ON THE POET EMILY DICKINSON
by Simon Vestdijk, translated by Peter Twydell (2002)
Published in Forum, Issues 5 and 6, 1933
An outsider looking at the poetry of the United States sees mainly Walt Whitman’s beard, with the sombre mask of Edgar Allan Poe looming immediately beyond it. He will be as familiar with both of these figures as though they were Europeans, compatriots even. I believe I have seen a Dutch translation of Leaves of Grass, while decades ago all declaimers made the raven caw, often in a typical Dutch idiom resembling poetry, as was acceptable at the time. If this outsider were to visit the local public library to make further acquaintance with the literature in question and were to open a book on American literature dating from, let us say, around 1900, he would learn that alongside the great poets (such as Longfellow), there have also been many minor poets. This reader might then just happen to read patronising, if appreciative, words about one minor woman poet, Emily Dickinson. Unless he were to undertake some research of his own, he would not realise that he was dealing with something unusual, something previous generations had undeservedly lumped together with the rest.
It is to this Emily Dickinson that I am asking the reader to pay some attention, even though the relative lack of appreciation of her may well make this a hopeless case. It appears at a certain moment that here is a full and flagrant case of neglect. Although she is relatively undervalued, there exist a number of laudatory assessments that allocate her a position, thus relieving the reader of the responsibility of having to make judgements and revise prevailing opinion. Nothing particularly unjust has been written about Emily Dickinson, but she has hardly been afforded the place she deserves, a place among the great originals of world literature, who can still have some significance for us. What do the more modern critics say about her? She certainly makes no bad impression in Untermeyer’s anthology. Régis Michaud says pertinent things about her art (although he mentions her in the same breath as Moody, whom he suggests elsewhere was an epigone of Shelley's, while Fischer, in his new Handbuch der Literaturwissenschaft, talks of her as having hohe Bedeutung for contemporary poetry. What perhaps makes this all sound so unconvincing is the tendency of such concise guides to place everything at the same level. Would it perhaps be worthwhile checking just how many second-rate figures have been said in such guides to have hoher Bedeutung for our time?
Whatever the case may be, one can at least admit Emily Dickinson’s modernity. She lived from 1830 to 1886 and began writing short poems when she was 30. Her poetry was collected and published only after her death, and indeed if you free her work from the not particularly thick husk of her epoch, you could call her a modern avant la lettre, modern in the sense of still appearing to be alive to us today, in the same way that Nerval is termed modern.
When looking for the reasons for the impediment to her fame and her influence on the development of 19th century poetry, and for the reasons why she has come to be regarded as a minor poet, you will first of all find the following: Emily Dickinson’s poetry was published too late (1890) to be able to compete with the influence of Whitman and Poe. In around 1890, at the time of the second poetic renaissance in America, the fame of these two poets began, via France and Great Britain, to be reflected in their own country. Whitman and Poe were discovered, but this recognition, late though it was, had to be paid for, as it were, with a rather unselective stream of mainly French aesthetics who monopolised the attention. Imagists and others concerned themselves with a synthesis of Parnassus, Symbolism and free verse. Furthermore, those making a comeback, i.e. Whitman and Poe — one dynamic and the other static, but also one the realist and the other the dreamer, one a dithyrambist and the other an introspective pessimist — were obliged to function as the two hemispheres of the poetic universe, leaving no room for third parties. Interest was paid in too full a measure to them, and all that was left for Emily Dickinson to do was to become a name, someone whose oeuvre few took the trouble to appreciate.
Yet there must be further, more profound reasons for her failure to gain recognition. Is there not a particular type of artist who, on account of his nature and therefore quite apart from any question of status or value, is predestined to remain relatively unknown, not only during his lifetime but for a very long time afterwards? Here in the Netherlands, Herman Gorter of the School der Poëzie might well have been of this type, had his admirable work profited from the fame of his poem Mei. In French poetry, there is Léon-Paul Fargue. What unites the various members of this category? Allowing for all the restrictions involved when trying to rank individual artists by using general criteria, we have to say it is a measure of inscrutability and hardness, mostly already perceptible in their craftsmanship, an elusive asceticism, a stubbornness which manifests itself most clearly in a total lack of accommodation to public taste. These negative characteristics are largely compensated for by a naïvety and an originality which enable them, time and time again, to reach what is highest or most essential in their art. It could be said that this was a question of spiritualisation or internalisation, if these expressions were not already so vague and distorted by aestheticism.
Let us now turn again to Poe and Whitman to examine the contrasting type of artist. How can we explain the fact that both artists came to be appreciated to their proper and full extent not particularly long after their deaths? Should the explanation not be sought, in part, in a certain perfection in that to which the general public also first pays attention to when extending its approval, i.e. external qualities that are immediately perceptible? In both poets there lies something which, however different it may be in quality and extent, plays to our mundane instincts; in the end, the average schoolboy is receptive to The Raven, just as the average democratic idealist is receptive to the perorations of Whitman.
What is immediately perceptible in a poem is its sound, by which I wish to say in this context that it is not the sound alone, even in the widest sense of the word, that has made the said poems famous, but that it can be applied as one of the most tangible indices for what is generally accepted as good poetry. Whole tendencies in aesthetic criticism take the sound as their starting point and return to it. The sound is the easiest part to accept and analyse, and however much one adheres to the theoretical postulate of unity of sound, image and thought, there turns out in practice to be so little of this unity present that a perfect-sounding poem (whose sound is beautiful, conspicuous, or simply traditional) with insipid content will be accepted more readily as poetry than the most powerful poetic impulse that has not been fully integrated to form an apposite entity in terms of sound.
We can therefore speak of the sound type. This could be subdivided into, for example, a musical type and a verbal type, according to whether the poem is interpreted principally as being music in words or as the spoken word. The marginal areas then appear as the music itself as opposed to prose, or, better still as an address compared with oratory. Examples of the musical type are Verlaine and, here in the Netherlands, Engelman. Into the verbal category fall Corbière and du Perron. Poe belongs to the musical type, and Whitman so much to the verbal that he has already crossed halfway into the border area, prose. This latter action is, however, not required in making anyone into a representative of this type (e.g. Gebed bij de harde dood, which follows its prosodic plan consistently), nor is it necessary for musical verse to always sound sing-song and mellifluous. Music has, moreover, a mathematical element which can also manifest itself in musical verse, sometimes coupled with great hardness (good examples of this are some of the poems by Hendrik van Vries).
Poe and Whitman have become incontestable figures, principally by way of the sound quality we identify in them. Poe on account of his narcotic euphony and his mathematical elaboration, Whitman through his unbridled auctioneer’s style, his prophetic voice booming out over prairie and city. It is quite clear that this must be great and formidable art, because at its very least it sounds great and formidable. It goes without saying that a more modest, certainly less striking poetry with regard to sound, such as that of Emily Dickinson, must wither, becoming that of a minor poet when placed between these two. Her fate was sealed not so much by the historical constellation, but more by differences in the volume of the sound. She was sung down by Poe, shouted down by Whitman. Undoubtedly, comparisons are always odious. In the final analysis, these three authors remain incomparable greats, and in a quiet platonic atmosphere it would be narrow-minded to praise the one at the expense of the others. But when the equilibrium has been disturbed by popular consensus in such a manner as is the case here, when Poe is admired partly or even chiefly for his music, Whitman for his vital vocabulary, and Emily Dickinson is put in her place on account of her inadequacy of rhyme and shortness of breath, then it is only fair to place the emphasis on what affords her special value as a representative of an entirely different type of poetry, of an entirely different type of poet.
The type of poet to which she belongs writes poetry which is not, in the first instance, conspicuous on account of its beauty of sound, and is destined, because of its simplicity and lack of showiness, to flower in secret. The poetic impulse that is realised in tangible form in poetry that sounds more grandiloquent, here remains naked and defenceless. Sound, technique, syntactic differentiation, in a word, the body of the poem, are not absent here of course, but play a subordinate role. The emphasis is placed on the original vision and concept, which are worked out in an ever more restrained, or even indeed more insignificant, manner than is the case with the opposite type. Let us call this the intentional type. It can be said that here the substance or the content weigh heavier than the form, but one should avoid opposing these two aspects too diametrically, especially when we do not regard the latter exclusively as a prosodic form. The poetic intention, in the way I am employing the term, is already filled with the composition to no less an extent than it already contains the whole content within it. If, as is shown here, form and content should be distinguished, at most, rather than separated, for the simple reason that as soon as you separate form from content and say things about them as separate entities, then this content becomes something different, takes on another form, is transposed to a field of objectivity other than poetry (aphorism, prose paraphrase, argument, etc.), and thus no longer remains the same content of that particular poem. The formlessness of a poem (we are ignoring the simple case that a poem as such, and consequently its form as well, is worthless!) can only be determined by comparing its form with the forms of other poems, but not by weighing the form against the content within one and the same poem. Only on comparing such a poem with the musical type can the relative formlessness of the intentional type, prosodic in the first instance, but also syntactic and atmospheric, be seen, indeed its scantiness is ultimately reflected deep down in the content itself. If, however, we are onto something, once we become convinced of the importance of the content (its substance, its point) and we have refrained from comparing an intentional poem with a totally incommensurable genre, then perhaps, by way of remarkable suggestion, the content may once again reflect from the form and we will begin to appreciate the latter once more and become receptive to the beauty of the sounds which we thought not to be present on first perusal.
But it would indeed seem upon first acquaintance that Emily Dickinson has already crossed too far over the borders, where we could still have spoken of a harmonious equilibrium between essence and form, between content and imagery, between intent and realisation. I know of no other poetry that seems so little, and yet is so much. This is, of course, a disadvantage; a shortcoming, if you will. However, is such only for those who have stared themselves blind at the opposite type, the sound and form poem! One should forget for a moment sanctioned poetic values, and yield without prejudgement to Emily Dickinson's short poems. It will then be discovered that here too the intention is fulfilled, but in such a way that the intention itself almost becomes the fulfilment, a fulfilment we have to catch in flight, as it were. Intention and realisation, and potential and fulfilment lie very close to one another, which, on the one hand, guarantees the living and spontaneous character of this art, while on the other requires more co-operation on the part of the reader. In Emily Dickinson’s art we do not have perfectly crystallised (or rather, completely crystallised) works of art, but it is as if we are watching an artist during a living process of crystallisation. We are not entering a museum, but a studio; we are not looking through a telescope on a tower over a magnificent and calmly undulating landscape, but through a microscope, under which cells are busy dividing, substances are busy combining microchemically and changing colour in doing so.
Emily Dickinson's intentional poems constitute unsurpassable specimens of a type of art that achieves its goal by using a minimum of objective means. In this respect especially, she is modern. If all incidental circumstances are removed from modern poetry, all affectations of style, isms and excrescences, then what is left is indeed a striving for immediacy, intensive and spontaneous at the same time; but also for a restriction to what is essential, for sharpened concentration, for laconic pragmatism even in the most extravagant fantasy, for foreshortening, for the omission of inessential links in association and metaphor. One could speak of a primitivism that at one and the same time is the highest form of refinement: simplicity regained, embracing all opportunities for complication because it has left all complications behind. In the work of Emily Dickinson — and in this respect she is much more modern than Poe or Whitman — we can see her mastery in exhausting a subject in two or three lines, we see in her work the simplest of verbal forms, ostensibly on the border of unassuming stammering, but which by way of its content, imagery, tone and its ability to hit the nail on the head is indisputably art. This attempt at achieving brevity is most noticeable in her composition, in the way the author deals with small-scale form. This form has also facilitated the qualitative evenness of her oeuvre which is, after all, quite extensive. It is interesting in contrast to examine the proportions in the works of some of the sound poets: Poe, who wrote a strikingly small number of his most consummate poems, and E. A. Robinson, whose many tours de force could replace the manual for the most varied forms of prosody, but which are for the most part as dead as a doornail, so that the fascinating poem Luke Havergal has to be excavated carefully from all the pomposity which made him so famous.
Nevertheless, leaving aside style and technicalities of verse, her modernity comes across most convincingly out of the naturalness with which even the most profound subjects are addressed. Spiritual processes sometimes underlie these short poems (e.g. philosophical reflections), which are usually the most vulnerable to stagnation and rationality but are nevertheless illustrated effortlessly here with unusual clarity and perspicacity. What is characteristic of this spirited, sharply expressive, but at the same time profound art is also the fact that the writer is receptive to all subjects, perhaps because she is, when all is said and done, indifferent to every subject. She does not become entangled in her objectifying, but retains her living detachment with regard to everything. Areas which belong entirely to the ideal superstructure of human thought: religion, metaphysics, psychology, are subjects she broaches in these same short poems, employing the same tone as she does in the simplest of lyrical nature poems. She lets everything count and does not suppress consciousness, as do, for instance, the Surrealists, in whom, incidentally, the ratio, something they wished to avoid, is present as a scarecrow. The Surrealist stays grimly below the threshold between conscious and subconscious, and the rationalist, the objectivist, above it; both are inflexible, dead, unmodern. Emily Dickinson devotes herself in a carefree manner to the living movement of the psyche, regarding nothing as being too low or too high to become the reason for writing poetry. These short poems potentially contain everything, because she seems to have tapped the flow of the psyche as near to its source as possible, before all manner of bifurcation and canalisation sets in. A verse by Emily Dickinson could, while still belonging incontrovertibly to one genre, have expanded towards broad lyric, epigram, allegory, didactic poetry, oracular utterance, philosophical treatise, aphoristic didactics or puritanical sermon as much as to psychological portrait, long-drawn-out description of nature, impressionistic sketch, novella, arabesque, grotesque, satire, or towards psycho-physiological theory. None of these concepts can be used to label her art, but all of them are present as potential in her work. They resonate, and she manages by way of this resonance to span the whole gamut of human life: alongside great terseness stands great universality, not an extensive universality as with Whitman, but the suggestive universality of a microcosm, of a monad.
Her poems have been compared to etchings, especially with regard to their remarkable use of imagery. We could perhaps better think of them as growing crystals, fixed at the most unexpected moments. Sometimes facets are missing, or have redissolved; a corner emerges, as seen foreshortened from a great distance; here, a glimmer of light shines through and is reflected back immediately; an entire architecture (not calculated and constructed as is so often the case with Poe) grows with surprising rapidity under our very noses, like a product of nature.
She has been helped by a number of circumstances in her quest to achieve this purity. I am thinking here of the English idiom, which lent itself to her style as to that of no other. She sublimates English laconicism in the same way as grander English poets sublimated the cant, but mostly to her unintentionality! Many of these short poems were sent to relatives just for amusement’s sake; she always mistrusted herself as an artist; she wrote principally for herself, her inner life was evidently more to her than an alliteration or an enjambment; perhaps she knew nothing about such matters and had to be told. There is an irresistible urge, on occasion, to think of the Middle Ages when considering her poetry; half craftsmanship, half religion, and lacking even a single artistic problem.
I will show a few examples of her technique, style and tone. The surface texture of her poetry will become evident enough from the quotes. I am simply pointing out here the frequently-occurring assonant and acconsonantalising rhyme that is in harmony with the overall character of her poetry, the diffident style, the pastel tone. There is, of course, no question here (as in the case of Jammes or Herman van den Bergh) of regarding these half rhymes as a refined stylistic tool, but rather as rhymes in statu nascendi. These are the first gropings towards rhyme, as with those writing in old Provençal. In the case of Emily Dickinson, the use of half rhyme appears to be more an unintentional way of muting the sound; these rhymes very rarely sound beautiful, and thus refrain from declamation.
She lapses on occasion into such an over-concentrated sibylline tone of voice, with the syntax therefore so foreshortened, elliptically distorted, even clumsy, that it is hard to deduce the meaning at all, or only when there has been a good deal of afterthought. Such instances are the exception rather than the rule, however: the core thought is mostly expressed in a logical manner (which is, in her case, doubly remarkable) and is therefore expressive in its imagery. She makes an especial use of suppression as a stylistic tool, she uses lateral illumination and allusions, which merely suggest the most significant elements. But in other poems she takes the bull by the horns. A poem is then completed in a few hurried lines; you can meditate on it a great deal later on, and add things to it in your own mind, but it must be admitted that what is important has been said and that a deeper co-ordinating unity can be detected even in the case of the apparent incoherence of the most whimsical of notions.
The tone: shy, sometimes awkward and stiff, but often stimulating and rhythmically alive, on other occasions hard and raw, sometimes suddenly like the bass notes of an organ opening out unexpectedly to a beauty of sound, singing forth ecstatically, so that the last word seems to echo on for some while. There is constantly a measure of nonchalance and laconicism, however, in all the variations. This prevailing, very personal characteristic has to be penetrated in order to come into contact with her art. Images and comparisons — shifting, reworking, a change of proportions — flare up and then are gone, self-evident and unobtrusive in their ascetic slenderness. Should you miss the images, read the piece again, then you may find everything to be merely pleasant, clumsy and rather insignificant. Because the imagery is a portal to her thoughts and feelings, it is only by focussing on this imagery that you become aware of the treasures that lie concealed in her poetry. It is also remarkable that even in her philosophical and contemplative poems she still remains graphic and very seldom falls into the trap of that hybrid form, rhymed dissertation. An abstract thought is not deliberately and graphically illustrated by a suitable instance, but is demonstrated with suitable wording immediately and without deviation. Even in her most abstract poems, as concentrated as aphorisms, clear elements remain, organically interwoven, sometimes referred to by a single word which turns the whole into something concretely experienced. Her art can as easily be termed extremely concrete as extremely abstract, depending on which point of view you adopt. Her art is a concretisation of the abstract that has been carried through as far as is possible. This phenomenon can perhaps only be found to the same extent in the work of William Blake, who must be mentioned as having been a precursor of Emily Dickinson's. Although it is quite possible that she was not acquainted with his work. Keats, whose work she certainly did know, seems to have passed her by without leaving a trace.
Here is one example of her imagery:
If I shouldn’t be alive
When the robins come,
Give the one in red cravat
A memorial crumb.
If I shouldn’t thank you,
Being just asleep,
You will know I’m trying
With my granite lip.
This granite lip has rightly become well known within certain circles. Untermeyer includes this small poem in his anthology, along with five or six others, and I found it discussed in a German book about American literature (where it is also admitted that Emily Dickinson was prägnanter im Ausdruck than ... Annette Droste-Hülshoff!).
What is peerless about the ending of this poem? Untermeyer seemed to me to be struck principally by the sound, and indeed the short slip of the lip, rhyming with the longer and clearer sleep, recapitulating and cutting off at the same time, achieves successful aural support for the overall effect. In this context, one could also look at the murky assonance of come-one-crumb with the briefly reviving note of red in between, and also at the semi-alliterative trying and granite which, supported by the slowing-down of try-ing, seem to suggest a hoarse voice speaking with some difficulty, which only by the l of lip is hushed and cooled down and continues, almost imperceptibly, to quiver. Even so, it is certainly a misplaced method with respect to such a poem to focus on the sound at the centre of the analysis, regarding it as the most essential component! I do not wish to aver that such speculations are pointless, but they should follow on behind, as long as there is no question of a wish for art aimed more or less consciously at beauty of sound. Nor would I wish to suggest that this small poem has nothing to offer as sound poetry, but if you were to read these stiff trochees aloud and with emphasis, and then compare them with Shelley, Poe or Rossetti, you would find that the granite lip sinks like a stone. In this poem there is the quiver of internal music of a modest, if individual, kind; a whispering, fleetingly lilting quality. This would have never have been brought to our attention if we had not first been stimulated by the imagery and the atmosphere it generates in the poem and then, in the second place, begun to concentrate on the euphony, which ultimately occurs in every collection of words, even in van Dale’s Dutch dictionary, for which alliteration the most ostentatious poet is no match. Indeed, with regard to intentional poetry such as Emily Dickinson's, one can feel that the climactic reflections of sounds are so irrelevant that one would almost wish to equate them with choreographic notions of the elegant and symbolic movements of bows during the nonetheless necessary performance of a quartet that is equally a portion of its essence.
The reason for the precision of this and similar images must be sought in an entirely different direction: in their unexpectedness (association of contrasts) and their import, the concentration of their content. The granite lip can attain this precision thanks to, for instance, the contrast with the robin, which shifts the poem for an instant from elegy to idyll, to the hopeless, bitter and unexpected affirmation of death, which, through this idyllic addition, was already half-forgotten; to the linking of the hardest of materials with a traditionally soft area of the body; to the isolation of this part of the body so that, as well as petrifaction, decomposition is suggested; to the supposition that the granite lip, like the statue of Memnon, could begin to tremble and speak; and finally, to the absence of any rational explanation for this anatomical singularity. I have to admit that the association with a memorial or a statue, or to the hardness of the soul, which still allows the association with that robin to filter through, is of secondary consideration for me. There is no doubt, however, that an allegorically-oriented poet, one who produces perfect poetry, would have elaborated on this image, given this theme. Would the poem have gained from this process?
Even in the case of lachrymose items (small dead birds, a child who has passed away, a mouse set upon by a cat) she does not lapse into a tone of sentimentality, but remains restrained, seemingly cool, here and there a touch ironic, always amusing. She is too sharp and too brief for vivid humour; here too she belongs to our era. There lurks something typically feminine In her lack of humour, perhaps also in her tendency to use succinct forms, but not in her aesthetic ability to transform, which enables her to draw on her natural emotion immediately, almost instinctively; to place it in a new logical context, and yet not lose it in the purity of her poetic intention, nor in her independence vis-à-vis traditional values.
As an example of her realism when dealing with sentimental matters, I would also like to refer to a poem that describes her return to a house where she once lived. She dares not enter, peering timidly in through the window. But no over-sensitive brooding or memories of youth! The duel is between her and the door, and the latter acquires a spectral individuality, which is enhanced by the reciprocal adjustment by the protagonist, who becomes more rigid as the object becomes personified:
I laughed a wooden laugh
That I could fear a door.
She does criticise herself for her cowardice, but nonetheless removes her fingers from the door as carefully as though they were made of glass, and she flees, gasping. In the end, the memory is viewed more as a failed burglary than as an emotional incident.
The poem about the sinking of a ship brings us to more tragic spheres, where sound effects have consciously been rendered in order to mimic the lurching, thrashing and foaming. The foundering itself is not described, and is only referred to vaguely. But then comes the sublime ending where the emotion rendered by the terse expression, the broad metaphor, is in perfect equilibrium:
Ah, brig, good night
To crew and you;
The ocean’s heart too smooth, too blue,
To break for you.
One of the highlights is the stoical description of a burglary, a real one this time, in the middle of the night, where all the furniture and contents, right down to the grandmother’s spectacles, play their roles. Even the house itself becomes an accomplice: it is one of the small houses that are furnished with every facility for burglars, standing alone, away from the road, with low and inviting windows. Even the mice will not bark, the tick of the clock can be gagged. But everything watches the two thieves moving around; the mat winks, but this could equally well be nervously seeing stars; the moon slides down the stair to see who’s there! The ending is no less than surprising: the two old people, who have just been burgled, come innocently downstairs the next morning after the burglars have taken themselves off amidst the mocking crowing of the cocks, and think that the sunrise left the door ajar. Broad, country tranquillity makes itself felt so strongly after all the murky goings-on in the night that this ending, seemingly nothing but grotesque, almost moves one to a strange kind of tears, without knowing whether they are suppressed laughter. It is beneficent, this grand dryness, this Realphantastik which nowhere becomes comical (and Emily Dickinson never tried to repeat this, one of her masterpieces, in any other form!). It can be compared with the related technical means used by some Expressionists. I can remember, for instance, a poem by Iwan Goll about a child murderess, in which objects, independent and almost alive, contribute to the atmosphere, but how unexpressive and mushy the poem is compared with this one.
A significant part of Emily Dickinson’s talent for imagery is exemplified by her nature poetry. With a few exceptions, it is not as easy to speak of nature lyricsas such. Neither the reserved, often dry, tone nor the imagery in the foreground allows such a label. Furthermore, the old classification into lyric, epic, etc., has lost much of its significance in the modern art of poetry. As an example, I can mention Rilke, the Rilke of the Neue Gedichte. These poems, which did after all emerge from an originally lyrical attitude, can at most still be termed pseudo-lyrics: the singing aspect has been entirely adapted to the imagery, and the egocentricity has been replaced by a disguise, behind which the feelings have been concealed, in the far back corner of the universe as Marsman once wrote about Hendrik de Vries. Typical of such poems is, for instance, that it is often expected that the protagonist would start with he or she with the casualness with which a purely lyrical poem would use the first person singular. This would show that we are dealing with an original lyric poem that has hidden under the epic. Although this characteristic is lacking in the case of Emily Dickinson, comparing her with her contemporaries in particular would indicate that the term pseudo-lyric could also be employed gainfully in her case.
As example of nature poetry, I will first give the following poem that can still be categorised as lyric poetry because of the more gushing tone, but is nonetheless an example of the disguise as mentioned above:
Ah, Teneriffe! Retreating Mountain!
Purple of Ages pause for you,
Sunset reviews her Sapphire Regiment,
Day drops you her red Adieu!
Still, clad in your mail of ices,
Thigh of granite and thew of steel
Heedless, alike, of pomp or parting,
Ah, Teneriffe! I’m kneeling still.
What is special about this poem is principally to be found in the last line of verse: the tonelessly dying epilogue of three words is almost more expressive in depicting the Retreating Mountain in the sunset and the feeling that is awakened here of veneration, even prostration, than any loquacious outpourings. The fact that the poet has seen herself kneeling throughout the poem is only alluded to incidentally by the phrase I’m kneeling still. She almost keeps silent on this matter, she keeps silent about herself. Splendour, pomp and pathos are reserved almost wholly for the mountain itself. I am led here to think of mediaeval altarpieces, in let us say the style of Grünewald, where the figure of the founder would lie in miniature at the edge.
As examples of nature poetry with purely sensuous imagery, she offers us a large number of playful little poems, somewhat longer and less concentrated than is usual, in which she allows her imagination full rein. These do not represent the highest level of what she has to offer, but are eminently suitable as an introduction to her idiom and to her vision. Here is one of them:
I taste a liquor never brewed,
From tankards scooped in pearl;
Not all the vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an alcohol!
Inebriate of air am I,
And debauchee of dew,
Reeling, through endless summerdays,
From inns of molten blue.
When landlords turn the drunken bee
Out of the foxgloves door,
When butterflies renounce their drams,
I shall but drink the more!
Till seraphs swing their snowy hats,
And saints to windows run,
To see the little tippler
Leaning against the sun!
The grotesque metaphors are adapted here wholly to the carefree, oratory inebriation; the little tippler leaning against the sun is not an unmotivated expressionistic ploy of irksomely cosmic dimensions, but a natural climax in the ever more expansive formations of images. How much of Apollinaire’s peculiar mythologies lie in these capricious seraphs and holy men who get involved in the whole fracas!
Hardly less apt is that visit to the beach, ending in a grand pursuit by the sea, which only retreats once the city has almost been reached, following a bow and a mighty look at me. Such an ending also has a certain bantering tone of almost demonic proportions.
I will provide a couple more examples of her capacity for imagery, which I have been able to isolate from the whole of her work: she sees a whirlwind as hands which are shaped from the dust and throw away the road; woods gallop in the hurricane till they fall to the ground; church bells, swollen with air, run around on silvern feet; the sunset leaps up against the heavens like a leopard and then lies down to die at the foot of the horizon; the snow makes a smooth face of hills and fields: unbroken forehead from the east unto the east again. It must be, she says, that the moaning wind consists of billowing oceans: there is a maritime conviction in the atmosphere.
Such a colourful phantasmagoria drawn from situations and events in nature together almost create an imagery forming on a laboratory culture dish, the rudiments of many possibilities in that direction. One would search in vain for an idea in these short poems, a deeper meaning that is already present in nature itself. They are arabesques, seemingly created only as expression of the joy of observation, elegant and fearless at one and the same time, spontaneously evolved, unpremeditated, the comparisons being perfectly self-evident identifications: that sunset is a leopard, the woods do indeed gallop and do not simply pretend to do so.
Emily Dickinson is only at her most revealing and personal when the descriptive element, however powerful it may be in itself, is subordinated to the idea to be depicted. The objects in nature rarely appear with attributes verified and stamped into them, nearly always remaining original and sharply observed; so sharply at times that one could reverse the relationship, ascribing the subordinate role to the idea. Moreover, if a series of her poems where the philosophical content gradually increases is set out, it will be observed that there is no simultaneous swelling of the tone towards a greater sublimity at the expense of the imagery. It has been said that Rossetti, when once he wished to write a series of suitably lofty poems at the battlefield of Waterloo, was hindered in this aim by countless plebeian guides. The result was that he only managed to write the one sonnet, so spontaneous and lively that it more than compensated for the many that remained in his pen! In the case of Emily Dickinson, it would now seem as if guides, albeit of a different order, surrounded her constantly to protect her from pomposity! It is as if she recognised no difference between the objects of nature and the objects of the soul.
To make a prairie it takes a clover
And one bee,
One clover, and a bee,
The revery alone will do
If bees are few.
This perfect little poem is a substitute for a whole dissertation on Kantism. And yet how light of touch, despite the outer condensation of the workmanship, how logically justified the composition. The separate line And revery is prepared for by the meditative repetition (with a witty alteration) of one clover and a bee, so that following this repetition - which delays the course of the poem, thus preparing us for the epilogue, and erases the somewhat naïve and didactic tone of the poem's beginning - the already so brief image of a meadow dissolves in a dream. In the epilogue, the thought that the human soul alone is sufficient to create the objects belonging in the outside world - a deeply philosophical idea, is it not? - is only suggested in an amusing manner, with an unmistakable emphasis on self-mockery: you are, as it were, led around the thought because there is a peculiar condition for absolute idealism: as it happens, few bees need be present!
What do these and other poems tell us about the world of Emily Dickinson's thoughts? First of all that she must have assimilated the main ideas of Puritanism and Emerson’s transcendentalism in a most original way. She undoubtedly owed her convictions in the main to what had gone before, but the fact that she nevertheless managed to keep her independence intact can be seen convincingly at the very least from her acid criticisms of religious values, even those in which she herself believed; and only this last point constitutes a criterion. In one of her poems, she asks for eternal life. Although it is not unequivocally denied her, Jehovah smiles questioningly, the cherubim withdraw, grave saints steal out of heaven to look at her. There appears to be little hope for her. Then, as she says: I threw my prayer away! The situation remains unresolved, but suddenly she sees one of the inhabitants of heaven wink at the stupidity of someone who believes that whatsoever ye shall ask, itself [shall] be given You. From then onwards, she mistrusts heaven as Children - swindled for the first all Swindlers - be - infer.
Apart from the splendid psychological basis - the smiling father figure who, out of friendship, doesn’t want to discourage her! - the seeds of revolt against higher powers can be found in this strange allegory, something which later reappears with greater clarity in some of her most attractive love poems. In other places too, she demonstrates a scepticism, sometimes only part-uttered and undecided, from which the reader can work out that she has not adopted the dogma uncritically. One could say that she does believe, but continues to pit her own freedom against this belief, to test, accept and reject it vis-à-vis her own vacillatory nature.
Here and there we can also find poems which are borne along by a great assuredness, if not as to the mercy of God, then as to the existence of heaven and life after death. She is sure of the reality of heaven as if a map had been given us. The certainty here contrasts strongly with other passages in which she criticises God for his parsimony with regard to allowing glory and joy, with the poignant: God keeps his oath to sparrows who of little love know how to starve in which prayer is criticised in drastic tones as a device for throwing words into God’s ear; in which she expressly calls immortality into question (with the magnificent ending: Parting is all we know of heaven, and all we need of hell); and even remains dully indifferent to the possibility of reward in heaven, in a raw and dourly uttered refrain:
I reason, earth is short
And anguish absolute.
And many hurt;
But what of that?
I reason, we could die:
The best vitality
Cannot excel decay;
But what of that?
I reason that in heaven
Somehow, it will be even,
Some new equation given;
But what of that?
Add to this the parody on the contents of the Bible, acute and ironic, full of remarkable flashes of thought.
And yet, when we leave the sphere of the concrete tenets of faith - which invites contradiction through its very concreteness - then what longing for the mystery of life, what pious (not to be confused with devotional!) tension when she once again depicts the unportrayable longing for the supernatural, godly or demonic. With, at the same time, a chaste modesty, which we can perhaps only find to the same degree in Rilke, she never attempts to approach this mystery and take it fully into her possession. She never objectivises prematurely, she does not create for herself a speculative doctrine, nor a tangible theosophy. As with her love, she aims her metaphysical longing at infinity, and where what is unattainable does not seem for her to be unattainable enough, she pushes it back even further. The play between these opposing forces, longing and modesty, is especially visible in the poem where she describes how, half against her will, she is saved from drowning (just lost, when I was saved!). She decides that next time she will stand more firmly in order to learn the dreadful secrets of death, something she was already prepared for.
Nowadays, an assessment of such poems is disrupted to a certain extent by the fact that a preoccupation with last things is so much to the fore, something that can be explained by the spirit of her time. She only becomes fully enjoyable for a modern mentality in another series of poems, no less philosophical but much less metaphysical and on the whole not eschatological. The difference could be stated by using the familiar terms jenseits and diesseits. A philosophy of jenseits there and diesseits here, which itself seeks out the secrets of life.
There is no trace in this enterprise of the strange reaction to the long and spasmodically-continued sojourn among the clouds that is so common amongst theologians. The average theologian, once returned to Earth, becomes the opposite of exalted, his lower nature seeking revenge for the unnatural tension, and beginning to occupy itself moralistically with the actual affairs of everyday sinful living, in which he can see no more than a black counterpart to the godliness he has just left. The transition is a fall for him, a reaction; while for Emily Dickinson it is a natural succession of two realms enjoying equal status. She has also, without a doubt, written moralising poems which to a certain extent contain a measure of Stoic doctrine (I have already stated that she shuns no genre whatsoever), but she becomes even less disagreeable in these, even for our perception, than in her poetry with a metaphysical tenor.
In her diesseitige (immanent and earthly) contemplative poetry she remains entirely impartial, both religiously and ethically. Impartial not in the sense of indifferent, but of untouched. What can be heard is only the powerful and unforgettable note of a primitive astonishment at the fundamental phenomena of life, an astonishment where no side is chosen. The questions raised here are not set out as problems to be solved, however. They are subjectivised into something that lies beyond, into an accent, an attitude to life, a direction of thought rather than thinking itself. In the main, this involves two themes that are fundamentally coherent: changing over time and antithesis. The questions are suggested to the reader along many different routes. For one: how is it possible that something changes, or how is it possible that something continues to exist; and for the other: how is it possible that something changes into its diametric opposite, whence the constant connection of contrasts, of opposites in every expression of life? Both of these form the basic tone of her work, and, if abstracted, each concrete variant is reduced to these questions.
A few examples: she demands respect for a heap of ash, if only on account of the transient and fiery creature that lived in it for one fleeting moment. In the morning, while dressing, she is surprised at the fears of the past midnight, now so long ago. She gives voice to her admiration for someone who could bring back the setting sun in all its lingering colours. Her most interesting poems, which have a bearing upon time, are those where it is not transience, but the suspension of time, which becomes the object of her poetry; as the possibility of a seemingly immense stretch of time, experienced by the individual, not therefore a mere perception of eternity, or of thought of in terms of eternity:
Pain has an element of blank;
It cannot recollect
When it began, or if it were
A day when it was not.
It has no future but itself,
Its infinite realms contain
Its past, enlightened to perceive
New periods of pain.
The endless nature of a pain, shooting forth its light solely in order to detect new periods of pain, can indeed be termed a discovery, one in which certain ideas of a Nietzsche are honed down. Shall the building of a heaven out of the hell that lies at its base, about which he speaks in Zur Genealogie der Moral , not be identical to the projection of wishes for eternal bliss coming from the subjective infinity of grief? It is noticeable that neither here nor elsewhere does Emily Dickinson use the term grief instead of pain, a word which would have sounded much more beautiful and lofty! But she adheres to basic biological facts, ones that can be verified by anyone who has ever lain awake all night in pain with a curious inability to imagine that the torment will ever cease.
Concerning antithesis: such motifs are assimilated with almost obsessive inexhaustibility, motifs that can be covered formally by this concept. It is noticeable here that Emily Dickinson is not content merely to take on board the polar relationship as a static phenomenon. Opposites become dynamic, are given a life of their own; mutual relationships come into being, seeking one another time and time again without ever coming to rest in a third concept, a unity or synthesis, or being superseded, as it is called. I will choose two poems from the many possible examples, where once again she takes pain as her point of departure, this time from the perspective of the creative, stabilising value it has. In the first, she slides down in an unusual way in the direction of aesthetic considerations. We can almost see the germ of a theory of the psychology of art being created in front of our eyes:
Delight becomes pictorial
When viewed through pain,
More fair because impossible
That any gain.
Something akin to the well-known phenomenon of interesselose Wohlgefallen can be recognised In this indication of what distinguishes ordinary joy from pleasure in the arts, but in a much more intense form. On account of the fact that pain is introduced as the counterpart of joy, and particularly as its counterweight, a psychological motif of a positive nature is created, something which is virtually lacking in the somewhat moralising disinterestedness of Kantian philosophy.
I will now give the end of the second poem:
Power is only pain,
Stranded, through discipline,
Till weights will hang.
Give balm to giants,
And they’ll wilt, like men.
They’ll carry him!
The bridging of opposites, however ephemerally, cryptically or lacking in synthesis, is something Emily Dickinson tests when she opposes the world to the individual and then proceeds to make a connection between them; a connection which is often of a merely vaguely pantheistic nature, but is always rendered by way of her imagery, often symbolically within the framework of her nature poetry. Only once in her strongest and most profound poetry is the synthesis of the dichotomy dealt with explicitly, now between rest and movement. The fact that this synthesis again becomes a riddle is entirely in keeping with the modesty mentioned above.
I will now briefly refer to the composition of this poem. Splitting into three is one of her favourite themes, but here it also embraces the entire internal structure: the number of lines of each verse, the number of feet in each line, the number of examples of each thesis and antithesis. Such an Einschachtelung assures the poem of its closed, organic unity. There are other reasons why I consider this one of the most convincing specimens of her art: these threefold sentences standing apart like epitaphs, forming a repeated incantation:
Some things that fly there be,
Birds, hours the bumble bee:
Of these no elegy.
Some things that stay there be,
Grief, hills, eternity:
Nor this behooveth me.
There are, that resting rise.
Can I expound the skies?
How still the riddle lies!
In various of Emily Dickinson’s poems we encounter a fine intuition in this direction, even if not in the form of deliberate psychological contemplation, then nonetheless as every sign of a developed disposition. The introspective poems predominate within the genre that we could term psychological, which is understandable given her introversion and solitariness of character. She thus belongs fully to the type which Nietzsche, for instance, represents: the menschenkenner" or judge of human character, who obtains his insights into human nature chiefly indirectly (which for him is the shortest way, of course!) by way of self-reflection and self-analysis.
It is remarkable in this context that one problem that Nietzsche constantly returns to (and also, in his wake, our contemporary Ludwig Klage) is also touched upon by Emily Dickinson. This is the problem of authenticity. This could be formulated as follows: to what extent is a human being capable, for himself and thus also for others, of feigning feelings he himself does not undergo, of acting out events which do not concur with his nature, of adopting an attitude to life which is not part of him? This becomes the problem of the actor who, once he has left the stage, can no longer shake off his role. Wassermann gives a good, if rather positive, portrait of this type in Laudin und die Seinen,when he depicts the vampiric actress Luise Dercum. Huxley's Three Graces, that charming vacuum, can be regarded as a more innocuous variant. For that matter, the quality of artificiality is by no means the prerogative of women alone. According to Klage, the quality of Verlogenheit may even be more prevalent in the male of the species! Whatever the case may be, here we encounter a woman who tackles the problem in a manner for which Nietzsche would have felt every sympathy.
Emily Dickinson did not, of course, reason when creating the poem which is relevant in this regard; we can however paraphrase her impulse to write as follows: what is the simplest situation in life in which every human being, however strong the tendency to dissimulate, divests himself of his cloak of deception, and stands naked and genuine? She finds this ultimate limit in a function of living which no-one will ever manage to escape: she wards off approaching death in an 8-line poem, and seeks, as if driven by aloof necrophilia, the point of death (not the state of being dead, no afterlife!), to enable her to grasp the highest value in life:
I like a look of agony,
Because I know it’s true.
The self-criticism that forms the basis for this poem becomes elsewhere a dangerous inner conflict of the self. All the dangers of introversion seem to be concentrated in these lines:
The soul unto itself
Is an imperial friend,
Or the most agonising spy
An enemy could send.
The poems that could be termed psychological in the narrow sense of the term, since they came into being through observations of real life and approach the psychology of others or psychological subjects of more general scope, strike one without exception by their pessimistic tone. Emily Dickinson was no idealistic philanthropist. Her entire view of the world was tinged with depression. When she looked out, she saw mainly the dark side of the human character. In so doing, she did not scorn major or minor transgressions; in her works you should not expect a moralistic encyclopaedia of faults of character. What these poems have in common is a certain second sight regarding a general pitifulness of mankind as a species, as yet unspecified in terms of shortcomings. She does not see us in all our wickedness, but in our pettiness. She therefore gives us a portrait of some businessman with a face so hard and successful (note the quasi self-evident juxtaposition of terms!) that only a stone would feel completely at ease in his company, the poem ending with the meaningful: First time together thrown…. Elsewhere she has briefly sketched human life: first the heart asks for pleasure, then for an excuse for not needing to suffer, then for mild painkillers, then for sleep, and finally for death. How caustic, how aptly observed, this evolution towards ever more petty compromise! It is hardly noticeable that she is particularly indignant about such imperfections of human nature. She becomes ironic at most, such as where the audience in a circus seems to her to be more of a menagerie than the show itself.
In conclusion with this genre, I will quote a poem that forms a transition to her love poetry. It can perhaps be linked to Emily Dickinson’s most intimate experiences in life, with disappointment in love in her youth, a wound that she bore for the whole of her lonely life. Even disregarding this anecdotal meaning, the poem is important enough to be slotted in here:
Not with a club the heart is broken,
Nor with a stone;
A whip, so small you could not see it,
To lash the magic creature
Till it fell,
Yet that whip’s name too noble
Then to tell.
Magnanimous of bird
By boy descried,
To sing unto the stone
Of which it died.
The first part seems in tone to be entirely at the level of the three other poems I mentioned above: cool disillusion, carefree-contemptuous irony. But then: yet it is too noble then to tell that whip’s name. What is this tiny venomous object which lashes her heart, about which the heart does not wish to speak? The painful disappointment? But it can mean so much more. The last stanza simply makes it a hard and inevitable experience in life, tossed nonchalantly to us by fate like a stone, in which even the bird (perhaps for that very reason, because this bird is surely the poet herself, who knows how to convert every painful experience into art?) continues to sing to the last.
What we see here is: Emily Dickinson makes increasingly conciliatory noises, but is still very much hedged with additional provisos and restrained. The gap separating her from the world and her fellow human beings has been bridged, but only by the aery edifice of art. Not until we reach her love poems does she succeed in making that bridging movement complete; closing, if only ephemerally, the broad, deep chasm. Broad by way of a solitary disposition and isolating life experiences, deep by way of the antithesis so much part and parcel of her. In her nature poetry she has conquered isolation through her original and yet so objective sensuous-expressive imagination; in her religious poetry she was aided to an extent by a shy faith in God; in her philosophy, by a mystical pantheistic sense of unity or a heroic stoicism. In her love poetry too, she breaks loose from herself and enters the reality beyond herself.
With regard to this love poetry, I must return, somewhat reluctantly, to the likelihood bordering on certainty that she never experienced anything of what could be termed real love. A kind of misunderstanding seems to have crept into the literature written about her, manifesting itself in her nickname of The nun of Amherst. According to tradition, a nun is only permitted to love God and also have a certain morbid preference for the figure of Christ. Régis Michaud, who writes with such verve about all the major poets of the USA and even some of the minor ones, goes even further! For him, the nun becomes something of an embittered old spinster, her misanthropy rancorous, the chief reason for writing the poems being spite. As this critic, well acquainted with the ways of the world, says: ... courtes et incisives boutades qui trompèrent pendant 20 ans la solitude d’une âme déçue...; ils [her poems] n’eurent d’autre raison d’être que d’aider une recluse à se remémorer sa querrelle avec le destin. Only in other passages does the attitude we are dealing with here emerge. Poe himself only just escapes the views on the libido freudienne held by this gentleman, who has good reason to mention that Poe had been a disciple of the Seelenauflöser, as Klage terms a certain kind of psychoanalyst. With regard to what kind of personal values are concealed behind Emily Dickinson’s poems, no other element remains, apart of course from the well-known mentality that eagerly accepts (I am using the first example that comes into my head) that a woman suckles her child because this gives rise to pleasant sensations in her nipples. Or someone who says that Emily Dickinson only wrote poetry as compensation for being jilted. What is most exasperating about all this is that you cannot actually counter such arguments with any degree of success. Without a doubt, she would hardly have written these poems (or perhaps any others) if she had been happily married. It is only really the tone that disturbs us here. The alchemistic transformation of unsatisfied or warped longing into art is far too refined and complex a process to be cursorily illuminated by a doctrine such as psychoanalysis, which is certainly important but is of necessity rough, since it is but provisionally oriented; which furthermore every second-rate soul even outside of Germany has learnt to employ. Unsatisfied sexual drive is a motor, a necessary occasion, a conditio sine qua non among many other and equally important conditiones, but it is not the root cause or motivation with which one can work the significance of an artistic figure to death. Such a figure becomes demeaned in this way, albeit without this being the intention, and true psychoanalysis is brought into disrepute.
I would go even further: anyone who reads her love poetry can deny that there is a question of any kind of obfuscating rancour here. Circumscribed by Puritanism, as is evident, certain of the poems exhibit such an enthusiasm, such an earthy, passionate emotion, that they would scarcely be misplaced in a collection of the best love poetry in world literature. They were written after she had reached 30 years of age, therefore after her disappointment! She seems not to have suppressed, disavowed or concealed anything, but to have sublimated everything to such an extent that she still bears within her the original libido, unchanged and undiminished. A paradoxical fact (if something is subtracted and nothing added is it not always diminished?), something about which the average Seelenauflöser writing about art and what-not can have no conception, because of his borrowed positivist and quasi-quantitative or physics-oriented attitude.
The fact that Emily Dickinson also possessed temperament, however measured and subordinated to her poetic intention, can perhaps be understood from what is written above. But now let us look at the following poem:
I’m wife; I’ve finished that,
That other state;
I’m Czar, I’m woman now:
It’s safer so.
How odd the girl’s life looks
Behind this soft eclipse!
I think that earth seems so
To those in heaven now.
This being comfort, then
That other kind was pain;
But why compare?
I’m wife! stop there!
Several other similar poems can be mentioned alongside this apotheosis of womanhood matured by fits and starts, with the eruptive, almost röhrende: I’m Czar! (what an interjection!) and the flippant ending, throwing the whole poem to the winds. Although our attention is now gripped by a quite different tone, the poet retreats into her isolation, and we encounter her in moods of futility, despair, voluntary abnegation and resignation. In this poem, for instance:
Heart, we will forgive him!
You and I, to-night!
You may forget the warmth he gave,
I will forget the light.
When you have done, pray tell me,
That I my thoughts may dim;
Haste! lest while you’re lagging,
I may remember him!
Is there not something of the atmosphere of an abominable, magical night séance in this almost grotesque division of labour between the heart, which must forget the warmth, and her self which must forget the light that was once radiated by her beloved? Especially the last two lines - the Orphic retrospection, the painful despite everything - are moving in their imagery, an imagery that follows logically upon the premiss of simultaneous forgetting.
I will here add one of her most attractive creations, moving of melody and with the spontaneous insertion of repetitions:
I should not dare to leave my friend,
Because-because if he should die
While I was gone, and I - too late -
Should reach the heart that wanted me,
If I should disappoint the eyes
That hunted, hunted so, to see,
And could not bear to shut until
They noticed me - they noticed me;
If I should stab the patient faith
So sure I’d come - so sure I’d come,
It listening, listening went to sleep
Telling my tardy name, -
My heart would wish it broke before,
Since breaking then, since breaking then,
Were useless as next morning’s sun,
Where midnight frosts had lain.
There remains one poem for me to mention (it is too long to quote), which for me represents the apogee of Emily Dickinson’s work. It is a poem in which all threads appear to come together: revolt and stoical acceptance, an antithetical disunity and a longing for love, metaphysical watchfulness and yielding to the mystery. All these opposing forces now achieve equilibrium in a poem that epitomises the figure of the poet technically and poetically: rising in a hierarchically-subdued fashion, moving in sharply-defined stages towards a vanishing, visionary epilogue; the construction treading the middle course between rhyme and free verse; the rhyme in all it its blurred nuances; the tone: stammering, oracular, cut short on occasions like a stifled sob, then naïve-didactic once again; the original metaphors sketched out with a few strokes of the pen, with the most diverse of concepts bridged by three or four words.
This poem draws the separation of the lovers through into the afterlife: the motif of Hero and Leander, hopelessly separated for eternity, each on their own side of the chasm:
So we must keep apart,
You there, I here,
With just the door ajar
That oceans are,
And that, pale sustenance,
There is no lack of love between them, neither from the one side nor from the other; there is no fate which intervenes from without, no reactive hatred or antipathy of people living too close together emotionally, there is no third party. All there is, is the love itself, which emerges from within the powers which will keep the two separated on pain of self-annihilation. The stronger the love becomes, the greater the inexorability of their loneliness. They cannot live together, for what would that be but sitting on the shelf next to one another like two china cups, in due course growing old, becoming cracked and being discarded? Nor can they die together, since neither was prepared to shut their eyes to the other, nor to see the other shivering without wanting to feel this cold Death’s privilege with them at the same time and to the same extent. Nor can they rise together from the grave, the poem continues, for then neither would behold Jesus, who would be entirely surpassed by the lover; nor could they appear together at the Last Judgement since she, like him, has never been able to serve heaven during life, her life being so satiated by him so that she no longer has eyes for the sordid excellence of Paradise.
It is in this poem that Emily Dickinson’s true greatness first becomes visible. It is as if all her poetry hitherto has served as a mere prelude to this one work. There are certainly better ones amongst the work, but nowhere is her main thought, the isolation and rejection of all that occurs in an individual life, described in such tragic accents. By this projection into the supernatural (without, incidentally, the least flavour of dogmatism, the weight of which is completely destroyed by the hubris of the three penultimate verses), this depiction moreover takes on a meaning which moves far beyond narrow personal considerations. I am unacquainted with other literature where the inner coupling of love on the one hand, and the general and complete annihilation of the individual on the other, can be felt as being a general and absolute inevitability. The fact that Emily Dickinson still manages to behave here as an individual does not diminish the perspectives she offers on total abandonment without qualification.
What are the limitations of Emily Dickinson's art, where does the critical point lie at which we should begin to no longer think of her work as great and important? In my opinion, this point is reached somewhere in the middle of the schoolmaster’s desk. Because how small and imperfect her form (form being used, it is true, in a quite superficial sense), how lop-sided and obscure her sentences, how impure her rhymes, how stammering and stumbling sometimes her tone; what awkwardness, what a lack of classical learning! What are irrefutably lacking are the finer points of finish: a serious shortcoming, inexcusable by any of the laws of any ars poetica. But I find these so obvious shortcomings, however much I may prefer good perfect poetry (these concepts are sometimes used, alas, by way of contrast ...), to be almost of the same order as Slauerhoff’s careless use of commas. Furthermore: should we really wish this poet to have written sonnets, as did Rossetti, five-footed iambs like those of Keats, prosodic poems as finely wrought as those Poe wrote? How much of her poetic intention, her specific urge towards form would have been lost! This naked, undecorated form was the only possible way of expressing her intention. She did not write these particular poems out of sheer impotence. Attach such spontaneity to the sonnet (or any other differentiated form pattern), to such a highly-charged and self-willed poetic potential, and it will be shattered by such elements. Perhaps it can be said that the strictly-restrained traditional form is capable of training the creative tension in a disciplined way, to an extent. If, however, the tension, the potentiality, the intention, the urge to write poetry, or whatever one wishes to call this intangible power, rises above this optimal state, and her intensity (quantitatively) and originality (qualitatively) approach a maximum, then their ways must part. The artist will then create his own autonomous form, which can sometimes be handed down and imitated, and sometimes cannot. Anyone who, nonetheless maintaining this inheritability and copyability as a criterion, says that Emily Dickinson was certainly a remarkable thinker, mystic, psychologist, and describer of nature, in a word an important personality, but not a great artist, or, somewhat more restrainedly, that she undoubtedly possessed the material makings of a poetic nature, is guilty of classicistic prejudices that are difficult to surpass. You can appreciate a certain type of poetry to a greater or lesser extent, but it strikes me as equally impossible not to be conscious in some way or another that we are dealing here with poetry which is admittedly not completely harmonious, but is nonetheless perfectly crystallised art by its own criteria.
I already wrote about this matter when I placed the intentional type that is absolutely equal in value, yet diametrically opposed to it, next to the sound type of poetry. I wish to emphasise once again the equality of these two types, especially because any superficial resemblance to the well-known form-and-content schematics could call this equality into doubt. The poetical intention, if concentrated enough, is already poetry, or rather is the essence of poetry, and is the only thing that lends meaning to the poetry. Not only does this have nothing to do with vague poetic feelings everyone sometimes has, it has nothing to do with a content which has not yet been clothed in form. Ultimately, the poetical intention is just as far distant from the form as it is from the content, or just as close to it, for the simple reason that form and content develop simultaneously out of the poetical intention. The difference between the sound type and the intentional type lies in the fact that the former allows development to continue much further and, where differentiation impresses with its perfection, is more easily regarded as the ne plus ultra of poetry - although at the same time running the risks of ossification and bastardisation, with the concomitant distancing from the kernel of one’s own life. We are dealing here with a difference analogous to that between an ovum and a fully-grown organism. It depends her too entirely on personal taste as to what is to be more highly rated biologically.
If it were to be claimed that intentional verse is not yet poetry, then I would equally have the right to claim that the most consummate, most differentiated sound poems are no longer poetry but a singular imitation of another art: music or declamation. The greatest tragedy with regard to the art of poetry is, perhaps, that it is obliged to tolerate these other arts as neighbouring border regions, and is constantly under threat from them if it is to be made to evolve consequentially in one specific direction. But one should not shut one’s eyes to this fact, and it thus seemed to me that the invention of such a term as the intentional type of poetry was welcome, even though it was no more than a pointer in the direction of the truly ephemeral, intimate and difficult to objectivise character of the poetry. This attitude would perhaps make less sense in every other art form.
I have repeatedly compared Emily Dickinson’s work with modern art and linked it with modern thinking on a number of points. It seems evident to me, though only in a limited sense, that she is of great yet insufficiently recognised importance for our time. I think, for instance, that her art, as ever, can only exercise influence by way of a kind of fermentation process. It would be foolish to count this writer as belonging definitively to modern art, and to categorise her as belonging to certain trends. She is a one-off phenomenon and is therefore modern only in the timeless sense of the word. She could well have something to say future generations, even if they might look back at our modernism as though it were a fossil. What will continue to be stimulating, more than the incomparable synthesis of unbridled imagination and superior logic, more than her fully-concentrated form, which enables her to perilously combine a refined and sharply delineated vision with great profundity, is her artlessness and authenticity which characterise her work and personality to such a great extent.
I have perhaps paid all too little attention to her personality as such; her character and the events that made up her life. Do we want anecdotes and details? That she owned three books, Emerson, Keats and the Bible? That she liked going for walks, but in later years, when she had become introspective and reclusive, she would not leave the house? That T.W. Higginson introduced the American public to her works after her death? That her psychological development was wholly dominated by a negative father complex? Or something more?
Her portrait lies in front of me. A hazy cone-shaped garment, buttoned up to her throat, tenuous and impenetrable at one and the same time, like a materialised spirit at a seance, topped by the head of a tormented hamadryad. Eyes dark as berries, shyly astonished; full lips, giving her face something Negroid; a somewhat broad, flat, but not over-large nose; a painfully tense expression, accompanied by a dreaminess, lost in herself. How could one believe that this human face - because all of a sudden it becomes a human face once again, smiling wryly - had known such secrets? It is a strange experience to return to her portrait, over and over again, between bouts of reading her poetry.
Vestdijk wrote his debut essay in 1932 for the periodical Forum. It appeared in Forum 2 (1933), in issues no. 5 ( May), pp. 346-366; and 6, (June) pp. 432-452.
In 1939 the essay was included, with a number of minor textual amendments, in the anthology Lier en lancet, published in two parts by Nijgh & Van Ditmar, dedicated to E. du Perron.
Writing About Poetry
Contributors: Purdue OWL
Last Edited: 2018-02-21 12:51:36
Writing about poetry can be one of the most demanding tasks that many students face in a literature class. Poetry, by its very nature, makes demands on a writer who attempts to analyze it that other forms of literature do not. So how can you write a clear, confident, well-supported essay about poetry? This handout offers answers to some common questions about writing about poetry.
What's the Point?
In order to write effectively about poetry, one needs a clear idea of what the point of writing about poetry is. When you are assigned an analytical essay about a poem in an English class, the goal of the assignment is usually to argue a specific thesis about the poem, using your analysis of specific elements in the poem and how those elements relate to each other to support your thesis.
So why would your teacher give you such an assignment? What are the benefits of learning to write analytic essays about poetry? Several important reasons suggest themselves:
- To help you learn to make a text-based argument. That is, to help you to defend ideas based on a text that is available to you and other readers. This sharpens your reasoning skills by forcing you to formulate an interpretation of something someone else has written and to support that interpretation by providing logically valid reasons why someone else who has read the poem should agree with your argument. This isn't a skill that is just important in academics, by the way. Lawyers, politicians, and journalists often find that they need to make use of similar skills.
- To help you to understand what you are reading more fully. Nothing causes a person to make an extra effort to understand difficult material like the task of writing about it. Also, writing has a way of helping you to see things that you may have otherwise missed simply by causing you to think about how to frame your own analysis.
- To help you enjoy poetry more! This may sound unlikely, but one of the real pleasures of poetry is the opportunity to wrestle with the text and co-create meaning with the author. When you put together a well-constructed analysis of the poem, you are not only showing that you understand what is there, you are also contributing to an ongoing conversation about the poem. If your reading is convincing enough, everyone who has read your essay will get a little more out of the poem because of your analysis.
What Should I Know about Writing about Poetry?
Most importantly, you should realize that a paper that you write about a poem or poems is an argument. Make sure that you have something specific that you want to say about the poem that you are discussing. This specific argument that you want to make about the poem will be your thesis. You will support this thesis by drawing examples and evidence from the poem itself. In order to make a credible argument about the poem, you will want to analyze how the poem works—what genre the poem fits into, what its themes are, and what poetic techniques and figures of speech are used.
What Can I Write About?
Theme: One place to start when writing about poetry is to look at any significant themes that emerge in the poetry. Does the poetry deal with themes related to love, death, war, or peace? What other themes show up in the poem? Are there particular historical events that are mentioned in the poem? What are the most important concepts that are addressed in the poem?
Genre: What kind of poem are you looking at? Is it an epic (a long poem on a heroic subject)? Is it a sonnet (a brief poem, usually consisting of fourteen lines)? Is it an ode? A satire? An elegy? A lyric? Does it fit into a specific literary movement such as Modernism, Romanticism, Neoclassicism, or Renaissance poetry? This is another place where you may need to do some research in an introductory poetry text or encyclopedia to find out what distinguishes specific genres and movements.
Versification: Look closely at the poem's rhyme and meter. Is there an identifiable rhyme scheme? Is there a set number of syllables in each line? The most common meter for poetry in English is iambic pentameter, which has five feet of two syllables each (thus the name "pentameter") in each of which the strongly stressed syllable follows the unstressed syllable. You can learn more about rhyme and meter by consulting our handout on sound and meter in poetry or the introduction to a standard textbook for poetry such as the Norton Anthology of Poetry. Also relevant to this category of concerns are techniques such as caesura (a pause in the middle of a line) and enjambment (continuing a grammatical sentence or clause from one line to the next). Is there anything that you can tell about the poem from the choices that the author has made in this area? For more information about important literary terms, see our handout on the subject.
Figures of speech: Are there literary devices being used that affect how you read the poem? Here are some examples of commonly discussed figures of speech:
- metaphor: comparison between two unlike things
- simile: comparison between two unlike things using "like" or "as"
- metonymy: one thing stands for something else that is closely related to it (For example, using the phrase "the crown" to refer to the king would be an example of metonymy.)
- synecdoche: a part stands in for a whole (For example, in the phrase "all hands on deck," "hands" stands in for the people in the ship's crew.)
- personification: a non-human thing is endowed with human characteristics
- litotes: a double negative is used for poetic effect (example: not unlike, not displeased)
- irony: a difference between the surface meaning of the words and the implications that may be drawn from them
Cultural Context: How does the poem you are looking at relate to the historical context in which it was written? For example, what's the cultural significance of Walt Whitman's famous elegy for Lincoln "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed" in light of post-Civil War cultural trends in the U.S.A? How does John Donne's devotional poetry relate to the contentious religious climate in seventeenth-century England? These questions may take you out of the literature section of your library altogether and involve finding out about philosophy, history, religion, economics, music, or the visual arts.
What Style Should I Use?
It is useful to follow some standard conventions when writing about poetry. First, when you analyze a poem, it is best to use present tense rather than past tense for your verbs. Second, you will want to make use of numerous quotations from the poem and explain their meaning and their significance to your argument. After all, if you do not quote the poem itself when you are making an argument about it, you damage your credibility. If your teacher asks for outside criticism of the poem as well, you should also cite points made by other critics that are relevant to your argument. A third point to remember is that there are various citation formats for citing both the material you get from the poems themselves and the information you get from other critical sources. The most common citation format for writing about poetry is the Modern Language Association (MLA) format.