Emily Dickinson's Poetic Methods


A glance through Dickinson's poems reveals their characteristic external forms as easily as a quick look through Whitman's poems shows us his strikingly different forms. Most of Emily Dickinson's poems are written in short stanzas, mostly quatrains, with short lines, usually rhyming only on the second and fourth lines. Other stanzas employ triplets or pairs of couplets, and a few poems employ longer, looser, and more complicated stanzas. Iambic rhythms dominate, but they are varied and loosened, speeded and slowed, in many ways. A large number of Dickinson's rhymes are what we call partial, slant, or off-rhymes, some of these so faint as to be barely recognizable. She was obviously aware that she was violating convention here, but she stubbornly stuck to her ways. These stanza forms and, to a lesser extent, her poetic rhymes took their chief source from the standard Protestant hymns of her day, largely from those of Isaac Watts.

Dickinson evidently found a convenient mold for her thoughts in these forms, and her use of partial rhyme may have helped her to compose swiftly and to focus on selection of words and metaphors. It is possible that her slant rhymes reflect her emotional tensions (fracture would be a stronger word for it), but most critical attempts to establish clear-cut correlations between types of rhyme and particular moods in her poems are relatively unsuccessful. Nevertheless, these slant rhymes seem consistent with the improvisatory and brooding quality of her mind,

The relative simplicity and monotony of her verse forms contribute to the difficulty of reading Dickinson in large quantities at single sittings, but one never fails to sense and remember her unique poetic genius. Her stanza forms and rhythmical nuances continuously contribute brilliantly to her effects. For example, Dickinson's poems often burst with images and metaphors drawn from many diverse sources. Nature is paramount. Other sources include domestic activities, industry and warfare, and law and economy. Her images sometimes create natural or social scenes but are more likely to create psychological landscapes, generalized scenes, or allegorical scenes. She is like a deep, mysterious mine where one can find many examples of how she blends symbolism and allegory. (Symbolism is the use of real scenes and actions to suggest universal ideas and emotions in addition to the scenes. Allegory is the use of scenes and actions whose structuring is so artificial and unreal that the reader comes to see that they stand for people, scenes, and ideas recognizably different from the representation itself.) This blending of symbolism and allegory in Dickinson's poems is another reason for some readers' difficulty when they encounter her many poems for the first time; yet, Emily Dickinson's evocative powers are paramount: she is always a challenge to the reader.

Besides the great conciseness of language we have already stressed, the most striking signature of Dickinson's style is her blending of the homely and exalted, the trivial and the precious, in her images, metaphors, and scenes. The chief effect that she achieves here is to increase our scrutiny of small-scale things and focus on the texture and significance of large ones. It also serves to permeate her physical world with questions of value. Dickinson's sense of humor and her skepticism help communicate the urgencies of her doubts and need to find faith. Her metaphors are also sometimes telescoped; that is, they incorporate elements so condensed or disparate that they must be elongated, drawn out like a telescope, to reveal the full structure of a picture or an idea.

Dickinson herself told Higginson that the speaker in her poems is not herself but a supposed person, thereby anticipating the perhaps too popular modern idea that poems are always spoken by a fictitious person. This provides a very healthy caution for interpreting Dickinson, but this idea should not keep us from using our knowledge of her life and thought to interpret her poems. Of equal importance is the variety of tones throughout her poems, a variety related to the problem of identifying her speakers. The chief tonal problem is distinguishing between ironic and non-ironic voices. Her ironies can be very obvious or very subtle. Clues to irony are often found in the structure of a poem's statements where doubts and reversals reveal earlier ironies. The likelihood that Dickinson was deliberately posing in many of her poems complicates the problem of tone — but her poses are not necessarily sentimental. Awareness of her shifting of masks can help us resist our doubts that she is serious when she adopts a view we dislike. We also need to recognize her possibly fierce ironies when she is denouncing beliefs which we hold precious or when she is reacting in ways we disapprove of. Again, the poems sometimes seem puzzling, yet after a rereading, they are often suddenly illuminating. To paraphrase Dickinson, scrutiny of this problem keeps the mind nimble. Probably she wanted to keep her own and her readers' minds as nimble as possible.

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