War, Death, and Influence
Previous generations regarded Dickinson either as sui generis–that is, unique and thus untouched by the literary trends of her time, or so ahead of her moment as to be uninfluenced by it. These views have been laid to rest by current scholars, exemplified by Cristianne Miller’s study, Reading in Time: Emily Dickinson in the Nineteenth Century (2012). To explore Dickinson’s literary debts, our focus this week is on the “Azarian School,” a term coined by the writer Henry James to describe the work of Harriet E. Prescott Spofford and Rose Terry Cooke, two writers from New England contemporary with Dickinson. The school’s name derives from the title of Spofford’s novel Azarian: An Episode published in 1864. It is important at the outset to show how Dickinson read, absorbed and used the literary techniques of other writers, in this case, the prose works of New England women. We also want to frame this year, 1862, with an exploration of a literary style that influenced some of Dickinson’s most incendiary poetry.
We follow the lead of David Cody’s 2010 essay, “‘When one’s soul’s at a white heat’: Dickinson and the ‘Azarian School.’” Cody argues that several well-known poems Dickinson wrote in 1862 were directly influenced by the prose works of Spofford and Cooke.
As he tells it, James’s review of the “school” was “scathing,” accusing Spofford “of a long list of literary crimes, including a tendency to indulge in ‘fine writing,’ and ‘almost morbid love of the picturesque,’ an emphasis on ‘clever conceits’ and the ‘superficial picturesque’ at the expense of ‘true dramatic exposition, a ‘habitual intensity’ of style, and an ‘unbridled fancy.’” Many readers at the time felt Spofford walked “a fine line between
permissible daring and a reckless disregard of conventional morality.” In short, this style was the antithesis of the realist school, soon to come into popularity with the ascendancy of William Dean Howells to the editorship of The Atlantic Monthly.
We leave it to you to decide whether Dickinson was a secret disciple of the Azarian School, which, according to Cody, was characterized by intoxication and ravishment “by perfumes; sunsets; gems; diseases physical, psychological, and spiritual; fugues and symphonies; hurricanes; and panthers.” Barton Levi St. Armand argues that Spofford’s story, “The Amber Gods,” inspired Dickinson “to dare the technique of describing the moment of death from the dying person’s point of view.” The protagonists in Azarian works are almost always heroines, and matters of the soul and ecstasy are important topics. Oh, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson was a big fan, being a friend and mentor of Spofford and Cooke as well as Dickinson, writing a supportive review of Spofford’s novel Azarian, and mentioning her to Dickinson in at least one letter (see L261 in which Dickinson responded, “I read Miss Prescott’s ‘Circumstance,’ but it followed me, in the Dark – so I avoided her –”). But maybe not.
I started my Dickinson studies as many do: in a high school classroom, with an old, generic anthology sprawled open to “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers -,” pressed to question how a person who never left her own room could produce such striking imagery of the outside world. My teacher fed me the mythological Dickinson, the woman in white, and I remember imagining the poet as a shy, stunted personality concerned with nature and childish dreams who talked to herself in her poetry. Years later, I regard her as one of the most advanced writers I’ve ever read.
The disconnect between what many of us read in traditional published collections and what Dickinson actually wrote intrigues me. This week’s poems deliver some of the most famous lines in her body of work that I’m sure many high school students have memorized, but memorization takes something away from the character of the lines that can only be revealed through the visual picture of the manuscript.
For example, Dickinson’s big swooping handwriting forces line breaks and enjambments that publishers ignore when printing poetry. Pick any poem from this week and notice that the words spill over to a second line. It’s especially noticeable in “After great pain, a formal / feeling comes -,” which stood out to me the most in this set, partly because I love the ending line: “First – Chill – then Stupor – then / the letting go -”
The emotion pulses through this poem; the horrible metric “Feet” that “mechanically” “go round” sound like a “formal” march to death when you read it in orderly printed lines. It sounds unstoppable, but the first time I saw the manuscript of this poem, the breaks made me hold my breath. You feel the Chill and Stupor as the dash pauses force you to slow down your reading, like slowly freezing. Then, on a completely different line that physically separates––
the letting go.
It’s funny, enjambment is supposed to keep poetry flowing, but in this case, the reader trips over the breaks and truly sees them as breaks, because of the disjointed subject matter and because of the striking spaces left over after the concluding words. The words sit with you, mimicking the formal feeling and ponderous tone of the poem. The breaks intensify everything.
Not to mention that Dickinson’s handwriting lends its character to each of her poems. The shape of her words colors the mood of her poems, generating beauty or solemnity or finality with all her different letter forms. For example, the word “impatient” looks absolutely beautiful in “Dare you see a Soul / at the White Heat?”—no impatient reader would rush past individual words here!
It’s a completely different experience reading the manuscripts, one that I am glad to have discovered so early in my studies. It took a few months of practice to decipher Dickinson’s handwriting, but the payoff is worth thousands of (printed) words.
Bio: Victoria Corwin is a Dartmouth class of ’19 (a junior, to the uninitiated), a student of English and Classical Archaeology, a member of “The New Dickinson: After the Digital Turn” course in Fall 2017, and a member of the “White Heat” team.