restricted access “Captivity is Consciousness”: Consciousness and its Revisions in Dickinson’s Poetry

By the middle of the nineteenth century, “consciousness” had arisen as a key term for English-language typifications and descriptions of the self. “Consciousness” plays a major role in the philosophical works of John Locke and Thomas Cogswell Upham, but it also influenced broader Anglo-American literary and cultural discourse; Noah Webster, for instance, finds that consciousness makes a person to be a self. One of the major philosophical and literary themes involved in the rise of “consciousness” is a concern with the way in which consciousness could imprison through its mediating and unifying capabilities. “Consciousness” appears in twenty-three of Emily Dickinson’s poems, and analyzing these poems provides a way of examining how she responds to this narrative of conscious captivity. While some Romantics feared that conscious mediation could imprison the self, Dickinson finds that it can provide the prospect of liberty; the walls of consciousness afford barriers behind which the self can withdraw. That act of supposed liberation, however, can provide its own confinement. Her poems of consciousness demonstrate a tension between liberty and captivity because, for her, the self-reference that allows for a sense of (captivating) conscious coherence also allows for a disruption of this coherence. Dickinson connects the stakes of consciousness to a variety of topics, including embodiment, love, moral responsibility, and death. By focusing on the tensions of the lived experience of consciousness, she complicates the work of her philosophical predecessors.