For this paper, I really wanted to excavate the structure of the poem and make a meaningful connection with the content. It was written for my Methods of Criticism class, so I am sure I was trying to employ some hybrid version of New Criticism and Formalism. However, as Emily Dickinson so masterfully condenses the meaning and metaphorical resonance in her poetry, analyzing the structure was a more fruitful effort than I had anticipated. In every turn, I realized that a change or shift in the structure also held a significance in the content, which is what I tried to examine in this piece of writing.
When one talks about the quintessential American poet or a unique American voice, Emily Dickinson’s name is one of the first to come to our minds. What makes her poetry unique is both the way she structures it and the wide area of topics she chooses to include in her work. She is interested in humanity’s relationship with faith (and the lack thereof), nature, grief, death and the resilient ability people have that gives them a certain kind of power to plough through life (Banzer 419). Dickinson is interested in the world that surrounds her (and all of us) and she questions this relationship through different prisms; sometimes that of science and faith, as Poem 202 goes; ““Faith” is a fine invention / for Gentlemen who see! / but Microscopes are prudent / in an Emergency!” And sometimes that of nature; “[…] Nature is what we know— / Yet have no art to say— / So impotent Our Wisdom is / To her Simplicity”
The lens which Dickinson chooses to see the world through changes from poem to poem, but the essential and imperative question remains the same throughout her work; “how can we make sense of our part in the great wholeness and how can we connect to the world around us?” While discussing Dickinson, there is a tendency to correlate her preoccupation with topics such as death, isolation, meaninglessness, loneliness etc. to her personal life. This is an irrelevant endeavour, as all of her poems can stand on their own as self-referential, self-contained and structurally sound pieces of art that do not necessarily become more meaningful when connected to Dickinson’s personal life. The poems have such strong structure, as a matter of fact, that scholars over the years were able to identify and categorize the structural tools Dickinson employs.
The most common characteristic of structural foundations in Dickinson’s poetry is the way in which the structure itself reveals some aesthetic quality about the content of the piece as well. Dickinson’s poetry usually starts with an introduction of the subject, then an elaboration, followed by a conclusive statement that finishes the poem. As an additional technique, she often includes a figure to demonstrate her point more clearly; instead of talking about something in a theoretical level (which she also does, but to a lesser extent), she breathes life into her poetry and makes the job of the reader much easier (Wilson 54). Dickinson is special in the way that structure and content feed each other in her poetry, there is a great union of these poetic tools that enriches the experience. One of the poems that best exemplifies everything we have discussed so far, both in terms of content and structure is that of Poem 318, also known as “I’ll tell you how the sun rose,”
I’ll tell you how the sun rose, –
A ribbon at a time.
The steeples swam in amethyst,
The news like squirrels ran.
The hills untied their bonnets,
The bobolinks begun.
Then I said softly to myself,
“That must have been the sun!”
But how he set, I know not.
There seemed a purple stile.
Which little yellow boys and girls
Were climbing all the while
Till when they reached the other side,
A dominie in gray
Put gently up the evening bars,
And led the flock away.
In the first two stanzas, the introduction-elaboration-conclusion technique is evident, as the poem begins introducing a subject, namely the sunrise, and the lines that follow are just ways of describing it until we reach the point where the persona exclaims “that must have been the sun!” This easily could have been the end of the poem (as far as the structural fulfillments are concerned), but Dickinson takes it a step further and adds two more stanzas to it (Wilson 57). The poem starts out with a promise to tell us about the sunrise, but it does more than that; it is no longer an explanation of a single situation, but it points to a cyclic nature of events. Reading the poem, one almost gets and eerie sensation that Dickinson is not talking about an average day here, but rather pointing out the bigger mechanic operation of nature in motion.
Moreover, if we were to divide the poem into to halves, the “figure” Dickinson sometimes uses in her poetry comes only in the third stanza. The first two stanzas are about the sunrise, then the “dominie” is introduced and he slowly brings the day to an end. The shift in the structure (from the explanatory style to the figure-dependent one), therefore, becomes important: the day dawns automatically, but at night a guide is needed to escort the pupils into safety. Both the reasons behind and the implications of this choice becomes clearer when we look at the imagery in the poem.
The most striking quality about the imagery of the poem is the way in which Dickinson personifies natural situations, “the news run like squirrels” and “the hills untie their bonnets.” In the first two stanzas, each natural situation is alluded to a human one. In the last two stanzas, with the introduction of the teacher figure, the control suddenly shifts as well. He is the one who sets up the ladder and he is the one who “leads the flock away.” At this point the reader might ask, why is this figure here? Why is it, that the world seems to move in an automatic order in the first two stanzas but needs the help of a guide in the last? Dickinson, I believe, gives us the answer in the first line of the third stanza “But how he set, I know not.” It is almost as if the appearance of the figure is as shocking to the reader as it is to the poet.
One might speculate, however, that this signifies one of two things, the first being that the spontaneous appearance of the figure symbolizes the spontaneity of life. The second (and more probable) interpretation suggests that humanity needs guidance most when it is dark; both metaphorically and literally. It comes as no surprise, then, the word “dominie” (along with the connotations about being a teacher and guide) also brings into mind an image of a pastor or a clergyman. This religious connection opens the poem up for further interpretations. The previous implications about not being able to navigate through the metaphorical dark for lack of a guide becomes stronger as it brings John 11:10 to mind; “…but at night there is danger of stumbling because they have no light.”
Perhaps it is important to note at this point, that even though the first and last couple of stanzas seem different in nature, Dickinson manages to keep them connected through a series of imagery. For instance, we are already aware that the last stanza of the poem is suitable for religious interpretation. The imagery of religiosity, however, was there from the beginning as Dickinson mentions the steeples in the first stanza. Furthermore, the purple stile from which the children pass through the other side draws a parallel with the steeples that are drowning in amethyst. The bobolinks begin to sing in the second stanza, and the flock is gently led away in the last.
In conclusion this poem does a brilliant job at demonstrating every aforementioned quality about Dickinson. It is undeniably connected to nature and positions the human experience at the core of it and in doing so manages to create a literary world filled with rich and lively imagery. Another important aspect the poem manages to demonstrate is the way in which Dickinson’s structure also shapes the content. The structural differences in the first and last two stanzas (with the addition of the “dominie” figure) strike our attention, only after which we are able to view the poem in a different light; we first realize that the poem points to the cyclic nature of human existence and then to the inevitable guidance one might need in the dark. In doing all this, Dickinson never strays from her initial questioning of human life and its meaning among everything that surrounds it.
Banzer, Judith. “Compound Manner: Emily Dickinson And The Metaphysical Poets”. American Literature 32.4 (1961): 417. Web.
Dickinson, Emily. ““Faith” Is Fine Invention (202)”. Poetry Foundation. N.p., 2016. Web. 20 Dec. 2016.
Dickinson, Emily. “I’ll Tell You How The Sun Rose”. A Day | Academy of American Poets. N.p., 2016. Web. 20 Dec. 2016.
Dickinson, Emily. “”Nature” Is What We See”. PoemHunter.com. N.p., 2016. Web. 20 Dec. 2016.
Wilson, Suzanne M. “Structural Patterns In The Poetry Of Emily Dickinson”. American Literature 35.1 (1963): 53. Web.
Written for my “Methods of Criticism” class, 21.12.2016