The Poems Poetry, Art, and Imagination


A close examination of Emily Dickinson's letters and poems reveals many of her ideas, however brief, about poetry and on art in general, although most of her comments on art seem to apply chiefly to poetry. Many of her poems about poetic art are cast in allegorical terms that require guesswork and parallels from other of her poems for their interpretation. Although we are mostly concerned with the meaning and value of these poems, it is interesting and useful to note that the views which they express about aesthetics can fit into many significant theories about literature. For example, if one uses M. H. Abrams's convenient four-fold division of theories of literature: imitative (the poet re-creates reality); expressive (the poet expresses his inner feelings); pragmatic or affective (the poet seeks to move his audience); objective (the poet tries to construct self-contained works of art) — one finds comments and poems by Emily Dickinson that support all of these theories. She sees poems as artifacts giving permanence to the fading world and the mortal poet. She sees the poet achieving relief, personal identity, and communication through poetry. She sees the poet as a seer, yet she despairs of the poet's power to capture the final mysteries. She sees poetry as being able to open new visions and the heart of its hearers to perspectives and ideas which they otherwise miss. She distinguishes between the false and the genuine in poetry, and she chides herself for sometimes failing to make the distinction in her own work. Perhaps her chief emphasis is on the poet's building a world and gaining relief from his expressions, but it is easiest to discuss her relevant poems by moving from those treating the poet's relationship to audience and world to those treating the poet's inner world.

A number of Emily Dickinson's poems about poetry relating the poet to an audience probably have their genesis in her own frustrations and uncertainties about the publication of her own work. "This is my letter to the World" (441), written about 1862, the year of Emily Dickinson's greatest productivity, looks forward to the destiny of her poems after her death. The world that never wrote to her is her whole potential audience, or perhaps centrally its literary guardians, who will not recognize her talent or aspirations. She gives nature credit for her art and material in a half-apologetic manner, as if she were merely the carrier of nature's message. The fact that this message is committed to people who will come after her transfers the precariousness of her achievement to its future observers, as if they were somehow responsible for its neglect while she was alive. The plea that she be judged tenderly for nature's sake combines an insistence on imitation of nature as the basis of her art with a special plea for tenderness towards her own fragility or sensitivity; but poetry should be judged by how well the poet achieves his or her intention and not by the poem alone, as Emily Dickinson surely knew. This particular poem's generalization about her isolation — and its apologetic tone — tend towards the sentimental, but one can detect some desperation underneath the softness.

"If I shouldn't be alive" (182), an earlier poem than "This is my letter," is a firmer and more powerful statement of a similar idea, thematically richer and with a different twist. Here, the poet-speaker anticipates being cut off from the splendid presence of nature by death. The time of robins is the spring, a season of joyous rebirth, and the robin-as-singer is a fellow poet. The robin's red cravat is a witty, half-personifying touch, giving the bird something of that nervy artifice that sustained Dickinson. The memorial crumb serves to remind us of the poet's own slim spiritual nourishment by those who might have recognized and sustained her, as well as of the small needs of robins. Although the second stanza continues the conditional mood, it moves more decisively into the time when the poet will be dead; hence, it anticipates those brilliant later poems in which Emily Dickinson's speaker is dying or speaks from beyond the grave. The speaker's being fast asleep combines a note of relief with sadness at the loss of all feeling, leaving a striking shock effect for the climactic last two lines. If she is fast asleep, her efforts to speak through that sleep show the spirit at war with death — rebellious against the arrest of the voice with which she brought nature to expression and drew close to it. The image of the granite lip combines the sense of body as mere earth with body as the energy of life. Possibly, granite also suggests the potential power of her expression or even the strength of her unrecognized poems. The parallels to other Emily Dickinson poems about robins as poets, effortful expression as poetry, and poetry as a challenge to death support this interpretation. The consistency, rich suggestiveness, and emotional complexity of this poem mark it as a superior effort in what may, on a first reading, seem to be merely a casual vein.

"Essential Oils — are wrung' (675) is an equally personal but more allegorical comment on poems as a personal challenge to death. It is the same length as "This is my letter" and "If I shouldn't be alive," but its highly compressed images and action make it a richer poem. The central symbol here is attar (perfume) of roses, expanded to refer to some undefined essence of rose that will lie in a lady's drawer after her death. Surely this image represents Emily Dickinson's poems accumulating in her drawers, as they quite literally did, and finding an audience after her death, as they fortunately did. The wringing of the rose — "expressed" means pressed out or squeezed — combines the creative force of nature as represented by the sun, with the special suffering that sensitive and artistic souls undergo. The first stanza emphasizes creative suffering, and the second stanza emphasizes its marvelous result, but both stanzas combine the sense of suffering and creation. The general rose may represent ordinary nature or ordinary humanity, or perhaps merely the idea of natural beauty as opposed to its essence. The marvelous generality of this reference leads us gently but firmly from the attar of roses as an allegorical symbol to all beauty as a symbol of accomplishment. The poem is chiefly allegorical, therefore, but this transition and the stress on the dead lady give it a strange combination of allegorical mystery and concrete reality. The reference to decay reminds us of the physical fate of all things natural — that is, here she evokes a decay challenged by art. The essence of roses — the art as poetry that the lady has created out of nature through effort and suffering — makes nature bloom again, or live even more vividly, for those who read the poems. The lady lying in ceaseless rosemary may, at first, suggest a contrast between her dead body and the nature that continues around her, but when we recall that rosemary is the flower of remembrance and was often placed in coffins ("There's rosemary, that's for remembrance — pray you, love, remember," says Shakespeare's Ophelia, suggesting even more connotations for Emily Dickinson's line), we may see this phrase as suggesting a special immortality for the lady poet. Although the stress here is on creation through suffering, an aura of triumph and assurance permeates the poem.

"I died for Beauty — but was scarce" (449) should remind us that Emily Dickinson said that John Keats was one of her favorite poets, and it is likely that the poem is partly a simplification and variation on the theme, or at least echoes the conclusion, of his "Ode on a Grecian Urn": "Beauty is truth, truth beauty — that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." The poem's speaker looks back from death to life and laments the cessation of speech — quite probably representing poetic communication. Here, however, rather than our finding a wistful, desperate, or self-assured struggle for posthumous expression, we discover a dignified and almost peaceful resignation. The emphasis here on beauty, truth, and lips correlates to themes about poetry elsewhere in Emily Dickinson, just as the covering up of names on tombstones correlates to her concerns about surviving because of the immortality of her poems. The strangely abrupt use of "adjusted" for the dead suggests a struggle against and a resignation to death. The mutual tenderness of the two buried figures shows lonely souls longing for company, and the use of "failed" for the more normal "died" suggests that the defeat of their art and thought contributed to their deaths, which we are to see as sacrifices. These terms also reflect Emily Dickinson's sense that the novel authenticity of her poems kept people from appreciating them. The mind-teasing problem of equating truth and beauty is perhaps as great in Emily Dickinson's poetry as it is in Keats's poem. One simple interpretation would be that accuracy, penetration, and ordering of vision, at least for the artist, create beauty, and that such efforts are painful almost to the point of self-sacrifice. The kinsmen in the last stanza seem comfortable and cheered by each other, though still separated, but the stilling of their lips by moss and the covering of their names suggest Emily Dickinson's feelings that her struggles for beauty and truth were unavailing in their accessibility — if not in their quality. Nevertheless, the resignation of the poem maintains a fine dignity, and the poem as a whole creates a charming variation on Emily Dickinson's treatments of voices from beyond death and of survival through poetry. Of course, this poem need not be interpreted as a comment on Emily Dickinson's situation as a poet. One can read it merely as a fantasy about the light which death throws on the life struggles of sensitive souls and on the question of their rewards for their struggles, but correlation with other poems supports our interpretation and enriches the suggestiveness of the details.

"Publication — is the Auction" (709) is Emily Dickinson's best-known statement of her feelings about publication, but the poem should be read as a partial and complicated version of her attitudes. The unusual stress on publication as auction (rather than mere sale) may reflect resentment that poets must compete by adjusting their gifts and vision to public taste to earn profitable attention. Poverty would justify such a shaping of skills for the market, but that would strain the poet's integrity. This interpretation, however, may be excessively biographical because of its stress on Emily Dickinson's need for artistic independence, but it is also possible that she was chiefly rationalizing her fear of seeking a public and attributing a white innocence to the seclusion which her fears compelled, or it may be that she is only emphasizing the unworldly purity of art. The poet's garret stands for a worldly poverty which she never experienced, but it does accurately symbolize her isolation. The idea of not investing purity continues the economic metaphor and gives the poem something of a snobbish tone. The two "hims" of the third stanza may refer to God and the poet or they may refer to the poet in two guises — as an inspired person and as a craftsman. (It is possible that the poet here is analogous to God becoming man.) The last six lines, switching to a scornful second person, suggest that the poet as human spirit is even more precious than the beauty of nature or the words of God and that reducing his words to a commercial level is blasphemy. The insistent and somewhat wooden trochaic rhythm of the poem enhances and enriches its scorn and determination, but it also communicates some uncertainty about the viewpoint, as if Emily Dickinson were protesting too much. Nevertheless, the curiously mixed diction of the poem, combining commercial, religious, and aesthetic terms gives dignified pride to its anger.

When Emily Dickinson writes about the relationship of poet and audience more distinctly from the viewpoint of the living and with the poet's elevated status in mind, her assertions tend to be less ambiguous, her tone either reverent or triumphant, and her eyes almost equally on what the poet communicates as on the fact of communication. Such poems include "This was a Poet — It is That" (448), "I reckon — when I count at all" (569), and "A Word made Flesh is seldom" (1651). "This was a Poet — It is That" (448), an almost explosively joyous poem, probably celebrates the triumph of some other poet, the speaker basking in reflected glory. The poem combines an analysis of the poet's methods, her visionary power, and her achievement of permanence. The amazing sense and "attar so immense" stress how novelty and compressed expression give new significance to transient beauty and thereby create both envy and surprise about one's own limited vision. The idea that poetry helps us see the familiar freshly by presenting it strangely or with novelty is at least as old as Aristotle's Poetics. The third stanza stresses the pictorial quality of poems, as one might expect from an image-maker like Dickinson — no matter how generalized her own picturing. The somewhat puzzling notion that the poet entitles others to poverty may be an ironic pun on "entitling," as giving others a low status, but more likely it means that they can endure their own poverty because they can borrow the poet's riches, although both meanings may be intended. The last stanza seems to refer back to the poet a little cryptically and not to those who suffer poverty. The poet's portion is so deep and permanent that he is unconscious of it and will feel no resentment about how much others take from him. Of course, poets are usually pleased and not even unconsciously resentful at lending their vision, so one assumes that Emily Dickinson's overstatement is designed to suggest some strangely personal apprehension about feeding on the spirit of poets — possibly a serious or playful concern with an emotional parasitism in herself, or even in those who will not recognize her ability.

"I reckon — when I count at all" (569) echoes themes from "This was a Poet" but is even more extravagant. Here, the subject is poets in general, who head her list of precious things — before nature and heaven. She then decides that since the work of poets includes nature and heaven, she can dispense with them. Poets are all — insofar as their work contains the body of nature and heaven and, by implication, all of experience. Unlike "natural" summers, the summers of poets do not fade, and their suns are brighter than the sun itself. So far, interpretation is easy; in contrast, the last five lines of this poem are more condensed and difficult. The "further heaven" probably means the heaven beyond life — as opposed to the earthly one that poets create or capture. The line "Be Beautiful as they prepare" probably means turning out to be as beautiful as the one that poets create for their worshippers (readers). The last two lines would then mean that it is impossible to imagine a real heaven that could match the heaven that poets have already given us. Emily Dickinson here gives the poet or the poetic imagination a status greater than God's. This extravagance can be attributed to her need for reassurance about the richness of her own narrow living space or of her own creations, or a combination of the two. An equally extravagant poem in which the poet is made superior to God is "This is a Blossom of the Brain" (945); here, poetry is given traits like Emily Dickinson's own shyness, the vitality of nature, and the promise of reproducing its own kind. The mystery of the poetic process and the rare recognition given to it echo Emily Dickinson's feelings about her neglect and isolation as a poet and imply that poets receive more than enough compensation for this neglect by the world. More playful and perhaps less desperate than "I reckon — when I count," this poem may be taken as a deliberate extravaganza or a serious assertion of Emily Dickinson's feelings about art as a religion and her participation in it.

In "A Word made Flesh is seldom" (1651), a Bible text is woven into another assertion of the poet's godlike nature. Here, the first stanza seems to imply that the Christ of the Bible is difficult to know but that something like Him is more available elsewhere and that the private act of securing it gives us joy suitable to our personal identities. That something else seems to be the word as spoken by the whole-spirited poet, which is as immortal as God. The speaking of this word seems to satisfy both speaker and audience. If God could dwell among us as flesh, his condescension would need to be extraordinary to match that of the poet. This poem exists only in a transcript, and its original punctuation is perhaps distorted, for it seems to require a question mark at the end, which would make it imply that language brings spirit into flesh more than Christ did.

In several poems, Emily Dickinson stresses the inner world of poetry as the source of joy, identity, and growth. One of the best of these poems is "I dwell in Possibility" (657), perhaps not immediately recognizable as a poem about poetry. Although possibility might refer to an openness to all experience, the contrast of this dwelling place with prose, the emphasis on an interior world which shuts out ordinary visitors so it may welcome others, and the idea of a captured and concentrated paradise virtually guarantees that the subject is the poetic imagination transforming the world and creating objects of satisfaction to the speaker. The windows and doors allow everything the poet needs to enter, while holding out the eyes and presence of intruders. Gambrels, which are slanting roof cones, are transferred from this house of the imagination to the house of the sky, which represents nature or the universe, suggesting the merger of the poet's inner and outer worlds. The second stanza shows the speaker having the best of both worlds without suffering exposure, which well suits the assured and almost arrogant tone. Once exclusions are firmly established, the tone relaxes, and the slight harshness of the first two stanzas gives over to tenderness in the last stanza, where the parallelism of visitors and occupation allows a secure relaxation. The tender paradox of a wide spread to narrow hands welcomes the paradise of nature and imagination into the poet's spirit and work and emphasizes how greatness of spirit makes a small space infinitely large. A remarkable example of Emily Dickinson's fusion of the concrete with the abstract, and the large with the small, this poem also bears the peculiar signature of her pride in withdrawal, though its boastfulness does not identify the poet with God, as in the two poems just discussed.

A similar but less boastful poem is the very beautiful but rarely anthologized "Alone, I cannot be" (298), where the emphasis is entirely on the arrival of visionary messengers to a self that does not seem to need to ward off intrusions. The fact that these visitors are "recordless" associates the poem with the evanescence of poetry more than with its permanence, as does another interesting variant on the theme of imagination capturing reality, the brilliant but also infrequently anthologized "The Tint I cannot take — is best" (627), which shows some familiar traits of Emily Dickinson's view of the poetic imagination but also severely reverses some of them. Here, the emphasis is on the impossibility of art's capturing the essence of precious experience, especially of nature and of spiritual triumphs. The poem echoes the fleeing grandeur of such experiences but implies that unsuccessful attempts to capture them create something of their preciousness. Rather than asserting that heaven will scarcely equal these experiences or the expression of them, as in "I reckon when I count at all," this poem's conclusion insists that only beyond death will we capture or experience them in all their essence. Still, the arrogance assigned to the dying attributes greatness of soul to the imaginative person. This poem may have a repressed note of anger, perhaps the other side of the inflated joy with which Emily Dickinson often treats the poet's recreation of his world.

Poetic creation is also viewed sadly in "The Missing All — prevented Me" (985), one of those poems whose subject seems quite indeterminate. Perhaps "the missing all" is a beloved person, a solid religious faith, an acceptable society, or a high status in the social world. In any case, its absence turns the poet's head downward to total concentration on her work — surely her poems. The ironic comments on such unlikely things as the world tearing loose or the sun going out emphasize the scope of her loss and the importance of the effort which she makes to compensate for it. The pretended indifference to the world expressed in the conclusion makes the poetic process all-important but also somehow tragic. The world created by the imagination is not characterized here — as in "I dwell in Possibility" and other poems — and the poem ends with a regretful grandeur.

Although many of the poems discussed here comment on the poet's craft, other poems make it their central subject. "We play at Paste" (320) can be viewed as a comment on spiritual or personal growth, but it is probably chiefly concerned with the growth of a poet's craftsmanship. The poem provides a fine illustration of the allegorical method in a short poem. "Paste" refers to artificial jewelry. Adults do not play with or at the process of making artificial jewelry as a preparation for making real jewelry, nor do they usually regard themselves with scorn when they look back at artificial playthings and adornments. The scene as presented and the strong emotions associated with it are not realistic as given. Thus the paste, the real pearl, and the maker's hands are not ordinary symbols. Rather, they are allegorical symbols (or images or emblems). If the speaker, distancing herself slightly and making herself one of a group by the use of "we," drops an artificial — that is, inauthentic — creation and judges herself ill for making it, objects of art — poems for Emily Dickinson — seem the most likely subject. In the second stanza, she gains the equilibrium of maturity and looks back to see that her earlier creations prepared her for the later and more genuine ones. "New hands" emphasizes the growth of creative skill and perhaps extends the change from artistry to the whole person. The emphasis on tactics, and several sound effects in the second stanza, especially the echoing hard k sounds, again emphasize the effort and precision of craftsmanship. (Alliteration is particularly effective in the first stanza.) This emphasis gives the poem a feeling of crisp restraint, almost an amused detachment, quite unlike the exaltation in poems that celebrate the poet as visionary.

Poems somewhat more specific about the poet's tactics include "Tell all the Truth but tell it slant" (1129), "The thought beneath so slight a film" (210), and "A Spider sewed at Night" (1138), but they tend to be more superficial and less developed, however immediately charming. "Tell all the Truth but tell it slant" (1129) immediately reminds us of all the indirections in Emily Dickinson's poems: her condensations, vague references, allegorical puzzles, and perhaps even her slant rhymes. The idea of artistic success lying in circuit that is, in complication and suggestiveness — goes well with the stress on amazing sense and jarring paradoxes which we have seen her express elsewhere. But the notion that truth is too much for our infirm delight is puzzling. On the very personal level for Emily Dickinson's mind, "infirm delight" would correspond to her fear of experience and her preference for anticipation over fulfillment. For her, truth's surprise had to remain in the world of imagination. However, superb surprise sounds more delightful than frightening. Lightning indeed is a threat because of its physical danger, and its accompanying thunder is scary, but it isn't clear how dazzling truth can blind us — unless it is the deepest of spiritual truths. We can, however, simplify these lines to mean that raw experience needs artistic elaboration to give it depth and to enable us to contemplate it. The contemplation theme is reasonably convincing but the poem coheres poorly and uses an awed and apologetic tone to cajole us into disregarding its faults. A similar idea is more lucid in the epigrammatic "The thought beneath so slight a film"

(210) because here the idea of obscurity is connected to the necessity of great effort for good artistic perception, which links this poem to her praise for "amazing sense" and makes her shyness before the beautiful but frightening mountains symbolic of universal experiences.

In "A Spider sewed at Night" (1138), Emily Dickinson seems to delight in the spider's isolation, determination, and structural success. The short-line rhyming triplets imitate the spider's almost automatic thrusts. The poem says that no one quite knows what the spider is making, but his own knowledge satisfies him. He has built so well that his structures appear permanent. But the poem is strangely open-ended. Without the wistfulness or apology of other poems on art, and with a more distanced boastfulness, this poem leaves the possibility that the spider's web will be quickly swept away. If so, his triumph was entirely in his own mind, and we know nothing of its ultimate significance. Perhaps the spider's constructive process is an analogue for Emily Dickinson's own power as a poet, which promises a kind of permanence which the spider can't achieve. The "ruff of dame" could be a mere decoration for Emily Dickinson herself, and the "shroud of gnome" could refer to Emily Dickinson's signing herself "your gnome" to Higginson — possibly as an answer to his complaints about her gnomic (condensed to the point of obscurity) expression. Such negative connotations would stand in opposition to the poem's assertions about trying to build something immortal. Whatever ironies this poem contains may have been unconscious or slyly intended. It is a fine example of how an Emily Dickinson poem that is lucid on the surface can be looked at from various angles and given nuances or even about-faces of interpretation.

A few other poems on art and poetry deserve brief treatment here. In "I cannot dance upon my Toes" (326), ballet seems to be a metaphor for poetry. Her poor training stands for her unconventional expression, her inability to follow established forms, and her acknowledgment that she cannot express what she wants contradicts the exuberance of other poems and matches the sense of limitation in yet others. Here, the full house of her spirit doesn't seem to display the fairest visitors, but that is probably because an insensitive audience wants a flashy performance. She probably wrote this poem as a secret reply to Higginson's complaints about the awkwardness of her poems. In "It dropped so low — in my Regard" (747), Emily Dickinson is probably echoing themes of "We play at Paste." From what seems an even more mature perspective, she now looks at an earlier creation and criticizes herself for not seeing how unworthy of her best it was. "To hear an Oriole sing" (526) may be chiefly about problems of perception, but it can also be interpreted as a comment on poetry in which Emily Dickinson takes an outside perspective on the innerness of man's response to successful art. The commonness or divinity of the singing depends on the sensitivity of the audience. Reference to the tune's being in the tree may be a covert comment on the conventions of art as opposed to the force of the inspired poet. Perhaps Emily Dickinson is revolting against the dead ear of someone who found her singing flat. In "I would not paint — a picture" (505), Emily Dickinson pretends that her delight in art is more that of an observer than a creator, but as an observer she is filled with life by poetry and art. Perhaps it substitutes differently for the missing all. But as she concludes by pretending to reject her role as poet, she reveals that, for her, the creation and the enjoyment of poetry are fused, or it may be that she merely — for the time being — wishes that the joy of creation could match and merge with the joy of appreciation.

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