On Choosing the Poems
When Benjamin Newton gave Dickinson the 1847 edition of Emerson’s Poems, he marked these titles: “Each and All,” “The Problem,” “Goodbye,” “Woodnotes I,” and “Dirge.” In light marks similar to others she made in books, Dickinson marked these poems: “The Sphinx,”
“Each and All,” “The Problem,” “To Rhea,” “The Visit,” “The Rhodora,” and “Woodnotes I.” Emerson’s key lesson about trusting oneself seems to have reached the young poet, who took some of Newton’s recommendations, but added several of her own.
The poems Dickinson marked reject dogmatic theology for a universal wisdom embodied in nature. This wisdom is often riddling, contradictory, and experiential; one has to let go to embrace it, give it up to get it. Humans are often insensible to and dwarfed by its power. The poet, often misunderstood, appears in these poems as a seeker of such wisdom and a lover of nature. The second section of “Woodnotes I” describes “a forest seer, / A minstrel of the natural year” intimate with the wild creatures and plants that sounds a lot like Emerson’s description of Thoreau in his biographical sketch, discussed in the post. Emerson’s speaker even captures Thoreau’s theory of vitalism, which would have appealed to Dickinson:
Low lies the plant to whose creation went
Sweet influence from every element …
Scholars link several of Dickinson’s poems to the poetry and prose of Emerson and Thoreau, finding echoes of phrases or themes, revisions of specific ideas, assimilations, inversions and even parodies. Often, they find Dickinson flirting with “Transcendental ecstasy,” as Jack Capps describes it, but ultimately resisting it – and for different reasons. In Capps’s reading, for example, Dickinson
could investigate the imagination with Emerson, but her traditional faith and ties enabled her to discipline the explorations.
For Shira Wolosky,
Dickinson both offers a critique of American notions of selfhood [the “self-reliance” theorized by Emerson] and explores a gendering that American ideologies of selfhood, without acknowledging it, fundamentally assume.
Joan Feit Diehl finds that
Dickinson’s practice of defining her stance against Emerson in his own language recurs in varying forms … Characteristically, a Dickinson poem takes a suggestion Emerson introduces into an essay for an illustrative purpose and provides it with the strength of an independent, subversive, anti-Emersonian vision.
Similarly, with his poems; the borrowings are complicated. For example, several readers compare Dickinson’s “I taste a liquor never brewed” (F207, J214), written around 1861 to Emerson’s “Bacchus,” which begins: “Bring me wine, but wine which never grew / In the belly of the grape.” Intoxication in nature is a frequent figure in Transcendental writings. In his journal, Thoreau desired to be
drunk, drunk, drunk, dead drunk to this world with it [the song of the wood thrush] forever.
But as Capps notes, another important source for Dickinson’s poem is Emerson’s essay “The Poet,” the first in his Essay’s Second Series, where he declares:
The poet knows that he speaks adequately then only when he speaks somewhat wildly … not with the intellect alone but with the intellect inebriated by nectar … This is the reason why bards love wine, mead, narcotics, coffee, tea, opium, the fumes of sandal-wood and tobacco, or whatever other species of animal exhilaration. … These are auxiliaries to the centrifugal tendency of a man, to his passage out into free space, and they help him to escape the custody of that body in which he is pent up, and of that jail-yard of individual relations in which he is enclosed. …The sublime vision comes to the pure and simple soul in a clean and chaste body…. Milton says, that the lyric poet may drink wine and live generously, but the epic poet, he who shall sing of the gods, and their descent unto men, must drink water out of a wooden bowl. For poetry is not “Devil’s wine,” but God’s wine.
Dickinson takes issue with Emerson’s notion of the body and “individual relations” as encumbrances and with his later outsized claim that “Poets are thus liberating gods.” But, as Capps observes, in the Dickinson family copy of Essays: Second Series, someone marked this passage about symbolism, which Dickinson took very much to heart:
Day and night, house and garden, a few books, a few actions, serve us as well as would all trades and all spectacles. We are far from having exhausted the significance of the few symbols we use. We can come to use them yet with a terrible simplicity. It does not need that a poem should be long. Every word was once a poem. Every new relation is a new word.
On Thoreau’s influence, Yanbin Kang finds his construction of Eastern thought in poems like “A Stagnant pleasure like a Pool”(F 1258, 1872), which illustrates a state of mind resembling the wu-wei of Daoism. We explored this influence in the post on Eastern Spirit. As we discuss below, Thoreau’s obsession with birds echoes throughout Dickinson’s poetry. Biographer Alfred Habegger wonders whether Dickinson had Thoreau in mind in this poem from 1871, “’Twas fighting for his Life he was-,” (F1230), which contains the resonant word “Vitality.”
for his Life he
accomplish well –
The Ordnance of
Is frugal of
It aims once –
kills once – conquers
There is no
In that Campaign
Of the Interior.
The poems we selected for this week date from the period of 1862-63. Some of them are less well known, but all illustrate Dickinson’s complex relationship to the writings of Emerson and Thoreau.
To hear an Oriole sing
May be a common thing –
Or only a divine.
It is not of the Bird
Who sings the same, unheard,
As unto Crowd –
The Fashion of the Ear
Attireth that it hear
In Dun, or fair –
So whether it be Rune –
Or whether it be +none
Is of within.
The "Tune is in the Tree -"
The Skeptic – showeth me –
"No Sir! In Thee!"
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XIII, Mixed Fasciles. Includes 27 poems, written in ink, ca. 1862, Houghton Library – (63b, c). Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Higginson, Atlantic Monthly, 68 (October 1891), 454.
Dickinson copied this poem into Fascicle 20 in the 7th position. It shares a page with the signal poem, “Dare you see a soul at the ‘White Heat’?” which sets up a tone of intensity. It is written in rhyming triplets of 664, except line 3, which is also 6 syllables, perhaps because it characterizes the oriole's song as “only a divine” thing, and divinity, even when qualified with an ironic “only,” requires expansion. The slant rhymes, the short final dimeter lines, and the use of the archaic forms (“attireth,” “showeth,” “Thee”) give it a “runic” feel, a word that occurs in the poem to describe the song of the oriole.
Jack Capps suggests that the final turn of the poem is a response to Emerson’s manifesto Nature where Dickinson recalls his assertion that “the power to produce [Transcendental] delight does not reside in nature, but in man.” Actually, the sentence from Emerson continues: “or in a harmony of both.” And then Emerson warns: “It is necessary to use these pleasures with great temperance.” So, the “Transcendental ecstasy” Capps sees Dickinson “disciplining” with “her orthodox mores” was also, for Emerson, a dangerous pleasure.
Jefferey Simons groups this poem in a series of other poems about ears, hearing, and sound in order to develop what he calls “Dickinson’s auditorium, a space for hearing the sounds in her poetry.” He finds that Dickinson develops a theory of sense perception that “engages the subject in a reciprocal process of knowing,” as illustrated in this poem. He reads the last stanza as correcting the doubting “Skeptic” who points to the oriole in the tree, a harbinger of spring, and concludes that the sound comes from outside the subject. The speaker vehemently rejects this for an interior origin for hearing: we hear with an inner ear, or as Dickinson describes it in another poem, “The Spirit is the Conscious Ear” (F718A, J 733).
Birds and birdsong were also central for Thoreau. In “On Choosing the Poems,” I quoted Thoreau’s intoxicated response to the song of the wood thrush. Birds fly through his writings, but rather than acting merely as symbols of a Transcendental spirit as some have argued, according to Branka Arsic’s provocative reading, their very materialism is the key to their vitalism:
birds in Thoreau can become emblematic sites of recollection only because in a very materialistic manner he always afforded them the status of literal living relics, elevating them to immortal beings in perpetual change and capable of hosting what has been. … In the philosophical imagination of Thoreau’s ornithology birds really are a form of life that cancels death by self-change, promising the fabulous renewals that Thoreau will extend to the whole of nature.
Arsic, Branka. Bird Relics: Grief and Vitalism in Thoreau. Cambridge: Harvard University, 2016, 25-26.
Capps, Jack L. Emily Dickinson’s Reading: 1836-1886. Cambridge: Harvard University, 1966, 114.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature. Chapter One . The Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. RWE.org.
Simons, Jefferey. “Dickinson’s Ear.” European Journal of American Studies. 12,-2, 2017.
A still –
Volcanic Volcano – Life –
That flickered in the night –
When it was dark enough
Without + erasing sight –
A quiet – Earthquake style –
Too +subtle to suspect
By natures this side Naples –
The North cannot detect
The solemn – Torrid – Symbol –
The lips that never lie –
Whose hissing Corals part – and shut –
And Cities -+ooze away
+show +endangering +smouldering +slip • slide • melt
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XXIX, Fascicle 24 (part), Houghton Library – (156d). Includes 8 complete poems with a portion of another, written in ink, dated ca. 1862. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Further Poems (1929), 36, with the alternatives adopted ("slip" for line 7).
Dickinson copied this poem into Fascicle 24 in the 12th position sometime around spring 1863, but Thomas Johnson dates it to 1862. It is hard not to treat the volcano of this poem as a symbol, since the poem all but directs us to that reading. Volcanoes appear in other Dickinson poems, referring both to the allure of the southern and eastern hemispheres, here “Naples,” and the enormous pressure and explosive power of containment.
There have been several influential readings of this potent symbol. In 1976, poet Adrienne Rich published an important feminist reading of Dickinson entitled “Vesuvius at Home,” taking her title from the last line of the poem “Volcanoes be in Sicily” (F1691A, J1705), in which the speaker contemplates volcanoes in her immediate locale. The allusion to the repressive effects of Victorian domesticity is hard to miss. Rich argues:
The woman who feels herself to be Vesuvius at home has need of a mask, at least of innocuousness and of containment,
and she quotes “On my volcano grows the Grass” (J1677) and “A still –Volcano – Life –.”
Cristanne Miller treats the volcano as an excessive image of the sexually powerful woman constrained into ladyhood by 19th century social mores. Helen Vendler focuses on the destructive power of language evoked by the poet-as-volcano, speaking words so potent that, like Vesuvius, she causes cities to “ooze away.” About this image, Vendler concludes:
Dickinson’s revenge-fantasy on the repressive New England is complete.
How do these readings change, or how are they augmented, when we frame Dickinson’s allusions to volcanoes with Emerson’s famous distinction between the mere “lyrist” and the “true poet” in his essay “The Poet,” which we know Dickinson read. Emerson declares:
He is the true and only doctor; he knows and tells; he is the only teller of news, for he was present and privy to the appearance which he describes. He is a beholder of ideas, and an utterer of the necessary and causal. For we do not speak now of men of poetical talents, or of industry and skill in metre, but of the true poet. I took part in a conversation the other day, concerning a recent writer of lyrics, a man of subtle mind, whose head appeared to be a music-box of delicate tunes and rhythms, and whose skill, and command of language, we could not sufficiently praise. But when the question arose, whether he was not only a lyrist, but a poet, we were obliged to confess that he is plainly a contemporary, not an eternal man. He does not stand out of our low limitations, like a Chimborazo under the line, running up from the torrid base through all the climates of the globe, with belts of the herbage of every latitude on its high and mottled sides; but this genius is the landscape-garden of a modern house, adorned with fountains and statues, with well-bred men and women standing and sitting in the walks and terraces. We hear, through all the varied music, the ground-tone of conventional life. Our poets are men of talents who sing, and not the children of music. The argument is secondary, the finish of the verses is primary.
“Chimborazo” is an inactive volcano in the Andes Mountains of present-day Ecuador. It stands for Emerson’s true poet by standing out and above “our low limitations,” and because it runs “through all the climates of the globe,” a kind of epitome of the whole. Dickinson takes this hint, but in her imagination, it is the volcano’s explosive power under pressure that makes it an apt symbol for her life and poetic force.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "The Poet." The Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. RWE.org.
Miller, Cristanne. “The Humor of Excess.” Comic Power in Emily Dickinson by Suzanne Juhasz, Cristanne Miller, and Martha Nell Smith. Austin: University of Texas press, 1993, 103-40.
Rich, Adrienne. “Vesuvius at Home.” Parnassus 5, 1, 1976.
Vendler, Helen. Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2010, 234-36.
The Soul unto itself
Is an imperial friend –
Or the most agonizing Spy –
An Enemy – could send –
Secure against it's own –
No treason it can fear –
Itself – it's Sovreign – Of
The Soul should stand in
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XVI, Fascicle 25 (part), Houghton Library – (88a,b). Includes 14 poems, written in ink, dated ca. 1862. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Bolts of Melody (1945), 84-85, from a transcript of A (a tr414).
Dickinson sent this poem in a letter (L280) to Thomas Wentworth Higginson in February 1863, after he had taken up command of a regiment of freed slaves in South Carolina in November 1862. She also sent a copy to Susan Dickinson, and around summer 1863 copied it into Fascicle 25 in the 11th position in slightly different form.
The diction of this poem comes from the realm of warfare: “Spy,” “Enemy,” “treason” and the familiarly misspelled “Sovreign.” At the end, it touches on the realm of Circumference through the invocation of “awe.” This is perhaps why Dickinson thought it an appropriate poem to send to Higginson, who was himself leading men in battle. But the battleground for the warfare in Dickinson’s poem is the interior, psychic landscape of the “Soul.”
In her comparison of Dickinson and Emerson, Joan Feit Diehl discusses the Transcendental trope of “the observing eye,” Emerson’s cultivation of a detachment of mind through sight and what she calls “the privilege of spectatorship” in viewing the division between self and others, human and nature or, in Emerson’s words, “the Me and the Not-Me.” This trope, she says,
becomes literalized and expanded in Whitman’s version of the self that stands apart and above.
By contrast, she argues that Dickinson’s observing eye is not directed towards nature or others but, as in this poem, is oriented inward on the self from which it originated. Furthermore, its loyalties are not clear; it may be “an imperial friend / Or the most agonizing Spy.” This last possibility is terrifying and suggests the potential for madness in a self-observation that turns into self-division. When the Soul is “Secure against it’s own” and it cannot fear “treason, when it is “Sovreign” like Emerson’s transparent eyeball, surveying everything unimpeded, it then experiences “Awe.” But the conditional mood in the last stanza suggests that such a security for Dickinson is aspirational.
Diehl, Joan Feit. “Emerson, Dickinson, and the Abyss.” ELH 44, 4 (Winter, 1977): 683-700, 693.
Tis Opposites – Entice
Deformed Men – ponder Grace –
Bright fires – the Blanketless –
The Lost – Day's face –
The Blind – esteem it be
Enough Estate – to see –
The Captive – strangles new –
For deeming – Beggars – play –
To lack – enamor Thee –
Tho' the Divinity –
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XXVIII, Fascicle 29, Houghton Library – (149c). Includes 20 poems, written in ink, dated ca. 1862. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Further Poems (1929), 9.
Dickinson copied this poem into Fascicle 29 in the third place, sometime in the second half of 1863. A poem about how opposites “entice,” it is heavily bifurcated, and so the form enacts the theme. Every line is bisected by a dash except the 10th line, which invokes “Divinity” and, thus, perhaps cannot be divided, while the 11th line is literally split into two very short lines, making the missing 12th line consist of one single word: “Me.” The last stanza diminishes and comes to rest on that weighty word, which, as we saw in the poem discussed above, for Dickinson can be fairly considered “split” or at war in some way. Such a lot of syntactical disruption, however, does not recommend opposites.
Compare Emerson on the issue of “polarity,” a key term in his centrally important “Law of Compensation,” from the essay “Compensation” in Essays: First Series (1841):
POLARITY, or action and reaction, we meet in every part of nature; in darkness and light; in heat and cold; in the ebb and flow of waters; in male and female; in the inspiration and expiration of plants and animals; in the undulations of fluid and of sound; in the centrifugal and centripetal gravity; in electricity, galvanism, and chemical affinity. Super-induce magnetism at one end of a needle, the opposite magnetism takes place at the other end. If the south attracts, the north repels. To empty here, you must condense there. An inevitable dualism bisects nature, so that each thing is a half, and suggests another thing to make it whole; as spirit, matter; man, woman; subjective, objective; in, out; upper, under, motion, rest; yea, nay.
Emerson’s cosmic optimism about the ultimate balancing out of opposites crumbles in Dickinson’s poem into painful doubt. Can we “enamor” ourselves to lack? Especially if the divine force meting out the compensation “Be only / Me –”?
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Compensation.” The Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. RWE.org, 2015.
Beauty – +be not caused -
It Is –
Chase it, and it ceases –
Chase it not, and it abides -
Overtake the Creases
In the Meadow – when
+ Runs his fingers thro' it –
Deity will see to it
That You never do it –
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet V, Mixed Fascicles, Houghton Library – (18a, b). Includes 15 poems, written in ink, dated ca. 1862. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Further Poems (1929), 111, with all the alternatives adopted except that for line 18.
Dickinson copied this poem into Fascicle 30 in the second position, around the second half of 1863. In the manuscript, line four is set apart from the rest of the first stanza. Scholars have compared the poem to Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” with its rapturous exclamations on the urn’s decorative pictures (based largely on the threatened rape of women): “What maidens loth? / What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape? … What wild ecstasy?” and the rejection of “the sensual ear” in favor of “the spirit ditties of no tone …” Despite (or maybe because) of this origin, Keats’s poem is a source for the Romantic understanding for the foundational idea that
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
More local sources are Emerson’s “The Rhodora,” which Dickinson marked in her copy of Poems. In this didactic poem, a male speaker finds the rhododendron, a flowering shrub native to the northeastern US, hidden in the woods. He genders it feminine and addresses as "dear." He does not ask her why she is there or what her beauty means. Rather he instructs her to tell the nosy “sages” who ask such ridiculous questions,
that, if eyes were made for seeing,
Then beauty is its own excuse for Being;
This speaker “never thought to ask” the meaning of beauty and invokes his “simple ignorance” to “suppose / The self-same power that brought me there, brought you.” I point out the gendered politics of this poem, because they are relevant to Emerson’s notion of “reciprocity” in nature. Another of his didactic poems, also marked by both Newton and Dickinson, is “Each and All,” in which a male speaker tries to possess beauty by taking natural objects out of their context – a sparrow, sea shells and, yes, a “maid.” In failing, because he “covets Truth,” he gives up and suddenly
Beauty through my senses stole;
I yielded myself to the perfect whole.
Only when he, the sovereign self, “yields” (presumably, like a maid) to the “whole” can he experience beauty.
Dickinson’s poem also contains a “lesson” about beauty, but without explicit references to gender, yielding, or even reciprocity. It may refer to the setting of “The Rhodora” in the strange word “Creases,” which, according to Dickinson's Lexicon, she used in other poems to mean: “Shadow; nook; corner; cranny; crevice; hidden recess” as well as “Plot; grave; tomb; burial chamber.” Death is never far from her imagination. Her depiction of the experience of beauty in nature – the Wind running his fingers through the grass/hair of the meadow – is intensely, intimately sensual, a far cry from Emerson’s chaste desire for “the maid.” The final lines of her poem seem to undo Emerson’s confidence by suggesting that “Deity” will never fully allow “You” (the speaker? Us?) to experience the beauty of nature.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The Rhodora,” “Each and All.” The Complete Works. Vol. IX Poems. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin & Co., 1904. New York: Bartleby.com, 2013.
Keats, John. “Ode to a Grecian Urn.” The Poetry Foundation.
Hallen, Cynthia, ed. Emily Dickinson Lexicon. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 2007.
"Nature" is what We see –
The Hill – the Afternoon –
Squirrel – Eclipse – the
Bumble bee –
Nay – Nature is Heaven –
"Nature" is what We hear –
The Bobolink – the Sea –
Thunder – the Cricket –
Nay – Nature is Harmony –
"Nature" is what We know –
But have no Art to say –
So impotent our Wisdom +is
To Her Sincerity –
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XXII, Fascicle 35, Houghton Library – (119c). Includes 25 poems, written in ink, dated ca. 1863. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in The Single Hound (1914), 36, from Susan's copy (A), as four quatrains.
Dickinson copied this poem into Fascicle 35 in the 7th place, around the second half of 1863. She sent a fair copy to Susan Dickinson, signed “Emily.” Jack Capps notes that it “is filled with distinct echoes of part I of [Emerson’s] essay ‘Nature’.” That Dickinson places the word “Nature” in quotation marks throughout the poem signals its abstraction from the material thing. It also may be a citation of a great man’s work. The lists of natural things possibly reference Emerson’s poem “Fable,” in which a mountain and a squirrel basically illustrate his theory of compensation. Squirrels also appear all through the writings of Thoreau, as modeling for human farmers a trust in divine providence:
The true husbandman will cease from anxiety, as the squirrels manifest no concern whether the woods will bear chestnuts this year or not, and finish his labor with every day, relinquishing all claim to the produce of his fields, and sacrificing in his mind not only his first but his last fruits also.
Thoreau also loved bobolinks, one of Dickinson’s favorite birds for its exuberant song.
Emerson also wrote a poem called “The Humble-bee.” Scholars treat this “definition” poem as a kind of dialogue or trio, hearing three distinct voices arguing about how we can best perceive or grasp “Nature.” In the Transcendentalist pantheon, seeing and hearing would have taken precedence over knowing, as Emerson’s “The Rhodora” makes clear. But Dickinson’s knowing is inextricably linked to “Art” and the in/ability to say what we “know.” By contrast, Emerson, in his brightest moods, put his faith in human ability to use natural symbols to express spiritual truths. In his darker moods, as in the later essay "Experience," he sounded more like Dickinson. In this epitomizing poem, Thoreau seems to be closer to the sentiment expressed by Dickinson:
My life has been the poem I would have writ
But I could not both live and utter it.
Capps, Jack L. Emily Dickinson’s Reading: 1836-1886. Cambridge: Harvard University, 1966, 116.
Leiter, Sharon. Critical Companion to Emily Dickinson: A Literary Reference to her Life and Work. New York: Facts on File, 2007, 147-48.
Thoreau, Henry David. “My life has been the poem I would have writ.” Poets.org.
_____. Walden, Chapter 7. American Studies @ University of Virginia.
Capps, Jack L. Emily Dickinson’s Reading: 1836-1886. Cambridge: Harvard University, 1966, 114-16.
Diehl, Joan Feit. “Emerson, Dickinson, and the Abyss.” ELH 44, 4 (Winter, 1977): 683-700, 695.
Kang, Yanbin. “Dickinson’s Allusions to Thoreau’s East.” ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes and Reviews. 29:2, 92-97, 93-94.
Thoreau, Journal. Ed. Bradford Torrey and Francis H. Allen. 1949 VI, 39; in Sewall, Richard. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980, 715.
Wolosky, Shira. “Dickinson’s Emerson: A Critique of American Identity.” The Emily Dickinson Journal 9, 2, Fall 2000: 134-141, 134.