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Emily Dickinson and the Theory Canon


--To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,

One clover, and a bee,

And revery.

The revery alone will do,

If bees are few. (#1779)*

"It is an honor," remarks the reviewer for Dickinson Studies (1987), in discussing Harold Bloom’s Introduction to the Dickinson volume in his Chelsea House Critical Views series (1985), "for [Bloom] to inspect Emily Dickinson and give her as high a rating as he does" (p. 39). An odd statement, this, given that Dickinson is by consensus one of the great American poets and that Dickinson scholarship is, as the recent Emily Dickinson Handbook (edited by Gudrun Grabher, Roland Hagenbüchle, and Cristanne Miller for the University of Massachusetts Press, 1998), testifies, an academic growth industry, not only in the U.S. but around the world. Why should it be an honor for Harold Bloom, who has written so widely about what he calls the Poets of our Climate (from Emerson to John Ashbery and A. R. Ammons) to give Dickinson a "high rating"?

Perhaps the reviewer’s surprise has to do with a curious anomaly in Dickinson’s reception: however celebrated her work on the part of poetry scholars, feminist critics, Americanists, and by contemporary women poets from Adrienne Rich to Susan Howe and Alice Fulton, Dickinson has never been what one might call the theorist’s exemplary poet. Paradoxically, although there are now, as Roland Hagenbüchle makes clear in his essay "Dickinson and Literary Theory," (Handbook, pp. 356-84), plenty of Lacanian, Foucaultian, and Bakhtinian readings of Dickinson, her name nowhere appears in the indices of Lacan or Foucault or Bakhtin themselves. Indeed, you will not find Dickinson’s name anywhere in the studies of Paul de Man or Jacques Derrida, in Julia Kristeva or Luce Iragaray, in Roland Barthes or Gilles Deleuze, in Michel Serres or Slavoj Zizek. Helène Cixous, whose strong feminist / deconstructionist writings have addressed highly diverse writers–Clarice Lispector as well as Joyce, Lewis Carroll and Iris Murdoch as well as Kafka and Beckett–has had nothing whatever to say about Dickinson. Again, I have found no references to Dickinson in the writings of the Frankfurt School, or, more surprisingly, since these are Anglophone theorists, in the work of Raymond Williams or Terry Eagleton, Frank Kermode or Fredric Jameson.

Some of these theorists were, of course, writing in the years preceding the publication of the Thomas H. Johnson three-volume Variorum Edition (Harvard,1955), which first made serious scholarship on Dickinson’s poetry possible. But this does not explain why their successors generally followed suit. J. Hillis Miller, for example, has a book called The Linguistic Moment: From Wordsworth to Stevens (Princeton, 1985) that performs intricate deconstructionist analyses on the major Romantic and Victorian poets and concludes with chapters on Williams and Stevens. Dickinson is omitted, as she is from Barbara Johnson’s A World of Difference (Johns Hopkins, 1987), which moves from readings of Wordsworth, Poe, Baudelaire, and Mallarmé to the work of African-American women writers, especially Zora Neale Hurston and Audre Lorde. And Dickinson is again neglected in Chaviva Hosek and Patricia Parker’s important collection, Lyric Poetry: Beyond New Criticism (Cornell, 1985). The essayists here discuss such problems as figuration, genre, syntax, and the nature of lyric in a wide variety of poets-- Sappho, Ben Jonson, Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, Swinburne, Rossetti, Hardy, Baudelaire, Eliot, Whitman, Stevens, and Auden-- but again Dickinson is conspicuously absent.

If deconstructionists have had little taste for Dickinson, neither have American philosophical critics. From Richard Poirier’s A World Elsewhere: The Place of Style in American Literature (Oxford,1967), whose focus is on Emerson and Whitman, to Stanley Cavell’s Senses of Walden (Chicago, 1981) and This New Yet Unapproachable America (Living Batch,1989)–studies that contain some of the most original and interesting speculation we have on the metaphysics of Emerson and Thoreau and the nature of Americanness–to Cary Wolfe’s Marxist study The Limits of American Ideology in Pound and Emerson (Cambridge,1993), Dickinson’s poetry is evidently not taken to be a source for speculation on larger questions of philosophy and culture in America. And even feminist theorists like Alice Jardine and Toril Moi and postcolonialists like Homi Bhabha and Gayatri Spivak seem to have preferred different exemplary figures to make their cases.

Who are the exemplary poets of the theory canon? I have already mentioned a few; a fuller list would include Wordsworth and Percy Shelley, Poe and Whitman, Baudelaire and Mallarmé, Eliot and Stevens, Hölderlin and, especially in recent years, Paul Celan, to whom Aris Foiretos devotes a whole volume of essays by theorists, including Derrida, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, and Werner Hamacher (Johns Hopkins, 1994). This all-male canon suggests that theory’s neglect of Dickinson may be primarily a gender issue, even as the predominance of European poets suggests that for academics of Hillis Miller’s generation, trained as they were in English, not American, literature, the Romantics continue to dominate the field. But gender and nationality don’t tell the whole story either, given the stubborn fact that in the heyday of the now despised New Criticism (note the "beyond" in the Hosek-Parker title), critics from Allen Tate, in his classic "New England Culture and Emily Dickinson" (1932) to the book-length studies of Richard Chase and Charles R. Anderson, to Louis Martz’s Poem of the Mind (Oxford,1969), made much of Dickinson’s work. Indeed, in "A Poet Restored" (1956) the so-called father of New Criticism, John Crowe Ransom heralded Johnson’s edition as ushering in "the principal literary event of these last twenty years"–the restoration of Dickinson’s poetry–and further named her as one of the two "greatest forces in American poetry in the nineteenth century" (see Richard Sewall, ed., Emily Dickinson [Prentice-Hall, 1963 ],pp. 88-100). And students who grew up on Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren’s Understanding Poetry learned about metaphor, irony, and slant rhyme from "I like to see it lap the miles" or "Because I could not stop for Death."

How, then, to explain the neglect of Dickinson on the part of post-structuralist theory? My own hunch is that it has to do with certain assumptions about poetic language and poetic process–assumptions that differentiate Dickinson from the Modernists and their Romantic precursors whose work remains exemplary for theorists from Adorno and Jameson to Cixous and Kristeva. The New Critics, after all, were less committed to Romanticism than to Renaissance poetry, especially the Metaphysicals, and to such Victorians as Browning, Arnold, and Hopkins (with whom Dickinson has some real affinities). But for post-structuralist theory, the Romantic tradition is the central one. Let me begin with the example of Wordsworth, as "deconstructed" by Paul de Man in two seminal essays: "Time and History in Wordsworth" and "The Rhetoric of Temporality." In the first of these essays (Romanticism and Contemporary Criticism, Johns Hopkins, 1993), de Man’s focus is on the "Boy of Winander" passage in The Prelude (Book 5). Here the poet commemorates the dead boy’s lonely but charmed life by the "glimmering Lake," where, as an evening pastime, he would "[blow] mimic hootings to the silent owls / That they might answer him.– And they would shout / Across the watery Vale, and shout again, / Responsive to his call":

And when it chanced

That pauses of deep silence mock’d his skill,

Then, sometimes, in that silence, while he hung

Listening, a gentle shock of mild surprize

Has carried far into his heart the voice

Of mountain torrents; or the visible scene

Would enter unawares into his mind

With all its solemn imagery, its rocks,

Its woods, and that uncertain Heaven, receiv’d

Into the bosom of the steady lake.

This Boy, was taken from his Mates, and died

In childhood, ere he was full ten years old.

--Fair are the woods, and beauteous is the spot,

The Vale where he was born; the Churchyard hangs

Upon a Slope above the Village School,

And, there, along the bank, when I have pass’d

At evening, I believe that oftentimes

A full half-hour together I have stood

Mute–looking at the grave in which he lies. (1805 Prelude, V, ll. 389-449)

This little narrative, as de Man notes, is generally understood as an exemplum of the Wordsworthian faith in the "intimate and sympathetic contact between human and natural elements." The imagery of "fingers interwoven," "glimmering Lake," and the shouts of the owls, "Responsive to his call, with quivering peals," "redoubl[ing] in the valley," seems straightforward enough. Indeed, the "Boy of Winander" passage is often glossed by Wordsworth’s words in the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, "The poet . . . considers man and nature as essentially adapted to each other, and the mind of man as naturally the mirror of the fairest and most interesting qualities of nature" (de Man, Romanticism, p. 77).

But, de Man asks, if indeed the poem’s overt emphasis is on the "interanimation" of human and natural, what is the word "hung" doing in line 18: "And when it chanced / That pauses of deep silence mock’d his skill / Then, sometimes, in that silence, while he hung / Listening, a gentle shock of mild surprize / Has carried far into his heart the voice / Of mountain torrents"? And again, a few lines later, why does the poet use the words "the Churchyard hangs/ Upon a Slope above the Village School"? Why not "he stood listening" or "The Churchyard sits upon a slope"? Teasing out the "hung"-"hangs" relationship here and in related passages in the Prelude, de Man concludes:

At the moment when the analogical correspondence with nature no longer asserts itself, we discover that the earth under our feet is not the stable base in which we can believe ourselves to be anchored. It is as if the solidity of earth were suddenly pulled away from under our feet and we were left "hanging" from the sky instead of standing on the ground. The fundamental spatial perspective is reversed; instead of being centered on the earth, we are suddenly related to a sky that has its own movements, alien to those of earth and its creatures. The experience hits as a sudden feeling of dizziness, a falling or a threat of falling, a vertige of which there are many examples in Wordsworth. (Romanticism, pp. 78-79).

What is interesting here, for our purposes, is less whether de Man’s is a valid insight into the vertige that haunts Wordsworth’s supposed faith in the human/natural analogy, than how he arrives at this conclusion. The deconstructionist reading of what seems to be a coherent, concrete description of the landscape, finds a single item like the ordinary verb "to hang," whose normal connotations may be reversed. The boy who "hung / Listening," after all, has internalized in "his heart the voice / of mountain torrents," in what seems to be a moment of rapt absorption. And again, the "Churchyard" [that "hangs / Upon a Slope above the Village School," is, on the surface, a picture-postcard image of prettiness. To read the passage as a vision of alienation, of having the "solidity of earth . . . suddenly pulled away from under our feet" is thus to force ordinary words like "hung" and "hangs" to bear the main weight in poetic passages seemingly centered elsewhere.

De Man performs a similar exercise in his famous essay "The Rhetoric of Temporality." In discussing the temporal structure of allegory and irony, he chooses one of Wordsworth’s Lucy Gray poems:

A slumber did my spirit seal;

I had no human fears:

She seemed a thing that could not feel

The touch of earthly years.

No motion has she now, no force;

She neither hears nor sees;

Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,

With rocks, and stones, and trees As in the case of "The Boy of Winander," this little ballad seems direct and straightforward enough. It juxtaposes then and now, past and present tense. In the first stanza, the poet confesses that "then" he suffered from a state of spiritual torpor, of non-awareness, when it didn’t occur to him that the "she" in question was, after all, mortal. One imagines a girl, a sweet young thing, who could not be expected to die anytime soon. But now (stanza 2) he comes face to face with the reality of her death, her absorption back into the world of nature, of "rocks, and stones, and trees."

The pivotal word here is the ordinary monosyllabic noun "thing." "Within the mystified world of the past," writes de Man, "when the temporal reality of death was repressed or forgotten, the word "thing" could be used quite innocently, perhaps even in a playfully amorous way" (Blindness and Insight, 2d. ed. [Minnesota, 1983], p. 224). The "curious shock," then, is that, in the present of stanza 2, she "has become a thing in the full sense of the word"; the "light-hearted compliment has turned into a grim awareness of the de-mystifying power of death," absorbed into the diurnal round of inanimate, insentient objects. (p. 224). In this context, the word "now" is deeply ironic. In the space of the poem, it is only "now" (line 5) that the poet faces the reality of her death, but, literally speaking, "No motion has she now, no force" refers to a moment prior the poem’s opening line, with its retrospective account of her death. Thus "the ‘now’ of the poem, [which] is not an actual now, lies hidden in the blank space between the two stanzas" (p. 225). And so "the fundamental structure of allegory reappears here in the tendency of the language toward narrative, the spreading out along the axis of an imaginary time in order to give duration to what is, in fact, simultaneous within the subject" (p. 225).

Again, then, we have the case of a poem that seems to say one thing–then I felt, but now I know (and notice the paragrammatic force of having that "now" inside the word "know")– but really says something else: namely that the "now" of death cannot be fully represented in words. "Deconstruction," in Hillis Miller’s words, "is not a dismantling of the structure of a text but a demonstration that it has already dismantled itself." The critic’s task is thus to discover the "loose stone which will pull down the whole building" (Theory Now and Then [Harvester, 1991], p. 126).

But what if there is no such loose stone? Suppose we read "A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal" against a not unrelated death poem, Dickinson’s There’s a certain Slant of light":

There’s a certain Slant of light,

Winter Afternoons –

That oppresses, like the Heft

Of Cathedral Tunes –

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us —

We can find no scar,

But internal difference —

Where the Meanings, are —

None may teach it–Any–

‘Tis the Seal Despair —

An imperial affliction

Sent us of the Air —

When it comes, the Landscape listens —

Shadows — hold their breath —

When it goes, ‘tis like the Distance

On the look of Death -- (#320)

Like Wordsworth’s "A Slumber," Dickinson’s poem is written in rhyming quatrains of alternating four and three-stress lines. Both poets use a good deal of alliteration, assonance and consonance, as in "A slumber did my spirit seal," and "There’s a certain Slant of light." But here similarity ends. Wordsworth’s ballad stanza observes a regular syllable count (8-6-8-6), iambic meter ("She seémed a thíng that coúld not feél / The toúch of eárthly yeárs"), and the exact rhyming of "seal" / "fears"/ "feel" / "years" and "force" / "sees" / "course"/ "trees."

Dickinson’s prosody is much more irregular. The first three stanzas have a syllable count of 7-5-7-5 rather than the expected 8-6 pattern: the elision of what should be an initial unstressed syllable in each line means that a stressed word in final position (e.g., "líght") is followed by another stress at the beginning of the next line (e.g., "Wínter"). The result is a curious breathlessness that accentuates the verse turn itself. If we read the dashes as rests, that breathlessness is further accentuated. First and third lines don’t rhyme, and in the first stanza, lines 2 and 4 contain the slant rhyme "light" /"heft." Finally, in the fourth stanza, the first and third lines have eight syllables, even as the second and fourth retain the eight-syllable count of the previous stanzas. This has a marked effect: "Whén it cómes, // the Lándscâpe lístens," with its alliteration and secondary stress on "-scape," has a falling rhythm, rather like the "Slant of Light" itself, a lengthening that makes the next line seem all the shorter: "Shádows hóld their Breáth." The breathlessness I spoke of above is now named. And the similarly falling rhythm of the third line–"Whén it goés, ‘tis líke the Dístance"–makes way for the heavy full rhyme in which "breath" gives way to "Death."

The rhythmic difference between the two poems is reinforced by their respective syntax. Wordsworth’s seems to be quite unexceptional: two short declarative sentences in the past tense are followed by a slightly longer one with a subordinate clause ("that could not feel the touch"). In the second stanza the tense has shifted, pointing to the gap de Man talks of, but otherwise we again have declarative sentences, the first with a minor inversion (object, subject, verb), the second with a past participial modifier.

Dickinson’s syntax, as Cristanne Miller has shown in Emily Dickinson: A Poet’s Grammar (Harvard, 1987), is of an entirely different order, characterized as it is by extreme ellipsis, ambiguity, distortion of tense, and so on. Whereas Wordsworth’s pronouns–"I" and "she" are clearly differentiated, in Dickinson’s poem, the pronoun "it" appears six times (twice in the construction "’Tis"), with no definite antecedent: "it" evidently refers to the "slant of light," but in the course of the poem other possible antecedents present themselves like "the Heft/ of Cathedral Tunes." As for the indefinite pronoun "Any" in line 9, Sharon Cameron notes in "Dickinson’s Fascicles" (Handbook, p. 147) that the line "None may teach it–Any--" can be read in at least three different ways: "None may teach it–[not] Any[one else]," "None may teach it–Any[thing] (it is not subject to alteration)," and "None may teach it — [to] Any[one else]–."

Such ambiguity (the possibility of multiple meanings) is not quite indeterminacy in the de Manian sense, and here the question of figuration comes in. Wordsworth’s is a poem of experience: a single determinate speaker (the poet) describes how his feelings have evolved in response to a specific situation: the death of the unnamed "she." The mystery of the poem is a function of what it does not say: who is she? Why was the poet indifferent to her fate? What has made him "now" aware of the finality of death? Metaphor, in this context, is no more than the slight animation of the inanimate: the spirit’s torpor is figured as "slumber," its self-absorption as being under seal; the passage of earthly years as a "touch," the petrifaction of death as the eternal rotation of the planet, animal, vegetable, and mineral no longer distinguishable from one another.

In contrast, "There’s a certain Slant of light" generalizes from personal experience, making it belong to "us" in the present. The "Slant of light" on "Winter afternoons," that yellowish pre-twilight of the short winter day when we know darkness is about to descend, is, for the poet, curiously and irrationally oppressive. She compares it first to the "Heft / Of Cathedral tunes"–a complex simile in that cathedral music should have positive connotations of beauty and spirituality but, in the context of this poem, has the opposite effect. Hymns are what one is forced to sing in church, "tunes" so formal and institutionalized that, this poet believes, they weigh on the spirit. In Fascicle 13, where the poem appears, Dickinson gives the variant word "weight" for "Heft." But "Heft," with its fricative and spirant [ft], is phonemically more appropriate and its implication of heavy and heaving carries forward visually to the "Heavenly Hurt" of line 5. Then, too "heft" calls up the word "haft"–the handle of a knife or dagger. And "haft" is apposite here, given the "hurt" produced, not by anything visible or perceptible–"We can find no scar"–but by a "heavenly Hurt." The bleeding is "internal": it is only in the poet’s heart and soul, in her innermost being, that "the Meanings, are." "Despair" of this order, moreover, cannot be explained or understood: it is an affliction out of nowhere from an unnamed "imperial" source, a despair under "seal" and hence wholly private. Indeed, the poet cannot identify this free-floating fear; she can only describe how it feels: "When it comes, the Landscape listens-- / Shadows hold their breath--." One literally cannot breathe. But "when it goes" is even more chilling; as the winter light fades, there is a sense of emptiness and foreboding. The "look of death" still keeps its "Distance," but its coming is inevitable.

"There’s a certain Slant of light" is a characteristically dense and difficult Dickinson poem, more oblique, in many ways, than Wordsworth’s "Boy of Winander" or "A Slumber did my Spirit Seal." But it is important to see that it does not exhibit the self-cancellation or contradictoriness de Man finds in Wordsworth, where such ordinary words as "hang" and "thing" can be seen to undercut the very meanings ostensibly put forward. However varied the interpretations that have been given to Dickinson’s lyric, no one–not even Camille Paglia in her extraordinary interpretation of Dickinson as Amherst’s Madame de Sade, writing a poetry of veiled sado-masochism (Sexual Personae [Yale, 1990], pp. 623-73), would suggest that the "Slant of light" is a symbol of spiritual enrichment or erotic power or that the late afternoons of winter are, in the parlance of Rimbaud, Dickinson’s ‘l’heure indicible. Again, no one would claim that the poet turns to the "heft" of "Cathedral tunes" as a remedy for her death thoughts. Unlike Wordsworth, whose concrete images often unravel before our eyes, yielding meanings that threaten the very fabric of what the poet means to say, Dickinson does not violate the parameters of plausible connotation.

In A Poet’s Grammar, Cristanne Miller suggests that "Dickinson’s use of ‘Difference’. . . in ‘There’s a certain Slant of light’ uncannily anticipates Jacques Derrida’s idea of différence and of negative or deconstructive interpretation" in that poems like this one have no "semantic or linguistic center, no focal word of origin or meaning" (CMPG 102). But in fact the distinction between the "scar" as visible sign of injury and the "internal difference-- / Where the meanings are" is drawn quite sharply even if the signification of words like "difference" and "meanings" is left unspecified. Dickinson’s is not a Derridean trace structure or Deleuzian rhizome, with "neither beginning nor end but always a middle from which it grows and which it overspills" (Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus [Minnesota, 1987], pp. 20-22). True, her poem presents its meanings obliquely and indirectly in a riddling manner (e.g., what do late afternoon winter light and Cathedral tunes have in common?), but the fact remains that the "it" of line 5 ("Heavenly Hurt, it gives us" and lines 9-10 ("None may teach it–Any-- / ‘Tis the seal Despair--"), the "it" that "comes" in line 13, prompting the Landscape to listen and that "goes" in line 15, leaving a blank "like the Distance / on the look of Death," is, despite its varying nominal antecedents, always the same "it." Or again, whether we foreground the etymology of the monosyllabic noun "heft" in the 1840 Webster’s Dictionary of the American Language, which was evidently Dickinson’s source (see Cristanne Miller, Poet’s Grammar, pp. 153-54), or read it against the word’s variants (e.g. "Weight"), or discover a paragram for "Heft" in "haft," its meanings remain essentially congruent, impervious to the contradiction de Man finds in "thing" as "sweet little thing" or "inanimate object."

Here Sharon Cameron’s commentary in Lyric Time: Dickinson and the Limits of Genre (Johns Hopkins, 1979) is apposite:

The relationship between the "Slant of light" in the landscape and the "Seal Despair–" within may be clarified by an analogy to Erich Auerbach’s distinction between figure and its fulfillment, for the "Slant of light" and the "Seal Despair–" are not in this poem merely premonitions of death, but are, in fact, kinds or types of death. Indeed it could be asserted that in the entire Dickinson canon, despair is often a figura for death, not as Auerbach uses the word to specify related historical events, but rather as he indicates the word to denote an event that prefigures an ultimate occurrence and at the same time is already imbued with its essence. Figurative interpretation presupposes much greater equality between its terms than either allegory or symbol for, in the former, the sign is a mere form and, in the latter, the symbol is always fused with what it represents and can actually replace it. . . . Certainly it would be incorrect to say that "Slant of light" and the ‘Seal Despair–" are symbols. "Light" and "Seal" however are in relation to "death–" as a premise is to a conclusion." (p. 102).

The use of Auerbach’s term figura (the word derives from St. Augustine, who used it to demonstrate the way Old Testament events prefigured those in the New Testament, both promising a third ultimate fulfillment at the end of the world) rather than symbol or metaphor points to an important aspect of Dickinson’s poetics. Figura is a form of typology: whereas allegory personifies abstractions, figura works "in the reverse direction, treating real persons or things in a formulaic way so that they become concrete or living ideas grounded in a shared quality." In poetry, figura is thus "the means whereby a system of beliefs and ideas is rendered palpable" (see Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, ed. Alex Preminger and T.V.F. Brogan [Princeton, 1993], p. 408).

Figura, as Cameron points out, involves the movement, however veiled, from a premise to its conclusion. This means that temporal structure, rather than the spatial form associated with the symbol, predominates. Try, for example, reversing the stanzas in "There’s a certain Slant of light," and the directionality of Dickinson’s lyric becomes apparent. From early to late–say, from "After great pain a formal feeling comes" (#372), with its relentless trajectory toward the conclusion, "First —Chill–then Stupor–then the letting go--", to "My Life had stood a loaded gun" (#764, late 1863), with its explosive denouement:

Though I than He–may longer live

He longer must–than I —

For I have but the power to kill,--

Without–the power to die–

to the late "Apparently with no surprise" (#1668, c. 1884):

Apparently with no surprise

To any happy Flower

The Frost beheads it at it’s play–

In accidental power–

The blonde Assassin passes on–

The Sun proceeds unmoved

To measure off another Day

For an Approving God–

Dickinson’s lyric respects beginnings and endings (if not middles) in ways that run counter to Modernist (and hence Deconstructionist) theories of the lyric.

The distinction may be made clearer by considering a later Dickinson poem, "Four Trees–opon a solitary Acre–" (#778), which Paul Celan translated, together with seven other Dickinson poems, for Die Neue Rundschau in 1961 (see Celan, Gesammelte Werke, Vol. 5 [Suhrkamp, 1983), pp. 201-205). Since Celan has been perhaps the exemplary poet for theorists from Hans-Georg Gadamer and Maurice Blanchot to Derrida and Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe (see Fioritas, Word Traces), the relationship is especially interesting:

Four Trees–opon a solitary Acre–

Without Design

Or Order, or Apparent Action–


The Sun–opon a Morning meets them–

The Wind–

No nearer Neighbor–have they–

But God–

The Acre gives them–Place–

They–Him–Attention of Passer by–

Of Shadow, or of Squirrel, haply–

Or Boy–

What Deed is Their’s unto the General Nature–

What Plan

They severally–retard–or further–


In the manuscript itself (Fascicle 37.6), there are many more line breaks, for example, after "soilitaary" in line 1, "Apparent" in line 3, and "Morning" in line 5. Stanzaic structure can thus be construed as editorial emendation upon a text that is almost in free verse. As such, this spare, elliptical lyric has been compared to Wallace Stevens’s "The Snow Man" in its austerity and sense of dislocation, the bleakness of its landscape. Its "Solitary Acre" marked by "Four Trees" has no apparent center or design. The morning sun shines upon the trees in passing and the wind presumably blows through them, but to what end? "What Deed is Their’s unto the General Nature-- / What Plan"?

In her recent essay "Dickinson’s Experiments with Language," Cristanne Miller has alerted us to the poem’s syntactic indeterminacy. In line 4, for example, the verb "Maintains" apparently has no direct object unless we read across the stanza break —"Four Trees . . . Maintain-- // The Sun–," in which case "it is difficult to account for the syntactic doubling that makes ‘The Sun’ both an object and a subject of the following sentence" (Handbook, p. 253). Or, as Miller points out, "one might take the alternative ‘Do reign’ as suggesting that ‘Maintain’ is similarly intransitive: the trees are lordly, sufficient unto themselves in their own continuing existence, despite what may seem to an observer to be lack of anything over which to ‘reign.’" And a third possibility "is that Dickinson deletes the verb’s inflection as well as its object–making the first sentence read, ‘Four trees . . . [are] maintain[ed]" (p. 253). A similar ambiguity occurs at the end of the second stanza, where we may read "But God" as "completing the claim that they have ‘No . . . Neighbor . . ./ But God’ or as beginning the following sentence in inverted form: ‘But God // The Acre gives them.’" If the trees are "maintained," and the Acre God-given, then perhaps the poet does believe in some form of supernatural agency.

Such syntactic ambiguity, Miller posits, thus "increases [the poem’s] interpretive possibilities" (p. 253). But if so, the last stanza effectively forecloses them. For whatever it is the "Four Trees . . . Maintain--" (or however they "maintain," in the sense of "reign," or are "maintained" by an absent God), whatever "Plan" of "General Nature" the items of everyday life--Shadow, Squirrel, Boy"–"retard," or "promote," is, in the final isolated word of the poem, a word preceded and followed by dashes, "Unknown." There is no doubt about this Unknow[ing]" and hence about the poem’s drive to convey the Stevensian "Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is." As in the case of "The Snow Man," it is impossible to determine whether it is the external world that is empty or whether it is the poet’s observation that empties it. "As in many of her poems," writes Marc Wortman, in his excellent essay on "Four trees," the poem "becomes both an opening to the uncanny possibilities of not knowing and the brutal record of the chilling closure or absence at the heart of observation and knowledge. The immediately intimated metaphor of solitude represented by the trees in an open space creates an allegory of human experience" ("The Place Translation Makes," Translating Tradition: Paul Celan in France, ed. Benjamin Hollander [Acts 8/9, 1988], pp. 134-35). There is, as Gary Lee Stonum notes, "no order, no design, no revelation of meaning," although, since there is also "no difference between inanimate object" and human being or even "God," the "negative conclusions" need not be as "anguished as one might expect" (The Dickinson Sublime [Wisconsin, 1990), p. 17).

Now consider what Paul Celan did with this allegory:

Ein Feld ist, einsam, drauf vier Bäume stehn,

Von ungefähr.

Was waltet vor, was wirkt hier mit?

Sie stehn, sieh her.

Es kommt die Sonne mit der Früh,

Wind tritt hinzu.

Von allen, did da Nachbarn sind:

Ihr nächster, Gott, bist du.

Das Feld hat für sie einen Ort,

Und sie fürs Feld ein Aug.

Ein Aug, das huscht, jetz hier — schon dort,

Vielleicht ein Knabenaug.

Was sind sie in Zusammenhang

Von Werden und Sichregen?

Ein jeder; wem bahnt er den Weg und wem

Steht er entgegen?

[There is a field, solitary, on which four trees stand,

By accident.

What’s going on, what’s happening here?

They stand. Look here!

The sun comes, accompanying the morning,

Wind came toward it.

Of all those who are neighbors here

The nearest, God, is you.

The field has a place for them,

And they have an eye for the field.

An eye, that flits, now here–now there,

Perhaps a boy’s eye.

What are they in the connection

Between becoming and self-generating?

Each one: for whom does he pave the way and to whom

Does he stand opposed?] (my translation)

As the poet of enigmatic fragment, of gnomic utterance that is usually composed in free verse, Celan surprises the reader here by producing four stanzas whose iambic lines (predominantly alternating tetrameter / trimeter) rhyme abcb and in stanza 3, abab. Indeed, although Celan’s version has marked internal caesurae, as in "Sie stéhen, // sieh hér"), it is not nearly as fragmented or disjunctive as Dickinson’s, which, in the fourth stanza, shows signs of breaking down into individual, unconnected words. And the syntactic ambiguity I spoke of earlier has no counterpart in the translation; on the contrary, Celan’s syntax here is quite straightforward.

And yet–and this is the irony–the translation renders "Four trees" more rather than less opaque. In Dickinson’s scheme of things, the four trees upon an acre compose a chilling scene: neither poet nor reader can change the bleak figure they make–a figure perceived to be "Without Design / Or Order, or Apparent Action--." Celan retains the images of solitary acre and four trees, but what is for Dickinson a clear instance of the absence of "Design / Or Order" in the universe, becomes for him the terse "von ungefähr" ("by accident"), which can be taken in various senses. What looks like "accident" may, after all, be by design, man’s or God’s. The configuration seems, in any case, arresting, for the speaker now poses the questions, "Was waltet vor, was wirkt hier mit?" as if these trees have something to convey. One thinks of the landscape (empty field with one tree) in Waiting for Godot. The trees merely are (line 4), challenging the observer to decipher their meaning, and yet the use of the homonyms "Sie" ("they") and "sieh" ("look!") suggests that there is nothing good or bad but thinking ("seeing") makes it so.

From the first, then, Celan subtly shifts the lyric’s ground. In Dickinson’s poem, the absence of "Design" is established early on and it makes little difference, in this regard, whether "Maintain" is an intransitive verb on the order of "Do reign" or whether it is transitive with the sun as its object. Celan’s first stanza, in contrast, leaves the meaning open, causing the reader to wonder what indeed the landscape might signify. And the second stanza carries on this indeterminacy. The sun comes up as in the original, but this time the "wind," an isolated noun surrounded by dashes in Dickinson’s poem, has already been here, as Celan’s past tense ("tritt") indicates. What has the wind wrought? Lines 3-4 follow the original except that Celan turns its third-person statement, "No nearer Neighbor —have they--/ But God--," into direct, intimate ("du") address: "Von allen, die da Nachbarn sind: ihr nächster, Gott, bist du." The appeal to God implies either that He, and only He, could do something or, to the contrary, that, judging from the bleak appearance of things, He has evidently done nothing.

The ambiguity is never resolved. Instead, in stanza 3, the relation between the human and the natural is broached and addressed as a form of reciprocity. The intermittent "Attention of Passer by--/ Of Shadow, or of Squirrel . . . Or Boy" to the Acre itself or the unnamed Deity ("Him") occurs only "haply"–by happenstance or accident. We cannot count on it. But curiously Celan, as Marc Wortman observes, "turns happenstance into ineluctable engagement":

the dialogical nature of perception is embodied in the eye that flits across the landscape. Just as a young boy’s eye plays over a scene and cannot differentiate itself from the things it sees, the eye of the trees–an inspired and arresting inversion of Dickinson’s "attention"–meets its world in a . . . perceptual dialogue, an exchange of eyes from one "I" to another. ("The Place Translation Makes," p. 138).

But what does this perceptual dialogue signify? Celan’s fourth stanza deviates almost entirely from the original. If Dickinson’s poem comes down hard on the word "Unknown" with reference to the trees’ "Deed . . . unto the General Nature" and God’s "Plan," Celan’s speaker is left trying to find a connection ("Zusammenhang") between two semantically charged gerunds: "Werden" (becoming, birth, origin) and "Sichregen" (self-generation, stirring oneself). Whereas Dickinson’s lyric moves toward conclusion, toward the uncompromising emptying out of self and world, Celan’s now shifts ground metonymically: "Ein jeder" ("Each one"), no longer a tree or an eye, becomes the individual who has the choice to help the Other (what Other?) or to bar his way. What determines, Celan’s poem asks, who will be the object of such help or hindrance? What, in other words, determines the dynamics of human exchange? Or again, if "er" is taken to be God, the question becomes even more pressing. What determines, the poet asks, whose side God is on, whom he will help or hinder? The implication is that God could do something–but that inexplicably he won’t. The rest is white space–or silence.

"[Dickinson’s] unique transport, her Sublime" writes Harold Bloom, "is founded upon her unnaming of all our certitudes into so many blanks; it gives her, and her authentic readers, another way to see, almost in the dark." [The Western Canon [Harcourt Brace, 1994], pp. 308-309). Perhaps the appeal Celan (like Beckett, like Mallarmé) has had for post-structuralist theory is that his is a world in which there are no longer any certitudes to "unname." Words like "Design," "Order," "Place," "General Nature," and "Plan": these, accordingly, are erased in Celan’s translation. If Dickinson asks what purpose can possibly be served by the natural objects in whose presence we dwell, Celan’s lyric is at once more specific and elusive. If hers is a deep-seated skepticism about the cosmic order–"What Deed is Their’s unto the General Nature / What plan"–his is, in Wortman’s words, "’a language grid,’ " (p. 141). For in Celan’s scheme of things, there are, as Wittgenstein would have it, no thoughts outside of language; it is language itself that initiates the movement from trees and field, sun and wind, to a consideration (seemingly quite unrelated) of human choice. The key word in this connection is Zusammenhangliterally a hanging together a noun that begins by referring to the relation of field to tree, of tree to sun and wind, and by extension, to an absent God, then refers to the connection between the animate and the inanimate (stanza 3) and finally–and one might say, irrelevantly– the connection between Werden and Sichregen.

In his reply to a questionnaire from the Flinker Bookstore in Paris (1958), Celan talks about the renewal of German-language poetry in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust:

German poetry is going in a very different direction from French poetry.

No matter how alive its traditions, with most sinister events in its memory, most

questionable developments around it, it can no longer speak the language which many willing ears seem to expect. Its language has become more sober, more factual. It distrusts "beauty". It tries to be truthful. . . it is a ‘greyer’ language, a language which wants to locate even its ‘musicality’ in such a way that it has nothing in common with the ‘euphony’ which more or less blithely continued to sound alongside the greatest horrors.

This language, notwithstanding its inalienable complexity of expression, is concerned with precision. It does not transfigure or render ‘poetical’; it names, it posits, it tries to measure the area of the given and the possible. (Collected Prose, trans. Rosmarie Waldrop [Sheep Meadow, 1996], pp. 15-16)

The distrust of "beauty" and "musicality" is one Celan might have learned from Dickinson, who revolutionized the "euphonious" verse of her time and place in the interest of what she saw as truth. But the "precision" Celan speaks of may well be a Modernist (and also a Romanticist) value: one thinks of Flaubert’s mot juste, Pound’s Imagist precepts-- "Direct treatment of the thing, whether subject or object" and "Use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation’ (Literary Essays, ed. T. S. Eliot [Faber, 1954], p. 3)-- and Stein’s insistence that "poetry is essentially the discovery, the love, the passion for the name of anything" ("Poetry and Grammar," Writings 1932-1946 [Library of America, 1998], p. 329).

This "passion for the name of anything," it is interesting to reflect, is not Emily Dickinson’s passion. On the contrary, an examination of the variant word lists that begin to appear on the fringes of Dickinson’s poems in the early 1860s, suggests that she did not believe that words were in themselves irreplacable. Consider, in this regard, the variants in "Four Trees," some of which I have already discussed. Here is the list for each line in Franklin’s edition:

3 Action--] signal--, notice-- 4 Maintain--]Do reign–

13 is Their’s] they bear 15 retard--or further--] promote–or hinder--

The notion of substitution implicit in such a list goes directly counter to theories of the mot juste, of the Symbolist doctrine that the chosen word is the only word that can convey a desired set of meanings. If "Apparent Action" could also be "Apparent Signal" or "Apparent Notice," if "Maintain" could also be "Do reign," if "What Deed is Their’s unto the General Nature" might alternatively be "What Deed they bear unto the General Nature," and if, in stanza 4, "retard–or further--" might just as well be, in a chiastic reversal, "promote–or hinder--," then surely, the sacred Word is -- so Modernist theory would have it–not given its proper due. "Our words," said Yeats, "must be inevitable," and he chided Dorothy Wellesley for using two words–"harlot" and "whore" – in a given poem, where, so he insists, one would do (Letters on Poetry to Dorothy Wellesley [Oxford, 1964], pp. 61, 81-82).

In his youthful polemic, Writing Degree Zero (1953), Roland Barthes took on the Sorbonne establishment by dismissing modern poetry for its excessive opposition to the "social function of language" and its reduction of discourse to "words as static things." In the poetry of Rimbaud and his successors, Barthes argued, poetry becomes a "substance," an "unexpected object." "The Word shines forth above a line of relationships emptied of their content," a "sign devoid of background," "reduced to a sort of zero degree" (Writing Degree Zero, trans. Annette Lavers and Colin Smith [Farrar Straus, 1967], pp. 42-49). In response to "writing degree zero," Barthes’s own critical writings scrupulously avoid an engagement with poetry, preferring fiction, advertising, journalism, film, photography–almost anything, to the "existential geology" of the modern lyric, the irony being, of course, that his own later works are texts that are themselves nothing if not poetic.

But Barthes’ strictures, which his fellow theorists did not follow, call attention to a problematic facet of Modernist poetics with its emphasis on verbal autonomy. In the hands of a late Modernist like Celan, of course, "writing degree zero" becomes a brilliant tool used, in the poet’s own words, "to measure the area of the given and the possible." But it is not the only avenue for avant-garde writing; indeed, Barthes notwithstanding, it is not the only avenue for lyric. One important thing that Dickinson’s poetry can teach us in this regard is that semantic density à la Celan is only one possible alternative for the late twentieth century poet. If, for that matter, we think of poetry less as product than as process, a new set of poetic attributes becomes important. The presence of the variant words, for example, creates, as Sharon Cameron has noted, a situation in which "alternative senses are displaced but not decisively so because they remain ambiguously counterpointed to the word to which they stand in explicit juxtaposition, and to which they often stand in direct proximity on the manuscript page. . . For alternatives to various words are not treated in Dickinson’s text as other than those words" (Handbook, p. 44).

But it is not just a matter of word variants. Recent studies of Dickinson’s writing practices by Martha Nell Smith (Rowing in Eden, 1992), Jerome J. McGann (Black Riders (Princeton, 1993), and especially Marta Werner (Open Folios [Michigan, 1994]), have agreed with Cameron that Dickinson’s is a mode of Choosing not Choosing (the title of Cameron’s 1992 study) –a variorum poetics, involving what Werner calls in the subtitle to her fascinating book, "Scenes of Reading, Surfaces of Writing." To study the actual pages Dickinson composed, with their "dashes, crosses, and stray marks migrating across the surfaces of the manuscripts," Werner argues, is to read Dickinson’s poetry in a very different light (p. 1). For one thing, as the poet Susan Howe suggests in her celebrated essay (itself a kind of prose poem), "Emily Dickinson and the Illogic of Sumptuary Values" (1991; reprinted in revised form in The Birth-mark Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History [Wesleyan, 1993], pp. 131-53), once Dickinson’s manuscripts are understood as "visual productions," her poetry is understood to be less stanzaic than loosely linear and even, especially in the last decade of production, close to prose. Indeed, in the late folios, the line between "poetry" and "prose"– a line Celan, for one, takes as seriously as Wordsworth ever did– breaks down.

The poet Jack Spicer, reviewing the Johnson variorum edition of Dickinson in 1956, was perhaps the first to remark on this point:

The reason for the difficulty of drawing a line between the poetry and prose in Emily Dickinson’s letters may be that she did not wish such a line to be drawn. If large portions of her correspondence are considered not as mere letters–and, indeed, they seldom communicate information, or have much to do with the person to whom they were written–but as experiments in a heightened prose combined with poetry, a new approach to both her letters and her poetry opens up. (The House that Jack Built, ed. Peter Gizzi [Wesleyan, 1998), p. 234)

What Umberto Eco called, in his book by that title (Harvard, 1989), the "open work" (Opera aperta), can thus mean many different things. For Eco, as for Derrida, it is the text of semantic contradiction, the trace structure where meanings cancel out one another. But "open work" can also refer to the opening produced when one word is read against another, neither being given preference or when one poem is read against the others in a given fascicle--as, for example, Cameron, in Choosing not Choosing (pp. 90-96), reads "There’s a Certain Slant of Light" against the neighboring "Of Bronze–And Blaze--" [#319])-- when verse lines incorporated into letters, sent or unsent, create an equivocal textual field, or when the marks on a given page-- dashes, crosses, crossings-out--are read as an integral part of the text.

When Bakhtin, Adorno, the French post-structuralist theorists, and even most Marxist and feminist theorists have talked about lyric, their point de repère has essentially been the Modernist lyric-- the autonomous, semantically dense, and indeterminate lyric of a Mallarmé, a Rilke, or a Stevens. Not surprisingly, then, they have underrated Emily Dickinson even as they have underrated Gerard Manley Hopkins, or, for that matter, Emerson. True, with respect to meaning-making, Dickinson is very much of her time: despite her complex and difficult metaphysic, she believes that poetry can articulate truths, even if those truths are to be told "slant." But if Dickinson is not a Modernist, she is, ironically, very much a precursor of what we might call the "differential" poetics of our own time–"differential" in that there is not one "correct" or even preferred text–but a variorum set that allows the reader to consider alternatives. As such, Dickinson’s is a poetics of process that allows for much more reader involvement than does the Modernist aesthetic of the mot juste. Again, her visual poetics–the reliance of the look on the page to create and challenge meanings–is nothing if not postmodern. The question, and it is one that deserves much further discussion, is one of aesthetic distance, the relationship between the poet and her readers. For Dickinson, unlike Celan, unlike, for that matter, Wordsworth or Yeats, poetic authority, in an ironic spin on what de Man called "blindness and insight," passes from poet to reader.

NOTE * The edition used throughout is R. W. Franklin (ed.), The Poems of Emily Dickinson, Variorum Edition, 3 vols. (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1998). Numbers refer to poems, not pages. | Back to Marjorie Perloff's Homepage | Back to the EPC Homepage