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  • Illuminating the Eclipse:Dickinson's "Representative" and the Marriage Narrative
  • Susan Harris (bio)

In one of her early letters to T. W. Higginson Emily Dickinson felt it necessary to remind him that "When I state myself, as the Representative of the Verse—it does not mean—me—but a supposed person" (L268). Decades later, Dickinson's poetry is still "particularly vulnerable to. . .biographical explanation" (Dickie 547). Because she was a gifted female poet writing in an anti-feminist climate, her personal struggle is of as much interest to many as the poetry it produced, while for others her widely-disseminated public persona has so much real or fabricated "mystery" about it that the urge to play detective becomes irresistible.

Perhaps the strongest compulsion toward an autobiographical reading of Dickinson's work, however, is the sheer difficulty of the form that she chose. Her choice of genre "poses an obstacle to a critical argument, because it is equally difficult to make a compelling point on the basis of a single brief lyric" and "to discuss a series of poems as one continuous work" (Dickie 538). It is tempting to try to skirt that obstacle by treating Dickinson's life experience as the overarching narrative that ties her poetry together; but the result is too often a simplistic reading that reduces Dickinson's poetry to a [End Page 44] mere reflection of the vicissitudes of her life. Rather than treating Dickinson's own life as the master narrative for her entire oeuvre, or addressing each poem as an isolated and self-contained unit, it would perhaps be more helpful to take Dickinson's hint to Higginson and look for a narrative framework in the development of the identity of the "Representative," treating this "supposed person" not as a vessel for Dickinson's own personality but as a deliberately crafted poetic construct.

The changing symbolism surrounding the speaker's progress toward wifehood offers one of the best views of the stages in this persona's journey from apprenticeship to mastery. It would be an oversimplification to claim that all of the poems in which Dickinson alludes to marriage or wifehood can be strung on the skein of a single narrative. But an important subcategory of the marriage poetry—the group of marriage poems that are concerned primarily with the process of entitlement—can be read as one story of the speaker's unexpectedly long, difficult and dangerous journey from benighted exile to empowered fulfillment. As the "Representative" discovers, her culture has invested the title of "Wife" with an almost magical power; but it then forbids her to assume that identity and that power by shrouding the reality of wifehood in a darkness and silence that, for most of the speaker's literary predecessors, have proved impenetrable.1 Dickinson's marriage narrative is therefore not so much a love story—the narrative of a heroine's progression toward an actual or imagined husband—as the record of one speaker's attempt to claim and construct this hitherto unfigured identity by pushing the limits of language.

Although Dickinson herself never married, her letters do provide ample evidence of a passionate involvement (one-sided or otherwise) with somebody. Biographical critics can thus use these letters to argue, as William Shurr does, that there is a "uniform persona throughout" (Shurr 26) the marriage poetry, that this persona is basically a thin veil for Dickinson herself, and that these poems describe the progress of Dickinson's own imagined marriage to Reverend Charles Wadsworth or some other lover.2 A reader less wedded to Dickinson's biography, recognizing that the many poems in which the speaker is identified as "wife" or "bride" are so varied in [End Page 45] tone, perspective and attitude as to seem irretrievably discontinuous, would more probably share Elizabeth Phillips' assessment of the marriage poetry as a disunited group of dramatic monologues in distinct and "different voices" (126). Cynthia Griffin Wolff and Joanne Dobson, however, both offer analyses of some of the marriage poetry that not only go beyond biography but help us understand Dickinson's marriage poetry as a response to the cultural and literary conventions that made the title of "Wife" seem especially...


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