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  • Emily Dickinson’s Vision: Illness and Identity in Her Poetry
  • Beth Maclay Doriani (bio)
Emily Dickinson’s Vision: Illness and Identity in Her Poetry. By James R. Guthrie. Gainsville: University Press of Florida, 1998. 208pp.

In Emily Dickinson’s Vision, James R. Guthrie argues that Emily Dickinson’s optical illness, which forced her to retreat indoors and to come to terms with the loss of light, visual beauty, and her own hopes, remains central to the poet’s understanding of herself and thus to the subject matter and method of her poetry. Dickinson apparently suffered from strabismus, a deviation of the cornea, which lingered for several years and compelled her to keep her eyes bandaged for long lengths of time, thus threatening her physical and imaginative collapse. Guthrie adopts a biographical approach that highlights her illness and her experience as a convalescent as a way to explain the “dialectic of desire and deferred gratification” that undergirds her corpus (2). He explores the ways that Dickinson’s actual experience of deprivation, her physical pain, the attendant sense of loss, and other personal events can together explain her conflicted stance towards God as well as the philosophical ideas that emerge in her poetry. In adopting a biographical approach, Guthrie joins scholars such as John Cody (After Great Pain, 1971), Maryanne Garbowsky (The House without the Door, 1989), Barton Levi St. Armand (Emily Dickinson and Her Culture, 1984), and Martha Nell Smith (Rowing in Eden, 1992a), who, despite the specifics of their approaches and subject matter, all share with Guthrie the interest in looking for evidence of Dickinson’s life among the poems and in offering readings of the poems based upon biographical evidence. While for some scholars this [End Page 120] approach itself may be problematic, Guthrie’s work is distinctive for the ways in which he brings details of Dickinson’s medical, scientific, and even educational contexts to bear upon Dickinson’s struggles regarding God, aesthetics perception, and even love. For Dickinson, “illness was a formative experience,” Guthrie maintains, “one which shaped her entire poetic methodology from perception to inscription and which very likely shook the foundations of her faith” (5). According to Guthrie, an understanding of Dickinson’s struggles with chronic optical illness can reveal a “new” Dickinson, preoccupied with metaphor of seeing and light, a figure who is “sick, yet not neurotic; withdrawn, yet not introvert”; a poet who is “highly attuned . . . to [the] ontological and epistemological quandries . . . of her day” (4).

In focusing on Dickinson’s optical affliction, Guthrie offers some provocative readings of her poems. For example, he suggests, when Dickinson writes in #327, “I got my eye put out,” she really means it. Likewise, he discusses #745, “renunciation - is a piercing Virtue -,” as a poem about Dickinson’s “self-admonition to rebandage her eyes rather than expose them to morning’s light” (17). The imagery regarding eyes, sunrise, vision, and day are no mere tropes in this poem but are grounded, Guthrie argues, in Dickinson’s actual struggle to contain her desire for the visible and to settle for “Covered Vision” (Dickinson’s term) or self restraint. As in a number of other poems focusing on deprivation, here in #745 Dickinson moves towards turning loss into, Richard Wilbur once put it, “sumptuous Destitution.” Guthrie probes the concretized aspects of that destitution — in #745, her struggle to accept her physician’s orders to keep her eyes bandaged — as those details give way to the metaphysics of her religious struggles. He extends to focus on Dickinson’s optical illness and preoccupation with light to her larger interests in spatial tropes and physical spaces, including that of Heaven (Chapter 4), her understanding of language and employment of literary symbolism as a way to capture the visible (Chapter 5), and her own tensions regarding publication, at least partly generated by the poet’s sense of herself as a seer despite (or perhaps because of ) her failed eyesight (Chapter 6). In the final chapter (Chapter 7), Guthrie looks at Dickinson’s relationship with Judge Otis Lord as a way to understand what he argues is a shift to a more secular approach to writing (versus a sacramental model) in...

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pp. 120-122
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