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  • “Because I see—New Englandly—”:Seeing Species in the Nineteenth-Century and Emily Dickinson’s Regional Specificity
  • Juliana Chow (bio)

The Robin’s my Criterion for Tune—Because I grow—where Robins do—But, were I Cuckoo born—I’d swear by him—

—Emily Dickinson

ROB’IN n. [L. rubecula, from rubeo, to be red.]A bird of the genus Motacilla, called also redbreast. This is the English application of the word.In the United States, a bird with a red breast, a species of Turdus.

—Noah Webster

In Noah Webster’s 1844 American Dictionary of the English Language, there are two definitions for the robin—one designating an English bird Motacilla rubecula and the other an American bird Turdus migratorius, both red-breasted birds known as the Robin.1 By the series of rules and comparisons set up in Emily Dickinson’s “The Robin’s my Criterion for Tune—” (J285) one might assume that the robin in this poem is the American Robin, in contrast to the Cuckoo, a European bird.2 The Robin is the poetic speaker’s “Criterion” because she “grow[s]—where Robins do—” (line 2) and the customary observance that “The ode familiar—rules the Noon—” (line 5) announces a homely and provincial preference for the indigenous and familiar, which the poem eventually reveals as that [End Page 413] pertaining to New England. Yet the final lines of the poem both maintain and ironically collapse the hierarchical and geographical comparisons between Britain and New England into a form of equivalence, just as the “Robin” is actually a collapsed referent for two different birds:

The Seasons flit—I’m taught—Without the Snow’s TableauWinter, were lie—to me—Because I see—New Englandly—The Queen, discerns like me—Provincially—

(lines 12-17)

The Queen’s survey of her provinces overlays the speaker’s provincial seeing with a sense of greater capacities. At the same time, the analogy also provincializes the Queen herself into a commoner so that if the Queen “discerns like me” then there is no unprovincial, nonregional seeing. This magnanimous equanimity is enabled by the relation to the Queen and the “New Englandly” limits of seeing. Further, seeing winter is made present and real for the speaker by virtue of a narrow, regionally specific view of the “Snow’s Tableau.” Without that understanding of winter’s stillness, one does not know its intrinsic seasonality, how winter still “flits” in its stillness. To see “New Englandly” turns out to be an expansive mode of seeing that allows for the longitudinal breadth of watching seasons go by, while tied to an acute awareness of the actually present winter.

Dickinson’s poetics of seeing engage with both the scientific definitions of species that Webster’s dictionary relies upon and a regional specificity of diminutive views and tableaus. This study of Dickinson’s poetics thus brings together scientific and regionalist aspects of her work that literary [End Page 414] criticism has addressed discretely. Previous examinations of Dickinson’s relation to science have revealed how her poetics moved with—within and without—the sciences of her day. Nina Baym has argued that Dickinson’s scientific skepticism departs from the natural theology found in her textbooks, while Robin Peel finds Dickinson experimenting with both natural theology and the modern disciplines of science to form her own spiritual interpretation through a scientific method.3 Following her own figurations of “species,” I associate Dickinson’s specificity with the species debate of the mid-nineteenth century to explore how her way of seeing and apprehending nature revises scientific species into a regionalist specificity when she ironically alludes to and collapses distinctions.

The oft-quoted phrase seeing “New Englandly” has been understood to express both Dickinson’s provincial qualities—her place in a New England literary tradition, or a nineteenth-century American women writer’s tradition—as well as her surpassing difference or detachment.4 Likewise, the common robin, with definitions traceable to both England and New England, bears the standard for a “New Englandly” vision that can be somehow limited and capacious at once. So frequent in Dickinson’s poems, so typical and emblematic of her poetic sensibility, the Robin is...


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