restricted access 4. Emily Dickinson and the Unknown God
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62 &OUR Emily Dickinson and the Unknown God Of American poets taught regularly in secondary education, the two most ill-served are Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson. Students are typically introduced to these poets through their most-anthologized poems, the majority of which are chosen in part for their accessibility—technically fluid and not too daunting conceptually—but also for a sort of charmingness, albeit in both cases of a slightly dark and eccentric kind. The best-known and most-taught of their poems present the personae of these two quintessentially American poets as, respectively, a wise, avuncular, white-haired lover of New England country life and its rugged solitudes, and as the whimsical and ladylike recluse spinster, the belle of Amherst, prone to occasional morbidity but mostly concerned to express her delight in bees, flowers, sunsets, and assurances of Eternity. This image of Frost is not unsettled by acquaintance with his muchanthologized poems “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “Mending Wall,” “The Road Not Taken,” and “Birches”; nor is this caricature of Emily Dickinson undermined by her poems “I taste a liquor never brewed,”“I like to see it lap the miles,”“A narrow fellow in the grass,”“A bird came down the walk,”“I never saw a moor,” nor even by “Because I could not stop for death” or “I heard a fly buzz when I died” or “There’s a certain slant of light.” But a truly broad and penetrating familiarity with the works of these two poets subverts fairly radically the benign portraits sketched above. Emily Dickinson and the Unknown God 63 Frost and Dickinson both,in fact,are in the fullness of their work extremely difficult poets and of unusual depth. Both are exceptional as poets of spiritual struggle and are experts of the uncanny and inexplicable. Both radiate an anxious isolation; both are obsessed with death and tragedy; and both of them are, without question, intimates of agony. Frost, upon close examination , turns out as well to be surprisingly devious with a slight sadistic streak and not infrequently nihilistic. And Dickinson, the focus of this chapter, is revealed by her approximately 1,800 poems and poetic fragments to be, despite her unquestionable experiences of joy, loving identification with natural creatures, and illuminative transcendence, more typically and generally a poetofdoubt,loneliness,longing,inwardstruggle,fury,alienation,dread,and depression—a master, as Harold Bloom puts it, “of every negative affect.”1 Also, contrary to her popular image, she is among the most cognitively demanding poets America has produced. And finally, she is a brilliant poetic explicator of what it means to live in the anxious openness of the“tension”of the metaxy—that is, in the unrestful, inescapable, and irresolvable tension of existence in-between world and transcendence, time and eternity, ignorance and knowledge, despair and faith, hope and fulfillment.2 Poet of the In-Between As a prelude to exploring the way Dickinson’s artistic corpus constitutes an unusually faithful, extended testimony to the in-between,or metaxic, condition of human existence, we might briefly consider why a more accurate understanding of the character of Dickinson’s poetry and outlook, and, more important , an appreciation of her greatness as a poet, are not more common. First, there was the long delay in the initial coming to light of her achievement , due to her life of intense privacy, to the withholding of her poems (no more than ten of which were published during her lifetime)3 and to their first being published—beginning in 1890, four years after her death—in small or incomplete editions, with the poems edited, punctuationally modified, and even linguistically altered, to suit conventional tastes. It was not until the 1950s and 1960s that the full scope of her accomplishment and her original versions became well known and that she entered the mainstream teaching canon and anthologies. And only the last few decades have shown a careful critical devotion to repairing the changes inflicted by her early editors, to the compiling of folio and variora editions, and to making publicly available her work as she wrote and preserved it. Second, there is her poetic originality. Although her forms and meters are often familiar or even commonplace—especially the hymnal stanza form 64 A More Beautiful Question that she employs so frequently in her work—her poetic voice is utterly unique, and, once encountered, is instantly recognizable in its peculiarities of diction, concision, and metaphoric invention. Harold Bloom, however prone to hyperbole , does...