In the history of American literature, Emily Dickenson occupies a pivotal role. Her poetry is rich in themes and had a sharp stabbing quality which upsets and brings down the spiritual effortlessness of her readers. Her comprehensiveness in brevity is another essential feature of her poetry. The secret for Dickenson rebellious influence appears to rest in her intensity of spiritual experience. Her inquisitive nature that is alert to the inner truths has forced her to isolate from petty demands of social amenity. In addition to her passionate intensity, there is another elementary trait of her poetry that augments her poetic style and philosophy of life i.e. a intrepid audacity in being accommodated with existence itself and its pathos and miseries. To her, life was a meaningful experience but it was full of afflictions. She did not possess any fictitious idealism of forged comforts that could have enabled her to be free from disappointment. The readiness to take things as they are in reality with plain openness is visible all over in her poetry. Her poetry is devoid of any sophisticated philosophy and high notions but yet with tempting style and expression, her poetry possesses real emotional appeal. This research paper will take into account some of her poetry indicating major themes in her poetry. An analysis of these poems will manifest their thematic as well as structural charms. It will draw attentions to the socio-cultural and religious influences on her poetry and will explore the profound spiritual and psychological traits of her emotional sensitivity rather than measuring the precise rhymes and flawless art. Furthermore, it aims at analyzing how reputation of Dickenson has changed over the years.
Emily Dickinson was born Amherst, a serene and quiet village in Connecticut valley of Massachusetts in 1830 and died in the same village in 1886. “Very few people beyond her neighborhood heard about her during her lifetime.” (Meltzer 2004, 9) Her life is marked by physical withdrawal from the outer world. Year by year her indifference to the outer world grew more arctic. Emily Dickinson’s physical seclusion was a sign of her emotional and psychological withdrawal from society around him. Most of her poetry is a manifestation of this phenomenon of her life. “The Soul Selects Her Own Society” has some relation to her choice of a life of seclusion made about this time (1862), preferring her own small circle ands closing the door on the general world as the opening line suggest. In the poems of this period, there is certainly a fusion of three great events in her life that seems to have taken place simultaneously: withdrawal onto solitude and dedication both to poetry and to the image of a beloved. Although her stature in American letters is great, Emily Dickenson’s story is uncommonly barren of events and modest in pretensions. The example of her life has nevertheless made her one of the saints of art and one of the working eponymous legends of national history of America. She lives a life that is on the ordinary on the exterior but which is devoted to a clandestine and self-obligatory undertaking privately - the duty of poetry.
Her father was a leading lawyer of the village and, in the later, treasurer of Amherst College and member of the legislature and of Congress. “She attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley, but severe homesickness led her to return home after one year. Throughout her life, she seldom left her house and visitors were scarce.” (Academy of American Poets) The intellectual climate into which Emily Dickenson was born had the features of a transition. But “Emily Dickinson was writing at an explosive time in American history.” (Martin 2007, 24) The period was marked a major crisis culminating in the War Between the States. In this period, theocracy was on decline and industrialism was rising. The most important thing to remember about puritan theocracy is that it permeated, as it could never had done in England, a whole society. It gave-and this is its significance for Emily Dickenson-a heroic proportions and tragic mode to the experiences of life. Additionally, it was a time when women of middle class were unable to bring their literary endeavors into public through mass printing. So “Dickinson continued to write though she did not produce books for mass distribution” and used the cottage printing industry to produce handmade books. (Smith 1992, p61)
The intellectual climate into which Emily Dickenson was born had the features of a transition. But the period was also a major crisis culminating in the War Between the States. In this period, theocracy was on decline and industrialism was rising. The most important thing to remember about puritan theocracy is that it permeated, as it could never had done in England, a whole society. It gave-and this is its significance for Emily Dickenson-a heroic proportions and tragic mode to the experiences of life. There are thematic as well as structural charms in Dickinson’s poetry. Her poetry indicates socio-cultural and religious influences on her poetry.
The secret for Dickenson rebellious influence appears to rest in her intensity of spiritual experience. Her inquisitive nature that is alert to the inner truths has forced her to isolate from petty demands of social amenity. In addition to her passionate intensity, there is another elementary trait pf her poetry that augments her poetic style and philosophy of life i.e. a intrepid audacity in being accommodated with existence itself and its pathos and miseries. To her, life was a meaningful experience but it was full of afflictions.
In last years, Emily was obsessed with the idea of death and as her close associates who departed to “that bareheaded life under the grass”, she expressed her sympathies with deceased in verses that are morbidly questioning the true nature of death. Her poetry reflects many times her poetic insight into the nature of death. Her understanding of death is illustrated in more that 500 lyrics. As she suffered from dreadful isolation, so death was darling to her and was the only solace to the pathos and miseries of her life. This is clearly manifested in “Because I could not stop for Death”. The idea and theme of death overshadow other themes due to its repetitiveness. The poem masterfully handles the effect of death’s unexpected visit upon the victim, viewing her possession from flustered self-pleasure and comfortable anticipation to gradual fear and doubt into a full realization of death’s deception and terrifying purpose.
Throughout the poem, the death is seen from various perspectives: as a welcome relief from the pathos and miseries of life. As a force which heightens one’s satisfaction with life; as a lover gently conveying one to hidden pleasures; as a cynical caller who poses beneath a cordial exterior; and finally a solemn guide leading one to the threshold of immortality. In this poem, Emily’s profound views of death and immortality are rendered with an artistic perfection that very few lyrics surpass. The poem seems to rest upon a narrative basis that has psychological ambivalence at every turn. In one sense, the poet is obviously repelled by the prospect of dying. But on the other hand, she is an ardent lover and death itself is a fellow who brings a pleasant experience.
Another beautiful poem by Emily Dickenson is “The Soul Selects Her Own Society. It is possible that this poem has some relation to her choice of a life of seclusion made about this time (1862), preferring her own small circle ands closing the door ion the general world as the opening line suggest. In the poems of this period, there is certainly a fusion of three great events in her life that seems to have taken place simultaneously: withdrawal onto solitude and dedication both to poetry and to the image of a beloved.
A surface reading of this poem seems to make this quite simply an affair of the heart. The central stanza weights the meaning in that direction, for the pausing ‘Chariots’ and kneeling ‘Emperor’ certainly suggest further suitors being rejected because of the chosen One, rather than the lures of the society that might distract her from her art. On the other One can be God as suggested by the capitalization and by the fact that her choice is possible only at spiritual maturity (divine Majority). Deeper meaning of the poem however, would reveal that it is not about love or friendship. It has to do rather, with the spiritualization of total self. In other words, what the Soul chooses is not another person; she selects and takes dominion over all the other aspects of the speaker’s identity. Underlying the entire drama is the conception of the Soul as Queen; her regal qualities are suggested by the term ‘Divine Majority’.
Her contemporary era was a critical phase in American history and she was not oblivious to it. Her life was affected by the socio-political affairs of the times and this aspect of her life is also depicted in her poetry. “Emily Dickinson was writing at an explosive time in American history.” (Martin 2007, 24) For example, “My Life stood a Loaded Gun” was written in age when American society was torn with civil war. The symbol that Emily Dickenson has used is an essence of an experience. It is quite obvious that a universal insight that the poet tries to express in not obtained merely by imaginative wandering, it is based on concrete experiences. Emily Dickinson presents the same insight into the historical experiences of her time. The American civil war was also the process of finding ones own identity by losing ones own identity. The internal rivalries and petty identities were to be removed to achieve a national reconciliation. This national reconciliation ultimately brought the national identity. Although this process was on halt and stayed “in corners” for many decades till a day came. Now they “roam in Sovereign Woods”. So Emily Dickinson has epitomized a national experience. Now this “gun” is “foe of His - I'm deadly foe”. “His can be described in various connotations. Furthermore, the puritan environment, in which she got matured, has deep impact on her life and that too is reflected subtly in her poetry.
Her popularity changed with the passage of time. She was never recognized in her own life but her reputation as a genuine poetess increased posthumously. First critic who recognized and acknowledged her poetic genius was William Dean Howells, who as early as 1891 wrote about her; “If nothing else come out of our life but this strange poetry, we should feel that in the work of Emily Dickenson, America, or New England rather, had amaze a distinctive addition to the literature of the world.” (Howells, 318) Another critic wrote; "The world will not rest satisfied till every scrap of her writings, letters as well as literature, has been published." Her reputation went down after the massive critical applause and celebration in 1890s as critics referred to her poetry as "bare, bleak and fragmentary" rhyme of the Amherst phantom. Thomas Bailey Aldrich, a poet and novelist, severely criticized her style and expression as early as 1892. He wrote;
“It is plain that Miss Dickinson possessed an extremely unconventional and grotesque fancy. She was deeply tinged by the mysticism of Blake, and strongly influenced by the mannerism of Emerson... . But the incoherence and formlessness of her versicles are fatal... . [A]n eccentric, dreamy, half-educated recluse in an out-of-the-way New England village (or anywhere else) cannot with impunity set at defiance the laws of gravitation and grammar.”
Another writer wrote in 1937,
“She was neither a professional poet nor an amateur; she was a private poet who wrote as indefatigably as some women cook or knit… in a few poems and many passages representatively great. But... the bulk of her verse is not representative but mere fragmentary indicative notation. The pity of it is that the document her whole work makes shows nothing so much as that she had the themes, the insight, the observation, and the capacity for honesty. (Blackmur, 1937, p.197)
But being a genuine and powerful poetess, she was rediscovered and explored again in 1950s. If we take a viewpoint of 1940s and 1950s critic, it will completely show a change in the reputation over the time. Austin Warren wrote about her language that
Emily’s language is her own mixture of provincialisms, standard speech of her time, the concrete and the abstract, the words of the young people and the theological words of orthodox preachers. Her use of language is almost unfailingly meditated and precise. Worksheet drafts for a few of her poems provide the list of alternatives from which she chose.” (Warren, 1950, p. 574)
Above mentioned analysis of the poems and arguments provided by critics illustrate that Emily Dickenson was a poetess of substance and I should like to submit that Dickenson was an original poetess who rejected the conventional approaches and explored the increasingly difficult and baffling subjects. In view of Emily Dickenson's total accomplishments she is neither a mystic nor a stoic yet, though she undeniably is both mystical and stoical. Neither can her total achievement be labeled or confined by such descriptive epithets as classical, romantic or modem. Nevertheless for a rounded appreciation of her art, recognition of its definitely romantic quality is essential, since no major aspect of her work can be properly grasped while others are disregarded. Her mind was integrated at least to the extent that such qualities, as her peculiar mysticism and Stoicism, are themselves properly explained only in the light of her romantic environment and soul.
Just as it is true that Emily remains far from wholly romantic, so it is clear that the whole of Romanticism in the historical sense is not to be traced in her own work. Singularly free from many of the qualities of her contemporaries or immediate predecessors she has little specifically in common with the romantic poets, either of her own time of Tennyson, Browning, Swinburne, and Arnold or the earlier period of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats and Shelley. But her conscious aims to retain the fresh imagination of childhood, to celebrate the self: to praise nature, and to indulge freely in fancy, stood among the most conspicuous ideals in the literature of her century. This romantic sensibility is a mental state both in life and art accentuating the emotional life.
It is manifested in this paper that later critics understood her themes and style in the context of her social milieu and her psychological perspective. This helped greatly to change the reputation of Emily Dickenson over the years. So it is clear that her life and environment deeply affected her poetical endeavors. She “was not writing in a vacuum: she was both a product of her culture and an active participant through discussions, letters, and poetry” (Martin 2007, 24) and she skillfully reflected all these individual and social experiences in her poetry.
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 January 1892 Atlantic Monthly  Conrad Aiken, (1889-1973) as an editor of Emily Dickinson's Selected Poems published in 1924, was largely responsible for establishing that poet's posthumous literary reputation.