- Changing Rapture: Emily Dickinson's Poetic Development
Aliki Barnstone challenges the notion that Emily Dickinson's poetry exhibits no development by arguing that her writing fell into three stages: the first dominated by her struggle with Calvinism, the second strongly influenced by Emerson, and the third exhibiting a relational poetic that no longer differentiated between poetry and prose. This approach to Dickinson is, in some ways, a familiar one, strongly influenced by both Hyatt Waggoner and Susan Howe. What freshens Barnstone's approach is that she links cultural history with feminism and manuscript study while approaching her inquiry with the artistic insights and lucid prose of an accomplished poet witnessing delightedly to the emergence of a twentieth-century poetic consciousness in Amherst's daughter of the Puritans.
Although Barnstone shows some awareness of changes within Calvinism during Dickinson's lifetime, especially the feminization of religion in antebellum America, she maintains that the poet "circles back to her conflict with the unsentimentalized, jealous Calvinist God" of New England's past (41). Focusing on works from 1863, she emphasizes "What is—'Paradise'" and other satiric poems through which Dickinson critiqued promises of heavenly reward while calling attention to the pain of exclusion from God's love. As proof of struggle against demands for conversion, Barnstone also analyzes poems such as "After great pain, a formal feeling comes" and "Me from Myself—to banish," in which the soul experiences numbness. She argues that from anguished exploration of the self 's boundaries, Dickinson emerged with a "revisionary theology of self-conversion," linking her to poets of subsequent centuries (75). To support her case for Emersonian romanticism and self-discovery as characterizing the period of artistic development immediately following Dickinson's most productive and anti-Calvinist poetic year, Barnstone calls special attention to "necromantic" poems (77, 78, 90), such as "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain," as well as "Mine—by the Right of the White Election," which draws on religious diction to claim artistic entitlement. Yet the "enlightenment" claimed for [End Page 169] the poet seems less than transcendental when Barnstone claims that "abyss is bliss, captivity and liberty both are consciousness, blindness is vision" (93), and her insightful reading of "Four Trees—opon a solitary Acre" suggests ongoing conflict with Emerson as well as the Calvinist God.
Shifting focus in the book's final chapter to the letter-poems lately foregrounded by manuscript critics involves an element of disruption, both structurally and in terms of the preceding argument. By reading as poetry "The withdrawal of the Fuel of Rapture" that has, until now, been printed only as part of a letter, Barnstone reinforces her case for Dickinson's protomodernist poetic even as she builds her case for the dialogic, relational quality of writing that the poet included only in letters without copying into fascicles or sets. This emphasis on artistic creativity wholly devoted to friendship shows the poet overcoming the sense of exclusion from the elect community evident in the first period of her career, as well as the Emersonian isolation that followed. Reading Hawthorne's "The Artist of the Beautiful" as an allegory of relational romantic creativity (with the cynically materialist Peter Hovenden oddly identified as Puritan), Barnstone represents Dickinson as reaching a confidence in her poetry that allowed her to entrust its ongoing life to the responses of those select recipients to whom she entrusted the letter-poems. Whether this demonstration of hope for her poems' life compensates for loss of faith in biblically promised immortality remains a question that Barnstone never fully addresses. Although she seems to assume that satiric attacks in the early 1860s on a materialist, cliché-ridden notion of heaven represented Dickinson's last word on this topic, letters of the 1870s and 1880s show continuing engagement with the mystery of what followed. When Edward Dickinson died, his daughter wrote, "I am glad there is Immortality—but would have tested it myself—before entrusting him" (letter to T. W. Higginson, July 1874); when her mother died, she wrote that...