In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Emily Dickinson's Circumference:Figuring a Blind Spot in the Romantic Tradition
  • Laura Gribbin (bio)

Among the key words that Emily Dickinson returns to in her poetry—Eternity, Death, Arc, Crescent, Circuit—few have received as much attention or been as difficult to elucidate as her idiosyncratic use of Circumference. This concept, which is central to an understanding of some of Dickinson's most difficult poems,1 has usually been read as a limited affirmation of humankind's ability to experience the sublime.2 Although such a reading places Dickinson firmly in the nineteenth-century Transcendental tradition of Ralph Waldo Emerson, it overlooks the more radical and theoretically challenging implications of her vision of Circumference. Unlike Emerson, whose image of the circle "has no outside, no enclosing wall, no circumference" ("Circles" 180), Dickinson calls attention to the circle's necessary boundary or perimeter without which it has neither shape nor meaning.3 By containing the expansive momentum of this favored Emersonian symbol of the sublime, Dickinson challenges one of the central tenets of Romanticism—that humankind can transcend material reality to become "part or particle of God" (Nature 10).4 Further, by blocking the impulse toward transcendence, Dickinson calls into question the vatic claims of Emerson's poet, "the transparency of self and world that Emerson prophecies, the infinitude of his individual man" (Homans 183). [End Page 1]

Circumference marks the borderline of symbolic and linguistic order. This border is a highly charged point of convergence where oppositions are collapsed, boundaries are explored, and meaning originates. Circumference is also the space within a circle where life is lived, pain is felt, and death is observed. It is not, as Thomas Johnson argues, the means by which Dickinson elicits "awe from the object or idea by which she is inspired" (134); it is not the means to a sublime end but is at once the source and terminus of poetic discourse, marking the perimeter beyond which language, thought, and "awe" cannot penetrate.

The source of Dickinson's resistance to the sublime can be traced to her Calvinist roots, which place God beyond the influence of human will, and to her precarious and defiant status as a female poet writing both against and within a male tradition. For Dickinson, Circumference not only separates the self from the sublime but also protects the integrity of the self from an identity-threatening merger with an authoritative other. Joanne Feit Diehl argues that to experience the transcendent sublime, "the poet must have faith that he/she retains the capacity to survive such an upheaval intact." The male poet, who belongs to a powerful, patriarchal literary tradition, can draw upon the strength of that tradition. The woman poet, who, however, perceives herself as an outsider, "would be wary of such experience, dreading its power to usurp her energies as she acknowledges the crucial nature of the sublime encounter itself" (Women Poets 2).

Although the speaker in Dickinson's poems of Circumference often dreads the usurping power of the sublime, at times she goes even further, questioning the degree to which such an "encounter" is even possible. If all that is knowable is contained within Circumference, then the sublime itself is a construct of the Romantic imagination, an ideal "other" created in order to be absorbed into the self. Circumference undermines this hegemonic urge by revealing its fictional foundation.

Emerson's poet "is the sayer, the namer, and represents beauty. He is a sovereign, and stands on the center" ("The Poet" 5). His ability to perceive, apprehend, and name is limitless, for he, like all men, "is a self-evolving circle, which from a ring imperceptibly small, rushes on all sides outward, to new and larger circles, and that without end" ("Circles" 180). The speaker in [End Page 2] Dickinson's poem 378, however, is located not at the center but on the perimeter of the circle, looking out into the vast uncharted universe.

I saw no Way—The Heavens were stitched—I felt the Columns close—The Earth reversed her Hemispheres—I touched the Universe—

And back it slid—and I alone—A Speck upon a Ball—Went out upon Circumference—Beyond the Dip of Bell...