by Sandra Gilbert

Page 3

Very interesting that you see here that there's a kind of agonistic struggle that she imagines between herself and the male muse. There are other poems where that becomes clearer, but I think this is interesting because he both cooperates sometimes, and at other times, just refuses to cooperate. On the other hand, for Dickinson, there are countless female figures, female deities I would say, who really do cooperate, and one of my favorite poems of Dickinson's is about a kind of generalized range of female muses. This poem is Number 722:

Sweet Mountains - Ye tell Me no lie -
Never deny Me - Never fly -
Those same unvarying Eyes
Turn on Me - when I fail - or feign,
Or take the Royal names in vain -
Their far - slow - Violet Gaze -

My Strong Madonnas - Cherish still -
The Wayward Nun - beneath the Hill -
Whose service - is to You -
Her latest Worship - When the Day
Fades from the Firmament away -
To lift Her Brows on You -

(JP 722)

This is a kind of prayer in a female theology, a female mythology, which she does feel empowers her. It's very crucial. But then the last poem of hers that I want to read is one in which she very, very specifically locates herself in a female literary tradition, and you'll notice that in this poem, the female literary tradition within which she locates herself is one that she associates with magic, with witchcraft, with madness, with a kind of divine madness, and with transformation, with what I said seems to be essential to her work and to her life, and that is metamorphosis. Because throughout this poem, everything metamorphoses into everything else, and everything becomes increasingly fantastic. The poem is about reading the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who is defined as "that foreign lady," literally because she is foreign, she is an Englishwoman; but figuratively speaking, because she is foreign to the culture, too, as a woman poet. And she becomes a kind of emblem of female poetic power, who gives Dickinson permission to write, in a sense, and imbues Dickinson with the strength and the energy to transform her own world.

I think I was enchanted
When first a sombre Girl -
I read that Foreign Lady -
The Dark - felt beautiful -

And whether it was noon at night -
Or only Heaven - at Noon -
For very Lunacy of Light
I had not power to tell -

The Bees - became as Butterflies -
The Butterflies - as Swans -
Approached - and spurned the narrow Grass -
And just the meanest Tunes

That Nature murmured to herself
To keep herself in Cheer -
I took for Giants - practising
Titanic Opera -

The Days - to Mighty Metres stept -
The Homeliest - adorned
As if unto a Jubilee
'Twere suddenly confirmed -

I could not have defined the change -
Conversion of the Mind
Like Sanctifying in the Soul -
Is witnessed - not explained -

'Twas a Divine Insanity -
The Danger to be Sane
Should I again experience -
'Tis Antidote to turn -

To Tomes of solid Witchcraft -
Magicians be asleep -
But Magic - hath an Element
Like Deity - to keep -
(JP 593)

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