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The Emily Dickinson Journal 10.2 (2001) 22-42

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Because I, Persephone, Could Not Stop for Death:
Emily Dickinson and the Goddess

Ken Hiltner

Though it is doubtful Emily Dickinson will ever be described as a "Classicist," we know that the poet not only studied Latin at Amherst Academy, but had at her disposal in the libraries of the Academy, Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, and the family's Homestead a wide variety of classical textbooks as well as original and translated works by Homer, Sophocles, Horace, Cicero, Virgil, and others. 1 Latin words and phrases appear throughout the poet's body of work, from the early "Sic transit glories mundi" (Fr2/J3), to late references to "ignis fatuus" and "illume" in "Those dying then" (Fr1581/J1551). We also know that the Amherst poet made inspired use of such classically influenced writers as Shakespeare, Milton, and the Romantic poets. 2 Furthermore, a provocative case has been made that Dickinson's familiarity with Latin quantitative metrics and caesurae strongly influenced the poet's meter, capitalization, and internal punctuation. 3 Yet, in spite of this classical background, perhaps because critics still reluctantly find the reclusive poet provincial or simply turned inward (and hence away from, among other things, the ancient traditions), Dickinson's use of classical material has virtually escaped the attention of critics. 4 Indeed, what Jack Capps somewhat pejoratively noted decades ago is still widely accepted today: Dickinson "found no place in her own writing for the involved apparatus of classical . . . mythology" (72). 5

Or did she? In the present essay I propose to use one of Dickinson's most anthologized poems, "Because I could not stop for Death" (Fr 479/J712), to demonstrate that the poet not only used classical sources (in this case the Homeric "Hymn to Demeter"), but, in producing a new and startling version of the myth of Persephone, framed a devastating critique of patriarchal [End Page 22] exogamy as that which would not only take her away from mother, sister, and friends, but the mother's realm of the imaginary as well. As we shall see, more than just a speculative critique, this approach to patriarchal exogamy may underscore a number of the poet's life decisions, not the least of which being her reluctance to publish

Since the discovery in 1777 of a single surviving medieval manuscript of the Homeric "Hymn to Demeter," writers have flocked to retell the story of the mother who was willing to sacrifice so much in order to save her daughter. Both Percy Bysshe and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley offered early versions of the myth: his in verse in the "Song of Proserpine," and hers as the unpublished drama "Proserpine." But it was not until mid-century that a virtual avalanche of works let loose which either directly referenced the myth or featured characters reenacting the story. A partial list includes Nathaniel Hawthorne (Tanglewood Tales), Elizabeth Barrett Browning ("Aurora Leigh" -- a favorite of Dickinson's), Helen Hunt Jackson ("Demeter"-Jackson was, of course, one of Dickinson's correspondents), Alfred Tennyson ("Demeter and Persephone"), H. D. ("Demeter"), Edgar Lee Masters ("Persephone"), Gertrude Atherton ("The Foghorn"), Amy Clarke ("Persephone"), Margaret Atwood (Procedures for Underground and Double Persephone), Sylvia Plath ("Two Sisters of Persephone"), Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Ellen Glasgow, Virginia Wolfe, Colette, and many more. 6 The myth has also attracted the attention of literary critics such as Adrienne Rich (Of Woman Born), Susan Gubar ("Mother, Maiden, and the Marriage of Death"), and Luce Irigaray (Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche). Indeed, Susan Gubar sees Persephone as nothing less than "the central mythic figure for women" (302).

It will be easiest to understand why this myth captured the imagination of so many by moving to Dickinson's poem, but not before addressing the crucial question of where the poet encountered the Homeric "Hymn to Demeter": at first glance a copy of the "Hymn" does not appear to be included in the libraries of Amherst Academy, Mount Holyoke, or the family Homestead. But, after sifting through the classical reference books...


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