October 22-28, 1862: Poems on Queerness

On Choosing the Poems

Dickinson's Writing Desk
Dickinson’s Writing Desk

On the basic level of homoerotics, Dickinson writes love and longing poems explicitly addressed to women. For example, “Ourselves were wed one summer– dear” (F596A, J631) dated 1863 and explored in the earlier post on Marriage, describes a marriage between two “Queens,” who have to give each other up. Or “The day undressed herself” (F495A, J716), which we discussed in the post on Mothers because it was sent in a letter to Elizabeth Holland, the woman Dickinson regarded as her mother figure. Dickinson augments the homoerotic sensuality of this poem, a detailed description of a strip-tease, by sending it to be read by a woman.

Dickinson also writes poems that play with gender roles, what scholars call “gender-bending.” We will consider one of several poems Dickinson wrote in which, according to biographer Alfred Habegger, the “tricky speaker … is not male, but a woman who as once a boy.” But in sketching out as what she sees as Dickinson’s three-part “drama of dominance and submission” through metaphors of electricity, Susan Juhasz finds,

Dickinson’s queerness sometimes moves beyond gender-bending to gender-transforming. In the sublime and in masochism one is the “masculine” master and the other is the “feminine” mastered. Queer, however, can also imply that neither is a “man” or a “woman” but something else, something transgressive, so that both participants become “other.”

Another fruitful area of queerness in Dickinson is temporality. In last week’s post, we discussed the queer dimension of “Twas just this time last year I died” (F344, J445) and this week we will consider the queer temporality of one of Dickinson’s greatest erotic poems, “Wild Nights! Wild Nights!”

But on a broader level, Dickinson’s poetics in general tend toward the queer, not merely because of their explicit gender play or because so many of the poems partake of the textual and grammatical indeterminacy scholars identify as an index of queerness. Rather, because she announces the principle explicitly. Suzanne Juhasz quotes queer theorist Eve Sedgwick, who observes that “The word ‘queer’ itself means across—it comes from the Indo-European root twerkw, which also yields the German queer (traverse) [and] Latin torquere (to twist).” In a genre-defining poem dated to 1872, Dickinson famously wrote:

Tell all the truth
but tell it slant –
Success in Circuit
Too bright for our
infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb

(F1263, J1129)

As if exhorting her writerly self, Dickinson recommends a slanted, indirect, circuitous approach to the presentation of truth, because the “infirm” human consciousness can only bear so much brightness. Her major poetic strategy, then, is obliquity.

Juhasz approaches the queerness of Dickinson’s poetry through the obliqueness of her metaphoric language, which, she finds, produces “a most complex erotic amplitude.” Amplitude is a term she borrows from Sedgwick, who invokes it as

“the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps . . . lapses and excesses of meaning” that ensue when we try to limit gender and sexuality “monolithically.”

In reading over poems she has read for years through a queer lens, Juhasz discovers new layers of meaning and concludes:

… there is an aspect of Dickinson’s masochistic fantasy, as created with poetic metaphor, that by way of its figurative excess goes beyond tweaking or rearranging of traditional gender and sex arrangements to construct a play of excitement and desire that finally bypasses gender altogether and redefines the sexed body.

Taking a slightly different tack, Margaret Homans asks us to reflect on our assumptions when she cautions: “Dickinson’s language is a departure from dualistic thinking” imposed by a male-dominated culture, “but it is difficult to comprehend the extent and value of this departure, so firmly are her readers’ imaginations shaped by dualism.” She means us!

In order to comprehend Dickinson’s coded and riddling language that often evades the order of grammar, we impose presuppositions. For example, many of Dickinson’s poems do not specify the gender of speakers or addressees, but we often consider speakers female because the poet is female. Even in the face of Dickinson’s well-known caution to Higginson: “When I state myself, as the Representative of the Verse-it does not mean-me-but a supposed person.” (L268 July 1862)

We do this, perhaps, because it is challenging to think of speakers and addressees as ungendered or variously gendered or mobile in terms of gender. There are examples of poems where Dickinson herself changes the gender of the addressee: For example: “Going to her! happy letter,” “Going to him! happy letter,” and “Going to them, happy letter” (F277A, B, C, J494). One can argue these changes were a matter of designing the poem to fit the recipient, but they also suggest that Dickinson was perfectly comfortable with the shifting gender of her love objects.

Wild nights – Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile – the winds –
To a Heart in port –
Done with the Compass –
Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden –
Ah – the Sea!
Might I but moor -
tonight –
In thee!

Link to EDA manuscript.  Originally in Poems: Packet VIII, Fascicle 11. Includes 20 poems, written in ink, ca. 1861, Houghton Library – (38b). Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Poems (1891), 97, with the last word of line 11 as the first of line 12.

Dickinson copied this poem into Fascicle 11 in the 18th place in late 1861. It is an important point of departure as Dickinson’s most nakedly erotic poem and a key exhibit in the history of editorial interference in Dickinson’s corpus, by which I mean the body of her work and the body of her desires. Her first editors, Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd printed what Martha Nell Smith calls a “sanitized” version in Poems (1891). Higginson had qualms about printing the poem, but as is clear from his remarks, as recorded by Mabel's daughter Millicent Todd Bingham, he talked himself into it :

One poem only I dread a little to print––that wonderful “Wild Nights,” ––lest the malignant read into it more than that virgin recluse ever dreamed of putting there. Has Miss Lavinia any shrinking about it? You will understand and pardon my solicitude. Yet what a loss to omit it! Indeed it is not to be omitted.

Evidence is that Dickinson meant everything we can read into it and more! Some of her intentions are captured in the word “luxury,” which her Webster’s defined as “voluptuousness in the gratification of appetite” as well as “lust.”

The sanitizing took the form of regularizing the lineation, not an issue most people get worked up over. But in this case, it is crucial to a queer reading of the poem. As Helen Vendler notes, the poem Dickinson sets up as breathless and ecstatic dimeter quatrains beginning with two dramatic spondees “obscures their basic construction as rhyming couplets.” The short, exclamatory lines and dramatic pauses express the speaker’s imagined ecstasy on “mooring” in the beloved as in a safe port.

Cristanne Miller uses this poem to illustrate what she calls Dickinson’s “particularly disjunctive” verse, which “remains relatively traditional in many ways, hence supplies a familiar norm as well as its rupture.” A crucial disjuncture is the lineation of the last stanza, which both Thomas Johnson and R. W. Franklin regularize as four lines when the manuscript clearly indicates that the fourth line is the single word “tonight–” and the fifth line is “In thee!” Smith uses this revision to illustrate how editing for print publication skews the meaning of poems.

The emphasis on “tonight” is important because, as Annelise Brinck-Johnsen argues, we learn in the second line that “the entire poem is a thought-experiment … The ‘wild nights’ occur solely in the conditional.” That conditional tense draws ecstatically close as the speaker imagines “mooring” in the beloved “tonight.” We seem only minutes or hours away from the rapturous union. Brinck-Johnsen compares this poem to Shelly’s “To Constantia” (1818) and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Love” (1847) as poems that “celebrate the power of the lyric as a portal to ecstatic realms of nonlinear pleasure.” She labels the mobile, plural, and conditional time frame of the poem “queer time” because it

theorizes a different form of time and constructs a meaning that is not created by an ongoing relationship involving courtship, marriage, or family life.” Queer time is not linear –– it eschews traditional markers of growth and development and instead theorizes a different form of existence.

Other readers find queerness in the ambiguity of the speaker and addressee, whose gender are unmarked. Some readers interpret the speaker’s desire to be moored “in” the port of the beloved as an allusion to the male role in intercourse, but the anatomical allusions work just as well if these are two women. Other tensions in the poem suggest non-normative eroticisms. There is luxury, with its connotations of indulgence, and Eden, with its connotations of innocence. Does the speaker want the tumultuous winds of the first stanza or the peacefulness of the second, or both?


Bingham, Millicent Todd. Ancestors’ Brocades: The Literary Debut of Emily Dickinson. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1945, 127.

Brinck-Johnsen, Annelise. “Lyric Ecstasies of Queer Time.” Women's Studies 47:3, 333-349, 333, 342-43.

Miller, Cristanne. “Disjunction, as a Characteristic.” An Emily Dickinson Encyclopedia. Ed. Jane Donahue Eberwein. Westport, CT.: Greenwood Press, 1998, 84.

Smith, Martha Nell. Rowing in Eden: Rereading in Emily Dickinson. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992, 63-67.

Vendler, Helen. Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2010, 93-94.


The Zeroes – taught
us – Phosphorus –
We learned to like
the Fire
By playing Glaciers -
when a Boy –
And Tinder – guessed – by
Of Opposite – to balance
Odd –
If White – a Red – must be!
Paralysis – our Primer – dumb –
Unto Vitality!

Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Amherst – Amherst Manuscript # 694 – Emily Dickinson letter to Samuel Bowles – asc:13798 – p. 1. Courtesy of Amherst College, Amherst, MA. First published in Mabel Loomis Todd, Total Eclipses of the Sun (1894), 164, line 6 from the fascicle copy (B), as an epigraph. Letters (1894), 200, as two quatrains, from the copy to Bowles (A), with a footnote giving the fascicle variant for line 6; also Life and Letters (1924), 227, without the footnote; also Letters (1931), 191, with the footnote revised and the stanza division removed. The fascicle copy appeared in Further Poems (1929), 201, without stanza division, with the alternative adopted.

Dickinson first sent this poem to Samuel Bowles in 1862 and copied it into Fascicle 35 in the 17th place. It is written in two quatrains of a loose common meter.

In an essay about the history of women scientists in the 19th century, Renée Bergland notes that “Dickinson was literally a woman who had once been a boy in terms of her education.” That is, when she attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in 1847-48, Dickinson got a science-heavy education that, from the perspective of the later 19th century’s proscription of science education for women, made her “hermaphroditic in mind.”

Bergland explores Dickinson’s fascination with the idea that she was once a boy and identifies this poem as well as four other poems in her canon that explicitly explore gender transformation: “A Prison get to be a friend” (F456, J652), explored in an earlier post on Eastern Spirit, “There’s been a Death” (F547, J389), “A narrow fellow in the grass” (F1096, J986), and “The Thrill came slowly” (F1528, J1495). She repeats Alfred Habegger’s observation that Dickinson’s family and friends teased her about this idea. Susan Dickinson once replied to Samuel Bowles, who marveled at a poem that showcased Dickinson’s agricultural acumen, by responding, “You forget––that was Emily ‘when a boy’!” Susan seems to be quoting from one of Dickinson’s poems, perhaps this one, that uses the gender-bending phrase.

Helen Vendler sums up the point of this poem simply as “learning by opposites,” although she does acknowledge that it has a “bitter ending, in which one guesses at abundance while suffering destitution.” She glosses the arresting first line as “a strikingly deviant use of language,” where “The Zeros” refer to something like a frigid climate that, by its opposite, explains “Phosphorous,” which Dickinson’s Webster’s defined as a rapidly burning substance. Vendler never mentions the gender-bending.

But as Bergland notes, “the idea of a woman’s boyhood challenges the stability of sex and gender.” The boy in this poem is learning about “power” from his own relative and temporary powerlessness, his own sense of zeroes. How does that position impact a woman who was once that boy and had to give up even that modicum of freedom to wander, play and discover? What the boy knows here is only deprivation: zeroes, in the plural, suggest a multiplication of nothing; glaciers suggest an icy northern landscape, which encourages the speaker to yearn for a lush, erotic South, often associated in other Dickinson poems with Susan; eclipses suggest darkness; and paralysis seems to be the “primer dumb” that merely hints at life and “vitality.” Nothing in the experience of these destitutions, however, assures the experience of their opposites.

Bergland, Renée. “Urania’s Inversion: Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, and the Strange History of Women Scientists in Nineteenth-Century America.” Signs 34. 1 (Autumn 2008): 75-99, 85-86.
Habegger, Alfred. My Wars are Laid away in Books. New York: Random House, 2001, 160.

Vendler, Helen. Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2010, 101-03.

I showed her Hights
she never saw –
"Would'st Climb," I said?
She said – "Not so" –
"With me -" I said -
With me?
I showed her Secrets -
Morning's Nest –
The Rope the Nights
were put across –
And now – "Would'st have me for a Guest"?
She could not find her Yes –
And then, I brake
my life – And Lo,
A Light, for her,
did solemn glow,
The larger, as her
face withdrew –
And could she, further,

He showed me Hights I
never saw –
"Would'st Climb" – He said?
I said, "Not so" –
"With me -" He said -
"With me"?

He showed me secrets -
Morning's Nest –
The Rope the Nights were put
across –
"And now, Would'st have me
for a Guest"?
I could not find my "Yes" –

And then – He brake His Life -
And lo,
A light for me, did
solemn glow –
The +steadier, as my
face withdrew –
And could I further

+larger –

Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Loose sheets, MS Am 1118.3 (276). Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in The Single Hound (1914), 132, from the copy to Susan (A), with the last two words of line 5 as a separate line. Bingham, Ancestors’ Brocades (1945), 377, line 1, from the fascicle (B).

This poem illustrates Dickinson’s willingness to switch the genders of her addressees, much like “Going to Him/Her/Them! Happy letter” (F277A, B, C, J494). But the two versions of these poems read very differently.

Dickinson sent the first version (A) to Susan sometime in early 1862. For Judith Farr, it “is a dazzling display of psychological insight and a telling revelation of the poet’s inner life.” Farr notes that Dickinson “used the image of herself climbing hills with Sue in poem J14 [F5] “One Sister have I”: a tame domestic vision by comparison.” In this poem, the speaker shows the beloved heights but the beloved refuses to climb them; shows the beloved secrets but the beloved refuses to embrace the speaker as a “Guest.” In the face of these refusals, the speaker “brake my life,” an ambiguous phrase that produces a “Light” which grows as the beloved withdraws. Farr argues the speaker asks the last question of herself, and it is a poignant realization of her loss.

Farr follows this reading with a discussion of Dickinson’s assumption of “masculine gender” in, for example, “There’s been a Death” (F547, J389), and speculates that “Sue and Emily as girls seem to have indulged in a sort of light sexual conspiracy, a Rosalind-Celia romance, whereby Emily was the boy.” But can this poem have a female speaker, who perhaps was a boy in earlier years, addressing a female beloved?

In the fair copy of this poem Dickinson made and bound into Fascicle 16, the second version (B), the speaker “is a woman being wooed by a man.” For Farr, Dickinson's shifting of pronouns shows “that she could readily adapt her passionate thoughts across gender.” In this version, the female speaker refuses the male’s lover’s blandishments, from which Farr concludes: “that whether Dickinson’s persona is female or male, she imagines the same situation: love and renunciation.”

But Dickinson rarely depicts herself as the wooed figure or the beloved in narratives of lost love. There is another way to read this second version of the poem: as a narrative of God or specifically Christ wooing the recalcitrant feminine speaker or soul. He shows her the heights of Heaven and Immortality. He shows her the secrets of nature and asks her to be a “Guest” at the Lord’s Supper. These lines have the ring of a failed or refused conversion narrative:

And then – He brake His Life –
And lo,
A light for me, did
solemn glow –
The steadier (larger -), as my
face withdrew –
And could I further

This is renunciation of a different order, renouncing a rebirth you cannot accept. Eroticism has long served as a figure for religious passion (Think: Donne’s “Batter my heart, three-person’d God”). Part of the queerness of Dickinson’s reversible gender is how it reveals different spheres of desire and refusal as different facets of the same experience.

Farr, Judith. The Passion of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1992, 158-60.

All the letters I could
Were not fair as this –
Syllables of Velvet –
Sentences of Plush –
Depths of Ruby, undrained –
Hid, Lip, for Thee,
Play it were a
Humming Bird
And sipped just
Me –

All the letters I can write
Are not fair as this –
Syllables of Velvet –
Sentences of Plush,
Depths of Ruby, undrained,
Hid, Lip, for Thee –
Play it were a Humming Bird –
And just sipped – me –

Link to EDA manuscript. (A) Originally in Letter to Mrs. (Eudocia Converse) Flynt, p. 1. Includes poem All the letters I could write.. Library ID: YCAL MSS 200. Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Library, Yale University, New Haven, CT. (B) Poems: Packet XIV, Mixed Fasciles. Includes 33 poems, written in ink, ca. 1860-186, Houghton Library – (73a, b). Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in First published in Poems (1890), 78-79, from the fascicle (B). The note to Flynt was published in the Yale University Library Gazette, 6 (1931), 43. 

Open-cup rose
Open-cup rose

Dickinson originally sent this poem to her cousin, Eudocia Converse Flynt around July 20, after Flynt had visited the Dickinsons in Amherst on July 10 for Commencement. Apparently, she and Dickinson had a long conversation, which Dickinson hoped they could continue. In the letter, Dickinson enclosed this poem and a red rose, which Judith Farr speculates was one of the “old roses” called “Deep Cup” or “Open cup” whose outer petals are a bit longer than those in the center and curve slightly inward, forming a cup. As the center of these roses open, they become a deep velvety crimson, according to David Austin, a famous British rose nursery.

We reprint the version sent to Flynt here (A), which differs from the fair copy (B) Dickinson included in Fascicle 19 in the 2nd position in 1862. Dickinson changes “could” to “can” and regularizes the lineation of the last few lines to speed them up. This mitigates the slow, sensual sipping, a figure for the conversation of the two women, which we are asked to imagine is infinitely “fairer” than “all the letters I could write” and which is symbolized by a hummingbird sipping nectar from the rose. For Sylvia Henneberg, this poem offers an “instance of the erotic fluidity perceptible in Dickinson’s love poetry.”

Though Henneberg embraces Paula Bennett’s lesbian reading of this poem as “an invitation to cunninglingus ––the form of erotic activity to which, consciously or unconsciously, Dickinson appears to have been most drawn,” she focuses on its references to writing and language. Appealing to a range of feminist theories, including Helene Cixous's notion of écriture féminine she regards Dickinson’s “untraditional and ungrammatical” language, which appears unintelligible to “dualistic thinking,” as a resistance to “phallogocentric” or masculine-privileging concepts of meaning that produce what French feminists call “jouissance” or intense sexual ecstasy. Furthermore, she points out, the speaker’s ecstasy does not occur with a woman or man “but with a text.” This textual encounter “reaches beyond gender and identity distinctions.”

We can see our difficulties with working outside dualism in the discussion of the ending of this poem on the Prowling Bee website, where readers try to figure out who is doing what to whom. Dickinson recommends: “Play,” that is, pretend

it were a
Humming Bird
And sipped just
Me -

What does the “it” refer to?  Is Dickinson the hummingbird and Flynt the rose or vice versa? The comments go back and forth until the editor Susan Kornfeld “recants” her version and agrees to a this narrative:

Her cousin is to inhale deeply of the flower, just as the hummingbird drinks its ruby depths — and this will be not only a kiss, but the continuance of what must have been a deep conversation!

But the point of a queer reading of queer eroticism is that it cannot be reconciled or clearly paraphrased but goes both/all ways at once. Our challenge is to apprehend  the liberation produced by the disruptions and not try to smooth them out.


Henneberg, Sylvia. “Neither Lesbian Nor Straight: Multiple Eroticisms in Emily Dickinson’s
Love Poetry.” Emily Dickinson Journal 4.2 (1995): 1-19, 7-8.

Kornfeld, Susan, “All the Letters I can write.” November 30, 2012.

If I may have it, when it's
I'll be contented – so –
If just as soon as Breath
is out
It shall belong to me –

Until they lock it in the
'Tis +Bliss I cannot weigh –
For tho' they lock Thee in
the Grave,
Myself – can +own the key –

Think of it Lover! I and Thee
Permitted – face to face to be –
After a Life – a Death -
we'll say –
For Death was That –
And This – is Thee –

I'll tell Thee All – how +Bald
it grew –
How Midnight felt, at first -
to me –
How all the Clocks stopped
in the World –
And Sunshine pinched me -
'Twas so cold –

Then how the Grief got sleepy -
some –
As if my soul were deaf and
dumb –
Just making signs -+across -
to Thee –
That this way – thou could'st
+notice me –

I'll tell you how I tried to keep
A smile, to show you, when
this Deep
All Waded – We look back
for Play,
At those Old Times – in Calvary.

Forgive me, if the Grave + come
slow –
For +Coveting to look at Thee –
Forgive me, if to +stroke
thy frost
+Outvisions Paradise!

+[line 6] Wealth I cannot weigh. •Right I cannot weigh.
+[line 8] hold  + [line 13 Blank –  +[line 19] it seemed
+[line 20] speak to  +[line 25] seem  +[line 26 eagerness
+[line 27] touch • greet +[line 28] [Out]fables

Link to EDA manuscript.  Originally in Poems: Packet XXVI, Fascicle 15 (part). Includes 8 poems, written in ink, dated ca. 1862, Houghton Library – (142a). Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. First published in Poems (1896), 182, stanzas 1-3, with the alternatives for line 8 adopted. Bolts of Melody (1945), 165, stanzas 4-7, with the alternatives adopted for lines 14, 21, 26, 27, 28 ("touch"), from an incomplete transcript of A (a tr352).

Dickinson copied this relatively long poem into Fascicle 15 in the 9th place around autumn 1862. It begins in the common meter of 8686 syllables, but by the third stanza moves to tetrameter lines and ends on a trimeter line.

For Sylvia Henneberg, this poem lends evidence to her contention “that in Dickinson’s love poetry eroticism is replaced with eroticisms.” She bases this reading on the movement of the addressee, from the “it” of the startling opening line to “Thee,” and finally “Thee All.” And because the lovers can achieve union only after death, Henneberg classifies the “interaction” as “obviously necrophilic.” She cites theorist Margaret Homans, who argues that “Death diminishes all differences” and allows for an “unrestricted love and eroticism” that, though “postexperiential” and “apocalyptic,”

evades a definition that is comprehensible in the symbolic order of mortal life and literally escapes to a sphere where it can freely unfold without running the risk of entrapment in one-dimensional terms.

This is also a poem with more than the usual numbers of variants. Henneberg expands on Sharon Cameron’s reading of these variants as a “countervoice” internal to the poem with the power to undercut its meaning. In Henneberg’s queer reading, these variants “constantly shift meaning and turn Dickinson’s (poetic) body into a site of ever changing eroticisms.”

About this poem and other like it, Adelaide Morris concludes:

Just as [Dickinson] often refused to resolve a poem by selecting among her many alternate word-choices, so she hesitated to choose any one habit of loving.

Henneberg, Sylvia. “Neither Lesbian Nor Straight: Multiple Eroticisms in Emily Dickinson’s
Love Poetry.” Emily Dickinson Journal 4.2 (1995): 1-19, 11- 13

Morris, Adelaide. " ‘The Love of Thee — a Prism Be': Men and Women in the Love Poetry of
Emily Dickinson." Feminist Critics Read Emily Dickinson. Ed. Suzanne Juhasz. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983. 98-113, 99.


Habegger, Alfred. My Wars are Laid away in Books.  New York: Random House, 2001, 160.

Homans, Margaret. Women Writers and Poetic Identity: Dorothy Wordsworth, Emily Brontë, and Emily Dickinson. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980, 187.

Juhasz, Suzanne. “Amplitude of Queer Desire in Dickinson’s Erotic Language.”
Emily Dickinson Journal 14.2 (2005) 24-33, 24-2, 27.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Tendencies. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1990, xii, 8.