Jane Donahue Eberwein

Jane Donahue Eberwein: On 712 ("Because I could not stop for Death")

Dickinson's most famous poem spoken from beyond the grave confronts precisely this problem: the assertiveness of the circuit world ["the world of matter and time and intellectual awareness . . . busyness is the circuit world’s dominant characteristic, industry its major value"] against the claims of complementary vision . . . The representative of the verse here is a decidedly imaginary person—not Emily Dickinson's self-projection (which would be of one straining for escape beyond circumference and intensely alert to all details of transition) but a woman contented within the routine of circuit busyness. Her opening words echo some of Dickinson's own habitual usages but present a contradictory value system adapted to worldly achievements. This lady has been industrious—too busy to stop her work, whatever it may have been. Dickinson, too, proclaimed herself too busy in her self-descriptive July 1862 letter to Higginson and in a letter to Mrs. Holland that Johnson and Ward place conjecturally at the same time on the basis of obvious verbal echoes (L 268; 269). To Higginson she wrote: "Perhaps you smile at me. I could not stop for that—My Business is Circumference—." To Mrs. Holland, "Perhaps you laugh at me! Perhaps the whole United States are laughing at me too! I can't stop for that! My business is to love." Her businesses, then, differed from the routine employments of the circuit citizens who might be mocking her. What the poet could not stop for was circuit judgments. Her businesses, as she reported them that intensely productive summer, were love, song, and circumference—all of them leading her outside the circuit. Circumference, from the perspective of the circuit world, was death and the cessation of industry, although there might be a different life beyond it. The speaker of this poem, however, is too busy with ordinary duties to stop for Death, who naturally stops her instead. She is less like Emily Dickinson than like that whirlwind of domestic industriousness, Lavinia, whom her sister once characterized as a "standard for superhuman effort erroneously applied" (L 254).

Caught up in the circuit world of busyness, the speaker mistakes Death for a human suitor; her imagination suggests no more awesome possibility. Two persons, in fact, have come for her, Death and Immortality, though her limited perception leads her to ignore the higher-ranking chaperon. The relationship between the two figures—analogous to that between circumference and awe (P 1620)—attracts none of her notice. In fact, she pays little attention even to her principal escort, being occupied instead with peering out the carriage window at the familiar circuit world. She sees the schoolchildren playing in their circumferential ring, little realizing that she has now herself become that playfellow who will go in and close the door—thus breaking the circle (P 1098). And she sees the "Gazing Grain" indicative of the late-summer crop Death is already reaping even as she herself gazes back into the circuit, indicative also of some farmer's midlife industriousness—the sort another circuit-minded speaker pitied when death deprived him of harvest (P 529). Rather than attending to mysteries, this speaker focuses only on the familiar until a novel perspective on the sunset jolts her into awareness of her own transitional state. Rather than making friends with Immortality, she concentrates on mortality.

The consequence of her distorted values is that the speaker winds up with eternity as an inadequate substitute for either: the endless static stretch of time that young Emily had repudiated in an 1846 letter to Abiah Root (the same letter in which she confessed her inability to imagine her own death). "Does not Eternity appear dreadful to you," she asked then, "I often get thinking of it and it seems so dark to me that I almost wish there was no Eternity. To think that we must forever live and never cease to be. It seems as if Death which all so dread because it launches us upon an unknown world would be a relief to so endless a state of existense" (L 10). Indeed, Death does not launch the persona of this poem into another world (Immortality would have to be enlisted for that, rather than sitting ignored in the back seat of the carriage in which she and Death will eventually ride off together after abandoning the speaker). Instead Death leaves his date buried within the margin of the circuit, in a "House" that she can maintain like one of those "Alabaster Chambers" (P 216) in which numb corpses lie but which are designed and built of elegant materials still gratifying to the circuit-locked mentality. A quester for circumference would greet Death more enthusiastically, and would both value and cultivate Death's ties to Immortality. For such a quester, the destination of the journey might prove more wondrous.

From Dickinson: Strategies of Limitation. Copyright © 1985 by The University of Massachusetts Press.

Jane Donahue Eberwein: On 508 ("I'm ceded--I've stopped being Theirs")

. . . the speaker disavows her infant baptism and the identity conferred with it and then asserts another baptism enacted by and for herself. Baptism in New England Puritan churches and their successors served as a child's introduction to the community and as the seal of God's covenant with the saints. Although not conferring full church membership (dependent upon conversion and certified by eucharistic participation), it indicated the community's expectation that God intended the child's salvation. The baptized child and young adult could pursue salvation hopefully. Yet full grace was wanting. This speaker has experienced a narrow "Crescent" or empty "Arc" rather than a complete circle of faith. Now, as an adult, she rejects the identity imposed on her by other people's choices. Perhaps she senses the frustration of those earlier covenantal hopes and thinks of the sacramental ritual as simply another empty game by which as a child she experimented with roles she never got to play as an adult. The dolls that she mentions were given, after all, in anticipation of eventual mothering responsibility; yet Dickinson never raised a child. And the string of spools prepared little hands either for manual labor like that performed by women in New England factories (and that Dickinson never for a moment considered) or for the fancy needlework she apparently despised. She has simply not matured into the stereotyped woman she assumes her family had anticipated, and she rejects her baptismal identity as a sign of those false expectations. But ritual confirmation of the sacredness of her new identity still captures her imagination, so she conducts her own adult baptism to seal a different sort of election--her own choice of self-image and its symbol. Not surprisingly, the symbol she chooses is a circular one indicative of status and plenitude. Instead of the skimpy arc or crescent, she will have a diadem--a crown. No longer a potential part of someone else's circle, she draws her own circumference.

From Dickinson: Strategies of Limitation. (University of Massachusetts Press, 1985.) Copyright © 1985 by The University of Massachusetts Press.

Jane Donahue Eberwein: On 258 ("There's a certain Slant of light")

What slant of light is this? How low must the sun sink on the horizon to project its pink, or gold, or silver ray across the snowy fields? The poet makes no attempt to describe the sense impressions but only to register their emotional resonance. This is done by the oxymoronic phrases "Heavenly Hurt" and "imperial affliction" that link exultation with anguish. And the speaker, generalizing from her reaction to that of a universal "we," personifies nature itself as attentive to these promptings from beyond circumference.

Here, too, definition comes by negation. There is "no scar," "None may teach it." When the speaker strains for an analogy to clarify her experience, she characteristically hits upon one outside Emily Dickinson's experience. Those "Cathedral Tunes" stimulate the imagination with their "Heft," presumably that "weight of glory" Dickinson cited once from 2 Corinthians 4:17 when telling a friend about a morning landscape that awakened painful awareness of her mother's recent death. Never having been in a cathedral, except imaginatively in "I've heard an Organ talk, sometimes--," Dickinson probably relied on the memoirs of American Protestant travelers in Europe to discover how it would feel to hear grandly complex vocal and instrumental music in a Gothic or Romanesque setting from whose spell the visitor would constantly struggle to free himself. Perhaps she recalled Ik Marvel's report of Holy Week services in the Sistine Chapel when "the sweet, mournful flow of the Miserere begins again, growing in force and depth till the whole chapel rings, and the balcony of the choir trembles; then it subsides again into the low, soft wall of a single voice, so prolonged, so tremulous, and so real, that the heart aches-for Christ is dead!" The death of God, the death of a loved one, her own death: All these things registered on Dickinson through this visual emblem of the dying day. And it was fitting that she should reveal these awarenesses only gradually and by indirection--foregoing natural exactitude for depth of psychological response to intuited absence.

From Dickinson: Strategies of Limitation. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1985. Copyright © 1985 by University of Massachusetts Press.

Jane Donahue Eberwein : On Emily Dickinson's Life

Dickinson, Emily (10 Dec. 1830-15 May 1886), poet, was born Emily Elizabeth Dickinson in Amherst, Massachusetts, the daughter of Edward Dickinson, an attorney, and Emily Norcross. The notation "At Home" that summed up her occupation on the certificate recording her death in that same town belies the drama of her inner, creative life even as it accurately reflects a reclusive existence spent almost entirely in the Dickinson Homestead. That home, built by her grandfather Samuel Fowler Dickinson, represented her family's ambition.

Source: http://www.anb.org/articles/16/16-00453.html; American National Biography Online Feb. 2000. Access Date: Wed Mar 21 11:23:13 2001 Copyright (c) 2000 American Council of Learned Societies. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.