Emily Dickinson tears the comforting Victorian blanket of language and exposes to us her stark, distinct, jewel-like world
Emily Dickinson’s poetry can be described as ambiguous and enigmatic. The description given in the question is much like Dickinson’s poetry, and hence, itself requires some interpretaion. The main subjective part of the question is the ‘jewel-like world’, which I will adress later. But, more prominently is the fact that Dickinson’s poetry is the anthetis of any ‘Victorian blanket’ whether it be the language of morals or society:
Despair is the central theme running through most of Dickinson’s poems. She portrays a wholly differnet view of the expression of emotions than was apparent in the Victorian Period which was was esentially that emotions were to be kept secluded behind a facade of happiness and contentment with life, espeially for women. Yet her poems are continually concerned with the quality of pain and suffering (she seldom supplies the source), and she seems to dwell in her misery;
E.g ‘I like a look of Agony’
And ‘There is a pain – so utter-
It swallows substance up’-
This trait of Dickinson’s litters her poetry with a curious mixture of pleasure and pain, the two being so deeply interwoven at times creates the effect that they become the same thing. For example, ‘Heavenly hurt.’This passion of Dickinson’s to embrace ‘taboo’ subjects (particularly in the Vicotian period) makes her writing ‘distinct’ indeed.
But Dickinson goes futher in tearing the Victorian blanket of langauage, especially where her poems are concerned with duty as here she portrays a sense of mysteriousness. We must be careful to note that it is not that Dickinson is implying that our calling in life is a mystery and therefore unknowable, but rather it demands a lot of consideration and imagination. This in itself is extremely provacative in the Victorian ages as during that period woman’s futures were set out for them, i.e .look after the husband and bring children into the world, indeed Dickinson directly questions that:
‘As if my life were shaven,
And fitted to a frame.
And could not breathe without a key’,
The ambigouity surrounding a woman’s voation as suggested in her poetry and the sense that women obtain no spiritual satisfaction from conventional duty;
‘I felt my life with both hands
To see if it was there’-
has an even greater meaning as the duty she talks about is the customs whih define the individual, their role in society and their moral values.
Likewise, on the topic of love, Dickinson is just as unrelenting with her idiosyncratic manner. Her language is blunt at times and classically unromantic but paradoxically this quality of hers causes a larger and more definite sense of love;
‘I cannot live with You
It would be Life –
And Life is over there –
Behind the Shelf’
Love for her is a very passionate and all-encompassing experience, this comes across with force in her poetry and it is this strength of need, that is offensive to the Victorians who were very closed on the topic. Chocie words such as ‘I am a loaded gun’, were cleverly used as in its ambigouity one can not say for certain whether it is sexual symbolism.
It is clear that Dickinson is not concerned with civilised convention , she is always looking for the inner truth which invariably is harder for her to address and society to acknowledge and its effect is to creates unrest. This, and previous points all add to the distinctness of her poetry.
I agree that Emily Dickinson creates a ‘jewel-like world’ yet through many different ways depending on how the words ‘jewel-like’ are construed.
One meaning suggests that Dickinson portrays a materialistic world were the other suggests that she views life as a very precious thing. This is very true of Dickinson’s poetry as a distinct feature of hers is the intensity of spiritual experience that comes across at every stage:
‘I think to Live – may be a Bliss
To those who dare to try’-
Existence, to her, appears to be a momentuous experience and her poems are full of the absolutes of life and death although she does not treat them as such. Instead, she embraces them as a contiuation of life;
‘Behind Me – dips Eternity –
Before Me – Immortality ‘-
and it is apparent the she believes that humans live on even in death. This is very important in conjunction with my next point of view:
A jewel can also be defined as a beautiful thing synthetically produced. Hence Dickinson’s jewel-like world highlights the way that even though there are many things that physically depict beauty, they contain little true intrinsic value. For example, in a poem about relationships she is at pains to the importance of the mind and spiritual worth (‘I guard My Master’s Head – ‘Tis better than the Eider-Duck’s Deep pillow’), without mention of material objects, but with the notably inclusion of nature and it’s unruly and natural elements:
To a Heart in port’-
As jewels are only precious as long as society has a need for them and at the same time dictates their have a value, Dickinson implies that society is constrained emotionally and even morally in the way we view the world’s materials, relationships and experiences. Even subconsiously we construct our priorities to suit society and in fact are dominated by its limits on love and feeling. Hence, Dickinson’s poetry shows an anger or rather disatate at the way societies stronghold is so overwhelming to civilization and yet based on such fragile and base conjectures of morality:
Was the Leopard – bold?’
And ‘A service, like a drum –
Kept beating – beating – till I thought
My Mind was going numb’-
The quotation in the question presents one with the strange juxtapostition of ‘stark’ and ‘jewel-like’. This suggests that the word ‘stark’ coexists in her ‘jewel-like world’. Yet her world is bare, like her puritan upbringing, but not devoid of emotion and it is this that allows the seemingly unattainable starkness of a jewel-like world. This again highlights how Dickinson is occupied with a world of feeling, idea and above all expression. She portrays more of a consciouness than a being with references to herself including ‘I held my spirit’ and ‘a Plank in Reason, broke, And I dropped down’. Hence, the reader is more sensitive to her oscillations between emotional moods making her poerty more poignant.
Another way that the ‘jewel-like world’ can be construed is that Dickinson could be glamourising her subject matter, in such a way as to make them almost melodramtic. I disagree with this interpretation as it is only Dickinson’s talent to record in such detail and to such sensitivity her emotions to perfection that means she may appear as though she is being over the top. Though I agree that Dickinson’s constant need for pain in order to experience life and reluctance to allow any false expectation to release her from her almost love for anguish might appear histrionic:
‘I can wade Grief-
Whole Pools of it …
But the least push of Joy
Breaks up my feet’-
In truth her poems do convey grief as more of a faith than a disaster, (which could account for her apparent bitterness at her estangement from God being replaced by a love of suffering) but then these are a characteristic of the ways she is consumed by emotions and therefore her infatuation with feeling is not a drawback of her poetry.
In many ways the description of Dickinson’s poetry is adequet as it points out that even though Dickinson highlights certain objects and ideas as a symbol of something more perfect than humans she is not necessarily saying they are more desirable, and this is a very important point if we are to try to understand Dickinson’s poetry.