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  • To "See—Comparatively":Emily Dickinsons Use of Simile
  • Shirley Sharon-Zisser (bio)

We see—Comparatively—" (P534)1 says one of Emily Dickinson's speakers; and over one third of her poems contain patterns that enact this epistemological thesis by featuring what Eco calls the "new semantic coupling" of disparate signifiers (252) through a formal element that triggers a cognitive process of likening.2 Other poems do not contain formal similes but refer to functions of linguistic comparison and thus may be read as a meta-poetic gloss on Dickinson's conception of the figure of simile. These poems present "Comparative Anatomy" (P100) as a heuristic mechanism for exploring the invisible order beyond the "Glimmering Frontier" of this world.3 They suggest that as a result of the poetic act of establishing a relation of comparison between the frame of reference (FR)4 of this order and that of a known concept, attributes of the known concept may be "translated" into parallel attributes of the otherwise obscure frame of reference and eventually accepted as new information about it. For example, the worldly experience of love is presented as a "Comparative," emphasizing the feature of "privilege" in the superhuman FR of Paradise and thus transcending the limitations of "our ignoble Eyes" (P800). At other times, Dickinson questions this optimistic view, suggesting that as all the informational "Rates" utilized in processing a given figure of comparison "lie Here," on the side of the known FR, all that [End Page 59] the figure can do is impose familiar information on the unknown FR, not reveal new information about it (P382).5

Dickinson's multi-faceted and explicitly articulated awareness of processes of comparison and the relatively high me of similes in her corpus suggest that the use of similes is a crucial aspect of her poetics that has been overlooked.6 This paper explores Emily Dickinson's use of similes from the perspective of her meta-poetic stances and the consciousness of the untranscendable opacity of epistemological and metaphysical boundaries that so pervades her poetry.7

Dickinson's similes may be grouped into two broad thematic categories: "centripetal" and "centrifugal." Together, these categories document a dialectical process by means of which limitation is transformed to an advantage. Centripetal (or metafictional) similes react to the disappointing attempt to use language as an exploratory tool by means of a concentration on language itself, which takes the form of three strategies: inflected concretization, absence, and riddle. Centrifugal similes are enabled by the sense of linguistic power ultimately derived from this concentration on language. Severed from attempts at external reference, language comes to be conceived as forceful enough to turn outwards again and impose meaning upon an alien world by means of two strategies: humanization and induction. But whether they brood on language itself or use language as a way of constructing a significant reality, both centripetal and centrifugal similes put a "Vision of Language" (L782) at center stage. For all their polarization, all of Emily Dickinson's similes are inherently (though not always explicitly) metalinguistic.

Centripetal Similes

"I always try to think in any disappointment," writes Emily Dickinson, "that had I been gratified, it had been sadder still, and I weave from such suppositions, at times, considerable consolation; consolation upside down as I am pleased to call it" (L69). For Dickinson, "any disappointment" paradoxically becomes "at once power and paralysis" (Cameron, 144). The internal [End Page 60] powers summoned to cope with disappointments and deprivations are presented as exercised to their full capacity and hence as becoming developed to a point in which they are of intrinsic value. Thus on the emotional level, "Pain" can be an occasion to "learn" the skill of "Transport" (P167) out of the pain situation.8 On the epistemological level, the failure to consummate the desire to know by means of language what lies beyond the bounds of human perception serves Dickinson as an occasion for perfecting the linguistic apparatus as an end in itself.9 As similes are the linguistic tool designated by Dickinson as the most adequate to sound the unknown, it is in her manipulation of similes that Dickinson's introverting reaction to the failure of this desire is...