Emily Dickinson: How Illness Shaped Her Writing

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Emily Dickinson has a characteristic writing style. Dickinson’s use of dashes and “randomly” placed capital letters throughout her work give her a unique style that is contradictory to her time. Many believe that it was her genius that caused this while still others believes it was her illness that contributed to her characteristic writing style. Lyndall Gordon's biography “offers a major revelation: evidence that Dickinson suffered from epilepsy. The author makes her case partly through prescriptions that Dickinson received (the papers still survive) and reinterprets poems such as "I felt a Cleaving in my Mind" to describe the poet's condition. She writes that ‘sickness is a more sensible reason for seclusion than disappointed love.’ Epilepsy carried a stigma, and Gordon explains that because diagnosis was ‘rarely uttered, still less put on paper, there's little chance of explicit evidence’” (Ciuraru). “Gordon makes a persuasive case for the link between epilepsy's visual and cerebral distortions and Dickinson's extraordinary language” (Showalter). By examining the imagery, diction, symbolism and tone in the poems “I Felt a Funeral in my Brain”, “I Felt a Cleaving in my Mind” and “Pain”, the reader can decipher the characteristics of Emily’s illness brought out in her writing.

Through the use of imagery, diction and symbolism in these three poems, the reader can get a sense of the pain and distraught that Dickinson may have felt because of her illness. In “I Felt a Cleaving in my Mind” the speaker talks of how “my Brain had split” (2). The word “Brain” (2) is capitalized to add emphasis on the word. To have one’s brain “split” (2) gives the illusion of one’s brain actually being rendered in two. To have this actually happen wou...

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...is experiencing. Pain is described as “an Element of Blank” (1). “Blank” is nothingness. “It cannot recollect” (2), it cannot remember a time when it was not there. It is difficult and hard to live with. The speaker cannot remember “When it begun-Or if there were/ A time when it was not-“(3-4). The illness has become such a part of the speaker’s life, she cannot remember a time when it did not occur. The speaker “has no Future” (5) with the pain of the illness. The illusion of infinity with the illness and pain is given and reiterated in the next line with “It’s Infinite contain-“(6). The only future the speaker has is “New Periods- Of Pain” (8). Because all the words are capitalized the reader is given the feeling of finality. That this is all there is, nothing more than pain. The dash causes the reader to pause and digest this information and the finality of it.

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