The Blending of External and Internal in Dickinson's Construction of a Poetic Identity

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Ryan Marr
"The Blending of External and Internal in Dickinson's Construction of a Poetic Identity"
In making sense of Emily Dickinson, it's often difficult to separate the poetry from the Myth of Amherst, as if the legend of Dickinson's social isolation somehow confines her poetic identity to the four walls of her bedroom in Amherst. Writing virtually unknown within a historical period that celebrated Manifest Destiny and masculine narratives of conquest over the external frontier, Dickinson remains, even to this day, culturally confined within the sheltered, feminine, narrative of passive isolation. Yet Dickinson's poetry does not necessarily contradict this mythology; in fact, through either the startlingly original concision of her form or the fixations with internal afflictions such as madness, solitude and despair in her content, Dickinson provides plenty of evidence to support it. Yet in the first line of Poem 320, Dickinson calls into question the very notion of poetic determinacy, establishing a tension between a speaker who demonstrates a level of determinacy in identifying a "certain Slant of light" (1) and the reader who is left, uncertain and bewildered, with a series of questions. Is this "certain Slant of light" a shadow? A metaphor? A poetic imagining of the truth told "Slant?" Or is just a ray of sunlight? Rather than provide clear answers to any of these questions, Poem 320 offers a kaleidoscope of meanings, suggesting that the boundaries between internal poetic identity and its external setting, subject and object, body and spirit, are much more fluid and indeterminate in Dickinson's poetry than our cultural understandings of her isolation might lead us to believe.

In many of Dickinson's early poems, her speakers demonstrate agency over the external world, appropriating its natural imagery—birds, bees, flowers, seasonal cycles—into metaphors to express an internal poetic identity. In these poems, the relationship of Dickinson's speakers to their external surroundings is as a subject to an object. Yet in reading the "Slant of light" (1) in the first stanza of Poem 320 as simply a ray of light, an external force that "oppresses" (3), the poem inverts this power relationship, subjugating the poet's internal identity to any number of external forces—a ray of light, wintry conditions, the music from a cathedral. An earlier copy of the poem that includes the preposition "On" before "Winter Afternoons" (2) reinforces the omnipresence of this external setting over the speaker. Also, Dickinson's use of the verb "oppresses" (3) here, likely informed by its connotations with "tyranny" in her Webster's dictionary, further emphasizes her speaker's passivity and explains the noticeable lack of a first-person singular subject in the poem. By twice delegating the speaker to the object pronoun "us," the poem assigns a level of agency to the vague pronoun "it," which could refer to any of the external factors listed in the first stanza, and the "Air" (12) that exerts an "imperial affliction" (11) over the speaker in the third stanza. Only in the use of "We" (6) in the second stanza does the speaker express itself as a subject, and even then, the speaker employs the first-person plural, suggesting that, like many Dickinson poems, the speaker has fragmented internally into several selves who, as fragments, are unable to establish any coherent, determinable meaning over the world. As a contained unit of meaning, the second stanza supports this reading—that "internal difference" (7) is in fact "Where the Meanings, are" (8)—suggesting that in its confinement to the "internal" (7) meaning has also become fragmented and lost. The inclusion of an early variant—the substitution of "anything" for "Any" (9)—supports this nihilistic reading, suggesting that the second vague "it" in "None may teach it" (9) actually refers to "anything" and not the slew of potential antecedents in the preceding stanzas. The poem's turn to nihilistic despair is made even bleaker by the word "Seal" (10), which Dickinson's dictionary defines in one sense as meaning "that which effectively shuts, confines, or secures." In this sense of the word, nihilism, as the certainty of the absence of meaning, works to shut down the speaker's poetic sense of indeterminate play, ultimately confining the speaker to the certainty of death in the last line of the poem.

Yet even in a poem that seems, at least on one level, to indicate the external world's power over the speaker's internal consciousness, Dickinson still makes space for indeterminacy and poetic agency. In returning to the first line of the poem, where one reading identifies a sign of external power in "a certain Slant of light" (1), another reading identifies an act of poetic figuration. By choosing to remove the older variant "on" from the beginning of line 2, "Winter Afternoons" (2) transforms from the speaker's wintry external setting into a metaphor for describing the "Slant of light," a transformation that also metaphorically links "Winter Afternoons" (2) to "the Heft / of Cathedral Tunes" (4). In this way, the speaker's internal poetic consciousness transforms the first three external factors from the previous reading into one stanza-long metaphor for oppression. Granted, the speaker is still oppressed to some degree here, but in allowing the poem the space to move fluidly between external and internal consciousness, or the boundaries between stanzas even, "the Meanings" (8) have room to proliferate. For example, by forgoing conventional boundaries of stanza meaning, the dash after line 7 can also function as a sentence break mid-stanza. Instead of forming the end of a sentence, here the line "Where the Meanings, are" forms the beginning of a sentence that concludes: "None may teach it – Any –" (9), where the vague "it" now likely refers to "the Meanings" (8) and the indeterminacy of their location. Dickinson's replacement of the nihilistic variant, "anything," with "Any" (9), a word that emphasizes "None" (9), only further underscores the ultimately futility of pursuing determinacy in the poem. In a stark contrast to the confined internal meaning of the first reading, "Where the meanings, are" (8) now, the speaker posits, are anyone's guess, including the reader's.

However, Dickinson goes beyond just opening semantic spaces in her poems through which a poetic identity can fluidly shift. In Poem 320, meaning frequently becomes so fluid as to actually become contradictory, and can even work to actively destabilize the reader attempting to make sense of it all. In one of the more obvious examples, the poem often makes use of words whose connotations straddle the divide between body and spirit, such as "oppresses" (3), which Dickinson's dictionary defines as meaning both "to physically overpower" and "to oppress with grief," as well as "affliction" (11) which is defined as "the cause of continued pain of body or mind." Furthermore, the speaker assigns physical descriptors to intangible objects associated with the spiritual, granting cathedral music "Heft" (3) and describing "internal difference" (7) as a "scar" (6). However, the greatest semantic destabilization occurs in the poem's use of the pronoun "it." First employed in the second stanza to refer to either the "Slant of light" (1), "Winter Afternoons" (2), or "Cathedral Tunes" (4), the speaker employs the pronoun three more times in the poem until where, in the last stanza, "it" (13, 15) has accumulated so many various meanings that meaning itself is almost entirely destabilized. Here though, as meaning appears to once again teeter on the verge of nihilistic collapse, the poem seems to suggest that "it" (13, 15) could actually refer to poetic inspiration and the perpetual drive to make new meaning. "When it comes" (13), the speaker's powers of indeterminate play are at their height, even to the point of personifying an object as vastly external to the poet's internal consciousness as a landscape. "When it goes" (15) though, the speaker is once again reduced to the confining certainty of death. Yet even in concluding with this bleak image, the poem ultimately lends a sense of agency to poetic inspiration, which "comes" (13) and "goes" (15) as it will, moving fluidly between the boundaries separating internal identity and its external setting, body and spirit, subject and object.

Besides just allowing for a fluid relationship in which the terms of subject and object can be applied interchangeably to both the poet's internal identity and the poet's external surroundings, the poem also sets up an interchangeable relationship between itself and the reader as both subject and object. In this sense, the reader who attempts to master, or objectify, Dickinson's poem can stumble into the same despairing trap of "internal difference," into which the nihilistic reading of the speaker is confined. The failure to participate in the poem's indeterminate play of meanings is the failure to exercise our own subjectivity over the poem as readers. In choosing to read Dickinson as objectified, confined, and mastered by her external environment, the reader confines themselves to a limited, nihilistic understanding of Dickinson's poetry. By allowing the poem to open indeterminately—to permit a "certain Slant of light" (1) to be more than just a ray of sunlight—the reader not only complicates the meaning in Dickenson's poetry, but also enriches their own ability to create meaning from the text.
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