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Emily Dickinson

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Essay title: Emily Dickinson


An outsider looking at the poetry of the United States sees mainly Walt Whitman's beard, with the sombre mask of Edgar Allan Poe looming immediately beyond it. He will be as familiar with both of these figures as though they were Europeans, compatriots even. I believe I have seen a Dutch translation of Leaves of Grass, while decades ago all declaimers made the raven caw, often in a typical Dutch idiom resembling poetry, as was acceptable at the time. If this outsider were to visit the local public library to make further acquaintance with the literature in question and were to open a book on American literature dating from, let us say, around 1900, he would learn that alongside the great poets (such as Longfellow), there have also been many minor poets. This reader might then just happen to read patronising, if appreciative, words about one minor woman poet, Emily Dickinson. Unless he were to undertake some research of his own, he would not realise that he was dealing with something unusual, something previous generations had undeservedly lumped together with the rest.

It is to this Emily Dickinson that I am asking the reader to pay some attention, even though the relative lack of appreciation of her may well make this a hopeless case. It appears at a certain moment that here is a full and flagrant case of neglect. Although she is relatively undervalued, there exist a number of laudatory assessments that allocate her a position, thus relieving the reader of the responsibility of having to make judgements and revise prevailing opinion. Nothing particularly unjust has been written about Emily Dickinson, but she has hardly been afforded the place she deserves, a place among the great originals of world literature, who can still have some significance for us. What do the more modern critics say about her? She certainly makes no bad impression in Untermeyer's anthology. Rйgis Michaud says pertinent things about her art (although he mentions her in the same breath as Moody, whom he suggests elsewhere was an epigone of Shelley's, while Fischer, in his new Handbuch der Literaturwissenschaft, talks of her as having ‘hohe Bedeutung' for contemporary poetry. What perhaps makes this all sound so unconvincing is the tendency of such concise guides to place everything at the same level. Would it perhaps be worthwhile checking just how many second-rate figures have been said in such guides to have ‘hoher Bedeutung' for our time?

Whatever the case may be, one can at least admit Emily Dickinson's modernity. She lived from 1830 to 1886 and began writing short poems when she was 30. Her poetry was collected and published only after her death, and indeed if you free her work from the not particularly thick husk of her epoch, you could call her a modern avant la lettre, modern in the sense of still appearing to be alive to us today, in the same way that Nerval is termed modern.

When looking for the reasons for the impediment to her fame and her influence on the development of 19th century poetry, and for the reasons why she has come to be regarded as a minor poet, you will first of all find the following: Emily Dickinson's poetry was published too late (1890) to be able to compete with the influence of Whitman and Poe. In around 1890, at the time of the second poetic renaissance in America, the fame of these two poets began, via France and Great Britain, to be reflected in their own country. Whitman and Poe were discovered, but this recognition, late though it was, had to be paid for, as it were, with a rather unselective stream of mainly French aesthetics who monopolised the attention. Imagists and others concerned themselves with a synthesis of Parnassus, Symbolism and free verse. Furthermore, those making a comeback, i.e. Whitman and Poe — one dynamic and the other static, but also one the realist and the other the dreamer, one a dithyrambist and the other an introspective pessimist — were obliged to function as the two hemispheres of the poetic universe, leaving no room for third parties. Interest was paid in too full a measure to them, and all that was left for Emily Dickinson to do was to become a name, someone whose oeuvre few took the trouble to appreciate.

Yet there must be further, more profound reasons for her failure to gain recognition. Is there not a particular type of artist who, on account of his nature and therefore quite apart from any question of status or value, is predestined to remain relatively unknown, not only during his lifetime but for a very long time afterwards? Here in the Netherlands, Herman Gorter of the School der Poлzie might well have been of this type, had his admirable work profited from the fame of his poem Mei. In French poetry, there is Lйon-Paul Fargue. What unites the various members of this category? Allowing for all the restrictions

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