Everett’s CC Assignment C


Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of the leading figures in what has come to be known as the transcendentalist movement in 19th century America. His influence then (and now) was pervasive and lasting among many serious writers and thinkers here and abroad. For the purposes of this paper though the aspects of his thought that pertain to Dickinson are numerous and worth looking into (e.g. his discussion of mood and temperament in “Experience,” his views on the poet and what that person does in “The Poet,” his notion of self-reliance and its relation to constructing the self in “Self-Reliance,” and many more), I will focus on his idea of genius, what it is, how one discovers it and why it’s important. To simplify, one’s genius works through what Emerson calls your “aboriginal Self, on which a universal reliance may be grounded” and has the capability to recognize and produce what is “original and not conventional” for you yourself are as such (Emerson 268; 259). Let me leave off of genius for a moment and focus on this aboriginal Self. The aboriginal Self is “that part [you] could not borrow” for it is what makes you distinct from all else, but capable of relating to and bringing about all else (Emerson 279). It is that which we refer to when we speak of “mine” and “my own,” and yet it is truly “ours”—shared insofar as it is the common ground upon which our selves as human beings stand. It is that very ground which must be presupposed to account for a certain kind of being that we call “human”—that which conjoins our consciousness and our physicality and is the unbreakable knot by which we tie down our “experience” in Emerson’s, I think Stoic, sense of the word. If you cannot get an idea of it from this, I urge you to read further, particularly in “Self-Reliance,” but I must move on to account for genius.

Emerson defines it as an action: “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men” (Emerson 259). Emerson’s numerous examples are mostly through language, but let us be generous enough to know that this signifies the kind of beings which have genius and not strictly the kinds of professions (writers or orators) who have it—his first example is, after all, “an eminent painter” (Emerson 259, emphasis mine). With that in mind, he shows it to be an articulation of the universal, one that resides within us at all times, “let the subject be what it may”* (Emerson 259). One discovers it then by experiencing the universal in some way, whether through someone else’s genius or through an instantiation of God or the divine (this is divine understood broadly**  in nature (this is nature understood broadly as all that is, i.e. the natural world). Genius is exceedingly important for Emerson for it is this concept that ties together his views of recognizing, appreciating and ultimately expressing the divine for any individual, no matter the particular characteristics of that individual. We should keep this in mind when approaching Dickinson, which I’ll do in just a moment.

But before that, I should point out that there is no question among scholars that Dickinson was not only well aware of Emerson and his writings, but that his thought may have even had considerable influence on her own writing. Richard Sewall goes so far as to claim that she may have heard him lecture, writing that, “[t]here is no reason to believe that Emily did not hear…Emerson. It may have been on this occasion that Emily (according to Sue) gave her famous impression of Emerson: ‘As if he had come from where dreams are born’” (Sewall 468). Accordingly, many critics focus on what kind of influence Emerson had on her, whether positive or negative, and which direction it pushed her writing, whether toward or away from his thought, instead of on whether or not it existed. Dickinson’s other major biographer, Cynthia Wolff, has paid attention to Emerson’s essay “The Poet” as having particular influence on Dickinson. Wolff acknowledges that “any American poet who wished to be ‘Representative’ was constrained to address Emerson’s optimistic assessment of the meaning a poet would discover in the landscape” (Wolff 282). Dickinson, who considered herself representative (L268—although, note here that she in many ways is embodying Emerson’s idea of the representative poet) felt the need then to address at least this aspect of Emerson’s thought: one’s (particularly a poet’s) interaction with nature. With that in mind, let’s examine Fr1433 to see how that latter issue of Dickinson’s view of nature plays out in the context of Emersonian influence.

There are many who have seen this poem as expressly rejecting the views of Emerson (L227 and others). However, I don’t find Dickinson to be quite so unkind as some would make her out to be. Though I recognize the pun of “cite” with “sight” and its allusion to the Emersonian eyeball of Nature, I don’t see this as a bad thing, in part because of the ambiguity of the line that “those who cite [Nature] most / Have never passed her haunted house, / Nor simplified her ghost” (ll. 18-20). Leiter takes this to mean that they have never seen her house and cannot, therefore, be very good judges of Nature; that their “cite/sight” is satirical in Dickinson’s eyes. But there is another meaning of “pass” here as never having gone beyond the house; they have never passed it because they have stopped in before it to gaze and are gazing still. Dickinson’s own conclusion that “those who know her, know her less / the nearer her they get” supports this (ll. 23-24). This may seem like it doesn’t aid me, at first, but let us revisit the first stanza. Dickinson writes:

What mystery pervades a well!

That water lives so far –

A neighbor from another world

Residing in a jar

What resides in the well is our own reflection, or, as Emerson might say (were he in a poetic mood,) a person can only truly be alone when looking at the stars (Emerson 9). He would say further that “Nature always wears the colors of the spirit,” for Nature truly is what we see in it and thus our own selves reflected back at us (Emerson 11). Dickinson uses the metaphor of the reflection here to express the same point. It is no wonder then that those who grow nearer to Nature “know her less,” for they are growing closer to their own aboriginal Self. This may seem a stretch, but if we do not grant Dickinson the probability of interacting with one of the most profound thinkers of her day and in her own country, we do her a disservice. Let this serve as an admonishment then, for when I approach Dickinson, I recall that she is anything but obvious—she is “small, like the wren,” always flitting from bush to tree, dodging our darting eyes, for just when we think we might see her wing, she flies, leaving only our reflected face in her words and this reading is certainly not the only one, but nevertheless not to be dismissed, to be ignored or shut up in one’s chamber behind cracked doors (L269).

*It is important to note, in case any inquiring minds look at this sentence that it would be easy to assume that “the subject” here is referring to the “such lines” earlier in the sentence. While I wouldn’t say that’s wrong, I would advise a deeper examination of what “subjects” general are, especially in the context of the subject/object relationship in which a “subject” is most generally a human being.

** Though perhaps better grasped through a less encompassing definition by one of Emerson’s students, William James: “The divine shall mean for us only such a primal reality as the individual feels impelled to respond to solemnly and gravely, and neither by a curse nor a jest” (James 42).

Bibliography:

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Essays & Poems. Library of America, 1996. Print.

James, William. The Varities of Religious Experience. Library of America, 2009. Print.

Leiter, Sharon. Critical Companion to Emily Dickinson: A Literary Reference to

Her Life and Work. New York, NY: Infobase Publishing, 2007. Print.

Sewall, Richard B. The Life of Emily Dickinson, Vol. 2. New York. Fararr, Straus

and Giroux, 1974.  17-27. Print

Wolff, Cynthia. Emily Dickinson. Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc., 1988.

Print.



Dickinson and Nature


There is something amiss when it comes to Emily and Nature. In poem 1298 Emily writes, ” Longing is like the Seed/That wrestles in the ground”(1-2). but the rest of the poem is strikingly barren of nature imagery apart from the mention of the sun in the last line. Yet this is not the first time that E.D. uses nature imagery in a surprising way, in poem 547 she writes, ” A Window opens like a Pod-/ Abrupt-mechanically-“(7-8) both of these poems are similar in that the imagery, though effective, is an abrupt change. In poem 1298 the nature imagery is left by the wayside for words like “Hour” and “Zone” which seek to quantify time and its passage. Meanwhile in poem 547, the nature imagery that sneaks into the poem gives way to more commonplace language about occupation and everyday life. I wonder if the subtle use of these nature centered images were Emily’s way of creating additional complexities in her poem, by establishing a tension between the natural world, which she clearly felt a deep connection with, and the established world of society .



There’s a certain Slant of light,


I know this is kind of going way back into the past, so I’m going to do a kind of quick and dirty interpretation of one way in which I read this poem, completely and unabashedly formed by my other readings going on at the time (Plato and Thoreau).

So one of the things that I thought of when reading this poem was how, sometimes, when I’m alone and just sort of spacing out (perhaps on “Winter Afternoons”) I can become prone to self-reflection. Metaphorically that’s what I saw the “Slant of light” as, something that is visible when this is prone to occur.

It may be “like the Heft / Of Cathedral Tunes” in that it “oppresses” us by arresting our attention. I see the “Cathedral Tunes” as oppressive not only by virtue of being music, which seems to me to be one of those things that you cannot stop from entering into you (and for someone like Plato, Thoreau and perhaps Dickinson, entering directly into your soul), but through the content of the music, which is the divine. I recognize fully the urge to read this sarcastically in that cathedral tunes oppress one just as religion does, but I’m not sure that’s what’s going on because of the start of the next stanza.

I felt, when reading this, that Dickinson was very serious when she describes what “it gives us”–“Heavenly Hurt.” The capitalization of both words (as well as “Cathedral Tunes” and others throughout the poem) indicate to me the seriousness of the sentiment. One of the ideas that Plato bats around is that it can be painful, or that it might “Hurt” one to examine oneself (as you can see in Meno). One of the consequences of this is that there, of course, would be “no scar” visible, but rather some kind of “internal difference / Where the Meanings, are.” Of course, the comma in that line might seem to foul things up because, although the sentence would still be about internal meanings, one might suspect what follows (an explanation of what those meanings “are”) to be inconsistent. But, really, it just gets even better.

“None may teach it,” as Plato’s Socrates will tell you. He doesn’t claim to teach anything (which he starts to talk about in Apology around 19e and states explicitly at 33a). The ambiguous “Any” separated by two dashes syntactically seems to me to mean one of two things in the context of this interpretation: 1) an emphasis on the “None,” as in “not anyone” 2) simply anyone as in “None may teach it to anyone else.” Either would fit nicely, so, why not both? Again, the “Despair” would be the kinds of losses one must make if one is to take part in the kind of self-examining life one makes (although that gets more into Aristotle–thinking of his discussion on friendship in the Nicomachean Ethics), again an “imperial affliction” could be one worthy of royalty, or perhaps one that conquers to expand its empire, etc. which would not be incompatible with either Plato or Aristotle here, while “Sent us of the Air” could mean that it was literally seen in the air, or perhaps, since the line gives agency of the air, it could relate to a Thoreauvian or Emersonian idea that Nature itself is something we’re a part of and that it is, in that way, part of ourselves, thus making the air our own reminder of the true nature of our being insofar as we are humans.

The last stanza definitely seems to be departing from the kinds of thoughts that Plato and Aristotle are having and delving deeper into the Thoreauvian-Emersonian territory of things. Of course “the Landscape listens,” as it is not only you, but something that would resonate and hear this “Slant of light,” which by now has now taken on a multi-sensational quality (sight and sound) and so too would “Shadows – hold their breath,” with that little dash included to even given the reader the effect of holding one’s breath as one reads over (or out loud) the words on the page. And lastly, “the Distance / On the look of Death” that comes “When it goes.” Well here we’re back to Plato, but really I think we haven’t left Thoreau or Emerson, but whatever. Something that philosophy forces one to do is to try and figure out who one really is and what one really thinks. One of the ways that one is suggested to do this, primarily in Plato, is to act and think your thoughts as though you were facing your own death at every moment (mainly because we all actually are. None of us can be certain when we shall die or in what manner, so, for Plato, to act as though we know it won’t be within the next minute is a mistake and, for someone like Thoreau it might constitute not living deliberately). So to put this all together, when this feeling leaves, the self-reflection that is ceases, it would putting a kind of “Distance” between oneself and “the look of Death,” which would not only be one’s looking at death, but it’s look at you, for if you are truly connected to eternity (to bring back Thoreau/Emerson) by virtue of being connected to who you really are, then you’re also connected to your own death and are, in a sense, facing it, and it gazes long into you (just to throw a little Nietzsche in here, since his ideas might help to clear up certain parts Emerson, especially since Emerson influenced Nietzsche’s thought immensely).

So, quick and dirty summary of one of my readings of this poem. What do you all think? I don’t really like it ultimately and I think it kind of misses the point in a sense. Really I think any kind of strict interpretive move when dealing with Dickinson tends to confine her poetry, her thoughts and thus herself in more ways than I’m comfortable with.



Dickinson and the Power of Meter


So I’ve been thinking a lot about how we can make the poems and letters flow seamlessly together in Thursday poems and I stumbled upon poem 519. Dickinson mentions numerous times that she believes that sometimes letters cannot capture the truth of emotion, that with meter and rhyme one is able to achieve more somehow. The opening line of this poem seems to echo this sentiment. Dickinson writes, ” This is my letter to the world”(1). yet she writes this line in pentameter that begins with a trochee and transitions into regular iambs. This use of meter suggests that Dickinson feels that her “letter” will be stronger if she employs these poetic elements.

Dickinson is expressing her loneliness, but also her own self realization in this poem. When She writes,

The simple News that Nature told-

with tender Majesty

Her message is committed

to hands I cannot see- (3-6).

it is as though because of Dickinson’s isolation she has been able to understand nature. When Dickinson describes the telling of the news as “with tender Majesty” it is as though she herself has experienced this communication. It seems to suggest that if one has a connection with ‘the world’ one is not privy to nature’s communication and as a result Dickinson seems to address the reader when she writes, “her message….cannot see” it is as though she has written down her correspondences with nature so that we (the hands she cannot see) can read the “news”. What seems particularly of interest to me are the final two lines of the poem where Dickinson suddenly becomes preoccupied with the judgements of her future readers. She writes, “For love of Her– Sweet–countrymen–/ Judge tenderly– of Me” (7-8). The use of dashes in this portion of the poem seems to suggest that Dickinson is imploring her reader to be kind for the sake of “Nature”, yet Dickinson begins the poem by admitting that she is largely ignored by the world. Perhaps Dickinson knew that the power of meter would ensure that is poem was not overlooked as she was during her lifetime.



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