Sunday, 6 November 2016

Emily Dickinson, Poems 108 and 303

Emily Dickinson, Public Domain
Emily Dickinson, was born in Massachusetts in 1830 and by the time she was thirty years old, had withdrawn from society and lived as a recluse. She was known for her eccentricity, always dressing in white and maintaining friendships by correspondence. She found a mentor and critic, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who corresponded with her, but Higginson  believed her poetry was not good enough for publication and discouraged her. Dickinson, accepting his verdict, may have had insufficient confidence to send her poems to another critic.

Poem 108

Surgeons must be very careful
When they take the knife!
Underneath their fine incisions
Stirs the culprit - Life!

At first glance, Poem 108 seems merely an amusing comment on the responsibility of being a surgeon. The poem is a metaphor; the surgeon surely represents the patriarchy, while the culprit is the 'victim', woman, or woman-poet, whose life or creativity is in jeopardy. There is something sinister in the choice of the world 'culprit' rather than 'patient'. One might even stretch the allusion as far as the Biblical Eve and her temptation of Adam. As always, Dickinson turns traditional assumptions around, for the accusation in the poem is implicit (although blurred by humour) in mocking the so-called benefactor of powerless women whose creativity is suppressed. It's a matter of conjecture whether Dickinson was thinking of Higginson when she wrote it and whether she showed it to him. If she did, would he have recognised himself?

In the third line of the poem, the choice of the word 'fine' in 'their fine incision' is particularly powerful. 'A fine incision is much more dangerous than a blunt incision; it does more damage more quickly with little surface pain but it gets much deeper.'

Poem 303

The Soul selects her own society -
Then - shuts the Door -
To her divine Majority -
Present no more -

Dickinson's focus on the danger and pain inherent in the external world is further explored in Poem 303. The poem begins very directly: 'The Soul selects her own society - Then - shuts the Door -...' It is possible the latter line might be read differently, as a defensive statement, involving erecting a barrier against the possibility of threat.

Unmoved - she notes the Chariots - pausing -
At her low Gate -
Unmoved - an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat -

This second stanza contains two lines beginning with the word 'Unmoved' as the Soul rejects what does not interest her.

I've known her - from an ample nation -
Choose One -
Then - close the Valves of her attention -
Like stone -

This is final and unyielding, contrasting, as it does, the Valves (possibly alluding to the heart) with the totality, hardness and finality of enduring Stone. The juxtaposition is powerful. The poem is, therefore, about choice and the responsibility of choosing, a responsibility that rests with the chooser, not the chosen.

'A poor role model for modern women' (Val Smith)

In 'Interview with Val Smith', 1996, the poet says: 'She is writing from the closed, domestic, interior position, which is socially gendered, not biologically gendered... It seems to me she's become a kind of icon for the woman writer, for the solitary soul who shuts herself away from society, who chooses to write and to do nothing else but to look after her own soul.'

Smith continues by comparing Dickinson unfavourably with Elizabeth Gaskell, who wrote with the door open so that she could look after her children. Of course, this willingness to assume many roles is true of modern-day women poets, who want to be in the world as a pro-active force. But, perhaps Smith is being prescriptive about women's role, for surely it is a woman's choice whether or not she has children and whether or not she chooses to shut herself away to write poetry.

The Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson, 3 volumes, Cambridge, Mass. 1955
'Gender and Poetry', by Angus Calder and Lizbeth Goodman, Literature and Gender, The Open University, London, 1996

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