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  • Neither Lesbian nor Straight:Multiple Eroticisms in Emily Dickinson's Love Poetry1
  • Sylvia Henneberg (bio)

Among Dickinson critics, there is little question that Emily Dickinson's love poetry is sexually and erotically charged. However, the exact nature of the sexuality and eroticism she incorporates into her poems seems to be less clear. Giving rise to much ambiguity, both homosexual and heterosexual elements pervade her work. In numerous poems, it is impossible to determine the genders and sexual identities of Dickinson's speakers and addressees. These cases show that a simple homo / hetero divide does not suffice to comprehend the poet's range of eroticism. Close examination of Dickinson's poems and their manuscripts reveals that the eroticism presented is often neither only lesbian nor only straight. Instead, it is simultaneously homosexual and heterosexual, or in between homo and hetero. Far from limiting erotic possibility, Dickinson allows the sexual identities of her speakers and addressees to oscillate between lesbian and straight, thus letting the erotic experiences she describes in her love poetry shift back and forth along a continuum of multiple eroticisms.

Recent criticism on Dickinson, however, reveals a tendency to define the sexual proclivities of the poet, usually identified with the speaker, and [End Page 1] her addressees. Based on the definitions found, critics frequently proceed to subdivide Dickinson's love poetry into "homosexual" and "heterosexual" poems and then produce readings that enable them to fit each poem into one of the two categories. Judith Farr and Vivian Pollak, for example, devote entire chapters both to Dickinson's "lesbian" writings and to her "heterosexual" works. Here, "The Narrative of Sue" (Farr 100) is seen in clear opposition to "The Narrative of Master" (Farr 178), and "Dickinson's sisterhood group" (Pollak 135) is contrasted with "[her] marriage group" (Pollak 157). Adalaide Morris makes a similar distinction. Although she acknowledges that both the Master and Sue are "courted with imagery . . . of sun, storms, volcanoes, and wounds" (100), that Dickinson's "language seems to fit . . . easily into both sets of letters and poems" (102), and that "both sets of material are self-consciously idolatrous" (101), the critic maintains that "[t]he kind of love Dickinson desires and develops with a woman is very different from the love she desires and develops with a man" (102). Morris adds that "[t]he similarities in rhetoric mask deep dissimilarities of structure" (102).

A number of scholars disagree with categorization of this particular kind and label virtually all of Dickinson's love poetry "homosexual" and almost all of her addressees "female." Emphasizing Dickinson's clitorocentrism, Paula Bennett, for instance, refuses to accept the influence of men on the poet's life and work:

But if she did [fall in love with Master / a man], her need for close affective ties with women did not substantially change. . . . Dickinson's relationship with this man was not the shaping experience of her life. Nor was it, as it is sometimes made out to be, the formative influence on her art.

(Emily Dickinson 157-58)

Martha Nell Smith feels much more strongly about the issue and argues that the only reason the reader is deluded into believing that Dickinson is a heterosexual female addressing a heterosexual male in her works is that editors have disfigured the letters and poems and reproduced their own misleading versions of them. To Smith, the male lacks presence and is much [End Page 2] too insubstantial and unindividualized in her verse to point to heterosexual preference on the part of the poet (17).

Finally there are critics such as Karl Keller who seem to find a single classification, "heterosexual," sufficient to typify Dickinson and her love poetry. In his "Notes On Sleeping With Emily Dickinson," he invariably describes the reader / addressee / critic as a male who erotically interacts with the female speaker / poet.2

Disparate though these camps may seem, a consensus does in fact reign. All critics agree that it can and should be determined whether the poetry and Dickinson herself are heterosexual or homosexual. Subjecting the poet and her writings to such models of binary opposition is, however, extremely limiting and, according to recent queer theory, no longer tenable. In her introduction to...


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