Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Dickinson and the Power of the Word?

Icon of Propriety?
(Image from New York Times)

Sometimes, little to say is just enough:
The one power Dickinson trusted was the power of language, which she loved. And that love is, I think, the main thing I've gained from her, even if I've put it to lesser uses. By her own account she experienced an acute physical reaction to words, a euphoric shock.
That's Holland Cotter, writing about Emily Dickinson in "My Hero, the Outlaw of Amherst," for the New York Times (May 11, 2010), and he also notes that she uses words like bullets:
My friend attacks my friend!
Oh Battle picturesque!
Then I turn Soldier too,
And he turns Satirist!
How martial is this place!
Had I a mighty gun
I think I'd shoot the human race
And then to glory run!
Cotter quotes only the two lines "Had I a mighty gun / I think I'd shoot the human race." We're fortunate that Dickinson had no "mighty gun" and lived in an age prior to suicide bombing since she seems not to have fully "trusted . . . the power of language" to bring her to glory, unless she was being ironic, which I hope 'true believers' take her as being and presume Cotter was being in calling her "a terrorist" and therefore his "hero."

But perhaps I've said too much . . .

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At 10:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Terrific poem...wonderful humor...

Incidentally, this one is an 1859 poem, I believe. Not quite Civil War. But that war didn't stop her from using words like bullets. I wonder how many scholars and poetry lovers wished, wish, and will wish that it was they for whom she'd lay a Yellow Eye or an emphatic Thumb...


At 4:22 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yes, and I need to read more of Dickinson to catch your literary allusions, for I've barely scratched the surface of her work.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Yes, and I need to read more of Dickinson to catch your literary allusions, for I've barely scratched the surface of her work."
--Jeffery Hodges

Ah, pardon. The following may be the best poem written by arguably America's greatest poet:

My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun -
In Corners - till a Day
The Owner passed - identified -
And carried Me away -

And now We roam in Sovereign Woods -
And now We hunt the Doe -
And every time I speak for Him -
The Mountains straight reply -

And do I smile, such cordial light
Upon the Valley glow -
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let its pleasure through -

And when at Night - Our good Day done -
I guard My Master's Head -
'Tis better than the Eider-Duck's
Deep Pillow - to have shared -

To foe of His - I'm deadly foe -
None stir the second time -
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye -
Or an emphatic Thumb -

Though I than He - may longer live
He longer must - than I -
For I have but the power to kill,
Without--the power to die--

One of the curious aspects of her career is that the American Civil War period was a highly productive time for her. In 1861, she wrote at least 88 poems. In 1862, at least 227. In 1863, at least 295. In 1864, at least 98. And in 1865, at least 229. Many of these are of extreme high quality.

By the end of the war, more than 1 million Americans, or about 3% of the population became casualties, as KIA, by disease, or by injury. But it is hard to find a poem of hers which actually makes reference to the war.

Just as curiously, after 1865, her production drastically falls. She wrote at least 10 in 1866 and 12 in 1867. So on. She wrote at least 50 poems in only two other years, 82 in 1859 and 54 in 1860. Pretty interesting.


At 6:18 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yes, it is interesting to hear that her productivity paralleled the Civil War without explicitly addressing it.

Good poem, by the way. I'll have to look into it more deeply . . . sometime.

Jeffery Hodges

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