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  • Tomb and Womb:Reading Contexture in Emily Dickinson's "Soft Prison"
  • Elise Davinroy

A letter written by Emily Dickinson is a unified whole of constituent parts, a fabric woven of prose and poetry designed for a specific audience. No "Word [is] dropped careless on a Page" (2: F1268), making each letter not merely a convenient vehicle—or envelope—into which she folded poems, but in its entirety an aesthetic creation.2 Martha Nell Smith has argued that Dickinson self-published through her correspondence, and this theory has opened up new lines of investigation in reading Dickinson's letters. Smith's focus is on the letter as material text, as object of production. Other scholars have looked at Dickinson's voice(s), her language of solace, or her conformity with or challenge to Victorian epistolary conventions.3 In my analysis, I consider the contexture (or interwoven consistency) of Dickinson's written performances—the interimplications among words and phrases, poems, letters, and groups of letters to one correspondent, and the interplay of genre among prose and poetry, poem and letter, and letter and epistolary "book." I use the term "book" deliberately, because when we read contexture in a corpus to each correspondent, it becomes apparent that Dickinson continues the specific aesthetic continuity she demonstrates in one letter to create epistolary "books" with ongoing and particular conceits (shipwrecks for example), thematic threads (Heaven or absence), specific vocabularies (law or flowers), and lengthy discussions of states of being (such as being emotionally at sea). Because she knew her intended recipient would not read a letter once and set it aside, but would continue to peruse and puzzle over it, to appreciate its artistic language and understand its ambiguity and epigrammatic allusiveness, she manipulates the constituent parts of a text to a specific person under particular circumstances to create an integrity, a fabric of allusions, associations, references, and new information. The letters tell us a great deal about Dickinson as a writer, a shaper of texts. They tell us about her audience, how she viewed that audience, and how she chose words and text deliberately for her reader or readers.4

In most of Dickinson's letters to her friends, the difference between prose and poetry is one of degree rather than of kind. Though typescripts of her letters traditionally show lines of text that stretch from margin to margin organized into paragraphs, the words in those long lines often participate in the same rhythmic, riddling game of language as do the indented short lines stacked into stanzas and called poems. Manuscript versions of her letters, with their words and short phrases expansively occupying [End Page 1] the limits of the paper, further indicate Dickinson's defiance of what Donnelly refers to as "the generic distinctions between letter and lyric" (134). Indeed, key to her writing aesthetic is her blurring and transcending of genres as she organizes her writing by her own rules, "dwell[ing] in Possibility" (1: F466) rather than allowing an abstract "They" to "shut [her] up in Prose" (1: F445). This is not to say that Dickinson does not recognize the difference between prose and poetry, or that she does not craft language that adheres more to the characteristics of poetry than the characteristics of prose. Nor is she the first or the only artist to write in genre-crossing, or what I call "trans-genred," language. All writing, especially stylized or artistic writing, partakes of this blurring of genre to some degree. But in her letters, in particular, Dickinson seems to stretch and compress the border between prose and poetry as she manipulates the conventional boundaries between letter, poem, and book.

Dickinson's trans-genre tendencies appear on the page in different ways. Some letters incorporate lines from previously drafted poems as a part of the body of the letter; others rise smoothly or "spontaneously" from the prose; others have poems enclosed with the letter on separate sheets; still others are poems with simply a salutation or closing. When a letter is examined as a constituent part of the body of correspondence to its recipient, and that richly interactive "book" of letters is examined as a unified whole, we begin to...


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