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  • Emily Dickinson's Fascicles: Method & Meaning
  • John Gerlach (bio)
Oberhaus, Dorothy Huff . Emily Dickinson's Fascicles: Method & Meaning. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1994, 260 pp.

A decade ago, Dickinson was the poet of the "omitted center" (Leyda) and the "finless mind" (Porter), the poet who deconstructed and eluded. In the nineties we are perhaps closer to understanding how she wanted to be read. Oberhaus, examining the last (fortieth) of her fascicles in the context of earlier ones, of Biblical allusions, and of the Christian meditative tradition, puts one more piece of the puzzle into place. In searching for evidence of Dickinson's control and intent in the fascicles, Oberhaus follows current fashion; at the same time, in seeing Dickinson as a Christian poet she revives a mostly neglected view.

Early attempts to detect patterns in the fascicles did not seem verifiable, but once Rosenthal and Gall established more tentative and cautious approaches, studies have progressively built upon one another. Sharon Cameron's recent Choosing Not Choosing is more interested in the thesis that Dickinson did not intend her readers to choose among the variants in the fascicles than in the fascicles themselves. In contrast, Oberhaus provides more persuasive evidence, to borrow her subtitle, of the method and meaning of Dickinson's groupings themselves.

In fascicle forty, Dickinson strives "to contemplate what she now knows through sight and memory, understanding, and faith, and to contemplate the merits of Christ and his past, present, and future relation to herself." The two days of "The first Day that I was a Life" (F40#4, P902), the first a day of her dying to the world, and the second, a day of union with Christ, are central; Dickinson leaves behind "Contentment's quiet Suburb" (F40#5, P963) and casts her [End Page 121] "timid Pebble —/In [Jesus's] bolder Sea" (F40#8, P966). The journey is difficult, for the legacy of Jesus is pain as well as love.

Earlier critics sometimes portrayed Dickinson as a religous poet, most notably William Sherwood in Circumference and Circumstance, but since then critics have generally preferred biographical contexts, identifying earthly lovers ranging from Wadsworth to Sue Gilbert. The usual difficulty with seeing Dickinson as a religous poet is that she seems, especially as anthologies represent her, so rebellious. Sherwood regarded rebelliousness as an earlier stage, after which Dickinson more or less dwindled into conversion; Oberhaus more plausibly views protest as a traditional aspect of a spiritual journey. She is particularly persuasive in detailing how extensively Dickinson utilized and reworked Biblical allusions, particularly the parables in Matthew, and in developing analogies between poems in the fascicle and Herbert's The Temple. Her view of "Fitter to see Him I may be" (F40#16, P968) as a double sonnet, followed by the use of hymn meter in the faith section (poems 17-21) is a particularly persuasive demonstration of Dickinson's metrical skill.

Perhaps Oberhaus spends too much time arguing that a poem from the twenty-fifth fascicle ought to be understood as the fourth poem in the fortieth. More significantly, the final chapter's review of the earlier fascicles too briefly conforms earlier fascicles to the pattern of the fortieth. Furthermore, readers accustomed to a Dickinson who takes off the top of one's head will not necessarily find these poems exciting. Even though Oberhaus's interpretation of "Had I not This or This, I said" (F40#10, P904) may correctly consider Dickinson's word "Retrograde" as life without readers, without Christ, I am left feeling that Dickinson's "tenderer Experiment" (P902), which Oberhaus reads as the fascicles themselves, may sometimes be too elliptical to satisfy even when understood. "Till Death —is narrow Loving —" (F40#13,P907), on the other hand, opens up beautifully in Oberhaus's explication once the comparison of an earthly and heavenly marriage is understood, and the force of the allusions to the marriage ceremony and the peculiar use of Dickinson's lexicon's definitions of the circle images in the words "narrow" and "somewhat" sink in. Poems like "Color —Caste —Denomination —" (F40#18, P970) sparkle on their own, in this context or any other. [End Page 122]

Oberhaus demonstrates that Dickinson...


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