Analyse several poems by one poet

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As Jeremy Bentham argued, there can be no criteria for a poem other than something that “does not reach the right hand margin”1. Bentham is not being facetious by stating the visually obvious; rather he is implying that poetry has no rules. Every poem, and thus poet’s style, is unique and distinctive and the poetry of Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) is particularly and acutely original.

All scholars seem to agree on this fact, Shira Wolosky comments that Dickinson is “a poet who so transgresses against the norms”2, and even her early critics could only attack her individuality as it broke the mould of poetry at that time. Dickinson’s themes in themselves are not peculiar to poetry; in fact they seem to neatly fall into George Putenam’s prescription that all poems deal with intense emotions3. The predominant themes of Dickinson’s work are Love, Religion and Death, to an almost obsessive degree.

It could be argued that for a woman in nineteenth-century America these are uncommon subjects for discussion but it is the way she deals with the issues that is most distinguishing. Her punctuation and syntax (or lack of), word choice, use of rhyme, meter and form are what sets her apart and makes her work so nonpareil. Ted Hughes reflected that Emily Dickinson “is one of the oddest and most intriguing personalities in literary history”4.

Despite the upheavals in her lifetime, which included American Civil War (a Nation on the brink of suicide or rebirth), the ruthless battle of the frontier at its apex, as well as puritan revival struggling against the new age of Transcendentalism in religion while Darwinism spread the world over, Dickinson remained a sceptical level-headed spectator. Hughes refers to this as a “suspension of judgement”5, and this sense of doubt is reflected in her relationship with God and view of marriage, which are both remarkably complex and odd.

Firstly, her philosophy of the Deity is always viewed with ambiguity. In her poetry there is a sense that her devotion to God leads to ecstasy (“Wild Nights”6) but her doubt to despair. However, it is important not to fall to the conclusion that the voice of the poem is that of the poet. In “Prayer is the little implement”7, it is questionable as to whether the narrator is Dickinson or another figure in prayer. What is clear is the struggle to reach God; “the little implement” refers to prayer as a weak tool.

It could, paradoxically, be seen as small but great making “Men reach/ Where Presence – is denied them. /”. Although, there is then a doubt as to whether God hears (“If”) and the repetition of the similar inactive mechanisms, “implement” and “Apparatus” is a characteristic word choice from Dickinson, which leaves the reader with the image of a passive God. This is also seen in poem 742 as the lack of verbs and the list of stationary nouns; “Four Trees”, “The Sun”, “The Wind”, give the image of God as a static onlooker or part of a “frozen”8 scene.

The dichotomy of the praying figure in poem 437 is heightened by the form of the poem being as a hymn, like a song reaching up to God, and the broken syntax reflecting the “suspension of judgement”. All these qualities give the poem an unexampled uniqueness. As aforementioned, another unsettled argument for academics is Emily Dickinson’s view on marriage. It is assumed that a man spurned her sometime before 1862, which turned her into a matchless eccentric.

It is known, through her letters that she continually warned her friends off marrying and when they did so, she rebuked them for it, dismissing their lives as wasted in servitude, this is also seen in her verse, “She rose to His Requirement”9. In this particular poem the female role is portrayed as extremely negative, with the emphasis through the truncated lineation on the word “dropt” and the syllabic elongation giving the lady in question a feeling of descent. The “Playthings” of women’s life disappear as they “take the honourable Work” in a male controlled world.

Dickinson idiosyncratically rebels against this “Prospective” and utters what “lay unmentioned”. Dickinson’s verse predominantly appears, as discussed, in hymn-like fashion, previously in an attempt to reach God but specifically in poem 712 to create the effect of a wedding or contrastingly a funeral march. The running analogy of a marriage ceremony as a burial represents two of Dickinson’s obsessions, Love and Death and displays through the awaiting bride her views on matrimony. “Death”10, is personified, as a courting gentleman who takes his woman almost against her will, “I could not stop”.

This truly out of the ordinary character, of the Grim Reaper wrapped within the groom is Dickinson uniquely satirising gentlemanly conduct and the ritual of courtship as “He kindly stopped for me”. There are echoes of poem 732, as the bride “had put away/ My labor and leisure too/ For His Civility”. The male control is obvious throughout as the feminine subject appears usually in lowercase whereas the masculine appears in capitals, as with “His Civility”, this has religious connotations of power and is especially noteworthy because the female voice is submissive to the gentleman and her metaphoric “Death”.

Later the bride is objectified and static as things “passed Us”, this shows the missed opportunities for the woman and also her lack of autonomy, “Us” is the importance now. As the wedding (or funeral) procession went on, it “passed the Setting Sun”, this can be seen as a metaphor for death as well, this is backed up by the repetition of “passed” as a euphemism, in the context of ‘passing away’. Her “Gown” takes on a duality too, it could be either a black funeral shroud or a white wedding vale, and there is also the almost comical link to the author’s white dress in this as well.

The married couple’s new “House”, not home, where they shall spend “Eternity”, offers no optimism or light for the reader, as it is “A Swelling of the Ground”. “Ground” is then rhymed with itself, which highlights the fact that it is really a grave. This poem strongly reflects the solitary expressed view of Dickinson that marriage is the death of female independence. In poem 754, a more positive role of women can be read. “My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun -“11.

In this, despite the inaction of “stood” there is power and lethal potential in the female voice. However, the potential seems to be only released in partnership, “The Owner passed – identified/ And carried Me away”, this contrasts to the pessimism of the previous two poems, where the men simply act as oppressors to the women instead it highlights the importance of the couple. Despite this, “The Owner” can be seen again as in “Us”12 before, once again the female is just a possession in marriage.

A strikingly positive reading of poem 754 can be explored, though, if one considers the narrator to be male. There are certain elements, which could be taken as evidence for this, for example for the first time there is an uppercase “Me” and “My” which otherwise has been exclusively in a masculine context. This argument soon becomes implausible, as the “Master” is repeatedly referred to as “He” in the last stanza. What the “Me” and “My” point to though, is a stronger role for the women in comparison to the last two poems.

The woman’s ‘duty’ encompasses protection (“guard”) and she is seen to “hunt”. It is a relationship similar to that of a Lion’s in a pride, the “Yellow Eye[d]” female predator is the hunter and “has the power to kill”, supported by the image of the “Doe” being prey. Although, the “Doe” is female and it is as if the lioness is killing her own kind. The reader is left with the thought that she has not the freedom to act or even “die”. Once again the female can’t live without the male and the potential is sacrificed through marriage.

Dickinson’s method’s for discussing the enjoined subjects of love and death in all three poems discussed is as ever “unique and inspired”13. Emily Dickinson’s first editors attempted to punctuate her hyphens to fit in with the style of the day, which received a mixed response. As Ted Hughes puts it her “eccentric dashes are an integral part of her method and style”14, they have an irrefutable singularity, of great importance. Dickinson’s exploration, as discussed earlier, of God and her distance is emphasised by the structure she chooses. I reason, Earth is short”15, is an excellent example of this. The concern, “Earth” being “short” of “Heaven”, is further distanced by the half rhyme, echo and imperfect reflection of “short” and “hurt”.

Furthermore, the line ending between these, “absolute”, is a description of “Heaven” which moves them farther still and the lack of conjunctions also creates “disturbed spaces”16. Emily Dickinson frequently uses half rhyme but rarely full rhyme. This sets Dickinson apart as many see rhyme as a criteria for a poem. A Man may make a Remark”17, is a rare piece by Dickinson that does contain full rhyme and is significantly about the cautions of “discourse”. This use of rhyme shows that Dickinson sees the importance in it but avoids overusing it because a person who rhymes lots and is too eloquent with language is often suspicious; Shakespeare’s villains (for example Don John the bastard in Much Ado About Nothing) often talk falsely in graceful rhyming couplets.

Dickinson rhymes “Remark” with “Spark” to emphasise this danger and once again her ‘dashes’ slow down the beat and magnify certain words, for example “deport – with skill -” and “discourse – with care”, highlights the need for caution. In this example Dickinson’s use of full rhyme is distinguished, once again by her use of the hyphens and also by her prophetic word choice. In conclusion, in Emily Dickinson’s work one sees such pioneering ideas and such an incomparable individual style that unfortunately “doomed her poetry to obscurity during her lifetime”18, but now is rightly recognised for its distinction and undeniable uniqueness.

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