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Emily Dickinson's Volcanic Punctuation
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Emily Dickinson's Volcanic Punctuation

What a hazard an Accent is! When I think of the Hearts it has scuttled or sunk, I almost fear to lift my Hand to so much as a punctuation.1

Emerson, in his famous lecture on "The American Scholar," declared: "The human mind . . . is one central fire, which flaming now out of the lips of Etna, lightens the capes of Sicily; and, now out of the throat of Vesuvius, illuminates the towers and vineyards of Naples. It is one light which beams out of a thousand stars. It is one soul which animates all men."2 The volcano that animates Dickinson's writing, however, is a far more violent force, an image of devastating linguistic expression erupting out of silence: "Vesuvius dont talk—Etna—dont—one of them—said a syllable—a thousand years ago, and Pompeii heard it, and hid forever—" (L 233). Dickinson's volcano emits not only light but consuming lava:

A still—Volcano—Life—That flickered in the night—When it was dark enough to do Without erasing sight—

A quiet—Earthquake Style—Too subtle to suspectBy natures this side Naples—The North cannot detect [End Page 22]

The Solemn—Torrid—Symbol—The lips that never lie—Whose hissing Corals part—and shut—And Cities—ooze away—3

In contrast to Emerson's image of benevolent spiritual enlightenment, Dickinson's volcano consumes, burns, and destroys. The volcano is an unpredictable, subversive force, more appalling when it erupts because it has been so long silent. Yet the subtlety of the volcano persists even in the eruption, which is only a hiss, and in the destruction, which is an oozing away. Far from being limited by its constraining rock, the volcano's power of expression is so great that it can swallow up the exterior that seems to confine it. As such, it offers an image of Dickinson writing from within the confines of her society, exploding the language by which her culture seeks to limit and define her. The volcano, though phallic in shape, ejaculating lava, has a feminine component, too: its vaginal and oral lips dispense symbols that scorch the phallus from within and devour the surroundings above and amidst which it has erected itself. The volcano thus evokes the terrifying image of the woman writing from within the male organ(ization) itself. Dickinson's disruption of social structures, like her poetic image of the volcano, is primarily a linguistic one. The volcano destroys cities that are, like conventional language and grammar, constructions of civilization. But just as the fiery lava and ash also resculpt the landscape and enrich the soil, Dickinson's disruption of conventional discourse also reshapes and enriches language.

When Dickinson described the effect of attempting to impose order on her own poetry, she expressed it in volcanic terms: "when I try to organize—my little Force explodes—and leaves me bare and charred—" (L 271). The publication history of Dickinson's poems chronicles many subsequent attempts by others to contain her explosive language, and nowhere is this more marked than in the editing of Dickinson's punctuation. Editors usually turn to her punctuation as an area where they can confidently bring some order to her enigmatic poetry. Their assumption is that all writers ought to subscribe to conventional standards of punctuation, and when authors violate these laws, editors must enforce them.4 Consequently Dickinson's punctuation is either obscured in earlier editions and made to conform to conal rules or displayed as a curiosity in later editions and then condemned for deviance.5 [End Page 23]

These editorial practices have sparked a lively debate among critics, some of whom seek to rescue Dickinson by imaging her as an eccentric transcendentalist in opposition to the grammatical reprobate whose punctuation editors have both displayed and sought to correct. In the more traditional editorial approach, John Crowe Ransom gallantly suggests that the editor of the next edition "will respect [her] capitalizations, I think, even while he is removing them," a statement that (especially in the context of a male critic discussing a female writer) is not too far from the old adage, "I'll still...