This article first appeared in the Irish Independent's Written Word supplement in March 2014.
Soundings has a lot to answer for. The classic textbook ‘enjoyed’ by generations of Irish Leaving Cert students is notorious for its roll call of dead white male poets and its utter lack of ethnic or gender diversity. In this sea of testosterone Emily Dickinson was the sole representative of female poetry and the selection of poems by her in the book had a decidedly morbid bent. ‘Because I Could Not Stop for Death’ and ‘I Felt a Funeral in my Brain’ being two of the more popular ones. As a result it is generally believed by most Irish people that she was a crackpot loner who was obsessed with death and that her poetry is ‘depressing’. I want to strongly emphasise that this attitude is widely off the mark and to say something like that in your exam will do a great disservice to both Emily Dickinson and yourself.
Her 1800 strong collection of poems is dividedly evenly under the headings ‘Life, Love, Nature, Time and Eternity’ and fortunately the selection of poems on the current Leaving Cert course is a lot more representative of this variety of themes than was delivered in Soundings. Dickinson, like many poets, tackled the essentials of the human condition, asking the big questions: How does one cope with fear of death? How does one face up to the imponderable eternity that may follow? How can one find any certainty in this world? What makes us happy? She said: ‘My business is circumference’ meaning her goal was to understand the bigger picture of why we are here and what is important in life: ‘the essentials’.
The most immediately striking aspect of her poetry is, of course, her intransigently individual style. The reader is visually struck by her neat 4 line rhyming stanzas, unusual capitalisations and frequent use of dashes. As one studies her work the purpose of her unique punctuation becomes apparent. The capitals give emphasis to certain words, mostly nouns, on which she wishes to shine a spotlight. Often they are concrete symbols for abstract ideas or emotional states. In the poem ‘I heard a Fly Buzz’ the capitalised words include: ‘Stillness, Heaves, Storm, Eyes, Breaths,’ creating a hushed, tense atmosphere all by themselves. In ‘I Felt a Funeral in my Brain’ the treading ‘Mourners’ and ‘Service, like a Drum’ are symbols for the mental state she is seeking to describe.
The dashes contribute to the rhythm of the poems echoing the natural cadences of human speech. An example from ‘I taste a liquor never brewed’:
‘Inebriate of Air – am I –
And Debauchee of Dew -
Read the lines aloud and you will hear the colloquial effect and a hint of Dickinson’s wry, dry humour. Ted Hughes commented that the dashes are ‘an integral part of her method and style, and cannot be translated to commas, semicolons and the rest without deadening the wonderfully naked voltage of the poems’.
It is also immediately striking how important the natural world is to Dickinson. Her poems are populated by birds, bees, beetles, flies, snakes, butterflies and flowers. She was clearly a keen observer of plant and animal life and records in minute detail their appearance and movement. From ‘A Bird Came down the Walk’:
‘He glanced with rapid eyes
That hurried all around –
They looked like frightened beads,
I thought –
He stirred his Velvet head’
She also displays a sincere personal enjoyment of the natural world in ‘I could bring You Jewels’ and ‘I taste a liquor never brewed’. In these poems the beauty of nature is more valuable to her than expensive jewels and more intoxicating than alcohol:
‘Inebriate of Air – am I –
And Debauchee of Dew –
Reeling – thro endless summer days –
From Inns of Molten Blue –
In ‘Hope is the thing with feathers’ she uses a bird to symbolise the abstract concept of hope capturing both its fragility and resilience.
‘And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –‘
Nature is the tool she reached for most often to help explore complex questions and emotions. In ‘The Soul has Bandaged moments’ she describes the polar opposite emotions of ecstasy and despair and uses the image of a bee to depict the ecstasy: ‘The soul has moments of Escape –/When bursting all the doors –/She dances like a Bomb.../ As do the Bee - delirious borne – /Long Dungeoned from his Rose -’
She was unafraid to also explore the darker aspects of the human condition including despair, fear and our attitude to death. She knew both the high and low moments of life and was able to describe these emotions in extraordinarily concrete terms. Her poetry is always, as Wordsworth put it: ‘felt in the blood and felt along the heart’. From the opening line of ‘I Felt a Funeral in my Brain’ we are brought inside the human mind and given an exploration of mental turmoil. All the elements of a sad funeral: ‘Mourners’, ‘a Service’ and ‘a Box’ are used as metaphors for internal sensations of anxiety and pressure:
‘And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum –
Kept beating – beating – till I thought
My Mind was going numb - ’
I don’t think there’s a Leaving Cert student out there who has not felt a pounding in their head at some point this year from over-study, (or under-study!), stress or anxiety. What she’s describing isn’t foreign or strange, it’s something we’ve all experienced. She’s just describing it in an unusual way.
The poem can also be read as a meditation on death and whether there is an after-life. She could be imagining remaining conscious after death and being aware of the funeral ritual happening around her. The final stanza of the poem ends abruptly and openly, perhaps leaving the reader to decide for themselves if there is an afterlife or not:
‘And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing – then – ’
The poem ‘I heard a Fly buzz – when I died’ is a less ambiguous imagining of the moment of death. Here Dickinson depicts a classic Victorian ‘death-bed scene’ with the family gathered in religious solemnity to mark the speaker’s passing:
‘The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room - ’
Instead of a moment of revelation or redemption, however, we get a moment of anti-climactic annoyance when ‘There interposed a Fly - /With Blue – uncertain stumbling Buzz - ’. The seriousness of the scene is completely spoiled by a bumbling Blue Bottle flying erratically ‘Between the light – and me - ’. The poem goes on to end, not with a ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ or a religious vision, but with nothingness: ‘And then the Windows failed – and then/ I could not see to see -’. The open-ended dash at the end leaves what comes after up to the reader’s imagination.