Epistemological Hijinks in the Poems of Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson wrote during a revolution in epistemology. Scientific inquiry, from the time of Francis Bacon, had endeavored to uncover the stable, static, unchanging design behind God’s universe. But what was becoming increasingly clear, from Charles Darwin onward, was that the scientific method uncovered, despite itself, not nature’s divine stability but its chaotic stochasticity. Scientists and theologians of the time scrambled to reevaluate knowledge itself: why we gather it and to what purpose to put it. Enter Emily Dickinson, educated in both theology and the sciences, and highly observant of the way the inner (spiritual) life interacts with the natural world. She joins the debate on the one hand as a Victorian scholar, representing 19th century religious ideas of an unchanging, stable, and discoverable Truth with a celestial creator, and on the other as a naturalist who doesn’t just accept but celebrates contingency, chance, and change. She places the two worldviews in tension by employing metaphors that destabilize rather than coordinate the world—emphasizing, rather than reducing, difference—in an attempt to suggest that it’s process, not product, that gets us closest to the divine.
In her article “The Apparatus of the Dark: Emily Dickinson and the Epistemology of Metaphor,” Michelle Kohler notes that the scientific method had “…long held the promise of gradually revealing a fixed, divine order to the material world” (61). But, she goes on to say, these methods were dismantling the very ideas of permanence and fixity they were meant to reinforce. In response, she notes, “Dickinson seeks a new way of thinking about revelation that embraces process and provisionality” (Kohler 61). Let us examine poem 1140 as an exemplar of this phenomenon. The poem starts without surprise: “The Lightning is a yellow fork” (Dickinson 457). Forks and lightening are an oft-paired metaphor, and represent the way lightening branches into frightening and destructive “tines.” But the poem veers dramatically from the expected in the next few lines: “From tables in the sky / By inadvertent fingers dropt / The awful Cutlery.” This lightening fork, far from being a representation of God’s terrible power (a cliché the reader is primed to expect), is actually a domestic, almost womanly metaphor of mislaid flatware. This fork is dropped by accident from a heavenly table during, we have no choice but to presume, a heavenly meal. Even in God’s “mansion,” accidents happen. Randomness reigns supreme. Note what Dickinson chooses to capitalize. The Fork, the Table, and the Cutlery, are given proper noun status, while the “fingers” and the “mansions” of God are generic. The poem employs the passive voice: the Fork is dropped. God is undermined as the agent. It is the mistake, the movement, the downward motion, as well as, to a certain extent, the end viewer’s ability to see the metaphor, that Dickinson emphasizes. Further, the reader is asked to imagine this accident as revealing a spiritual truth. But it is the falling object’s accidental disclosure, not the object itself—the God-made lightening, table, mansion, or observer—that delivers this spiritual truth. The cutlery is dropped from “…mansions never quite disclosed / And never quite concealed,” and the moment of observation causes “The Apparatus of the Dark” to be, for a brief, accidental moment, exposed to those who otherwise have no access to the mysteries of the divine. Through destabilized metaphor, our poet approximates revelation.
Dickinson places herself in competition with God by offering up this exposé. As Claudia Schwarz notes in her article “Dickinson’s Journeys Beyond Time,” “Whereas God has the power to give and to take away, the poet’s imagination transcends the boundaries he has set up and even turns his concepts upside down” (94). Just as science was challenging—albeit queasily—God’s hegemony, Dickinson, too, shifts the focus from God’s power to nature’s mutability and contingency. To an almost blasphemous degree she places herself in the role of its record-keeper and even, at times, as its creator. We see this in poem 787, in which she claims that had she the seed, her own “bloom” would surpass the bloom of sunset (Dickinson 351). Humble, in a way, because she admires the “Efflorescence” of sunset while admitting she isn’t equipped with the right material to enact her one-upmanship. But it takes nerve to suggest that with the right tools she could out-create God. In The Rhetoric of American Romance: Dialectic and Identity in Emerson, Dickinson, Poe, and Hawthorne, Evan Carton notes how paradoxically Dickinson makes herself powerful: Dickinson’s language, he contends, “…exercises its power as it seems to announce its impotence; and… intricately involves itself with its object while ostensibly opposing itself to it” (83). Sure, the mountain, “Indicating by no Muscle / The Experience,” doesn’t expend effort to create so gorgeous a sunset. But, insists the poem’s speaker, with the right “seed,” her “…Purple Sowing / Should endow the Day / Not—a Tropic of a Twilight— / Show itself away—.” Though it might take effort, her sunset wouldn’t be something that died in twilight, but would be an efflorescence worthy of the day. Like Carton, Kohler notes that, “…it is precisely in the act of laboring for and against itself, of claiming success and incapacity, that Dickinson’s metaphor locates meaning” (82). Cynthia Griffin Wolff, in Emily Dickinson, agrees with Schwarz that Dickinson’s poetry turns God’s concepts “upside down,” and even invites her readers to share the power: her verse, Wolff says, though the poet herself is mortal, can, “…confound death and transcend time by springing to life anew for every reader. Her poetry, then, stands as rival creation to God’s” (185). It is this brazenness that, despite her reclusive life, makes Dickinson one of the world’s most beloved iconoclasts.
Dickinson throws her gauntlet not just before God, but before all prevailing 19th century notions of the very purpose of knowledge-gathering. Previously, scientists assumed that, sans a priori assumptions, close observation would reveal the “intelligent design” behind the world’s outward variability. Instead, scientific observation was again and again undermining its theological end. Literature, Dickinson suggests, can mend this rift. She seeks, in Kohler’s words, a way to “…redress the growing rupture between empirical methods and spiritual truth” (61). Dickinson uses what, in “Emily Dickinson: Metaphorical Spaces and the Divided Self,” Simon du Plock calls her “paradoxical pronouns—often grammatically or generically unstable” (275) to celebrate the dual (and often multiform) nature of all things; metaphorical, rhetorical, and literal (and these become quite tangled: a sunset is at once real, the signified, and a metaphor of a bloom; her written bloom is a facsimile of that metaphorical bloom, but also, in the subjunctive, outblooms the real sunset’s bloom, etc.) Her poems breathe life into the inanimate while exposing the mechanisms behind the omnipotent. Kohler contends that an unstable Dickinson metaphor can, “…accommodate the incongruity that erupts amid her repeated efforts to make words adhere to their referents” (77), which goes a long way to explaining Dickinson’s obsession with the limits of knowing: with half-obscuring and half-revealing (like her shadowy diner with His—Her?—effulgent cutlery). Literature can bridge the split in epistemology, but only imperfectly—in the way an asymptote approaches its axis.
In Emily Dickinson’s Poetry: Stairway of Surprise, Charles R. Anderson comments upon her keen sense of the bounds of human perception:
What seem like objects to the limited mortal view are really aspects of nature as process, nature going down to the “death” of eternity. And conversely, what man sees as process and change are the illusory pictures cast by the immutable on his time-trapped senses (134-5).
Nature—God—shows us only a bit at a time, and shows it to us provisionally. And art, because it self-consciously creates an incomplete replica of its referent, is more suited than science or religion to approach “the immutables:” Truth, Revelation, etc. Perhaps that is why Northrup Frye, in The Educated Imagination, cautions us that without literature “…something goes dead inside us” (48), because the formal mechanisms by which we find truth—science and religion—speak in absolutes, whereas our minds apprehend only fragmentarily. Dickinson describes the artistic process best in poem 1263, when she urges us to “Tell all the truth but tell it slant— / Success in Circuit lies” (Dickinson 495). We must approach truth asymptotically, she tells us, else “every man be blind.” Dickinson embraces the paradox syntactically as well as rhetorically by creating an infinite loop within the reader’s mind. We have “truth” in the middle of the first line, equated with the Circuit that “lies”—the terminal word of the second line. Of course the denotation of the word “lies” in this context is “rests,” but the reader must also confront “lies” as truth’s opposite. Similarly, the word “slant” recalls a number line on a Cartesian coordinate system, elegant, infinite, while “circuit” evokes an ellipse… a known, limited, closed system. Du Plock comments that Dickinson seeks to “…satisfy our increasing need to have our intelligence resisted” (279), and this poem, with its paradoxes, does just that. It suggests we use our own limitations to glimpse the infinite; and lie to tell the truth. What better metaphor is there for art in general—for literature?
There is mischief in Dickinson’s metaphors. They’re pranks on the whole epistemological paradigm shift and its polarizing effects. And through her metaphorical roguery, her poetry synthesizes two prevailing worldviews—the randomness and chance that science reveals, and the spiritual Truth that religion espouses—and does so with pathos, humor, and humility. She understands something that neither side alone does: that divine truth can be found in nature’s very unpredictability, so that even as we lose truth as an unchanging entity, we gain something richer and truer to the human sensual and spiritual experience; we gain, in Kohler’s words, a truth that “…is true only insofar as it is of use to a person and… because usefulness is determined by constantly changing methods, needs, and environments, truth is always in the process of being made and remade” (84). Dickinson spent her life writing and rewriting, hardly considering the fruit of her labors. She, almost more than any other poet, privileged process over product. It was the labor itself that sustained her—and that continues to sustain us in a world that, despite our best efforts, can never be quite disclosed.
Anderson, Charles R. Emily Dickinson’s Poetry: Stairway of Surprise. New York: Rinehart and Winston. 1960. Print.
Carton, Evan. The Rhetoric of American Romance: Dialectic and Identity in Emerson, Dickinson, Poe, and Hawthorne. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press. 1985. Print.
Dickinson, Emily. The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition. Ed. R. W. Franklin. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press. 1999. Print.
Du Plock, Simon. “Emily Dickinson: Metaphorical Spaces and the Divided Self.” The International Conference of Psychology and the Arts. Univ. of Porto. 26-28 July 2013. Presentation.
Frye, Northrup. The Educated Imagination. Concord: Anansi Press. 1997. Print.
Kohler, Michelle. “The Apparatus of the Dark: Emily Dickinson and the Epistemology of Metaphor.” Nineteenth Century Literature Vol. 67, No. 1 (June 2012): pp 58-86. Print.
Schwarz, Claudia. “Dickinson’s Journeys Beyond Time.” Arbeitenaus Anglistik und Amerikanistik Vol. 32, No. 1 (2007): pp 83-99. Print.
Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. Emily Dickinson. Boston: Addison-Wesley. 1988. Print.