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JOINING TOGETHER/PUTTING ASUNDER: AN ESSAY ON EMILY DICKINSON'S POETRY / Jeffrey L. Duncan IN A NUMBER of important poems Emily Dickinson depicts a phenomenon of nature and simultaneously ponders its significance . Her concern is epistemológica! and religious: what does the visible world of nature tell us about the nature of the invisible world, the reserve ofGod? The following, one ofthe best-known, is typical: Further in Summer than the Birds Pathetic from the Grass A minor Nation celebrates Its unobtrusive Mass. No Ordinance be seen So gradual the Grace A pensive Custom it becomes Enlarging Loneliness. Antiquest felt at Noon When August burning low Arise this spectral Canticle Repose to typify Remit as yet no Grace No Furrow on the Glow Yet a Druidic Difference Enhances Nature now. 1 Emerson defines the poet as the Namer, the person who sees and says what a thing really is, and thus in a word affords us the same privilege. Dickinson is a poet who commonly withholds the name of the thing under consideration, affording us a more ambiguous pleasure.2 At first we are highly aware ofwhat we do not know. Then we get it: the name crickets comes to mind and we enjoy the elation of a Gestalt, of re-cognition, insight. But the poem makes us eventually wonderjust what it is we have gotten, what is actually in a word, what kind of knowledge a name amounts to, for the service remains spectral even after we realize whatits celebrants are. The Missouri Review · 222 A nameless world is literally inconceivable, yet the world all named and numbered remains essentially strange. A name enables us to realize some mere thing's identity: a roseis a roseis a rose; yet a name has nothing to do with the thing-in-itself: a rose by any other name is still a rose (whatever that may be). There is also a species of knowledge that is unnameable: it makes "a Druidic difference," an "internal difference,/Where the Meanings are" (258, 1, p. 185), and that is all the poet can specifically say, for the meanings are (presumably) beyond formulation, too deep for words. Without names we are lost, yet names are by definition beside the point and may be fundamentally misleading—that is the two-stranded lesson of Melville's cetology, and while Dickinson may not entirely agree, she does share Melville's and Emerson's (and Thoreau's and Whitman's) profound concern with the significance ofthe name, the meaning of the word, the nature of language per se. This concern is the other side of their religious-epistemological concern: "In the beginning was the Word," as John puts it, making the connection 1 fast. "Further in Summer" turns and turns upon a radical conceit, the comparison of crickets chirping in late summer to people celebratingMass. More precisely, the comparison takes the form ofa metaphor, an identification: the crickets are performing the ritual. But the terms of the identification call attention to differences. This is a nation from beneath foot, often beneath notice, and the unobtrusive ritual it performs is not the Mass, but, ever so conspicuously, ¿is Mass. Thereby Dickinson forces questions on us: is the crickets' Mass an observance of the Word, the Logos, the same as or like our Mass? Or are the crickets celebrating their physical existence as such, simple being in time and space? Does their canticle bear witness to immortality, the resurrection and the life, or does it testify to their unconscious contentment with the mortal term? Is the metaphor itself warranted—does the vehicle actually carry the tenor—does the religious structure truly emerge from the natural? Oris the metaphor a pathetic fallacy—does the vehicle bear an illusion—is the religious structure arbitrarily imposed upon the natural? Thus Dickinson turns the poem in, examining not only the particular metaphor it uses, but, by implication, the nature of metaphor as such. We usually think of metaphor as synthetic, a bringing together of disparate things and events, as a connecting or a disclosing of connection: "and the Word was God." But as Elizabeth Sewell has reminded us,3 metaphor is also analytic, a measure of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 111-129
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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