March 21st, 2011
As a lecturer, writer and thinker, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s contributions to the American literary landscape in the mid-19th century established him as one of the prominent literary figures of his time and cast a formidable shadow over many writers who emerged in his wake, including Emily Dickinson. Although Dickinson’s lasting image in our current cultural consciousness is that of a poetic recluse, her letters indicate that while she may have never ventured far from her home in Amherst, she was a voracious reader. Considering Emerson’s considerable clout as a lecturer in New England at the time, Dickinson was likely familiar with his work. In fact, when Emerson spoke in Amherst in August 1857—an event that Dickinson did not attend but of which she was certainly aware—he stayed with Sue and Austin Dickinson at the Evergreens (Sewell 116). Also, in a letter to Otis Lord, dated April 1882, the month of Emerson’s death, Dickinson refers to how Benjamin Franklin Newton—an acquaintance of her youth whom she greatly admired—introduced her to Emerson: “My Phildelphia [Charles Wadworth] has passed from Earth and the Ralph Waldo Emerson—whose name my Father’s Law Student taught me, has touched the secret Spring.” (Johnson, 278). Of all of the essays in which Emerson outlines his various philosophies though, “Self-Reliance and “The Poet”—two of his most widely-published essays—seem to bear a significant influence on Dickinson’s poetry, both as a direct inspiration and a point of resistance.
In “Self-Reliance,” which was first published in 1841 in a collection titled Essays: First Series, Emerson theorizes a philosophy that, in its stinging indictments of society as a confining force, defends Dickinson’s gradual retreat and eventual seclusion from the world, and in its uncompromising call for individualism, sets the stage for Dickinson’s wildly original verse. Throughout the essay, Emerson challenges the individual to sacrifice social obligations at the altar of genius and to resist many of the same societal pressures that Dickinson spent most of her life avoiding: “At times the whole world seems to be in conspiracy to importune you with emphatic trifles. Friend, client, child, sickness, fear, want charity, all knock at once at thy closet door and say,—’Come out unto us.’ But keep thy state; come not into their confusion” (Emerson 72). This notion of the world-at-large in conspiracy against the individual is a recurring theme in not only Dickinson’s poetry, but also in her letters, where she often doubts and suspects the authenticity of her correspondent’s affection.
Obviously, to attribute the entirety of Dickinson’s social pathology to merely the answering of Emerson’s call to individualism is somewhat reductive, but to ignore Dickinson’s familiarity with his writings—and its probable influence on her own—would be just as negligent. In particular, in Poem 1381, Dickinson goes beyond just referencing Emerson as a continual source of inspiration in her letters, to incorporating the philosopher’s notion of individualism directly into the last stanza:
One – is the Population –
Numerous enough –
This ecstatic Nation
Seek – it is Yourself. (5-8)
Here, Dickinson takes up a central theme of Emerson’s essay—that “every true man is a cause, a country, and an age” (Emerson 61) and quite literally stakes out borders for herself as both a poet and an individual. For both Emerson and Dickinson, the self in solitude is still clearly “Numerous enough” to provide artistic inspiration, even in the absence of society. Thus, in the first stanza of the poem, when Dickinson writes, “The Heart and the Mind together make / A single Continent -” (3-4), she appears to endorse Emerson’s belief that to the self-reliant individual, “traveling is a fool’s paradise” (Emerson 81).
Yet although Dickinson might embrace Emerson’s philosophy of the individual, she mostly resists the confining function of poetry that Emerson proposes in his essay “The Poet,” published in 1844 in Essays: Second Series: “And herein is the legitimization of criticism, in the mind’s faith that the poems are a corrupt version of some text in nature with which they ought to be made to tally. A rhyme in one of our sonnets should not be less pleasurable than the iterated nodes of a seashell, or the resembling difference of a group of flowers” (Emerson 25). Despite Dickinson’s fixation with natural imagery throughout her poetry, her relationship with nature is hardly limited to merely parodying or mirroring “some text in nature.” In fact, in Poem 493, Dickinson actually suggests that the inner self of the poet is a text distinctly autonomous from nature. For example, in the second stanza of this poem, Dickson writes:
Not a Sleet could bite me –
Not a frost could cool –
Hope it was that kept me warm –
Not Merino shawl – (5-8)
Here the speaker proposes a disconnect between the speaker’s “warm” emotional state and the frigid sleet and frost of the speaker’s natural surroundings. This disconnect only grows wider in the following stanza, when the speaker, reflecting on a remembered moment of fear, describes the soul as still and frozen, while “Worlds were lying out to sun –” (11) and “Birds went praising everywhere –” (15). However, rather than attempt to correct this disconnect—”this corrupt version of some text in nature”—Dickinson’s poem actually embraces this disconnect between the poet and her external surrounding, suggesting that perhaps the internal life of a poet is just as worthy a model for poetry as Emerson believed nature to be.
The entirety of Dickinson’s poetic output also resists Emerson’s vision of the ideal American poet, an all-encompassing chronicler capable of documenting and unifying the young nation’s vast, still untamed geography: “The painter, the sculptor, the composer, the epic rhapsodist, the orator, all partake one desire, namely to express themselves symmetrically and abundantly, not dwarfishly and fragmentarily.” (Emerson 38-39) Whereas in one of the most quoted lines of “Self-Reliance” Emerson writes that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” (Emerson 57), here he suggests that a certain symmetry, or order, must govern the creative impulse of the artist, who throughout “The Poet,” Emerson refers to as male. However, in her poetry, Dickinson chooses to present the poet as feminized and fragmented, as both subject and object, girl and wife, mind and body, questioning the capacity for singular poetic identity to unify various emotional states, much less the entire nation. This destabilization is present even in Poem 493, where Dickinson questions the speaker’s seeming internal autonomy over the external in the last two lines: “Nature hesitate – before – / Memory and I –” (23-24). Here, nature’s act of hesitation indicates a measure of indeterminacy that seems wholly out of touch with Emerson’s “symmetrically” rigid guidelines for the masculine poet. In some sense, by refusing to write within these confines, Dickinson remains true to the message of “Self-Reliance,” sacrificing even Emerson’s own views on poetry to the alter of her own poetic genius.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Essays: First and Second Series. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1903. Print.
Sewall, Richard Benson. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1994. Print.