Although Dickinson’s writings explore a variety of affects and psychological states, she is often seen as a poet of pain, lack, and despair. By contrast, this essay argues that Dickinson views delight as the primary affect that creates the basis for all other feelings. Throughout her career Dickinson tests the expressive and representational limits of language against an excess of happiness, and she meditates on happiness when it eludes her. Emmanuel Levinas’s idea that selfhood originates in happiness helps to elucidate both the importance of delight in Dickinson’s poetry and Dickinson’s insistence that poetic subjectivity originates in amplitude rather than lack. Her early poems of delight reveal a subjectivity happily immersed in the elemental world, secure in its happiness, drawing strength from the most basic, physical level of being. This happy, empowered subjectivity never entirely disappears from Dickinson’s poetry. While scholars of female sentimentalism have demonstrated that physical pain offers nineteenth-century American women a culturally acceptable opportunity for embodiment, Dickinson shows that delight provides an alternative opportunity to experience the body through sensual satisfaction. Moreover, Dickinson asserts that female creativity arises from an emotional, intellectual, and verbal abundance that demands to be expressed in language. This insistence on delight allows Dickinson to affirm female poetic subjectivity, which many of her female contemporaries found problematic.


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pp. 1-24
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