Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. “A Woman–White: Emily Dickinson’s Yarn of Pearl,” in The Madwoman in the Attic. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1979.
“The fantasies of guilt and anger that were expressed in the entranced reveries of the fiction-maker by writers like Rossetti and Barrett Browning, and by all the novelists we have considered, were literally enacted by Dickinson in her own life, her own being… Emily Dickinson herself became such an angel… Emily Dickinson herself enacted the part of a child” (583).
“We will argue here that Dickinson’s posing was not an accident of but essential to her poetic self-achievement, specifically because–as we have suggested–the verse-drama into which she transformed her life enabled her to transcend what Suzanne Juhasz has called the ‘double bind’ of the woman poet: on the one hand, the impossibility of self-assertion for a woman, on the other hand, the necessity of self-assertion for a poet” (584).
“We have seen that, from Austen’s parodic Laura and Sophia to Emily Brontë’s A. G. A., the heroines of fiction by women obsessively and self-consciously enact precisely the melodramatic romances and gothic plots that their reclusive authors deny themselves (or are denied) in their own lives. We have seen, too, that the female author increasingly moves from a position of ‘objectivity’ and indifference, or even one of ironic amusement, toward her protagonists…to an open identification with her heroine. Not surprisingly, then, in the work of Emily Dickinson, the latest and most consciously radical of these artists, we see the culmination of this process, an almost complete absorption of the characters of the fiction into the persona of their author, so that this writer and her protagonist(s) become for all practical purposes one–one ‘supposed person’ achieving the authority of self-creation by enacting many highly literary selves and lives” (585).
“For Dickinson, indeed, art is not so much poeisis–making–as it is mimesis–enactment, and this because she believes that even consciousness is not so much reflective as it is theatrical” (586).
“…by literally and figuratively impersonating ‘a woman–white,’ Dickinson wove her life into a gothic ‘Yarn of Pearl’ that gave her exactly the ‘Amplitude’ and ‘Awe’ she knew she needed in order to write great poetry” (586).
“As many critics have observed, Dickinson began her poetic career by consciously enacting the part of a child–both by deliberately prolonging her own childhood and by inventing a new, alternative childhood for herself. At the same time, however, her child mask was inseparable from her even more famously self-defining role as the inoffensive and invisible soul of ‘I’m Nobody! Who are you?’ In keeping with this early yet toughly enduring version of herself, Dickinson insistently described herself as a tiny person, a wren, a daisy, a mouse, a child, a modest little creature easily mastered by circumference and circumstance. Like Barrett Browning, whose poetry she much admired, she seems at first to have assuaged the guilt verse-writing aroused by transforming Romantic poetic self-assertion into an aesthetic of female service modeled on Victorian marriage. Certainly something like the relationship between a masterful husband and a self-abnegating wife appears to be at the heart of much of her poetry, where it is also pictured, variously, as the encounter of lover and mistress, king and queen. On closer examination, however, we can see that–in keeping with this poet’s persistent child pose–the male-female relationship is ‘really’ that of father and daughter, master and scholar/slave, ferocious ‘man of noon’ and vulnerable flower of dawn, reverent or rebellious Nobody and (to borrow a useful neologism from William Blake) omnipotent omnipresent Nobodaddy” (587).
“…though Mrs. Browning’s American disciple described herself as Nobody, admired Aurora Leigh, and seemed on occasion to preach the ‘piercing virtue’ of a Rosetti-esque renunciation, many of her most modest and ‘feminine’ remarks were undercut by a steel blade of irony that transformed service into subversion and renunciation into the ‘Royal Seal’ of a ‘White Election’. Still, despite her secret sense of election, Dickinson understood the social requirements, masquerading as cosmic laws, which obliged every woman in some sense to enact the role of Nobody” (587-8).
“It is particularly catastrophic, however, for a poet’s sea of Awe to be hidden and unmentionable…Neither an inner sea nor a mother named Awe can be renounced: both are facts of the blood, inescapable inheritances” (590).
“Rather early in her life as an artist, Dickinson must have half-consciously perceived that she could avoid the necessity of renouncing her art by renouncing, instead, that concept of womanliness which required self-abnegating renunciation. Or, to put it another way, she must have decided that to begin with she could try to solve the problem of being a woman by refusing to admit that she was a woman. Though she might then lack the crowning title that is the ‘sign’ of achieved womanliness or wifehood, she would glow with the ‘White Election’ of art. …By remaining in her father’s house, a childlike Nobody (rather than becoming a wifely Nobody in a husband’s house), she would have at least a chance of negotiating with Awe for the rank of Somebody” (591).
“…the asexual ‘Possibility’ of childhood was far more awesome and amplitudinous than the suffocating ‘Prose’ of female adulthood. The consequences of Dickinson’s early impersonation of childhood and her concomitant fascination with its solemn playthings as opposed to the work ‘Of Woman, and of Wife’ were far-reaching indeed. On the one hand, her initially strong commitment to an elaborately contrived (and from the world’s point of view, ‘partially cracked’) child mask enabled her not only to write a great deal of poetry but to write a great deal of astonishingly innovating poetry–poetry full of grammatical ‘mistakes’ and stylistic eccentricities such as only a mad child could write. On the other hand, while freeing her form the terrors of marriage and allowing her to ‘play’ with the toys of Amplitude, the child mask (or pose or costume) eventually threatened to become a crippling self, a self that in the crisis of her gothic life fiction locked her into her father’s house in the way that a little girl is confined to a nursery. What was habit in the sense of costume became habit in the more pernicious sense of addiction, and finally the two habits led to both an inner and outer inhabitation –a haunting interior other and an inescapable prison” (591). (AD: RE: STEVIE SMITH)
“The impersonation of a child’s naiveté can be put to more than one good use, we see here. Not only can a child play at verse but (since from the child’s perspective all language is fresh or strange) all words can become a child’s shiny toys, to be examined, handled, tasted, fondled with ironic Awe” (593).
“…just as her engagement with the business of households remained childlike but darkened, so her poetic questionings of language and experience remained childlike in their perspective of Awe but darkened and became severer” (593).
“…as she grew older, she discovered that the price of her salvation was her agoraphobic imprisonment in her father’s household, along with a concomitant exclusion from the passionate drama of adult sexuality” (595).
“…as Dickinson grew into that inescapable sexual consciousness which her little girl pose postponed but did not evade, she realized that she must move away from the androgynous freedom of childhood and began, therefore, to perceive the symbolic castration implicit in female powerlessness. Looking into the scorching dazzle of the patriarchal sun–the enormous ‘masculine’ light that controls and illuminates all public things-as-they-are–she must have felt blinded by its intensity, made aware, that is, both of her own comparative weakness and of her own ambivalence about looking” (595).
“Under the blinding gaze of noon, agoraphobia (meaning the desire for walls, for reassurance, for love and certainty) becomes claustrophobia (meaning inescapable walls, ‘love’ transformed to limits), and the old-fashioned little girl is locked into one of the cells of darkness her God/Father seems to have prepared for her” (604).
Dickinson, along with Brontë and Fuller, wrote somewhat masochistic “Master letters” : “Though Margaret Fuller was in 1852 to claim as ‘a vulgar error that love, a love, to Woman is her whole existence,’ in 1843 she drafted a fantasy letter to Beethoven, a Master letter not unlike Dickinson’s drafts to her mysterious love and Brontë’s letters to Constantin Héger. Here, insisting that ‘my lot is accursed, yes, my friend, let me curse it… I have no art, in which to vent the swell of a soul as deep as thine,’ she went on to analyze with terrible clarity not only her imprisonment in romantic plots but the patriarchal structures she knew those plots reflected” (606).
“If Dickinson’s Master is silent while she speaks, however, who is really the master and who the slave? Here her self-effacing pose as Nobody suggests levels of irony as intricately layered as the little bundles of speech that lay hidden all her life in her bureau drawer” (607).
“…doesn’t a little girl who ‘plays’ by creating a whole garden of verses secretly triumph over the businesslike world of fathers and teachers and households? If so, is not the little girl really, covertly an adult, one of the Elect, even an unacknowledged queen or empress?” (608).
Whereas the gun is traditionally a poetic phallus substitute, “For Dickinson, on the other hand, the Gun’s Vesuvian smile is directed outward, impartially killing the timid dow (a female who rose to patriarchal Requirements?), all the foes of the Muse/Master, and perhaps even, eventually, the vulnerably human Master himself. Dancing ‘like a Bomb’ abroad, exploding out of the ‘sod grown,’ the ‘frame’ of darkness to which her life had been ‘shaven and fitted,’ the enraged poet becomes her own weapon, her instrumentality transferred from ‘His Requirements’ to her own needs. In a sense, the Master here is no more than the explanation or occasion for the poet’s rage” (610). (AD: re: de Beauvoir’s assertion that it is the killing rather than the producing sex that reigns.)
“Dickinson’s overwhelming and previously engulfing ‘wound’ becomes a weapon. ‘A Wounded Deer–leaps highest,’ she had insisted in one of her earliest verses. ‘Tis but the Ecstasy of death–/ And then the Brake is still!’ Her identification, then, had been with the wounded animal. In ‘My Life had stood,’ however, she turns upon that passive and suffering doe in herself and hunts her down… Wounds cause explosions” (611).
“The white election. The white heat. There is a sense in which the color (or uncolor) white is the key to the whole metaphorical history of Emily Dickinson as a supposed person. Certainly its ambiguities of meaning constitute a central strand in the yarn of pearl which is her life fiction. Some time in the early or mid-sixties, possibly during that equivocal annus mirabilis of 1862, she took to wearing her famous white dress, perhaps at first intermittently, as a costume of special import for special occasions; then constantly, so that this extraordinary costume eventually became an ordinary habit” (613).
“Dickinson’s white is thus a two-edged blade of light associated with both flame and snow, both triumph and martyrdom. Absolute as the ‘universal blanc’ Milton ‘sees’ in Paradise Lost, it paradoxically represents both a divine intensity and a divine absence, both the innocence of dawn and the iciness of death, the passion of the bride and the snow of the virgin. From this it follows, too, that for Dickinson white also suggests both the pure potential of a tabula rasa, a blank page, an unlived life–’the Missing All’–and the sheer fatigue of winter, the North, a ‘polar expiation,’ that wilderness of ice where Satan’s legions journey and Mary Shelley’s unholy trinity meet. In addition, therefore, white implies the glory of heaven and the ghastliness of hell united in a single creative/destructive principle, as in Percy Shelley’s ‘Mont Blanc.’ Dramatically associated with both babies and ghosts, it is the color of the lily’s foot and of the spider’s thread, of the tender Daisy’s petals and of the experienced Pearl’s tough skin. Last, despite its importance for Melville, white was in the nineteenth century a distinctively female color, frequently chosen as emblematic by or of women for reasons Dickinson seems to have understood quite well” (615). (AD: re: Victorian sexual purity of women)
“…although in one sense whiteness implies an invitation, in another, it suggests a refusal, just as passivity connotes both compliance and resistance. Snow may be vulnerable to the sun but it is also a denial of heat, and the word virginity, because its root associates it with the word vir, meaning manliness or power, images a kind of self-enclosing armor, as the mythic moon-white figure of Diana the huntress tells us. For such a snow maiden, virginity, signifying power instead of weakness, is not a gift she gives her groom but a boon she grants to herself: the boon of androgynous wholeness, autonomy, self-sufficiency” (617). (AD: virginity is not necessarily autonomy or self-sufficiency.)
“Dressing all white, might she not have meant to indicate the death to the world of an old Emily and the birth of another Emily, a supposed person or a series of supposed persons who escaped the Requirements of Victorian reality by assuming the eccentricities of Victorian fiction? Enacting a private Apocalypse, might she not, like Aurora Leigh, be taking her ‘part’ with ‘God’s dead, who afford to walk in white’ in order to practice the art of self-creation?” (621).
“Impersonating simultaneously a ‘little maid’ in white, a fierce virgin in white, a nun in white, a bride in white, a madwoman in white, a dead woman in white, and a ghost in white, Dickinson seems to have split herself into a series of incubae, haunting not just her father’s house but her own mind, for, as she wrote in one of her most openly confessional poems, ;One need not be a Chamber–to be Haunted”… “[these selves] dramatized an ongoing quarrel within that enigmatic self” (622).
“Dickinson’s keen awareness that she was living (or, more accurately, constructing) her life as if it were a gothic romance, and it comments upon the real significance of the gothic genre, especially for women: its usefulness in providing metaphors for those turbulent psychological states into which the divided selves of the nineteenth century so often fell” (625).
“a particularly female doom: the doom of sterility which is the price virgin whiteness exacts” (632).
Johnson, Thomas H. “The Vision and Veto of Emily Dickinson.”
When asked about her reading, “she replied: ‘For Poets, I have Keats, and Mr. and Mrs. Browning. For Prose, Mr. Ruskin, Sir Thomas Browne, and the Revelations.’… Browne’s concern with language and his solemn reflections on death and immortality are the heart of Dickinson’s inner world; its soul is the ecstatic vision of John of Patmos” (vii).
Dickinson loved “eye-rhymes” (come-home) and used “identical rhymes” (stone-stone), vowel rhymes (see-buy), imperfect rhymes (thing-along).
“Her agonizing sense of ironic contrasts; of the weight of suffering; of the human predicament in which man is mocked, destroyed, and beckoned to some incomprehensible repose; of the limits of reason, order, and justice in human as well as divine relationship: – this is the anguish of the Shakespeare of King Lear, and it was shared in like degree among nineteenth-century American writers only by Herman Melville, who also had his war with God. Yet, unlike Melville, she is willing to love the God with whom she is at war. Thus she is a closer spiritual neighbor to Jonathan Edwards…” (xii).