Ryan’s CC Assignment C

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.

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).


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.


Everett’s CC Assignment B

In “Allusion, Echo, and Literary Influence in Emily Dickinson,” Elizabeth Petrino discusses the ways in which Dickinson’s poems and letters “sometimes overtly, sometimes in subtle and barely discernable ways” make use of other literary texts in order to add to her own writing (Petrino 80). Petrino establishes early on that this is fairly easy to discern in the letters where “she often quotes directly,” but that “her poems cast literary allusions subtly and anonymously” (Petrino 80). For the sake of her discussion, Petrino focuses mainly on the influence of John Keats and William Shakespeare, though she specifies that much of her argument is based on the idea of “echo” that she draws on from John Hollander (Petrino 80-81). This lends to her focus on “images, sounds, or rhythmical patterns” that may not be a “direct quotation,” but rather echo her literary predecessors. To support this, she cites Dickinson’s letter to Higginson in which Dickinson states that she “refrains ‘consciously’ from touching another’s ‘paint’” (Perino 82). This lends to her examination of the more hidden aspects of Dickinson’s writing—the echoes.

Before beginning her analysis, she lays out a number of former critics including Paul Crumbley, Marietta Messmer and Vivian Pollak who have discussed intertextuality in Dickinson’s writing. She emphasizes Crumbley’s notion that “Dickinson adapts a dialogic style that allows a number of voices to exist simultaneously and hence amplifies indeterminacy in her poems,” though I will argue later that this only lends to her argument to a certain point before diminishing it (Petrino 82). Petrino combines Messmer and Pollak’s thoughts to posit that Dickinson’s intertextual references are harder to spot in her later work as she begins to shirk direct quotation (Petrino 82). Importantly, she notes that Dickinson “changes [lines of Shakespeare and Keats], fitting several lines that were pentameter into her own tetrameter line,” which “creates challenges for readers,” emphasizing the difficulty of the task she is about to undertake (Petrino 83).

One of the main points that Petrino wishes to make is that Dickinson is able to utilize and “critically [engage] with precursor texts without losing herself in…them” (Petrino 84). She backs this up with ample evidence ranging from an extensive discussion of Dickinson in relation to Keats’ poetry and Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which she thinks “[critics] have neglects…despite [Dickinson’s] frequent allusions to it in her letters” (Petrino 94). Her discussion of Keats’ poem “To Autumn” on Dickinson’s own Fr1419, Fr822 and Fr1702 offers examples of the echoing effects of alliteration, word choice and subject matter (Petrino 89-93). Her argument is sound and I will refer readers to it for an excellent example of hidden intertextuality in Dickinson’s writing that should always be listened for when reading. Her discussion of Macbeth is the same, but interesting for other reasons I will return to later on. For now, let’s take a closer look at her discussion of Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”

She begins by further emphasizing that the kind of “echoing” she’s talking about is often filtered through a mediating source—in the case of Keats’ poem, Petrino identifies Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “A Vision of Poets” (Petrino 85). However, though Petrino acknowledged earlier that Dickinson’s multivocality “amplifie[d] indeterminacy in her poems” she argues mainly here that we should consider Dickinson’s own Fr448 to be a gloss specifically on Keats and identifying Browning and Emerson too to be primarily discussing him, though the theme of truth and beauty being one is as old as Plato, whom we know, at least Emerson, read thoroughly. Instead of recognizing that Keats too was drawing on an idea (and not a specific person) in his own poem, she inaccurately estimates that Keats is the originator of this thought. But, worse than this, is that, by assuming this, Petrino cuts off the contact between Dickinson and her immediate literary predecessors—Browning and Emerson.

Even in directly quoting the passage from Nature, she misses one of the more interesting aspects of Dickinson’s Fr448, which is that instead of “highlight[ing] her disagreement with Emerson’s…belief that the artist and philosopher’s aim is abstract truth,” it highlights her agreement with his overall thought (Petrino 87). It seems clear from the bulk of Emerson’s writing that he utterly acknowledges that each of us is located, creates and manifests our own world (I don’t have the space to elaborate immensely on this, but refer to “The Poet” in which Emerson is fairly explicit about each individual’s world and “Experience” in which he more elaborately discusses the self, the other and the relationship of self to other).

Thus to stress the rooms of the dead as much as Petrino does seems a bit unjustified. It is important to note that they are separate, for Dickinson acknowledges that the two martyrs were not one and the same person (which, I think, Emerson says metaphorically in Nature), but had separate experiences, but to dismiss that they are “Bretheren” and “Kinsmen” as “incompatible with Dickinson’s artistic views” seems outlandish (Fr448 ll. 8-9; Petrino 87). There is a kind of profound intimacy in the poem emphasized by the soft “Moss” and the sense of communion and closeness as it “reached our lips –“ (Fr448 11 emphasis mine) that Petrino seems to have missed. In her eagerness to open up new avenues of interpretation into Dickinson’s wiritng, she seems to have closed off entire paths of discussion: that, perhaps, these “religious” terms are used to imbued the spiritual into Dickinson’s art or that this discussion is one confined to religion and not withstanding philosophy or poetry (though that seems improbable). Petrino was perhaps too eager to associate this poem particularly with Keats; she even goes as far as to name the Kinsman as Keats himself (Petrino 87). There are a number of other issues I could raise with this section of her paper, but for the sake of space I’ll simply say this section was far from adequate and perhaps even unhelpful in some ways.

Petrino’s final discussion of Macbeth on the other hand, offers superb insights, including that, in altering Shakespeare’s passage at times, “she transfers the act of becoming well psychologically to the individual, rather than the professional” and even, when attributing the quote to Macbeth, “that she consciously ascribes a higher self-awareness to Macbeth, brought about through his suffering and tragic fate” (98-99). In short, Petrino concludes that through Dickinson’s own artistic merits, she is able to allow “two of the poets she most cherished [to] speak through her without completely subsuming her” (Petrino 100).

I found this useful for the class because it reminds us that we should always be wary of echoes, whatever they might be, in Dickinson’s writing–especially since we’re unsure about a lot of what she read and what she didn’t read, an idea that Petrino talks about in mentioning the mediating sources. I’m not sure if this is a particular kind of criticism; maybe reader response? Honestly, I don’t even know what that really means. And, I realize now that I wrote this more as a critical review rather than just a summary. I hope it still counts for something.


Petrino, Elizabeth. “Allusion, Echo, and Literary Influence in Emily Dickinson.” Emily Dickinson Journal 19.1 (2010): 80-102. Web. 5 Mar 2011.


Here are he websites for Emerson. Sorry this took so long I’ve been pretty busy. It also turns out that the Nature in the Second Series isn’t the one I was thinking of. So I’ve included that one as well.



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.