On Choosing the Poems
These poems were selected because they reflect themes related to issues of mastery explored in the blog post for this week.
Some readers regard the self-abasement in the Third Master letter as part of an SM scenario, the sentimental pleasures of submission that elicit the full erotic self. But the Daisy’s address to Master operates across many emotional and imagistic registers that complicate the binary of Master-daisy or the Victorian era’s requirement of female submission. Pádriac Finnerty offers the novel Jane Eyre (1847) by Charlotte Brontë, one of Dickinson’s favorites, as a source for the explosive energies of this letter.
He argues that women readers like Dickinson were attracted by “its heroine’s acquirement of the economic and external resources to complement her inner liberty,” a liberty that made possible the ultimately “nonhierarchical relationship” of Jane and Rochester. “Dickinson drew on such ideas to construct and unsettle hierarchical relationships between the sexes in her hyperbolic ‘Master’ letters,” he concludes.
In summing up approaches to poems concerned with the “Other” and the “Master,” especially Mary Loeffelholz’s chapter “Love After Death” (in Dickinson and the Boundaries of Feminist Theory), Roland Hagenbüchle observes:
What has been clarified through such painstaking exegesis is the span of alternatives, but such clarification has only deepened the problem, if anything. Is the “Master” a biographical person? And if so, who is it? Is it really the same person in each of these poems? Or is it perhaps the soul’s “Oversoul” [Emerson’s term for a supreme reality or spiritual unity of all being]? The mind’s male animus? The self’s creative alter ego? Is it (in some sense) Christ or Dickinson’s appropriation of Christ? The looked for and always desired but infinitely deferred “Other”? A messenger of Eros or of Thanatos – or both? All we can safely say is that the “Master” stands for what the lyric self lacks, desires, and fears. Biographical, psychological, cultural and existential aspects converge in this evasive figure.
One contemporary response brings the Master-daisy dynamic into the 21st century. Lucie Brock-Broido’s volume of poetry, The Master Letters (1995), opens with an image of the first manuscript page of the Third Master Letter. She describes her poems as “a series of latter-day Master Letters, [that] echo formal & rhetorical devices from Dickinson’s work,” what she calls, “her brocade devastations.” For Brock-Broido, Dickinson’s three Master Letters
maintain the lyric density, the celestial stir, her high-pitched cadences, her odd Unfathomable systems of capitalization, the peculiar swooning syntax the fluid stutter of her verse.
Poems for the Week of January 15-21, 1862: Mastery
- He put the Belt around my life – (F 330, J 273)
- Doubt me! My dim companion! (F332A J 275)
- I tend my flowers for thee – (F 367, J 339)
- Sunset at Night – is natural – (F 427, J 415)
- I Rose – because he sank (F454A, J616)
- The Himmaleh was known to stoop (F460, J48)
Two related poems not dated to circa 1862:
- My life had stood – a Loaded Gun (F764A, J754)
- Split the lark and you’ll find the music (F905A, J861)