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  • "We uncertain step":Emily Dickinson, Disability, and Embodied Learning
  • Jess Libow (bio)

Emily Dickinson covers a lot of ground in her nearly 1,800 poems. The active feet she depicts don't only walk; they also "stagger" (Fr238, line 1), "swerve" (Fr329, line 4), "seesaw" (Fr329, line 9), "tread," (Fr340, line 3), and "grope" (Fr484, line 9) across her texts.1 While poets and scholars have long understood "the line as a form of walking," Dickinson's ambulation does more than critique the "awkward, deforming poetic feet of conventional poetry."2 Amid her poems' even metrical schemes, Dickinson explores bodily irregularity through extended engagement with stumbling. Many mid-nineteenth-century reformers used physical activity to cultivate women's bodies and facilitate their education. Dickinson, however, posits a more flexible learner's body. By depicting both impairment's onset and adaptation to it, she presents irregular and impaired movements as themselves pursuits of knowledge.

In this essay, I follow Dickinson's footsteps back to the body, reading her as a bridge between nineteenth-century physical education, which primed the body for learning, and contemporary scholarship that positions disability as an epistemological resource. Throughout her poetry from the mid-1860s, Dickinson develops a unique embodied [End Page 305] learning model that I argue simultaneously subverts the norms that pervaded her intellectual milieu and offers productive insights for contemporary disability theory. Ultimately, I propose that Dickinson's poetry registers physical disability as neither a barrier to knowledge nor a stable subject position but rather as a learning process itself.

Scenes of uncertain mobility pervade the poems Dickinson composed in the early 1860s, her most prolific era and the period when, as she puts it in an 1863 poem, her "sight got crooked –" (Fr681, line 5). Dickinson sought treatment from Boston ophthalmologist Henry Willard Williams in 1864 and 1865, and visual impairment features prominently in the poems she composed as what she called "the ache to [her] eyes" began to develop.3 Registering disability as central to the "problem of embodiment" in Dickinson's corpus, my reading builds on biographical accounts that propose she turned to poetry during this period to "dramatize how her sphere of physical activity had been diminished" as well as on studies that identify epistemological concerns in her metaphorical use of light and dark.4 In Dickinson's poetry, visual impairment emerges as an impetus for reorientation. Her speakers from this period don't only inhabit the darkness; they also move through it and discover that the onset of blindness requires new navigational methods.

According to the blind writer Georgina Kleege, becoming blind is akin to being a dancer who "has to know, without looking, what her body is doing at all times."5 Dickinson's poetry illustrates this learning process, as her speakers use other senses to make their way. For example, in the 1862 poem "We grow accustomed to the Dark –" (Fr428), Dickinson depicts "fit[ing] our Vision to the Dark –" not as a return to ocular ability, but rather as a gradual adoption of new perceptive strategies (Fr428, line 7). As the poem progresses, the speaker takes "uncertain step[s]" into the unseen landscape, "grop[ing]" her way through the terrain [End Page 306] (Fr428, lines 17, 5). Inhabiting the "Dark –" involves more than minimizing the visual—vision loss reverberates throughout the body. Across Dickinson's poems, such stumbling offers a window onto the ongoing process of adapting to disability as an altered embodied state.

Dickinson's poetry destabilizes the body of the knowing subject at a time when an able, healthy body was becoming an educational prerequisite. By the mid-nineteenth century, physical education played a significant role in women's schooling. Mary Lyon, whose Mount Holyoke Female Seminary Dickinson briefly attended, was a particularly staunch advocate of girls' and women's exercise.6 Lyon believed that "the value of health to a lady is inestimable" and insisted that regular, structured physical activity bolstered women's intellectual and moral development.7 Though she left Mount Holyoke due to illness during her first year, Dickinson gained further exposure to physical education in the 1860s, when her mentor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, wrote about girls' physical training in the...