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.