Emily Dickinson: Personae and Performance

Emily Dickinson: Personae and Performance

by Elizabeth Phillips


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Emily Dickinson: Personae and Performance by Elizabeth Phillips

Giving us a new sense of Dickinson’s ways of being in her world, this book traces the perceptions of that world in the poetry and contributes to our pleasure in the performance of a virtuoso. Elizabeth Philips shows the imaginative uses the poet made of her own life but also the verifiable use of her responses to others—personal friends and relatives, historical and literary figures, and “nature’s people”—in the play of language that registered her insights. The book is not a biography; it considers, instead, evidence of the poet’s character and her character as a poet. Dickinson emerges as less self-enclosed and enigmatic than she is frequently assumed to be.

Phillips is among those who reject the view of the poet as a psychologically disabled, perhaps mad woman who withdrew into herself because of some devastating emotional experience, presumably love that went wrong. She questions the common desire to connect the texts with a trauma for which the center is missing. While Dickinson pursued the vocation of a poet, she was actively engaged in much else that required stamina and resourcefulness. A woman in a 19th-century household, for instance, was not a woman of leisure; Dickinson bore a heavy share of domestic duties and familial responsibilities throughout most of her life. The crisis she experienced during the early 1860s, in a cluster of responses to the Civil War, coincided with the onset of her difficulties with her eyes. Suffering from exotropia and photophobia, she never fully recovered and gradually withdrew into the less severe light of the house in Amherst. She continued to care for those close to her and to write both letters and verse.

From the perspective of Dickinson’s maturity and resilience, we also see her gift for depicting and dramatizing episodes in a manner that gives the illusion of their being autobiographical whether they are or not. Dickinson was, however, an actress who changed roles and points of view as readily as she experimented with poetic genres. Analyses of her various personae (or “supposed persons”) for dramatic monologues in the Browning tradition—which enabled the poet to represent a range of experiences different form her own—serve to dispel much of the confusion that has surrounded her in the last century. Rather than searching for an illusive absent center, Phillips scrutinizes in a most revealing way the poet’s reading, appropriation, and command of materials from the Brontës, George Eliot, Hawthorne, the Brownings, Shakespeare, and the Southey for personae that introduce us to a Dickinson heretofore hardly glimpsed. A central vision of the study is the poet as a biographer of souls.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780271024844
Publisher: Penn State University Press
Publication date: 06/11/2004
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.88(d)

About the Author

Elizabeth Phillips is Professor Emerita of English at Wake Forest University. She is the author of Marianne Moore (1982).

Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgments ix
Introduction 1(5)
1 Occupation: At Home
2 Duplicities and Desires
3 The Prickly Art of Reading Emily Dickinson: The Terror Since September
4 "I wish I were a Hay": The Histrionic Imagination
5 "It's easy to invent a Life": Listening to Literary Voices
6 "How lovely are the wiles of Words": Trifles
7 "Experiment to me / Is every one I meet": Points of View
8 Words Engender Poems
Coda 208(6)
Notes 214(23)
Chronology 237(4)
Index 241

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