- "Regard[ing] a Mouse" in Dickinson's Poems and Letters
Most critics now dismiss many of the gendered myths about Emily Dickinson—we no longer consider her diminutive, virginal, retiring, and afflicted by unrequited love. In fact, recent analysis of Dickinson and her poetry has fostered an opposing reading in which she is now thought to be a poet who breaks through the confines of femininity with her intense and explosive poetic power. For example, Adrienne Rich argues convincingly for Dickinson's explosive poetic power as it is rendered in the images of the volcano, loaded gun, and bomb (185-190). Rich and other feminist critics have worked so successfully to dispel the idea of Dickinson as a hyper-feminine poetess that we now tend to overlook other salient features of her works. This focus upon the powerful images in Dickinson's poetry has provided a necessary corrective to the "belle of Amherst" myth, but we should not allow it to blind us to a whole range of other images. Rather than ignore or suppress Dickinson's diminutive figures and personae, we can return to them now, armed with feminist interpretive practices and prepared to read them anew.
In our new approaches to reading the conventionally weak or powerless figures in Dickinson's poetry, we discover that she uses these figures in [End Page 84] unconventional and complex ways. For instance, Margaret Homans provides a rereading of the daisy in Dickinson's poetry and letters, demonstrating how the poet, in her use of the daisy, consciously reworks that image. Homans argues that Dickinson employs the daisy as a forceful figure: the daisy inverts the power relationship with other figures such as the "sun" and the "Master," thus affirming its own strength. Homans firmly places the daisy beside the volcano, the loaded gun, and the bomb as representative of Dickinsonian power, not restraint (201-206). Joanne Feit Diehl, Jane Donahue Eberwein, Suzanne Juhasz, Mary Loeffelholz, Cristanne Miller, Barbara Antonia Clarke Mossberg, and Vivian Pollak also have demonstrated the complexity of Dickinson's depiction of power, arguing that it, in the Dickinson canon, is never simply hierarchical. Because of the nineteenth-century prescriptions about femininity (which would include female passivity, delicacy, unworldliness, and other traits that would make a female ambivalent, at best, towards power) Dickinson's personae are rarely simply powerful or powerless but always responding to their own empowerment in ambivalent, yet overdetermined ways.
Many critics have now attended to the typically diminutive figures such as the daisy and the young girl as complex images of power; in fact, feminist critics readily stress the importance of these figures because of the hidden female power that each possesses. However, other of these figures continue to be critically neglected. For instance, the mouse is a diminutive figure that differs from the daisy and the young girl, because it is not a traditionally female image. Thus it does not fall under the purview of much feminist discourse and often gets overlooked. But like the other figures, the mouse (whether as persona, image, symbol, or metaphor) undergoes refiguration. The mouse invariably transforms in the course of a poem from a little, hidden pest to a figure of potential destruction. The mouse may look innocent and diminutive, but its small status, which can cause the figure literally to be glanced over, is exactly what gives it power. The mouse exercises its highly destructive power in a completely hidden manner: the mouse's activity is slow, constant, and hardly noticeable, but because nobody notices its activity, it can ultimately cause complete annihilation. For Dickinson to employ the figure of the mouse, then, does not mean that she invokes triviality and smallness. The mouse figure combines the volcano's explosive power and the daisy's undetected power, and [End Page 85] as such, becomes an appropriate mascot for Dickinson's poetic project. As we shall see, though, the mouse is not emblematic in any unitary sense; rather, it functions as a shifting sign that captures a range of contradictions in Dickinson's poetry. Indeed, the mouse is a slight and even unappealing figure, elusive and irritating, suggestive and provocative rather than stabilizing. I...