Saturday, March 04, 2006

Paradoxical Despair

I'm reading bios and poems of Emily Dickinson. How could someone who was inebriated with new faces in her life, who was an acknowledged social extrovert, whose humor, wit and irony were repeated by biographers, by family, by friends and revealed in her letters, how could such a person with an outward bent to the world become the introvert of Amherst? What drove her? Was it some character designation which pushed her away from humans, from the Emily that she was in her youth?

It's possible. Did her preference for people and social intercourse just dwindle to the point beyond pleasure or even normalcy, doing so along some natural stream of character? Of course, it's possible. It's possible she felt some angst living among her neighbors, some discordancy, some lack of commonality. But is that sufficient reason to bar herself from their sight? Henry Wells in his Introduction to Emily Dickinson, says:

She became excessively shy, avoided crowds, had small liking for church, and wilfully shut herself up within her own house and grounds. Here Miss Dickinson received visitors on occasions, although with an odd habit of ensconcing them in the drawing room while she herself sat in the hall.

I reminded of The Scarlet Letter. I can construct a scene in which Emily is shunned by the smallness of Amherst. Look at the bleakness permeating this verse:


To break so vast a heart
Required a blow as vast;
No zephyr felled this cedar straight,
"Twas undeserved blast.

This strikes me by a reference to some external injury to her soul. Some "thing" precipitated her seclusion. Some "thing" caused her despair. The two are wrapped together. Was her seclusion voluntary or was it ostracism? Did she make a choice? If so, why? What drove her to this refusal to participate?

So often, her poetry makes despair and love a conjugal state. Take this verse from "The Infinite Aurora":
Love is like life, merely longer;
Love is like death, daring the grave;
Love is the fellow of the resurrection
Scooping up the dust and chanting "Live!"
This is preceded by an acquiescence to living among the living:
When one has given up one's life
The parting with the rest
Feels easy,...
Why give up her life? Why give up "others"? Was hers a consciousness that equated love and life, and made the absence of love a despair leading to the absence of life? I'm not convinced of that.

Emily says:
We shun because we prize her face
Lest proof's ineffable disgrace
Our adoration stain.

#244, "Italic Faces" from Bolts of Melody


nolapoet said...

Hey, Ann--

I think about this a lot (haven't read my Dicksinson bios in a while, though) and suspect that she was not as much of a recluse as she is portrayed to be.

It may be that she only let certain people into her world and that that was interpreted by those not invited as reclusivity.

I live in a place where I don't exactly socialize with the neighbors, not because I look down on them, but because we have little in common. It may be that Emily found herself in a similar situation. She did keep up correspondence, though, which a recluse or anti-social person, I believe, would not have done.

Have you found anything along these lines in your reading?


Lyle Daggett said...

I think Robin is onto something. I also don't know a great deal about Dickinson's life, other than the general reputation of her as a recluse, however it's clear from her letters, and often from the poems, that she was highly aware of the larger world, even if she didn't physically venture out into it much.

It may be that her partial reclusiveness, if that's what it was, was something she found necessary in order to copy psychologically with the world in which she found herself. I can't begin to conceive of what it might have felt like to be a woman living in the time and place and circumstances that she lived.

Back during the first Bush regime, I happened one day to open a copy of Dickinson's Complete Poems to a random page, and the poem I opened to (I don't have it in front of me) is the one that begins "Mine! By the right of the white election!" (I may have some of the punctuation and capitalization wrong.) The poem (which Dickinson appears to have written at the time of the Civil War) takes on a startling relevance in the political context of today. And it was certainly an explicitly political poem at the time she wrote it.