Eleanor Heginbotham
Concordia University St. Paul
MLA Presentation 1997
(see two pages from Manuscript Books)

Dickinson's Aesthetics and Fascicle 21

Midway through Fascicle 21--midway through her entire self-publishing project Emily Dickinson declared her aesthetic principles. Here--contrary, I believe to those who claim the fascicles to be scrapbooks for safekeeping--Dickinson intentionally and wittily copied, facing each other, two poems which we now know well and quote often--almost always in isolation from each other.

As happens again and again in reading Dickinson's "poems in their places," a term I borrow from Neil Fraistat, the two poems speak to each other across the page, each opening up interpretive possibilities for the other. On the left, sixth in a series of seventeen poems, is the image of the speaker who resists being "shut . . .up in Prose--"; on the right, seventh in the series, is a triumphant response to that resistance in the exploration of why "This was a Poet--." On these pages Prose visually confronts Poetry. On the left, we note that the reason for closeting the little Girl (who preferred poetry to prose apparently) was that "they liked me 'still.'" Reading across the page, we hear the speaker applauding that the poet "Distills amazing sense / From ordinary Meanings -- / And Attar so immense." The poet is also as the encomium (perhaps to Elizabeth Barrett Browning) suggests, one who "Arrests" the "familiar species / That perished by the Door"; one who "Discloses" the Picture; one who is "Entitled" to "a Fortune" -- all of this reflecting, of course, Emerson's essay on "The Poet" and all of it more meaningful when read across the page in the fascicle setting from the poem it faces. The onomatopoeic snap of that first line -- "They shut me up in Prose" -- offers a thesis; the image of the poet (in the poem on the opposite page) as the "Discloser," opening the door of that closet, is the antithesis. The fact that the "theys" liked the "little Girl" to be "still," is the thesis; that the poet "distills" is the antithesis."

To be "still" has horrifying resonances to the speaker of many of Dickinson's poems; it is a tremendous feat that the poet can "Distill." Along with the literal meanings of the line, the word is also clearly a pun in this, Dickinson's own context. Emphasizing the speaker's repugnance at an imposed stillness -- a state far from the dreamlike suspension of personality and prejudice associated with Negative Capability -- the speaker of P.613 repeats defiantly:

Still! Could themself have peeped
And seen my Brain go round
They might as wise have lodged
A Bird
For treason in the pound.
Dickinson's lexicon (the `1828 Websters) defines a "Pound" as a place for cattle or beasts "taken in trespassing, or going at large in violation of the law." That context makes the placement of the two poems the more ironic. In this context the poet is the de-stiller, the de-stabilizer, the defiant, the trespasser on the ordinary. The symbol for the poet is the bird in the other poem, the one who looks down from vast heights, laughing at the misguided audacity of the "they's" to contain her (or him: the "That" is a-sexual). As did Whitman, this poet -- especially when read in Dickinson's fascicle context, declares active, timeless, spaceless, eternal existence.

As Whitman called his gatherings, his self-publication project -- all five versions of them-- "Leaves of Grass," Dickinson's early editors called hers "fascicles." What Dickinson herself called them we don't know-- though there are tantalizing hints ("my books," "a little manuscript volume," "portfolios of verses," and "the little pamphlet"?-- all references in letters)-- but the word "fascicle," applied to them by Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson" is defined in the OED, among other things as "a bunch, bundle. . .a cluster of leaves or flowers. . .a tuft. . .a bunch of roots growing from one point." These are Dickinson's leaves of grass. As was Whitman, Dickinson was self-consciously representative of and speaking directly to us, her "Sweet--Countrymen," to whom she pleads for a "tender" judgment. How to judge her in her own context is the problem of this panel as it has been of the four books and perhaps a half dozen dissertations specifically about the fascicles. What Amy Lowell said about the challenge of reading Dickinson long before the Franklin reconstitution project was imagined, is multiplied by reading her in this context: "I think she'd be exacting,/ Without intention possibly, and ask / A thousand tight-rope tricks of understanding." This is not the panel on which to reflect on the way others have met Dickinson on that tight rope (William Shurr, Sharon Cameron, Dorothy Oberhaus, Ralph Franklin himself, most prominent among them); what I want to show is that this one fascicle demonstrate's Willis Buckingham's observation (countering David Porter's and even Franklin's) that "there remains a likelihood that several poems on each sheet represent a significant grouping."

Though I am talking only about Fascicle 21, my larger study of four pairs of fascicles reveals to me that patterns exist everywhere--and to anticipate David Porter, let me say that these are on the pages of the books, not only in my head. Dickinson has slyly left not only the doublings such as the prose/ poetry pair but a number of other "tightrope tricks" as well. For example, at times a poem in the center of a fascicle acts as a sort of stile, up toward which and away from which the fascicle moves. She may end a fascicle with a poem which seems both a culmination of the fascicle and a precursor to the first poem so that, as is true in Fascicle 1, the opened book provides the visual trick of leading the reader back to the first poem. She has spilled lines from certain poems and used them on the next page as titles for adjacent poems and she has used verses separated from previous verses; on their new pages, where they bridge proximate poems. She has privileged clusters of images in each fascicle, giving each what, for want of a better word, seems its own "Thumbprint." How intentional or how serendipitous or some blend of the two--recall Frost's words on "the wonder of the unexpected supply" and Dickinson's "Trust in the Unexpected --" (P.555, F.27)--is irrecoverable, barring some miraculous attic discovery.

What is recoverable in the intertextuality of the two poems which may be read across as well as down the pages of the middle of Fascicle 21 and the intertextuality of these with the others in the fascicle. To take the first further than in my opening.

--"They shut me up in Prose" never uses the word "poem" or "poet" though it certainly surrounds the subject, especially when placed opposite the poem written earlier but chosen for this spot.

--Just so, "This was a Poet" defines the poet (Dickinsonianly slantwise) by negatives, in vocabulary dotted with prefixes "de," "a," and "un." There is that pun on "Distill," for example. The poet unsettles us and also presses and imprints the ordinary into the thoughtful and beautiful. Such sense is amazing, another word with punning possibilities (minister in a maze in Hawthorne = confusion; amazing sense = Amazing Grace or blessed state)

--The poet in the poem on the right "arrests the familiar species," suggesting both that she is empowered to stop the world for her artistic purposes as Keats, say, does with the youths chasing maidens around the Urn and that she a/ rests as she de/ stills -- that is that she troubles that "familiar species/ That perished by the Door."

--The reader goes back to the little Girl in the Closet, put there by the "theys" who liked her "still" or at rest. The power of poetry is oppositely to stop time (arrest) and to stir things up to a/ rest." (species, too, has its own punning possibilities).

--We look at the second half of "This was a Poet" in its placement across from "They shut me up in Prose." On the left, the little girl, like the bird, has boundless powers if "Himself" but "wills" his (her) own freedom to "Abolish his Captivity." We recall as we move to the right again and note that the poet becomes, apparently, a wealthy philanthropist who with much to will: His or her "Fortune [is] -- / Exterior to Time"--or, as Emerson, put it, the poet is "the owner of all land, tax free."

Dickinson's emphasis in the paired poems on the subversive and affective possibilities of poetry situates her aesthetic principles far from those of her contemporary "fireside poets," whose more strictly metered, true-rhyming, nationalistic and inspirational verse was rarely de-stilling or unsettling and close, obviously, to Emerson's and, as Gary Stonum reminds us, to Carlyle's where "the hermeneutic zigzag of truth and error. . .may itself be a little dazzling." I would like to introduce another possible influence-- and do so more fully elsewhere: Henry Home, Lord Kames. Carlton Lowenberg cites his theories as among those taught at Amherst when Dickinson studied there. Kames answers his own question, "By what mark does the ear distinguish verse from prose?" and cites the effects of harmony that make the reader say "this is poetry." Although she may have eschewed Kames's pedantry on grammar, syntax, and syllabication, a number of her poems, especially these paired poems, echo his view that the poet embodies "the perfect coincidence of the image and the words with the feeling we have, and of which we cannot get rid in any other way" ["Is there any other way?" she asks Higginson in that famous letter's definition.] What Fascicle 21, particularly the pair of poems at their center, seems to surround is the exhilaration of self identification, a sense of belonging in the company of those, in Kames's words, "elevated above common nature," or, in Dickinson's, those who are free from the house of prose." I could go on, but I don't need to make a huge claim to the influence of Kames to declare that Dickinson's vivid eye- blink-brief aesthetic statement -- the paired poems imbedded in and radiating through Fascicle 21 -- has two centuries of theory behind it.

Had we but time enough we could see how this pair is echoed on the very next page of the fascicle, where, on the left, we read of another closeting, another entombment "In falling Timbers buried --" (P.614) and on the right, another attempt at defining the poet, "I died for Beauty" (P. 449); at the way dying for truth and beauty a-la-Keats merges on the next page to "Dreams--are well--but Waking's better" (P.450), and so on, leading to the proud declaration at the end of this fascicle that "It was given to me by the Gods--" (P.454). What could the "It" be but the gift to write such poems and to make such books, which as she says on the fascicle's very last leaf, "Rich! 'Twas Myself -- was rich -- / To take the name of Gold --- / And Gold to own -- in solid Bars -- / The Difference-- made me bold --" What temerity. This is the same poet who began the book timorously with "I Years had been from Home" and who, faced with the question of her "Business," imagined herself fearing, gasping, and fleeing" from the house. Those paired poems declare the business of the poet and the will of the little girl to escape the entrapment of the theys who would try to stare stolidly into the face that would become, through difference, so bold.

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