April 7th, 2011
Animals and Anthropmorphism
Unfortunately, we never got the chance to discuss Dickinson’s animal poems, though, as Aaron Shackelford points out in his article “Dickinson’s Animals and Anthropomorphism,” there certainly are a lot of them. He does an excellent job of summarizing the scholarship on these animal poems and the literary and scientific debates surrounding the use of anthropomorphism in general. In the end, he shows how Dickinson played both sides of the humanizing animals debate to make effective statements about both animal and human nature.
Shackelford starts by addressing modern conceptions of anthropomorphism as childish or immature, and traces this idea back to Dickinson’s own library, citing one of her textbooks from Mount Holyoke and an article in the Atlantic Monthly, the same issue in which Higginson’s “Letter to a Young Contributor” was published. Originally, as is shown in the science textbook, anthropomorphism was considered essential to understanding the natural world, the idea being that without a human lens and human-based metaphors, we couldn’t understand animals as the complex beings they are. William Smellie, the author of the textbook, condemns detatched methods of approaching natural life, as in the casting of animals as bits of complex machinery.
This approach remained popular through Darwin’s researches and other famous scientific studies, but started to be challenged seriously around Dickinson’s time period. The Atlantic Monthly article, written by Louis Agassiz, highlights a very removed approach to natural study. His theory is that human bias prevents us from really understanding animals fully, as all of the study is on our terms and not theirs. Both the article and the textbook are used primarily because of the high probability that Dickinson would have read them, but they are also good examples of the scholarship out there.
At this point, Shackelford applies both of these theories to Dickinson’s own poems, first using the example of “A Saucer holds a Cup” to show how she incorporates the ideas. In the poem (don’t worry, we haven’t read it), she describes a squirrel eating. Onto this image she applies such human imagery of a king in a dining room, and gives the squirrel cutlery. Although on the surface it seems quaint, Shackelford shows how these metaphors are cleverly disrupted (the dining room is swaying, the cutlery is the squirrel’s own teeth), which in turn highlights the flaws in applying such metaphors in the first place, forcing the reader to consider the choice. In the end, the squirrel, a mere vehicle, fades away and the reader is faced with commentary on human society.
Another poem that Shackelford explicates, “You’ll know Her – by Her Foot -” approaches a bird from the opposite approach. The poem details a minute examination of the bird in question, which, instead of resulting in a complete understanding of the creature, ends in a turning away from the bird at hand to contemplate the false bird in the speaker’s mind. To do this, Dickinson uses the same method of “A Saucer holds a Cup,” familiar human metaphors that are disrupted. The bird’s “hand” is of course not a hand, and its “rubber boots” are buttonless. The bird is described as wearing a cap, but then we are told the cap has no material, no seam, no band, and no brim—in other words, not a hat at all. Finally, the songs of the bird are wasted on the speaker, who turns to the internalized robin, ignoring the reality of the bird.
Overall, it was a fantastically written article, deep in research and mostly sound in explication. The thesis, a bit spread out in the beginning, is wrapped up perfectly in the conclusion, where Shackelford’s arguments are all tied together. We are left with an interesting case study of how Dickinson commented on scientific debate around her, using the strategies of both sides to undermine them and point out the flaws in each by exaggerating anthropomorphism. Finally, Shackelford points out that because of modern views of the triviality and juvenility of anthropomorphism, Dickinson’s many animal-based poems are given a diminished worth, and not studied as much as her Civil War poems or sexuality poems (why we choose the topics we do is such a worthwhile question that this article raises). Though we have a limited time in this class to study Dickinson in depth, it is great to do a bit of research on significant topics that get squeezed out. Her animal poems are a great example of how she, often seen as a recluse, interacted with the world and ideas around her in a clever and skillful way.
Aaron Shackelford. “Dickinson’s Animals and Anthropomorphism.” The Emily Dickinson Journal 19.2 (2010): 47-66. Project MUSE. Web.