Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson

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B)      The riddle we can guess
     We speedily despise -
     Not anything is stale so long
     as yesterday’s surprise -

How important is the idea of riddling in Emily Dickinson’s poetry? Cover a range of poems in your answer, and discuss at least four of them in close detail.


During the late nineteenth century, Emily Dickinson (1830 - 1886) featured as one of the few female poets in the largely male-dominated sphere of American literature. Although she authored 1800 poems, only seven were published during her lifetime - why? Emily Dickinson has always provoked debate; over her life, her motivations for the words she wrote and the interpretations of those words. It can be argued that Emily Dickinson herself, was as ambiguous, as misunderstood and as elusive as her poetry. As a outlet for relentless examination of every aspect of her mind and faith her poems are both expository and puzzling. Her conclusions are often cryptically implicit and largely dependant on the readers ability to put together the pieces - to see the connections and implications. Amy Lowell said "She was the mistress of suggestion....and to a lesser degree, irony" The ruses and riddles in her poems came from her; and as such she too was a riddle.

The riddle was important to Emily Dickinson for several reasons. She wished to reason with her own feelings despite her contradictory beliefs - she wished to be one who "distils amazing sense / from ordinary meanings (#448)".
For her, life, nature and faith were all riddles in themselves. None of these three come with all the answers, although clues are given - her poems both deal with and mirror this phenomenon.
     And through a riddle, at the last -
     sagacity must go -           (#501)
(In these lines Dickinson doubts the sense of religious claims about life, death and life after death). Her cryptic language thus became part of her search for truth and personal clarification. She couched her poetry in ambiguous, complex and multi-layered language - in this form it became both a defence, and a game. The riddles concealed her anarchy, her dissension and her audaciousness in questioning the status quo. She achieved her most audacious commentaries and attacks on American perceptions and values through riddle and ruse; by ellipsis, dodge, a vague daring, an evident superiority of language and idea, staying virtually unknown . The ambiguities in the riddles were her defence against authority, religious tyranny and "norm" thinking.

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The mischief and play concealed within her poems: the riddles; were games designed both to amuse and test the ingenuity of her readers and critics alike. Play was a way of transcending the rational...play was freedom...abandon, diversion, riddle, improvisation. Emily Dickinson&#8217;s poetry was an introspective search for answers to her inner turmoil. Contained within these poems - of specific importance the riddles - are the personal literary devices which as exploratory structures...give tentative order to the chaos of her emotions and thoughts.

Emily Dickinson presented her riddles through both established language devices and her own vision of the scheme of poetry. According to her perceptions and logic if one is to be more than a passive observer...one must exercise some essential control..for Emily Dickinson this control often took the form of linguistic violation. Her imagery and personification methods were particularly effective in establishing complex multi-layered poems, which relied for meaning and aesthetic effect on the readers awareness and intuition. One of the important functions of her poems were to decode the riddles she perceived in life, and search for the answers to her questions. As a consequence her poems have an expository nature - parallelling the actions of the reader as she/he attempts to decode and expose the core of the riddle. It has been argued that for Emily Dickinson, because life was uncontrolled and manipulative, so was imagery. Imagery for Dickinson was expansive of feeling, understanding and possibility, and it is through imagery that she achieves her tricks of perception and her illusionary performances. Through an arsenal of masks and poses, (she) sanctions her devalued or dismissed self. Metaphorical play was another technique of Dickinson&#8217;s riddling - she often played at deliberately confusing the distinctions between literal and metaphorical. Dickinsons riddles were also created and sustained through the use of reversal - both rejecting, and needing a concept (such as her puritanical background) and the juxtaposition of the two resulting in a apposite order and a new creative energy. ...delight in the impossible possession of the desired . Riddle was also achieved through oxymoron - which served as the main language structure for her sense of the indecipherable ambiguity of existence. Its form like her thinking, is that of the riddle, rebus, enigma

In the poem #216 "Safe in their Alabaster Chambers" ambiguity and riddle is achieved through the questions aroused by the existence of three possible endings. The original ending(1859), is one stanza which continues on in the same vein of the satire in stanza1 - a play on the then current Christian concept of death and resurrection. Dickinson plays ironically with the Protestant consolatory language, using typology. In 1861, a new second stanza was written, that sways towards horror. This "nihilistic" second stanza contrasts completely with the somewhat cloyingly sentimental tone of the first stanza achieving a quasi-ironical effect. In the poem, the small comfortable puritan faith in a personal resurrection (stanza1) is simply allowed to hang in the air as a point from which to measure the cold immensity of infinite space and unending time. The poem&#8217;s conclusion is more implicit, and expressed through suggestive images - ie: important dignitaries surrender and die, and this is of the same significance as specks on snow - that the world out there is vast, cold and impersonal. Later, she wrote a further two replacement stanzas for the last, which sentimentalise death in keeping with the tone of the first stanza. This, apparently was at the urging of her sister-in-law, Sue, and as a result the poems actually became, while ostensibly a homage to the dead, a subtle mockery of Sue&#8217;s lack of intuition as to its original meaning and a parody of her position, beliefs and views. Despite all the other versions, when it came to the poems publication, she insisted on the first version. The poem also incorporates the riddle - will those that are resting, rise ?

Poem #214 "I taste a liquor never brewed", is generally considered to be a poem of importance amongst Dickinson&#8217;s works. The poem appears to be an extended metaphor about "I", who is assumed to be the poet, reeling drunkenly through a garden, intoxicated on flowers and summer air, or perhaps on a more metaphysical level, pretending to be drunk with the joy of living. The riddle is GUESS WHO ?- Who is "I"? It can be argued that the poem describes the flight of a drunken hummingbird, using personification to endow it with human qualities. (the "drunken bee", "butterflies - renounce their drams". The ultimate triumph of the poem is her praising and condoning the scandalous and socially unacceptable behaviour of the hummingbird. The rhythm used is almost that of the hymn, rendering the poem even more ironic (and audacious) in view of the pervasive alcoholic beverage imagery used throughout the poem (for example - tankards / vats / liquor / inebriate / debauchee / inns / drams) In the third stanza, all the other drinkers must stop "when "Landlords" turn the drunken bee / out of the foxgloves door -", the hummingbird can continue using his long bill; until the final lines when he is seen "leaning against the sun". The poem celebrates the sensuous, and plays with perception. "Liquor never brewed" could well be nectar. In spite of the apparent unconcern with rhyme, metrics and technical construction, the poem has an essential and intrinsic melody.

Poem #585 - "I like to see it lap the miles" is written entirely in the form of a riddle. The object of the poem is never described, and the metaphorical equivalent is never explicitly identified - the readers have to link imagery and make connections themselves. Many critics assumed the poem was a comic eulogy of the Amherst Railway, the poet&#8217;s fathers pet project, however, in fact it is a serious and pointed comment about nineteenth-century technological achievement. Riddle is utilised to dramatise and even satirise the symbol of progress. The deliberate childlike tone of the first line "I like to see it lap the miles..." is a deliberate illusion and represents more the attitude of those around Dickinson regarding technology than her own. The apparently positive tone of the poem towards its subject carries a sub-surface devastatingly ironic critique. Dickinson clearly has profound reservations about this new glorification of speed and power The description of the initial picture is soon disturbed by the sense that the "beast" is intrusive, consuming (juxtaposing "feed" / "lap" / "lick"), and swallowing up the valleys - a potential threat to the natural world. No human is to be noted, the "beast" appears to be self-sufficuent and self-motivated. The "beast" swells - it is "prodigious", can "step / around a pile of mountains" , - it&#8217;s proportions become nightmarish. The "beast" then sneers at shanties - the homes of those who built the tracks - the relationship between man and machine has been thwarted, even reversed...the creature has usurped the position, and the power, of its creator. By the end of the third stanza, the landscape is occupied by the creature alone. The final stanza is full of equine imagery, however in the other stanzas the "beast" is undefined, or chameleon-like - a serpentine form perhaps signifying another level of meaning - a demonic intruder, the accursed serpent from Genesis. Boanerges is a Biblical name meaning "Sons of Thunder" alluding to the noise of the train, and implying through Scripture threatened destruction. Oxymoron is used in the last stanza "docile and omnipotent" suggesting a God-like association, perhaps a connection with the birth of Christ. The train usurps these terms. The star contributes to the nativity scene (the stable, the god-terms) of a new god - the "beast"/train. The poem is a commentary on the human capacity to make idols, and warns of catastrophe.

The poem #465 "I heard a fly buzz when I died", a macabre poem, where the grand scene of dying is eclipsed by the vulgar and funny moment of death. It is a riddle in its ironical and satirical view of the scene. It is a retrospective of someone&#8217;s own sensations during death. It is a satiric poem - in that the traditional view of death is as a peaceful release, whereas Dickinson sees disappointment, alienation and a buzzing fly. There is a sense of the situation being almost a comedy of irreverence. A kind of gothic/comic relief sets an odd tone, traditionally death is a sober occasion, but this is the irony in the poem. The poem is in fact a ironic reversal of the conventional attitudes of the time and place toward the significance of the moment of death. Dickinson has strived for rhyme and meter in this poem, reflecting the continuance of the telling of her story - there is a parallel of structure and sense. The point of view is deliberately engineered to be amusing and ironic. The fly represents both the feeder on carrion, a symbol of life and echoes Dickinson&#8217;s larger theme : This world is all. In the final line "I could not see to see" the subject is still not able to imagine her/his own lack of consciousness.


It has been said that criticism on Dickinson is essentially a record of the attempts to decipher the images, solve the riddles, identify the allusions, and go to the heart of her poems. Several are considered to be almost impregnable, their ambiguous, enigmatic, allusive, vague, riddle-like nature thought too complex by some to decipher. Riddles, and riddles within poems such as Emily Dickinson&#8217;s are multilayered, and therefore open to interpretation. For Dickinson, herself the poetry was a record of her introspections, an exploration of her own states of consciousness and intense emotions - they were important as a kind of therapy; a search for answers and clues on paper. They gave strength, and were a way of combating causality. The constant metamorphoses (both of persona and topic) and ambiguities (making it possible to show that nothing is sure and yet everything is possible) in her poems suggests trickery, - evoking bewilderment but provoking questions - with so many ruses and riddles is anything determinable?
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