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Hollowness in Emily Dickinson’s Poetic Discourse

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Hollowness in Emily Dickinson’s Poetic Discourse

Much has been said about Emily Dickinson’s mystifying poetry and private life, especially during the years 1860-63. Allegedly it was during these years that the poetess, at the most prolific phase of her career, withdrew from society, began to wear her “characteristic” white dress and suffered a series of psychotic episodes. Dickinson tended to “theatricalize” herself by speaking through a host of personae in her poems and by “fictionalizing” her inner life as a gothic romance (Gilbert 584). Believing that a poem is “the best words in the best order” (to quote S.T. Coleridge) and that all the poems stemming from a single consciousness bring to surface different aspects / manifestations of the same personal mythology, I will firstly disregard biographical details in my interpretation of Dickinson’s poems 378, 341 and 280 and secondly place them in a sort of “continuum” (starting with 378 and ending with 280) to show how they attempt to describe a “plunge” into the Unconscious and a lapse into madness (I refrain from using the term “journey,” for it implies a “telos,” a goal which, whether unattainable or not, is something non-existent in the poems in question). Faced with the problem of articulating and concretizing inner psychological states, Dickinson created a totally new poetic discourse which lacks a transcendental signified and thus can dramatize the three stages of a (narrated) mental collapse: existential despair, withdrawal from the world of the senses and “death” of consciousness.

In poem 378 the reader is introduced to the mental world of a speaker whose relentless questioning of metaphysical “truths” has led her to a state of complete “faithlessness”: l...

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...son’s Poetry: Stairway of Surprise. New York: Holt, 1960.

Eberwein, Jane Donahue. Dickinson: Strategies of Limitation. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1985.

Feit Diehl, Joanne. “’Ransom in a Voice’: Language as Defense in Dickinson’s Poetry.” Feminist Critics Read Emily Dickinson. Ed. Suzanne Juhasz. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1983. 156-75.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the 19th Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.

Homans, Margaret. “’Oh, Vision of Language’: Dickinson’s Poems of Love and Death.” Feminist Critics Read Emily Dickinson. Ed. Suzanne Juhasz. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1983. 114-33.

Miller, Cristanne. “How ‘Low Feet’ Stagger: Disruptions of Language in Dickinson’s Poetry.” Feminist Critics Read Emily Dickinson. Ed. Suzanne Juhasz. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1983. 134-55.
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