently masculine language can be observed in certain choices of word and image which react against some of the most cherished assumptions of American republicanism. Many of her poems seem to be the work of an obsessive and dedicated monarchist who dreams of crowns, courtiers, gems, diadems, coronations, queens, earls. The reason for this, I would guess, is that she found many of the institutions created by the American Enlightenment sterile and restrictive and wholly masculine. Against her culture’s egalitarianism and competitive social atomisation, she pitched ideas of hierarchy which express her desire for personal autonomy.

I’m ceded – I’ve stoppped being Theirs –
The name They dropped upon my face
With water, in the country church
Is finished using, now,
And They can can put it with my Dolls,
My childhood, and the string of spools,
I’ve finished threading – too –

‘They’ are the social forces which sought to shape and control her consciousness – all those men of noon whose sermons and edicts scalped her soul. Throwing off their domination, she concludes by imagining herself as fully empowered and sovereign, self-crowned like a female Napoleon:

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.

The language is insistently royalist, and this is Dickinson’s polemical method of extending and subverting American English as Noah Webster had defined it in his smugly aggressive Calvinist manner.

Dickinson’s family owned a copy of Webster’s An American Dictionary of the English Language and she would have read the passage from the preface where Webster remarks that the principal differences between ‘the people of this country and all others’ arise from different forms of government, law, institutions and customs: ‘Thus the practice of hawking and hunting, the institution of heraldry and the feudal system of England originated terms which now form, a necessary part of the language of that country; but, in the United States, many of these terms are no part of our present language – and they cannot be, for the things which they express do not exist in this country. They can be known to us only as obsolete or as foreign words.’ Despite its modernity, Dickinson’s language is packed with what Webster would dismiss as obsolete or foreign words such as ‘Bourbon’ and ‘Aragon’. Queens supplied her with role models which did not exist in a republican culture and language dominated by men. She refused to accept Webster’s literally chauvinist delimitation of language, and could not share his chiselling confidence in ‘new and peculiar’ institutions and ‘new terms’. And though it would be quite wrong to align her with the type of royalist élitism which T.S. Eliot promulgated, her writing is a critique of mercantile values. Addressing a rare type of March light, she says it ‘passes and we stay’:

A quality of loss
Affecting our Content
As Trade had suddenly encroached
Upon a Sacrament.

Like Clarissa Harlowe, Dickinson pitches her epistolary poems against all that is meant by ‘encroachment’. She discovers and asserts her sovereign sense of self, against all those institutions which would deny it.

As Helen McNeil argues, Dickinson’s work ‘is so radically original that the entire model of what poetry can know (and write) changes when her work is taken into account’. Unfortunately, Jerome Loving practises a form of traditional close reading; Christanne Miller’s study is more densely researched and much more living and contemporary in its readings of the poems. Miller works from the assumption that Dickinson sees herself ‘oppositionally, defining her position in the world negatively, by distance from some social structure or law’. And Miller shows how those negations have a constructive role.

[*] The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson, edited by R.W. Franklin (Harvard, 1442 pp., £87.95, 1981, 0 674 5428 0).