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Emily's Eclipse
Whether you think her writing flawed or benevolent, it is undeniable that Emily Dickinson has one of the most unique voices in all of American literature. Emily Dickinson was born with a gift, and in a sense, she developed this gift by refusing to develop it, meaning, she adhered to her own sense of literature and grammar and did not compromise her writing to the standards of her time. This involution caused her writing to undergo a sort of greenhouse effect, with it growing by her standards and her standards alone for many years until at age thirty she began seriously writing poetry (Kimpel 23) and we are left with something that is both near-perfection and instantly recognizable as her own. One reason for this isolation was her family's religious tendencies, a bedrock of Puritanical modesty upon which her psyche was built. But, being sickly her entire life, another reason would surely have been her susceptibility towards illness—it was due to a cough that she left college after her first year, never to return. (Habegger 149) It could certainly be construed that perhaps because she was untainted by the rigors of higher education, her technique was allowed to flourish. We know she he could have left her solitary life had she desired—we will speak of an editorial position she was offered, for one—but she seemed most comfortable at home, in near hermitage,

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inking out secret, beautiful thoughts of which she shared only the tiniest fraction, and even then only to trusted friends and relatives. Emily Dickinson's life and poetry are intertwined because she chose to live a life of severe privacy, and it can be proposed that this existence had a powerful influence upon her singular style. Her life story often sets readers in awe because though she was very prolific, she never sought publication. She seemed to have no need of it. She wasn't writing to receive gratitude; she simply had to unburden her soul. Thus, as a result of her privacy- and perfection-driven solitude, Emily Dickinson's writing was unhindered by sluices of instruction and from a life she kept hidden, we are rewarded with at least three aspects which make her poetry both great and pure: uniqueness of syntax, mystery and, most interestingly, writing without need of recognition. The most easily identifiable effect of Dickinson's disobligation to others is the heedless grammar of her poetry. Emily's most famous maverick technique of poetic ambiguity was the dash, which many have examined extensively, trying to glean the meanings of each and every variation of length and gradient. At the time, and even for quite a time after her death, her everpresent dash so interlinked with her identity was considered so unfit that editors often omitted or converted them to semicolons or the like. Other unconventional features of her writing include: the use of capitalization for emphasis, which some considered to be an influence of William Blake (Charters and Charters

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1021); flawed rhymes, which was unacceptable in lyric poetry at the time; and sometimes editors changed entire metaphors into tropes that could more easily understood. (Charters and Charters 1019) A few critics at the time of her publication considered her tools to be the discernable flaws of her undereducation. (Charters and Charters 1020) But Emily read books voraciously, especially poetry, was home tutored, and with her vast vocabulary of words and concepts was clearly no simpleton. In fact it was her beloved tutor who in 1850, when she was 20, secretly gave Emily a book of poems by Emerson, which she recounted in a letter a few months after her tutor's death in 1882: "Ralph Waldo Emerson — whose name my Father's Law Student taught me, has touched the secret Spring." (Habegger 221) She also claimed that her tutor helped her to clean up some deficiencies of her education. (Habegger 217) We can assume that she knew the rules of grammar, but chose to create her own rules, not spurning convention, and not ignorant of it, simply writing as she saw fit—for herself—and to an extent, she reinvented poetry in the process. But why did she feel the need to "reinvent" poetry, rather than grain herself to the poetry of the day, some of which she loved? From an early age, she certainly appreciated many popular poets (Habegger 163), but the seeds of her maverick character can be seen very early in a letter she wrote during her education at Amherst Academy (attended from ages 10 to 17), she replied to a friend about why she

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cannot compose a hasty letter, saying that a quick response would be "no smarter than anybody else, and you know how I hate to be common." (Habegger 164) This was true of her handwriting at the time as well; of her letters and prose, she was famous for her tiny, yet perfected, handwriting. (Habegger 164) We can propose that Emily certainly had no goal to "reinvent" all of poetry, only that her wellspring was from a place of original thinking, and we can do this from the line of reasoning that, for the most part, she kept her poetry secret; she sought to change no one's views, about poetry, or the world, despite the revolution occurring in her writing. And because she kept the vast majority of her poetry from the eyes of others, even ordering it destroyed form her deathbed (there are some accounts claiming she kept her fascicles locked away in a trunk, and not carelessly in a box under her bed to be found by chance), we can reason that she assumed the world at large would ever read them, at least not while she was alive. So why did she leave so many thoughts incomplete, no many names unnamed; why the obscurity? Emily Dickinson wrote poetry to herself, and it is due to this hermitic undertaking that her poetry did not require accessibility, leaving key points of its meaning in regards to her life occulted in mystery. If parts of her work were unexplainable except only by her, it was very well, because no one else was ever meant to read it. If her poetry made claims that God no longer listened to prayers, e.g. "They

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went to God's Right Hand—/ That Hand is amputated now /And God cannot be found— " (poem 1551), it was very well, because her father and family would never know her blasphemous ideas. If she professed love, she words it so that it the muse cannot be reckoned, leaving it so open that many Christian critics think most of her love poems are to God, as in poem 570, which goes: "I could—die to know—/'Tis a trifling knowledge [....]/To the very Square—His foot is passing/Possibly, this moment—/While I—dream—Here—". Certainly impossible to know the identity of whom she writes, and why would she identify him? No one else was supposed to read it. For an example of her privacy-driven writing outside of her poetry, we can look to her "Letters to Master." Clearly there was a strong emotional attachment, and the final drafts of these letters may or may not have ever been sent, but never once does she address this person by name, nor is there even an indication of what sex the person is, leading some to speculate a lesbian lover, but this is merely because she leaves the entire issue so vague, and yet, filled with dignified eroticism. But being the supposed sole reader doesn't seem to be enough reason for Emily's coyness; for if she truly believed no one would ever read her work, why not name names? The reason: preservation of family image. In 1884, Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote about the plight of Emily, as well as all women of the time: "The real disadvantage of women has lain in being systematically taught from childhood that it is

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their highest duty to efface themselves, or at least to keep out of sight." (Farr 1) Though Emily's stern father was not abusive, she did notice how her mother trembled in his presence, and constantly told Emily herself that she was never to engage in public matters. (Habegger 5) He also "insisted that females stay home and that the children's health be protected at all times." (Habegger 197) Surely she would have wanted to hide her passions from her father as well as those around her, and in later years, she wrote of secreted love in poem 1737: [...]/Seven years of troth have taught thee/More than Wifehood ever may!/Love that never leaped its socket—/Trust entrenched in narrow pain— [...]/Burden—borne so far triumphant— /None suspect me of the crown,/For I wear the "Thorns" till Sunset— /Then—my Diadem put on [...]. Other reasons for her kittenish dancing about her subject have been suggested, and some propose that the man she coveted could have been married, such as Samuel Bowles, editor at the Springfield Republican, who was known to have helped her sneak letters from the house. (Charters and Charters 864) So it would seem fear of being found out was also fuel for the anonymity in her writing. So fearful of discovery was Emily that many letters she sent were postmarked from various nearby towns like Palmer, Hadley, and even as far as Connecticut, often having visitors mail them for her, and it is known that any letters she received which concerned her writing, she destroyed. (Habegger 454) Clearly discovery of the world

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she played at under the same roof as her father was a motive to keep her writing secret, but, if she had destined herself to never be known, why did she let it consume her life so fervently? Habeggar wrote this about Emily Dickinson: "...her writing was the expression of a hard existential fight that could not be shirked..." (Habegger 404) suggesting that she had no choice but to write, simply because it proved to herself she was there. A ringing of truth can be heard in this statement, but there was more to her than simply the undeniable urge to write; there was her solitude. In Letter 166, she claimed that she only left home "once a month or two," and we know that the older she became she admitted fewer visitors, refused many invites to literary associations, and we even know she could have easily found employment at the Republican, especially with Fidelia Hayward Cooke as literary editor; Cooke was more than likely the author of an 1860 editorial piece on women's "literature of misery" which was marketed as written by Bowles, Emily's friend and employee at the Republican, so that the piece might be more easily accepted. (Habegger 389-391) But simply because she denied herself from the world, we cannot believe that Emily always enjoyed her solitude, as she wrote in poem 590: "Did you ever stand in a Cavern's Mouth—/Widths out of the Sun—/And look—and shudder, and block your breath—/And deem to be alone/In such a place, what horror,/How Goblin it would be—/And fly, as 'twere pursuing you?/Then

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Loneliness—looks so—" The line "Widths out of the Sun" catches the eye, does it mean 'without the sun'? A possible meaning of this absence of sunlight will be addressed later. She often wrote of living in pain and loneliness, but her aching solitude was both tormentor and savior, as mentioned in poem 252: "Power is Pain—/Stranded, thro' Discipline". Emily once went up to her bedroom with her young niece, and once they were inside, she turned about and locked the door telling her niece that this was her freedom. Privacy, was freedom. Privacy was Emily's way of exploring all of existence. She didn't have to be bothered with whether anyone else would perceive her as a nature-worshipping druid or a letch. It was her world, behind that locked door. She writes of being in another world, and possibly of writers block, in poem 181: "I lost a World—the other day!/Has Anybody found? [...]/A Rich man—might not notice it [...]/Oh find it—Sir—for me!" But in some ways her shyness seemed beyond her control, as she would sometimes write dear friends expressing a tremendous want of their company, and when they actually arrived, she would see them without uttering a word, turn and flee upstairs to her room and not emerge until they had left, later apologizing with another letter. We can deduce that she had both an extreme will to write, which to most would also mean to publish, but Emily also had an extreme philosophy towards the virtuous humility of solitude, which refuted the

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idea of seeking fame, and some have suggested her literary greatness and viewpoint of life went hand in hand. Philosopher Ben Kimpel wrote of Emily: "Her devotion as a poet was to writing poetry. This was an unconditional commitment [...]" (Kimpel 31) Meaning recognition was not a requirement of her continuing to perfect her craft. On the subject of her choosing not to publish, he claimed that Emily did not reach for water that receded as she bent to drink it, as Tantalus did, and by this stoic, Puritanical virtue, she freed herself, giving salvation to herself. (Kimpel 31) It is the very nature of writing only for herself, knowing that she would never pursue publication—meaning fame—which lends the transcendental quality to her writing. Indeed, she transcended the motivation of writing itself, which is: to be read. Christopher E.G. Benfey thought that she required something of herself to remain private in order to write (Benfey 62), writing in his book of "...Dickinson's insistence that privacy is an enabling condition for both the writing of poetry and the reading of it." (Benfey 63) Benfey goes on to make an assumption about Emily Dickinson's personal philosophy, stating: "To retain one's purity is to protect one's privacy." which he continues by adding: "And that means not publishing." (Benfey 36) Later in the book, he suggests that by including a few of her poems in letters to friends and family, she "published" them, and that was sufficient for her. (Benfey 47) Of course some of these poems leaked into the public eye, and were published, heavily glazed for mass

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consumption. And though to some it may seem that she toyed with idea, any thought of publication came from outside herself. Emily Dickinson had many friends which wished her to publish. One was her beloved tutor, Benjamin Franklin Newton, who professed that he should want to live long enough to see her recognized as the genius she was. This was the rum she had tasted before. (Charters and Charters 1015) It was not until nine years after her tutor's death that she sought further advice about her poetry, this time writing a letter to literary editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson. It was Higginson which suggested she should wait before publishing, to which she replied that he had misunderstood her intent; she was seeking advice for herself, not seeking to be published. (Charters and Charters 1016) In a letter to her sister-in-law, she wrote: "Could I make you and Austin—proud— sometime—a great way off—'twould give me taller feet." But even here we are given a sense of obligation to others, bordering on guilt, about not trying to better herself, and not really a true sense of commercial ambition. It seemed as though any efforts to contact the outside world had to first overcome her intense need to deprive the world of her presence. A sentence catches the eye in Emily's second letter the Higginson, in speaking of her family: "They are religious, except me, and address an eclipse, every morning, whom they call their 'Father.'" (Charters and Charters 1014) She saw God as an eclipse, as something

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that was simultaneously tremendous and nonexistent. It is safe to say, this is also how she saw herself.

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Johnson, Thomas H., Editor, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 1960 Johnson, Thomas H., Editor, The Letters of Emily Dickenson, New York: Dover Publications, 2003 Charters, Ann and Charters, Samuel, Editors, Literature and Its Writers, 3rd ed, Boston/New York: Bedford, St. Martin's Press, 2004 Habegger, Alfred, My Wars Are Laid Away In Books, The Life of Emily Dickinson, New York: Random House, 2001 Farr, Judith, The Passion of Emily Dickinson, Reissue ed., Cambridge/London: Harvard University Press, 1998 Kimpel, Ben, Emily Dickinson as Philosopher, New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1981 Benfey, Christopher E.G., Emily Dickinson and the Problem of Others, Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1984

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