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Emily Dickinson’s Poetry of Privation

The collected poems of Emily Dickinson include joyful ones and despairing ones. Some two hundred of them are regarded as poems of despair, some of them about literary recognition, others about her inability to engage with formal religion but most are about the absence of love in her life. As far as literary recognition is concerned, Richard Wilbur speculates that she desired literary fame even though he admits there is evidence to prove she did not (Charters1146).

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He does not question that her desire for love inspired many of her poems and describes them as an “effort to cope with her sense of privation” (Charters 1145), saying in effect that she wants love even as she runs from it (Charters 1145). Many critics agree with him that love was the prime mover behind those poems. What I will argue, however, is that the love poems of privation have nothing to do with romantic love but are part of the larger group of religious poems of privation. In other words, the love she craves and can never have is the love of Jesus, not of man. The sense of privation in her poetry, therefore, derives from having failed to engage in the hard struggle to reach spiritual perfection so as to become deserving of that love.

Emily Dickinson’s love life has been the subject of speculation since she was still a young woman, and the town’s people of Amherst wondered about the reclusive spinster who often dressed in white. Some writers have concluded that Dickinson’s fear of rejection was at the heart of her inability to find true love. Martha Dickinson Bianchi, for example, has shown by examining Dickinson’s correspondence that she was intensely concerned with love but was reluctant to exchange her independence for a loving relationship. She wrote her friend, Susan Gilbert, not long before she turned 20, that she had often wondered if Gilbert was in love.

If not, she said, how dull their lives must seem to “the bride and the plighted maiden, — whose days are fed with gold and who gather pearls of an evening.” She was realistic enough to know that marriage brings change, a “soft eclipse” as she would describe it later, and speculated that perhaps too married women, her life and Susan’s were to be envied (Bianchi 43). This is the theme of “I’m wife,” but not in the romantic sense, as will be shown.

Bianchi goes on to argue that renunciation appealed to Dickinson due to her religious background, but she does not believe it had a stronger appeal for her than love (152). She argues that unconsciously Dickinson deprived herself of love because, after an aborted affair in Washington DC with a married man, “the fear of loving what she could not have” drove her “to self-imposed abnegations” (Bianchi 44). In other words, rather than run risks she chose privation, a state of suffering that she knew she could cope with and would motivate her to write. As a result, she came to prefer the imaginative over the real experience, privation over fulfillment. The problem with this idea is that Dickinson seems to be attaching life-and-death importance to romance, a point that can only be proved by finding evidence in her love life.

Other critics have dug deeper into Dickinson’s life than her niece did, to see whether her romantic experiences are commensurate with the depth of her poetry. Diana Fuss, for example, believes Dickinson was in love with her brother’s wife, who lived just “a hedge away” at the end of a short, secret path which Dickinson describes as “just wide enough for two who love” (qt. in Fuss 52). The suggestion here is that a lesbian-incestuous love affair might have created the psychological tension that would account for Dickinson’s powerful poetry. Christopher Benfey, on the other hand, makes the opposite argument.

His analysis shows that as a young woman Dickinson fell in love just as most women do. She would have married an Amherst student, George Gould, except that he was either too poor or Dickinson’s father would not permit it. The famous Master letters, says Benfey, were addressed to Gould and their content was “passionate, masochistic and lyrical,” evidence that their romance continued well beyond her father’s ban. In that way, he demonstrates that Dickinson was not more deprived than many women of her generation and that, in fact, she managed to get some pleasure out of it anyway. There was nothing in that part of her life, then, to justify the love poems of privation.

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Bianchi goes on to argue that renunciation appealed to Dickinson due to her religious background, but she does not believe it had a stronger appeal for her than love (152). She argues that unconsciously Dickinson deprived herself of love because, after an aborted affair in Washington DC with a married man, “the fear of loving what she could not have” drove her “to self-imposed abnegations” (Bianchi 44).

In other words, rather than run risks she chose privation, a state of suffering that she knew she could cope with and would motivate her to write. As a result, she came to prefer the imaginative over the real experience, privation over fulfillment. The problem with this idea is that Dickinson seems to be attaching a life-and-death importance to romance, a point that can only be proved by finding evidence in her love life.

Other critics have dug deeper into Dickinson’s life than her niece did, to see whether her romantic experiences are commensurate with the depth of her poetry. Diana Fuss, for example, believes Dickinson was in love with her brother’s wife, who lived just “a hedge away” at the end of a short, secret path which Dickinson describes as “just wide enough for two who love” (qtd. in Fuss 52). The suggestion here is that a lesbian-incestuous love affair might have created the psychological tension that would account for Dickinson’s powerful poetry. Christopher Benfey, on the other hand, makes the opposite argument.

His analysis shows that as a young woman Dickinson fell in love just as most women do. She would have married an Amherst student, George Gould, except that he was either too poor or Dickinson’s father would not permit it. The famous Master letters, says Benfey, were addressed to Gould and their content was “passionate, masochistic and lyrical,” evidence that their romance continued well beyond her father’s ban. In that way he demonstrates that Dickinson was not more deprived than many women of her generation and that, in fact, she managed to get some pleasure out of it anyway. There was nothing in that part of her life, then, to justify the love poems of privation.

Romantic love was not as important to Dickinson as literature and literature was not nearly as important to her as religion which was more than a matter of life and death to her, it was a matter of her eternal soul. This is seen in “I’m wife.” When the nouns in “I’m wife” are taken literally it is hard to connect the poem with religious privation. On the surface of it the poem would seem to be about a girl who has married and has become a wife, a state which is as heaven compared to the earth she previously inhabited.

There are troubling references to a “soft eclipse,” a gentle obliteration which, when tied in with the harsh last line suggest that if the speaker ceases to cling to her status as wife, everything will stop. A gender critic such as Wendy Martin analyzes “I’m wife” as a conflict between feminine and masculine roles experienced by the speaker, noting that wife and woman are in quotation marks while Czar is not, and concludes from that that the wife’s “achievement of heterosexual privilege makes the wife paradoxically more ‘masculine’ than the girl” (114). Since Dickinson never married it is unlikely that sexual politics was the issue. The ironic, almost sarcastic tone of the poem suggests a deep privation but one that cannot be uncovered simply by reading it as a poem about love.

In fact, there is no way to make sense of “I’m wife” unless it is read as a religious poem. In around 1845, during one of the religious revivals that swept the country, Dickinson accepted Jesus Christ as her savior and wrote her sister Lavinia that she had never “enjoyed such perfect peace and happiness” as she had during the short time that her conversion lasted. Once that period passed she could not recapture it even though she knew that she would never be happy unless she loved Christ.

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What prevented her from fulfilling her life was the fear that “I was so easily excited that I might be deceived again and I dared not trust myself” (qtd. in Lundin 50). This poem may reflect her conversion and her reason for her reversion. That “soft eclipse” marked the obliteration of her self as her love for Jesus consumed her. To be the bride of Christ might be the most desirable end of all and yet she gave up the power of being a Czar conferred on her by her marriage, heaven for earth and the pain of that odd “Girl’s life,” in order to recover her independence. She accepts the privation caused by her loss of Christ because, just like her younger self, she prefers her independence as a woman and as a poet.

In “Wild Nights, Wild Nights,” the speaker says that if her lover were with her their nights would be wild, and most critics have accepted that as meaning that wildness necessarily refers to sex. Dickinson is rarely that obvious nor that lusty. James L. Dean suggests that the use of the pronoun “thee” shows that the lover addressed by the speaker is the sea. If she were on the high seas the sea’s wildness would be their luxury in the sense that she would share in it.

Instead she is like a ship in port, securely tied to the pier, the maps stowed and the compass useless now that she is home. Her life is comparable to rowing in Eden, serenely gliding through a static paradise where she is perfectly safe. Her heart rebels against so much calmness, and longs to be lost on a storm-tossed ocean. Where Dean’s interpretation breaks down is in the last line, where the speaker proposes to moor in the high seas, an impossibility in real life – but if a religious interpretation replaces the more standard erotic one, or Dean’s nautical one, the privation at the heart of this poem is seen to be a spiritual one.

“Wild Nights,” in this interpretation, describes Dickinson’s craving for spiritual engagement but the church offered her little more than a safe haven. What she wanted were wild, black nights of spiritual struggle, to experience the extreme difficulty of aspiring toward God (“Thee”), a feat as impossible as mooring a ship in a stormy sea, perhaps, but the only real and worthwhile quest.

As Magdalena Zapadowska says, Dickinson recognized that the Calvinist religion protected her from winds, made compass and maps unnecessary, but even though she wanted to believe it was not enough to satisfy her. The inadequacy of her religion “inspires some of her most intense, ferocious, and distressed verse” (3), as is the case here. Dickinson imagined the spiritual struggle as Jacob wrestling the angel, “a potentially violent yet fair confrontation in which God recognizes the human being as an adversary and partner” (Zapadowska 4). Her greatest privation is the knowledge that it can never be that way and that, therefore, true belief is impossible to achieve.

“I gave myself to him” has been used as a wedding vow but when Zapadowska’s ideas are applied to it, the poem is clearly an expression of that same privation, another poem about Dickinson’s disillusionment with religion. The first line is based on one her father wrote during the religious revival in 1873: “I hereby give myself to God” (qtd. in Zapadowska 5), and it is possible that the bloodlessness or perhaps the calm acceptance of his faith is being criticized in this poem. As in “Wild Nights, Wild Nights,” the speaker believes religion cannot be reduced to a rational transaction with God but must be a transcendental struggle.

The language of the poem is the language of business, a fair exchange, him for me, me for him, and thus was the “solemn contract” (Dickinson) ratified. Economically it might not be the ideal marriage, says the speaker, but nothing can be known until the merchant buys the fabled cargo. Everything is done on borrowed money but the risk is mutual. This is one of her most sarcastic poems, energized by her critical attitude toward the conversions taking place all around her in Amherst during the various awakenings, so easy compared to her own ferocious battles to achieve that same level of fulfillment.

All three poems have this in common: they are poems of spiritual privation masquerading as poems about love lost. Dickinson’s great tragedy is, in the words of Jane Donahue Eberwein, that “in her childhood, belief seemed all but inevitable; by the time she died in 1886, agnosticism and even atheism had become easier positions to justify intellectually” (qtd. in Zapadowska 5). Without the love of Jesus she would never be happy, and so her sense of privation was chronic, only finding temporary ease in writing poems about it.

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Works Cited

Bianchi, Martha Dickinson. The Life and Letters of Emily Dickinson. New York: Biblo and Tannen, 1971.

Charters, Ann and Samuel, eds. Literature and Its Writers: A Compact Introduction to Fiction, Poetry and Drama. 4th edition. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007.

Dean, James L. “Dickinson’s Wild Nights.” Explicator #93, 1993. Web.

Fuss, Diana. “Interior Chambers: The Emily Dickinson Homestead.” The Differences, 1998.

Lundin, Roger. Emily Dickinson, and the Art of Belief. Grand Rapids MI: Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2004.

Zapadowska, Magdalena. “Wrestling with silence: Emily Dickinson’s Calvinist God.” The American Transcendental Quarterly. 2006.

Outline

Introduction: Emily Dickinson’s poems are about joy and despair. The “poems of privation” are said to center on love, religion and literature. I will show that the love poems of privation are actually religious, not romantic, in nature.

2nd paragraph: Dickinson’s love life has been closely examined in order to interpret her love poems accurately. Bianchi uses her letters to show that she was intensely interested in love around age 20 but wondered if married women were not jealous of independent women. This is the theme of “Wild Nights,” as will be shown later.

3rd paragraph: Bianchi says that after a failed affair Dickinson became fearful of wanting what she could not have, and therefore turned to self-denial. This was suffering she could cope with, and would also make her write more.

4th paragraph: Another writer argues that Dickinson was in love with her brother’s wife and that the abnormality of the situation motivated her to write her powerful poetry. Yet another makes the opposite case, saying Dickinson had a normal love life, and even enjoyed herself. But then how do we account for the love poems of privation?

5th paragraph: Religion was far more important to ED than love or literature. In “I’m wife,” the religious theme is concealed by the domestic references. Some say it is about sexual politics but ED has not shown much interest in that in her other work. In any case, would that make her write such an impassioned poem?

6th paragraph: The only way to make sense of “I’m wife” is to connect it with ED’s religious conversion at age 15. For a brief period she accepted Jesus and for that time she was perfectly happy. Yet she lost her belief and thereby regained her independence as a woman and a poet. The “soft eclipse” in this poem indicates a gentle obliteration as her love for Jesus destroyed her individual identity.

7th paragraph: In “Wild Nights, Wild Nights” critics again take ED literally, equating wildness with sexuality. One says that the speaker is not addressing a man but the sea, and that she wants to break out of her safe port to sail on the high seas and moor herself there. When the erotic and nautical interpretations are replaced by a religious one, the poem makes more sense.

8th paragraph: “Wild Nights” is a critique of the organized religion, the church, Calvinism, which provide the safe haven against the winds and make maps and compass unnecessary. What the speaker wants is to wrestle with an angel like Jacob once did, to engage in a spiritual struggle that will make her deserving of Jesus’ love. Her privation comes from knowing that can never be.

9th paragraph: “I gave myself to him” has been used as a wedding vow but actually tells the story of an easy conversion, rationally negotiated and signed for. The poem uses the language of business and economics, and is ED’s satire on the kind of religiosity she saw around her.

Conclusion: All three poems deal with spiritual, not romantic, privation. ED’s tragedy is that she cannot reconcile herself with religion, even though she wants desperately to be deserving of Christ’s love.

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StudyCorgi. (2021, November 4). Emily Dickinson’s Poetry of Privation. Retrieved from https://studycorgi.com/emily-dickinsons-poetry-of-privation/

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1. StudyCorgi. "Emily Dickinson’s Poetry of Privation." November 4, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/emily-dickinsons-poetry-of-privation/.


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