American poet, Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) was one of three children of a loving family who came to prefer her privacy and lived a solitary existence as an adult. Only seven poems were published in her lifetime although these were well-received, but her sister discovered over one thousand poems hidden away in her room after her death, mostly untitled and undated.
Her poetry has a Puritanical slant and is about love, nature and mortality. She is religious and yet often stricken by doubt, which instils dramatic tension into her poetry. Generally, the poems are fairly short and it is a challenge for a poet to establish meaning in so few words, but Dickinson's work contains multi-layered meanings.
In 1955, Thomas H. Johnson produced a three volume edition: The Poems of Emily Dickinson, containing all 1775 poems. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson appeared in 1970.
Rearrange a 'Wife's' affection!
When they dislocate my Brain!
Amputate my freckled Bosom!
Make me bearded like a man!
Blush, my spirit, in thy Fastness -
Blush, my unacknowledged clay -
Seven years of troth have taught thee
More than any Wifehood may!
In this poem, the first three lines of the first stanza end in an exclamation mark, adding a keen sense of outrage to their delivery, further enhanced by the strong verbs Dickinson uses to convey the depth of her feelings. The poet's brain is 'dislocated' and the verb 'Amputate' in the next line is shocking in its implication of female vulnerability to the insensitive male. In the second stanza, it seems the poet has learned through her betrothal that marriage promises little of any value for a woman.
Love that never leaped its socket -
Trust entrenched in narrow pain -
Constancy thro' fire - awarded -
Anguish - bare of anodyne!
Burden - borne so far triumphant -
None suspect me of the crown,
For I wear the 'Thorns' till Sunset -Then my Diadem put on.
In stanza 4, Dickinson is comparing her suffering to to that of Jesus Christ, adorned with a crown of thorns as he died on the cross. It is a burden that she, like Jesus, is forced to endure. However, the poet hides her real anguish from the world, as expressed in Stanza 5:
Big my Secret but it's bandaged -
It will never get away
Till the Day its Weary Keeper
Leads it through the Grave to thee.
Dickinson's special achievement
Dickinson's independence of spirit and the links she makes between personal experience and the universal, reveal a strongly individualistic poet. This uncompromising individualism becomes more compelling when we consider the difficulties she encountered. Clayton Eshleman, in response to the questionnaire: 'What is American about American Poetry?' says: 'At the turn of the century, American poetry, with the compelling exceptions of Whitman and Emily Dickinson, was still filled with Victorian decorum, and was a poetry of taste, on extremely restricted subjects, written almost exclusively by white males.'
To have earned the honour of being separated from this restrictive Victorian decorum and taste, and to do so as a woman before the onset of feminism, is clearly Dickinson's special achievement.
The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson, Faber and Faber, London, 1970.
'What is American about American Poetry?', Companion Spider by Clayton Eshleman, Wesleyan University Press, CT, U.S.A. 2001
Emily Dickinson, by Helen MacNeil, Virago, London, 1984