Paula Bennett

Paula Bennett: On 613 ("They shut me up in Prose--")

As her persistent use of the first person singular suggests, like her fellow women writers, Dickinson also seems to have viewed her poetry--at least her psychological poetry--as her 'heart's record,' the 'inner truth' of a domestic life. This is the genre within which she is writing and, as Walker has so ably demonstrated, she employs many of the same themes and images her fellow women poets use. But Dickinson took up these themes with a difference. As Adrienne Rich asserts, for Dickinson the closed door (the totally private life) was freedom, and this vitally distinguishes her from other women poets of her day. Unhampered both by the pressures of publishing and, it seems, by internalized constraints, Dickinson wrote as she pleased. The difference was one between writers who--consciously or not--sacrificed their freedom to propriety and, possibly, their desire to publish, and a poet who, by embracing total domestic privacy and not publishing, ironically made herself free.

Dickinson's handling of the 'free-bird' poem in contrast to a more conventional treatment of this favorite woman’s theme will illustrate what I mean. Here is Elizabeth Oakes-Smith, in lines quoted by Walker, on the 'free-bird':

A simple thing, yet chancing as it did

        When life was bright with its illusive dreams,

A pledge and promise seemed beneath it hid;

        The ocean lay before me, tinged with beams

That lingering draped the west, a wavering stir,

        And at my feet down fell a worn, gray quill;

An eagle, high above the darkling fir,

. . . . .

        O noble bird! why didst thou loose for me

Thy eagle plume? still unessayed, unknown

        Must be that pathway fearless winged by thee;

I ask it not, no lofty flight be mine,

        I would not soar like thee, in loneliness to pine.


And here is Dickinson on the same idea:

They shut me up in Prose—

[. . . .]

What is striking in Oakes-Smith's poem is the degree to which the speaker depicts herself as complicit in her own defeat. Forced to choose between opposites she believes are irreconcilable--freedom and acceptance, daring and love--the speaker voluntarily gives up power and restrains her flight. Not for her, she claims, the 'lofty' path the eagle 'fearless' takes. Fear of loneliness keeps her pinned to the ground. If her woman's condition is a prison to this poet, the desire for free flight is an 'illusion' from which she turns in the end. The 'pledge' and 'promise' come to nothing. The identification between speaker and bird is broken. She will never fly (live? write?) in this way.

In Dickinson's poem the reverse occurs. The identification between speaker and bird is maintained and the prison proves to be the illusion. The attempt to shut her up in 'Prose' (the 'prose' life of duty-bound womanhood which gives rise to what Walker calls an 'aesthetic of silence' ), is no more effective and no more 'wise' than trying to hold a bird in the pound. The brain remains free. It is physically and intellectually unimpeded and, therefore, the speaker cannot be 'stilled.' Her power to articulate remains her own. She does not abandon it nor does she submit it to prevailing cultural beliefs. To Dickinson, if we are to credit this poem, the choice (between silence and speech, imprisonment and freedom) was a matter of 'will.'

Whether other women poets could in fact have 'willed' differently than they did is, at the very least, moot. There were social and personal factors that made their choices difficult, if not impossible. Theirs was an anguishing situation. But it was not Dickinson's situation. By giving up so much that these other women writers had--whether or not they wanted it--marriage, children, acceptance, a public career, Dickinson obtained the one thing they lacked, freedom. Nowhere, I would suggest, is this freedom more evident than in the psychological authenticity (the 'heart's record') of her work.

From Emily Dickinson: Woman Poet. Copyright © 1990 by Paula Bennett.

Paula Bennett: On 1072 ("Title divine--is mine!")

Read against the earlier poems, it is clear that Dickinson meant "Title divine" to be about her mature identity as woman, an identity she assumed sometime in late 1861 or early 1862 and was apparently eager to share with Samuel Bowles. While she acknowledges that she has assumed this identity at real cost, it is also, as she underscores in the 1866 version of the poem sent to Sue, a "Tri Victory." For in becoming a "Wife--without the Sign" that is, a wife without an actual husband and therefore, also without the "swoon" or loss of self that real marriage involved--Dickinson had at last found the way out of the personal and social dilemma that had plagued her from adolescence on. In "marrying"-without-marrying the Master, she could, albeit by a sophistical twist, free herself permanently both from her social obligation to marry and from the childhood she had sought so long to escape. By becoming a bride, as it were, in perpetua, she remained woman on the point of transformation, a woman who had renounced both the life that had been, childhood, and the life that in her society was meant to be, marriage. And thus she achieved a new ontological status: woman-without-being-wife.

It is this definition of self as woman on the point of transformation or bride in perpetua which, I believe, became the basis for Dickinson's new poetic voice after 1861. It was a voice that obtained its power from the fact that the person behind it had experienced in her poetry, if not in her life, all the stages of a woman's life, from childhood through ecstasy and marriage to, finally, martyrdom and death. This person could, therefore, speak with all the authority that Dickinson's poetry had hitherto lacked. By using her poetry to become a bride in perpetua or "Wife--without the Sign," Dickinson was able to make her role as poet and her role as woman one. It was a piece of linguistic legerdemain to be sure, but for Dickinson it worked. If she could not be a woman in real life without marrying, then she could marry and be a real woman in her art. Symbol-maker that she was, for Dickinson this "Victory" was more than adequate. It gave her both the security and the freedom she required to explore the powers lodged within herself. She was a poet and a woman at last.

A number of different factors made becoming a "Wife--without the Sign" or bride in perpetua a perfect means to Dickinson's new status as woman poet or queen. To begin with, in the nineteenth century a woman's bridal was the mid-point between the two great, unalterable mysteries in her life: birth and death. Upon these three occasions, at birth (symbolized by baptism), at death, and when she got married, a woman wore white and approached most closely the "blameless mystery" of God. Insofar as a bride took a new name or "Title," she was moreover both dead and reborn during the ceremony, dying to her old life and baptized into her new one.

As the midpoint in a woman's life, the marriage ceremony was also, equally important, her apex or "Acute Degree," the moment conferred upon her by God when she experienced her greatest rapture or joy in living.

And it was the moment in which she was translated from one state of being into another, receiving not only a new name, but a new status, power, and identity.

From My Life a Loaded Gun: Dickinson, Plath, Rich, and Female Creativity. Copyright © 1986 by Paula Bennett. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

Paula Bennett: On 280 ("I felt a Funeral, in my Brain") (2)

In a series of poems beginning in the early 1860s, Dickinson describes what might best be called her fall from metaphysical grace and the epistemological impact this event had upon her. In these poems, Dickinson's confrontation with the abyss becomes the central metaphor for her vision of a world from which transcendent meaning has been withdrawn and in which, therefore, the speaker is free to reach any conclusion she wishes or, indeed, to reach no conclusion at all.

'I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,' c. 1862, is one such poem. On the surface, this poem is about death or, possibly, madness. But, finally, effectively, if it is 'about' anything, it is about dread. In it, to use Miller's words, Dickinson does not reorder 'what formerly appeared to be conclusively known.’ She tells what it feels like to realize that nothing can be known at all. . . .

As in the surrealist paintings of de Chirico and Magritte, outsize 'humanistic' detail functions in this poem to evoke all the terror that the isolated individual feels when confronting nothingness--the abyss. In the poem's otherwise emptied-out landscape, 'the Heavens' become a 'Bell,' 'Being' an 'Ear.' Whether it is death or insanity that opens up this vision to her, what the speaker realizes is that she is utterly alone and totally free. There is neither a sustaining God nor a sustaining scaffold of meaning to support her. Like the trapdoor on a gallows or like the planks supporting a coffin until it is dropped into the grave, the 'bottom’ drops out of reality. For the speaker, anything is possible in a world that is fundamentally absurd--where you can drop 'down, and down' and 'hit a World, at every plunge.' As in 'Four Trees,' the only conclusion to this experience is the conclusion that not-knowing (not just death but the acceptance of ignorance) brings.

From Emily Dickinson, Woman Poet. Copyright © 1990 by Paula Bennet. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Paula Bennett: On 280 ("I felt a Funeral, in my Brain")

In the extraordinary "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain," written, according to Franklin's dating, in 1862, she describes figuratively the terror she had experienced, and its explosive effect on her, in terms of a confrontation with existential dread. Forced to look life's abyss "squarely in the face"--as she says in a later companion poem, "I never hear that one is dead" (no. 1324; P, 915)--she felt her world split apart, leaving her "Wrecked, solitary here," the numb survivor of some kind of shattering internal cataclysm which she compares to madness, death, and loss.

From My Life a Loaded Gun: Dickinson, Plath, Rich, and Female Creativity. Copyright © 1986 by Paula Bennett. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

Paula Bennett: On 754 ("My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun--")

No poem written by a woman poet more perfectly captures the nature, the difficulties, and the risks involved in this task of self-redefinition and self-empowerment than the poem that stands at the center of this book, Emily Dickinson's brilliant and enigmatic "My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun":

[. . . .]

Composed during the period when Dickinson had reached the height of her poetic prowess, "My Life had stood" represents the poet's most extreme attempt to characterize the Vesuvian nature of the power or art which she believed was hers. Speaking through the voice of a gun, Dickinson presents herself in this poem as everything "woman" is not: cruel not pleasant, hard not soft, emphatic not weak, one who kills not one who nurtures. just as significant, she is proud of it, so proud that the temptation is to echo Robert Lowell's notorious description of Sylvia Plath, and say that in "My Life had stood," Emily Dickinson is "hardly a person at all, or a woman, certainly not another 'poetess.’"

Like the persona in Plath's Ariel poems, in "My Life had stood," Dickinson's speaker has deliberately shed the self-protective layers of conventional femininity, symbolized in the poem by the doe and the deep pillow of the "masochistic" eider duck. In the process the poet uncovers the true self within, in all its hardness and rage, in its desire for revenge and aggressive, even masculine, sexuality (for this is, after all, one interpretation of the gun in the poem). The picture of Dickinson that emerges, like the picture of Plath that emerges from the "big strip tease" of "Lady Lazarus" (CP245) and other Ariel poems, is not an attractive one. But, again like Plath, Dickinson is prepared to embrace it nevertheless--together with all other aspects of her unacceptable self. Indeed, embracing the true or unacceptable self appears to be the poem's raison d'etre, just as it is the raison d'etre of Plath's last poems.

In writing "My Life had stood," Dickinson clearly transgresses limits no woman, indeed no human being, could lightly afford to break. And to judge by the poem's final riddling stanza, a conundrum that critics have yet to solve satisfactorily, she knew this better than anyone. As Adrienne Rich has observed, Dickinson's underlying ambivalence toward the powers her speaker claims to exercise through her art (the powers to "hunt," "speak, " "smile," "guard," and "kill") appears to be extreme. Of this ambivalence and its effect on women poets, Rich has written most poignantly, perhaps, because of her own position as poet. For Rich there is no easy way to resolve the conflict entangling Dickinson in the poem. "If there is a female consciousness in this poem," she writes,

it is buried deeper than the images: it exists in the ambivalence toward power, which is extreme. Active willing and creation in women are forms of aggression, and aggression is both "the power to kill" and punishable by death. The union of gun with hunter embodies the danger of identifying and taking hold of her forces, not least that in so doing she risks defining herself--and being defined--as aggressive, as unwomanly ("and now We hunt the Doe"), and as potentially lethal.

Yet despite these dangers and despite her recognition of the apparent dehumanization her persona courts, in "My Life had stood" Emily Dickinson does take precisely the risks that Rich describes. In the poem's terms, she is murderous. She is a gun. Her rage is part of her being. Indeed, insofar as it permits her to explode and hence to speak, rage defines her, unwomanly and inhuman though it is. Whatever constraints existed in her daily life (the breathless and excessive femininity so well described by her preceptor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson), inwardly it would seem Emily Dickinson was not to be denied. In her art she was master of herself, whatever that self was, however aggressive, unwomanly, or even inhuman society might judge it to be.

Given Dickinson's time and upbringing, it would, of course, have been unlikely that she, any more than we today, would have been comfortable with the high degree of anger and alienation which she exhibits in this extraordinary poem. But the anger and the alienation are there and, whether we are comfortable or not, like Dickinson we must deal with them. If, as Adrienne Rich asserts, "My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun" is a "central poem in understanding Emily Dickinson, and ourselves, and the condition of the woman artist, particularly in the nineteenth century," it is so precisely because Dickinson was prepared to grapple in it with so many unacceptable feelings within herself. Whatever else "My Life had stood" may be about, it is about the woman as artist, the woman who must deny her femininity, even perhaps her humanity, if she is to achieve the fullness of her self and the fullness of her power in her verse.

From My Life a Loaded Gun: Dickinson, Plath, Rich, and Female Creativity. Copyright © 1986 by Paula Bennett. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Paula Bennett: On 465 ("I heard a Fly buzz--when I died--")

Like many people in her period, Dickinson was fascinated by death-bed scenes. How, she asked various correspondents, did this or that person die? In particular, she wanted to know if their deaths revealed any information about the nature of the afterlife. In this poem, however, she imagines her own death-bed scene, and the answer she provides is grim, as grim (and, at the same time, as ironically mocking), as anything she ever wrote.

In the narrowing focus of death, the fly's insignificant buzz, magnified tenfold by the stillness in the room, is all that the speaker hears. This kind of distortion in scale is common. It is one of the 'illusions' of perception. But here it is horrifying because it defeats every expectation we have. Death is supposed to be an experience of awe. It is the moment when the soul, departing the body, is taken up by God. Hence the watchers at the bedside wait for the moment when the 'King' (whether God or death) 'be witnessed' in the room. And hence the speaker assigns away everything but that which she expects God (her soul) or death (her body) to take.

What arrives instead, however, is neither God nor death but a fly, '[w]ith Blue—uncertain--stumbling Buzz,' a fly, that is, no more secure, no more sure, than we are. Dickinson had associated flies with death once before in the exquisite lament, 'How many times these low feet/staggered.' In this poem, they buzz 'on the/ chamber window,' and speckle it with dirt (# 187, F, 152), reminding us that the housewife, who once protected us from such intrusions, will protect us no longer. Their presence is threatening but only in a minor way, 'dull' like themselves. They are a background noise we do not have to deal with yet.

In 'I heard a Fly buzz,' on the other hand, there is only one fly and its buzz is not only foregrounded. Before the poem is over, the buzz takes up the entire field of perception, coming between the speaker and the 'light' (of day, of life, of knowledge). It is then that the 'Windows' (the eyes that are the windows of the soul as well as, metonymically, the light that passes through the panes of glass) 'fail' and the speaker is left in darkness--in death, in ignorance. She cannot 'see' to 'see' (understand).

Given that the only sure thing we know about 'life after death' is that flies--in their adult form and more particularly, as maggots--devour us, the poem is at the very least a grim joke. In projecting her death-bed scene, Dickinson confronts her ignorance and gives back the only answer human knowledge can with any certainty give. While we may hope for an afterlife, no one, not even the dying, can prove it exists.

Like 'Four Trees--upon a solitary/Acre, ' 'I heard a Fly buzz' represents an extreme position. I believe that to Dickinson it was a position that reduced human life to too elementary and meaningless a level. Abdicating belief, cutting off God's hand, as in 'I heard a Fly buzz' (a poem that tests precisely this situation), leaves us with nothing. Not just God, but we ourselves are reduced--a fact that has become painfully evident in twentieth-century literature. . . .

From Emily Dickinson, Woman Poet. Copyright © 1990 by Paulk Bennett. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Paula Bennett: On 258 ("There's a certain Slant of light")

With its exquisite use of sound, its disjunctive grammar, and mixed levels of diction, 'There's a certain Slant of light' is a formidable performance. But the reason for the poem's extraordinary popularity (it is among Dickinson’s most consistently reprinted and explicated works) does not lie in technique alone . It also lies in our familiarity with the experience Dickinson describes. Not only has the poet captured the oddness of winter light (its thin, estranging quality), but she has also caught the depressed or sorrowful state of mind which this light biochemically induces. Despite the poet's use of terms like 'Seal' and 'imperial, affliction,' that key into her private mythology of self--her self-designated role as 'Queen of Calvary'--'There's a certain Slant of light' engages its readers directly.

Yet at the same time, 'There's a certain Slant of light' is, obviously, a highly subjective poem, dealing with an intensely personal state of mind. In it, the speaker's mood takes over from the light, the presumptive focus of the text, and is generalized to the entire landscape. The world becomes a partner in the poet's depression. The depression becomes the lens through which the world is seen--and, even more important, through which its 'meanings' (whatever they might be) are understood.

When Dickinson uses nature imagery in this way, she is appropriating it, as Joanne Feit Diehl says, for the aggrandizement of the mind. In such poems, the natural phenomenon 'becomes the self as the division between identity and scene dissolves.' To that extent, 'There's a certain Slant of light' may be said to be solipsistic. That is, unlike the nature poems discussed in the preceding chapter, it is explicitly a projection of the poet's inner life, a massive transference to the landscape of her inner state of being. Dickinson reveals the nature of this state through her comparisons, but its meaning is one she refuses to disclose. For all its apparent familiarity, what happens in this poem is, finally, as fragmented and inconclusive (as unknowable) as the light to which Dickinson refers--or the grammar she uses.

The evasiveness of 'There's a certain Slant of light'--its multiple ambiguities and its refusal to reach a firm conclusion--is typical of Dickinson's psychological poems and the source of much of their difficulty (as well as their fascination). Reading Dickinson's poetry, Adrienne Rich declares, one gets the sense 'of a mind engaged in a lifetime's musing on essential problems of language, identity, separation, relationship, the integrity of the self; a mind capable of describing psychological states more accurately than any poet except Shakespeare.' No poet seems closer to her readers as a result. It is as if Dickinson laid out her most private thoughts and feelings before us.

But unlike the accessibility of Dickinson's nature poetry, which is supported by the external world to which the poems refer, the accessibility of Dickinson's psychological poetry is in many ways deceiving. Not only is the relationship between the voice which speaks these poems and Dickinson herself problematic, but so, as a rule, is the relationship between the poetry's manifest content and the meaning which this content presumably encodes. Thus, on the most basic level, it is unclear whether Dickinson addresses her own feelings in 'There's a certain Slant of light,' or those she believes are people's in general, and we may query whether the poem is about light or about the depression which the light evokes. Finally, we may ask what 'meaning' this light (or this depression) has, especially given its status as an 'imperial affliction/Sent us,' we are told, 'of the Air.' This chapter will discuss the difficulties involved in reading Dickinson's psychological poems and the ramifications these difficulties have for our understanding of the relationship between the poet's life and her work. Like other nineteenth-century women poets, Dickinson used her poetry to inscribe her 'heart's record,’ but the ambiguities of her technique and the complexity and richness of her inscription make the interpretation of this record a subject of intense (and at times, perhaps, futile) critical debate.

From Emily Dickinson: Woman Poet. Copyright © 1990 by Paula Bennett. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Paula Bennett: On "Medusa"

In taking Medusa for their muse, women poets of the past two decades are owning themselves, that is, they are owning those aspects of their being that their families and society have invalidated by treating such qualities as unfeminine and unacceptable. And in repossessing these aspects of themselves they are repossessing the creative as well as the destructive energies to which they give rise. Two poems on Medusa, one by Louise Bogan, written in 1923, the other by Karen Lindsey, published in 1975, will illustrate my point.

With extraordinary brilliance, Louise Bogan's poem on Medusa perfectly captures a vision of the gorgon that both symbolizes and embodies Medusa's traditional horror. . . .

Forced to look upon the gorgon’s monstrous visage, the speaker is paralyzed by the sight. Unable to escape the bald eyes and snake hair, or to embrace them, she is suspended where she stands and the world she inhabits is suspended with her. Her eyes are locked forever on the "yellow dust" that, lifted, "does not drift away." The "tipped bell" will "make no sound." Both she and everything around her are frozen by this nightmare vision of the terror latent in female power. In its death-like stasis, "Medusa" is a poem that, for all its artistic perfection, seems in retrospect tragically appropriate for a poet of extraordinary gifts who believed only 105 of her poems worthy of permanent record and who appears to have despised the very idea that she might be considered a woman poet.

From My Life a Loaded Gun: Dickinson, Plath, Rich, and Female Creativity. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986. Copyright © 1986 by Paula Bennett. Reprinted with the permission of the author.