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SUMPTUOUS RESTITUTION: EMILY DICKINSON REVISITED Paula Bennett. Emily Dickinson: Woman Poet. Toronto: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1990; Iowa City, IA: U of Iowa P, 1991. xiv + 223. $27.50 US (cloth). $9.95 US (paper). Mary Loeffelholz. Dickinson and the Boundaries of Feminist Theory. Chicago: U of IUinoisP, 1991. vüi + 179. $32.50 US (cloth). $13.95 US (paper). Gary Lee Stonum. The Dickinson Sublime. Madison, WI: U of Wisconsin P, 1990. ? + 221. $19.95 US (cloth). In recent decades interpretations of Dickinson have varied so widely as to suggest die proverbial blind men encountering an elephant. The man who feels die tail says die elephant is a rope; die one who touches die side concludes die elephant is a wall. Does die current crop of Dickinson books eschew such contradictions? Can the "real" Emily Dickinson now stand up? Well, yes and no. If diese books demonstrate anything, it is that what scholars see in Dickinson continues to depend upon dieir theoretical and ideological perspectives and upon die way diey look—up close, moving about, or wearing blinders. The study of Dickinson is still the story of the elephant. Gary Lee Sternum's The Dickinson Sublime is a fairly straightforward project widi modest aims and few surprises. Contending that Dickinson's poetry has more coherence than is generally granted and that situating her poetic enterprise firmly within the historical moment and aspirations of the romantic subUme clarifies that coherence, Stonum considers die ways in which her poetry participates in the romantic sublime and die ways in which "die Dickinson sublime," her reader-centered poetic, is distinct. Stonum begins by observing that, as a reader, Dickinson valued "affective intensity" (66). Given Dickinson's oft quoted remark to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, "If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if die top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry" (Letters 474), one can hardly disagree. To make poetry an affective experience for her readers, Stonum asserts, Dickinson invented "a rhetoric of stimulus" characterized by a "conspicuously deviant style" (67). As articulated by Thomas Weiskel, die romantic sublime typically moves through three phases, a normative phase of accustomed thought processes, a traumatic phase characterized by great intensity and disruption of normal 56Victorian Review modes of consciousness, and a reactive phase when "the subject experiences elevation, empowerment, and a release from traumatic assault" (69). During the cUmactic third-phase of die sublime, die figure of die master-poet dominates, perhaps devastates, "his" reader. Disavowing die master-slave relation implicit in the writer-reader dyad because of her identification with the reader, Dickinson establishes a more respectful relation, one which postpones the third phase and the devastating feelings which attend it. "The quintessential Dickinson sublime is a hesitant sublime" (Stonum 141) which seeks "to enchant and to astonish without also impoverishing the reader" (4647 ). Her variants, peculiar punctuation, and curious syntax are intended to authorize and empower her reader by inviting the reader's participation, Stonum argues. "She staked Her Feathers—Gained an Arc" exempUfies die Dickinson sublime. "Four Trees—upon a solitary/Acre" witii its "unordered framing" and "strangely haunting presence" is atypical (17-18). "The Birds begun at Four o'clock" is an instance of die countersublime (137-39). The most original part of Stonum's analysis locates in Dickinson "an etiiic of productivity" (46). To the limited degree tiiat Barrett Browning appealed to Dickinson, he states, she did so primarily as die powerful precursor whom Dickinson had to displace to come into preeminence (41). This anxious account of Barrett Browning's influence invokes die yet-to-beidentified ghost of Harold Bloom haunting this book. Somewhat inconsistently, Stonum then argues that reading die English poet generated in Dickinson her own desire to write; thus, "the poet becomes the more modesdy honored initiator of a process that continues long afterward" (47). Awareness of this process inspired in Dickinson an etiiic of productivity, he claims. Rather than overpowering her readers, Dickinson sought to empower them. Stonum fulfills his goal of placing Dickinson's work within the larger contours of the romantic...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 55-67
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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