by Annie Finch

Page 4

Not surprisingly, female personifications of nature are the most easily maintained in Dickinson's poems, as in poem 790, an extended conceit about Mother Nature, ending when the speaker pushes the process of metaphorization to its utmost by making the moon an embodiment of the romantic sublime who "seemed engrossed to Absolute - /With shining - and the Sky -." At this moment of heightened confrontation between the subjective poet and the objectified, romanticized moon, the poem switches into its conclusion:

The privilege to scrutinize
Was scarce upon my Eyes
When, with a Silver practise -
She vaulted out of Gaze -

And next - I met her on a Cloud -
Myself too far below
To follow her superior Road -
Or its advantage - Blue -
(JP 790)

With the speaker having taken the "privilege" with which the moon entered the poem, its otherness and independence, and transformed it into the "privilege to scrutinize," to objectify, the moon rebels. The speaker's concluding admission that she is unable to follow the moon or to perceive the blue that surrounds it performs the same movement as the ending of Helen Hunt Jackson's "Flower on the Ruins of Rome," drawing the poem back from its personifying subjectivity.

In other poems, of course, Dickinson personifies nature with no such compensations. JP 986, "A narrow fellow in the grass," and JP 1379, "His mansion in the Pool," for instance, carry their metaphorical conceits through unmodified. Yet in a way these poems are the most obvious correlates of the sentimental tradition in Dickinson's work, because they treat language and the poetic process as conventionalized artifacts: "A Lily said to a threatening Cloud, / that in sternest garb array'd him . . . " (Sigourney); "A Bee his burnished Carriage / Drove boldly to a Rose . . ." (Dickinson). The awed parallel voice of Dickinson's metaphysical fantasies is even audible among the poetesses as well, as in this passage from Jackson:

Though I was dead, I died again for shame;
Lonely, to flee from heaven again I turned;
The ranks of angels looked away from me
(Beneath my feet the golden pavements burned).

Like Jackson, Dickinson is deeply involved in such metaphysical realities, as much the domain of imagination as of theology. Perhaps it is this exuberant, unself-conscious fancifulness of the poetesses that brings me back to their work, repeatedly and with increasing courage and openmindedness. Perhaps it is their accessibility, their interest in communal values, their vision of divinity embodied in nature--all oddly familiar values in the late 1990s. Perhaps it is simply curiosity. Whatever the reasons for my interest, the sentimental tradition, through Dickinson, provided me a life-line to a different way of configuring myself as a poet. My appreciation for Dickinson only increases the more I become aware of how much of the sentimental tradition she has carried out of the shadows.

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