Take Home Essay
Emily Dickinson is widely known as one of America's greatest poets, but she is also remembered for the unusual life she led. Though she preferred a life of seclusion, she managed to write very convincingly on the matters of the world that she seemingly had little personal experience with. She was an unmarried woman in the nineteenth century which, according to Joan Burbick, is a point of interest. Burbick states in the article "Emily Dickinson and the Economics of Desire" that "the unmarried woman represented a puzzling, if not disturbing, cultural fact. As a woman she was equated with sexuality, having access to its use, but as a single woman without the sanction of marriage, she had no proper guidelines for how to 'manage' its use. As a result, the married woman was in need of severe regulation: all sexual feelings, thoughts, and actions had to be contained" (Burbick, 362-363). Burbick goes on to say that desire in particular is dangerous for the unmarried woman. Dickinson expresses desire in terms of pleasure without regulation, forbidden love, and desiring the unattainable.
Burbick conjectures that Dickinson sees desire as unavoidable, inexplicable, and one with life. The speakers in Dickinson's poems "entreat the lover to experience a consummatory sexuality that implies total depletion" (Burbick, 367). Poem 211 displays this sort of desire. The poem begins with the line "Come slowly—Eden!" which means that speaker wishes to reach a place of bliss but she does not want it to pass too quickly. The rest of the poem is filled with flower references, a common euphemism for the act of sex. The lines describe a man who has been waiting to be with his lover, and when he finally meets her he hovers around her chamber, counts his nectars, enters her and is lost in ecstasy. The same sentiment of drawing out the moment can be seen in poem 1125 with the lines "Oh Sumptuous moment / Slower go / That I may gloat on thee—." Both of these examples are thinly veiled references to the rapture of consummatory sexuality.
Poem 249 might be called one of Dickinson's most openly passionate poems. It expresses her longing to leave Eden behind and experience "wild nights" on the sea. James L. Dean notes in his article "Dickinson's 'Wild Nights'" that the primary contrast in this poem lies between the idea of being in port, specifically in Eden, which suggests safety, certainty, and the heart in repose, and being at sea, which suggests wildness, danger, excitement, and motion (Dean, 92). Though the idea of Eden is generally associated with paradise, Dickinson is associating it with stagnation and boredom in this poem. It is evident that she is tired of being safe and careful when she proclaims that she is "Done with the Compass— / Done with the Chart!" These lines suggest that the speaker whishes to be out at see without a map to guide her. Accompanying this desire for excitement is a sense of urgency. This can be seen in the shift in specificity between her first and second stanzas. In the first stanza, she is speaking of nights in general. In the second stanza, she expresses the desire to be moored "Tonight." Dean suggests that the greater meaning that Dickinson is trying to convey through this poem is that "only in danger is safety ensured, only in wildness can the heart be firmly moored" (Dean, 93). One might interpret this to mean that the heart is wandering and lost when it is alone, but only in the dangerous throes of passionate love is it truly secure because then it belongs to someone.
Another expression of unrestrained desire, though far less sexually charged, can be found in poem 754. In the first stanza, the speaker of this poem describes her life as a "loaded gun" ready, waiting, and full of potential but useless until she is someone's possession. This desire to be possessed was fulfilled when her "Owner" was identified and "carried her away." From this point on in the poem she is happy to be loyal and of use to her "owner;" she needs no other purpose in life. At the end of the poem, she demonstrates how deep this desire to be possessed runs by stating that her "owner" must live longer than she because she doesn't have "the power to die" and she could not live without him. John Cody attempts to explain this through psychoanalysis by suggesting that her "previously repressed and forbidden erotic drives were contained and made permissible by a displacement to a safely unobtainable love object. The aggression and hostility stimulated by her frustrated love needs also found their way into the poem(s)" and that the poem is a "fusion of sexuality and destructiveness" (Cody, 402). Lillian Faderman suggests that this poem might even be interpreted as autobiographical as Dickinson expressed a similar sentiment in a famed letter to her "Master." In it she writes, "I will never be noisy when you want to be still. I will be… you best little girl—nobody else will see me but you—but that is enough—I shall not want anymore" (Faderman, 121). Like her other poems about unbridled desire, her need is not hidden here.
Another way in which Dickinson expresses desire is through restraint. "Dickinson's speakers often embrace a posture of self-denial" (Burbick, 368). The desire expressed in poem 640 is of this sort. The speaker of this poem depicts herself as the one who is the inferior and places her object of affection on a pedestal of perfection. She compares her lover to Jesus and says that his/her face would "put out Jesus'" if the two were compared. This use of blasphemous comparisons assists the idea that the love is forbidden. The speaker believes that her lover is saved but that she is condemned to be where he lover is not and compares this situation to hell. It is clear that the speaker desires a world in which she could be with her lover without fear of being "judged," but she must be content sitting in separate rooms "With just the Door ajar."
Poem 322 also expresses the burden of forbidden love. The poem depicts a forbidden love that will have to be delayed until the afterlife when they can finally be together. The reader can infer that the love is forbidden by the use of the word "permitted" in line 14. This word is important because it demonstrates to the reader that this last day that the lovers are spending together is an exception that must be cherished because it will not be allowed again. It is evident that the speaker is cherishing it in lines 17 and 18, "The Hours slid fast—as Hours will, / Clutched tight by greedy hands." These two lines express the speaker's desire to hold on to this day and be with her lover longer, but it is clear that they will not be awarded love until death. According to Burbick, the "death of the desiring self becomes the necessary prerequisite to prove love" (Burbick, 372).
Some of Dickinson's poems blur the lines between the first two categories, unrestrained pleasure and forbidden love. This can be seen in poem 1651. It is most apparent in the lines "A Word made Flesh is seldom/ And tremblingly partook." The trembling is erotic and performative. This eroticism continues and is associated with appetite and human, fleshly, corporeal desire. The idea of taking the "Word made Flesh" as sacrament is related to appetite and the "corporeal desire of sexual and oral needs" (Diehl, 189). Later in the stanza, the phrase "ecstasies of stealth" is used. According to Diehl, the "ecstasies of stealth" are forbidden rather than sanctified and that's what makes them erotically charged (Diehl, 190). The speaker is not meant to take this sacrament but derives pleasure from doing so anyway. This line lends itself to the category of desiring what is forbidden.
Along with the idea of forbidden love comes the idea of desiring that which is out of reach. Dickinson's "economics of asceticism" allow loss, danger, and uncertainty to increase both the cost and the value of the object of desire. Some quotes from Dickinson that Burbick cites as supporting this idea are "''Heaven'—is what I cannot reach!' (P 239)… Delight becomes 'more fair—because impossible / That any gain—' (P 572)… and 'Possession fairest lies that is least possest' (L 359)." Burbick states that "striving for the unobtainable forms the very basis of incredible worth" (Burbick, 368).
The speaker in poem 511 desires certainty. She is separated from her lover and longs for his/her return and, even more than that, a certainty of when that time will come. It is clear that the speaker is willing to wait for her lover's return because she spends the first four stanzas describing how she would pass the time. She says that she would happily brush off the summer like a fly, roll the months in balls, count centuries in her fingers, and die if it meant that she would see her lover again. These images convey the huge devotion that inspires the speaker's desire to see her lover again. However, the tone changes in the last stanza and it becomes evident to the reader that, more than the return of her lover, the speaker desires certainty. The uncertainty "goads" the speaker like a "Goblin bee—/ That will not state—its sting." Burbick mentions that Dickinson uses doubt or uncertainty as a rival or an obstacle between her and her object of desire as a means of adding value to the object (Burbick, 369).
Poem 646 also expresses a desire to possess something one cannot have, in this case, to be a different person or live a different life. The speaker in this poem ponders over the heart she "former wore" which might imply that there has been a change in her that she does not like and would prefer to be the person she was before. She expresses that if she was able to attain this other life, her heart could widen, the days would stand in ordination, and she would feel no more doom. She also expresses that the version of her self that she is imagining is "right" when she says, "The Vision—pondered long— / So plausible becomes / That I esteem the fiction—real—cool / The Real—fictitious seems." The speaker solidifies her desire for a different life with the conclusion of the poem. "How bountiful the Dream— / What Plenty—it would be— / Had all my Life but been Mistake/ Just rectified—in Thee." If the "Thee" in the last line is interpreted to be referring to her other self, it is clear that the impossible desire of the speaker in this poem is to have led another life.
Dickinson's poem 842 expresses another unattainable desire. Though the poem speaks literally of the fox and the hound, according to David Rutledge, they symbolize the poet and the reader; the hound representing the reader who is hunting for the fox's (poet's) elusive meaning in her poetry. The first two lines of this poem, "Good to hid, and hear 'em hunt! / Better, to be found," convey the joy the poet finds in hiding her meaning from her reader but also that she doesn't want the meaning to be hidden so well that the reader misses it entirely. The last three lines introduce the poet's desire to find the "ideal reader" or the "rare Ear/ not too dull." Rutledge puts it simply as "the poet who was [in the first stanza] doing the hearing (and the hiding) now wishes there was a reader who could hear her" (Rutledge, 140). He further explains that "this poem moves from an assertive confidence in her mastery to an expression of anxiety as to whether that mystery will ever be appreciated" (Rutledge, 141). What is unattainable about this desire is that the perfect reader does not exist.
Burbick believes that what is remarkable about Dickinson's poetry is "the extent to which [she] depicts the bliss of consummatory pleasure and constructs an economy that equates it with absolute 'riches'" (Burbick, 364), but this comparison of desire to riches makes its way not only into her poetry but into her life as well. In Burbick's article "Emily Dickinson and the Economics of Desire," he cites many instances when Dickinson refers to her friends and family as precious stones or other such things with monetary value. "Dickinson describes longing in terms of poverty and wealth, loss and gain" (Burbick, 363). These representations of longing can be seen in letters she wrote to her friends, and they even appear in the categories of desire that were previously mentioned, the first being unrestrained. One such letter was written to Jane Humphrey in which Dickinson wrote, "I miss my beloved Jane—I wish you would write to me—I should think more of it than a mine of gold—" (Burbick, 365). In another letter to Samuel Bowles, she writes, "My friends are my 'estate.' Forgive me then the avarice to hoard them!" (Burbick, 366). These economic metaphors even make it into the realm of the sexually explicit. In a letter to her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert, she boldly states, "How dull our lives must seem to the bride, and the plighted maiden, whose days are fed with gold, and who gather pearls every evening…" (Burbick, 367).
Dickinson also uses restraint in expressing desire to her friends. She wrote in a letter to Susan Gilbert, "To miss you, Sue, is power. The stimulus of Loss makes most Possession mean." This supports Burbick's assertion that "Dickinson's speakers often embrace a posture of self-denial for which they are rewarded. Only by not-having does that which is desired 'gain' in value" (Burbick, 368).
"When used to regulate the emotions, economic language often goes beyond producing an ethos of sexual frugality, creating instead sexual impoverishment. In this way, Dickinson's writings delineate the cultural language of desire for the Victorian woman in an age that attempted to 'rob' the female body of delight" (Burbick, 378). The sexual repression of woman that prevailed in the nineteenth century might explain Dickinson's obsession with and varying portrayals of desire: unregulated, forbidden, and unattainable.
Burbick, Joan. "Emily Dickinson and the Economics of Desire." American Literature 58 (3) 1986: 361-78.
Cody, John. After Great Pain: The Inner Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1971. 402. Print.
Dean, James L. "Dickinson's 'Wild Nights.'" Explicator 51 (2) 1993: 91-93.
Diehl, Joanne Feit. "Poem 1651 Workshop Discussion." Women's Studies 16 (1-2) 1989: 189-206.
Faderman, Lillian. "Poem 754 Ambivalent Heterosexuality in "My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun." Women's Studies 16 (1-2) 1989: 121-25.
Rutledge, David. "Dickinson's Good to hide, and hear 'em hunt." Explicator 55 (3) 1997: 139-41.