“Seeing is believing,” the old adage goes. But it’s much too simple. To “see” can also mean to “understand” (as in “I see your point”), so “seeing” can also lead to disbelief, if understanding take you in that direction.
It’s the kind of verbal roundabout that no one relished more than the great American poet, Emily Dickinson. Not that she would have put it quite that way about seeing and believing. Her way was so much the more eloquent --and at the same time boldly, even shockingly original. With the arguable exception of Walt Whitman, no American poet innovated more radically than Dickinson, his reclusive contemporary. Her way with words, though --nearly antithetical to his-- was fuller of that supreme artistic virtue, surprise. While his burgeoning free verse bore multitudes of image and idea:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
Dickinson’s much more reticent poems, each cut and polished like an individual diamond, contain multiplicities. They are more nearly inimitable. Consider one of them:
I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –
The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –
I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –
With Blue – uncertain stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see.
What have we here? Beyond the jolting persona of a narrator who can speak to us from the Great Hereafter, this little jewel of a poem begins with what seems a momentary irritant appearing at a somber, altogether conventional death watch: a fly happens into the room where mourners, in the minutes before the death of the afflicted, await with traditional Christian expectation that God (the King) will appear to host the newly deceased’s ascendancy on High. The narrator remembers too that, before her death, she had written her will, signing away all earthly belongings (that portion of herself that be “assignable”) in readiness for that same theophany.
But the King never appears. Only the fly, who suddenly, in the last five lines of this posthumous remembrance, assumes the leading role in a massive bait-and-switch. God is expected, but only the fly appears, interposing itself between the dying narrator and the light.
The Light. For Christians another name for Christ, the Light is ironically obscured for her at the moment of her passing by the “Blue – uncertain stumbling Buzz” of an insect who not only inspires revulsion as a feeder on rot and excrement, and as a carrier of disease, but who symbolizes the anti-Christ himself, a stand-in for Beelzebub, the Lord of the Flies. Dickinson certainly knew him well from his appearances in II Kings, the Testament of Solomon, the respective Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and Paradise Lost wherein, in Milton’s inverted hierarchy, none sat higher except for Satan. Quite by coincidence, the illustration at left appeared as the depiction of Beelzebub in Collin de Plancy’s Dictionnaire Infernal, published in Paris in 1863, a year after Dickinson wrote her characteristically untitled poem.
Its final lines raise the questions with which this essay began, about “seeing,” “believing” and/or “disbelieving. Literally, the sight of the poem’s narrator is fading; metaphorically, though, it’s the windows toward which she gazes that fail. The metaphor is not simply one of transference. It’s an acknowledgement that, archetypally, windows are eyes. (The word itself comes from the Old Norse vindauga, or “wind-eye.”) Symbolically, windows are portals through which mind and soul look outward, and portals through which light and truth from outside enter the mind and spirit within. Poetically, when windows fail, both directionals go dark.
And as they darken, our narrator concludes that she “could not see to see.” The verb seems oddly doubled. At the fateful moment, she realizes that she can neither literally see, nor can she understand --in the King's absence, and the Fly's uncertain, stumbling presence-- her posthumous destiny. The poem becomes a terse agnostic ode.
Dickinson was prolific. During a lifetime that ended in her fifty-sixth year, she wrote almost eighteen hundred poems, nearly half of them in a four-year period coincident with the American Civil War. Fewer than a dozen (and none of her best) were published during her lifetime in local, mostly ephemeral journals. (Her private letters, on the other hand, teem with her genius.) Her range of subjects was vast (she often alluded to her wide human “circumference”). Her outlooks, from poem to poem, typically contradict one another.
Which is to say that, throughout her work, she seems unbound by philosophical, religious or ideological preconception. While brought up in a mid-19th century tradition of New England Protestantism, Dickinson turns to religion more as a subject of poetic experiment. In one poem, she says she
. . . never spoke with God
Nor visited in Heaven –
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the Checks were given –
Yet in another, she cautiously writes,
“Faith” is a fine invention
When Gentlemen can see –
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency.
“Let Emily sing for you,” she wrote in condolence to a friend, “because she cannot pray.” Indeed, her poem of the buzzing, uncertain fly treats the traditional Christian attitude toward death with a searing irony. But that outlook is no more consistent in her poetry than any other.
Dickinson’s range of subjects was vast (that wide "circumference" of hers). Yet it’s equally apt to see in her poetry a single, omnipresent subject: language itself. She approached, as the scholar Charles Anderson once noted, “like an explorer of new lands.” Acutely attuned to her own time, as well as history, ideas and human behavior, she nonetheless inclined –and this quite consistently—to allow ideas to yield to the power and vagaries of the English language. She used words, as Anderson put it, "as if she were the first to do so, with a joy and an awe largely lost to English poetry since the Renaissance. Also with a creator’s licence: coining with a free hand, boldly maneuvering her inherited vocabulary, collapsing the syntax, springing the rhythm, slanting the rhyme."
In the manuscript of one poem, we see Dickinson ending with the lines,
What confusion would cover the innocent Jesus
To meet so enabled a man!
But she ends it thusly only after trying out, in that concluding line, the adjectives religious, accomplished, discerning, accoutred, established and conclusive, before she settles on enabled. The meanings are different, of course. But it's words, not thoughts, that are preeminent for her. As E.M. Forster would later write: “How can I know what I think till I see what I say?”
And while experimenting with words, Dickinson also worked to eliminate as many of them as possible. She was a compulsive economizer. While her contemporary, Whitman, inundated his reader with language, building voracious (and at times almost limitless) incantations on the page, she sought maximum ellipsis, the tightest structural compression her language could achieve. Witness here, on the matter of psychosis:
One need not be a Chamber – to be Haunted –
One need not be a House –
The Brain has Corridors – surpassing
Material Place –
. . . . . . . . .
Ourself behind ourself, concealed –
Should startle most –
Assassin hid in our Apartment
Be Horror’s least.
Even words that one might expect grammatically are excised. Only the most essential ones remain.
Then, there's her metaphor. “The Brain has Corridors,” “Doom is the House without the Door,” “My Life had stood a Loaded Gun,” “Presentiment is that long Shadow on the Lawn,” “the little Tippler Leaning against the Sun,” “Pain has an Element of Blank”. . . the list goes and on and on, her jarring metaphors multiplying as we read. Dickinson’s figurative leaps, often so surprising and unexpected, match, in their vividness, the conceits of Donne, Marvell and the other metaphysical poets of the 17th century. What T.S. Eliot said of Andrew Marvell can as well be said of her, that she "plays with a fancy which begins by pleasing and leads to astonishment. . . . [She provides] a succession of concentrated images, each magnifying the original fancy. [In the end] the poem turns suddenly with that surprise that has been one of the most important means of poetic effect since Homer." Her metaphor may be the grandest element of her genius.
Still, surveying her various poetic innovations, Charles Anderson felt that her finest creative stroke was, not her jewel-like compression, nor her word play, nor her metaphoric boundlessness, but rather her having adopted, with deceptive simplicity, a traditional 4-3-4-3 hymn stanza as her most frequent metrical form. We see it here in the Bay Psalm Book’s version of the 23rd Psalm,
The Lord to mee a shepherd is, (4)
want therefore shall not I. (3)
He in the folds of tender grasse (4)
Doeth cause mee down to lie . . . (3)
and in Watt’s Christian Psalmody (a copy of which was in the Dickinson family library),
God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.
The stanza’s rhythms (and attendant sentiments) were deeply familiar to the churchgoing Christian society in which the poet grew up. (Everyone was also familiar with the 4-3-4-3 meter that had prevailed in Mother Goose rhymes since the 17th century: “Sing a Song of Six-pence,/ A pocket full of rye; / Four and twenty Blackbirds / Baked in a Pie.”)
The rude simplicity of this sing-song meter –the same meter that anchors her four-stanza’d Fly poem-- was turned by Dickinson into a vehicle of poetic surprise, transporting her novel vocabulary, jarring images, intense compression and intricate ideas, instead of the ordinary banalities and platitudes of faith. Her poems were not, says Anderson, “traditional anthems . . . or pious psalms entuned in a Puritan nose," but rather "the thin pipings of praise that were still possible for an estranged modern religious sensibility, diminished, tangential, sometimes actually cancelled by doubt. . . . Her bold experimentations out from this center would have dismayed the formal precisionists from whose pious hymns she took her start."
Indeed, this “estrangement” --in a sense not confined to her lightly defiant tampering with words and forms—may be the single most important key for us, in our own very different time, to Dickinson’s durable poetic genius. “I’m Nobody!” she wrote sardonically (posing as a demure but questioning outsider),
. . . Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – Too?
Then there’s a pair of us?
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!
She may have been a child of relatively pious mid-19th century New England; but her work –for all its metaphoric fireworks-- emits a peculiarly 20th- and 21st-century sense of alienation. Critic Walter Sutton suggests that, while Dickinson inherited the Emersonian idea of nature as an illusion, there lay behind it, not the ultimately benificent Oversoul of Emerson and Whitman (a period remnant), but the abyss of an unplumbed self to be confronted with fear and courage.
How very modern.
WALTER WELLS, founding editor of The Fickle Grey Beast, is professor Emeritus of English and Humanities at California State University, Dominguez Hills. His most recent book is Silent Theater: The Art of Edward Hopper. See: www.emilydickinsoninternationalsociety.org, www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org, and www.edwardhopperhouse.org.