“Not to Discover Weakness Is the Artifice of Strength”: Emily Dickinson, Constraint, and a Disability Poetics
- J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists
- University of Pennsylvania Press
- Volume 7, Number 1, Spring 2019
- pp. 49-81
- Additional Information
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.