First Dickinson Lecture

I started out talking about how, although WW and ED never read each other, we can recognize how much they have in common as members of the same generation, and as American Romantics. We looked at how ED's poem #448 defines "Poet": as a power, a seer, a way of apprehending (arresting) the truth (distilling the amazing sense) of the phenomena of experience, etc. I quoted Emerson's "the key to the period is that the mind became aware of itself" to point out how "the mind," or consciousness, her subjective experience, is ED's subject. From there: how she can claim as much for the mind (or the imagination) as Whitman -- we talked about #632 and #657 -- though I said she doesn't claim for the self or the body what she claims for the imagination. The "Brain is wider than the sky," but her hands remain "narrow" (unlike WW's "my palms cover continents").

Then I got to what, to me, is the crucial difference from Whitman: he defines the poet's project as essentially a prophetic, social one -- regenerating society by saving individuals, converting them to his faith, &c. That's one reason his characteristic poems are long: the length measures his awareness of the distance his reader will have to travel to "assume" what WW's "I" assumes. ED's poems, though, can be so short in part because they have no rhetorical design. Her definition of the poet's project is essentially personal. I spent some time trying to explain why "personal" doesn't mean "private," how if some readers feel ED's meaning always remains hidden behind the ellipses and omissions of her poems, to me, by leaving out her biography and getting right to her deepest feelings -- loss, grief, exultation, fear, etc. -- feelings we've all had, she universalizes her inward life -- makes her poetry more accessible. We looked at #49 as an example of how she withholds specific biographical facts, while expressing deepest emotional truths.

To say she has no overt sense of the poet's public office is not to say you can't construct a politics from her poems -- as potentially revolutionary as WW's. Her poetry is in dialetical engagement with the conventional forms and preconceptions of her time, whether poetic (hymn form, rhyme, meter, etc.) or cultural (domestic, conventionally Christian, etc.); she remakes those conventional forms in her own image, uses them to express her self. But at the same time, it's crucial that her poems are written to achieve a personal end: "to relieve a palsy," as she put it in a letter.

To try to explain what that means, we looked at #259, "There is a certain slant of light." It starts with a dissonance, the "oppression" of her emotions provoked by the sight of that light, and the thought of the long, dark, cold winter night coming. It ends when it has explained her feelings (the light oppressed her because it made her aware of death, the dark cold that waits at the end of all our days, short or long) and articulated them, given them expression, in the poem as an achieved work of art. She doesn't solve the mystery of "death" -- vs. WW's programmatic need to conquer, master death (another reason his poems need to be long -- they have to re-achieve closure) -- but rather solves the riddle of her own feelings: she understands what the light means inwardly, "where the meanings are," though in poem's last line death itself remains a mystery. The personal nature of her project and its existential tentativeness, openness, on-going-ness, mean that she can put a "self" "freely and truly on the record" in ways that might speak to our "modern" sensibility more persuasively than WW can. We looked at the poem on our website (#822) to talk about how, for ED, "existence" is an "experiment," and so its meaning can only be found in living it: her poems are continually updated reports on the results of the experiment. I want to go on from that on Wednesday.


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