“I felt a cleaving in my mind”- A poem by Emily Dickinson

Context: In this poem Emily Dickinson (1830-1866) once again expresses her bodily experiences into text. To be a product of her own time with Calvinism and Romanticism as mainstream ideas; this lady can be very down to earth and that’s what makes her special. This is how she choose to define a conflicting thought or idea. The lines has got some rhytm as well.

Themes: Thought, idea, mind, brain, split, dichotomy


I felt a cleaving in my mind

As if my brain had split;

I tried to match it,

seam by seam,

But could not make them fit.

The thought behind I strove to join

Unto the thought before,

But sequence ravelled out of reach

Like balls upon a floor.


“I felt a Funeral, in my Brain”- A poem by Emily Dickinson

Context: This poem was written in 1862 during the Civil War. It was a very productive year for Emily Dickinson’s poetry writing. She composed more than 300 verses this year. I wrote previously on Emily Dickinson (1830-1866) on this blog and mentioned her poor health which may have contributed to her self-imposed isolation and preferred confinement to her private rooms. She seldom went out. Modern scholars have tried their very best to figure out what may have happened to her health this year because of what she wrote in this poem.  We know Emily sought help in an opthalmic consulation with Dr. Henry Willard Williams in Boston during the Civil War. She had eye problems. As Blanchard states in his article published in 2012 no records related to any diagnosis have survived. “Photophobia, aching eyes, and a restriction in her ability to work up close were her main symptoms. Iritis, exotropia, or psychiatric problems are the most frequent diagnoses offered to explain her difficulties.” (Blanchard 2012)

There’s a lot of physical pain present in many of Emily’s poems. We don’t know what her illnesses were. Her death certificate lists her cause of death as “Bright’s disease”, which is not an illness but a term that was used for a collection of medical symptoms including nephritis (kidney disease) and hypertension. Maybe it was something neurological or maybe she suffered from mental health issues. She was also a colorful personality with some eccentric habits like refusing to see people, even close family members from time to time.

It’s hard to know what her problems were. If she had visual problems this may have caused her headaches. In this poem she compares her pain to a funeral going on inside her head. Notice how the physical pain she’s feeling is transformed into noisy mourners until the mourners sense themselves and finally sit down. Something else takes over which is called The Service. “The Service” is also uncomfortable and noisy to the narrator and she feels a repeated drumming inside the head. Notice the narrator in the poem does not describe what she sees, only what she hears. The noise goes on until “Being” and “Ear” become one. Take extra notice to what happens in the final sentences. The narrator drops down after “a Plank of Reason”and then “hit a World”. This will probably let you know the narrator doesn’t die a physical death, but rather returns to the world and to her senses.

Themes: Pain in the head, sensitivity to noise, tinnitus?, migraine?, depression?

Poem 340

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through –
And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum –
Kept beating – beating – till I thought
My mind was going numb –

And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space – began to toll,

As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race,
Wrecked, solitary, here –

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing – then –

Sources
Blanchard, D.L (2012). “Emily Dickinson’s ophthalmic consultation with Henry Willard Williams, MD.” Quote from Abstract.
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Emily Dickinson

 

‘Open me Carefully’ Emily Dickinson’s intimate letters to Susan Huntington (1998) – Some thoughts

This volume of compiled and selected letters written by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) was edited by Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith. It contains the letters written by Emily to her friend and sister-in-law, Susan Huntington (1830-1913). Unlike her famous friend Susan H. was a very social and outgoing woman. She also travelled a lot, wrote a lot and edited a lot. She read and commented on Emily’s poetry. The letters are important since they spur a continuous 36-years correspondence between Emily and Susan who ended up living as neighbours at Amherst. The letters who not only depict family matters give us somewhat new information on how the women worked on Emily’s poetry and how the friendship developed between the over the years. If the ladies were more than friends cannot be estimated from the letters only. We simply don’t know if it ever was any physical love relation; though the introduction to this book indicates Emily’s feelings for Susan were sexual. As an unmarried woman living in an early 19th century Calvinist society it’s also very likely Emily Dickinson never had much of sexual experience at all. Our society today with access to various post-modern theories and psychoanalysis interpret freely upon the lives and texts of past authors; but interpretation and speculation is what remains when we have no definite answers.

There’s a poetic touch to each letter Emily wrote to Susan. As pointed out in the commentary section attached to each letter there is for an example a comment on Emily’s letter writing style on February 1852: “Throughout Emily’s letters to Susan, she combines a language of courtly love with terms of spiritual devotion. In 1915, Susan’s daughter Martha Dickinson Bianchi described her Aunt Emily in the Atlantic Monthly, saying ‘Her devotion to those she loved was that of a knight for his lady.” (Hart & Smith 1998, p. 13) That’s an interesting point of view from someone who once met with ms. Dickinson and her circle of family and friends. Research on Dickinson’s sexuality has been done since professor Rebecca Patterson published her ground breaking work The Riddle of Emily Dickinson (1951). Pattersson argued Emily’s muse and inspiration was another friend, Kate Anthon. Her published research was not welcomed in the 1950’s and received a lot of criticism based on fear and prejudice. The relatives of Kate Anthon forbade Pattersson further access to any letters and diaries as soon as they learned of her thesis. She managed to copy most of the material before the Anthons had most of the correspondence burned. Fearing any hint of a possible lesbian relationship with one of Americas most famous poets. Some researchers and critics today still wish to masque Emily’s homoerotic poetry and letter-style writing and refer to these outbursts as “romantic friendship”. The desire to oppress this side of Emily’s authorship is pointed out in Comment’s essay Dickinson’s Bawdy: Shakespeare and Sexual Symbolism in Emily Dickinson’s Writing to Susan Dickinson (2001). It’s interesting how interpretations continues to stir up controversy.

Sources

Comment, Kristin M. 2001. “Dickinson’s Bawdy: Shakespeare and Sexual Symbolism in Emily Dickinson’s Writing to Susan Dickinson”. Legacy. 18 (2): 167-181.

Dickinson, Emily, Ellen Louise Hart, and Martha Nell Smith. 1998. Open me carefully: Emily Dickinson’s intimate letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson. Ashfield, MA: Paris Press.


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Emily and Susan H.Dickinson

 

‘After great pain, a formal feeling comes’- A poem by Emily Dickinson

Context: A poem written by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) from Amherst, Mass. This poem is about the experience related to bodily pain and it’s presented to the reader in various conflicting images and words. The poem was found after Emily’s death. The poem is very typical of what Emily usually writes about: sensitivity to her external surroundings and personal incidents in life; and personal experiences about love, pain, death. Emily had many health problems. In 1884 she had seen “a great darkness coming” and fainted while baking in the kitchen. She remained unconscious late into the night and weeks of ill health followed. On November 30, 1885, her feebleness and other symptoms were so worrying that her brother Austin canceled a trip to Boston. It’s hard to say what kind of illnesses she had and they may have contributed to her secluded lifestyle. On the death of her father in 1874 she entered into complete seclusion.

Themes: bleak reality, mind/body, shock, pain. Pay attention to how the rhytm changes to describe the shock and how the following imagery presents the entire process of sensation until immobility occur.

 

After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?

The Feet, mechanical, go round –
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone –

This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –

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When Emily Dickinson was critical about organized religion. A comment on poem 236

I like to make parallels between written text and biography; today the correct term would be biographical criticism. This method of interpreting any text has become quite popular, even if it’s got some obvious traps concerning objectivity. When were left out on information we tend to make own explanations and give in to speculations. THIS becomes obvious when we deal with the life of famous authors. We may possess certain data available to us through various records from archives which can explain why an author wrote as they did.

Poem 236

Some keep the Sabbath going to the Church –
I keep it, staying at Home –
With a Bobolink for a Chorister –
And an Orchard, for a Dome –

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice –
I just wear my Wings –
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton – sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman –
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –
I’m going, all along.

 

WHILE it seems obvious the poem takes a critical stance towards organized religion, such as worshipping in churches and listening to long sermons it doesn’t reveal so much on why she’s critical. She also produce an alternative; herself in nature and surrounding herself with nature she says she doesn’t need a church and experience religion through watching the God’s work in nature is enough for her. Let’s dive into some biographical reading on this poem and see if we can find some solutions on why she feels the way she does!

img_0837Emily Dickinson and Religion : Calvinism and revival in Amherst, Massachusetts

Themes like death and immortality are extremely common in Dickinson’s poetry. Plagued by ill-health all her life it’s not totally strange to understand her mind occupied many thoughts on these matters. Her social milieu and the society was governed by religious views and to alienate oneself from the congregation was very rare and likely looked upon as something negative and suspicious. Themes like death, immortality and Religion was not uncommon among nineteenth-century poets. It’s somewhat strange Dickinson’s poems came to be criticized for being so concentrated upon death when so many other poets like Keats and Whitman were on a similar stand and often returned to this topic. Many have tried to categorize Dickinson’s about death and broken up her entire collection of poetic work into four categories on this matter:

  • Poems in which death represents extinction.
  • Poems which dramatize the possibility on the survival of the soul.
  • Poems which embraze a faith in immortality.
  • Poems about God and God’s care of humans.

In a letter to a friend (1850) Emily stated: “I am standing alone in rebellion.” She never joined the Congregational Church in Amherst. Another letter (L13) reveals her ideas on christian faith: “I feel that the world holds a predominant place in my affections. I do not feel that I could give up all for Christ, were I called to die”. I think Emily Dickinson was critical about organized religion. It’s quite clear from her poetry that she does hold some religious views but they are not bound to any traditional faith or system of beliefs.

Works consulted in this post

Emily Dickinson and the Church – Information from The Emily Dickinson Museum.

The Poems of Emily Dickinson Edited by R. W. Franklin (Harvard University Press, 1999)