Characteristic Features of Emily Dickinson Poetry

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Thematic and Artistic Features of Emily Dickinson's Poetry

1. Contemporary Literary influence on Dickinson's Poetry:

      The Romantic spirit was the leading feature of the 19th century American poetry. There was a strong reaction against the neo-classicism of the 18th century Emily Dickinson was deeply influenced by the sudden spurt of romanticism of her times. There was a reaction against the 'Age of Reason' which showed the predominance of reason over emotion. Intense emotion was the mainstay of the nineteenth century American poetry. The entire gamut of human emotion-joy, life, fear, faith, etc. are ali richly dramatized in the poetry of the Romantics like Emily Dickinson.

Imagination was the leading driving force in the nineteenth American Poetry. There was a strong revolt against the cult of reason. Imagination, the power of seeing and sympathizing became a powerful creative instrument. Imagination, too, plays an important part in the poetry of Emily Dickinson.
Emily Dickinson

      The nineteenth American poets had an abiding faith in the cult of individualism. Thoreau was the prophet of the romantic individualism who stood for the spirit of independence. He had an unshakable faith in the principle of self-reliance. Dickinson also believed in the autonomy of self. She faced no problem in leading the life of isolation for the realization of her artistic purposes.

      Imagination was the leading driving force in the nineteenth American Poetry. There was a strong revolt against the cult of reason. Imagination, the power of seeing and sympathizing became a powerful creative instrument. Imagination, too, plays an important part in the poetry of Emily Dickinson. Imagination is a must for discovering the real beauty which cannot be discerned without it.

      Emily Dickinson came under the direct influence of transcendentalism of her times. Transcendentalists reposed full faith in man's capacity for knowing truth intuitively or by attaining knowledge transcending the reach of senses. Dickinson's poetry primarily deals with transcendentalism. Emerson was the leading exponent of transcendentalism in America. Like Emerson, Dickinson, too, glorified the life of intuition and the repudiation of all external religious authority. Man must hear the voice of his conscience which always keeps him on the right track.

      Subjectivism is the hall - mark of the nineteenth century American poetry. It is a personal kind of poetry in which the poet describes his private emotions. Dickinson's poetry is highly personal in its nature and scope. Emerson's poetry is the self-dramatization of the private experiences of his life. Dickinson's poems carried an unmistakable personal stamp with highly personal insights. Dickinson was a precursor of the Imagist School of poetry and her poems are filled with highly suggestive images, symbols and metaphors.

2. Dickinson's Concept of the Poet and Poetry:

      Dickinson has critically examined the concept of the poet and poetry in her poems and Letters. Emily Dickinson assigns a distinguished place to the poet in the creative process. She calls him a craftsman, creator, and visionary. She equates the poet's creation with God's creation. It is the poet's creation which makes him immortal. The poet realizes the sense of by the power of his creative imagination. He is a profound seer who tries to resolve the mysteries of life and death. He is like Christ who is totally committed to the cause of humanity.

      For Emily Dickinson, poetry is the store-house of thought. Poetry is full of infinite possibilities because it deals with the known as well as the unknown. It deals not only with the material but also mystical and spiritual. Poetry deals with the life of the poet because it is the exclusive the product of his thoughts. Dickinson uses poetry for the expression of her pains and sufferings which are full of poetic potential. Poetry has a divine origin because it originates from the soul.

3. Dimensions of Self:

      Emily Dickinson has herself admitted: "When I state myself, as the representative of the verse - it does not mean-me-but a supposed person". She refuses in the poetry, as in life, to be circumscribed by any of the roles allotted to her or by any she tries to explore. Indeed she revels in being a supposed person and dwelling in possibility. She loves to adopt the persona of countless persons-boy, wife, corpse, etc. The 'I' in any given poem is simply the speaker of that particular poem. Her delight in assuming other selves is related to her idea that life is a fiction. Dickinson's poems were not necessarily about herself as most people understood her to be. Dickinson may be describing personal, private experience, yet she persistently categorizes it as everyone's. She always speaks in general truths. Dickinson has created a universal of the personal.

4. Individualism, Nationalism and Democratic Impulse:

      The nineteenth century American poets propagated the concept of individualism and nationalism and celebrated the individuality of Self in their poems. Whitman's 'Song of Myself is the glorification of self and its autonomy in life. Thoreau and Emerson were the leading exponents of self in their poetic and critical works in the nineteenth century America. Emily Dickinson, too, granted absolute autonomy to self in her poems. The American poets revolted against the authorities and institutions of Europe. They refused to be guided by the eighteenth century literary and critical concepts which, according to them, had lost their force and relevance. Literature became personal rather than impersonal in the nineteenth century America.

      The growth of the spirit of nationalism was another important trend in the nineteenth century American poetry. It was the Romantic Movement which awakened the national consciousness. The America poets called for the native material for the employment in their poetic works.There was the call for a new and indigenous body of writings. A democratic strain ran throughout the nineteenth century American poetry. The American poets highlighted democratic values like equality., justice individual right, etc in their poems. Whitman has been rightly hailed as the poet - prophet of democracy in America. Emily Dickinson was also dead against any kind of exploitation on the basis of caste, colour or creed.

5. Dimension of Mysticism:

      Emily Dickinson deals with mysticism in her religious poems. Her favourite themes are death, immortality, body-soul relationship, God, Christ, Eternity, Heaven, etc. She believed in the Christian values of life but had no faith in blind rituals, dogmas and traditions. She prefers the poetic to the dogmatic religion. She views God from the liberal instead of an orthodox perspective. She sees God in the red glow on the hill in the morning. God is also perceived as a great architect and builder whose creations cannot be altered. God is the light of the saved and afflicted. He remains an enigma for man who lacks the desired imagination to grasp Him by his limited imagination. Emily Dickinson glorifies the man in Jesus Christ who is to her a perfect emblem of the human - divine power and an embodiment of all virtues. She also considers him as an embodiment of self-realisation through suffering and sacrifice. She perceives soul as a divine queen absorbed in her own selected society. Soul enjoys perfect autonomy and can exist without the body. Soul is always conscious of her own identity and maintains a dignified distance from others. Soul is the animating power of the body,the body is the palpable and perceptible manifestation of the soul. Each is vital for the other because they are the integral parts of the Being.

      Emily Dickinson believes in the reality of death. She loves to deal with death in a very courageous manner in her poems. She identifies herself playfully with the dying sun in the evening. Dickinson, however, does describe death scenes. She realistically presents the attitudes and responses of the people around a dying person.

6. Love and Sex:

      Emily Dickinson deals with all types of love in her love-poems. Her personal experience of love was not very exciting or fruitful. She also deals with unilateral or one-sided love in some of her poems. It is never reciprocated or consummated in the life of lovers. Nature cannot help in the unification of such lovers who are not committed to each other. Dickinson finds the grief of separation in love very painful and disturbing.

      For Dickinson, physical love is based on physical attraction only. It is purely sex-centred and cannot last long. It is intended to satisfy the sensual pleasures of life. Dickinson believes in the fulfillment of love after death. Life becomes very unbearable due to the loss of love in life. A married woman faces sufferings and humiliations at the hands of males and loses all her identity and self-respect after marriage. For Dickinson, divine love is the only source of wisdom which gives meaning to the human life. It is the spiritual marriage which lasts for ever.

7. Mystery of Death:

      Death is an integral part of life and this minimizes its fear in man's life. Death, a physically insurmountable and mentally incomprehensible phenomenon, is an evergreen source of anxiety for Dickinson. She has no hesitation in admitting that she cannot 'stay any longer in a world of death'. She is least afraid of death in her life because she has the first hand experience of death. She universalizes her dilemma of death by identifying it with the very process of creation.

      Dickinson grapples with the mystery of death in a courageous manner. She is never evasive in her treatment of death. Death is not the end because life is continued after it. Therefore, death leads to immortality. Death cannot damage life because of its divine orientations. Dickinson believes in the continuity of the life of the soul even after death. She further contend. that eternity can be realized through the death of death. She also calls death as the 'democratic death'.

8. Symbolism:

      Dickinson makes a frequent use of symbolism in her poems to heighten their intellectual level. Her favourite images are house-door prison, bees and butterflies, hunger and thirst, barefootedness, etc, Butterfly is a good example of delight, with its bright beauty and ephemeral nature. Its beauty and excitement become magic in her flights. Dickinson also makes use of metaphors in her poems to add to their intelectualism. She likes keeping that house in order. She populates her inner world with a society of selves. Her metaphors of continents and worlds are figurative, describing experience but not actual lands and skies. Finally, it is the metaphor that embodies the imagination.

9. Prosody or art of versification:

      Emily Dickinson shows a rare originality in her art of versification. She achieved a rare brevity and concentration in her poetic presentation of material. She makes use of capitals to provide the dignity of abstraction to the otherwise concrete words.

      Dickinson's dashes suggest a poet en route to an idea within the poem. They show the continuity of thought to be further developed. They generate a sense of a work being built as we read. For Dickinson, words are precious and powerful, but not necessarily sufficient. A word has the terrifying power of a sword, and it can be harmful. Words can destroy. Dickinson makes a very suggestive use of circle symbolism in her poetry. It stands for the inner space related to the private space of personal consciousness. Circumference, for Dickinson, is death. She focuses on analogical connection which explains the 'scenelessness'. Abstractions are Dickinson's means of generalizing. The process of abstraction helps us in understanding the mental activity.

10. Language, Diction and Style:

      Dickinson's language is characteristically modern in its structure and orientation. The language used by Dickinson in her poems is suggestive and figurative. She follows the Method of Indirection for presenting her 'flood themes' like death, immortality, love and nature. Dickinson's poems are known for their rare concentration, brevity and economy. She makes a frequent use of capitals to reinforce her ideas in a focused manner.

      She has no doubts about the power of words in the dramatization of life. She realizes that despite its short-comings, the word can be overpowering in its immediacy. The dash is an empty space, but Dickinson's syntactical deletions asked reading to be filled in; they exist to be revered. The dashes create a suggestion of a mind at work. Uses analogies which are based upon parallelism.

11. Religious Strains:

      Dickinson's poetry is deeply religious in it nature and scope. Her attitude towards religion in anti-traditional and therefore quite liberal. She was not a rigid Christian having no faith in the blind rituals.The typical attitude of faith and doubt became a part of her life. She thought of religious matters as she felt about them, and as they appealed to investigating mind and poetic imagination.

      Emily Dickinson's view of faith itself is paradoxical. Believing everything said or written, she felt, is not faith; faith requires doubt to approve of it. Faith is only a fine invention which defies any rational analysis. Faith enables us to see things which are beyond man's power to grasp comprehensively. She showed utter disregard for the meaningless Christian rituals and ceremonies. Emily Dickinson prefers the poetic to the dogmatic religion in life. She ironically remarks that the Bible is 'an antique Volume' which has lost all its traditional glory and appeal. She argues that nature teaches us more than the Bible because it has direct bearing on man's life. She also believed in the religion of righteousness and meditation rather than in the religion of obsolete rituals and ceremonies.

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