My Emily Dickinson by Susan Howe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The two greatest American poets are Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson; we have to take them together, like day and night. John Marsh’s faith that Walt can save the nation’s soul and his own is not exactly misplaced. What Emily can do for us is a subtler, darker service: she offers the comfort of company in the knowledge that we will not and cannot be saved. I once speculated of Muriel Spark that “she may be the exponent of a tragic non-political nihilist feminism—women having an equal share in the void.” That is the view of Dickinson we are granted in Susan Howe’s classic 1985 essay, My Emily Dickinson:
For this northern will to become I—free to excavate and interrogate definition, the first labor was to sweep away the pernicious idea of poetry as embroidery for women.
She writes against a still male-dominated literary establishment whose finest critics—she mentions Hugh Kenner and Harold Bloom—ignored Dickinson (Bloom, by the way, has since written at length about Dickinson, much in Howe’s spirit, in The Western Canon and The Daemon Knows). But she writes still more bitterly against what she sees as the trivialization of Dickinson by feminist critics who ostensibly set out to rescue the poet from oblivion; mocking Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar—somewhat unfairly, I think—as heirs to Victorian “poetesses” with their modest domestic arts and their sentimental meliorism, Howe sets Dickinson before us as ferocious spiritual quester into the frigid sunless latitudes where only a select few precursors, male (Shakespeare) or female (Emily Brontë), went before her. Howe’s stern judgment against the oeuvre of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her contemporaries (save her husband) sums up her attitude toward art’s (ir)responsibility to public life:
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, whose tragic sense of the injustices stalking Victorian living was a catalyst for her husband’s writing and for Emily Dickinson, failed as a poet herself, because she thought formal linear progression of plot through forward moving time of a poem was enough for its telling. […] Good intentions prove nothing. Faith proves nothing. Velocity and force of violent motion, gunfire at every human soul in every blind nation struggling. Victorian scientists, philosophers, historians, intellectuals, poets, like most contemporary feminist literary critics—eager to discuss the shattering of all hierarchies of Being—didn’t want the form they discussed this in to be shattering.
For Howe, Dickinson descends, spiritually and aesthetically, from Puritanism: “Like Hawthorne and unlike Emerson, her conscience still embraced the restless contradictions of this Puritan strain.” The contradictions include those between grace and predestination, individual isolation and social order, and savagery and civilization. Trying and failing to erect rigid barriers against the spiritual chaos occasioned by their abandonment of Catholic rationalism and the social chaos created by their Utopian transgression into both nature and the nations of others, the Puritans exposed the souls gathered under their aegis to a nearly gnostic loneliness in a threatening and alien cosmos.
Howe’s Dickinson aestheticizes Mary Rowlandson’s ordeal in her captivity; more intellectually, she learns from Jonathan Edwards’s later attempt to shock his congregation with violent language into a faith he could no longer reason them into. Howe argues that Dickinson’s poetic experiments—the broken sonorities of her dash-scored lines, sometimes incomprehensible but always recognizably profound—derive from the same idea that motivated Edwards to compose a sermonic language that would compel rather than convince: “Subject and object were fused at that moment, into the immediate feeling of understanding.” But Dickinson, unlike Edwards, did not aim to move an immediate audience, did not necessarily mean to communicate with her contemporaries at all:
The decision not to publish her poems in her lifetime, to close up an extraordinary amount of work, is astonishing. Far from being the misguided modesty of an oppressed female ego, it is a consummate Calvinist gesture of self-assertion by a poet with faith to fling election loose across the incandescent shadows of futurity.
Dickinson understood, according to Howe, that “social existence negates spiritual progress.” Howe compares her to another isolata, another northern soul composing counter-Calvinist myth in the North Atlantic solitudes:
In the separate souls of these two women, once again the inhuman legalism of Calvinism warred with the intellectual beauty of Neoplatonism. Violence of the occult in Puritan thought. Twofold wisdom, rational and supernatural—ceaseless mythic advance of poetic composition. […] Emily Brontë and Emily Dickinson, two of the self-emancipated “little women” Nietzsche was so fond of scorning, often anticipate him in their writing.
From the vantage of Shakespeare’s history plays, Dickinson sees the Civil War slant: “All war is the same. Culture representing form and order will always demand sacrifice and subjugation of one group by another.” From Robert Browning’s “‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,'” she derives a myth of the poet’s doomed quest for life in a universe of death. For Howe’s Dickinson, the terms reverse, so that life, social or natural, is constraint, and death means emergence into actual experience: “I must be obedient to the dominant social system until Death blows the door open. Liberation from life is Death.”
Howe’s is not an academic book. It is a poet’s criticism, a subjective book as indicated by the possessive in the title. “Connections between unconnected things are the unreal reality of poetry,” she writes. Unsurprisingly, then, I did not always follow her logic, especially as her method is often montage—juxtaposition of quotations from across time and space—rather than unbroken argument. Anti-logic is part of her argument, in fact: “Poems and poets of the first rank remain mysterious.” The poet sees unity in contradiction and contradiction in unity, expresses the mystery of being. It would be false to the nature of poetry to reason about it, she implies. I agree, but I reject the literalism of taking this idea to its extreme in a militantly irrationalist or anti-mimetic literature like that of the poetic movement most associated with Howe, the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E school. Often—as in, just for instance, Shakespeare and Emily Brontë—the best way to reveal the mystery is to dramatize it with clarity and beauty, not to redouble obscurity, to blow smoke through the fog, by writing willful gibberish that requires for its justification the museum curator’s jargon-clogged tag. But I digress.
Dickinson’s beloved correspondent, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, dominates the end of the book. Howe wants, on one hand, to save him from the condescension of Dickinson criticism, which seems to have regarded him as an insensitive male chauvinist; but he was, Howe explains, a fierce activist, abolitionist, and feminist; a collaborator with John Brown and a Civil War volunteer—a literal social justice warrior. On the other hand, he comes to stand, in Howe’s telling, for the inadequacy of the social mind, however progressive, for the “lack of imaginative intensity” that characterizes his century of sentimental poetasters and false innocence.
Much of My Emily Dickinson unfolds as an explication of “My Life Had Stood—A Loaded Gun—,” one of Dickinson’s most obscure but compelling lyrics. Howe conjures its mystery rather than dispelling it—I understand it little better than I did before I perused her close reading—but the upshot (pseudo-etymological pun intended) seems to be, like that of Wuthering Heights, the cosmic inevitability that love, poetry, and authentic experience will involve everything progress would extirpate, including the mythical personae of male and female and their danse macabre:
Sadism knocks down barriers between an isolate soul and others. Violence forces reaction. That unity of souls may be linked to sadism is the sad riddle of the world.
Such bleak wisdom was not actually unknown to Whitman, but Dickinson promises no higher unity, no eventual comprehensive view from some Hegelian plateau that will redeem the pain, as Walt occasionally does. Sometimes all the solution we can ask is for someone else to see the sad riddle too.
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