Dickinson’s Manifold Self in “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers” and “There’s a certain Slant of light”
Exegesis, from the ancient Greek ex (out) and hegesthai (lead), implies a desire to lead, through analysis, out of chaos or the unknown. A skilled exegete uses every clue possible to unlock or demystify what, initially, confounds. Emily Dickinson’s work is renowned to be difficult, even inaccessible. The great body of critical attention written about her is testimony to her poetry’s resistance to explication. Galway Kinnell calls such attempts at poetry through explanation “the rape of paraphrase,” meaning any attempt to take a poem by force, in an effort to understand it, violates it. Still, Harold Bloom makes a valid point: “Of all poets writing in English in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, I judge Emily Dickinson to present us with the most authentic cognitive abilities” (1).
The peculiar wording aside, Bloom admits to a “cognitive” quality that is “authentic,” which might mean honest in this context. Though a particularly human reflex, exegesis is not why readers of Dickinson come back to her poems again and again. Her work is multifaceted not through inclusion, but through rarefaction and what W.S. Merwin calls “giving utterance to the unutterable.” Because the unutterable seems to take most of its power from silence, Emily Dickinson’s silences illustrate the strength of her poetic language: an ability to encompass the manifold self into the word.
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The greatest tragedy is when Dickinson’s poems undergo reduction at the hand of a critic: the various other selves that are alive in a poem become forgotten at the expense of clarity. In “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers,” most critics focus on the definitive nature of the poem, even dubbing it one of her “definition-poems” because words placed in quotations are often words she questions (McNeil 109).
Certainly, efforts to redefine language (i.e., to create new language) is a characteristic of the poetic impulse. But Cynthia Wolff would translate this as “the speaker communicat[ing] a truth about human consciousness by means of some perception of a natural entity or even that can be shared with the reader: the speaker’s isolation is thus relieved, and the reader is simultaneously enlightened” through “frank definition” (478). Again, this is arguably the nature of art, not the nature of Dickinson’s art.
“‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers” has silences in the form of dashes that reveal how Dickinson writes using a manifest self: one that is made up of several, often mutually exclusive selves that accomplish more than simply an effort to define or limit. The first dash at the end of the first line indicates a duality, a possibility for other-selves to enter the poem. The first self, one of the logos, is followed by a dash that indicates the presence of another. This other self is a more intimate self than the one made up simply of words: an intimacy between the very nature of language and where, at its best, it resides (which, in this case, seems to be the soul).
How is it that Dickinson can allow both her logical self and her intimate self to reside in the same poem? The answer is that the first self, that of logic, attempts definition while the second, that of the soul, declares an innate intimacy with language that transcends all earthly conveniences. This is more than a communication of “human consciousness,” as Wolff would have it. This is just one place where Dickinson allows the truth of paradox to live within the poetic sentence: one in written form, the other in (or because of) silence. The critic looking for easy exegesis will find it in any poem; Dickinson allows it, but she simultaneously allows for much more-even for the placement of language in the soul which, as she says in the next line, “sings the tune without the words.”
Though these silences create room for Dickinson’s various selves, the dash works to link them despite its effort to atomize the sentence. In “What Dickinson Makes a Dash For,” Heather McHugh analyzes how Dickinson’s dashes (and various other forms of punctuation) work to layer meanings for the reader. But this interpretation is limiting and feeds the notion that conveying information is art’s most fervent goal. She states that “[a] life-work like Dickinson’s is unsettling just because it insists on this difficulty, and constantly explores its paradoxical claims,” but it also allows for this difficulty to represent the self (100). “In the poetic act it is more a matter of knowing itself as death; for in the poetics of self, one’s prized difference from others is loosened, and one regards oneself in everything” (McHugh 102).
This idea of the world as a reflection is based in many theologies, philosophies, and aesthetics, but in Dickinson, it points to an identifiable sense of isolation and despair-the very things that are so often over-analyzed in her poems. This atomization, or fragmented syntax, works to delay the sentence, break its boundaries, and, as in poem 254, finally reflects another self at the end: “Yet, never, in Extremity,/ It asked a crumb-of Me” (11-12). The “It” in this last line may refer to “Hope,” but it also may refer to the “Bird/ That kept so many warm” (which, of course, may not be very warm at all considering how little heat a bird, even as a metaphor, can give), the “chillest land,” “the strangest Sea,” or, possibly, even “the soul.” These dashes connect not just to facilitate Dickinson’s craft, but to extract as many possible variations of the self as possible through fragmenting the sentence into isolated words.
Much is written about “There’s a certain Slant of light,” and much of that writing is, again, extremely limiting to the poem because of its overwhelming focus on death. Laurence Perrine, from Southern Methodist University, said that “[t]he chief characteristic of this [poem’s] feeling is its painful oppressiveness” (50). He supports this by pointing out words from the poem such as “Oppresses,” “weight,” “hurt,” “despair,” “affliction,” “distance,” and, of course, “death.” George Monteiro, from Brown University, claimed that “the poet’s theme is one of despair and darkness” (13).
Clark Griffith found the poem to “be marked by naturalized romanticism: ‘Seeing Nature in a way that Emerson never would-as the source of pain rather than of benevolent tidings . . . . Nature acts while human nature is acted upon” (Moneiro 13). Another critic, Kenneth Walter Cameron from Trinity College, even went as far as to attribute a psychological reason for Dickinson’s poem, claiming it suffered from “Hesperian Depression” (Hesperus was the Greek God associated with the evening star and the king of the western lands), meaning that it was a documented kind of depression that afflicted its victims at or near dusk (185).
The psychologist E. Jacobson described its symptoms in 1957 as “[m]ood changes which are triggered by the specific external situation of dusk” that “appear to be related to experiences of loss and deprivation which tend to provoke aggression and to the simultaneous involvement of intense libidinous strivings in the causation of these states” (Cameron 185). This kind of interpretation seems particularly representative of the kind of temporal focus that reflects whatever the flavor criticism happens to be that day. Whatever the reason, the culture must have needed to grapple with its own ideas of death (and, particularly, women talking of death so openly), before it might begin to focus on the poem and the many selves represented in its silences.
The poem “There is a certain Slant of light” works to hold opposites in its fragmented structure just as Dickinson the poet was creating a world full of inexorable poles. The poem begins with light, but not just any light-slanted light, a kind of light that does not come directly from above, and, additionally, a kind of light that is filtered through some other orifice (a window, door, branch, cloud, etc.). Light directly from the sun rarely seems slanted in any way-even at its lowest points of sunrise and sunset, direct light is rarely perceived as “slanted.”
Once something seems to redirect the light, however, the light becomes “slanted” because it now is no longer direct: a perforated cloud layer underneath a setting sun, for example, often produces such a slanted light. In sum, this poem incorporates a filtered light that is linked, immediately, through the use of a comma with “Winter Afternoons” (2).
Many take this comma to mean a shortened way of saying “the light is observed during winter afternoons,” as if Dickinson were merely trying to establish a place or a time. In truth, she does, but the third line in this poem opens it up to an ambiguity too complex for exposition: “That oppresses, like the Heft/ Of Cathedral Tunes.” This line works to awaken more than just the visual senses; it provides ambiguity through the word “That.”The question remains: what oppresses like the heft of cathedral tunes? If the answer is “Slant of light,” then it is possible to posit the speaker prefers darkness (not dreads it); if the answer is “Winter” as a verb (as in the construction “to summer in the north”), then afternoons becomes the plural subject-this would imply that afternoon are to be endured just as Massachusetts’ winters are endured; if “Winter” describes “Afternoon,” then there is yet another possibility that the speaker means to establish the poem both temporally and seasonally in order to emphasize the contrasting image of light, no matter how “slant” it is. These possibilities are as easily present in the poem as death because Dickinson allows them space to present themselves.
The second stanza has similar ambiguity because of the dashes. “Heavenly Hurt, it gives us-” could be referring, again, to the light, the afternoon, or the Cathedral tunes. Added to this, there is also the possibility that the word “Hurt” criticizes theology: the act of heaven is to hurt the living; what is more, this act is a gift, a bestowed payment of pain that leaves “no scar” (6). The poem therefore becomes more of a testimony to living than a despair over death’s inevitability. Even the line at the end of the poem, “Distance/ On the look of Death,” which many critics take as “the awful distance between the living and the dead” is too simplified.
This line may be a simile for the same “it” which may be “the Slant of Light” mentioned at the beginning of the poem. It is possible that unfiltered light is the manifest self, and that the single ray of filtered light represents part of the speaker’s self that is singular, received. This interpretation makes it possible that the distance mentioned at the end of the poem amplifies the estrangement of self: the limited, filtered self-perceived by others becomes only a small representation of the direct, vast self which remains blocked.
What so many take-ups as a depressing poem about death is as easily a poem about a speaker that longs for her whole self to be known-not just the slanted ray of self most see. This is not to say Dickinson is purposely layering meaning to complicate, confuse, or mystify the reader. Dickinson’s ability to place concurrent manifold selves into a single word, or dash, brings life, or as Li-Young Li has said, “destiny” to a poem. Any definitive explication of such a density dissolves the very magic that makes these poems enduring.
Dickinson’s poems move through fragmentation and atomized language towards complicity of meaning made manifold not through the addition of language, but through the addition of silence. She embraces what evolves out of the poem and works to rarefy to the point that, as she says in “There’s a certain Slant of light,” “None may teach” (9). Ammons once stated that the poem succeeds where exposition cannot: the poem can stop. Nothing further needs are said, in other words. With Dickinson, “her weakest poems are the most reducible; their surprises are cute . . .
But her richest work is precisely what critics since Higginson have called ‘elusive,’ and its signature is the sign of the dash-that suspense of punctuation, that undecidability, which is not indecision” (McHugh 105). What readers are left with is a decision they must make on their own: should they attempt to decipher these poems, or should they simply try to experience them? Though these poems are deciphered the same way, with similar interpretations, their experience of them is much more complicated and difficult. To experience Dickinson’s poem, one must often have to disengage from the rational long enough to see other possibilities-possibilities she often indicates with a dash.
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