Emily Dickinson's Withdrawal

If one word could be used to summarize the life and poems of Emily Dickinson, it might be withdrawal: she withdrew from society and its primary social institutions ("the honorable work/Of woman and wife") and wrote poetry instead. But why did she withdraw? No one knows for sure. "Nothing could be easier than to elaborate the hypothesis of a frustrated romance, succeded by a retreat into the consolations and compensations of poetry," says James Reeves, editor of Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson (1959). These are interesting words to use in this context: "hypothesis" is related to hypothec, which is an investment or down payment; and, of course, "compensations" are often monetary in nature. Note well that Reeves frequently uses monetary terms to describe Dickinson's life and its relationship to her poetry: "She lived her poems, and never simply thought them; they were paid for in sensibility and in suffering or in ecstasy. She had many costly failures, but no cheap successes."

But Dickinson wasn't properly or adequately compensated for her poetry: though she was offered compensation, she refused it. Declaring that "publication is the auction/Of the mind," she refused to have her poems published, that is, she refused to let her mind -- inseparable from its creations -- be auctioned off, either all at once or one at a time. In a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson dated 26 April 1862, she reported that "Two editors of journals came by my father's house this winter, and asked me for my mind, and when I asked them 'why' they said I was penurious, and they would use it for the world." Again the word choice is telling: especially coming after "penurious," "use" suggests that publication entails or involves usury (excessively high interest-rates for lending money). If "auctioned off," Dickinson's poems would net those editor/buyers an excessively high rate of return, no matter what the amount of the up-front payment to the author.

In another telling choice of words, Donna Dickinson (no relation), the editor of Emily Dickinson (1985), asks with respect to the "publication is the auction/Of the mind" poem, "Why not take this poem at face value?" But neither she nor James Reeves do so. Donna Dickinson says that Emily "did [in fact] expose her works to editors and belletrists and that fact gives rise to the suspicion that this poem, like the disclaimer in her letter to Higginson, is 'sour grapes'"; while Reeves says that Dickinson only refused to publish after "it had been made clear to her that nothing would be published in a form she could approve." As if the "auction" poem were a mirror, rather than a banknote, Donna Dickinson claims that it simply "reflects the tensions she must have felt between her own ambition and society's disapproval."

An obvious fact contradicts this way of seeing, and instead supports the idea that Emily Dickinson's withdrawal from the world and her refusal to sell her mind to usurers were quite deliberate, well-calculated decisions. The poem in question, like each one of Dickinson's many poems, has no title. Other than the poet herself, no one owns or has "title" to it. Such a poem can not be sold or auctioned off because its "title" can not be transferred. It exists outside or, at least, at the outer-most boundary of capitalist economic relations.

And so James Reeves had good reason to disagree with a remark by R.P. Blackmur. In Language as Gesture, Blackmur had claimed that, in Emily Dickinson's poetry, "we have a verse in great body that is part terror, part vision, part insight and observation, which must yet mostly be construed as a kind of vers de societe of the soul, not in form or finish but in achievement." In response, Reeves objected that the phrase vers de societe (verse of society) "has no relevance to the situation of Emily Dickinson," because "vers de societe is a form of currency passed between members of a coherent social group; it implies a community of interest and outlook." Not only was Emily Dickinson outside or on the outer-most boundary of currency exchange, but she kept no "society" other than her own.

From all this, one might well expect that Emily Dickinson's poetry is completely unconcerned with the theme, image or metaphor of money: after all, she wasn't a part of a domestic economy, nor of a coherent social group; she didn't "work" as a wife; and she refused to sell any of her titles. One might well expect that, in her poems, she naively opposed the moral and financial corruption of the outside world to the absolute purity of her soul. But one's expectations would be quite wrong: many of Emily Dickinson's poems are dominated by images of money. Instead of simply rejecting the economy of value, she creates a parallel or analogy between two economies of value: one is "outside" or embodied by the lives of men; the other is "inside" or embodied by her own life. Once such a parallel has been established, she then withdraws everything from the "outside" economy and deposits it into her own personal economy, where its value is preserved and even increased. In other words, her "withdrawal" isn't absolute.

Nowhere, perhaps, is this clearer than in the short and "economical" poem which begins with the line "Is Heaven a physician?"

Is Heaven a physician?
They say that he can heal,
But medicine posthumous
Is unavailable.
Is Heaven an exchequer?
They speak of what we owe,
But that negotiation
I'm not a party to.

Note well the careful symmetry between the poem's two halves. In the first, Heaven heals souls, but cannot save bodies; in the second, Heaven recalls or takes back bodies, but can not have the narrator's soul. Significantly, both halves use the present tense. This is especially striking in the second half, where the past tense would have made more sense: one "owes God a death" from the moment of one's birth, not when one becomes able (old enough) to "negotiate" complex or deadly serious contracts. The use of the present tense boldly proclaims that the negotiations with the "exchequer" are still going on, even as the poem ends. Corruption or usury are not limited to "external" exchanges of goods for money; they also appear within "internal" exchanges of thoughts for words.

-- Bill Not Bored, January 2005