Saturday, February 12, 2000

According to Emily Dickinson II

     One American nineteenth century poet, Emily Elizabeth Dickinson, lived her entire obscure life believing she was a 'nobody'.  Ironically, death gave her a second chance and the exposure she well deserved, in order to become, a “Somebody! / the livelong June- /To an admiring Bog!” (Dickinson, 1861, p.1669) of the twentieth century.  With this in mind, this paper will and provide some enlightenment in why Emily Elizabeth Dickinson deserves the recognition of being one of the  greatest American poets to this day.   This paper will also include an analyzed the poem called “A narrow Fellow in the Grass” ( Dickinson, 1865, p. 107-108) which will expose Dickinson's  writing style through her own poem's advice:  “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant - / Success is Circuit lies”.    (Dickinson, 1872, p. 108)              
     In order to find the truth about Dickinson's life, more than a hundred years later, scholars are still putting the pieces together about her life as a poet. Emily kept her private life private.  According to Richard Sewall, author of “The life of Emily”:  “She (Emily) told the truth, [. . . ] nearly a hundred years after her death, and after much painstaking research, scholars still grope with certainties.” (Sewell, 1998, p.3)
     Born December 10, 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts, Emily Elisabeth (named after her mother) was the second of three children ( Austin-1829, Lavinia-1933) of Edward and Emily Norcross Dickinson.  She spent her entire life, as well as her ancestors did since 1630, in the small town of Amherst. ( Sewall, 2003, p. 17)   The prominent and prosperous Dickinson family lived strictly under the Congregational / Calvinistic doctrine.  Emily's paternal grandfather, was one of the founders of Amherst College; her father Edward and older brother Austin were both lawyers with political ambitions.  Her father served in the General Court of Massachusetts, the State senate, and the United States House of Representatives.  Much of Emily's formative years were exposed to a household that was the centered with the culture, academia, and social activity. ( 2013)
       Regardless of the glamour and influence the Dickinson's family had on the community, Emily developed into a normal intelligent, vibrant,  independent, hopeful young woman.  For an example, Emily writes positively about herself in a letter to a friend on May 7, 1845: “I am growing handsome very fast indeed!  I expect I shall be the belle of Amherst when I reach my 17th birthday.  I don't doubt that I shall have perfect crowds of admirers at that age.  Then how I shall delight to make them waiting my bidding, and with what delight shall I witness their suspense while I make my final decision.”  ( Todd, M.L., 1894, p.6)
       At sixteen, Emily already knew, poetry was her calling.  Another example of her poetic prose is the following letter she writes to her friend describing her visit to Mount Auburn, written September 8, 1846:  “Have you ever been to Mount Auburn?  If not, you can form but slight conception of this 'City of the Dead.'  It seems as if nature has formed this spot with distinct idea in view of its being a resting-place for her children, where, wearied and disappointed, they might stretch themselves beneath the spreading cypress, and close their eyes 'calmly as to a night's response, or flowers at set of sun.'” (Todd, M.L., 1894, p. 20)
       Dickinson only ventured outside her family circle from 1847 to 1848 in order to attend Mount Holyork Female Seminary.   Because of recurrent illness ( Bright's disease), she returned home and seldom left.  She became more and more reclusive, associating with only her family members, an occasional visitor, or through letters to her friends and acquaintances.  Her simplified life dealt with doing without, also meant doing within her creative mind.  Over 1775 poems were written and bounded in hand-sewed volumes and hidden in her room for her eyes only.  The volumes were later discovered after her death in 1886 by her younger sister Lavinia.   Many of her poems were initially edited into the traditional nineteenth century style of writing.  In 1955, a publication of Thomas Johnson's editions of Emily Dickinson's poems finally gave the reader's a complete and accurate text. ( 2013)
     As for modern poetry, Emily Dickinson made her mark in American literature.  Her artistic poetry was very radical for her era.  However, her frequent use of dashes, characteristic capitalization of nouns, slant rhymes, broken meter, bold imagery, and copious usage of metaphors have contributed to her reputation as one of the most innovative American poets of the nineteenth century literature. Many modern critics have come to appreciate the accomplishment of Dickinson's language and poetic structure.  Though Dickinson was inspired by poets, such as, William Wordsworth, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Shakespeare, she distinguish herself with her characteristics style of form and structured verse.
     The most common characteristic of Modernist writing was an unpredictable writing style which Emily Dickinson had.   Because modernism basically rebelled against traditional style of writing, experimentation and individualism became virtues. Women during the nineteen hundreds were mostly marginalized. Dickinson had those makings of modernist, because she had a voice; that voice of rebellion was expressed through her unconventional methods of writing.  Her themes were original and provided a variety of subject matters, such as love, nature, doubt and faith, suffering, death, and morality.  Dickinson essentially saw the world internally in her safe haven of her ingenious mind and expressed it through her elliptical style and contracting metaphors.  As Marbel Loonis Todd states in the “Letters of Emily Dickinson”:   “The whims and pretences of society, its forms and realities, seemed to her thin and unworthy.  Unconventionalities, while they amused, exasperated her also.” (Todd, M.L., 1894, p. X) (, 2013)
     In the poem, “A narrow Fellow in the Grass”(Dickinson, 1865, p.107-108),  Dickinson used her canny wit to call attention to every element in the poem.  If read aloud, the visualization and sound of the poem becomes more intriguing.  The dashes, the capitalization, the question mark, and usage of syntax in the condensed fleeting phrases are all used elements that has created the surprise image of realization that the narrow fellow in the grass is (in this reader's choice)  is just a snake.
     The interpretation of “A narrow Fellow in the Grass” (Dickinson, 1865, p. 107-108),  is the following:  The speaker ( notice the gender) is apparently a 'young' “boy”(line 1), who is “barefoot”(line 11) or perhaps it is a man who is looking back in time when he was a boy.  The “I”(lines 12, 18, 19)  in the poem is the speaker and not the poet herself (Dickinson's trade-mark).  The setting is open and grassy, conceivably a lower area in the landscape, “[like] a Boggy Acre” (line 9).  Another trade-mark in Dickinson's writing is her slant rhymes usage.  In this poem we hear a 'near-to', 'not an exact' rhyming pattern in the second and fourth lines in each stanza, such as “rides” and “is” (first stanza), “seen” and “on” (second stanza), “Corn” and “Noon” (third stanza), and “Sun” and “gone” (forth stanza) a ABCB pattern.  However, rhymes exist in the second and forth lines in the last two stanzas, such as, “me” and “Cordiality” (fifth stanza) and “alone” and “Bone” (sixth stanza) a ABC pattern.
         As mentioned earlier, Emily spent her entire life in a Calvinistic community.  She is very familiar with hymns sang in church; however, in this poem, like many others, has a meter rhythm of a hymn, but a rhyme sequence of a ballad.  A hymn rhymes in a ABAB fashion.  Ballads rhyme only in the even lines ABCB.  When reading the poem aloud, you can hear a pair syllables where the unstressed syllable followed by a stressed (like a heart beat- daDum) called iamb, such as nar/row'.  You should be able to hear eight syllables or four (tetrameter) daDums in the odd lines and six syllables or three (trimeter) daDums in the even lines; however, Dickinson likes to keep the reader on their toes, by slipping in seven syllables instead of eight, in the odd lines in stanzas three to six. ( Muller, G.H., Williams, J.A., 2003, p. 57 )(Booth, A, J.P. Hunter, Mays, K.J., 2006, p.506-507)
     Finally, the key to Dickinson's poems are her metaphors.   In the poem, “narrow Fellow” (metaphor)(line 1), “Whip Lash”(metaphor) (line13) and “Nature's People”(personification for the natural world) (line 17) all could be symbolism for the snake who “divides [the grass] as a comb (a simile) ( line 5) and  “closes at your (the boy's bare) Feet” (line 7).  Dickinson also likes to open her poems with interest and close with a complex surprise.  In the last stanza, a theme presents itself which might be  'fear'.   “But never met this Fellow / Attended or alone /  Without a tighter Breathing / And Zero at the Bone.” (line 21-24)  This can be visualized as if the young boy was a little shaken, holding his breath and feels disturb by Emily's “narrow Fellow” (line 1) the snake that he almost step on or perhaps the snake gave Dickinson a chill.  “Birds, songs, crickets, frost, and winter winds, even the toad and snake, mushroom and bats, have an indescribable charm for her, which she (Emily) in turn brings to us.” (Todd, M.L., 1894, p. XI)
       This paper has only brushed the surface of the truth in Emily's life. Ironically, death did give her a second chance. If it wasn't for her memorable poems, and letters, the rest of the world would never have known her.  Her writing has inspired not only the reader, but attributed of modernistic style of poetry.  One can understand from the works of Emily Dickinson, that she has likely influenced poets from her death to the present.

anonymous. (2013) Final Analyst: Emily Dickinson (1858-1955)
              Retrieved February 27, 2013 from website 
Baym, N., Levine R.S.  (2012) I'm a Nobody, are you a nobody? (1864)
      p. 1669  Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume B, 8th Edition. Norton,
       United States of America
Baym, N., Levine R.S.  (2012) A Narrow Fellow in the Grass  (1866)
      p. 108  Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume C, 8th Edition. Norton,
       United States of America
Sewell, R.B. PhD.  (1998) Preface
      p. 3  The Life of Emily Dickinson, Harvard University Press,
       United States of America
Todd, M.L. (1894) Letters of Emily Dickinson (p. x, xi, 6, 20)
Retrieved February 28, 2013 from website
anonymous. (2013) Literature
              Retrieved February 27, 2013 from uncp website 
Muller, G.H., Williams, J.A.  (2003) Meter and Rhythm
      p. 57  Ways In – Approaches to Reading and Writing about Literature and Film, 2nd Edition. 
      McGraw Hill, United States of America
Booth, A, J.P. Hunter, Mays, K.J.  (2006) Chapter 12 – Sounds of Poetry
      p. 506-507  Norton Introduction to Literature, Portable. 
      Norton, United States of America

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