Vassar Critical Journal

The Vassar College English Department Student Journal of Critical Essays

This is my letter to the World
That never wrote to Me —

Emily Dickinson, 441 (1-2)

Emily Dickinson’s poetic legacy is often coupled with images of a lonely spinster dressed in black with minimal contact with the social world. In reality, Dickinson defied these associations with her 10,000 letters to her peers and her astute observations of the systems and structures that defined her place as a woman in society. Dickinson’s lasting image as a social outcast was a result of a collective societal attempt to place her in a position that did not outwardly invoke anxiety in the dominant state of masculinity. By naming Dickinson a social outcast, the men who wrote about her in the 20th century distracted readers from her femininity so that Dickinson’s mystery and assertion of authority in her literature would not be representative of all women. Dickinson as a spinster is an association constructed to quell the masculine discomfort elicited by her speakers, slant rhymes, and unconventional dashes embedded with a critique of the patriarchal social order. In her disruption of historically male-dominated structures of poetic form and meter, Dickinson constructs an unprecedented neutral place for women to exist outside of the patriarchal framework. Therefore, Dickinson’s discussion of blindness serves as a mechanism through which women can exist by stripping the male gaze and its objectifying implications of their perceived dominance. Dickinson eliminates the masculine eye as a mode of sensory input both in her dismantling of traditional structure and in her introduction of hearing as a more appropriate framework for knowledge.

Dickinson subverts conventional language and structure used by her male predecessors to objectify women in literature throughout her poetry. In poem 199, Dickinson exposes the insecurity new wives experience within a cultural context that places excessive emphasis on the wifely title. By placing the “wife”, “Woman”, and “Wife” in quotation marks within the speaker’s insecure justification of glorifying wifehood, Dickinson presents the association of woman to wife as a mere construct rather than a legitimate, meaningful title (1, 3, 12). In her distinction of wifehood as a “soft Eclipse,” which she compares to the way “folks in heaven” perceive those on earth, Dickinson introduces the legal status of the married woman, or the femme couvert who is veiled, protected, and legally reborn (6, 8). Dickinson’s critique of titleship lies in her comparison to heaven, as entering the heavenly state of wifehood requires the death of girlhood and results in an anxious speaker whose forced tone reflects the societal pressures to conform to a title. Dickinson continues to dismantle common associations in poem 613. She writes, “They shut me up in Prose –/ As when a little Girl/ They put me in the Closet/ Because they liked me ‘still’–” (1- 4). In the slant-rhyme of “Girl” and “‘still’–” amidst a stanza in traditional, forward-moving iambic meter, Dickinson presents the disparity between girlhood and immobility (2, 4). By scoffing at the word “still” with an exclamation point and repeating it without added quotation marks, Dickinson’s speaker redefines the association of women’s stillness and rather presents her mind as going “round” (5, 6). Dickinson reframes the common association of women and stillness by associating her girlhood with a moving mind. Finally, she discusses the “Captivity” her female speaker faces by using masculine pronouns, recognizing the power the patriarchy restricts to men to “will” (11, 9). In her blending of genders, Dickinson presents her female speaker’s ability to use her mind, regardless of her designated stillness, to “Abolish” the state of being “shut…up in Prose” (11, 1). Therefore, in her reframing of associations and use of multiple genders, Dickinson contributes to a neutral frame of existence for women.

Dickinson repurposes the traditionally objectifying technique of women’s fragmentation in poem 601 in her quest to construct a novel framework of existence for her female speaker. In her description of the speaker’s life as “A still — Volcano”, Dickinson continues to extend her redefinition of stillness associated with womanhood – rather than carrying a submissive connotation, Dickinson’s stillness is one that is potent and on the brink of eruption (1). Her description of the volcano as “Torrid” evokes sexual imagery that prompts her use of fragmentation in describing “The lips that never lie –” (9, 10). Throughout their narratives and poems, male authors employ fragmentation of women’s bodies to break the female body into parts in an attempt to avoid the acknowledgment of agency and typically describe the non-threatening parts of the hands, hair, legs, or waist. By emphasizing the lips of the feminine volcano, Dickinson refers to the two parts of the body her male predecessors often disregard: the lips of the mouth that produce speech and defy the expectation of the silent woman and the lips of the vulva that evoke male anxiety in the woman’s perceived lack. She writes, “The lips that never lie –/ Whose hissing Corals part – and shut –/ And cities – ooze away –” (10-12). In her description of the lips as “hissing”, Dickinson associates the traditionally phallic snake with femininity as she redefines associations ingrained within patriarchal language and systems (11). The volcanic lips, whether they produce speech or bodily fluid when they “part – and shut,” cause the societal structures of “Cities” to “ooze away –” (11, 12). Thus, Dickinson employs the traditionally objectifying technique of fragmentation to feature her female speaker’s power to disintegrate the structures that constrain her. Dickinson removes the masculine connotation fragmentation often implies, and redefines it as a technique that can empower women.

Dickinson continues her systems of disruption in her use of dashes as she defies and reconstructs conventional meter. In poem 271, Dickinson’s placement of dashes further delegitimizes patriarchal associations regarding womanhood. As the speaker discusses her realization of the largeness of her own life, she reflects on what it would be like to be “A woman – white – ” (2). By placing the “white” between dashes, Dickinson forces a pause and deliberation on the archetypal word for purity as an expectation for brides. Dickinson parallels this pattern of placing a common association between dashes in the last line of the poem, in which she “sneered – softly – ‘small’!” (16). Therefore, Dickinson designates the expectations of women’s purity and silence as satirical, as both hinder the rhythmic reading of her poetry and serve to combat another expectation of women as small and simple. By complicating the traditional form within a poem that describes a woman’s power to realize largeness within herself, Dickinson forces the reader to consider the patriarchal schemas that constrain through their prose. Through her use of dashes, Dickinson reframes women’s purity, submissiveness, and silence as qualities that can enable the realization of power.

The content of Dickinson’s poetry mirrors its form in that it outwardly rejects previously established frameworks. In her poems discussing blindness, Dickinson counters and removes the validity of the owning, conquering, and inherently patriarchal sense of seeing. The eye, in its ability to dominate and claim, is central to the works of male writers of Dickinson’s time. In “Experience,” Ralph Waldo Emerson describes the power of the subject in his ability to understand the world in that “the subject enlarges… As I am, so I see”; (791)[1]. The ability Emerson’s male subject has to see, therefore, is inextricably connected to his self-concept in masculinity, as Emerson states in the following sentence that “we can never say anything but what we are; Hermes, Cadmus, Columbus, Newton, Buonaparte, are the mind’s ministers” (791). By designating the eye, the universal self, and the mind as conquering males by default, Emerson restricts the power of sight to the “enlarged” subjects of the patriarchy. In poem 1496, Dickinson acknowledges the universal, claiming qualities of the masculine eye, as she knows that “his eye/ Where e’er I ply/ Is pushing close behind” (4-6). By adhering to a traditional meter in her poem that propels the reader forward, Dickinson captures her speaker’s sense of being followed and surveilled by the male gaze. Her description of the gaze’s “omnipresence” as the patriarchy awaits women becoming brides is, therefore, an acknowledgment of and adherence to its structures of objectification (11).

In her poem 327 which establishes blindness, rather than sight, as essential to truly knowing the world, Dickinson not only challenges the patriarchal frameworks Emerson and others operate within, but disregards them altogether. In her opening statement, “Before I got my eye put out”, Dickinson immediately introduces her speaker as once possessing the owning capabilities that accompany sight, and implies that the speaker has found another, more meaningful way to perceive the world in her use of the past tense (1). She proceeds to classify seeing creatures as basking in the glory of their sight only because they know “no other way” to perceive (4). In Dickinson’s framework, sight, and masculinity by association, is only powerful in its existence as a sole, normalized option. Dickinson describes eyes as “finite” and would rather die than be able to claim the world around her “For mine – to look at when I liked – ” (12, 15). Instead, she indicates her preference for placing her “soul/ Upon the Window pane – Where other Creatures put their eyes –” (17-19). Rather than presenting the eyes as the window to the soul, Dickinson presents her soul upon a window that can experience the world directly, before imparting agency upon it. Dickinson’s understanding of the world implies an outward, exposed placement of the soul that exists within the world rather than as a subject perceiving and owning an object.

In her dismissal of the importance of the masculine eye as a mode of perception, Dickinson suggests that the systems of phallocentrism that confine language and analysis are deeply flawed. Within the context of a moment of absolute clarity in poem 305, Dickinson describes the mind as “Contented as the Eye/ Upon the Forehead of a Bust – / That knows – it cannot see –” (6-8). In her use of the word “Bust” coupled with the unseeing “Eye” Dickinson alludes to the bust of Sophocles. Sophocles’ play Oedipus the King, in which Oedipus blinds himself after discovering his dead wife and mother Jocasta, was foundational in Freud’s psychoanalytical theories framed by phallocentrism and in the theory of the removal eyes as a symbol of castration. Instead of emphasizing women’s agency within their castrated state, however, Dickinson negates the framework of castration anxiety invoked through blindness altogether in her designation of the eye “Upon the Forehead”. She discusses the third eye, or the mind’s eye, as the eye that is blinded within a state of “– no Motion–” in which the “Mind is smooth” (5). Hence, Dickinson bestows Sophocles’ mind with the quality of blindness that his character Oedipus enacts upon himself, and equates it with clarity and knowledge amidst chaos. Her definition of clarity does not require Sophocles’ paradigm of castration that women are perceived as embodying, but rather is characterized by a blinded eye of knowledge that is contented and aware of its blinded state. Therefore, Dickinson strips the male gaze of its power to objectify and consequently of its reliance on upholding its dominant state through that objectification – instead, she constructs a neutral plane of knowledge on which both men and women can exist as they consciously eliminate the governing, objectifying sense of sight.

Dickinson proposes alternative sensory frameworks to sight in her repeated discussions of touch and hearing. However, since grasping is inherently possessive within the sense of touch, Dickinson proposes it as an inadequate option in understanding and perceiving the world. In poem 986, Dickinson describes the terror her speaker feels when encountering a “narrow Fellow in the Grass” (1). By capitalizing “Fellow,” Dickinson invites the classically phallic perception of the snake as embodying masculinity. Dickinson’s speaker then passes a barefoot boy “stooping to secure” the snake that “wrinkled, and was gone –”(15, 16). In having the phallic snake disappear upon contact with the boy’s hand, Dickinson suggests the inability her speaker has to possess masculinity and its accompanying frameworks. Additionally, by choosing not to end the poem in a state of clarity and complete knowing as she does in many of her other poems, Dickinson proposes that the possessive sense of touch is unrelated to knowledge. She continues to designate touch as an inadequate framework in its attempt to possess knowledge in poem 271. As she contemplates the bliss that is expected to accompany becoming a bride, Dickinson’s speaker wonders if the bliss “would feel as big –/ When I could take it in my hand–” (10-11). Despite her suggestion that the bliss of her life will feel smaller when she grasps it, Dickinson’s speaker instead claims that the “size of this ‘small’ life –… Swelled – like Horizons – in my vest” (13, 15). Dickinson designates her sense of touch as incorrect in making a correct conclusion about her experience. Thus, Dickinson deems touch, with its possessive implications, as an inadequate framework for knowing the world.

            Unlike her representations of sight and touch as insufficient in their capabilities to acquire knowledge, Dickinson explicitly associates the sense of hearing with understanding throughout her poetry. In poem 280, Dickinson describes her speaker’s descent into the unknown through the metaphor of a funeral. In the moments preceding her death, the speaker describes space as “toll[ing]”, as if the “Heavens were a Bell/ And Being, but an Ear”(13-14). Amid the noise surrounding her, the speaker is with “Silence”, “solitary, here –” (15, 16). Dickinson’s construction of rhyme with “Ear” and “here” reinforces the presence of hearing and increases the salience of the sense of sound in the reader’s ear. Therefore, Dickinson describes the moments before the speaker “Finished knowing” as combinations of sound and silence that define that sense of knowing and perception (20). She mirrors this pattern in poem 465, as the speaker dies listening to the sound of a fly buzzing. Before the speaker “cannot see to see–”, she is interrupted by the “uncertain stumbling Buzz” of the fly as she considers her legacy (16, 13). Her final realization is that the incessant, constant sound of the insignificant fly is what will outlive her, and sparks her understanding of sight as no longer significant. By surrounding her speakers with sound in the moments before their death, Dickinson designates sound as the primary sense of knowing and experiencing that is lost, and ultimately realized as the most important form of sensory input in the speakers’ final moments.

In her association between hearing and knowing, coupled with her departure from the objectifying sense of sight and the possessing sense of touch, Dickinson defines hearing as a neutral, ungendered sensory modality from which to perceive the world. Poem 733 is one of the only poems in which Dickinson writes in the first-person plural, indicating its statements as embodying a collective voice. Dickinson also departs from her established poetic techniques by ending her first line, “The Spirit is the Conscious Ear” with a period, which she scarcely uses in the middle of her stanzas, if at all (1). Thus, Dickinson designates the first line of her poem as a definite truth that she bolsters by her repetition of “the” in her description of both the “Spirit” and the “Conscious Ear”. Although Dickinson admits that we can only “inspect” what is audible through hearing, she states that “For other Services” besides sound, “There hangs a smaller Ear” (3, 5, 6). Therefore, Dickinson implies that all other sensory input can be experienced through the sense of hearing. She exaggerates the importance of solely hearing as a way to receive input when she indicates that the “smaller Ear” “Contain –/ The other” senses (6, 7). By capitalizing “Contain” and using a lowercase letter to describe “other” sensory input, Dickinson begins to equate the ear to her previously discussed omnipresent nature of the masculine eye – in Dickinson’s neutral framework, it is the ear that contains all other senses in its ability to receive without imparting ownership. Finally, Dickinson constructs the form of poem 733 so that each of the two stanzas ends with homophones “–Here–” and “–Hear–”, mirroring the rhyme mentioned earlier from poem 280 (4, 8). Thus, Dickinson designates sound as a sense that is both immediate and eternal in its place in time and space and is ungendered in the speaker’s collective voice.

Dickinson, in her unraveling of associations, disruption of traditional form, and in her insistence on blindness and hearing as essential to the pursuit of knowledge, not only exposes the flaws in patriarchal objectifying frameworks but negates their governing implications entirely. Even her trademark of the em-dash is emblematic of the neutral structure she constructs and operates within, as the dash is an outward presentation of the inadequacy of prose that Dickinson defines as inherently constraining. Particularly in her status as a woman in the 19th century, Dickinson’s dash is an outward manifestation of the lack she is expected to have – instead of dwelling on the way she is perceived as lacking and striving to reclaim a sense of the phallus, Dickinson constructs a new framework that does not rely on phallocentrism for authority, ownership, or agency. Dickinson’s framework for understanding is one in which experiencing the world means receiving it without possessing it or exerting influence over it. In the context of a society that dismissed her because of her womanhood, of readers that overlooked her due to her seeming unreadability, and structures of language and meaning that were designed to constrain and exclude her, Dickinson’s poetry is a statement on the subjectivity of perception. Dickinson reminds us that as soon as we name, possess, and interpret what we perceive, we claim it in a way that by definition, contributes to a framework that is skewed by our experience. Instead, we should just listen –

[1]  I include Emerson’s “Experience” here as an example of the use of eyes as historically linked to masculinity and the pursuit of knowledge. The eye as a central pillar to the patriarchal order is also present in Emerson’s transparent eyeball, in Whitman’s emphasis on observing, and in Poe’s visual fragmentation of women and blinding of the cat in “The Black Cat”.

Works Cited

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