- Emily Dickinson’s Rich Conversation: Poetry, Philosophy, Science by Richard E Brantley
Richard Brantley’s erudite and affectionate book brings a lifetime of scholarship on Dickinson and the wider context of Anglo-American empirical and Romantic traditions to bear on his reading of the poet. The title, Emily Dickinson’s Rich Conversation: Poetry, Philosophy, Science, sets the tone, which is indeed conversational. The newcomer to Dickinson might find the sheer range of references and allusions in the introduction slightly baffling, especially when set alongside Dickinson’s characteristically complex and opaque poems. Brantley assumes an educated reader, familiar not only with Dickinson’s work but with the huge range of scholarship on her and with an equally diverse range of companion thinkers. Brantley’s generosity toward the community of Dickinson scholars as well as the community of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century poets and intellectuals amongst whom he situates Dickinson shines throughout his volume. One feels he is not just commenting on Dickinson’s rich conversation but continuing his own conversation about the poet, which began in Experience and Faith: The Late Romantic [End Page 107] Imagination of Emily Dickinson (2004). Readers conversant in Dickinson studies and familiar with the intellectual terrain of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England and America are likely to find this book engaging and rewarding. First-time readers might be forgiven for feeling a little at sea when dropped into the midst of Brantley’s own rich associations; if you are looking for a book that clearly maps and explains Dickinson’s place in the empirical and Romantic traditions, this is probably not the place to start.
For those willing to enter into a generative and associative conversation, however, this is a good read and worth perseverance because Brantley’s knowledge resembles Dickinson’s in its breadth, wit, and generosity. The book’s organizational structure is typically Romantic: connective and web-like rather than logical and progressive. Brantley acknowledges that his “leaps across space and time may seem anachronistic” as he reads Dickinson alongside Charles Wadsworth, John Wesley, John Locke, and Charles Darwin and situates her among late Romantic geniuses such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Wordsworth, and Alfred Lord Tennyson, to name just a few (69). He moves with great pace and alacrity between different authors. Discussing the religious terrain of nineteenth-century poetry, he claims “Tennyson responds . . . to Blake’s cheeky query . . . almost as though theodicy after Darwin would appear necessarily formulaic, pious and closed off, perhaps even tossed-off, intellectually dishonest and artistically unsubtle” (84). If you already know a lot about these intellectual and literary heavyweights then Brantley’s lightness of touch is likely to be refreshing and can even be taken as an invitation to participate in the conversation. Others might find his style frustratingly balletic. Hopkins, Browning, Shakespeare, and Miss Piggy feature on just one page (19). The chapters follow a fundamentally optimistic arc through empiricism, experience, loss, and hope. These are areas in which Brantley sees Dickinson’s conversation to be richest and most alive, rather than areas that are empirically defined, and he moves across time and space within each chapter in order to draw his own parallels and connections.
One of the most illuminating strains of Brantley’s argument focuses on Dickinson’s treatment of aftermath or post-experience, which in her case, as with Wordsworth and Tennyson, often translates into the literature of mourning. Brantley compares her work with Wordsworth’s “Lucy” poems and presents equally insightful points of contact and dissonance in relation to Tennyson’s In Memoriam. Here, Dickinson’s complex and lively thought-processes spin a web of cultural and intellectual references that show her poetry to be profoundly important to the major intellectual movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth [End Page 108] centuries. If anyone still believed in the intellectual isolation of the Myth of Amherst, this book would destroy that belief.
Brantley claims to illustrate Dickinson’s “art of knowledge as distinct from her ‘art of belief’” (5). The latter is Roger Lundin’s phrase, and while I appreciate Brantley’s...