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THE "UNDISCOVERED CONTINENT": EMILY DICKINSON AND THE SPACE OF THE MIND / Suzanne Juhasz Soto! Explore thyself! Therein thyself shalt find The "Undiscovered Continent"— No Settler had the mind. The "Undiscovered Continent" is one of Emily Dickinson's descriptions of the mind. Another from a letter to her friend Mrs. Holland, is "the Landscape of the Spirit."1 Poem and prose statement indicate both the centrality of her exploration of self and also how the place where it occurred, the mind, was conceived of as actual, substantial, there. "Continent," "Landscape"—these words grant spatial dimensions to the mind, the setting for Dickinson's most significant experience. The fact that Dickinson lived primarily in the mind is not a new observation. It has long been acknowledged as a factor central to her biography and art. Sometimes it is seen as a sign of her participation in European literary romanticism in general, in American transcendentalism , specifically. Sometimes, from another kind of critical perspective, it becomes a symptom of her peculiarity as a writer and woman, even of hermadness. Forfeministcritics, who view her solitude, her retreat to her house and to her room as strategy rather than debility, as an act occasionedby her social andpsychological situation as a womanwho also wanted to be a poet, the actuality of the mind as a place in which to live—in which to achieve control over one's experience, in which to experience thoroughly—is important for our understanding of this enterprise. In this paper I look at the place itself, the landscape of the spirit, as Dickinson's poems about the mindreveal it. Its characteristics as an environment shed light upon the nature of the activity that took place within its perimeters and also upon thewoman who created this situation for herself. As I have argued in my book on American women poets, Naked and Fiery Forms, to be a woman poet in our society is a "double-bind situation," one of conflict and strain.2 "Woman" and "poet" connote opposite and contradictory qualities and roles. In her article, "A Room of Her Own: Emily Dickinson as Woman Artist," Barbara Williams corroborates this point of view. "To be a woman—a vocation and an art, quite literally, in the nineteenth century—meant that one had to deny self; 86 ¦ The Missouri Review and to be a poet, as Emily Dickinson defined it, meant a lifetime of spiritual exploration to the end of self-discovery."3 Dickinson's solitude may well have been an escape, but it was also a solution. Given her temperament—her passionate intensity, her extreme sensitivity, her stubborn dedication to her sense of vocation; given the fate that awaited heras a normalwoman ofherclass and era—ahome, a husband, a family, a position in society; her decision to dwell, as Jean Mudge phrases it, "in her highly imaginative, eclectically informed, cosmos-encompassing, quick clever mind,"4 was in fact what enabled her to be the poet that she became. It gave her control over her own experience: she could select, apportion, focus, examine, explore, satiate herself exactly as she wished and needed to do, such that poetry could result. In the outer world, this manner of control would have been impossible. It gave her, as well, the possibility for complete and thorough experience, for risk, intensity, range and depth, that as a woman she could never have achieved in the world at large. She could notwander across the continent, like Whitman; but she could move freely in the "undiscovered continent," the mind. In describing themind as a settingforsignificantactivity, Dickinson's poetic language is characterized by an elaborate spatial vocabulary. Specifically, terms drawn from architecture, geography and space-travel define a location that is enclosed, private, yet changeable in dimension, that can alter suddenly and violently, that can become vast and limitless. Dickinson frequently refers to the caverns and corridors (777, 670), windows and doors (303, 657), even cellars (1182) of the mind. Because her external life was lived within one, then another, house in Amherst, Massachusetts, and, as the years progressed, within one room, her bedroom, itis appropriate thatshe employ this particular setoffigurative correspondences to describe the other place in which she lived. Yet...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 86-97
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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