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  • Anatomy Lessons:Emily Dickinson’s Brain Poems
  • Barbara Baumgartner

A disturbing and curious illustration appears in Anatomy and Physiology: Designed for Academies and Families (1847) by Dr. Calvin Cutter. A caption describes the engraving as representing “the scalp turned down” (227; see fig. 1). In this unsettling depiction of an individual head of indeterminate sex, the lower half of the face and neck appears intact, but the skull above the ear line has been removed to reveal the brain. The scalp is peeled forward and covers the eyes, while the posterior part of the scalp hangs over the back of the head, forming a small shelf of skin. The dura mater, one of the membranes covering the brain, is also stripped away and delicately suspended by a tiny hook in order to reveal the brain, which appears in its characteristic undulating, worm-like shape. While the upper half of the illustration graphically spills forth the contents of the skull, the bottom part, depicting the lower half of the face, remains eerily untouched. The exposure of the brain in its anatomical goriness offers a bizarre juxtaposition to the docile expression on the lips of the subject.

If she did her homework, Emily Dickinson would have seen this illustration in Cutter’s Anatomy and Physiology, a textbook used in a class she took at Mount Holyoke Seminary, where she attended from September 1847 to August 1848.1 Cutter’s illustration of the exposed brain resonates with Dickinson’s oft-quoted statement to Thomas Higginson in which she characterizes her response to poetry as distinctly physical: “If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way” (qtd. in Higginson 474). In this passage, Dickinson defines her recognition of poetry in terms of anatomical and corporeal violence that would leave her brain exposed. Indeed, Dickinson’s poetry often foregrounds an intimate association between the physiological body, poetic subjectivity, and violent activity.

Dickinson surely learned about the structure and functioning of the body [End Page 55]

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Fig 1.

“The scalp turned down.” Calvin Cutter, Anatomy and Physiology: Designed for Academies and Families, 6th ed. (Boston: Benjamin B. Mussey and Co., 1847), figure 165, p. 227.

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and brain in her anatomy class at Mount Holyoke Seminary. As she wrote in 1848 to her friend Abiah Root, anatomy was a topic in which she was “much interested” (Dickinson to Root 59). The material and vocabulary of Cutter’s Anatomy and Physiology may have sparked the surprising number of anatomical images and terms that Dickinson used in her verse. Going far beyond the conventional amatory anatomy featured in nineteenth-century poetry—eyes, lips, heart, brow, and hands—Dickinson deploys a clinical vocabulary focused on the interior of the body. Veins, arteries, brains, nerves, lungs, cells, muscle, and bone are all prominently featured in the poet’s work.2 Despite Dickinson’s unusual emphasis on anatomical discourse, Dickinson scholars largely ignore the subject.3 Even though Dickinson criticism has been attentive to the theme of pain and its connection to poetic production, it minimizes, even effaces, the role that the body plays in her poetry.4

While various body parts are evident throughout Dickinson’s poetry, perhaps the most unusual and startling is her lyrical focus on the brain, an organ otherwise nearly exclusively consigned to clinical contexts. Occurring in more than twenty poems,5 the brain in Dickinson’s work often carries a kind of materiality that departs from conventional poetic practice.6 Dickinson’s contemporaries, such as Christina Rossetti, Sarah Josepha Hale, Julia Ward Howe, Mary Botham Howitt, and Alice Cary, tend to use “brain” as a substitute for “mind,” as a location of thought and emotion.7 These lines from Rossetti’s poem “The Time of Waiting” are typical of this more conventional usage: “From the heart that’s crushed and sinking; / From the brain grown blank with thinking; / From...


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