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Dickinson and the Romantic Imagination

Dickinson and the Romantic Imagination

by Joanne Feit Diehl

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Evaluating Emily Dickinson's poetry within the context of Romanticism, Joanne Diehl demonstrates how the poet both manifests and boldly subverts this literary tradition. One of the most important reasons for the poet's divergence from it, Professor Diehl argues, is a powerful sense of herself as a woman, which also creates a feeling of estrangement from the company


Evaluating Emily Dickinson's poetry within the context of Romanticism, Joanne Diehl demonstrates how the poet both manifests and boldly subverts this literary tradition. One of the most important reasons for the poet's divergence from it, Professor Diehl argues, is a powerful sense of herself as a woman, which also creates a feeling of estrangement from the company of major male Romantic precursors.

Originally published in 1982.

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Dickinson and the Romantic Imagination

By Joanne Feit Diehl


Copyright © 1981 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06478-9


"Come Slowly — Eden": The Woman Poet and Her Muse

Swedenborg has written that we are each in the midst of a group of associated spirits who sleep when we sleep and become the dramatis personae of our dreams, and are always the other will that wrestles with our thought, shaping it to our despite.

— William Buder Yeats

In his recent journeys along the "hidden roads that go from poem to poem," Harold Bloom explores the dilemma of a poet wrestling with his precursors. Bloom has turned to the rhetorical systems of Vico, Nietzsche, Freud, and the Kabbalah to illuminate his own vision. His use of these systems assumes the poet to be male, for the tropes these models offer convey a specific sexual identity. The oedipal struggle, the son's war with the father, the desire for and resentment of the seductive female, must echo throughout these philosophies of origins. Although Bloom keeps alluding to the sexual aspects of the poet's dilemma, he repeatedly avoids the question raised by his own speculations, "What if the poet be a woman?" But how might the process of influence differ for women poets, and how do women poets perceive their relation to a male-dominated tradition? It is to this question that the following chapters will, in various ways, return. For the theoretical framework I set forth here finds its specific examples and strongest justification in the individual chapters, the close readings of Dickinson and the Romantics, that follow. Moreover, what I suggest about the confrontation between Dickinson and the Romantic imagination may be taken to apply more generally to post-Romantic women poets' perceptions of influence in the nineteenth century. Indeed, such an investigation into the relationship between women poets and the Romantics demonstrates not only a shared awareness of the burdens of tradition but illustrates as well the development of an alternative line to the dominant male canon, the beginning of a countertradition of post-Romantic women poets. Because Dickinson is central to this revision, she will be my primary subject here, yet the reader should remember that the implications of the following chapters are important for others, especially Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Christina Rossetti. Furthermore, I maintain that Dickinson's perception of influence leads us to a provisional formulation of a paradigm that applies more generally to nineteenth-century women poets as they seek independence from powerful male precursors. For Rossetti and Browning as well as for Dickinson, the precursor becomes a composite male figure; finding themselves heirs to a long succession of fathers, these women share the vision of a father/lover that surpasses individuals. And so for them the composite father is the main adversary.

Any discussion of influence should be informed by a more general sense of how the poet confronts basic existential events life, death, the sources of his or her art As a poet, Dickinson knew no innocence Her poems attest to frustrated experience — crucial moments lost or anticipated possibilities rejected Earlier events narrow her sphere of future action Examining her past and her childhood, Dickinson recalls no privileged sanctuary. Taught to perceive children as lost souls who must find grace before they can be freed from guilt, she feels exiled, banished by a Calvimst consciousness from the "prenatal" possibility of grace Unlike the Romantics, she does not recall the "visionary gleam" lost in the process of growth, for it has never been hers When Dickinson invokes an Edenic garden, anxiety and shame mark her perception In a letter written toward the end of her life, she states, "In all the circumference of Expression, those guileless words of Adam and Eve never were surpassed, ? was afraid and hid Myself'" Critics have compared Dickinson's poems with Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Expertence, but the comparison must concede an overriding difference — Dickinson writes only songs of experience Those poems which adopt a vision of the young innocent are often her most searing comments Noting her dark ironies, Clark Griffith remarks that those poems which assume the guise of innocence actually adopt it as a mask, through such irony and paradox, childlike trust is subverted

Resentment and anxiety are the mirror emotions which reflect Dickinson's vision of reality The fear she experiences when contemplating the advent of any possible happiness arises from an already present knowledge, a foreboding which could appear only in one who had experienced, if subliminally, the anguished sum of life's promise. Her distrust of nature and her isolation from mother and God stem from this self-conscious absence of innocence; it depends upon an educated awareness of the experience's potential for destruction and injury For example, in an early valentine sent to Elbridge G. Bowdom, Dickinson's vision of erotic bliss is shadowed by her awareness of the other side of life Within this highly conventional romantic frame, death and the swift punishment of God's law reside

The life doth prove the precept, who obey shall happy
Who will not serve the sovreign, be hanged on fatal tree

The reality principle overwhelms this paean to romance, and the prevailing consciousness creating the poem cannot free itself from death's imminence

The worm doth woo the mortal, death claims a living
Night unto day is married, morn unto eventide; .. [1]

A Darwinian relentlessness invades even this instance of coquettish flirtation. Rather than attempt to subsume her anxiety by a posture of feigned innocence, Dickinson may attest to her own wariness. She confronts the apprehension which forces her to pause before accepting experiences of possible pleasure as well as pain.

Come slowly — Eden!
Lips unused to Thee —
Bashful — sip thy Jessamines —
As the fainting Bee —
"Come Slowly — Eden"
Reaching late his flower,
Round her chamber hums —
Counts his nectars —
Enters — and is lost in Balms [211]

According to Dickinson, the power of someone outside the self first awakens her from passivity She depends upon an "other" to answer her call and heed her song Without a responsive voice, supportive and alluring, she fears that she might lose the impetus to continue to write Yet this awakening is associated with both the world of books and death This coupling is hardly coincidental, for words themselves at once "enchant" and "infect" her They carry a lethal potency akin to the attraction of death, which offers a solution to life's mysteries and the erotic satisfaction of sacrifice, giving one's self to an inscrutable lover But death renders the soul silent, and communication between the dead and the living proves impossible The temptation of death arises from Dickinson's need to obviate the frustrations of experience, the fear of death from the defeating silence it imposes

Dickinson's relation to this muse, the inspiriting force she invokes, adds to her perception of the Master Poet, a symbolic figure who subsumes the individual poets that comprise his identity, and the Composite Precursor, who represents the collective force of the major influences upon her writing Yet her sense of her muse differs fundamentally from that of the male Romantics, Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley For them the traditional vision of the feminine goddess, the image of the fecund if idealized or distant muse, lingers. The male poets retain the ability to separate their poetic fathers — mythic progenitors — from the muse. The relation between the male poet and his muse is a private courtship upon which the presence of the father impinges but in which the younger poet, depending upon his strength, may win his muse from the father to invoke the aura of inspiration he desires. The ritual of invocation itself serves as a propitiating gesture, a positive strategy to make one's obeisance to the forces of creativity. But not for Dickinson. Her dilemma of influence is at once complicated and radically simplified by her perception that the Composite Precursor and her muse are the same The muse gains stature and his or her power increases through this identification. When Dickinson envisions her muse as male, she fears his pnapic power and wards him off with intense anxiety as she simultaneously seeks to woo him

We shun it ere it comes,
Afraid of Joy,
Then sue it to delay
And lest it fly,
Beguile it more and more —
May not this be
Old Suitor Heaven,
Like our dismay at thee? [1580]

Although Dickinson does not say here that she is explicitly describing her response to the advent of the muse, she has outlined what for her becomes a typical drama, whether the "it" refers to a season, a lover, or poetic inspiration

For the male poet, the birth of a poem fulfills his maieutic impulse, he becomes both midwife to and mother of his art But Dickinson acknowledges a potential shift in psychic responsibility when the poet is a woman, from the self to the doubly potent muse With this shift comes a heightened anxiety, a fear that the passivity a woman poet had banished may return if the "ephebe" must prostrate herself before a masculine muse. This fear partially accounts for Dickinson's distrust of the visitor, her ambivalent responses toward the figure of the stranger in her poems So great is the pressure the poet faces that she is tempted to relinquish her poetic ambitions and the power of action. Yet out of her struggle with passivity and retreat comes the triumph of a poem which records the terms of the confrontation:

I would not paint — a picture —
I'd rather be the One
It's bright impossibility
To dwell — delicious — on —
And wonder how the fingers feel
Whose rare — celestial — stir —
Evokes so sweet a Torment —
Such sumptuous — Despair —

I would not talk, like Cornets —
I'd rather be the One
Raised softly to the Ceilings —
And out, and easy on —
Through Villages of Ether —
Myself endued Balloon
By but a lip of Metal —
The pier to my Pontoon —

Nor would I be a Poet —
It's finer — own the Ear —
Enamored — impotent — content —
The License to revere,
A privilege so awful
What would the Dower be,
Had I the Art to stun myself
With Bolts of Melody! [505]

Note that Dickinson speaks of "dower," the wealth one brings to marriage. If she brought what she has been saving to a wedding of the powers within herself, she would be stunned, struck by bolts (which recall the threatened phallic power of lightning); yet these bolts are made of melody, the music of the poem. Here language reflects the pull of attraction and terror that informs Dickinson's view of independence as a poet and the dangers attendant on creative self-sufficiency.

Dickinson's plea for independence signals another breakdown in the conventional romantic relationship of poet and muse. Implicit in the Romantic view of the poet as quester is a self that pursues the dangerous, seductive female. Masculinity, associated with the active self, the literary voice of authority from the Bible onward, continues its dominance. Most immediately Milton's abiding presence confirms and deepens the masculine tenor of post-Enlightenment poetry If the Romantics assumed the poet to be a mental "hero," transferring the metaphor of the quest to the vocation of the poet, then the role of the woman was to wait, to taunt the poet with visions of bliss, and, if he were lucky, possibly to lead him beyond the confines of the human into a realm of spiritual awakening accompanied by the punishment of death Yet for the post-Romantic woman poet the roles of muse and poet have shifted Because of this transference, Dickinson wavers between feeling that she must wait to receive her Master/muse and radical rejection of his presence Threat of dependence foments rebellion, by casting off her Precursor, she fears that she may be relinquishing her muse as well In the process of exorcising her Precursor, she may banish the source of her art In her late poems, Dickinson asserts her independence of any master, yet she remains haunted by the possibility that she may have been robbed of his potency and power Her poems vacillate between these two poles — the conflict remains unresolved and so must be reenacted in poem after poem

Growth of Man — like Growth of Nature —
Gravitates within —
Atmosphere, and Sun endorse it —
But it stir — alone —

Each — it's difficult Ideal
Must achieve — Itself —
Through the solitary prowess
Of a Silent Life —

Effort — is the sole condition —
Patience of Itself —
Patience of opposing forces —
And intact Belief —

Looking on — is the Department
Of it's Audience —
But Transaction — is assisted
By no Countenance — [750]

Responsibility for the self can gain ascendancy, but it is an experience that may be temporary — lasting for only a single morning and then undergoing brutal attack:

My Soul — accused me — And I quailed —
As Tongues of Diamond had reviled
All else accused me — and I smiled —
My Soul — that Morning — was My friend —

Her favor — is the best Disdain
Toward Artifice of Time — or Men —
But Her Disdain — 'twere lighter bear
A finger of Enamelled Fire — [753]

Self-reliance can turn into nightmare when the light of internal approval vanishes. When the enemy resides within, the attack is overwhelming, because any mediating distance is absent.

Clearly these poems do not refer specifically to writing poems, but the attitudes they express extend throughout the full range of Dickinson's experiences. The vocation of the poet is one of her prime concerns, not only because she spent her life writing, but because she places the power of the poet above that of the physical world and the act of writing on a plane with God. She establishes her priorities: "I reckon — when I count at all — /First — Poets — Then the Sun —" (569). Indeed the poet must challenge God and wrest a blessing from Him In "A Little East of Jordan," Dickinson describes this process

A little East of Jordan,
Evangelists record,
A Gymnast and an Angel
Did wrestle long and hard —

Till morning touching mountain —
And Jacob, waxing strong,
The Angel begged permission
To Breakfast — to return —

Not so, said cunning Jacob'
'I will not let thee go
Except thou bless me' — Stranger'
The which acceded t o —

Light swung the silver fleeces
'Peniel' Hills beyond,
And the bewildered Gymnast
Found he had worsted God' [59]

Late in life, Dickinson explicitly identified Jacob with the poet, with herself "Audacity of Bliss, said Jacob to the Angel 'I will not let thee go except I bless thee' — Pugilist and Poet, Jacob was correct —" However, here Dickinson alters the words of Genesis as the poet Jacob assumes the authority over the angel, messenger of God As Jacob wrestles with the stranger, so Dickinson wrestles with her muse She associates wrestling not only with receiving God's power and the favors of the muse but also with the process of birth When congratulating her friend Mrs Holland upon the birth of a son, she writes, "I pray for the tenants of that holy chamber, the wrestler, and the wrestled for" Dickinson shares in the tradition of poets' identifying their creative role with a woman's giving birth to a child, and she places her emphasis on the physical realities of the process Despite the fact that as a woman giving birth would be a biological possibility for her, she does not easily fuse the metaphor of birth with artistic creativity, as one might expect Instead, she stresses her potential vulnerability during poetic "conception" and the physical struggle of the birth process itself

The physicality of wrestling as a metaphor for poetic creativity relates to Dickinson's sense of struggle when confronting the combined power of muse and male Precursor This double identity of stranger and preceptor is a source of the continuing ambivalence toward her own powers and the simultaneous need to banish all authorities outside the self Yet she is frequently abashed by the power of the Precursor, the lover, God This combined male figure fills her with what she calls "awe," an awareness and fear of the sublimity of her confrontations with the other. In order to accommodate her ambivalence, Dickinson seizes upon moments of gain and loss, of annunciation and departure Each poem serves as a buffer, a momentary stopping of experience which embodies the control she longs to assert over existence Writing to her cousins Louise and Frances Norcross, Dickinson explains how she reacts to the deaths which crowded her last years: "Each that we lose takes part of us, / A crescent still abides,. I work to drive the awe away, yet awe impels the work."


Excerpted from Dickinson and the Romantic Imagination by Joanne Feit Diehl. Copyright © 1981 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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