Emily Dickinson and the Nineteenth-Century Women Poets: The Poetics and Politics of Reticence

When discussing nineteenth-century American women poets, the term ‘reticence’ has been used, almost exclusively, by critics since the 1980s, to refer to  poetic strategies that resulted from ‘psychic conflict and anxiety’[1]: women’s literary articulation was suppressed by the patriarchal system, and society demanded reticence in writing by women (e.g. elimination of anger, sexual feelings, and ambition in their work). In order to excel without condemnation, women writers complied.[2] Critics, within a feminist framework, include Emily Dickinson and her unique literary reticence, in their assertion that strategic reticence was employed by all women writers.

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Emily Dickinson. Credit: Amherst College Library

Poetry by popular nineteenth-century American women writers (Dickinson was not known by most readers during her time) was typically dismissed by twentieth-century literary critics and biographers as ‘sentimental tosh’.[3] Hawthorne referred to that ‘damn mob of scribbling women’, complaining that ‘public taste is occupied with their trash’.[4]  Dickinson’s first major biographer, Richard Sewall, wrote that the editors who published the poems of Dickinson’s female peers were ‘thoroughly conventional’, ‘tone deaf’ and only interested in ‘didactic’ poems with ‘easy narrative’.[5]

The agenda of critics such as Dobson and Petrino is to react to these critiques by resurrecting and honouring the poetry of Dickinson’s female contemporaries while showing that Dickinson shared the same limitations, subject matter, and even stylistic choices. ‘Dickinson’s poetry emanates’ Petrino writes, ‘from an artistic and intellectual sensibility born of her native New England and shared with other women, a recognition of whose own artistic achievement has been long overdue.’[6] Accomplished poets such as Lydia Huntley Sigourney, Elizabeth Oakes Prince Smith, Frances Sargent Locke Osgood, and Alice Carey are held up beside Dickinson, sharing ‘a feminine community of expression which mandated personal reticence’.[7] Some critics attempt to reduce the dissimilarities between Dickinson and her female contemporaries. Shira Wolosky writes in her introduction to Major Voices: 19th Century American Women’s Poetry (2003) that she chose the versions of Dickinson’s poems for the anthology that were most like her contemporaries (‘restoring’ an earlier editor’s bowdlerized spellings) in order to, ‘lessen rather than increase the impression of Dickinson’s idiosyncratic differentiation from other women writers’.[8] This agenda has created a blind-spot. In these critics’ determination to show that the work of nineteenth-century women poets, including Dickinson, shared the same style, and were ultimately limited by expectations of reticence, they fail to see that Dickinson chose reticence from a place of strength rather than from one of submission.

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Lydia Huntley Sigourney. Engraver: F. E. Jones. Printed, 1855

Dickinson’s indirect expressive ‘strategies of reticence’, scholars such as Dobson claim[9], allowed for a poetics in which personal disclosure was veiled through devices designed to allay anxiety about non-conformity. However, although Dickinson did suffer from the same pressures as her female peers and indeed suppressed her writing in certain ways (i.e. non-publication), her distinctive ‘slant’ or reticent style was an articulation of full-throated poetic power. She understood what poets and critics, from ancient times to today, had always recognized about the quality of reticence in poetry. The medieval Chinese poet Wei T’ai in his Random Notes on Poetry (1989) wrote that, ‘poetry should be precise about the thing and reticent about the feeling; this is how poetry enters deeply into us’.[10] Contemporary American poet Louise Glück expressed it this way: ‘I am attracted to ellipsis, to the unsaid, to suggestion, to eloquent, deliberate silence. The unsaid, for me, exerts great power: often I wish an entire poem could be made in this vocabulary.’[11] For Dickinson, the poetics of reticence was a consciously developed literary strategy foreshadowing, even anticipating, the ironies, ambivalences, and disruptions in modern poetry. Dickinson invented a semiotic form of writing which disrupted the symbolic (patriarchal) conventions of logical grammar, syntax, and narrative expectation, creating an art of power through silences.

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‘Tell all the truth’. Amherst – Amherst Manuscript # 372 – Tell all the truth but tell it slant – asc:12240 – p. 1

I would like to reclaim the word ‘reticence’. During a time when women writers were encouraged to write with reticence (complying with expectations of modesty), Dickinson invented a radical and subversive poetics of reticence, poles apart from her peers. The following four elements make up the poetics of reticence employed by Dickinson: absence of narrative information, lack of description, disruptive pauses, and silence when sound is expected. For instance, in Dickinson’s poem that begins with the line, ‘After great pain, a formal feeling comes — ’,[12] the reader is never told from where the ‘pain’ originated. There is no narrative about the cause of the pain. The ‘— ’ (the calligraphic stroke which may be a dash or slash or hyphen ubiquitous in Dickinson’s poems) serves to blank out that information. Rather, we are given a detached description of the inner workings of the body’s aftermath through simile: ‘The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs – ’ Again, the calligraphic stroke disrupts as it strikes out expected language and sound: the ‘Tombs’ are not described. Their introduction ends there. Silence radiates out of this poem. But it is reticence that truly releases the light: Dickinson does not choose complete silence. The poem holds back, withdraws, quiets itself to further its power:

This is the Hour of Lead –

Remembered, if outlived,

As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –

First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –

The succession of ‘dashes’ at the end of the poem cancel out hidden information, narrative and expected sound.

Here are the first lines of a poem by one of the most popular and beloved poets during Dickinson’s time; Lydia Sigourney’s poem, ‘Winter Fete’ begins,

I woke, and every lordling of the grove

Was clad in diamonds, and the lowliest shrub

Did wear its crest of brilliants gallantly.

The swelling hillocks, with their woven vines,

The far-seen forests and the broken hedge,

Yea, every thicket gleam’d in bright array,

As for some gorgeous fete of fairy-land.[13]

In contrast to Dickinson’s work, Sigourney’s poetry is ‘clad’ with description and narrative. The conventional use of iambic pentameter flows along without disruption to the expected meter or hesitation. In this poem, the story of the ‘I’ waking initiates the poem. And in the final lines, the message is clear: the beauty of winter that God, ‘the King of storms’, bestows upon the world, reminds one to ‘Look within thy heart / When the poor shiver in their snow-wreath’d cell, / Or the sad orphan mourns’. If one can show sympathy,  ‘An answering pity’ or ‘a fervent deed / Done in Christ’s name’ one will be sure to enter Heaven, ‘a mansion with the blest’. In contrast, Dickinson’s poems remain reticent about their messages; if a message can be deciphered in a Dickinson poem, it is one of doubt or contradiction (i.e. simultaneous spiritual epiphany and religious alienation) or even ideas about reticence: ‘Tell all the truth tell but it slant’,[14] she wrote, and ‘Ashes denote that Fire was—’.[15]

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‘After great pain’, Houghton Library – (26c) After great pain, a formal feeling comes -, J341, Fr372

It is possible that Dickinson became skilled in literary reticence as a result of her readings of the English translation she had of the Hebrew Bible (King James). This places her manner of writing in intellectual conversation with a classic Western text. The women writing before and during Dickinson’s time brought the themes and language of the Bible to their poetry, often rewriting entire biblical stories; however, Dickinson brought the reticent style of the Bible to her poems; she drew on the anti-narrative reticence of the biblical text, establishing her distinctive reticent style.

While her peers read the Bible as a text of seamless story-telling with instructive teachings, Dickinson detected and was influenced by what Erich Auerbach has called  ‘the lacunae of the Hebrew text’.[16]  It seems that Dickinson understood this aspect of biblical style which as Auerbach writes, leaves narrative ‘obscure’ and emphasizes ‘abruptness’ and the ‘suggestive influence of the unexpressed,’ ‘a multiplicity of meanings and the need for interpretation,’ and a ‘preoccupation with the problematic.’[17] According to Emmanuel Levinas’s hermeneutics, the gaps in the Hebrew Bible are an invitation to the reader to become actively involved in the production of meaning. ‘The reader’ Levinas asserts is ‘in his own fashion, a scribe.’[18]  Levinas’s words also apply to encountering the poetics of reticence in Dickinson’s poems, poems that embrace the idea that saying little communicates more, and that, in poetry, restraint creates vitality and intimacy.

Footnotes

[1] Joanne Dobson, Dickinson and the Strategies of Reticence: The Woman Writer in Nineteenth-Century America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989, p. xiii.

[2] See, for example, Dobson, Dickinson and the Strategies of Reticence; Elizabeth A. Petrino, Emily Dickinson and Her Contemporaries: Women’s Verse in America, 1820–1885 (Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 1998); Cristianne Miller, Emily Dickinson in the Nineteenth Century: A Fresh Look at a Major Poet in the Context of her Time (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012).

[3] Lyndall Gordon, Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds (New York: Penguin, 2011).

[4] John T. Frederick, ‘Hawthorne’s “Scribbling Women”’, The New England Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 2 (June 1975), p. 231.

[5] Richard B. Sewall, The Life of Emily Dickinson. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), p. 748).

[6] Petrino, Emily Dickinson and Her Contemporaries.

[7] Dobson, Dickinson and the Strategies of Reticence.

[8] Shira Wolosky, Major Voices in 19th Century American Women’s Poetry (New Milford, CT: The Toby Press, 2003).

[9] For thorough discussion of this, see Dobson, Dickinson and the Strategies of Reticence and Petrino, Emily Dickinson and Her Contemporaries.

[10] The Complete Ci-poems of Li Qingzhao:
A New English Translation, Jaosheng Wang Wei Tai. The Sino-Platonic Papers, 13 (October 1989): http://www.sino-platonic.org/abstracts/spp013_ci_poetry.html

[11] Louise Glück, “Disruption, Hesitation, Silence,” Proofs & Theories: Essays on Poetry (New York: Ecco, 1994, p.74-75).

[12] Emily Dickinson, Collected Poems

[13] Lydia Sigourney, Selected Poetry and Prose, Gary Kelly. Broadview Press, Ontario, 2008.

[14] The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Boston: Little Brown and Co., 1960) p. 1129.

[15] Complete Poems, ed. Johnson, p. 1063.

[16] Erich Auerbach, ‘Odyssesus’ Scar,’ Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, Fiftieth Anniversary Edition. Trans. Willard Trask. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003) p. 75.

[17] Auerbach, ‘Odysseus’ Scar,’ p. 75.

[18] Emmanuel Levinas, “Revelation and Jewish Tradition,” The Levinas Reader, ed. Sean Hand (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1989), p. 160-161.

Eve Grubin

Eve Grubin, the recipient of an AHRC funded TECHNE scholarship, is writing a practice based PhD in Creative Writing at Kingston Univiersty: Boat of Letters: Emily Dickinson, Her Contemporaries and the Poetics of Reticence. Her book of poems Morning Prayer was published by the Sheep Meadow Press, and The House of Our First Loving, a pamphlet / chapbook was published by Rack Press. Her poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, The New Republic, PN Review, Poetry Review, Poetry International and elsewhere, and her essays on contemporary American poets and poetry have appeared in many anthologies and journals.

About Eve Grubin

Eve Grubin, the recipient of an AHRC funded TECHNE scholarship, is writing a practice based PhD in Creative Writing at Kingston Univiersty: Boat of Letters: Emily Dickinson, Her Contemporaries and the Poetics of Reticence. Her book of poems Morning Prayer was published by the Sheep Meadow Press, and The House of Our First Loving, a pamphlet / chapbook was published by Rack Press. Her poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, The New Republic, PN Review, Poetry Review, Poetry International and elsewhere, and her essays on contemporary American poets and poetry have appeared in many anthologies and journals.
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