- Emily Dickinson Challenges American Myths:The Ritual Power of Words—to Re-create, Kill, and Make Sex1
Even though Emily Dickinson does not believe in the major American myths, she still struggles with them and their impact on the consciousness and the unconscious. In this sense Dickinson is a very American poet. According to my reading, Dickinson does not consider nationality a state of mind. Instead she sees nationality as embodied in certain myths and structures of power and gender to which one will have to relate in order to change them and make room for women writers within the powerful Americanness of myth. Broadly speaking, the myths I understand Dickinson to be engaging are those of America as a pastoral garden disturbed by the machine of industrialization or evil, of the Puritan errand into the wilderness, of the American Eve and Adam, and of the pioneer, i.e. the ideal and democratic American figure, as alien to and defying authority as well as the structures of society in general.2
The myth tradition of American Studies was dominant, especially within studies of mid-nineteenth-century literature, from the fifties and up till recently (the 1980s), when it came under heavy attack.3 However, the myths with which the myth school was occupied seem to have been operating, in [End Page 62] fiction and elsewhere, and they may have influenced the mentality of the nineteenth century to a great extent; but for the most part they have been interpreted as being so exclusive that they could not contain the points of view of women and ethnic minorities.4 What I suggest is not that these influential myths include the perspective of a woman poet like Dickinson, but that with her point of view Dickinson can shed new light on these myths and their underlying structures and values. My contention is that Dickinson had an ongoing civil war with the influential American myths. In other words, I am concerned with the functioning of the myths from Dickinson's point of view, not with the meta-level of myth studies and their political impact.5
More specifically, I suggest that Emily Dickinson perceived her poems as having ritual power.6 Metaphorically speaking, this power can re-create, kill, and make sex.7 It is an almost magic power coming from the poet and, by means of the creation of the poem, separated from her; the power of the poem is communicated to and has the potential to influence the reader. In the process of ritual communication, Dickinson engages and disrupts the above-mentioned influential American myths.
This process may not be found in all of her poetic work, but it seems to be an important aspect of her poetry. However, rather than discussing a great number of poems, I intend to scrutinize two powerful ones, namely "I tie my Hat—I crease my Shawl—" (443) and "My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun—" (754).8 I consider these poems representative of a larger group of Dickinson's oeuvre.9
The Power of Words to Re-create and Explode
"I tie my Hat—I crease my Shawl—" is a poem pivotal to my perspective.10 Pivotal, because of its focus on the persona's struggle with her inner life, maybe her unconscious and, as I will suggest, its relation to certain American cultural meanings. [End Page 63]
I tie my Hat—I crease my Shawl—Life's little duties do—precisely—As the very leastWere infinite—to me—
I put new Blossoms in the Glass—And throw the old—away—I push a petal from my GownThat anchored there—I weighThe time 'twill be till six o'clockI have so much to do—And yet—Existence—some way back—Stopped—struck—my ticking—through—We cannot put Ourself awayAs a completed ManOr Woman—When the Errand's doneWe came to Flesh—upon—There may be—Miles on Miles of Nought—Of Action—sicker far—To simulate—is stinging work—To cover what we areFrom Science—and from Surgery—Too Telescopic EyesTo bear on us unshaded—For their—sake—not...