Paper Trail

Selected Prose, 1965-2003

Richard Howard

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

 
Paper Trail
ON POETRY
A Consideration of the Writings of Emily Dickinson
[1973]
I
Until Thomas Johnson published his integral edition of her poems (“including variant readings” in 1955) and of her surviving letters (in 1958), Emily Dickinson had not readers but addicts, not critics but emendators; indeed since 1890, when Mrs. Todd and Colonel Higginson published the silently altered “First Series” of her poems (ignoring her prophecy that “it does not fit so well / when altered frequently”), Emily Dickinson’s audience has proved as insatiable as it has been undiscerning—witness the subsequent sixty-year serial, precisely, of her publishing history, ever since Lavinia’s discovery of the Locked Box (a little gothic novel in itself, the Other maiden sister who had lived under the same roof with the poet all her life, yet quite unsuspecting of the quantity or the quality of her enterprise, put to the cliff-hanging question: should she destroy the contents, just as she had been instructed to destroy Emily’s papers?). We shall return to this dilemma, this differentiation between papers and poems in the leavings of an unpublished writer; but for now, by the diligence of Professor Johnson and his handwriting experts, as well as by the fortune of our own incomparable modernity, we have been released from the scandal of other people’s good intentions—Lavinia’s, Helen Hunt Jackson’s, Colonel Higginson’s and Mrs. Todd’s, Mrs. Bianchi’s and Mr. Hampson’s. We confront, at last, the poet’s own—Emily Dickinson’s intentions, a much more troublesome affair.
For it must be confessed that as long as we could be merely scandalized, we were ensnared—indeed that is the initial sense of a scandal, a skandalon, a snare, reminding us that scansion too may be a stumbling block. Scandalized we have been, then, by the parcellingout of the texts, by the editorial tampering responsible for so many mysterious breaches with success, so many apparent compromises with failure. Until Professor Johnson completed his vast undertaking in behalf of the graduate students of the world, one might say that Emily Dickinson’s case was one of publish and perish. We have been further entrapped by our necessarily discrepant versions—considering our informants—of the poet herself: the pining recluse who wrote to Higginson, “Nothing has happened but loneliness, perhaps too daily to relate”; the breathless tomboy who once remarked to the same correspondent, “I sing, as the Boy does by the Burying Ground—because I am afraid”; the Juliet of Amherst (if not actually the Cleopatra) who gasped, “Had we less to say to those we love, perhaps we should say it oftener, but the attempt comes, then the inundation, then it is all over”: the wayward bluestocking who could exult, “I am glad there are Books. They are better than Heaven for that is unavoidable while one may miss these”; the illiterate thrush who insisted that “Nature is a Haunted House—but Art—a House that tries to be haunted”; the vinegar-tongued spinster who declared, “It is essential to the sanity of mankind that each one should think the other crazy”; the metaphysical poet who, having read Vaughan, could yet write that “to have been immortal transcends to become so”; the symbolist poet who acknowledged that “the Ear is the last Face. We hear after we see”; the surrealist who called herself “the only Kangaroo among the Beauty”; the nun; the lesbian; the mystic of the via negativa who announced that “no is the wildest word we consign to Language”; the Puritan; the quietist who prayed, “We thank thee Father for these strange Minds, that enamor us against thee”; the atheist who wrote, “We cannot believe for each other. I suppose there are depths in every Consciousness, from which we cannot rescue ourselves—to which none can go with us”; the witch who knew that “nothing is so old as a dilapidated charm.” Given all these impersonations, which by a few more extracts can be made to seem impostures, we should be thankful that Claude Lévi-Strauss has not yet fixed his attentions on this poet. Or perhaps not: a structuralist Dickinson (the one hinted at by her late confession that “orthography always baffled me, and to N’s I had an especial aversion, as they always seemed unfinished M’s”) would further saturate the possibilities which have proved, or which in the nature of the case have insinuated themselves, to be nearly as attractive as the seductions of that other, that supreme, literary enigma whose name stands for so much and, biographically, so little. “Why is any other book but Shakespeare needed?” Dickinson asked—but of course she knew why: the one that was needed was the one she had to write, for did she not say, “My wars are laid away in Books—/ I have one Battle more”? And it is only when we have amassed the same kind of speculative redundance about Dickinson which we have survived about Shakespeare that we have some chance of slipping out from under the net of partial identifications, of loosening the characterological toils in which it has been so easy to imprison her and ourselves.
Easy, because we find what we intend to find in a writer. (And we blame what fails to correspond to our intentions—if it is our intention to find the poems of Mallarmé or Herrick, we censure a poet by allowing her to have written “perhaps a dozen perfect lyrics,” though it is that poet herself who reminds us that “to multiply the Harbors does not reduce the Sea.”) But if we have been facilitated in our intentions, hitherto, by the mere scandal of Emily Dickinson’s poetry among us which so masked her own intentions, now we confront not the scandal but the problem of Emily Dickinson. The problem of her poetry, as it has been raised since the Johnson edition by her great critics and by her diligent ones, may be seen to menace every avenue of judgment, and most alleyways of enjoyment as well.
The fact that she never published her poems nor even, apparently, wanted to publish them—what she wanted to know, indeed what she inquired about in appropriate quarters, was whether they were “alive,” whether they “breathed”; no more than that, barely protesting when such respiration was affected by an editor’s tampering with her punctuation—the phenomenon of her forbidding privacy (“in all the circumference of Expression,” she wrote at the end of her life, “these guileless words of Adam and Eve were never surpassed, I was afraid and hid Myself”), the care she took to keep herself to herself (explaining to Higginson, “I do not cross my Father’s ground to any House or town,” and indeed refusing to visit her father’s grave until she herself was laid in the ground beside it)—is but the beginning of the problem of Emily Dickinson, but the beginning is perhaps a good place at which to start.
I mentioned just now that with the Johnson edition, at last, and for the first time, Dickinson’s own intentions are before us. But was it her intention to be before us? Did she really write, as she is so often asserted to have written, her letter to the world? We must be wary about the “I” in her poems, the word which occurs there, the concordance tells us, 1,682 times, twice as often as any other word. Like all the Victorians—one thinks at once of Browning and Tennyson, particular victims of the identification of authorship with authenticity—Dickinson was troubled by the notion that her poems would be taken as confessional. She was so troubled that she took further trouble to be explicit about the matter, and wrote Higginson: “When I state myself, as the Representative of the Verse—it does not mean—me—but a supposed person.” If then Dickinson wrote a letter to the world, she never mailed it; and in its present, final form, there is no finality to her work—there is only presence. By the time she was thirty and decided to take her writing seriously (seriously enough to keep it for herself, to lock it in a box), there is no point at which Dickinson’s letters can be differentiated in consequence from her poems—the letters become poems before our eyes and ears, the prose talk becomes poetry torn up by the roots, as Colonel Higginson used to say, cartilaginous, bleeding even, tumescent with a freight which is undelivered.
In such a case, unique in the history of literature—for compared to this “solitary prowess / of a Silent Life,” as she called it, Hopkins seems as eager for publicity as Norman Mailer, and Emily Brontë as comfortable in the limelight as Anne Sexton—in a circumstance where the poet could say:

Though None be on our Side—
Suffice Us—for a Crowd—
Ourself—

what is the peculiar unity—amalgam, colloidal suspension, gist—which we call the work of an author? If Dickinson is, even, an author (“we must be careful what we say,” she warned: “No bird resumes its egg”), is everything she wrote or said, everything she left behind in order to get on to everything else, to be regarded as part of “the works of Emily Dickinson”? “I am whom you infer,” she would sign letters, permitting us the wildest liberties—and we have taken them. I shall take a number myself. For the six volumes of her poems and her letters stand on our shelves with the other great problematic works, unfinished, complete with Pascal’s Pensées and with Nietzche’s Will to Power, a monumental indetermination, a reminder such as not even the pseudonymous masters Stendhal and Kierkegaard, nor even the orthonymous ones Rimbaud and Kafka (who published and then perished in propria persona), can afford to offer, in the nakedness of pure possibility—a reminder that the meaning of literary works is not the fixed meaning of their writing, but the undisclosed meaning of reading and of memory. The meaning of books lies before them and not behind: it is in us. A book is not a ready-made, terminal meaning, a revelation which we must undergo and assume; it is a reservoir of forms which receive their meaning; it is what Borges has called the imminence of a revelation which does not occur; it is an asymptote. Thus the work of an author is as problematic as his individuality, and in Dickinson’s astonishing case, the poetry is as individual as its problematics.
Consider briefly, beyond the existence of the poems themselves, beyond the existence of Dickinson’s work, that work’s problems—how they press in upon us! There is the problem of tides, right at the top of the list: she did not use them, did not set off her poems as poems by this traditional literary device. Indeed she seems to reject anything so determinative as a label, the scab of experience, preferring, as she said, “no scar, / but internal difference, / where the Meanings, are—.” Observing that “most of our Moments are Moments of Preface,” she simply had no time for a title:

Ended, ere it begun—
The Title was scarcely told
When the Preface perished from Consciousness
The Story, unrevealed—

and in a variant of a poem sent to Mrs. Tuckerman in 1884—a variant she kept for herself—she altered the final line, “The Mutineer / whose title is ‘the Soul,’” in a manner significant of her tastes in this matter: “the Mutineer / discreetly called ‘the Soul.’” Things—including such things as poems—do not “have” titles, then; they are discreetly called, provisionally, tentatively, asymptotically identified. The only title, as her most famous use of the noun indicates, is the “Title divine” of wife, for which there is no sign: as Blackmur says, Emily Dickinson married herself.
And hard upon the problem of titles comes the harder problem of beginnings. She was forever starting up, beginning over, and always it is the initiation which is her strength; she was not a new critic, and she did not care, always or even often, to work out the implications of those stunning first lines. After the example of Vaughan, she fastens her poem to its first flash, and the rest of the poem may well … rest. “The second half of joy,” she said in one of her last poems, “is shorter than the first”; and it is always the inauguration of her utterance that energizes her, or at least that interests her. “The mind is such a new place, last night feels obsolete,” she wrote to Higginson, and it is that new place she was forever looking for on the pillow, the breaking open of the egg, the tmetic or splitting power of speech:

I cling to nowhere till I fall—
The crash of nothing yet of all
How similar appears—

And as this last citation shows, if there was no time for a title, there was little enough occasion for a period. “I would eat evanescence slowly,” she said, resisting anything like a full stop. Indeed the problem of Dickinson’s punctuation is a mounting one (rather than constant, as in her rejection of titles), for she appears to have decided as early as poem 7, written in 1858, upon an idiosyncratic though increasingly organized use of the dash, the comma, and of capital letters as her preferred indications as to how her writings, prose and verse, should be taken, should not be mistaken:

My classics vail their faces—
My faith that Dark adores—

And by the end of her flood period, in 1866, when she had written over a thousand of all her poems, it is astonishing how varied her use of the dash had grown—long, short, high, low, slanting up and down; the comma too becomes an elocutionary sign rather than a grammatical one, and the capital letter is as often withheld from the expected word as it is bestowed with subversive importance. There was no stopping her: punctuation was not a signal for pausing or pointing, but a means of extension; not a holding action but a creeping asymptote, the means of approach to an absolute. There was no point except to be at the hinge-point, where everything kept dying out to be reborn. “It is finished can never be said of us,” she said, and if her dashes—her lunges at continuity—were various, what can then be said of her variants?
Here is one of the greatest Dickinson problems. An unpublished poet, she was under no necessity to prepare her work for the printer; indeed she was immensely above such a necessity of sacrificing the possibility which is not only “a fairer house than prose,” as she called it, but than printed verse as well. “In adequate Music,” she remarked, with characteristic insolence, “there is a Major and a Minor—should there not also be a Private?” Professor Johnson warns us that among her variants it is often impossible to determine Dickinson’s own choice. He means she would not choose— “life is so rotatory,” she said, “that the wilderness falls to each, sometime. It is safe to remember that”—and in his three-volume edition of her poems he prints them all, all her choices. Such profusion, in its very bewilderment, was her intention, I believe, though it is so very problematic that in his one-volume “reading” edition, Johnson, like the earlier editors, omits the suggested changes, the variants, the alternate possibilities as too much for us. They were barely enough for Dickinson, who makes a whole stanza out of them once, speaking of that central ecstasy which puts everything else beside the point:

’Tis this—invites—appalls—endows—
Flits—glimmers—proves—dissolves—
Returns—suggests—convicts—enchants—
Then—flings in Paradise—

This kind of incremental pleonasm distresses us, for whom poetry is a chastening of the Word, not its superfetation; and a century of literary modernism brandishes its fiery sword at the gates of our thesaurus. Hopkins is the last great poet for whom language offered access to the polymorphous-perverse, and Hopkins is a Victorian poet. “Blessed are they that play, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” Dickinson wrote on several occasions, and for her this refusal to settle for the singular sense, this failure to determine, is a kind of playing. Here a minute example must suffice to reveal how vast a field she could range by leaving open what, in the conventional practice of her art, is invariably a closed case.
Poem 1328, written about 1874, is an elegiac quatrain jotted down in pencil on the torn flap of an envelope:

The vastest earthly Day
Is shrunken small
By one Defaulting Face
Behind a Pall-

Artisanal variants are supplied for “shrunken” in the second line: first shrivelled and then dwindled; then the entire notion of agency in the second and third lines is rehandled in a variant which quite transforms the poem: “Is chastened small / By one heroic face”; lastly, the last line suffers a metamorphosis from which the tiny poem never recovers itself—the mortal face, first defaulting and then heroic, first dwindling and then chastening the earthly day, is twitched away from its fate and transfigured: one face, whether defaulting or heroic, is said to be the face “That owned it all—” rather than merely the face “Behind a Pall.” We shall never know an ulterior version of this little verse (“True Poems flee,” its author said), nor are we intended to: we have only the problem of its endless permutations, its trajectory from a mild piety of mourning to an heretical, a blasphemous solipsism. Or rather, from the attitude and aspect of the living to the enthralling viewpoint of the dead: Dickinson could never decide if the dead owned it all or if they were merely put away, appalled indeed. It is her great conflict, articulated here by the undetermined variants, between stasis and process, between sitting tight and letting go. The fascination with fixity involves, as Yvor Winters long ago observed about her, an element of horror, and the agony of moving is I think the impulse preferred, indicated, dramatized by her choice of not choosing.
As I have said, many of Dickinson’s alterations and variants are merely artisanal, and afford us no more (though no less) than the opportunity of spying on the maker at work, focusing intention, concentrating effect, rehearsing surprise. But many more of these suggested changes are indeed extensions, blurrings, casting off the limitations of le mot juste: for Dickinson there was no justice, there was only mercy (“love, like literature,” she said, “is its own ‘exceeding great reward’”). Even when she copied out fair versions for her packets, the little booklets she sewed together for her own keeping, she could not or would not resist the further intimations of reality as they came to her from an already existing, already “finished” poem, “for reality itself is a dream with which no dreaming can compare,” she said, “a dream from which but a portion of Mankind have yet waked, and part of us is a not familiar Peninsula.”
So she left her poems undiscriminated, refused to give up alternatives, to forfeit the chance of coming closer to her method by merely editing. Her true Flaubert was Penelope, to invert a famous allusion, forever unravelling what she had figured on the loom the day before: “Night’s capacity varies,” she said, “but morning is inevitable.” She was not finicky, I think, but instead obsessed with an infinity which had to be unfinished. As she said in 1880, when nearly all her work was done, “A spell cannot be tattered, and mended like a Coat.” In such carmination as hers, I am not certain if the spell can even bear to be woven at all: the loom is there, and the yarns, and a vast impatience with finality. “I had no monarch in my life,” she condescended to explain to Higginson when he asked why she did not write more correctly, “and cannot rule myself, and when I try to organize—my little force explodes—and leaves me bare and charred.” To enjoy the force (the little force, one gasps) yet to evade the explosion, the defoliation and the slag, she refused to prefer variants, to choose one in place of another. She wanted to be in leaf, to be one over the other, as leaves are, and she leaves us with the problem of her brief poems as epic palimpsests, overdetermined as dreams are, as all the motives of our deep psychic life are discovered to be (“In a life that stopped guessing,” she wrote to her sister-in-law next door, “you and I should not feel at home”), never single or simple, for all their topiary deceptions on the page, but multiple, complicated, encircling, likely, dense.
“Low at my problem bending,” she says, “another problem comes.” It is true of her readers, too. No sooner are we perplexed, as we are very soon indeed, by the options with which she floods us, often in the merest scrap of her work, than we must confess that the merest scrap is, even so, empowered to exploit, or at least to employ, the same conventions (and violations and variations) as the major screed. More than 1,700 poems written in the same Common Measure, virtually all within the four margins of a page—to read Emily Dickinson through is to be pecked to death by Phoenixes! “The little sentences I began and never finished—the little wells I dug and never filled—,” the everyday diminutiveness of this aporia is a problem for us, one more in the endless series. As Mark Van Doren’s poem says of her, “the fine nerve, inquiring, did not stay for the long anthem.” Never, I suppose, have so many readers so determined to confer upon their poet a majority status been so persistently confronted, flaunted, bullied with minority determinations in the poems. We thirst for greatness on our terms rather than on hers, and we exclaim in exasperation: Why would she not hover over her cause a little longer, like her hummingbird, “a route of evanescence”? Why would she not hold still until we could tell where to take hold of her? And why, Biblereader, Bardolater, fervent adept of George Eliot, why would she not let her lines out, why would she never write long or at least wide—there is not one iambic pentameter in her work, not one set of verses that assumes the page with that pre-emption of breadth we assume, or presume, to characterize a great poet—why would she, who by “easing her famine / at her Lexicon,” had won so astonishingly what she called “this consent of Language / this loved Philology,” why would she write only short and teasingly deep, flinging the problem back, as she says in one of her first poems, at you and I?
How impatient we grow with the stubborn phenomenology of littleness in the writing, the thematics of the bit-by-bit (“Always begins by degrees,” she says, and in another place, “Even the Possible has its insoluble particle”—that is when she irritates us most, I think, when she is so complacent about not just the insolubility, but about the particles); how trying her fascination with the diminutive and the discardable , the leavings: even in describing herself to Higginson, Emily Dickinson says she is “small, like the Wren … and my eyes, like the Sherry in the Glass, that the Guest leaves.” Her favorite quotation from Antony and Cleopatra, one of the few Shakespearean tags she does not distort for her own purposes—probably because this one serves her own purpose just as it stands—is a version of this problem of leavings; Antony says, as she reminds several of her correspondents, “take the hint / which my despair proclaims. Let that be left / which leaves itself.” Dickinson took the hint, proclaiming a perpetual departure, forever leaving off, in order to get on: “Going is a drama / Staying cannot confer.” Her poems, then, are to be little, and they are to be left—left behind, left over, left out, finally; elided from a life whose energy, as we shall see, is committed to getting rid of itself, to a reverence reserved for process—and for its neighborhood to presence—but never for persons merely, for personality, or for place. Indeed, place is nothing but what is left when presence is withdrawn or overcome, as at the end of her famous poem about the birds at dawn:

And Place was where the Presence was
Circumference between.

Flinging the problem back / at you and I! There, right there, is another problem involved with (and perhaps exposed by) her determined brevity of utterance, her dogged monotony of form: the problem of Dickinson’s syntactical waywardness, her outright solecisms: at you and I! If she could not spell, she was a grammatical whizz bang, and there is something to the life about her lapses from acknowledged usage, even the acknowledged usage of the Connecticut Valley where she was so determined to “see New Englandly”; bad grammar, like bad spelling, means something, and we must not disregard the problem until we have given it a hard look. The tendency of her pronouns to lose the objective case is analogous to the tendency of her verbs to lose number, mood and tense, to become pure indication of process, no more than indicative verbality. Just as her pronouns tend toward the first person singular, so what at first seems to be her subjunctive mood might better be called a continuing or universal present indicative, as Professor Johnson suggests. “I only said the Syntax—/ and left the Verb and the pronoun out,” Emily Dickinson reports of this procedure, and though it is not true that she omitted quite so much as that, it is true that she advanced, always, toward what the classical rhetoricians called an oratio soluta, wherein no element could stand for and by itself:

Crumbling is not an instant’s Act
A fundamental pause—
Delapidation’s processes
Are organized Decays.

And just as Roman Jakobson defines poetry as a kind of organized violence worked upon language, so Dickinson’s “organized decays” serve to propose, at least, the problem of her rhymes, their insistent unpredictability and their slant or scant allusion to fulfillment. The despair of high-school English teachers, Dickinson’s rhymes are a mask pointing to itself: they tell us something is wrong, something has altered or blurred from an identity which, by the pronounced lapse from it, is thereby asserted to exist. The problem of Dickinson’s rhymes—if she was going to rhyme, why did she not do it more consistently? if she was not going to, why did she do it so much?—is suggested by an astonishing utterance from her flood period, in which the nature of her poetry as a mistake is dramatized: “Creation seemed a mighty Crack—/ to make me visible—.”
Moreover, I brushed right by, just now, the problem of her quotations, or of her misquotations. The New Testament she gets right, almost always, but so fragmentary, so tesseral, are her citations from it that they do not refer, except for the Fundamentalist in us, beyond themselves. The Bible did not mean enough to her, did not press against her sense of life enough, for her to misquote it. Only when it offered an analogy to her doubts—and we must recall her celebrated equation at the end of her life, “Faith is Doubt,” to measure her religion—was the Bible invoked: “When Jesus tells us about his Father, we distrust him,” she writes. “When he shows us his Home, we turn away,” she continues, to our astonishment, “but when he confides to us that he is ‘acquainted with grief’ we listen, for that also is an Acquaintance of our own.” More interesting than her Biblical are her Shakespearean references. One is in fact more than interesting: it is the most revealing personal statement ever made about her. Three times, at different periods of her life, to different correspondents, she writes, “Do you remember what the Physician said to Macbeth? That sort must heal itself.” Clearly the passage was so significant to her that she juggled up her own shorthand version of it—for as with grammar and with rhyme, we bother to get it wrong only when the misdemeanor is significant for us; we have to change the truth a little in order to remember it, as Santayana says. Let me recall the original passage—it has more bearing on the problem of Emily Dickinson than all the biographical snooping we have been able to do, particularly because she herself calls it to our attention so emphatically. In the last act of the play, Macbeth inquires after his wife’s health (and I need scarcely remind you of Lady Macbeth’s interesting relation to her father as it is given in this play):
MACBETH:How does your patient, doctor?DOCTOR:Not so sick, my lordAs she is troubled with thick-coming fancies That keep her from her rest.MACBETH:Cure her of that!Can’st thou not minister to a mind diseased, Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow, Raze out the written troubles of the brain, And with some sweet oblivious antidote Cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff Which weighs upon the heart?DOCTOR:Therein the patientMust minister to himself.
The prognosis is clear in Dickinson’s persistent misquotation of the Doctor’s helpless admission—“that sort must heal itself”—the prognosis is clear and it is negative, determined though she was not merely to minister to herself but to heal herself, to recover from the thick-coming fancies which harrowed her life—the life of a woman who at forty could say “to live is so startling, it leaves but little room for other occupations … There are many people in the world (you must have noticed them in the street). How do they live. How do they get strength to put on their clothes in the morning … I find ecstasy in living—the mere sense of living is joy enough …” If life itself was asymptotic to this joy, then self-healing was to have nothing to do with distinguished cures of the past.1 Had not Emerson, the Emerson she read, formulated the principle “Imitation is suicide”? She was convinced of it, observing that she “never consciously touched a paint, mixed by another person,” but as always, she carried the principle to her own extremity—if imitation was suicide, originality was murder. It meant destroying the texts, overcoming the Bible by assimilation, as Charles Anderson has said, in order to promulgate her own scriptures over and against those of her divine adversary; it meant falsifying the utterances even of Shakespeare so that she could afford her own. (“Remembrance,” she once said, “is the great tempter.”) For all the minor references to Religio Medici and to Ruskin, to Keats, to the Brontës’ poems even, there is a characteristic sterility about Emily Dickinson’s relation to literature: there is a clearing around her, bare ground in which nothing will grow near the one tree in the center, the poet who wrote she “only knew of Universe—/ It had created Her,” capitalizing “Her” of course. She knew she must heal herself—had she not written, “We must be less than Death, to be lessened by it—for nothing is irrevocable but ourselves”?—so she made her trauma into the treatment:

A not admitting of the wound
Until it grew so wide
That all my Life had entered it
And there were troughs beside.

I mentioned just now the way Emily Dickinson avoided calcination, avoided what she called explosion by refusing to “organize” her poems—to organize them, I mean, the way it was expected, in the middle of the nineteenth century, that poems should be organized. (The word is characteristically hers, not at all Colonel Higginson’s: what he expected was decorum and regularity; cosmetics, not cosmos. When he advised Dickinson to drop rhymes altogether if she could not make them perfect, she thanked him for his “justice” but added, “I could not drop the Bells whose jingling cooled my Tramp.”) “Life set me larger problems,” she wrote in a central poem, and so she appears to have set larger ones for us. As I said, she wanted to be in leaf, even if she was the only tree standing—so much so that I am led by her own urgency to a final and representative problem, one which troubles me more than some of her other readers, for until lately it had seemed to me, like her preoccupation with the Interesting Deathbed, no more than a problem of her conventionality, of her submission to the Victorian identification of virginity with verdure, of maidens with lilies—in short, the problem of Emily Dickinson’s relation to flowers. They were for her, in a different sense than for her contemporaries, a language, an intercession. Not only did she write about flowers; not only did she send her poems—when she sent them—to friends with flowers (after all, she also sent poems with gingerbread, with preserves, with a dead bee); she actually used flowers to speak for her, since after all they spoke so significantly to her. Recall the sole account of an outsider’s encounter with Emily Dickinson:

A step like a pattering child’s in entry and in glided a little plain woman with two smooth bands of reddish hair and a face with no good feature in a very plain and exquisitely clean white pique. She came to me with two day lilies which she put in a sort of childlike way into my hand and said “These are my introduction” in a soft frightened breathless childlike voice—” and added under her breath “Forgive me if I am frightened; I never see strangers and hardly know what I say.” But she talked soon and thenceforward continuously—and deferentially—sometimes stopping to ask me to talk instead of her—but readily recommencing.

The day lilies, then, were her introduction to Colonel Higginson; they spoke for and about her, precisely because they were the ecstasy which is there for a day and then is not there, a perfected moment which can be got rid of, which dies and blooms again, a recurring growth, like certain kinds of poems. The flower was the ecstatic embodiment of Eden—it was obligatory, of course, that her favorite Biblical quotation be Matthew, chapter 6, the “lilies of the field” passage celebrating “the grass which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven”—the realization of Being without reference to time. As she said, “There is no first, or last, in Forever—It is Centre, there, all the time.”
Like another American artist who about a century later as diligently burrowed into the spousal center of a rose, a morning glory, a lily until she had found the lineaments of mortality within the compass of her experience—like Georgia O’Keeffe, Dickinson was patient with flowers, for their evanescence fascinated her as much as their efflorescence, teaching, as she said, “How much can come / and much can go, / and yet abide the World!” Nor let us be misled by her inversion here, and her idiosyncratic verb form—she means, primarily, “and yet the World does abide”—she is celebrating process, the dying out and the reappearance of experience. “Bloom—is Result” she starts a poem in her great period of productivity; here is the whole poem:

Bloom—is Result—to meet a Flower
And casually glance
Would cause one scarcely to suspect
The minor Circumstance

 
Assisting in the Bright Affair
So intricately done
Then offered as a Butterfly
To the Meridian—

 
To pack the Bud—oppose the Worm—
Obtain its right of Dew-
Adjust the Heat—elude the Wind—
Escape the prowling Bee

 
Great Nature not to disappoint
Awaiting Her that Day—
To be a Flower, is profound
Responsibility—

Like her birds and bugs, these blossoms are a problem to us, for they put what she calls “the suggestion sinister / Things are not what they are.”
If the day lilies are Emily Dickinson’s introduction, if they must be her statement, then that statement in words, in her words, is that “forever is deciduous.” Over and over, with these transient glories, comes the reminder: “Finer is a going / than a remaining face,” or again: “To disappear enhances,” and once more: “ … going out of sight in itself has a peculiar charm. It is true that the unknown is the largest need of the intellect, though for it, no one thinks to thank God … .” Such eclipses, occultations, vanishings, leavings again, had something to do, in her mind, with the divinity of Earth, for she increasingly suspected that a proper study of evanescence would reveal

The Fact that Earth is Heaven—
Whether Heaven is Heaven or not.

The true eternity, indeed, would be a release from stasis, that “quartz contentment” which made her exclaim, “I don’t like Paradise!” The true immortality would be a recognition and thence a recuperation of passage by certain rites—for that is what her poems are, of course, rites of passage, hinges whereby ecstasy might be accommodated, circumference engrossed, while

… during its electric gale—
The body is a soul—

as she said not long before her death. What mattered, what counted, what amounted to something was to proceed, to provide, in order for her poems to become process and provisional, improvisational even, so that, as she put it as early as 1860,

Instead of getting to Heaven, at last—
I’m going, all along.

II
Released by the Johnson edition from the scandal of Emily Dickinson’s publication, we are impounded by the problem of Emily Dickinson’s poetry; so many lions stand in our paths, as I have attempted to characterize them, that we are intimidated, not merely in reading but in understanding and enjoying her poems as she meant them to be understood and enjoyed, at least by herself. In fact, we conjecture that what loom as problems to us were also problems to her, that she was endeavoring to solve the same problems which we attribute to her work when we compare it with other poems, other poetry. Here we are mistaken, I believe, have been mistaken all along, but especially now, when we have before us just what it was she was doing. “We cannot assist another’s Night,” she said, but we can see that it is another’s, without obscuring its stars and meteors by our own darkness. That is why I have called my paper a consideration, a word which first meant seeing the stars together as significant constellations, in relation to one another.
It was Freud who first taught us that a perversion is the opposite of a neurosis, that homosexuality, for instance, is not a problem but the solution to a problem. We have learned more—we have learned, quite as sensationally, that madness itself (what we call, nowadays, schizophrenia) is a language, is an attempt to communicate rather than a refusal to do so. We have begun to learn the language of the mad, to enter into a dialogue with them. Now writing is a social act, and it is, paradoxically, harder for us to acknowledge its idiosyncratic features, harder for us to escape the sense of menace and misgiving it affords us, when it exceeds the proprieties by which we recognize its functions, than it is to sustain relations with the socially banished psychotic. Dickinson was not mad, but her language must be entered with the recognition that it is her language—“the mind of the Heart must live,” as she said—and we must take up a position within her utterance that will allow it such an autonomous life, recognizing too that she wrote her poems in a society in which, as Henry James remarked, introspection played almost the part of a social resource.
The one generalization I should care to hazard as to how we should respond to literature is that when we are troubled—bored, provoked, offended—by characteristic features of a writer’s work, it is precisely those features which, if we yield to them, if we treat them as significance rather than as defect, will turn out to be that writer’s solution to his own problems of composition and utterance. The problem of Dickinson’s poetry for us is the solution to the problem of that poetry for her, as we shall see. By an agreeable coincidence, in the years Thomas Johnson was completing his edition of Dickinson’s poems, I met Jean Cocteau, who gave me some advice: “Ce que les autres vous reprochent, cultivez cela: c’est vous-même (What other people reproach you for, cultivate: it is yourself).” As Emily Dickinson’s contemporaries Lowell and Longfellow have so drastically demonstrated, there is only one thing worse than to be reproachable as a writer—it is to be irreproachable. In literature, if not in the salon, the posture Cocteau advocated is precisely the posture to which I aspire, for it suggest the means whereby all the lions which threaten our introgression into the work of Emily Dickinson, all the problems I have raised, or at least tilted upward, become rather guides and familiars in the enterprise, which is to see her poetry as it is; become answers, solutions, explanations of a poet who said, “My need—was all I had.”
The poems were not written for publication; they were not subjected to that tidying reduction by which we acknowledge a literary profession; she made the poems to replace the habit of experience in the world—as Blackmur said, she made the poems of a withdrawal without a return. The phenomenology which governs her life as a poet is one of inundation. From the first, when she declared, “My foot is on the Tide,” to the last, when she said (and I think she was speaking of the fact that she no longer wrote more than perhaps a dozen poems a year, whereas once she had been obliged to write a poem a day—to keep afloat), “When Water ceases to rise—it has commenced falling. That is the law of Flood”; all her life long, she submitted to engulfment, she mastered it in her own terms, and when at last the deluge left her high and dry, she recorded that abandonment, too, in one of her greatest utterances: “The consciousness of subsiding power is too startling to be admitted by men—but best comprehended by the meadow over which the Flood has quivered, when the waters return to their kindred, and the tillage is left alone.” The poems locked in the box Lavinia discovered after Emily Dickinson’s death were the record of a struggle—“a Something overtakes the mind,” she said, as if to account for her engagement, “we do not hear it coming”—a way of emptying the self, leaving off, cancelling out. “I sing to use the waiting,” she said, and once she discovered her means, once she developed her method, she went on with it: “The appetite for silence,” she wrote in the last year of her life, “is seldom an acquired taste.”
Without what she called “the incident of Fame / or accident of Noise,” she knew what she was doing, and what she was not doing. Her poems could not be longer than they were, they could not take another form than the one they had, for their length and their form were the way in which she could, by which she must, pass them. When she claimed that the predicament of mortality left us “as exempt from exultation as the Stones,” she proceeded to get rid of the stones and on with the exultation. Her poems were calculated, for were they not calculuses, solid concretions formed in the bodyespecially, as the medical dictionaries tell us, in the organs which act as reservoirs?
When she sent her poems to friends, she sometimes stuck a title onto them—for herself, the poems in the packets are never titled; for herself, the poems are endless approximations, in part throwaways, in part provisional stays and props against ecstasy—what she called “an unfinished Pleasure.” For her, each poem written was merely a way of proceeding to the next one, a release from bonds, a transition:

It is the Past’s supreme italic
Makes this Present mean—

And in such a procession, titles were not only an irrelevant distraction but a betrayal, foreclosing what was to be perpetually dissolved, kept open. She finished a poem not because she had done with it (“Abyss has no Biographer,” she asserted) but so that she could deal with the next one, would be ready to. A provisional process, her poetry was not to be stopped by mere attainment.
It was the starting that interested her; it was raising her voice, lifting the utterance. “Higher,” she said, “is the doom of the High.” Once she had initiated her poem, broken the eggshell, she was not commi ted to a program of elaboration; “To feed upon the Retrograde—/ Enfeebles the Advance—” is a typical epigram of her productive years. The point was to advance, indeed to proceed, to get on with it, which of course meant getting off with it. Hence her dashes, her lurches into enjambment, her variants, her inclusive indicatives: there was no received standard version; experience was not to be assessed in terms of order and degree (“degreeless Noon” is one of her synonyms for the Earthly Paradise). Scripture was no help—“sustenance is of the spirit,” she insisted, “the Gods but Dregs.” What mattered was to expel what had accumulated and to make ready for what would:

The human heart is told
Of Nothing—
“Nothing” is the force
That renovates the World.

Her poems, then, are just that renovation, the negative force which made life itself accessible to her, day after day. They insist in their form upon that symmetry which is at one and the same time a principle of control and a power of vertigo. “Ruin is formal—Devil’s work,” remarked this anima naturaliter negativa: had her lines been let out long enough to slacken the tension, to withhold the formality, the poems would not function as she needed them to—would not ablate, not erase with the same unerring fascination, or rather with the fascination, precisely, of the errant. “Things so gay / pierce by the very Press / of imagery,” she said, as veraciously of her poems as of the flowers which were to intercede for her:

Bliss’ early shape
Deforming—Dwindling—Gulfing up
Time’s possibility.

These literally overwrought verses, palimpsests of a privacy committed to obliterating itself, vestiges merely of a presence so circumspect that we echo her terrible wonder: “To Whom the Mornings stand for Nights, / What must the Midnights—be!”—these poems are the cancelling forces which enable her life. “Softly my Future climbs the Stair,” she noted, until there came an interval when it was no longer needful to write a poem every day, or every week, or every month. The life survived—

Time does go on—
I tell it gay to those who suffer now—
They shall survive—

and the poems were put away, having served. The typical somatic gesture of each Emily Dickinson poem is in what William Carlos Williams calls her distaste for lingering: that twiddling of the thumb and fingers which seeks to remove something stuck to them. “Beauty is often timidity—perhaps, oftener, Pain,” she wrote at the end of her days, having learned the rewards of such withdrawal. Her extensions had to be wily, secret, and so she offered variants for her experience, she refused to judge. “Good to know, and not tell,” she exulted, “best to know and tell.” She had solved her problem.
III
“It would be hard to name another poet in the history of the English language,” Northrop Frye observes in a splendid essay on Dickinson, “with so little interest in social or political events.” It is true: there was only one event, herself; the rest was what she called “the World that opens and shuts, like the Eye of the Wax Doll.” For her, to have lived is a Bliss so powerful, as she wrote ten years before she died, we must dieto adjust it. However astonished to find herself singing her own “Song of Myself” off charnel steps, Dickinson produced, day by day, produced and then rid herself of—it was in fact a by-product, a sideline, an obliquity—the most relentless epic of identity in our literature; compared to her, Whitman is an epigrammatist. If you believe, as she did, in the Nothing that renovates the World, then an elusive form of communication is the only adequate one—a direct form is based upon the security of social continuity, while the elusiveness of existence—the astonishment, as Dickinson called it, that the Body contains the Spirit—isolates you wherever you apprehend it. If you are conscious of this and if you are content to be human, you will avoid a direct form. You become what Kierkegaard calls, in a passage which offers the best account I know of Dickinson’s enterprise, if not of her achievement, a genuine subjective existing thinker: Having pointed out that Socrates, too, was a self-absorbed idler who concerned himself with neither world history nor astronomy, but solely with what it meant to be a human being, Kierkegaard goes on to describe such a thinker as

always in the negative. He continues to be as negative as he is positive as long as he exists, not once and for all. His mode of communication is made to conform (lest through being too extraordinarily communicative he should succeed in transforming a learner’s existence into something different from what a human existence in general has any right to be). He is conscious of the negativity of the infinite in existence, and he constantly keeps the wound of the negative open, which in the bodily realm is sometimes the condition for a cure. Others let the wound heal over and become positive; that is to say, they are deceived. In his form of communication, he expresses the same principle. He is therefore never a teacher but a learner; and since he is always just as negative as he is positive, he is always striving.

I hope you recognize in that description the poet who wrote once to the man to whom she always signed herself “your Scholar” this amazing sentence: “I found you were gone, by accident, as I find Systems are, or Seasons of the year, and obtain no cause—but suppose it a treason of Progress—that dissolves as it goes.”
Copyright © 2004 by Richard Howard