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  • Breaking the Eschatological Frame: Dickinson's Narrative Acts
  • Claudia Yukman (bio)


We now know what apparently no one during Emily Dickinson's lifetime knew, that she wrote close to 1800 poems and bound them into booklets, giving some kind and degree of order to her work. Dickinson's conspicuous social and literary absence may have determined the unusual extent to which biographers have turned to the poetry to reconstruct the life, and critics have turned to the biography to understand the poetry. Such responses are also predictable given the extraordinary affectivity of Dickinson's elliptical poems. How could a poem, for example, that begins: "'Twas like a Malestrom with a notch," and ends "Which Anguish was the utter'st—then—/ To perish, or to live?" be an account of anything other than an actual life crisis? Even the common critical practice of distinguishing a poem's speaker from its author does not seem to hold in the case of Dickinson's works to the same degree that it would for most literary figures.

I will argue that a representative group of Dickinson's narrative poems are in fact about trying to narrate rather than about an event that caused the act of narrating. Dickinson's poems are "about" the conditions for subjectivity within a Christian narrative, which organizes experience in this world according to a vision of another world, or an eschatological frame. In other [End Page 76] words, Dickinson inherits her world linguistically, socially, and culturally through a narrative that claims to tell us about what happens after death. The acts of narrating I shall consider here repeat this formulaic conversion narrative in order to show there is a subjectivity beyond it. Dickinson violates the narrative frame she invokes by using it to represent not one, but countless conversions. Furthermore, the "life after death" of Dickinson's poem is the poem and the reading of the poem. That reading is located where the eschatological frame of the Christian narrative locates "the next life," the absolute presence of God. Dickinson's self-conscious attempts to narrate taken together might be seen as representing a choice between the Christian narrative frame of experience and some alternative, which she represents as embodiment and textuality. By examining the margin between what is and what is not narratable within the form of the Christian narrative, manifested as the breaking down of a set of narrative conventions and a residual text, we can speculate on what Dickinson has to say about the experience of marginalized forms of subjectivity, such as that of doubting Protestant, that of American poet, and that of woman poet.

Since Dickinson was a woman writer, it might be inferred from a comparison of the critical reception of her work with that of another woman writer (Sylvia Plath, for instance), that we assume a woman writes about her personal experience because she is uninitiated into the proper subjects of art. Feminist critics of poetry such as Margaret Homans have also argued for the necessity of analyzing the position of a woman poet within a genre that has typically represented her as a silent object and within a culture that has consistently marginalized womens' writing.1 More recently, Sandra Gilbert has attempted to establish Dickinson's position as American poet, arguing that Dickinson initiates a tradition of poetry in America that departs more radically than Whitman's poetics from the English poetic tradition. As a woman poet, Gilbert argues, Dickinson feels herself outside the poetic tradition and thus feels no obligation to earn a place in it by practicing its formal conventions.2

But while the many histories we are writing of Dickinson lead us away from the myths about her singularity and present us with a more human figure, they also put an emphasis upon context that oversimplifies our own and Dickinson's relationship to history and language. Our narrative productions of a historical Dickinson are all the more ironic in view [End Page 77] of the imperatives of the poetics she invents as a woman practicing poetry in nineteenth-century Protestant America. In order to write history we must engage in the dynamic of narrating—see ourselves as subjects. But...


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