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  • Against Calvary: Emily Dickinson and the Sublime
  • Shawn Alfrey (bio)

The purpose of relation is the relation

itself — touching the You. For as soon

as we touch a You, we are touched by a

breath of eternal life.

Martin Buber, I and Thou

In the letters and notes where she set down her poetic values, Emily Dickinson proves herself a poet of the sublime. One of her best-known statements of poetics, in a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, measures poetry by its ability to inflict what is clearly a sublime shock:

If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way.


While Dickinson is recognized as a partisan of the sublime, however, critics have had trouble deciding which of its various modes she reflects. Her particular brand of sublimity has been described as everything from the most negative instance of American negativity, to the expression of an anxiety-free, maternal space. 1 The difficulty in assigning Dickinson a place in the sublime probably has much to do with her own ambivalence about the ontology the sublime seems to require. For, while the sublime’s transmission of power and knowledge by definition requires the subject’s encounter with the world outside the self, this encounter is usually recognized as agonistic. The difficulty surmounted in the experience of the sublime can be understood as a sort of ontological struggle, a battle between self and other in which only one side can emerge victorious. [End Page 48]

Studies by turn in gothic terror, manic productivity, mystical awe, even erotic brutality, many of Dickinson’s poems interrogate the necessity of such ontological violence within the sublime’s “structure of transcendence.” 2 Ultimately, she rejects this subject/object paradigm, as well as the psychological and theological models that seem to authorize it. Instead, her poetry labors to preserve the intersubjective space that occasions her transport, and to figure inspiration as a relation based on recognition and mutuality.

Through the work of such influential critics as Harold Bloom and Thomas Weiskel, the sublime has come to be known largely as an aesthetic enactment of the Oedipal structure of struggle and identification through which the son gains the father’s authority. As numerous critics have shown, accepting such a gendered arrangement for the transmission of power has had important implications for women artists. Moreover, as feminist psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin points out, such a model privileges individual, intrapsychic experience at the expense of intersubjective reality. 3 Where identity formation can be understood only in terms of identification and introjection, other beings lose value and reality.

Even before it was made cognate with Freudian psychoanalytic theory, however, the sublime’s intrapsychic struggle was understood in theological or spiritual terms. We can recognize the structure of sublime transport, for instance, in Rudolf Otto’s description of the mysterious experience of “the Holy” (“das Heilege”).

The divine object may appear to the mind an object of horror and dread, but at the same time it is no less something that allures with a potent charm, and the creature, who trembles before it, utterly cowed and cast down, has always at the same time the impulse to turn to it, nay even to make it somehow his own. The “mystery” is for him not merely something to be wondered at but something that entrances him; and beside that in it which bewilders and confounds, he feels a something that captivates and transports him with a strange ravishment. . . .


If spiritual awe recapitulates the sublime’s ontological contest, this has important theological implications. As David Simpson points out, the struggle that characterizes the sublime marks it as well as a “postlapserian” aesthetic, associated with original sin and man’s estranged relationship to God. “We must understand the romantic (and subsequent) interest in the sublime as part of a [End Page 49] dramatic and even melodramatic imaging of the self as sinful and transgressive” (247–48...

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pp. 48-64
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