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  • “Not to Discover Weakness Is the Artifice of Strength”: Emily Dickinson, Constraint, and a Disability Poetics

This essay explores how Emily Dickinson’s impairments influence the composition of her poems. From remaining skeptical of medical care to refusing to acknowledge the “Names of Sickness,” Dickinson considers how she might convey disability in ways that challenge diagnostic frameworks. I show how Dickinson’s early fascicle and late scrap poems translate physical impairment into textual form through representations of constraint: a term that both poetry and disability share. The essay begins by assessing the poet’s reclusion (what the field psychiatry termed “agoraphobia” at the close of the nineteenth century), proposing that her references to material enclosures and use of space on the pages of her poems implant spatial constraints that temper feelings of expanse or openness. Next, I explore poems that make explicit reference to blindness and consider how Dickinson’s eyestrain in the mid 1860s influenced the presentation of her poems in bound form. I conclude the essay by positing that Dickinson’s preoccupation with death influenced the unbound form of her late scrap poems. In adopting Tobin Siebers’s “theory of complex embodiment,” the essay reckons with the reality of the poet’s bodily and cognitive constraints to reveal how Dickinson registers disability via textual form.


disability poetics, disability studies, constraint, Emily Dickinson, blindness, agoraphobia, death

The poet is . . . the man without impediment, who sees and handles that which others dream of, traverses the whole scale of experience, and is representative of man, in virtue of being the largest power to receive and to impart...He is the true and only doctor.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Poet” (1844)1

In the December 6, 1890, issue of The Literary World, Boston critic Arlo Bates reviews Emily Dickinson’s first edition of poems. He describes Dickinson as “a woman possessing, and possessed by, a share of genius” but emphasizes her incapacities:

Few fine minds have been more debarred from expression. Whatever may have been the cause, whether natural bias or long custom, Miss Dickinson was a Laura Bridgman, her avenues of spiritual communication being closed or deficient. Even the imperfections and errors of her rhymes prove how silent she must have been; her verse has almost no vocal quality, as if she never sang it, or even said it, to herself. Yet in the rare cases where it has not this pathetic dumbness, there is heard a sweet note that is pitifully lost in jangling harshness or silence. There is vision in her verse, but it seems to flash and dazzle and be blotted out. Nothing in recent literature is more painful than the pent and paralyzed inspiration of this truly gifted mind, incapable of mastery of its art [End Page 49] or of itself. It is a case of arrested development for which another life seems to offer the only consolation in delayed opportunity.2

Bates’s condemnations dampen Dickinson’s burgeoning fame in the opening decades of the twentieth century. Probing her poems for evidence of disability, he references Laura Bridgman, a “deaf mute” who was also a poet and born just a year prior to Dickinson, to reveal Dickinson’s inadequacies as a writer, both in mind and body. Outlining the difficulties that arise for her while writing, Bates stresses Dickinson’s “deficiency” of poetic expression, her worthless play with in-discernible rhymes, the “blotted out” nature of her verse. Like Bates, a number of turn-of-the-century critics predict that “oblivion lingers in the immediate neighborhood” for the poet, as they deem the “eccentric, dreamy, half-educated recluse in an out-of-the-way New England village” with her “weird power” and “ragged lines” largely incompetent.3

In his work on Dickinson’s early reception, Willis Buckingham suggests that not all reviews of Dickinson in the 1890s were negative but that in general “it was hard for the nineties to view her as a figure of national importance because of the limited poetic range it supposed available to a woman who chose such a cloistered life.”4 It is perhaps all too easy to dismiss Bates’s review with the argument that he “typifies male establishment critics” and thus fails to depict Dickinson’s subversion of nineteenth-century poetic norms.5 This repudiation, though, comes with the assumption that Dickinson has no relation to disability. Dickinson’s “first bad review,” as Virginia Jackson describes it, is hard to swallow because it denigrates bodily and cognitive differences, but Bates’s attention to disability raises questions about the extent to which both bodily and mental impairments informed Dickinson’s poetic practice.6 Rather than refute these early reviews to show how Dickinson successfully overcame limitations, we might attend to how her poems explicitly address disability.

Early critics drew attention to the formal deficiencies in her poetry, but Dickinson also lived with a number of impairments. In letters to friends and family she noted that she experienced “a severe cough . . . & general debility” during her childhood and “the ache to [her] eyes” in her midthirties.7 Both early and late critics have been quick to label Dickinson with a list of presumed diagnoses, including agoraphobia, Bright’s disease, epilepsy, lupus, and even psychosis. While some have guessed at Dickinson’s medical conditions and the extent to which they influenced her writing, others have denied her relation to disability all together. In [End Page 50] her poems and letters, however, Dickinson asserts a far more fraught relationship to illness and impairment than critical disavowal acknowledges.8 In 1884, she wrote to a close family friend, Mrs. J. G. Holland, “The Physician says I have ‘Nervous prostration.’ Possibly I have—I do not know the Names of Sickness.”9 In casting “Sickness” as something other than a “Name,” Dickinson sidesteps a diagnostic framework. In notes to friends, she describes her mother’s “acute neuralgia” and her sister Lavinia’s “ague,” but, other times, she avoided “Names” altogether and simply referred to Vinnie’s “headache,” her cousin Louise Norcross’s “chills,” her brother Austin’s “fever.”10 Dickinson also refused to render her own impairments legible through medical intervention.11 She was resistant to her ophthalmologist’s assertion that she was on the way to “getting well” following her bout of vision trouble in the mid-1860s. “I feel no gayness yet—” she wrote. “I suppose I had been discouraged so long.”12 In addition, a physician in Amherst reported that Dickinson would not allow him into her bedroom for a proper examination: “She would walk by the open door of a room in which I was seated—Now, what beside mumps could be diagnosed that way!”13 From remaining skeptical of medical interventions to refusing to acknowledge the “Names of Sickness,” the poet considers how she might convey “Sickness” in ways that challenge diagnosis. In addition to referencing loss of vision, pain, sensory deprivation, the brain’s “cleavings,” and death, her poems’ formal features and their textual presentation redefine what constitutes disability in late nineteenth-century US literary culture.14

When Ralph Waldo Emerson writes in 1844 that “the poet is . . . the man without impediment,” he suggests that the poet is destined to overcome disability, to supersede his bodily circumstance through the presumably transcendent powers of language. For Emerson, the poet is “the true and only doctor,” poised—with pen in hand—to cure all “Sickness.” While Emerson imagines the poet as above physical ailment, critical and theoretical accounts of Dickinson have tended to privilege her “impediments,” proposing that both physical and cognitive impairments enabled her writing.15 Scholars note that Dickinson’s vision trouble corresponded with her most prolific period of writing. For example, Mary Jo Dondlinger asserts, “The enormous amount of artistic expression, over three hundred and sixty poems in one year, was a means of dealing with and overcoming this anguished period of her life.”16 However, triumphalist readings of Dickinson’s life and work fail to acknowledge how she figures “impediment” in her poetry. Bodily, cognitive, and sensory limitations are not always on a path toward overcoming or, in Dickinson’s case, [End Page 51] authorial achievement. Disability studies puts pressure on what it terms “overcoming rhetoric,” which—in the words of activist and scholar Simi Linton—emphasizes “personal triumph over a personal condition” and fails to attend to the social circumstances that perpetuate ableism or the privileging of bodily and mental capacity.17 This essay posits that Dickinson frames disability as an antidote to diagnosis by considering how it materializes in her poems.

Since antiquity, the body has served as a metaphor for poetry. Line breaks indicate breath, meters are described as feet, a poem’s rhythm is likened to the act of walking, and poetic voice is captured through the ear. This poetic body, though, is not necessarily able. In his description of what he terms “crippled poetry,” disability poet Jim Ferris notes that the Latin iambus, or metrical foot, derives from the Greek word meaning “cripple.”18 Michael Davidson likewise asserts that references to disability abound in conversations regarding poetic form; these include “hobbled meters” and what early American poet Anne Bradstreet called “uneven feet.”19 “The mythological image of the poet as inspired singer is accompanied by a number of disabled variants—the mad jeremiadist, blind bard, crippled soothsayer, and wise fool—by which poetry is celebrated (or caricatured),” Davidson writes.20 For Dickinson and other nineteenth-century poets (including blind and deaf students such as Laura Bridgman drafting poems in institutions), disability signified neither inspiration nor heroic overcoming; it instead encouraged alternative modes of writing and reading. To challenge Bates’s ableist dismissals of Dickinson and Emerson’s model of authorial overcoming, I employ a term that both poetry and disability share: constraint. The relationship between writing and constraint has a long tradition, especially in histories of poetic form. As poetry’s most central feature, constraint is assumed to facilitate a poet’s creativity.21 Poetic constraints include conventional verse forms, such as meter and rhyme schemes, as well as genres like the haiku, which determine a poem’s length. However, constraint assumes new meaning when we consider poets’ physical and cognitive disabilities. In addition to serving as universal descriptors of language conventions, constraints denote specific bodily and cognitive conditions and the ways those conditions are represented in poetry. For the remainder of this essay, I explore how disabilities are inscribed in Dickinson’s poems as constraints.

To take full account of Dickinson’s poem writing and making, we must attend to her disabilities, each of which has a specific connection to authorship. Being housebound gave Dickinson time to write; her eyestrain was, in part, symptomatic of excessive writing and reading; [End Page 52] and her death inaugurated her canonization as a literary figure. I begin the essay by assessing the poet’s reclusion (what the growing field of psychiatry termed “agoraphobia” at the close of the nineteenth century), proposing that her references to material enclosures and use of space on the pages of her poems implant spatial constraints that temper feelings of expanse or openness. Next, I explore poems that make explicit reference to blindness, both metaphorical and literal, considering how Dickinson’s eyestrain in the mid-1860s influenced the presentation of her poems in bound form. I conclude the essay by positing that Dickinson’s preoccupation with death influenced the fragmented and unbound form of her late poems. To understand Dickinson as a disabled poet, we must necessarily resort to biography, which—in addition to diagnosis—is one of the primary modes by which literary critics locate disability. By finding evidence of disability in the poems themselves, I show instead that Dickinson was a poet of disability, meaning that she translated bodily constraints into her poems via their content as well as their textual forms. The essay thus assesses how reclusion, visual impairment, and bodily weakness materialize in Dickinson’s manuscripts through textual features like line length, binding, and the paper on which she chose to write. What if we recenter the importance of constraint in Dickinson’s oeuvre and assume that the most well-known facts concerning the enigmatic “Belle of Amherst” are about disability, revealed not just via the poet’s body but also by her poems?

Disability Poetics and the Material Text

In an introductory essay for the anthology Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability (2011), Michael Northen notes that disability poetry emerged after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, in 1990.22 Broadening the temporal reach of Northen’s description, Davidson argues that “‘disability poetics’ does not describe a movement or an aesthetic so much as a spectrum of positions around embodiment,” thereby suggesting that it applies to poets like Dickinson who did not identify as “disabled” in the terms we understand today as well as “to self-consciously ‘crip’ poets” who are immersed in disability culture and activism.23 Like Dickinson’s early critics who understood her “defects” or “deficiencies” as formal, Davidson suggests that “physical limits”—or what I term constraints—“have powerful effects on formal strategies.”24 Building on these arguments, I explore how constraint, as both a bodily experience and a formal feature of poetry, challenges the pairing of disability representations with narratives of enablement. [End Page 53]

In casting disability as a material phenomenon, David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder warn against metaphoric representations of impairment because they erase “disability as an experience of social or political dimensions.”25 They argue that in prose fiction disability has been used as a metaphoric “crutch” to further a story’s plot, what they term “narrative prosthesis”: “Literary narratives revisit disabled bodies as a reminder of the ‘real’ physical limits that ‘weigh down’ transcendent ideals of the mind and knowledge-producing disciplines. In this sense, disability serves as the hard kernel or recalcitrant corporeal matter that cannot be deconstructed away by the textual operations of even the most canny narratives or philosophical idealisms.”26 For Mitchell and Snyder, metaphoric representations of disability overcome “the body’s weighty materiality [which] functions as a textual and cultural other.”27 Here we should recall Emerson’s ideals of the ever-able poet, perpetually overcoming impediment to leave behind this “recalcitrant corporeal matter” that I have named constraint. To understand disability as something other than a medical condition or a metaphor for inspiration is to consider how the poet’s body interacts with the material page.

My reconsideration of the poet’s body bridges debates in Dickinson criticism, which—historically—have been marked by a tension between formalist and materialist approaches to her work.28 Whereas formalist critics of the mid-twentieth century understood Dickinson as largely detached from the material world (editor Thomas Johnson is famous for having declared in his three-volume edition of Dickinson’s poems [1955], “The fact is that [Dickinson] did not live in history and held no view of it, past or current”), “the embrace of the manuscript aligned with the wish for a finely embodied poem.”29 In his influential work on “the textual condition,” Jerome McGann explores textuality as a material phenomenon, attending, in particular, to how texts are written as opposed to read. He thus aims to reorient “the modern hermeneutical tradition in which text is not something we make but something we interpret.”30 Dickinson’s poems ask us to consider how the definition of the “textual condition” might change when “condition” includes not just an author’s writerly circumstance (what McGann calls “scenes of writing”) but also disability—that is, a poor or “abnormal” state of health.31 Reading for what Mitchell and Snyder call the “stubborn fact(s)” of disability in Dickinson’s life and work requires a multilayered approach: a consideration of her body, her poems, and the thematic and textual representations of disability in those poems.32 Rather than interpret disability as [End Page 54] metaphor or constraint as figurative, Dickinson asks us to confront the material conditions of her poems’ production.

Because materiality has been a central concept in disability studies since the field’s founding, it is fundamental to such a reevaluation. British sociologist Tom Shakespeare notes that, when activists introduced the earliest examples of the social model (that is, the belief that people are not inherently disabled but disabled by environmental circumstances), they blamed built environments—flights of steps, poor housing and transportation, unsuitable work conditions, and a lack of adequate technology—as disabling.33 Within the past ten years, scholars have critiqued this model, suggesting that we cannot dismiss the realities of the body in framing disability as a social experience.34 In his final proposition for a “disability theory,” Tobin Siebers calls for a renewed focus on materiality, referring to both bodies and environments in order to debunk the assumption that social construction is abstract. “Whenever anyone mentions the idea of social construction,” he writes, “we should ask on principle to see the blueprint—not to challenge the value of the idea but to put it to practical use—to map as many details about the construction as possible and to track its political, epistemological, and real effects in the world of human beings.”35 Defending Dickinson as “social” despite her reclusion (which was presumably the result of agoraphobia as well as other health conditions) is one of many narratives that occlude disability from accounts of her authorship. Critics generally concur that Dickinson’s circulation of poems and letters to friends and family enabled her to overcome the physical limitations of staying at home. Because Dickinson often remained indoors, the social world materialized in her texts—the letters that passed through the hands of neighbors and distant relatives, and the scraps that she harbored in her apron pockets. When I use the term “social” to consider Dickinson’s relationship to disability, I draw on Siebers’s assertion that disability pertains less to specific bodies than to those bodies’ interaction with built space. Rather than counteracting Dickinson’s reclusion, the socialization of her texts helps us to see how constraint figured into her poems, both via their message and physical forms.

While Diana Fuss includes blueprints of Dickinson’s home in A Sense of the Interior (2004) as a way of making material Dickinson’s practices of composition in the context of domestic space, I offer another blueprint in the pages that follow, suggesting that to understand Dickinson’s work as material is to also appreciate her drafting of a disability poetics.36 [End Page 55] Dickinson’s poems are maps that reveal how bodily constraints influence the formal and material acts of writing.37 In light of Siebers’s proposition that we resist “the idea [that] construction is more metaphorical than real,” it is not enough to understand the “Myth of Amherst’s” constraints as “myths.”38 To articulate the ethical import of constraint in Dickinson’s poems, I argue that her disabilities and her poetic representations of them are not just convenient metaphors of an enabling writerly practice but a material reality, something we are forced to reckon with rather than efface.

From Constraint to “Possibility”

Dickinson is often remembered as a recluse, tucked away in the Homestead drafting letters and poems. “I do not cross my Father’s ground to any House or town,” she wrote to Thomas Wentworth Higginson in 1870.39 Just one year later, Berlin psychologist Carl Otto Westphal coined the term “agoraphobia” to name what Boston doctor Albert Blodgett’s patient described as the overwhelming “sensation of infinite vastness.”40 Westphal’s case studies suggest that symptoms of agoraphobia arise when an individual undergoes intense discomfort upon his or her realization that there is “no immediate boundary to the visual field.”41 Late nineteenth-century accounts of female reclusiveness have relied on agoraphobia as a social trope to explain a person’s sudden withdrawal from social life, but the built environment also determines the onset of symptoms. For example, Westphal describes a thirty-two-year-old traveling salesman who “complains that it is impossible for him to cross an open space.”42 He emphasizes his patients’ reliance on material boundaries to counter the feeling of inexorable openness: “Turning toward the sides of the square, the closer he comes to the buildings, the more his feeling of anxiety disappears.”43 Similarly, for a twenty-six-year-old engineer: “The anxiety in the attempt to cross an open space begins as soon as the buildings in one of the streets emptying into the square begin to get farther away from him” but “the condition improves when he again nears the buildings.”44 As both accounts reveal, individuals with agoraphobia manipulate material objects to manage their symptoms, often grabbing hold of or surrounding themselves with buildings, passing carriages, furniture, or even personal effects like hats or trench coats to narrow what feels like an ever-expanding space.45

Dickinson’s 1881 poem “As there are / Apartments” (A842), which is written on half of a torn envelope, might be read as a description of agoraphobia, but it is presented in language that differs from Westphal’s case [End Page 56] studies (fig. 1). The poem’s references to “Apartments” and “seals” advocate for privacy, even reclusion. But, rather than describe an architectural space, Dickinson likens “Apartments” to her poem’s material form:

As there areApartments in ourown minds that—    we never enter    without apology—    we should respect    the seals of    others—

Dickinson establishes a homology between the poem’s description of privacy, which she evokes through a reference to a built space—the “Apartments in our / own minds”—and the paper on which the poem is written. When she scribbles the word “seal” alongside an actual envelope seal, her verse is doubly inscribed on the writing surface. Materializing their message, her eight lines “respect” the seal, curling around its edge. Although an envelope is intended for circulation, here Dickinson repurposes it; not only does she use the torn surface for writing a poem, but she imagines her verse as private rather than shared. No longer capable of being sent to friends or family, the envelope has no intended recipient. The seal marks the limits of Dickinson’s poetic practice, the point at which the material form of a text curtails rather than enables her expressive power.

The poem takes constraint as its subject, but we might query what it has to do with disability. Dickinson’s verse contains no reference to panic, prescriptions, or doctors; the language usually associated with disability is absent. As readers, we are skeptical about what constitutes ability or disability, what makes for poetic or bodily constraint. To “respect / the seals of / others—” is to explore how an impairment like agoraphobia might find its way into a text without having to be read on the body. When reading poems that were written before the politicization of disability as an identity category, we must adapt the evidence we use to locate its representation. The term “disability” has been in use since the mid-sixteenth century and was defined as “inability, incapacity, [and] weakness” at its most broad and “a physical or mental condition that limits a person’s movements, senses, or activities” at its most specific.46 Even by the nineteenth century, disability did not have the political [End Page 57]

Figure 1. A842. Dickinson’s late scrap poem. Nine lines are written in pencil on half of an envelope seal turned lengthwise. Courtesy of Amherst College Archives and Special Collections, Amherst, MA. Date: 1881?
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Figure 1.

A842. Dickinson’s late scrap poem. Nine lines are written in pencil on half of an envelope seal turned lengthwise. Courtesy of Amherst College Archives and Special Collections, Amherst, MA. Date: 1881?

implications that it does today. Impairment was not yet cast as a claimable identity, and, for that reason, I am less inclined to assert that Dickinson was disabled than to posit that she was attuned to how physical and mental constraints are rearticulated via textual forms. In her essay on early twentieth-century poet and literary critic Josephine Miles, who had severe arthritis, Susan Schweik advocates for the importance of turning to literary figures who wrote prior to the disability rights movement both to broaden the genealogy of disability authorship and offer alternative definitions of disability. “If Miles’ poems of the 1940s and 1950s seem to capture a version of the ‘language of the disabled’ before there was a disabled community imagining itself as such,” Schweik writes, “this may in part be because . . . some historical sources present discourses of disability that prove, upon critical examination, to be braver, subtler and more ingenious than standard narratives of the development of contemporary disability consciousness can generally account for.”47 In her essay, Schweik cites photographer David Hevey, who notes that there are seven stages involved in representing disability. Narrating the most advanced of these, he writes, “The sixth move . . . is to travel off the body . . . The seventh move would be to record the [End Page 58] interface between the person and their space . . . Such a narrative would record the clash, the paradox, the struggle between the person with the impairment and his or her disabling environment.”48 The envelope seal marks the encounter between the poet’s disabled body and the textual space of the page—in this case, a torn envelope. For Dickinson, agoraphobia, as a more specific form of “Nervous prostration,” is best represented not through the doctor’s words but with a torn envelope and its seal.

It may be hard to understand Dickinson as a poet concerned with bodily and even poetic constraint because her poems often endorse the genre of poetry as a counternarrative to limitation or restriction, underwriting scholars’ investment in “overcoming rhetoric.” Dickinson’s 1862 fascicle poem, “I dwell in Possibility—” (F466A) offers a fine example; the possibilities afforded by poetry (framed as “Possibility”) are thought to be far greater than the constrictions imposed by “Prose” (fig. 2):

I dwell in Possibility—A fairer House than Prose—More numerous of Windows—Superior—for Doors—

Of Chambers as the Cedars—Impregnable of eye—And for an everlastingRoofThe + Gambrels of the Sky—

Of Visitors—the fairest—For Occupation—This—The spreading wide mynarrow HandsTo gather Paradise—+ Gabels

As in the envelope poem, Dickinson uses architectural references to convey an intimate orientation toward space. According to her copy of Webster’s American Dictionary (1844), “Possibility” means “opportunity” or “the ability to accomplish or possess,” and it suggests the surpassing of restrictions or barriers. Because “Possibility” seems to transcend any references to limitation, it is tricky to locate constraint in the poem; for instance, the cramped “House” becomes “fairer,” the [End Page 59]

Figure 2. F466A (166c). Fourteen-line poem written in ink on half of a bifolium sheet. On the left side two stab marks are present, which indicate that the poem was part of a fascicle. A line is also drawn at the bottom of the page. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. Date: 1862.
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Figure 2.

F466A (166c). Fourteen-line poem written in ink on half of a bifolium sheet. On the left side two stab marks are present, which indicate that the poem was part of a fascicle. A line is also drawn at the bottom of the page. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. Date: 1862.

[End Page 60]

bedrooms grow in size, and the roof gains substantial height. Critics cite “I dwell in Possibility—” to suggest that Dickinson resists reigning presumptions that prose is expansive and poetry cramped or limited. And yet if we take into account Dickinson’s reclusion (or her confinement within the space of the home), which began in the early 1860s, the poem offers a more nuanced alternative to the false dichotomy between Dickinson’s triumphant overcoming and her bodily constraint.

Despite the poem’s insistence on “Possibility,” material barriers emerge as one of its main concerns. In the opening line, “Possibility” is described as an enclosure that must be occupied or “dwelled” in. When the poem’s final stanza makes reference to “Occupation—This—,” Dickinson directs us to the poem and her act of writing it. For the poet, authorship is dependent upon containment; as Dickinson implies throughout the poem, poets reside both in their poems and homes, thus drawing analogies between textual space and built environments. To understand “Occupation” as enclosure is not to suggest that domestic space only constrains Dickinson. As a nineteenth-century woman, she was forced—in part because of gender conventions and her disabilities—to remain indoors, but having a room of her own also enabled her to write. The year 1862 marks the beginning of Dickinson’s prolonged hermitage, but it also inaugurates her most generative era of writing. The collusion of these two biographical facts contributes to critics’ sense that bodily constraint enables Dickinson’s poetic freedom. However, the poet’s representations of enclosure offer a subtle check on poetry’s promise to transcend the materialities of the speaker’s body.49 The poem’s concrete references to the “eye” and “narrow Hands” temper the “Possibility” of poetic form. Read alongside knowledge of Dickinson’s phobia, the poem is less about containing than about the experience of being contained or even constrained, of running up against material boundaries that inhibit overcoming.

In “I dwell in Possibility—,” Dickinson establishes textual boundaries in a way that recalls her use of the envelope’s seal. If she likens poetry to a house, what perimeters does Dickinson build in writing the poem? She attempts to circumvent “Possibility,” or a potentially distressing openness, through a change in the poem’s structure. Following her reference to “Impregnable of eye,” she employs more sudden and less predictable line breaks, in the middle of a line as opposed to after a dash. For example, the placement of “Roof” on a new line (despite there being enough room for its inclusion on the poem’s seventh line) works to “narrow” and thus contain her reference to “everlasting.” [End Page 61] “Narrow Hands” is written on a separate line in the third stanza to undo their “spreading wide.” When the poem’s speaker lives in poetic possibility, the “fairer House” with “Chambers” as tall as “Cedars,” the “seals” of privacy have been established; the “eye[s]” of outside observers can no longer see indoors (the home is presumably too high for a person’s eyes to reach). Both line breaks, which occur after “Roof” and “narrow Hands,” refer to the body and to architectural space, and they abide by the constraints of the page. Dickinson is known for leaving ample space between words to fill the entirety of her page, which often gives the feeling of crowdedness, even when words—or, later in life, individual letters—are significantly spaced apart. Dickinson’s poems, in other words, run out of room even as they remain scattered across blank space. “I dwell in Possibility—” materializes confinement; it renders “narrow” what was once ample and “fair.”

When paired with architectural thresholds, as well as her unexpected lineation and adherence to the boundaries of the page, references to the constrained body mitigate “Possibility.” Rather than understand poetic form as expanding individual capacity for self-expression, it might—like the seal—prohibit it. Assuming novel forms and new modes of presentation, disability appears in Dickinson’s texts through representations of material thresholds, barriers, and enclosures both in her poems’ content and their material forms.50 In making this argument, I am diverging from the one Marta Werner presents in Emily Dickinson’s Open Folios: Scenes of Reading, Surfaces of Writing (1995), where she asserts that “the biographical and textual conditions of a writer’s life do not always act in collusion,” such that even though Dickinson’s occupation remained “at home,” her poems did not. “Agoraphobia was her alibi,” Werner writes. “‘I’ her alias.”51 For Werner, the diagnosis of agoraphobia enabled Dickinson to write. Werner’s subordination of the bodily realities of reclusion discounts how both a bodily and cognitive impairment influence Dickinson’s writing practice.52 Agoraphobia does not exist independently of authorship but transforms it. Dickinson takes the biographical facts of her disabilities and makes them textual realities. As readers, we see traces of constraint in Dickinson’s poems (via the envelope seal and her “narrow[ed]” verse) even as we remain unsure of their connection to disability. Putting pressure on her poems’ alliance with what contemporary critics emphasize as “Possibility,” Dickinson foregrounds the specificity of embodied experience and gives us a new vocabulary for talking about disability in the context of nineteenth-century poetry. [End Page 62]

“’Twas Firmer—To be Blind—”

Dickinson’s reference to the “Impregnable of eye” in “I dwell in Possibility—” prefigures her poems drafted just a few years later, which refer explicitly to blindness. In November 1864, Dickinson wrote to Vinnie: “I have been sick so long I do not know the Sun.”53 Beginning in the fall of 1863, Dickinson traveled to Boston to visit the ophthalmologist Henry Willard Williams. She would call on Williams again in February of 1864 before undergoing an eight month treatment in Boston from April to December of that same year. “I was ill since September, and since April, in Boston, for a Physician’s care—,” she told Higginson in the spring of 1864.54 During this time, Dickinson was instructed to remain in a “sickroom,” rest her eyes, and decrease her exposure to light. Disobeying the physician’s orders, Dickinson wrote to her sister, “He is not willing I should write”; late in the summer of 1863, she asked Higginson, “Can you render my Pencil? The Physician has taken away my Pen.”55 Although Williams preferred that she refrain from writing entirely, pencil was thought to be softer on the eyes than ink. Writing most of her poems in the 1860s with what James Guthrie calls “‘covered’ vision,” Dickinson registers the presence of eyestrain in the text itself.56 When she wrote to Lavinia in 1866, “This is my letter—an ill and peevish thing, but when my eyes get well I’ll send you thoughts like daisies, and sentences could hold the bees . . . ,” Dickinson here describes her text as “ill,” asserting that her experience of eyestrain alters her capacity to write.57 In her poems about blindness, however, Dickinson adapts to the “ill” text by navigating textual space in ways that do not depend on vision alone.

In “From Blank to Blank—” (F484; fig. 3), which was written in 1862, just prior to the onset of her vision complications, Dickinson suggests that the closed eye privileges an alternative mode of authorship:

From Blank to Blank—A Threadless + Way + CourseI pushed Mechanic feet—To stop—or perish—or advance—Alike indifferent—

If end I gained + reachedIt ends beyondIndefinite disclosed— [End Page 63] I shut my eyes—andgroped as well    ’Twas + lighter—to be Blind—    + firmer

The speaker is forced to journey “From Blank to Blank,” or page to page, with her “Mechanic feet.” Perhaps a writer (or even poet), her progress through the “Blanks,” or empty pages, remains difficult to explain: “to stop,” “perish,” or “advance” makes no difference.58 With blank pages and a “Threadless Way,” there is no means of tracking her movement through the text. Temporal markers are absent (it is unclear whether the speaker pauses or steadily progresses through the pages), and she longs for spatial thresholds or enclosures to counter “Indefinite” disclosure or writing without legible “end.” “From Blank to Blank—” proposes that if we inhibit certain ways of seeing, other modes of sight emerge. With their capacity to close, the eyes produce a discernable limit; they seal undemarcated blankness. The end, in other words, proves impossible without “be[ing] Blind.” To “grope” the “Blank” privileges an alternative textual experience, one no longer premised on vision. Dependent instead upon touch, “groping” impels the speaker’s continued encounter with the written page, rather than her transcendence of it.

Early in “From Blank to Blank—,” Dickinson describes how poetic constraints breed possibility (“If end I gained + reached / It ends beyond / Indefinite disclosed”), but the speaker ultimately opts for something “lighter” or “firmer.” These modifiers appear contradictory; blindness is perhaps less burdensome (thus “lighter”) because it offers a legible conclusion to the act of authorship but also “firmer” because it demands close interaction with the page. Blankness, in other words, is indefinite when seen but finite when touched. Poetic constraints are forced, but it is unclear in the context of “From Blank to Blank—” whether the experience of “be[ing] Blind” is “artificial,” as Helen Vendler proposes, or real.59 Dickinson’s reference to blindness could be read as metaphorical, especially given that the poem’s speaker “shut[s] [her] eyes,” seeming to perform “Blindness.” In their work on “constraint-based writing,” Jan Baetens and Jean-Jacques Poucel note that constraint is “a self-chosen rule,” and they suggest that constraints, as compositional tools, aid the writer in generating text and assist the reader in “mak[ing] sense of it.”60 Dickinson, too, explores blindness as a chosen identity. And yet, regardless of whether her reference to blindness is temporarily performed or a bodily reality, she accentuates the difference between [End Page 64]

Figure 3. F484A (166c). Twelve-line poem written in ink on half of a bifolium sheet. On the right side of the page two stab marks are present. A line is also drawn at the bottom of the page. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. Date: 1862.
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Figure 3.

F484A (166c). Twelve-line poem written in ink on half of a bifolium sheet. On the right side of the page two stab marks are present. A line is also drawn at the bottom of the page. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. Date: 1862.

[End Page 65]

poetic constraints, those “Mechanic feet” that structure the poem’s form, and the bodily constraints imposed by disability. “From Blank to Blank—” records how the universal constraints of writing are made legible through the specificity of Dickinson’s visual impairment.

In his introduction to Black Riders (1993), McGann asserts how “visible this language is” and attends to Dickinson’s “play with her text’s graphic features.”61 For Dickinson, the blind or “Impregnable of eye” puts an end to the visual “Possibilities” of textual production. McGann asserts that her work is a “scriptural rather than a typographical event,” and her references to blindness encourage ways of imagining text as something felt or touched rather than seen.62 Of Dickinson’s thirteen poems referencing blindness, eight are composed in what her first editor, Mabel Loomis Todd, termed “volumes” or “fascicules,” booklets of poems bound together with a needle and string.63 Between 1858 and 1864, Dickinson composed roughly forty of these bound booklets, which contained more than eight hundred poems. Dickinson’s fascicle making is, in part, a result of her blindness. Rather than rely on her eyes, she made her way through her poems with a thread. The etymology of the verb “constrain” is derived from the Latin constringere, which means “to tie tightly together” (con signifying “together” and stringere “to draw tight”), and it aptly conveys Dickinson’s material practice of binding poems.64 To stitch her poems together is to “grope” textual space. In “From Blank to Blank—,” the poem itself is neither “Blank” nor “Threadless”; its right margin shows two stab marks, which indicate that it was part of a fascicle. The booklet, threaded together with string, puts an end—like “be[ing] Blind”—to a “Threadless Way.” When Dickinson gives up fascicle making following the apparent resolution of her vision troubles in the late 1860s, this abandonment of her strings and pins suggests a key relation between blindness and textual form. The fascicle enables a disabled mode of textual engagement whereby manipulating poems’ material form constitutes a writerly practice centered on touch rather than sight.

Dickinson addresses the act of stitching in her poem “Dont put up my Thread & Needle” (F681A; fig. 4), which describes a seamstress—the poem’s speaker—who temporarily stops working because she is having difficulty seeing. Disability is materialized not just in the speaker’s body but in a sewn garment, the product of the seamstress’s labor:

These were bent—my sightgot crooked—When my mind is plain [End Page 66] I’ll do seams—a Queen’sendeavorWould not blush to own—

The “bent” and “zigzag” stitches make visible her “crooked” sight. Here, Dickinson plays with the slippage between the words “seam” and “seem.” Good stitching should not be seen at all; if done well, “Hems—too fine for Lady’s tracing” remain invisible to exacting spectators. “The sightless Knot” suggests that the laborer’s trace should, when performed properly, be unseen. If the Queen sports “zigzag stitches” rather than “Straight” ones, she presumably blushes with shame because her poorly crafted garment fails to satisfy public standards. When coupled with the discoloration of the Queen’s complexion, the messy stitch discloses the seamstress’s visual incapacity. Dickinson emphasizes that the “plain” mind—unmarked and unembellished—denotes bodily strength, or being “Strong.” The stitch, when poorly executed, renders disability visible. To make plain the quality of her health, observers must not “see” evidence of her labor.

But by the poem’s final stanzas, the speaker temporarily stops working and sets down her needle and thread:

Leave my Needle in the furrow—Where I put it down—I can make zigzag stitchesStraight—when I am Strong—

Till then—dreaming I am sowingFetch the seam I missed—Closer—so I—at my + sleeping—Still surmise I stitch

+ deeming + sighing

Presented in the conditional tense, these final lines suggest that the speaker will begin work when the necessary circumstances, both bodily and environmental, are put in place: “When my mind is plain” and “When the Birds begin to / whistle—.” The poem ends not with the speaker’s repossession of the needle and thread but with a pause. Stitching is much easier in sleep where what “seems” like labor or bodily exertion is simply rest. Dreaming offers the “Possibility” of a not yet realized [End Page 67]

Figure 4. F681A (214b). Twenty-four lines written in ink on a bifolium sheet. In the center, four stab marks are present. On the right sheet, beneath a drawn line, a new poem begins, which reads, “So well that I can live without.” Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. Date: 1863.
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Figure 4.

F681A (214b). Twenty-four lines written in ink on a bifolium sheet. In the center, four stab marks are present. On the right sheet, beneath a drawn line, a new poem begins, which reads, “So well that I can live without.” Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. Date: 1863.

[End Page 68]

ability but enables the seamstress’s blindness to be only temporarily overcome.

In Thomas Johnson’s 1955 edition of Dickinson’s poems (the first full collection of her work), he points out a mistake in her manuscript, suggesting that she accidentally wrote “sow” when she intended to write “sew”: “The spelling of ‘Sow’ and ‘sowing’ (lines 2 and 17) is undoubtedly a mistake for ‘sewing,’” he writes.65 Whereas “sowing” creates openings in soil for the intent of dispersing seeds, “sewing” closes gaps between fabric. If, as suggested in the first stanza, to “Sow” is to make “stitches,” Dickinson revises a material practice premised on acts of opening to closure. Her task is one of compression; as Susan Stewart notes, “Dont put up my Thread + Needle—” works in part to join public and domestic space, both the outdoor work of “sowing” and the indoor task of “sewing.”66 This oscillation between opening and closing mimics the opening and closing of the eye, and to both “sow” and “sew” is to engage in what “seems” like blinking. In understanding Dickinson as a poet of disability, I preserve these slippages to recognize the ways that impairment—visual impairment, in particular—affects how she makes her poems. The use of “sow” is not a mistake for “sew”; instead, the shift from o to e reveals Dickinson’s attempt to register the fraught relation between “Possibility,” which is framed as an opening, and constraint, which narrows a gaping space. Readings attuned to disability might attend to Dickinson’s messy dashes—some long, others short—which resemble the seamstress’s uneven stitches.67 With the poem’s final lines turned toward the sleeping seamstress, who “Still surmise[s] [she] stitch[es],” Dickinson defers to the closed eye and the termination of sight and labor.

In 1863, Dickinson writes another poem about impaired vision, but this time she contemplates the act of reading rather than writing (fig. 5):

I’ve seen a Dying eyeRun round and round aRoom—In search of + Something—as it seemed—Then Cloudier become—And then—obscure with Fog—And then—be soldered [End Page 69] downWithout disclosing whatit be’Twere blessed to haveseen—    + somewhat

It is difficult to ascertain the perspective of the poem’s speaker, who haphazardly scans “a Room” whose content, vaguely marked with an ambiguous “Something,” is never described. The poem offers a triple reflection on seeing; we, as readers, are reading a poem about someone, the speaker, who sees another’s eye. To borrow a line from Dickinson’s iconic poem “I heard a Fly buzz— / when I died—,” we cannot “see to see” to see. Dickinson continues this cluster of threes by establishing three material constraints in the poem: the observed or “Dying eye,” which prohibits vision; the “Room,” which determines the parameters of the eye’s search; and the page the text is written on, which (like “I dwell in Possibility—”) governs the poem’s unpredictable line breaks. These constraints prove unsurpassable, and they impede our own sense of what takes place before us. When the eye dies “[w]ithout disclosing / what it be,” it fails to reveal the cause of its obfuscation; there are limits, in other words, to what the observer as reader or diagnostician of the “Dying eye” can know. The eye is never named sick or declared “blind” even though it presumably stops working. When the reader encounters a speaker who sees a “Dying eye,” both the speaker’s and the reader’s ability to “see” is inhibited. Readers of the poem thus experience similar impairment; the eye’s death puts an end to observation. By the poem’s conclusion, it is unclear which eye is “blessed to have / seen—”: the “Dying eye” or its observer. Reading is less an act of certainty than a “seem[ing],” a guess or approximation. In Dickinson’s 1865 poem, “Who saw no Sunrise / cannot say” (F1028A), she again references blindness but concludes her first stanza with the lines: “Who guess at seeing, / guess at loss / Of the Ability—.” Although Dickinson is invested in the specific constraints imposed by blindness, here she universalizes impairment, suggesting that to “see” is only ever to speculate. Always already a flawed mode of perception, seeing constitutes inability. Both seeing and being blind are equally deficient modes of perception. [End Page 70]

Figure 5. F648A (67d). Thirteen-line poem written in pen on half a bifolium sheet. On the right-hand side two stab marks are present. A line is drawn at the bottom of the page. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. Date: 1863.
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Figure 5.

F648A (67d). Thirteen-line poem written in pen on half a bifolium sheet. On the right-hand side two stab marks are present. A line is drawn at the bottom of the page. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. Date: 1863.

[End Page 71]


In the final decades of her life, Dickinson stopped writing on standard sheets of stationery paper, instead drafting verse on a range of material surfaces: wallpaper, concert programs, recipes, receipts, grocery lists, the backs of telegrams, even a chocolate wrapper. Scholars have offered endless speculations as to why Dickinson turned to these oddly shaped papers in the concluding stage of her creative practice. Some critics see the poet’s proliferation of scraps as a response to the numerous deaths of close friends and family. What if Dickinson turned to the fragile scraps to depict her declining health? Her poems shift from framing impairment as a specific form of bodily difference (such as agoraphobia, blindness, or eyestrain) to understanding disability as a universal condition, hence her growing preoccupation with death. In disability studies, the term “temporarily able-bodied” refers to disability as a universal experience, and, according to Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, it “serves as a reality check to those who perceive themselves to be immutably able-bodied.”68 While Dickinson understands mortality as a universal form of disablement, she nevertheless attends to the specificities of her own bodily experience.

Dickinson’s transition from pen to pencil and from bound booklet to loose scrap works to illustrate her eventual erasure as author. As Werner notes, “the exchange of ink for lead point may . . . mark Dickinson’s increasingly acute sense of transience. For, unlike the pen, which produces a permanent memory trace, the lines drawn by the lead point of the stylus are easily erased.”69 When Dickinson solicited Higginson’s advice regarding the possible publication of her poems, he described her work as “too delicate—not strong enough to publish,” and her late poems embrace his attribution of frailness.70 The scraps are no longer “firm,” as she describes in “From Blank to Blank—,” but infirm; their delicacy conveys impermanence. Both her body and poems are about to expire.

Whereas her early poems about reclusion emphasize spatial constraints, her late fragments confront the limitations imposed by time. Her 1873 scrap poem (F1292A), also written on a torn envelope flap, echoes this sentiment (fig. 6):

In this short Life  that only lasts an hour    merely [End Page 72]

How much—how  little—is    within our      power

The small size of the scrap serves to emphasize “this short Life.” Dickinson’s verse fills the whole fragment; the quantity of “much” is written on the larger half of the envelope flap whereas “little” takes up smaller space. Finally, the world “power” is squeezed “within” the tip of the envelope’s flap, suggesting that our capacities are severely limited when confronted with a finite amount of time and an ever-restricted amount of paper.

Figure 6. J1287 (214b). Six lines written in pencil on the inside of an upside-down envelope flap. The seal is partially present. Courtesy of Amherst College Archives and Special Collections, Amherst, MA. Date: 1873.
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Figure 6.

J1287 (214b). Six lines written in pencil on the inside of an upside-down envelope flap. The seal is partially present. Courtesy of Amherst College Archives and Special Collections, Amherst, MA. Date: 1873.

Unlike Dickinson’s scraps, her fascicle poems appear as if they were intended for preservation in part because they were bound together. As Peter Stallybrass and Roger Chartier note about the material text in early modern England, books were meant to capture an author’s immortality: “the textual leaves that time had scattered could be brought together in the material form of a book,” thus rendering more transient literary forms like the pamphlet more permanent.71 Prior to suturing Shakespeare’s scattered leaves, the editors of his First Folio of plays referred to the strewn sheets as “maimed, and deformed.”72 However, the act of binding enlivens the feeble pages. Of all Dickinson’s modes of textual presentation, the fascicles seem closest to book form. Preserved in the trunk of the Dickinson family maid, the bound booklets endure in a way that the scraps, which [End Page 73] were variously scattered throughout Dickinson’s writing desk, do not. Like Shakespeare’s “maimed” sheets, Dickinson’s late scraps convey the inevitable passage of time. While the majority of Dickinson criticism focuses on her investments in immortality, these late poems make clear her commitment to depicting death. The “decrepit” fragments of paper reveal a poet whose body and art have reached their ends. The virtue of ephemera is that they are, as Dickinson wrote in an 1885 letter to her cousins Louise and Frances Norcross, “permanent temporarily” (L962). In 1885 Dickinson scribbles on a scrap of white stationary that is torn and cut with scissors: “Strength / to perish is sometimes / withheld—” (820). She asserts that the act of perishing is much harder than the work of preservation. Focusing on Dickinson’s relationship to mortality does not discount recuperative efforts towards the poet and her poems, but it encourages readings that linger with the obstructions, impossibilities, cessations, and hindrances imposed by an aging body on its texts. When Dickinson’s oeuvre is examined through a disability studies framework, a counternarrative emerges, one that resists the triumphalism of literary history: the move from what F. R. Leavis calls “immature,” “adolescent,” and “weak” writing to “mature” and strong forms of print.73

Considering Dickinson’s resistance to preservation, I thus distinguish between two types of recovery work. On the one hand, I wish to recover Dickinson as a poet who might be understood as disabled without resorting to diagnosis, which is one of the primary modes of evidence by which historical figures are linked to disability; hence, I attend to a poem about seals and seclusion that seems to have very little to do with disability in the terms we understand it today. Diverging from the classic recovery narrative, which attempts to bring into renewed visibility historical figures who have been elided from the canon, I take instead a widely known literary figure and propose that the “recovery” in recovery work need not entail overcoming disability but reckoning with its presence. In so doing, I concur with Mitchell and Snyder who note that the problem with disability is not that it is hidden from history but that it pervades cultural narratives: “Disabled peoples’ social invisibility has occurred in the wake of their perpetual circulation throughout print history,” they write.74 My efforts constitute less a recovery than a recentering, a way of questioning why we may have forgotten Dickinson’s bodily constraints—her reclusion, vision impairment, and early death—even as they have stared us in the face. [End Page 74]

Weak Is Weak Is Weak

Thank you for recollecting my weakness. I am not so wellas to forget I was ever ill, but better and working. Isuppose we must all “ail till evening.”

—Emily Dickinson, Letter to Louise and Francis Norcross (1869)75

Mental and physical disabilities are everywhere in Dickinson’s poems and their reception. Early reviews understood Dickinson’s disabilities as precluding her future as a poet. In later criticism, disability is present, but these accounts argue that her disabilities are irrelevant because she was a genius.76 I reemphasize disability in Dickinson’s work not to arrive at these same conclusions but to consider how impairment is central to her task of making poems. Unlike contemporary scholarship, which attempts to cure a disabled Dickinson by understanding her poems as symptomatic of her creative capacities, I propose that she offers a theory of constraint that shows how poets’ disabilities are made present through their poems’ content as well as textual—that is, material—forms. Close attention to Dickinson’s fascicle and scrap poems reveals that disability constitutes a material reality to be understood rather than a bodily condition to be overcome through authorship. The material text—with its seals, line breaks, bindings, and blank space—rearticulates the social construction of disability in the context of poetic form.

Reading for constraint demands a different kind of interpretive practice, one similar to what Wai Chee Dimock describes as weak. Whereas narratives of overcoming imbue their literary objects with strength, Dimock advocates for a weak-theoretical approach to literary texts as a means of rethinking the totalizing claims that have been central to contemporary critical arguments. “What could be said,” she asks, “for a critical practice that does not even try to clinch the case?”77 Adopting Dimock’s weak-theoretical approach, Elaine Freedgood and Cannon Schmitt encourage technical and denotative modes of reading fiction. They suggest that interpretations of the literal have been traditionally difficult for literary critics. To read for the literal—the body and page—might get us stuck: “to read literally,” they write, “is to read slowly, repeatedly, even stumblingly. It is not efficient, and will not make for increased productivity.”78 Modeling a different pace, the labor of reading literally—that is, reading for bodies, impairments, and their [End Page 75] relationship to acts of writing—is slow and faulty rather than quick and efficient. Weak-theoretical accounts might incorporate disability in their theorizations to resist the impulse to cast weakness as metaphorical, to have it transcend its own circumstance or “textual condition.” It might seem counterintuitive for one of the most figurative of poets to be read literally, but Dickinson asks us to confront disability, or what Mitchell and Snyder call this “recalcitrant corporeal matter,” in the form of her poems. An attention to both bodily and textual constraints helps to bridge disability with literary form, which have—according to Mitchell and Snyder’s formulations—been historically at odds. What if, rather than figuring Dickinson’s constraints as inversely freeing (or casting weakness as itself a mode of triumph), we instead try to read what has gone, in Sharon Cameron’s terms, traditionally “unread” in Dickinson?79 To read for what Jackson calls “the material circumstances of writing” and not “what that writing will be taken to (figuratively) represent,” we would register Dickinson’s bodily constraints as emerging in the technical and literal modes of her composition.80

In the 1865 poem, “Not to discover weak- / ness” (F1011A), Dickinson positions reading and writing practices in relation to what we might describe as something akin to disability (see fig. 7):

Not to discover weak-ness is  +The Artifice of strength—Impregnability inheresAs much through+ Consciousness

Of faith in othersin itself  +As Pyramidal NerveBehind the most+ unconscious clock  +What skilful Pointersmove— [End Page 76] + mystery+ Conscious faith of others in its ableness+ Elemental—plupotential+ Consummate + anxious

Figure 7. F1260A. Dickinson’s late poem written in ink on blue-lined notebook paper. Courtesy of Amherst College Archives and Special Collections, Amherst, MA. Date: 1872.
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Figure 7.

F1260A. Dickinson’s late poem written in ink on blue-lined notebook paper. Courtesy of Amherst College Archives and Special Collections, Amherst, MA. Date: 1872.

“Not to discover weak- / ness” has been misread as a decree for overcoming “weakness” and endorsing “strength.” The opening line is tricky; as Shira Wolosky notes, it appears that Dickinson finds weakness undesirable, hence her framing of the line in the negative, but the poem questions instead whether the omission of weakness constitutes strength.81 Dickinson posits that readers’ refusal to unearth weakness equips them with a false sense of fortitude. The poem might be understood as a manual for a weak approach to reading Dickinson’s archive. To ignore weakness in our readings of Dickinson is to falsify strength, to render it deceptive, masquerading as what Dickinson terms “ableness.” Here, she activates the very terms used in disability theory, with ableness emerging [End Page 77] as the object of her critique. Although “Not to discover weak- / ness” appears on a standard, unbound stationary sheet, presumably recopied onto the white legal page from a prior draft, Dickinson continues to employ what scholars have termed “variant words,” which are meant to indicate possible substitutions for alternative word choices.82 These “crosses”—similar, perhaps, to Dickinson’s refusal to cross the square—maintain her indecision, which might impede rather than facilitate “Possibility.” In the second stanza, with the speaker’s presence literalized in the clock, her earlier sense of hesitancy, what we might term “weakness,” morphs into faultless mechanization—the very “Artifice of strength.” While the clock’s hands continue to move, the reader—who is instructed to refuse the fraudulence of “ableness”—presumably remains still, refusing the “Consummate” clock with its mobile pointers. An acknowledgment of weakness entails confronting one’s limitations without, like the hasty clock, too speedily overcoming them.

Dickinson foregrounds her relation to weakness, delay, and dissolution, revealing that she agrees, in part, with her early critics like Bates who were attuned to all she was unable to do. Constraint is everywhere in Dickinson’s poems, but it is rendered far more material—that is, less metaphorical or figurative—when linked up to her specific bodily conditions. Reading for weakness rather than strength means recognizing how bodily constraint, from agoraphobia to vision impairments to death, emerges as an everyday concern for Dickinson. Understanding Dickinson as a poet of disability registers these limitations and reframes her writerly practices as influenced as much by “Ability” or genius as they are impossibility. When we have looked elsewhere to correct rumors about the “Myth of Amherst” tucked away her bedroom, perhaps she was there all along, hunched over her paper drafting poems.

Clare Mullaney
Hamilton College
Clare Mullaney

Clare Mullaney is visiting assistant professor of literature at Hamilton College, and she received her PhD from the University of Pennsylvania in August 2018. Her book manuscript, American Imprints: Disability and the Material Text, 1861–1927, argues that acknowledging texts as made objects brings into focus how turn-of-the-century authors grapple with disability at the level of textual form.


1. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Poet,” Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson (New York: Modern Library Classics, 2000), 454.

2. Willis Buckingham, ed., Emily Dickinson’s Reception in the 1890s: A Documentary History (Pittsburgh PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1989), 48.

3. Ibid., 284, 106.

4. Ibid., xvii.

5. Ibid., 29.

6. Virginia Jackson, Dickinson’s Misery: A Theory of Lyric Reading (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 127.

7. The Letters of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward, 3 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1958), L13 and L302. Further references to Dickinson’s letters are to this edition and will be cited according to letter number.

8. Dickinson also assumes the role of caretaker. In 1851 she writes to her friend Mrs. Strong: “Mother is still an invalid, though a partially restored one.” She continues: “When I am not at work, I sit by the side of mother, provide for her little wants, and try to cheer and encourage her” (L36). While her mother is ill she assumes the domestic duties of feeding her father and brother.

9. Dickinson, Letters, L873.

10. Ibid., L275, L121, L241, L179.

11. For the purpose of this essay, I use the terms “disability” and “impairment” interchangeably. The field of disability studies’ advancement of the social model of disability distinguishes between “impairment” as a bodily condition and “disability” as a social or cultural experience. However, in mid-nineteenth-century America, these distinctions were not yet apparent. For more on the social model of disability and its recent contestations, see Tom Shakespeare, “The Social Model of Disability,” in The Disability Studies Reader, ed. Lennard J. Davis (New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis, 2013); and Alison Kafer, Feminist, Queer, Crip (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013).

12. Dickinson, Letters, L151.

13. Qtd. in Jay Leyda, The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press), xxix.

14. This word is from Dickinson’s poem “I felt a Cleaving in / my Mind” (F867B; 1864).

15. In her account of Dickinson’s “material space of writing,” Diana Fuss attends to the productive force of the material constraints present in the poet’s home. In an attempt to neither pathologize nor romanticize Dickinson, she suggests that “far from incapacitating the poet, the rooms and apertures of the . . . homestead reoriented Dickinson’s vision and provided her with a new way of inhabiting the visual and auditory world of lyric poetry,” and she asserts that “the more limited the space the more unlimited the speaker.” Although it is not Fuss’s intent “to treat the domestic interior as pure figuration,” she understands “limited space” as a trope through which the small becomes large and constraint is understood as enabling rather than restrictive. See Diana Fuss, The Sense of an Interior: Four Writers and the Rooms That Shaped Them (New York: Routledge, 2004), 5, 6, 24, 1. Jane Donahue Eberwein similarly reads limitation as a metaphor for Dickinson’s ascension of her limited circumstance. Eberwein writes, “[Dickinson] habitually conceived of smallness as the starting point of her quest, the initial condition beyond which only progress was possible.” See Eberwein, Dickinson, Strategies of Limitation (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1985), 14.

16. Mary Jo Dondlinger, “‘One Need Not Be a Chamber—to Be Haunted’: Emily Dickinson’s Haunted Space,” in Creating Safe Space: Violence and Women’s Writing, ed. Tomoko Kuribayashi, Julie Ann Tharp (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998), 101, emphasis mine.

17. See Simi Linton, Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity (New York: New York University Press, 1998), 18.

18. Jim Ferris, “The Enjambed Body: A Step Toward a Crippled Poetics,” Georgia Review 58, no. 2 (2004): 230.

19. Michael Davidson, “Disability Poetics,” in The Oxford Handbook of Modern and Contemporary American Poetry, ed. Cary Nelson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 582.

20. Ibid., 582, 581.

21. Marjorie Perloff, for example, has “refuted the traditional rejection of constraints in the name of ‘freedom,’” quoted in Jan Baetens and Jean-Jacques Poucel, “Introduction: The Challenge of Constraint,” Poetics Today 30, no. 4 (2009): 619.

22. Michael Northen, “A Short History of American Disability Poetry,” in Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability, ed. Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black and Michael Northen (El Paso, TX: Cinco Puntos Press, 2011), 19.

23. Davidson, “Disability Poetics,” 598.

24. Ibid., 588.

25. David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder, Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000), 48.

26. Ibid., 49.

27. Ibid.

28. For more on the distinction between formalist and materialist readings of Dickinson, see Cristanne Miller, “Dickinson’s Experiments in Language,” in Emily Dickinson Handbook, ed. Gudrun Grabher, Roland Hagenbuchle, and Christine Miller (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998), 240–57.

29. Thomas Johnson, introduction to Letters of Emily Dickinson, xx; and Theo Davis, “Critical History I,” in Emily Dickinson in Context, ed. Eliza Richards (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 317.

30. Jerome McGann, The Textual Condition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991), 4.

31. Ibid.

32. Mitchell and Snyder, Narrative Prosthesis, x.

33. Shakespeare, “The Social Model of Disability,” 214.

34. This is what Tobin Siebers terms “the theory of complex embodiment,” which—in his words—“views the economy between social representations and the body not as unidirectional as in the social model, or nonexistent as in the medical model, but as reciprocal.” See Siebers, Disability Theory (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008), 25.

35. Ibid., 32–33.

36. See Fuss, The Sense of an Interior, 33, 58.

37. When I discuss Dickinson’s individual poems, I present them in three formats: (1) a facsimile of the poem as it was written (these can all be accessed on the Emily Dickinson Archive), (2) my own transcription of the text, which seeks to keep Dickinson’s textual idiosyncrasies in place, and (3) a description of the poem as an image, which accounts for visual features in the text that cannot be expressed in the transcription alone. This method of presentation is, in part, modeled after a common practice in disability studies of including descriptions of images for visually impaired readers, and, given that Susan Howe, as well as others, have suggested that “[Dickinson’s] manuscripts should be understood as visual productions,” this translation of Dickinson’s poems beyond purely visual forms seems all the more apt. These practices of translation in the name of accessibility are essential steps, I would suggest, to any interpretive work performed in relation to Dickinson’s poems: understanding the poem as both object and text as well as visual, auditory, and tactile medium. See Susan Howe, The Birth-Mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1993), 141.

38. Siebers, Disability Theory, 32.

39. Dickinson, Letters, L330.

40. Quoted in Felicity Callard, “‘The Sensation of Infinite Vastness’; or, the Emergence of Agoraphobia in the Late 19th Century,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 26, no. 6 (2006): 873.

41. David Trotter, “The Invention of Agoraphobia,” Victorian Literature and Culture 32, no. 2 (2004): 466.

42. Carl Westphal, “Agoraphobia: A Neuropathic Phenomenon” in Jeffrey Boyd, M.D., and Ted Crump’s “Westphal’s Agoraphobia,” Journal of Anxiety Disorders 5, no. 1 (1991): 81.

43. Ibid., 81.

44. Ibid., 82.

45. Ibid., 83.

46. Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).

47. Susan Schweik, “The Voice of ‘Reason,’” in Beauty Is a Verb, 69.

48. Quoted in Schweik, “The Voice of ‘Reason,’” 77.

49. Her fascination with enclosure is not unique to “I dwell in Possibility—.” Another 1862 poem, “A Prison gets to be / a friend” (F456A), expresses “gratitude / For the appointed Beam,” thus establishing intimacy between Dickinson and the material world.

50. Critics have debated whether Dickinson’s poems are “open” or “closed.” Dickinson is lauded for having written in free verse, but her work has equally been likened to hymn meter. And although the lyric category of Dickinson’s poems has been queried, lyric poems are also understood as closed forms. The question, though, of whether openness is linked to triumph and closure with constraint seems less compelling than a thorough investigation of the many “Possibilities” afforded by constraint as both a formal and material feature of Dickinson’s poems. In her work on Dickinson’s fascicles, Sharon Cameron offers a productive account of this tension, suggesting that Dickinson ultimately refuses to choose; “not choosing is internal to the text. It exists within the boundaries framed by the poem,” she writes. The unresolvable conflict between the poems’ “boundedness” (hence Dickinson’s use of the quatrain form) and “unboundedness,” which Cameron attributes to Dickinson’s use of variants—that is, her + marks to indicate substitutions for words or even entire poems—makes Dickinson’s “mapping” of experience difficult: “She is choosing not to choose what the coordinates of an experience are, choosing not to choose whether internal scenes can have external coordinates.” See Choosing Not Choosing (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 23, 27, 28.

51. Marta Werner, Emily Dickinson’s Open Folios: Scenes of Reading, Surfaces of Writing (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995), 26.

52. Ibid., 27.

53. Dickinson, Letters, L296.

54. Ibid., L290.

55. Ibid., L290.

56. James Guthrie, Emily Dickinson’s Vision: Illness and Identity in Her Poetry (Gainesville: University of Florida, 1998), 17.

57. Dickinson, Letters, L301.

58. My reading of “From Blank to Blank—” is largely influenced by Alexandra Socarides. See Socarides, Dickinson Unbound: Paper, Process, Poetics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 97–98.

59. Helen Vendler, Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), 168.

60. Jan Baetens and Jean-Jacques Poucel, “Introduction: The Challenge of Constraint,” Poetics Today 30, no. 4 (2009): 611, 613.

61. Jerome McGann, Black Riders: The Visible Language of Modernism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), 27, 31.

62. Ibid., 38.

63. Dorothy Huff Oberhaus, Emily Dickinson’s Fascicles: Method and Meaning (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania State University, 1955), 2.

64. Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).

65. Johnson, introduction to Letters of Emily Dickinson, 475.

66. Susan Stewart, “Some Thoughts about Dickinson’s ‘Dont Put Up My Thread & Needle,’” Emily Dickinson Journal 15, no. 2 (2006): 64.

67. For more writing on the relationship between Dickinson’s poems and textiles, see Daneen Wardrop, Emily Dickinson and the Labor of Clothing (Hanover: University of New Hampshire Press, 2009).

68. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, “Re-shaping, Re-thinking, Re-defining: Feminist Disability Studies,” Barbara Waxman Fiduccia Paper on Women and Girls with Disabilities, Center for Women Policy Studies (2001), 3.

69. Werner, Open Folios, 23.

70. Dickinson, Letters, x.

71. Quoted in Roger Chartier and Peter Stallybrass, “What Is a Book?,” in The Cambridge Companion to Textual Scholarship, ed. Julia Flanders and Neil Fraistat (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 194.

72. Ibid, 195.

73. F. R. Leavis, D. H. Lawrence: Novelist (Penguin Books, 1955), 308, 157, 334, 92.

74. Mitchell and Snyder, Narrative Prosthesis, 52.

75. Dickinson, Letters, L258.

76. Contemporary disability circles often reference Dickinson because her poems are said to speak to the experience of living with a diverse range of impairments. Numerous blogs and other forms of creative writing assert their identification with the nineteenth-century poet. For example, Tom Shakespeare’s blog was entitled Our Statures Touch the Skies, which is a line taken from one of Dickinson’s early poems.

77. Wai Chee Dimock, “Weak Theory: Henry James, Colm Tóibín, and W. B. Yeats,” Critical Inquiry 39, no. 4 (2013): 736.

78. Elaine Freedgood and Cannon Schmitt, “Denotatively, Technically, Literally,” Representations 125, no. 1 (2014): 10.

79. Sharon Cameron, Choosing Not Choosing, 1.

80. Jackson, Dickinson’s Misery, 134. In his call for a blueprint of social construction, Siebers makes an equal call for literal reading: “The disabled body compels one to give concrete form to the theory of social construction and to take its metaphors literally.” He suggests that narratives that privilege the ways disabilities are overcome frame disability as “not real but imaginary.” See Siebers, Disability Theory, 30, 11.

81. Shira Wolosky, “Modest Selves: Dickinson’s Critique of American Identity” (unpublished manuscript, 2016), 20.

82. See Cameron, Choosing Not Choosing, 3.

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