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’.

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