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"I Could Not Have Defined the Change": Rereading Dickinson's Definition Poetry

From: The Emily Dickinson Journal
Volume 11, Number 1, 2002
pp. 49-80 | 10.1353/edj.2002.0005

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The Emily Dickinson Journal 11.1 (2002) 49-80

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"I Could Not Have Defined the Change":
Rereading Dickinson's Definition Poetry

Jed Deppman

There is not so much Life as talk of Life, as a general thing. Had we the first intimation of the Definition of Life, the calmest of us would be Lunatics!

- Emily Dickinson to Elizabeth Holland, 1877 (L492)

I. Dickinson's Definition Poems

Scholars have long considered Webster's 1844 dictionary to be an important resource for reading Emily Dickinson's life and work. Like the Bible, it represents a vast semantic reservoir into which the poet liked to plunge, and both books help us understand how Dickinson and much of nineteenth-century New England interrogated, interpreted, and organized the known and unknown. Yet while critics and biographers have explored Dickinson's oppositional and dialectical attitudes toward the Bible in depth, they have not paid the same attention to her poetic definitions of things. The so-called "definition" poems deserve it, however, for not only do they represent an important part — at least a fifth — of all of her poetry, they also contain some of her most focused and topical thinking. The way they relentlessly pursue discrete truths reveals her Aristotelian side, i.e. her epistemological desire to delimit and express important areas of experience; the figural strategies and analogies they employ reveal even more about her creative, Romantic side. In short, we should study the definition poems because they manifest like no others the unique Dickinsonian blend of ordered thinking and sublime poetic technique. [End Page 49]

While the definitions have not been ignored, 1 they are, for several reasons, out of favor now and little specific attention has ever been given to the relationships that exist between them and the form and content of Webster's dictionary entries. 2 A general reason for this, at least in contemporary criticism, is that since the 1980s the feminist domination of the field of Dickinson studies has tended to privilege the biographic or lyric subject, women's writing, issues of gender and culture and, more recently, historical contexts. Thus, of the two feminist Emily Dickinsons that Margaret Dickie once described, neither the "revolutionary . . . enraged" poet created by the first wave of feminist criticism nor the second wave's "complex and sophisticated" writer negotiating with "strategies of reticence and limitation" particularly resembles an impersonal scientific observer or abstract definer of things (323). 3 In fact, the various feminist Dickinsons — there are many more than two — mostly substantiate the popular critical opinion, well articulated by James McIntosh in his recent book, that Dickinson felt and expressed intense emotions but did not really think systematically or analytically about them. "In her world" McIntosh writes, "spiritual and emotional states such as love, despair, and imaginative enthrallment can be felt and represented poetically but not pinned down, analyzed, or known" (2).

Recent emphasis on manuscript studies has also slighted the definitions, perhaps because they seem to offer themselves as preeminently "finished" right at a time when new appreciation is growing for writing as a process and for all poems as temporal objects. Yet, as Jerome McGann's reading of "Experience is the Angled Road" suggests, a genetic awareness of textual variants and of the visual layout of Dickinson's manuscripts tends to reinforce the idea that the definitions are dynamic, time-bound, process-oriented texts — they may ultimately become some of the manuscriptologists' favorite children (28ff).

Scholars who have studied the definitions have tended to misconstrue and oversimplify them, usually because they have unwittingly or uncritically relied on Webster or other dictionaries to provide the standards for definition. 4 Dickinson's famous comment to Higginson about the "Lexicon" being her "only companion" for years (L261) has also been taken much too literally and the image of a poet infatuated with Webster has been further fueled by commonplaces about her love of words and by Martha Dickinson Bianchi's assertion that "The dictionary was no mere reference book to her; she read it as a priest his breviary — over and...