Language and Figures of Speech Imagery
Domestic imagery “Her poetry explores attic and cellar, parlor, dining-room, kitchen, bedroom, closet and hall. To her sensitive and sympathetic eye the view out her second-story window assumes almost infinite importance.” Henry Wells
Word Bank: House, doors, windows, rooms, porcelain, shelf, housewife…
“I dwell in possibility/ A fairer House than Prose/ More numerous of Windows/ Superior—for Doors –“ Dickinson turns poetry into an open house, but one superior to the “house” of prose in terms of doors and windows. Figuratively, prose is less accessible than poetry. Furthermore, a window allows observation of the exterior world while remaining inside. Metaphorically, this image shows the ways in which the practice of poetry allows a protected observation and contemplation of the outside world.
Most women of the time considered their writing to be an extension of their domestic lives. The house was the female sphere which, for some, represented confinement. Limited numbers of doors, windows, and chambers engendered fears and doubts regarding heritage. Arguably, Dickinson uses her domestic life as material to construct her poetic life. She transforms domestic images into poetic images. “My Life his porcelain/ Like a cup/ Discarded of the housewife…” The cup, a domestic image, becomes the receptacle of life, a metaphor for the body. The housewife embodies Dickinson’s idea of an uncaring God- throwing away damaged life. Dickinson also “sees New-Englandly” and transforms New England flora, fauna, and architecture into art. In her realm of possibility, the rooftop becomes “the gambrels of the sky.” A gambrel is a type of roof and part of the typical New England home. Domestic imagery can also be indicative of class and gender issues faced by the poet. Windows were good indications of social (i.e. economic) status. More windows also meant more light for reading as a leisure activity which, during this period, was an activity associated with the higher classes. Similarly, cedar (referenced in the previous poem) is a valuable variety of wood and grows in Massachusetts.
Read figuratively a door is not only a point of entry, it is also a means of controlling and even barring access to an entry. In “The soul selects her own society/ Then—shuts the door,” the door is a marker of property, used to fix the boundaries between the private and public sphere, self and society. Dickinson adopts the persona of the recluse as a strategy for protecting her private self from public display. Her dwelling place is “impregnable of eye.”
For a woman in the 19th century, withdrawal may have been a response to social situations. Dickinson’s exclusion could be read as both a consequence of her society’s oppressive attitude towards women and as a personal choice made by the poet. Internal exile has a double function: it illustrates a sense of self-sufficiency (Emerson). However, isolation leads to feelings of numbness and entrapment. Emily Dickinson met people behind doorways both literally and figuratively (through letters). Her poetry evokes the pain associated with physical separation. “We must meet apart/ You there—I here/ With just the door ajar.” The notion of separation could also include a certain distance between the speaker and God: “the stillness in the room” in “There’s a certain slant of light suggests a troubling and dangerous lack which provokes despair. The terrifying consequences of isolation are also communicated in conjunction with the theme of death. The tomb is referred to as “an adjoining room” in the poem “I died for beauty,” an eerie connection which is emphasized with the exact rhyme here. In the pseudo-narrative poem “Because I could not stop for death,” the “House that seemed/ A swelling of the ground” is a metaphor for the grave. Note the (ironic?) absence of God or heaven in this poem.
Dickinson writes, “Doom is the house without the door,” exclaiming the necessity for barriers. The right to withdraw so prevalent in Dickinson’s poetry lends itself to a sort of celebration of social differences. Being “nobody,” and hence excluded from the social realm is preferred to the “dreary” and “public” life of the frog-like extroverts in the poem “I’m nobody! Who are you?” The room is one of the strongest images of this optimistic isolation and may symbolize (social as well as sexual) security. In the poem “In winter in my room” this private and secure place is violated by the intrusion of the worm/snake, a phallic image which lends itself to a (Freudian?) reading of sexual fear and/or repression.
Domestic (as well as natural) landscapes can be read figuratively as landscapes of the soul. “And then the windows failed/ And then I could not see to see” notes the speaker of the poem “I hear a fly buzz when I died”. Is this a metaphor for blindness?If so, is this blindness literal or metaphorical? Are these the speaker’s physical eyes or the window to the soul? Introspection is a significant consequence of her composition. Paradoxically seclusion for Dickinson allows her the freedom she seeks.
Nature imagery Word bank: Butterfly, fly, snake, cat, dog, bee, leopard, worm, eagle, beetle, bird, doe, Eider-duck, ocean, nectar, sea, winds, winter, landscape, ground, stone (quartz), snow, moss, storm, dew, grass, feathers, field, grain, sun, woods, valley, mountains, cedars, sky
Dickinson had a complex vision of and relationship with nature. As an artist, she was a keen observer of nature. In the poem “A bird came down the walk,” Dickinson combines scientific observation with personal contemplation. She saw her world “microscopically” (typical of both the scientist and the artist) and recorded details: “He bit an angle worm in halves/ And ate the fellow raw/ And then he drank a dew/ From a convenient grass.”
In coherence with Transcendentalism, she saw nature as godlike, worthy of worship, attention and devotion. Therefore, even the small details of nature are significant in themselves. Moments of harmony allude to a transcendentalist communion with nature. The extended nautical metaphor in “Wild Nights” seems to elevate the implicit sexual union explored in this poem: “Rowing in Eden/ Ah, the Sea! / Might I but moor—Tonight--/ In thee!”
However, unlike the transcendentalists of her time, Dickinson’s relationship with nature was troubled by her belief that nature, like God, could be at best uncaring and unreachable, at worst cruel. The speaker’s futile efforts to tame the bird with a crumb in “The bird came down the walk,” and the subsequent flight of the bird and implicit longing of the speaker illustrate this. In “There’s a certain slant of light,” the natural “winter afternoons” evokes despair. The negativity associated with nature in this poem is also soundly linked to the presence of an oppressive deity: the light oppressive “like the Heft/ of Cathedral tunes—“ This is one way in which nature offers a vehicle for meditation on morality.
“Several of nature’s creatures” appear as recurring metaphors in Dickinson’s poetry.
Fly: The buzz of the fly imposes itself at a crucial moment in the speaker’s existence. Thus the fly, traditionally associated with insignificance, takes up the whole field of the speaker’s perception and is imbued with poetic significance. A reminder of what happens to the body after death (this is a blue, flesh-eating gadfly) putrefaction and decay.
Snake: Reminds us of Eve’s temptation in the Garden of Eden. Or maybe this snake could be a symbol of Dickinson’s own poetic power. In “In Winter in my Room,” the harmless worm transforms into a snake “ringed with power.” Both the literal and metaphorical readings of the snake and its power are fraught with fear: “I’ve never met this fellow/ attended or alone/ without a tighter breathing/ and zero at the bone.”
Worm and butterfly: These two images can work together. The worm may be a symbol of repressed desire or potential. In Dickinson’s lexicon the word worm carries the following two definitions: 1. Maggot; insect larvae that feeds on a corpse. 2. Caterpillar; larval stage of a moth; [metonymy] butterfly. That the speaker “came upon a worm” in her room suggests that this worm is something inherent in or a part of the speaker herself. The butterfly can be read as a symbol of transformation and freedom. For a purely Freudian interpretation of the butterfly in Dickinson’s work read the following: “I take “butterfly” for an orgasm symbol in heterosexual intercourse […] - and mutual orgasm. […] The underlying symbolgraph is one of broad wings settling upon and even enfolding the flower. Its opposite for male ejaculation is the “bee” which propels itself into the flower pinpointedly and with a ‘hum’.” (From: http://www.emily-dickinson.net/symbols/butterfly)
Bee: Bees and their relationship with flowers are used to explore sexuality. Perhaps more significantly, Dickinson put herself in the same rank as the bee and the butterfly to the extent that she felt that these animals embodied her desire to communicate with nature.
Bird: A symbol of freedom but also of the paradoxical nature of natural world: its civility and simultaneous cruelty.
Dog: A symbol of companionship.
Frog: “How dreary to be somebody/ How public—like a Frog--/ To tell one’s name—the livelong June/ To an admiring Bog”; a feminist poem in which the speaker articulates the vulgarity of the popular culture (the frog here, is the published male poet). What good is admiration if it comes from a swamp? Dickinson enjoyed her anonymity and the freedom it gave her. This poem also celebrates private individualism and intimate friendship.
Doe and Eider-duck are both associated with the feminine and maternal. In the (so-called) feminist poem “My Life had stood a loaded gun,” the hunting of the “doe” could symbolize the hunting-down and ultimate demise of the feminine persona.
Light Light has problematic implications in Dickinson’s poetry. Like nature, light is associated with both positive feelings of hope but can also be poetically transformed into something negative and oppressive. Dickinson makes use of traditional implications of light and its brightness and clarity used as a religious as well as secular metaphor for truth and life. From a Christian point of view, light symbolizes the spirit of God. Inversely, darkness and night represent the dangerous and the unknowable. However, the Dickinson re-examines this traditional and religious symbolism of light. If light is symbolic of God’s spirit, it is a light which “oppresses.” The sun can be read as a metaphor for a punishing God. As Dickinson suffered from serious eye problems, this particular metaphor would have personal significance for her.
Ambiguous/incongruous images “My Life had stood a loaded gun”: this extended metaphor or conceit is paradoxical.
“I cannot live with you”: “With just the door ajar/ That Oceans are—“: The door ajar, a mere crack, is expressed in terms of immensity.
“I died for Beauty”: “Until the moss had reached our lips/ And covered up our names” Moss is life but it silences these characters.
Beauty and truth “Themselves are one”: Is beauty truth, or truth beauty, or both?
“Heavenly Hurt”: An oxymoron which can be read in different ways. Does heaven inflict the pain? Or is the pain pleasurable (heavenly)?
Feeling as an intellectual exercise: “definition/victory” and “comprehend a nectar” in “Success is counted sweetest.”
Interplay: concrete and abstract
“I dwell in possibility/ A fairer house than Prose”
“Hope is the thing with feathers”
“internal difference” none may teach it”
“The Soul selects her own society”
“Because I could not stop for death”
“I died for Beauty”
“I heard a fly buzz when I died”: Questions the afterlife using the symbol of the fly.
“Wild Nights”: Passion is explored through the vocabulary of nautical adventure.
“Anodynes”: a metaphor for numbness.
“After great pain, a formal feeling comes”: Grieving is reified.
Time, death, immortality, eternity
Biblical allusions “A heart in port” and “Rowing in Eden”
“Cathedral tunes” “Heavenly Hurt” “Seal Despair”
“The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore, / And Yesterday, or Centuries before?” (“He” here is an allusion to Jesus Christ.)
“For that last Onset – when the King/ Be witnessed—in the Room”
I cannot live with you: “the shelf the sexton keeps the key to” “rise” “your face/ would put out Jesus’/ that new grace/ glow plain and foreign on my homesick eye/ except that you than he shown closer by” “they’d judge us how/ for you served heaven you know/ or sought to/ I could not” “sordid excellence as paradise”
“Inquisitor” (A reference to the Spanish inquisition.)
“I dwell in possibility”: See Psalm 104:16: “The trees of the Lord are full of sap: the cedars of Lebanon which He hath planted.”
“There is a certain slant of light”: The “seal” could be an allusion to the 8th seal of the apocalypse in the book of Revelations.
“The Soul selects”: There is an intertextual link between this poem and Of the Imitation of Christ, in the chapter “Of the Love of Solitude and Silence.”
In “Because I could not stop for death” we can trace Dickinson’s redefinition of the Christian afterlife.
Irony “Not one of all the purple hosts/ who took the flag today/ Can tell a definition/ So clear of Victory/ As he defeated – dying—“
“There interposed a fly”
“After great pain” = Ironic silent anguish.
“I dwell in possibility” A dwelling with numerous windows is described as an impregnable fortress.
“Because I could not stop for death”: The carriage becomes ironically suffocating and the peacefulness described is actually rigor mortis.
Other figures Personification (e.g. “Landscapes listens/Shadows – hold their breath”
Synecdoche (e.g. ”The Nerves sit ceremonious“)
Allegory (“In Winter in my room”)
Synesthesia: “There is a certain slant of light [...] that oppresses/ like the Heft of Cathedral tunes.”
Symbol: (e.g. “white” = purity, integrity, religious election, poetic power...)
Rhyme (Eye rhyme/slant rhyme (also “mind rhyme,” “muted or shadow rhymes”), suspended rhyme, vowel rhyme): function as unresolved chords, dissonance, minor keys.
“storm/room”: the suspended or eye rhyme emphasizes the contrast between the two elements cited.
“There’s a certain slant of light”: After the first stanza the rhymes are coldly exact helping to emphasize the atmosphere of oppressive gloom established by the choice of language (oppress, heft, hurt...)
In “I dwell in possibility” the last rhyming couplet communicates the ecstasy of poetic creation.
Alliteration “Oars divide the Ocean”: alliteration in O connecting Oar and Ocean gives the poem a feeling of broadening out; the poem becomes part of a limitless sphere.
Assonance “Wild Nights! Wild Nights”: spondaic assonance is repeated which emphasizes the passion evoked here.
I heard a fly buzz: “stumbling buzz […] Between…” The alliteration in b has an onomatopoetic function reminds us of the buzz of the fly.
“formal feeling”: the alliteration in f highlights the paradox of the notion that feeling can be formal.
In “There’s a certain slant of light”: The alliteration in d link the words distance and death, establishing a paradox: distance brings death remarkably close.
Sibilance “Success is counted sweetest […] to comprehend a nectar/ requires sorest need”: the sibilance here emphasizes the paradoxical connection between success and sore; pleasure and pain. In the same poem, the sibilance at the end “strain” and “burst” function onomatopoetically.
“The soul selects her own society”: the sibilance her connects the key words in the line which thus highlighting the importance of choice.
Repetition “The Heart asks pleasure first/ And then […] And then”: The anaphoric repetition of “and then” emphasizes the chronology of the story and the passing of time.
In “The Soul selects her own society” the repetition of the word “unmoved” emphasizes the stasis which seems to be a central theme of the poem.
In “Because I could not stop for death” the anaphoric repetition of “We passed” highlight the cyclical nature of life and its ultimate conclusion: death. In the same poem the alliteration created by “my labor and my leisure too” shows that in death all ties must be renounced.
Euphony The last two stanzas of “A bird came down the walk” are replete with melodious sounds which enchant the reader and create a feeling of bliss.
In the poem “I cannot live with you” the extensive use of alliteration and assonance create a sense of euphony which creates an ironic contrast with the content of the poem.
Secular ballad (normally four-line stanzas, 8686, abcb rhyme scheme)
Regular meter: Psalmist: “I heard a fly buzz” or “The Heart asks pleasure first” Can illustrate inevitability.
Internal rhythmical modulation
Irregular meter: “After great pain a formal feeling comes” or “I cannot live with you” the modifications of meter mirror the discrepancies in her emotions.
In “There’s a certain slant of light” uncertainty is reflected in the metric fluctuations.
Dipodic verse (can be read in two ways): This type of verse is often associated with nursery rhymes and is a technique that helps Dickinson fabricate her child persona.
Syntax: In “There’s a certain slant of light” the human agent is removed and the sentences tend toward the passive voice creating the impression that nature is acting against the speaker.
Highly compressed and elliptical language. In “Wild Nights,” the short explosive lines lend a feeling of vitality to the poem. In “The Soul selects,” each brief line, used in alternation with longer lines, becomes more powerful until we reach the grim finale, “like stone.”
Punctuation Dashes (Pause associated with various punctuation marks, pause associated with rests in music, emphasis...)