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UNIVERSIDADE FEDERAL DE SANTA CATARINA

PÓS-GRADUAÇÀO EM INGI .ÊS E UTERATURA CORRESPONDENI E

METALANGUAGE IN EMILY DICKINSON’S POEMS

POR

MÁRCLA. T. ZATHARIAM

Dis^rta^õ submetída à Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina para a obt^ção do


grati de Mestre em Letras.

FLORIANÓPOLIS
FEVEREIRO DE 1994
ü

Esta dissertação Toi julgada adequada e aprovada em sua forma fínal para a
obtenção do titulo de

MESTRE EM LETR4S

Opção Inglês e Literatura Correspondente.

Pror Dr" Carmen Rosa Caldas-Coulthard


Coordenadora

Banca Examinadora:

P rof Dr. ‘$érgiwLuiz Prado Bellei


'Pr«ideníe

Pror Dr* Susana Bornéo Funck

Prof. Dr. José Roberto Basto O’Shea

Florianópolis, 23 de fevereiro de 1994.


UI

Para meu amor Christian, que sempre esteve


por perto trazendo alto astral
IV

AGR.4DECÏMENTOS

Agradeço aos meus pais;

Á Pirofessora Siisana Bom éo Funck;

À Ana Maria Cordeiro;

Ao Professor José Roberto Basfo O'Shea;

Agradeço, em especial, à minha irmã Jane, à amiga Mara e ao Pr«jfessor Sérgio


L uí2 Prado Bellei.
V

ABSTRACT

Language is a theme which has always puzzled scholars and poets due to its

complexity and its implications in human relationshiops. The belief on the effective

communication of the words, though» is not unanimous. Especially when areas of


knowledge other than the humanities start to retreat from the realm of verbal

communication and create their own code, language loses its aura and power of

conveyer of truth This dissertation is an attempt to analyse some of Emily Dickinson’s

poems on language and its impact on human lives. In Aiese poems, the poet hi^ili^ts

the paradox power/inefficiency of flie words, as well as flie si^ficance of silence

confronted the void of language.

In the introductory diapter, I present my reading on some criticism of

Dickinson's poetry. Mudi of this criticism oriented my analysis of the poems

contributing largely to my understanding of them. In the next chapter, I discuss some

theoretical texts on language by Saussure. Wittgenstein and Geoi^e Steiner. The

analysis of the poems itself is in the third chapter, whidi is foUowed by the conclusion

of the dissertation as a whole. In general, I tried to read her poems closely, keeping

track of her paradoxical views on language, as somefliing that "fails, but entertains...*'
VI

RESUMO

Devido st sua complesidâde e às suas tremendas implicações nas relações

humanas, a linguagem sempre apresentou-se como um tema bastante intrigante para

os poéticos e teóricos. Não há unanimidade, porém, quanto à sua eficiência na

comunicação. Isso faz-se notar de forma particularmente clara quando as chamadas

ciências exatas abandonam a comunicação verbal e saem em busca de um código

próprio. A linguagem perde, então, o seu status do veículo da verdade. Esta dissertação

é uma tentativa de análise de alguns poemas de Emily Dickinson sobre a linguagem e

sua importância na vida humana. Nestes poemas, a poeta joga com o paradoxo

forçca/ineficiência das palavras, bem como a si^fícação do sUêncio comparado com o

vaiáo presmte na linguagem.

No capítulo introdutório, eu apresento alguns críticos da poesia de Emity

Dicldnson. Grande paríe desta crítica contribui muito para a análise e a compreensão

dos poemas. No próximo capítulo, eu faço uma breve leitura de alguns textos teóricos

de Saussure, Witígenstein e George Steiner sobre a linguagem. O terceiro capítulo


contém a análise dos poemas, o que é seguido pela conclusão da dissertação como um

todo. De modo geral, eu tento ler os poemas detalhadamente, trilhando as idéias

paradóxicas de Dickinsan sobre a linguagem, como algo ineficiente, mas necessário.


Vli

CONTENTS

AGRADECIMENTOS.................................... ................................................... iv
ABSTRACT................................................................................................... ...... v

RESUMO....................................................................................................... .......vi

CHAPTER I : INTRODUCTION............................................................. .... 1

CHAPTER n : ON LANGUAGE.................... ...............................................21

CHAPTER m : DICKINSON’S METALANGUAGE POEMS................ ..45

CHAPTER IV : CONCLUSION.....................................................................79

BIBLIOGRAPHY..................................................................................... ....... ..87


CHAPTER I

INTRODUCTION

E m ily D i c k i n s o n published scarcely d u r i n g her lifetim eJ

C ha rle s A n d e r s o n onc e said t h a t she wrote "cut o f f from c o m m u n io n

with any but p o s t e r i t y - A s a m a t t e r of fact she even trie d to keep

some c o n ta c t w i t h the l i t e r a r y w orld th ro u g h Thom as H i g g i n s o n , and

they wrote one a n o t h e r for some time. She ended up se n d in g hi m some

o f her p o e m s , b u t the r e c e p t i o n is well know n. For H i g g i n s o n , who

may c e r t a i n l y s t a n d for the r e a d e r s at th at tim e, her style n e ed e d

"co rre ction s." Though the originality and newness of her poetry;

c au gh t h im on th e sp ot, he did not see h e r work as po etry; he r a t h e r

d e sc r ib e d it as " b e a u t i f u l t h o u g h t s and w ord s," and t r ie d to s t e e r her

to w ards a m o re c o n v e n t i o n a l po e tr y .^ P e r h a p s f r u s t r a t e d w i t h this f i r s t

co n ta ct, she n e v e r t r i e d to m a k e h e r poetry pu b lic a gain . A f t e r her


2

de ath in 1886, her s i s t e r fou nd her m a n u s c r i p t s in one of her d r a w e r s ,

and fam ily and frien ds p u b l i s h e d some s e le c te d poe ms.^ Her early

e d it o r s even t r ie d to "make the m eter scan and the lines rh y m e." -

It was only in 1955 th a t T ho m as H. Jo h n son p u b l i s h e d her

c o m p l e t e po e m s a nd le tte r s. J o h n s o n 's work is ex tremely i m p o r t a n t not

only b e c a u s e o f the c o m p l e t e n e s s of his p u b l i c a t i o n s , but a ls o due to

his c a r e f u l e d i t i n g , w h i c h in c l u d e d a l is t o f m a n u s c r i p t v a r i a n t s ,

p r e v i o u s p u b l i c a t i o n d a t a , and e m e n d a t i o n s o f e a r l ie r e d i t o r s . ^

As soon as D i c k i n s o n 's poetry w a s r e v e a l e d , th e o r i g i n a l i t y

a nd s t r a n g e n e s s o f h e r style were i m m e d ia te l y n otic ed. A c c o r d i n g to

C h a r l e s A n d e r s o n , "she u se d w o rds as i f she were the f irst to do so,

with a joy and an awe la r g e ly lost to E n g l i s h p o etr y since the

R e n a i s s a n c e . "*7 She c h o se the hym n m eter as a p a t t e r n , w h i c h h a d not

b e e n d o ne by any o t h e r w r i t e r p r ev io u s ly . A l s o , she u se d a s s o n a n c e ,

consonance, identical an d su s p e n d e d rhymes, that had not been

e x p lo r e d in o r th o d o x E n g l i s h befo re, as the m a i n p a t t e r n o f r h y m in g . ^

F o r D a v i d P o r t e r , D i c k i n s o n 's n e w n e s s lay in the fact ha t she w a s not

c o n c e r n e d w i t h the " r e v e l a t i o n of a l arg e and f a m i l i a r t r u t h but w i t h

the r e l e a s e o f a sm a ll d i s c o n c e r t i n g m y s t e r y r e d i s c o v e r e d . I n fact,

h e r p o e try has t h e ^ f a a g m e n t a r y c h a r a c t e r i s t i c w h i c h w ^ l d be l a t e r

ex p lo r e d by the m o d e r n i s t s . And she is even c ited as a f o r e r u n n e r o f


m od ern po etry for u s i n g de vic es such as e ty m o log y , which se nds the

r e a d e r s back to root m e a n i n g s . ^ ^ F i n a l l y , some of her ideas on the

n a tu r e ofz the poet, h is t a s k s and p o w er, are " an im ate d by a s t r e n g th

of fe e lin g and manner of articulation without precedent in our

lit e r a t u r e ." ^ 1

A c c o r d i n g to Ja m es W o o d re s s , c r i t i c i s m o f D i c k i n s o n 's work

can be d i v id e d in to the p e ri o d befo re and the p e rio d afte r the

p u b l i c a t i o n o f J o h n s o n 's v a r i o r u m e d it i o n s . Before the p u b l i c a t i o n o f

J o h n s o n 's w o r k , some i m p o r t a n t a r t i c l e s w ere p u b l i s h e d on E m ily

D i c k i n s o n 's po e try , su ch as t h o s e by C o n r a d A i k e n and A l l e n T ate, b u t

t h ere was a ls o m u c h s p e c u l a t i o n on the p o e t ’s life , w h i c h did l i t t l e for

the c o m p r e h e n s i o n o f th e a m p l i t u d e o f h e r work. A fter J o h n s o n 's

e d i t i o n s , ho w e v er, D i c k i n s o n 's work c o uld be la r g e ly r e v i e w e d , and

c o m p r e h e n s iv e st u d i e s on her poetry came a b o u t . ^2

W i t h i n this l arg e scop e o f c r i t i c i s m on D i c k i n s o n 's w o r k , we

have m any ch o ic es on a r t i c l e s a nd books by o u t s t a n d i n g c r i t i c s . Some

o f t h em can be c o n s i d e r e d q u ite i m p o r t a n t in t h a t they h e lpe d e s t a b l i s h

D i c k i n s o n 's r e p u t a t i o n . The a f o r e m e n t io n e d C o n r a d A i k e n a nd A l l e n

Tate are some o f t h e s e e x am p le s. In t h e i r a r t i c l e s , e q u a l ly n a m e d a fte r

"Emily D i c k i n s o n , " they w o r k w i t h p u r i t a n i s m , r e l i g i o n an d d e a t h in


4

her p o e try , treating th e i r them es by r e s o r ti n g to her biography

f req ue n tly.

Ivor W in t e r is one o f the early critic s of D i c k in s o n as well.

In "Emily D i c k i n s o n and the L im i ts of Ju d g e m e n t," m akes a n e g a t iv e

c r i t i c i s m o f her p o e m s , a r g u i n g th a t she was p r a i s e d for her w o r s t

m i s t a k e s and s t a t i n g t h a t h e r w r i t i n g was " u n p a r d o n a b le " d u e to its

o b s c u r i ty . He a n a l y s e s some p o e m s a nd, fin ally , in spite o f some

r e s t r i c t i o n s , he r e c o g n i z e s t h a t "The l a s t n i g h t she lived" is g rea t

poetry.

S t i l l w i t h i n the c a t e g o r y of i m p o r t a n t e arly c r i t ic s , D o n a l d E.

Thackrey a n d C h a r le s A n d e r s o n sh o uld be m e n tio n e d . T h a c k r e y , in

"The c o m m u n i c a t i o n o f the W o rds," w ork s w i t h Emily D i c k i n s o n 's

a t t i t u d e t o w a r d s l a n g u a g e and w o rd s , an d d i s c u s s e s her m e t h o d o f

c o m p o s i t i o n , as w e l l as t h e p o w e r o f the i n d i v i d u a l w o r d s in h e r

po em s. He a n a l y s e s poems whose central theme is language an d

e x p lo r e s th e p a r a d o x p o w e r / i n e f f i c i e n c y o f l a n g u a g e , and a ls o h e r

w o r s h i p f u l i d ea s t o w a r d s si l e n c e . A n d e r s o n 's bo o k, Emily D i c k i n s o n 's

Poetry: S t a ir w a y o f S u r p r i s e , w a s a ls o qu ite i m p o r t a n t , as it w a s "the

f irst c o m p r e h e n s i v e r e a d i n g o f all p oem s b a s e d on J o h n s o n 's t e x t . " ^ ^

The c r i t i c is c o n c e rn e d o n ly w i t h po e tr y as A rt a n d e x p lo r e s d i f f e r e n t

t h e m e s on. h e r poetry: "The p a r a d i s e o f Art," "The o u ter w o r l d , " "The


5

inner world," and "The other paradise." Like Thackrey, Anderson deals

w ith m etalanguage and metapoetry, and lays em p hasis on D ick in son 's

concern w ith expression.

After the establish m ent o f D ic k in so n 's work as part o f the

A m erican culture and literature, a great number o f academic criticism

on her poetry and letters was p u blish ed . We w ill deal here w ith some

exam ples o f this criticism on poetry o n ly, and it is quite important to

n otice the variety o f them es and approaches explored and v iew ed by

the authors in general.

Roy Harvey Pearce, in The C on tinuity o f Am erican Poetrv,

exam ines the them e of "achievement of status through crucial

experiences." For him , this achievem en t, or the attempt to a ch iev e

p sy c h o lo g ic a l status through exp erien ces o f lo v e, marriage, death,

faith , and p oetic ex p ressio n , pervades a ll the poet's works and is her

central concern. Hyatt H. W aggoner, on the other hand, in A m erican

Poets: From the Puritans to the P resent, works sp e c ific a lly w ith the

them e o f r e lig io n , considering D ic k in so n 's v ie w not only from a

puritan p ersp ective, but through a transcendental one, and states that

the poet red efines faith in a more u n iv ersal manner.

T ouching the theme o f death, w e have D olores D. Lucas's

E m ily D ic k in so n and R id d le . D eath, according to the critic, is the


6

poet's major concern and presents an actual 'riddle' in her poetry. She

a n a ly ses D ick in so n 's experim ent o f the riddle, trying to exam ine her

idea o f death, and, consequ en tly, o f life and truth.

More recently, fem in ist critics have also contributed to the

critic ism on D ick in son 's work. Among many prominent authors, one

relevan t exam ple is Sandra Gilbert and Susan Oubar in The M adwom an

in the A ttic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary

Im a g in a tio n . In this study, the critics place Emily D ic k in so n among a

number o f w om en writers from the nineteenth-century. D e a lin g w ith

the them e o f en closu re and escap e in D ick in son 's work, they explore

"metaphors o f p h y sical discom fort m anifested by frozen land scapes

and fiery in teriors." '^ D ick in so n 's work is said to fo llo w the pattern

o f a fem ale literary tradition, and she h e r se lf is seen to embody the

character o f the "madwoman" o f many wom en writers's stories. V ivian

P oliak, in "Thirst and Starvation in Em ily D ickinson's Poetry." and

Margaret D ic k ie , in "D ickinson's D iscon tin u ou s Lyric S e l f ,” present

stu dies in w h ich they bring about different themes: Poliak lin k s thirst

and starvation to renunciation: "lack of appetite" for human

rela tio n sh ip s. Food and drink imagery is also examined. D ic k ie

illu m in a tes the d iscon tin u ity o f the "lyric-self" in contrast to the

traditional m ale 'plot.'


7

In "The M aiden and the Muse: D ic k in s o n ’s Tropes o f Poetic

Creation," Rita Di G iuseppe brings up the paradoxical theme o f poet

vs. poetry, consid erin g D ickinson's struggle for creative autonomy and

for avoiding the bias o f being a woman writer. The creative power o f

the poet is compared to that o f Ood.

Em ily D ick in so n 's poetry is, then, a very rich universe to be

explored. In this dissertation, how ever, I w ill be sp e c ific a lly

concerned w ith some poems w h ose central theme is language and its

im p lica tion . Surveying her poetry as a w h o le , I came across many

poem s about langu age and com m unication, as i s the case o f poem J.

1651:

A Word made F lesh is seldom

And trem blingly partook

Nor then perhaps reported

But have I not m istook

Each o f us has tasted

With e c sta sie s o f stealth

,,The very food debated

To our sp e c ific strength —


8

A Word that breathes d istin ctly

Has not the power to die

C oh esiv e as the Spirit

It may expire i f He —

"Made F lesh and dw elt among us"

Could c o n d e sc en sio n be

Like this consent o f Language

This lov ed P h ilo lo g y

Indeed, as Charles A nderson s u g g e s ts , the poet is "concerned

w ith e xp ressio n from her e arliest years." And in many o f her poem s,

lik e in the poem above, D ic k in so n sees the word as a powerful entity

w h ic h has its own life and f u lf ills an em p tiness in human life (This

and other aspects in her poetry w ill be explored with more details in

chapter III.)

Some critics have dealt directly w ith language as a thème in

D ic k in so n 's poetry. John G ross, for exam p le, in "'Tell A ll the Truth

But — refers to D ick in son 's 'noncom m unication,' that is, the

u n w illin g n e s s to com m unicate. For him, the poet feared the

"uncertainty o f an understanding reason," w h ich would prevent the

reader from gettin g w hat she means. He compares D ickinson to several


9

other nineteenth-century artiats who experienced the same fear for the

'com m unication o f the word.' A ccording to Gross, authors such as

Emerson, M e lv ille , Hawthorne, and Thoreau shared with D ick in son an

'obliquity' o f m ethod, w hich allow ed them to 'tell the truth ' slan tly, as

i f d isg u ise d by the fear o f being attacked by an audience w hich w as

not contemporary enough to understand them. Even in her prose,

D ic k in so n was indirect and, at tim es, she made no differen tiation

b etw een prose and poetry.

In " Em ily D ic k in so n , Emerson, and the Poet as Namer," John

S. Mann comparés D ick in so n to Em erson in that both were concerned

w ith the process o f nam ing th in gs. The poet as 'namer' is the one who

sees and feels nature se n sitiv e ly enough to create the names for its

e lem en ts. For Mann, though, D ick in son 's attitude differs from

Em erson's, for she is c o n scio u s o f the dou b len ess o f things and o f the

lo ss and absence w h ich e x is ts is b etw een a thing and its name. He

h ig h lig h ts D ick in son 's sed u ction for nam es, their power and

im p lication s. N am ing for the poet presents som ething o f an 'adamic'

quality, in that it is a way o f recreating what he s e e s , what he know s.

In this sen se, D ick in son 's poet is the namer and the creator o f the

w orld, that is , the poet " p o ssess[es] the world by naming it," what is

evid en ced in her poetry in the com plex question of the


10

n a m in g /p o ssesa io n dilemma. Its com plexity ranges from the naming

and d efin in g o f h e r se lf — her inner action and em otion — to the

attempt to "define the indefinable," hence, the irony resu ltin g from

D ick in so n 's paradoxical poetry.

Many of D ick in son 's poem s on language are e x p lic itly

concerned w ith the in e ffic ie n c y o f langu age in com m unicating. In lines

su ch as "If I could te ll how glad I w as / I should not be so glad," "I

can't te ll you - but you fe e l it — "The d efin itio n o f beauty is / That

d e fin itio n is none — we can see the poet's attitude towards the

com m u n icab ility o f langu age. But even sh ow ing the 'failure' of

lan gu age in defining, te llin g th in g s, D ic k in so n recog n izes that

lan gu age has much impact on human rela tio n sh ip s, and the power and

ind ep en dence o f words are made e x p lic it by the poet in many poem s,

such as J.8:

There is a word

W hich bears a sword

Can pierce an armed man

It hurls its barbled sy lla b les

And it is mute again —

But where it fell


11

The saved w ill tell

On patriotic day.

Some epauletted Brother

Gave his breath away.

Wherever runs the breatheless sun —

Wherever roams the day —

There is its n o is e le s s onset —

There is its victory!

Behold the k een est marksman!

The m ost acco m p lish ed shot!

Time's su b lim est target

Is a soul "forgot!"

Charles Anderson, in Em ily D ick in son 's Poetry: Stairway o f

Surprise, show s that D ic k in so n is "explicitly concerned w ith the power

o f lan gu a ge." !^ For him , the poet is co n sc io u s o f the creative power o f

w ords, w h ich is capable o f "mov[ing] men's hearts." Poetry has its

own life and the "living word has re-creative p o w e r . " B y "living

word", she means the word that is uttered and used, not the one that

lie s inert in a dictionary. The poet, then, b e lie v e s in this higher power
12

o f words and o f eloquence itse lf, even w h ile recog n izin g the am biguity

w h ich can surround such a power. B ecau se o f this b e lie f, her language

i t s e l f is creative, and she can discover the "inner paradise o f art by the

la n g u age o f s u r p r i s e . " A n d e r s o n points out D ick in son 's "oblique

approach" as her manner o f e x p r essin g , o f te llin g the truth 'slant.'

W ithin this ob liq u ity, her c o n sc io u sn e s s o f language in e ffic ie n c y in

d e a lin g w ith em otions is apparent. She fears language's dangerous

am b ig u ity , sin c e , once created, words have their own life and may

m ean different th in gs, w ith unexpected co n seq u en ces.

Another aspect raised by the same critic is D ickinson's

concern w ith craftsm anship and w ith the im portance o f the poet. The

poet's craft is view ed as creation o f beauty not in a heavenly mode, but

in a th eatrica l one. D ick in son 's poet is extrem ely human, private and

d evoid o f d ivinity.

A ls o em p hasizing D ick in so n 's b e lie f in the power o f w ords,

D a vid Porter's "The P o etics o f Doubt" d is c u sse s the issu e o f the

a ffe c tiv e power o f poetry in w hich "impact and inn ovation are

co n co m ita n t." !^ Pof D ic k in s o n , langu age caused a shock by the

"surprise o f discovery in the fam iliar i s s u e s ,"20 and the poet is the

one who has "supreme o b lig a tio n s and power" to reveal language's
13

surprises. Language assum es a powerful role in the revelation o f a

"large and fam iliar truth."

D ick in son 's attitude towards language seem s to be, therefore,

tw ofo ld . She sees in words an pow erful and creative power; at the

sam e tim e, she r ecog n izes their in e ffic ie n c y in com m unicating. In his

article "Sign and Process; The Concept o f Language in Emerson and

D ickinson," R oland Hagenbflchle confronts these two aspects. Stating

the differences betw een D ick in son 's and Emerson's assum ptions on the

nature o f lan gu ag e, he show s that, for D ick in son , words have som e

kind o f destru ctiven ess and their power is exp losive; the "dangerous

p oten tia l o f language"21 is explored by the poet through ind irection ,

w h ich b ecom es a strategy o f "self-defence." Emerson's primacy is laid

on 'the thing,' w h ile D ic k in so n p r iv ile g es 'the word.' HagenbOchle

bu ild s up a d ifferen tiation betw een the transcendental sig n and the

sym bol. The first presents a "subject-object relationship," w h ile the

second c a lls on the primacy o f langu age, based on an "awareness o f

the irreducibly lin g u is tic nature o f all kn ow led ge and, therefore, o f all

r e a lity ."22 The sig n s t ill keeps the 'autonomy' o f the object; the

sym bol ignores "extralinguistic reality." D ickinson's poetry brings out

the sym b ol, and she is aware o f the lack o f convention e x is tin g

betw een word and reality. M ean w hile, D ic k in so n is con sciou s o f the
14

inadequacy o f language. Perception o f the thing, for the poet, is not

exact; conversely, it in v olv es lo s s , but even recogn izin g the

lim ita tio n s o f language in com m unicating, she works w ith it in self-

negation. Thus, D ickinson's poems "are often records o f f a ilu r e ."23

Another critic who exam ines this double attitude o f the poet

before language is Murray Arndt in "Emily D ick in son and the Limits

o f Language," in w hich a p o sitiv e and a negative attitude towards

lan gu age are examined. W hile language has " resonances that range

beyond the lim its o f l o g i c , "24 these same lim its can confine language

u n til it "no longer has the power to dom inate [D ickinson's] v i s i o n . "25

E ven recogn izin g the lim its o f w ords, she wants to break the lim its o f
)
grammar "push[ing] her poems beyond lo g ic a l lim its o f l a n g u a g e . "26

Faced, then, with this paradoxical v iew o f langu age, its

pow er and its in e ffic ie n c y , I decided to explore one sp e c ific question


1

concerning language in Em ily D ick in son 's poetry. If language is

pow erful, but u se le ss in com m unicating, so why use language? What is

the function o f language in human relation sh ip s? Here we must

exam ine some o f the criticism related to the problem.

B. J. R ogers, in "The Truth Told Slant: Emily D ick in so n 's

P o etic Mode," m entions the inab ility to grasp m eaning, p osin g that

"meaning does not lie in the world o f external reality, and the sen ses
15

are not to be trusted entirely, although they are all that can be relied

u p o n . "27 That is, although the perception through w hich we try to

express things and fe e lin g s is inaccurate, and the way in w hich we

express these same fe e lin g s and thin gs is a lso inadequate, there is no

other way to do it. D ic k in so n , in a se n se , plays w ith language's

am bigu ity producing a circu m feren cial movement around a center

w h ich is omitted. Her poetry m oves from the realm o f 'knowable'

th in g s, to the attempt to utter the 'unknowable.' She is, though, quite

c o n sc io u s' of the im p o s s ib ility to present truth and reality

straightforw ardly; som etim es lan gu age is even unable to reflect truth.

In Lyric Time. Sharon Cameron states that language "mourns

th« sp ace it must faith fu lly r e c o r d " 2 S ^ and that D ick in son is con scio u s

o f th is m ourning that is langu age. The experien ces w h ich the speaker

tries to convey are separated from the act of naming by the

interpretation o f that ex p erien ce, w h ich is not the event anymore, but

the representation o f it. But even i f the speaker is con scio u s o f this

failure o f langu age, the "necessity for names becom es apparent at

those m om ents when they fa il u s . "29 Frequently, we do not have words

for our m ental im ages and. so m etim es, "unable to say what we mean,

we also fa il to know it."^® D ic k in so n , in Cameron's v ie w , has a

unique attitude in relation to the com plex and d ia lec tic a l relationship
16

betw een presence and representation. D ickinson tries to convey

presence into lan gu age, w hich acts as a theatrical "source o f hope." In

other w ords, langu age w ould be the theater through w hich what is lost,

the experience it s e lf , w ould be recovered. Would that be the function

o f language? W ould this function, o f recovering the e sse n c e of

e x p erien ce, be important to human relation sh ip s?

F in ally, Jerome L oving, in Em ily D ickinson: The Poet on the

Second Story, is concerned w ith the "illusions o f language" w hich is

our only protection in a w ild ern ess o f natural facts." He show s the

relation la n g u a g e /iif e /lie in D ick in so n 's poetry. Language can turn life

into lie and, co n seq u en tly , distant from the "terrible harmony o f

nature." Would the function o f language be, then, illusory? Would

language be the illu so r y so lu tio n in a cruel natural world?

H aving m ade th ese c on sid eration s, I want to reach a point in

w h ich I w ill report my questions to their very source : Emily

D ick in son 's poetry. In other w ords, my purpose in this d issertation

w ill be to analyse som e o f D ick in son 's poem s w hich have language as

their m ain them e, trying to come to some c o n clu sio n about the function

o f langu age for the poet. I w ill try to v ie w several aspects in my

a n a ly s is , nam ely the p o w er /in efficien cy o f langu age, the importance o f

sile n c e — g iv en the n on com m u nicab ility o f words and the task o f the
17

poet as a namer. At the end o f the a n a ly sis, I w ill try to answer the

qu estion s I asked before; Why use language? Is it important for our

relation sh ip s?

Many o f D ick in son 's poems give a clue to the answer o f these

q u estion s and my hyp othesis is that, as a w h ole, they present language

as a n e cessa ry hope for human life even though it works in s e l f ­

negation.

In the chapter that fo llo w s, I w ill d iscu ss som e issu e s

concerning lan gu age and human com m unication. In that chapter, I w ill

d is c u s s briefly som e th eoretical texts w h ich may help illu m in ate my

reading o f-D ic k in so n 's poetry. Chapter 3 w ill contain the a n a ly s is o f

the poem s th e m se lv e s, and chapter 4 w ill present my c o n clu sio n s in

relation to the d isserta tio n as a w h ole and to my hypothesis.


18

NOTES - CHAPTER I

1 • See Karen Dandurand, "Publication o f D ick in son 's Poems

in Her Lifetim e," Legacy (Spring 19 84):7. According to the critic,

D ic k in s o n pu blish ed 10 poems during her life.

2 - Charles Anderson, Em ily D ick in son 's Poetry: Stairway o f

Surprise (N ew York : H olt, Rinehart and W inston, 1960) 62.

3 - M ordecai Marcus , Em ily D ickinson: S elected Poems -

N otes (L incoln: C lif f N o tes, 1982) 10.

^ - James W oochess, "Emily Dickinson," Fifteen Am erican

Authors before 1900 - B ib lio g ra p h ica l E ssays on R esearch and

C riticism , ed. Earl N. Harbert and Robert A. Rees (M adison: The

U n iversity o f W iscon sin P ress, 1984) 189.

5 - W oodress 188.
19

^ - W o o d re ss 1 90.

^ - Anderson 3.

® - Anderson 11.

^ - D a v i d P o r te r , "Emily D i c k i n s o n : The Poe tic s o f Doubt,"

E m e r s o n So c iety Q u a r te r l y 7 7 ( 1 9 7 4 ) : 89.

- Anderson 32.

11 - P o r te r 87.

12 - W oodress 197.

13 - W oodress 206.

14 - Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the

Attic: The Woman Writer and the N ineteenth-C enturv Literary

Im agin ation (N ew Haven: Yale U p ,1984) 590.

15 - A n d e r s o n 36.

1^ - A nderson 30.

1*7 - Anderson 41.

1^ - Anderson 46.

19 - P o r t e r 89.

20 - P o r t e r 89.

21 - Roland Hagenbtlchle, "Sign and Process: The Concept o f

Language in Emerson and D ickinson," Em erson Society Quarterly

2 5 (1 9 7 9 ): 140.
20

22 . H a g c n b ttc h le 143.

23 . Hagenbtkchle 153.

24 - Murray Arndt, "Emily D ic k in so n and the Limits o f

Language," D ic k in so n Studies 57(19 86): 19.

25 - Arndt 2 1.

26 . Arndt 27.

27 - B. J. R ogers, "The Truth Told Slant: Emily D ic k in so n ’s

P oetic Mode," Texas Studies in Literature and Language 14(1972);

336.

28 . Sharon Cameron, Lyric Time - D ick in son and the Limits

o f Genre fBaltim ore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1 979) 137.

29 - Cameron 141.

30 - Cameron 145.
21

CHAPTER II

ON LANGUAGE

Language is our v e h icle to talk o f language itse lf. The

d e fin itio n may seem paradoxical at tim es, and this paradox has been a

c h a lle n g e for p h ilo sop h ers, p s y c h o lo g is ts , literary critics, lin g u ists,

and poets. Language is very com p lex, and it is through i t s e lf that w e

m ention its com p lexity.

This preoccupation w ith la n g u a g e, w ith words, w ith the poet

as the language*maker is a strong presen ce in D ickinson's poetry. And


22

th is se lf-r e fle c tiv ity o f language we name m etalanguage, that is,

language about it s e lf, words on words, as we see on poem J.1261 ■


.

A word dropped careless on a page

May stim ulate an eye

When folded in perpetual seam

The Wrinkled Maker lie

In fection in the sentence breeds

We may inhale Despair

At distan ces o f Centuries

From the Malaria-

The poem above is not only about the word it s e lf, but about

the act o f creation on w hich w riting, language co n sists. (This poem

w i l l be d isc u sse d in more details on the fo llo w in g chapter.)

As pointed out in the former chapter, I here intend to analyse

Em ily D ic k in s o n ’s poetry as language and m etalanguage. Reading

about langu age in D ick in son is reading a poet's view point on

langu age, on her ow n instrument o f working. But this chapter does not

aim to analyse her poem s on language; its intent is to d iscu ss other


2i

con sid eration s on the topic. In other w ords, I want to read other

v iew p o in ts on langu age, made by other people than the poet.

Language is a topic w hich has alw ays puzzled scholars.

Perhaps, Language's se lf-r efle x iv ity came about when the very first

'speakers' started com m unicating through words. That means to say,

langu age has alw ays been complex and paradoxical for p eop le, due to

its unlim ited realm o f p o s s ib ilit ie s , and, som etim es, blankness.

In th is chapter, I w ill briefly d iscu ss texts by Saussure,

Ludwig W ittg en stein , and George Steiner. I think it is a necessary step

before I go on w ith the an alysis o f D ick in son 's work, sin ce it may be

instrum ental for the understanding o f important aspects on language,

though this theoretical background w ill not 'guide' my analysis later

on, but help creating it. A lso , I think it is important to have different

v iew s on the them e, so that w e can o c c a sio n a lly compare them to

D ick in son 's own v ie w s and see how the poet's ideas on it can be

different or sim ilar to those o f the scholars.

Before going to the texts th e m se lv e s, I w ould lik e to raise an

issu e o f relevance for the work as a w hole. In the previous chapter, I

m entioned the in efficien cy of language in com m unicating, in

exp ressin g fe e lin g s and em otions. Shifting the focus now to the

th eoretician s, w e can surely find the same concern w ith the 'sayable'
24

and the 'unsayable.' This is probably the track I w ill follo w in the

chapter, so that I can ach ieve a reasonable answer to my first

qu estion s; for those concerned w ith whether or not language

com m u nicates, langu age is som etim es a fa ilu re, som etim es su c c e s sfu l,

som etim es no better than silen ce .

The first important concept to be examined is Saussure's

d istin ctio n b etw een 'sign ifier' and 'sig n ifie d .' For the lin g u ist, the link

betw een the nam e and the thing it refers to is not ph ysical; it is

arbitrary and m ental. Instead o f 'name' and 'thing,' Saussure u ses the

terms 'sound im age' and 'concept.' These tw o elem ents are united in a

p s y c h o lo g ic a l w a y , and one recalls the other. The sound im age is the

'sign ifier,' w h ich has a m aterial quality, as opposed to the concept,

w h ich is the 's ig n ifie d .' The two o f them make up the sign. The sig n

has an arbitrary nature, for it results from an arbitrary a ssocia tion ;

that is , the s ig n ifie r "actually has no natural connection w ith the

sig n ifie d ." !

In R eading Saussure. R. Harris d is c u s s e s Saussure's Cours

de Linguistiqu^. presen tin g the lin g u istic sig n as being constituted by

m ental elem en ts rather than by p h ysical ones. The sig n is the

com bination o f sig n ifie r and sig n ifie d , but it is ordinarily view ed as

the sound im age itse lf. A ccordin g to Haris, then, Saussure's merits lie
25

in d istin g u ish in g betw een "The 'sound' o f a word in the sense of its

image acoustiqui and the 'sound' of the associated acoustic

phenomena. "2

Thus, the difference between the sound im age and its

asso cia ted ac o u stic phenomena relates to the lin g u istic sign being

"construed sim ply as a mental com bination o f a certain sound pattern

w ith a certain m e a n in g .C o n se q u e n tly the internal relationship

betw een sig n ifier and sign ified is arbitrary. This is an important

p rincip le o f lin g u is t ic s as elucidated by Saussure. Arbitrariness o f

langu age how ever, has nothing to do w ith ind ividu al ch o ice , but with

langu age being a so c ia l institution w hich goes beyond all others and

has a unique character:

. ..la langu e, claim s Saussure, is arbitrary in a unique way.


The absen ce both of external and internal constraints on the
pairing s i g n i f i a n t s w ith particular s i g n if i é s means that for
any g iv e n language the choice o f actual sig n s( e.g. s o e u r )
from am ong the range o f p o ssib le sig n s( zo eur, soeuf,
p a t a p l u . . . ) is entirely unconstrained. This absolute freedom
to vary 'arbitrarily' is the fundamental reason Saussure w ill
adduce for the remarkable diversity o f human langu ages and
the no le s s remarkable su sc ep tib ility o f langu ages to quite
revolutionary structural changes. Other social in stitu tion s are
not free to vary in this way because changes in their case
(eco n o m ic, le g a l, p o litic a l, etc.) have im m ediate material
con seq u en ces for the members o f society. Thus although la
26
langue is a so c ia l institution • and in certain aspects the very
archetype o f a socia l institution - its arbitrariness gives it a
structural autonomy vis d vis so c iety w hich would be
unthinkable (and incom prehensible) in the case o f any other
esta b lish ed so c ia l in stitu tio n .4

Saussure sh o w s, therefore, that langu age is an arbitrary

entity w hich e x is ts "only through the a sso c ia tin g o f the sig n ifier with

the s i g n if i e d ."5 This process o f a sso ciation is how we 'name.' N am ing

is m en tal and arbitrary. Understanding is p o s s ib le because there is a

shared value w h ich is attributed to a sign. But sin ce language is an

abstraction, the identity and the values o f words can be confused.

Identity can be v iew ed as the word itse lf, but the value o f a word is

not w ith in the word itse lf. It has to do w ith what the word brings to

m ind, the realm of diversity that the word invokes through

p sy c h o lo g ic a l fla sh e s and asso ciatio n s.

In short, language is a com plex system made up by the

o p p o sitio n o f concrete unions. The sig n ified and the sign ifier com pose

the sig n . The sig n , then, is the arbitrary name. Thus, language is an

attempt towards representing the world, representing elem ents w hich

lie o u tsid e the word. Saussure sees it as "the most com plex and

u n iversa l o f a ll system s o f expression."^ And yet, this system o f

representation is arbitrary and pervaded by am biguity.


27

We have briefly examined the way a lin g u ist v iew s language.

In lin g u is t ic s , language is the object o f study, an articulated form o f

ex p r essin g m essa g e s. It is seen from a m aterial p ersp ective, taking

into account its parts and characteristics. It is an 'object.' How w ould

a ph ilosoph er v ie w language? First o f a ll, we must have in mind that

ph ilo so p h y studies reality as a w h o le, trying to apprehend the most o f

it in order to understand it better. Language is one part o f reality, one

o f the m ost important, we must say, but it is not reality itse lf.

L in gu istica works w ith language through a m eta lin g u istic d iscou rse,

w hereas ph ilosoph y does it through a p aralin g u istic one. That is to

say. L in g u istic s u ses language to go after itse lf. It is langu age trying

to see how i t s e lf represents the world. It is language as se lf-r efle ctio n .

P h ilosop h y u ses language not to go after language it s e lf, but to go

beyond it and to apprehend the world, even though, as we w ill see

next, langu age's representation o f the world is lim ited.

Language is important to human life in that it directly affects

human relation sh ip s, and it is d efin itely resp o n sib le for the m oving o f

so c iety . Id eo lo g ies, advertisem ents, d isagreem en ts, even wars are

conveyed through language and, not rarely, because of it.

Com prehending life , therefore, has to do w ith comprehending

la n g u a g e, e sp e cia lly because it is through language that we try to


28

express what w e see o f the world. C on seq u en tly, what comes to mind

is the question o f representation. If langu age is our principal means to

convey and represent reality, then our representation o f it is not

'reliable.' Ludwig W ittgen stein , in his Tractatus L o gico-P h ilosop h icu s,

states: "What finds its reflection in la n g u age, la:nguage can not

represent . ” ^ Language is view ed as a mirror, as an image o f

som ething e ls e , and here we must recall S au ssure’s statement o f the

word being the sig n for som ething w h ich is elsew here. The

representation o f th is 'else' is distant from it. R eality is distant from

the proposition o f itse lf.

W ittg en stein d iscu sse s the difference between naming and

describ in g. The latter is a p o ssib le operation; the same can not be said

about the former. D escrib in g im p lies taking into account 'how'

som ething is; nam ing, 'what' it is. In d escrib in g , we must point out

characteristics w h ich are present in the thing described, that is , we are

sending the m eaning towards other words that, in turn, try to com pose

the sig n ifica n t w h o le. N am ing is d efin itely more com plex, sin ce saying

what som ething 'is* means g ivin g it a nam e, that represents it. This

name is the arbitrary sig n stated by Saussure. As sign ifican t exam ples,

some p a ssa g e s o f the Tractatus are worth m entioning here;


29
The sig n through w hich we express the
thought I call the p rep osition al sign. And
the p roposition is the p roposition al sign in
its projective relation to the world.®

Here the philosopher states the idea of language as

representation. First, there is the thought, the mental concept, as put

by Saussure, w h ich is expressed by the sign. The sign, the "projective

relation to the world," is the representation o f the world. This is how

w e express our thoughts. Then, we have the acknow ledgem ent o f the

lim itatio n s o f such a representation;

O bjects I can only name. Signs represent


them. I can only speak o f them. I cannot
a s s e r t them. A proposition can only say how
a thing is, not w h at it is. ^

The gap betw een reality and the representation o f it becomes

clearer, in that the assertion o f it is im p o ssib le, given the fact that the

'What', the e sse n c e , can not be uttered. The 'what' lies outside

language. We can 'name' things - that is the process explained by

Saussure, the sig n naming things through an arbitrary association o f

sig n ifie d and sig n ifier - but we can not 'assert' them .
30

A c le a r e r s t a t e m e n t o f the g a p r e p r e s e n t a t i o n / r e a lity can be

found in the f o l l o w i n g p a s s a g e by W it t g e n s t e i n :

P rop osition s can represent the w hole


reality, but they cannot represent what they
must have in common with reality ...
That w h ich mirrors i t s e lf in langu age,
language cannot represent. That w hich
ex p resses i t s e l f in language, we cannot
express by language.

The ph ilosoph er, th u s, gradually moves from the perspective that

language is the rep resen tation o f the world, to the fact that there is an

absolute gap b etw een this representation and the world itse lf.

Language is only a mirror for what it reflects. If we take this gap into

account, the q u estion about the ex isten ce o f real com m unication

arises. We must som ew h at digress in order to make clear what is

understood by com m unication.

C om m unication, in its primary se n se, in v o lv es b a sica lly two

or more elem ents and som ething to be said; receptor, sender, and

m essage. A w ish to understand and to be understood is also required,

wherein com es the need o f a shared kn ow ledge; in other w ords, the

tw o elem ents in the process must have a sim ilar experience concerning

what is being said. The problem lie s in this sim ila rity o f experience.
31

How can we measure experience? If experien ce is something one

acquires when one liv e s it, it is a private phenom enon. If each o f us

has her/his own experien ce, that is, if the ou tsid e world causes

different im p ression s on each person, experience is unique. Perhaps it

ifl about the u n iq u en ess o f private experience that W ittgenstein writes

w hen he m entions the 'unsayable.' M ystic experien ce is private and can

not be alw ays uttered. On that, wrote Werner Leinfellner:

It seem s that W ittgen stein , under the


in flu en ce Schopenhauer's role o f
contem p lation in Art, fo llo w s here h is early
m aster : There are, according to him , things
that can not be put into words. But they
make th em selv es m anifest. They are what is
m ystica l. 11

In sayin g that som e th in gs "can be said," it is understood that

there are thin gs that can be spoken o f better than others. W ittgen stein

g iv e s relevan ce to m etap hysics as being this asp ect o f liv in g w h ich is

more d iffic u lt, som etim es im p o ssib le, to talk about. M etaphysics goes

beyond p h y sic s, that is , beyond the elu cid ation o f phenomena w h ich

can be seen or reasoned m ateria listica lly . It deals w ith the realm o f

thin king im m ateriality, thin king the being;


32
The right method o f ph ilo sop h y would be
th is. To say nothing except what can be
said, i.e. the propositions o f natural
sc ien ce , i.e. som ething that has nothing to
do w ith philosophy; and then alw ays, when
som eone e ls e w ish ed to say som ething
m etap h ysical, to dem onstrate to him that he
had g iv e n no meaning to certain sign s in his
p rop osition s. 12

Here, W ittgen stein enters the realm o f the 'unsayable' and

differentiates th in gs that can be said from those that cannot. But what

can be made out o f what can not be said? Before going to the answer, I

would lik e to focu s attention on one more interesting proposition in

the T ractatus. H aving pointed out all the relativity o f language and

com m unication, all the p o s s ib ilit ie s , and, som etim es, the lack o f

p o s s ib ilitie s raised by langu age, the author questions absolute truth

itself;

W hatever we see could be other than it is.


W hatever we can describe at all could be
other than it is.^^

In this se n s e , language im poses severe lim itations to reality, so

diverse and personal that no d escrip tion can ever be thought o f as a

mirror for it. In other words, lan gu age and reality, language and truth
33

im pose lim its on each other, since they are not compatible. Language

has becom e the m ain v e h icle for hum anity's com m unication, for each

one's reality; and yet, it cannot but distort reality.

N ow w e report back to the previous questions concerning

what can be made out o f what can not be said. A ccording to

W ittgen stein , sile n c e is the answer: "What we cannot speak about we

m ust pass over in silence."^^ In order to avoid tautology and u s e le ss

sp eech it is n ecessary to 'shut up.' Language goes only so far. Further

is silen ce.

In c lo s in g this short d is c u s s io n on W ittgenstein's

proposition s on lan gu age, it is worth quoting a sign ifica n t p a ssa ge o f

his work, in w h ich he makes a com parison between language and

dressing;

So m uch so, that from the external form o f


the clo th es one cannot infer the form o f the
thought they cloth e, because the external form
o f the c lo th es is constructed w ith quite
another object than to let the form o f the body
be recognized.

After h avin g examined som e ideas on language by Saussure

— language as representation o f the w orld — and by W ittgen stein —


34

the gap b e tw een representation o f the w o rld (la n g u age) and the word

i t s e l f — , we w ou ld like to d iscu ss som e ideas brought up by George

Steiner in his book Language and S ile n c e . Steiner also evokes the

lim ita tio n s o f language and its failure to com m unicate, but presents

the pow er o f language and its im portance to humanity as w ell. He

d is c u s s e s the role o f language in modern so ciety and its c r isis,

h ig h lig h tin g important historical asp ects o f language and literature,

com m enting on the relations betw een la n g u a g e and humanity.

The author presents language in the period o f C hristianity as

being prim ord ial, as a powerful instrum ent on w h ich humans depended

entirely:

The prim acy o f the word, o f that w h ich can


be sp oken and communicated in d isco u rse, was
characteristic o f the Greek and Judaic genius
and carried over into C hristianity. The c la ssic
and the Christian sense o f the word strive to
order reality w ithin the governance o f
la n gu ag e. Literature, p h ilo so p h y , th eology ,
la w , the arts o f history, are endeavours to
e n c lo se w ithin the bounds o f rational discourse
the sum o f human experien ce, its recorded past,
its present condition and future
exp ectation s.
35

In the seventeenth-century, how ever, areas o f kn ow led ge other than the

hu m anities, such as m athem atics, start to "recede from the sphere o f

verbal s t a t e m e n t . " T h a t is to say, these areas begin to formulate

their own system s o f com m unication and verbal language is no longer

their v e h icle sin ce the kn ow led ge conveyed by them is not easily

translated into language. The grow ing o f autonomous and peculiar

codes for natural sc ien ce s fostered the apparition o f a long bridge

b etw een language and these new codes;

Where b io lo g y turns towards chem istry, and


biochem istry is at present the high ground
it tends to relin qu ish the descriptiv« for
the enum erative. It abandons the word for
the figure. 1*7

A s a resu lt, langu age lo se s its authority and its aura, and begins to be

seen from a new perspective; co n fid en ce on it declines;

This b e l ie f is no longer universal.


C onfidence in it declin es after the age
o f M ilton. The cause and history o f that
decline throw sharp lig h t on the
circum stances o f modern literature and
language.
36

L anguage is no longer the conveyer o f truth, but o f i t s e lf

only, w herein com es the d iv ision o f experience and perception o f

reality into different realm s, w hich are not equivalent.

The actual facts o f the case • the space


continuum o f relativity, the atom ic
structure o f all matter, the w av e-p article
state o f energy - are no longer a c c e s s ib le
through the word. It is no paradox to
assert that in cardinal resp ects reality
now b e g in s outside verbal la n gu age.

Steiner p o ses the dichotomy w o r d s /fe e lin g s , stating that it is

p o ssib le to put into words what one s e e s , but not what one fee ls. What

in fe lt is anterior to or outside langu age, And this fact causes

tremendous reson ances on modern Art. As langu age is no longer at the

center o f l if e , reality has no e q u ivalen ce w ith words anymore. Art may

not be tran sp osed into language, but into Art itself:

B e ca u se the community o f traditional values


is sp lin tered , because words th e m se lv e s have
been tw iste d and cheapened, b ecau se the
c la s s ic forms o f statement and m etaphor are
y ie ld in g to com plex, tran sitional m odes, the
art o f reading, o f true literacy, m ust be
r ec o n stitu te d .20
37

M ean w h ile, and p aradoxically enough, Steiner stresses the

e s s e n t ia lly verbal character o f w estern c iv iliz a tio n . Western thought

articulates i t s e l f verbally in many sig n ifica n t parts o f our lives:

We take this character for granted. It is


the root and bark o f our ex perien ce and we
can not readily transpose our im ages outside
it. We liv e in sid e the act o f d i s c o u r s e . 21

The power literature exerts over humanity is o f bou nd less

s ig n if ic a n c e , as the reader's c o n sc io u sn e s s is occu pied by great w aves

o f im p r essio n com ing from a great novel or poem. In this asp ect,

literature changes reality, 'literating' humans:

A great poem, a c la s s ic n o vel, press in upon


us; they a ssa il and occupy the strong p la ces
o f our c o n sc io u sn e ss. They ex ercise upon our
im agination and d e sir e s, upon our am bitions
and m ost covert dream s, a strange, bruisin g
m astery.22

And what power does th is literacy bring to humanity? What

does it m ean being able to sp eak or to write? Speech has taken us

aw ay from the natural w orld, from the company o f the anim als. In
38

being able to speak, we fictio n a lize our thou ghts, our fe e lin g s, and we

even come clo ser to divinity:

Man's control o f the word has a lso hammered


at the door o f gods. More than fire, w hose
power to illu m in e or to co n su m e, to spread
and to draw inward, it so strangely
r e se m b le s, speech is the core o f man's
m utinous relations to the g o d s . 23

Steiner illu stra te s this pow er o f language w ith practical

exam ples drawn out o f modern history, and points out the destructive

quality that langu age p o s s e s s e s i f used for n eg ativ e ends. The German

langu age, for him , not only happened to be the language o f nazism , but

it also helped m ake the war and the holocaust:

N ew lin g u is t s were at hand to make o f the German language a


p o litic a l w eapon more total and effe ctiv e than any history had
known, and to degrade the d ign ity o f human sp eech to the
le v e l o f bayin g w o l v e s . 2 4

Em ily D ic k in s o n , as we w ill se e, is lik ew ise aware o f the

power o f lan g u a g e, o f its use as a w eapon . In poem J .8, for exam ple,

she ca lls atten tion to this aspect:


39

There is a word

Which bears a sword

Can pierce an armed man —

It hurls its barbed syllab les

And is mute again —

But where it fell

The saved w i l l tell

On patriotic day.

Some epauletted Brother

Gave his breath, away.

(...)

Here w e see clearly that w ith her game o f words -— w ords/sw ord,

armed/barbed — the poet presents language as a w eapon w h ich can

"pierce an armed man." And, in fact, a weapon that can k ill. The

"epauletted Brother" who "gave his breath away" is not only the victim

o f a m etal sword, but rather o f the word as a sword, as a dangerous

sw ord w hich can be used to k ill and be 'mute' again. Here w e have the

danger o f the words in use, o f language being able to destroy and fall

in to s ile n c e , alw ays ready to be spoken again.


40

And, then, we confront, once again, the power and void of

lan gu age. The question w hich arises from Steiner's d isc u ssio n is

related to the attitude the writer takes before such an unsolved

paradox. The title Language and S ilen ce m akes, then, se n se, in the

context o f D ick in son 's poetry: "Beyond the poems, alm ost s t r o n g e r

than them , is the fact of renunciation, the chosen s i l e n c e . "25

C o n sc io u s o f the im mense void present in language, in spite o f its

pow er, the poet e le cts sile n c e as an answer the lim itation s of

lan g u a g e, not to say as a refuge for such. This 'retreat' from language

is h is to r ic a lly recent, given the change o f values in relation to

lan gu age.

The poet has become an am biguous being who, concom itantly,

p lays the role o f master o f langu age, and escap es from it. As the one

who creates w ords, who renews them, and keeps them a liv e , the poet

can be com pared to god. R eca llin g D ick in so n 's poem J.569, w e have a

hierarchy b etw een poet, sun, summer, and heaven:

I reckon — when I count at all —

First — Poets — Then the Sun —

Then Summer — Then the Heaven o f God —

And then — the List is done —


41

But, loo k in g back — the First so seems

To Comprehend the W hole —

The Others look a n e e d less Show -—

So I w r i t e — Po e ts — All

(...)

The poet is the Ood o f w ords. It is he who comprehends nature — sun,

sum m er — and even the m ystical — heaven. He is the first o f the lis t,

and the others are even 'need less' when compared to him. But, anyway,

and probably because he knows the destructive power he has in hands,

he se ek s refuge in silen ce . As Steiner remarks.

This revaluation o f sile n c e — in the


e p iste m o lo g y o f W ittgen stein , in the
aesthetics o f Weber and Cage, in the poetics of Beckett — is
one o f the m ost o rig in a l, characteristic acts o f the modern
spirit. The con ceit o f the word unspoken, o f the m usic
unheard and therefore is in Keats, a local paradox, a neo-
Platonic ornament. In much modern poetry silen ce represents
the claim s o f the i d e a l . ..26
42

In the next chapter, we w ill see how Em ily D ickinson writes

about sile n c e as one p o ssib le solu tion to the poet involved w ith

language and its paradoxes.


43

NOTES - CHAPTER II

Ferdinand de Saussure, "Course in General Linguistics,"

Contemporary Literary C riticism , eds. Robert C. D avis and Ronald

S c h le ife r (N ew York: Longman, 1989) 160.

2 - Roy Harris, R eading Saussure (London: Duckworth, 1987)

59.

5 - Harris 64.

^ - Harris 69.

5 . Saussure 160.

6 - Saussure 161.

- Ludwig W ittgen stein , Tractatus L ogico- P hilosophicus

(London: R outledge & Kegan Paul, 1951) 189.

8 . W ittgenstein 45.

9 - W ittgenstein 49.

- W ittgenstein 79.
44

- Werner L ein fellner, "The development

tran scen d en talism - Kant, Schopenhauer and W ittgenstein,"

W ittg en stein - A esth etics And Transcendental P h ilo so p hy eds. K jell

S. J oh an n essen & Tore N ordestam (Vienna: H ölder-Pichler-Tem psky,

1981) 64.

12 . W ittgen stein 189.

13 - W ittgen stein 69.

14 - W ittgen stein 63.

1^ - George Steiner, Language and Silen ce (London: Penguin

B o o k s, 1 9 6 9 ) 32.

1^ - Steiner 36.

1*7 - Steiner 36.

1^ - Steiner 33.

19 . Steiner 37.

20 . Steiner 30.

21 - Steiner 31.

22 - Steiner 29

23 . Steiner 58.

24 - Steiner 140.

25 - Steiner 41.

26 . Steiner 70.
45

CHAPTER III

DICKINSON'S METALANGUAGE POEMS

Up to th is poin t, we have seen how scholars view lan gu age

and its paradoxes. We have briefly related their ideas to D ic k in so n 's

poetry. In this chapter, w e w ill deal e x c lu s iv e ly w ith her poem s. In

many o f them , w e see the con flict betw een elem ents o f power and

w eak n ess in la n g u a g e, as in the follow in g:

J.1261

A Word dropped careless on a Page

May stim ulate an eye


46

When folded in perpetual seam

The Wrinkled Maker lie

Infection in the sentence breeds

We may inhale D espair

At distances o f Centuries

From the Malaria —

There are several elem ents in the poem w hich imply power —

"perpetual seam", "Infection", "distances o f Centuries", "Malaria*. The

words together make up a story o f long la stin g power and influence.

The in flu en ce o f the "wrinkld Maker" over the "eye". That is to say,

the reader being influenced by the original author; the influence o f

artistic creation. The wordly e ffe ct, w hich is "folded in perpetual

seam," stays in the 'seam' for cen tu ries. The reader is even able to

inh ale the despair from 'malaria.' This is a poem about the power and

independence o f language, about the long distance in time and space

transposed by the text.

A lso , two important elem en ts here are not in o p p osition but

rather in complicity: the 'eye' and the 'wrinkled maker.' The word

c a r e le ssly dropped by the 'Maker' — the poet — stim ulates the 'eye' —
47

the reader. And there is the link between them — the infection. What

w ould M alaria stand for? Would literature be lik e an infection 'locked'

in books? If so, the sim p le reading o f any poem w ou ld 'spread' it. The

e x p r essio n 'perpetual seam' is quite strong and suggests the

independent life o f the word. Here we recall another poem (J.12 12),

w h o se theme is sim ilar:

A word is dead

When it is said.

Some say.

I say it just

B e g in s to live

That day.

In th is poem , D ic k in so n states her b e l ie f in the power o f the

s in g le word is stated. Once a word is used, it "Begins to live." This is

a very d ick in so n ia n thought - v iew in g the word as a live and pow erful

entity. Some o f her poem s even look lik e lis ts o f words, as i f in an

attem pt to show the ind ividu al life and su g g e s tiv e force of each o f

them.
48

J.1332

Pink — sm all — and punctual

Arom atic — low —

Covert — in A pril —

Candid — in May —

Dear to the M oss —

Known to the K noll -

N ext to the R obin

In every human sou l

B old little Beauty

B edecked w ith thee

Nature forswears

A ntiquity —

Each word here seem s to a ssum e a definite and separate role,

a role that is stressed by punctuation. The subject o f the poem —

Nature — com es only at the end. F irstly we have a ll the words and

exp ression s that 'qualify' it — each quality, each descrip tion w ith a

freight o f its ow n, as i f in a gam e o f w ords, describ in g a unique

elem ent w ith m ultiple ch aracteristics, m ultiple words. And each o f


49

these words seem s to be lying alone on the page bringing forth its

own life , as Roland HagenbOchle remarks:

E m ily D ick in son , too, was concerned w ith the


renew al o f language, but for her the
em p hasis lay always on the word as
s u c h .(...)
H ow important the sin g le word is to her may
be gathered from her strategy o f
foregrounding words through it a lic s , capital
lette rs, and the hyphen. ^

John S. Mann also c a lls attention to this aspect in her poetry;

S in g le words can 'glow' in her s e n s ib ility


w ith a royal, a created life o f their own,
once they have been 'named* by the poet.
N o th in g seemed fin ally more important to
her than this released power o f the s in g le
w o r d .2

In another poem, she recognizes the pow erful impact o f words

on human life:
50

J.1 409

Could mortal lip divine

The undeveloped Freight

O f a delivered syllab le

'Twould crumble w ith the w eight.

There are several su g g e s tiv e figures in the poem, indicating the speaker's

lack o f c o n sc io u sn e ss o f the power o f language. The very first verse,

"could mortal lip divine", takes for granted the human u n co n scio u sn ess

in relatio n to som ething. The next two lin es present a playful op p osition

o f the figures "undeveloped F reigh t/d elivered syllable." The sy lla b le,

the word being d elivered , n e c essa rily leads to the developm ent o f the

"Freight." What w ould Freight here mean? The value o f the sylla b le? Or

the m eaning o f it? In the last lin e, the words "crumble" and "weight"

su g g e s t the p ow erfulness o f this "Freight." Speakers, therefore, are not

c o n sc io u s o f the impact that the spoken word has on reality. In the words

o f W ittg en stein ,

Man p o s s e s s e s the Capacity o f constructing


lan gu a ges, in w h ich every sen se can be
expressed, w ithou t having an idea how and what
means — ju s t as one speaks w ithout knowing how
the sin g le sounds are p r o d u c e d . ^
51

S till concerned with the pow erful aspect of language,

D ic k in so n makes a meaningful com parison betw een a frigate and a

book;

J.1263

There is no Frigate like a Book

To take us Lands away

Nor any Coursers like a Page

O f prancing Poetry —

This traverse may the poorest take

Without oppress o f Toll —

How frugal is the Chariot

That bears the Human soul.

Book, page — language — have here the iam e ehafacteristic movement

o f a frigate, o f a courser. The word poetry even receives the adjective,

prancing, w h ich gives it movem ent, life . Literature has the power to

take readers on a trip; n on eth eless, we are tempted to say that the poet

is w ritin g about an interior trip, one that does not imply the "oppress
52

o f Toll," and that "bears the Human Soul." But though interior, this

trip is no le ss important, since it "take(s) us Lands away."

The same force through distan ce, through "Lands away"

presented in the poem above is also shown in relation to tim e. We

have already seen this aspect in the beginn in g o f this chapter, w hen,

in the poem J .1 2 6 1 , the poet m entions "distances o f Centuries." In the

fo llo w in g poem , D ick in so n g iv es the word an idea o f perpetual youth,

p r o fessin g her faith in the eternal eloq uence o f language:

J.1 467

A little ov erflow in g word

That any, hearing, had inferred

For Ardor or for Tears,

Though Generations pass away.

Traditions ripen and decay.

As eloquent appears —

In the in itia l verse, we have the opposing q u alities

little /o v e r flo w in g of the word. The second adjective is quite

su g g e s tiv e in terms o f om nipresence — perhaps not a p h ysica l


53

p resen ce, but a temporal one. A lso , the terms Ardor and Tears carry

their share o f importance in that they bring about opposing fe e lin g s o f

ha p p in ess and sadness w h ich can be strongly recalled by w ords. In the

v erses "Though Generations pass aw ay,/ Traditions ripen and decay,"

the poet e sta b lish es the value o f the word as being above that o f time

and tradition. A lthou gh it is through words that humanity transm it its

v a lu e s, k n o w led g e, u s a g e s , thoughts, and though these a sp ec ts change

from gen eration to generation, the word i t s e lf does not change; it stays

eloq uent. Thoughts and ideas grow old; words remain im pervious to

tim e.

In con sid erin g the power of words, D ick in son is also

concerned w ith the ones who work them. In some poem s, she writes

d irectly about poets and their craft, as in J.448:

This w as a Poet — It is that

D i s t i l ls am azing sense

From ordinary M eanings — -

And Attar so im m ense

From the fam iliar sp ecies

That perished by the Door


54

We wonder it w as not O urselves

Arrested it — before —

O f P ictu res, the D isc lo se r -

The Poet — it is He —

E n titles U s — by Contrast

To c e a s e le s s Poverty —

In the first stan za, the poet's craft is already defined, the

d is tilla tio n o f "amazing sense/F rom ordinary M ea n in gs” — that is ,

ren ew in g langu age, i f not creating it. The poet is the one who makes

fam ilia rity unfam iliar and, m ean w h ile, makes the reader also a part in

the crea tive act — "We wonder it was not O urselves/A rrested it —

b e f o r e — ." N e v e r th e le ss , in the third stanza, the poet's superiority is

evid en t w hen w e — the readers — are entitled to "poverty." C ertainly,

his superiority is related to his power o f creating and renew ing w ords,

o f d is c lo s in g "Pictures — " and this image may w e ll mean that the poet

is able to d is c lo s e , to d escrib e reality w ith more Art. The last verses

restate the tim eless Fortune w h ic h the poet p o s se ss e s — the a b ility to

deal w ith words.


55

A lso , in poem J.56 9, D ic k in so n endows the poet with

superior a b ilitie s , d isp la y in g him among several other elements;

I reckon — when I count at all —

First — Poets — Then the Sun —

Then Summer — Then the Heaven o f God

And th en — the List is done —

But, lo o k in g back — the First so seems

To Comprehend the W hole —

The Others look a n e e d le ss Show —

So I w rite — Poets — A ll —

Their Summer —^lasts a Solid Year -

They can afford a Sun

The E ast— w ould deem extravagant

And i f the Further Heaven —

Be B e a u tifu l as they prepare

For Those who worship Them

It is too d ifficu lt a Grace —


56

To ju stify the Dream —

The poet comes before Sun, Summer and heaven. Why is he

the first? The answer comes in the second stanza: the poet is able to

"comprehend" the other elem ents. He is in sid e Nature, but, m eanw hile,

he p o s s e s s e s it, in that he can understand it. More than th is, the Poet

"afford[s]" nature, creating it w ith words. The "Heaven" they [the

P o ets] "prepare" — that is, the fictio n a l heaven they create w ith words

— Poetry — is a "Grace." The poet, in this poem, is compared to God.

He is superior, he has worshipers, and he also prepares a heaven. In

the last stanza, however, we have a hint ["It is too d ifficu lt a Grace

— ”] that his divin ity is not e a sily understood, the "Dream" is not

alw ay s ju s tifie d . Is the "Dream" o f language more d ifficu lt to be

attained? Why is the P oet’s craft "too d iffic u lt a G r a c e — / To ju stify

the Dream — "? These questions lead us to another aspect of

D ic k in so n 's considerations on lan gu age.

Up to this point we have seen how D ickinbson ack n ow led ges

the su g g e s tiv e power language p ossesses. In most o f the poems

d is c u s s e d , she declares language's su rvivin g power through tim e and

its strong im pact on human r e la tio n sh ip s. We have a lso seen the

im portance o f the poet as the one who deals w ith such an important
57

artifice. A lthough in these poem s Dickinson shows how powerful

language can be, in none o f them she mentions real com m unication o f

fe e lin g s and ideas. Our next step w ill be the reading o f som e poem s in

w hich the poet shows her m istrust o f language as a means o f e ffectiv e

comm unication.

J.581

I found the words to every thought

I ever had — but One —

And that — d e fies me —

As a Hand did try to chalk the Sun

To Races — nurtured in the Dark

How would your own — begin?

Can Blaze be shown in Cochineal

Or N oon — in Mazarin?

The poem above is about the difficulty o f putting thoughts

into words. The image used, the "Hand [that tries] to chalk the Sun"

im plies huge d ifficu lty, or rather, im p ossib ility. The second stanza

presents two very improbable ideas: Blaze — C ochineal / N oon —


58

Mazarin. There are, indeed, words for many thoughts, but this

p o s sib ility goes only to one point. There is "One" which "defies" the

poet. What kind o f thought would that be? Here we must also recall

poem J.1668:

I f I could tell how glad I was

I should not be so glad —

But when I cannot make the Force,

Nor m ould it into Word,

I know it is a sign

That new Dilem m a be

From m athem atics further o ff

Than from Eternity.

The first two lin es o f the poem already come up w ith the

d ifficu lty o f com m unicating glad n ess. She names this d ifficu lty after

"Dilemma," w h ich is more related to "Eternity" than to "mathematics."

Here w e have two key elem ents in o p p osition , w hich are e sse n tia l for

the reading o f the poem. "Mathematics" w ould surely stand for

p recision , w hich is a quality we do not usu ally connect to f e e lin g s ,

such as glad n ess. C onversely, "Eternity" can bring to the reader's mind
59

a more generalized idea, absolutely unprecise. Since D ickinson cannot


•ft

define "how glad" she fe e ls, she does not go on trying to define, but

works with o p p o sitio n s w hich in a way g iv e s us a vague idea o f her

fe e lin g s. Her g lad n ess w ould be much more related to "Eternity" than

precise.

Roland H agenbfichle has accurately described D ick in son 's

strategy in producing definition:

K now ledge for her cannot be fixed in term s o f some definite


truth. This w ou ld be an in a d m issib le act o f hyp ostatization or
reific a tio n , e sp e c ia lly where r elig io u s concepts are concerned
w ith their intim ation s o f an ob jectiv e supernatural world.
Therefore, her d efin itio n s are dynamic and open-ended
explorations rather than assertion s. In contrast to the Bible's
apod ictic "Center," D ickinson's poetry — to use her own term
— is a poetry o f "Circumference" (L. 950); it pursues the
m ovem ent o f the spirit in the very process o f k n o w in g, a
process w h ich is inseparably bound up to the m ovem ent o f
la n g u a g e .“^

As an exam p le o f D ickinson's "Circumference" in poetry,

poem J.300 presents an attempt to define "morning:"

"Morning" — means "Milking" — to the Farmer

Dawn — to the Teneriffe —


60

D ice — to the Maid —

M orning means just Risk — to the Lover

Just revelation — to the B eloved —

Epicures — date a Breakfast — by it

Brides — an A pocalypse —

Worlds — a Flood —

F a in t-g oin g Lives — Their Lapse from Sighing

Faith — The Experiment o f Our Lord —

< Starting w ith the sin g le word, the poet builds a whole u n iverse o f

m ean ings, bringing to the poem relations betw een "Morning" and other

words. Probably, she tries to show the nonrigidity o f m eaning that

words have; rather, they have relative m eanings according to relative

situation s. As HagenbOchle points out, the poet works w ith "the

movement o f l a n g u a g e , m o v i n g from point to point, from word to

word, trying to 'overmean' the word "Morning." The very structure o f

the poem su g g e s ts the infinitude o f m eanings "Morning" can have. In

the first verse, she presents the word to be defined. In each o f the

other v erses, she presents one different m eanings for one different
61

situ ation . The list could continue for much longer, given the infinite

quality o f metaphors. As W ittgen stein would put it.

What the axiom o f in fin ity is intended to say w ould express


i t s e lf in language through the existen ce o f in fin itely many
names w ith different m eanings.^

O f course, these "infinitely many names" m entioned by the

p h ilo so p h er can be put in o p p o sitio n through metaphors, so that the

p o s s ib ilit ie s o f m eanings w ould be infinite. P recisen ess in d e fin itio n

b ecom es a com plex question, a lso mentioned by D ickinson;

J 988

The D e fin itio n o f Beauty is

That D e fin itio n is none —

O f Heaven, e a sin g A n a ly sis,

Since H eaven and He are one.

The exp ression s "Definition o f Beauty / D e fin itio n is none" oppose

each other alm ost w ith m athem atical precision. The word "none"

reduces the two verses to alm ost nothing, and g iv es the poem an idea

o f u s e le s s n e s s . Yet the other two lin es rescue the act o f d efin in g by


62

bringing to the scenery a metaphor — "Heaven and He," — That does

not solve, but postpones the problem.

The im p o ssib ility o f nam ing certain feelin gs is, thus, a great

p o e tica l concern for D ickinson:

J.1382

In many and reportless places

We fee l the Joy —:

R ep ortless, a lso , but sincere as Nature

Or D eity —

It com es, w ithout a consternation —

D is s o lv e s — the same —

But leav es a sumptuous D estitu tio n —

Without a Nam e —

Profaned it by a search -— we cannot

It has no home —

Nor we who having once inhaled it is

Thereafter roam.
63

Here she tries to report the "reportless" — reportless place» —

reportless joy. And even comparing this fe e lin g to Nature or God, she

cannot name it. What w ou ld , then, "sumptuous Destitution" refer to?

The em ptiness caused by such a joy or the im p o ssib ility o f naming it?

John S. Mann, in "Emily D ic k in so n , Emerson, and the Poet as Namcr,"

d is c u s s e s this point:

For Em ily D ic k in s o n found in nam ing an activity that could


release the m a g ic a l, Adamic power o f language, allo w in g her
to recreate her w orld, and som ehow p o sse ss its disparate
m aterials. N am ing could help fu lfill her passion to know.^

Indeed, in poem J. 1452, D ick in so n makes an interesting

consid eration about words and thoughts:

Your thou ghts don't have words every day

They come a sin g le time ^

Like sig n a l eso teric sips

O f the com m union Wine

Which w h ile you taste so native seem s

So easy to be

You cannot comprehend its price


64

Nor its infrequency

The p roblem atics o f know ing/n am in g is clear. The first verse already

states the separation betw een thoughts and words. What fo llo w s is an

e xp lan ation o f how d ifficu lt it is to comprehend, or even, apprehend

thou ghts or k n ow led ge. The poet even m y stifies the question by calling

up a com parison w ith the "communion wine," w h ich can taste so

n a tiv e, but w h ic h lik e thoughts th e m se lv e s, is incom prehensible. The

term 'words', as seen , is m entioned only once. What the rest o f the

poem is about is the com plexity o f understanding human thoughts.

Would th is d istan ce betw een words and thoughts make the latter more

incom p reh en sib le? W ould thoughts 'which have words' be easier to

understand? Or w ould they rarely have words? What sort o f thoughts

can really be uttered? Two p a ssa g e s by W ittgen stein lead us in the

way o f an answer:

The correct method in ph iloso p h y would really be the


fo llo w in g : to say nothing except what can be sa id , i.e .,
p rop osition s o f natural scien ce — i.e. som ething that has
nothing to do w ith ph ilosophy — and then, whenever som eone
e ls e wanted to say som ething m etap h ysical, to dem onstrate to
him that he had failed to g iv e a m eaning to certain sign s in
h is p rop osition s.
65
W hereof we cannot speak, thereof one must be
silent.^

S ilen ce , w ou ld , therefore, be an alternative for the

unutterable thoughts. A ccordin g to W ittgenstein, the only alternative.

In many o f D ickinson's poem s, w e can also see the apology o f silen ce.

The poet states that sile n c e is a superior langu age, som etim es more

pow erful to com m unicate than language itself:

J.989

Gratitude - is not the m ention

O f a T enderness,

But its still appreciation

Out o f a Plumb o f Speech.

When the Sea return no A nsw er

By the Line and Lead

Proves it there's no Sea, or rather

A remoter bed?

The very first word o f the poem — "Gratitude" — represents a

fe e lin g and it is soon d isso cia te d from sp eak ing — "is not the

mention." The "still appreciation" w ould be a much more adequate


66

means to express gratitude than the "mention." In the second stanza,

she m en tions the sea p la y fu lly as an elem ent o f great power, but also
0
'an sw erless.' The lack o f an answ er does not render the sea weaker,

but "remoter."

In the next poem , she a lso points out the superiority o f

s ile n c e , or even o f other m eans o f com m unication over language:

J.97

The rainbow never te lls me

That gust and storm are by.

Yet is she more convincin g

Than P h ilo so p h y .

(•■)

In many other p o em s, the poet sh ow s the importance o f

s ile n c e as w ell:

J.1004

There is no S ilen ce in the Earth — so silen t

As that endured
67

W hich uttered, would discourage Nature

And haunt the World.

J.1251

S ilen ce is all we dread.

There's Ransom in a Voice

But S ilen ce is Infinity.

H im s e lf have not a face.

D ick in so n 's strong respect for s ile n c e parallels her m istru st

of the power of com m unication presented by language. In the

b egin n in g o f this chapter, we read some poems in w hich she praises

the power o f in d iv id u a l words. The contradiction shows i t s e l f w hen

she declares her aw aren ess in relation to things w e can 'not' utter and

her worship for sile n c e . If, how ever, we take words and

com m unication as tw o separate and d efin ite th in g s, the con trad iction

is made less strong. D ic k in so n never takes for granted that lan gu age

could com m unicate fe e lin g s , abstractions. A ccording to Sharon

Cameron, the poet w as c o n sc io u s o f the lack langu age represents.

O utside o f tem porality, or outside o f the realm in w h ich time


and space diverge from each other, c o n sc io u sn e ss is a noon
68
BO d az z lin g that its rays make o f the mirror a mere glare. So
language sin gs light's praises by asserting its own
inadequacy. So the thing itse lf, w ithout representation,
negates the world o f imperfection from w hich representation
arises. So language mourns the space it must faithfully
record.^

Aware o f language's lim itation s, D ic k in so n acknow ledged the

importance o f sile n c e . But in order to express silen ce 's importance,

sh e, paradoxically enough, u ses words. Why?

J.1681

Speech is one symptom o f A ffectio n

And S ilen ce one —

The perfectest comm unication

Is heard o f none —

E xists and its indorsement

Is had w ith in —

B eh o ld , said the A p ostle,

Yet had not seen!


69

Naturally this is a poem about the superiority o f s ile n c e as a

form o f com m unication. The real com m unication is somewhat interior

— "heard o f none/had w ith in — ." But the first line o f the poem

m entions "Affection." A lthou gh not being e ffe c tiv e , language is, in a

se n se, important to humans affectively:

J.1700

To t e ll the Beauty w ould decrease

To state the Spell dem ean —

There is a s y lla b le -le ss Sea

O f w h ich it is the sig n —

My w ill endeavors for its word

And f a ils , but entertains

A Rapture as o f L ega cies —

O f introspective M ines —

The lack o f faith in langu age as a means o f com m unicating is promptly

stated. At once, the verbs 'tell' and 'state' are d isq u a lifie d , or, at lea st

— i f this term here sounds too strong — not b elieved . T ellin g the

Beauty decreases it. A e sth etics has much more to do w ith fe e lin g ,

se ein g , p erceiv in g th in g s. Would aesthetic appreciation have ainything


70

to do with t e llin g how beautiful one object is? And a lso , stating

"demean(s)" the Spell; that is to say, utters what can only be felt. The

word that attem pts to utter reality is just a (weak) reflection o f it.

"There is a sy lla b le — le ss S ea/O f w h ich it is the sign — ." The word

Sea here im p lie s the im m ensity and com p lexity o f what is reflected in

the " sign ,” in la n gu ag e, in the arbitrary code theorized by Saussure.

In another poem , D ic k in so n explores the problem o f te llin g

the truth:

J.1129

T ell a ll the Truth but te ll it slant

S u ccess in Circuit lie s

Too bright for our infirm D eligh t

The Truth's superb surprise

A s Lightning to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must d a zzle gradually

Or every man be blind —


71

The poet states her fear in relation to 'tellin g the truth,' as it may not

be directly told. T e llin g "slant" is her su g g e s tio n , sin ce, otherw ise,

truth can 'blind'. Would her su g gestion for ind irectness have any

con n ection w ith her fear o f the void in com m unication in language? In

other w ords, w ould truth be distorted by language's lack o f preciseness

and in e ffic ie n c y ?

At any account, referring back to poem J .1 7 0 0 , we perceive

that D ic k in so n 's u n fa ith fu ln ess to 'telling' and 'stating' is clear. And

she ia even c o n sc io u s o f her failure; "My w ill endeavors for its word /

And fa ils..." H agenbtlchle says that her poem s are often records o f

failu re and [that] she works in se lf-n eg a tio n ." !^ As a poet, she is

aware that her 'w ill' fa ils . But the fo llo w in g words make the poem

problem atic; "And f a ils , but entertains." This verse could sound like;

'I know la n g u a g e is a failu re, but 1 like to w rite, to speak, to hear the

sound o f w o rd s, to have the illu sio n o f real com m unication. After a ll,

is it not th is fe e lin g o f com m unicating that keeps us together?' At this

p oin t, it m ight be in terestin g to recall the use o f the term "affection"

in poem J. 1681. W ould language not be one affection ate link betw een
j" '

us?

S t ill fo c u sin g on this affectionate link, we return now to a

poem we saw in the introductory, chapter o f this dissertation:


72

J.1651

A Word made F lesh is seldom

And trem blingly partook

Nor then perhaps reported

But have I not m istook

Each one o f us has tasted

With e c sta s ie s o f stealth

The very food debated

To our sp e c ific strength —

A Word that breathes distin ctly

Has not the power to die

C oh esive as the spirit

It may expire i f He —

"Made F lesh and dw elt among us'

Could con d e sc en sio n be

Like th is consent o f Language

This loved P hilology.


73

In the first stanza, there is the "Word" w hich is "made

Flesh." Would that be the act o f speaking? The word in its m aterial

realization when delivered through human's lips? But, i f so, the act o f

sp eak ing is unique and alm ost always solitary — "seldom / And

trem blingly partook." A ls o , it is not "reported." Would that stand for

the idea o f the act o f speaking being ind ivid u al and im p o ssib le to

exp lain , to report? That means to say that words are not able to report

th e m se lv e s, or to report how they happen to be. In the fo llo w in g verses

o f the stanza, how ever, we see the idea o f w ords in u se, h elp in g

humans to fu lf ill a need. Words becom e, then, "The very food d e b a te d ”

w hich sa tiates our "strength." And this is a fact that briiags "ecstasies

o f stealth," that is , the act o f speaking f a n fail in not being able to be

"Partook" but fu lf ills a human need for strength, and, in d eed , brings

"ecstasies o f ste a lth .” And here again we have the idea o f the act o f

speaking being ind ividu al and even secret, in the word 'stealth.'

Speaking w ould bring, thus, som e inner sa tisfa c tio n . Its im pact i n the

outer world can be fa lse , but it fu lfills inner needs.

In the next stanza, the im m ortality o f the word is asserted

and the word is even compared to Jesus. P h ilo lo g y is view ed rather in

a r e lig io u s se n se , in w h ich the word is the im m ortal god. Like a god.


74

the word is view ed as som ething cannot understand, but on which we

have some faith.

Poem J .1 5 8 7 a lso compares language and religion;

He ate and drank the precious Words

H is Spirit grew robust —

He knew no more that he was poor.

Nor that his Frame was Dust —

He danced along the dingy Days

And th is B equest o f W ings

Was b u t ^ Book — What Liberty

A lo o sen ed spirit brings —

Words are v iew ed as food and drink — the bread and the w ine that fed

not only the body, but rather the spirit. A s in the aforem entioned poem

(J .1 6 5 1 ) words f u lf ill an inner hunger, and in the poem above, even

more ob v io u sly , they make the spirit "robust." "He," be it Jesus or

sim ply any character, is made strong through w ords, and in a way, is

perpetuated through them. This we can infer from the im age "frame

was Dust-." After havin g drunk and eaten the words, "He" knows no
75

more that "his frame was Dust." The "frame," his im age, w ill not

van ish like "Dust" anymore, or at le a st, the words made him b elieve

so. Words made him forget his poverty and mortality.

The secon d stanza brings, thus, the statement that his joy was

caused by words. The "Book" is compared to a "Bequest o f Wings" that

loo sen s the spirit. The power o f w ords, then, is like the power o f God

who also gave Jesus r e lie f and freedom. The poem brings this power

into a human le v e l, though. Words are earthly, they are m ade up by

humans and can affect humans by g iv in g them freedom and hope.

1 w ould lik e here to reread the poem with w h ich w e have

started our d is c u s s io n in this chapter;

J.1261

A Word dropped c a re le ss on a Page

M ay stim ulate an eye

W hen folded in perpetual seam

The Wrinkled Maker lie

In fection in the sentence breeds

We may inhale D esp air

At distan ces o f Centuries


76

From the M alaria -

At a first glan ce, we may have taken this poem as an apology

for the word as a tim e le ss and pow erful elem ent. We view ed the term

"infection" as a sig n for the word a b ility for spreading i t s e lf through

cen tu ries. If now we connect in fe ctio n to despair, in fection can

probably be view ed as a desire for com m unication, the affection ate

role that language has in our relation s causin g despair for its own

void. But hum anity does not e a s ily g iv e it up. The "infection" can last

for cen tu ries. Language, ind eed, is a m eans o f keeping us connected to

past and future. Our k n ow led ge and history, although so many tim es

slan tly or even 'badly' told , came to us through language.

W ould language not be one o f the few things humans can

offer each other?

J.26

It's a ll I have to bring today

T his, and my heart b esid e —

T his, and my heart, and a ll the field s

And all the m eadows w id e —

Be sure you count — should I forget


77

Some one the sum could tell

This, and my heart, and all the B ees

Which in the Clover dw ell.

By u sing words the poet brings us lan g u age and her heart,

la n g u age and affection.


78

NOTES - CHAPTER III

^ - R oland H agenbtichle, "Sign and Process: The Concept o f

Language in Em erson and D ickinson," Emerson Society Quarterly

2 5 (1 9 7 9 ): 139.

2 - John S. M ann, "Emily D ic k in so n , Emerson, and the Poet

as Namer," N ew England Quarterly 5 U 1 978'): 469.

5 - L udw ig W ittg en stein , Tractatus Logico P h ilo so p h icu s

(London: R b utled ge & Kegan P aul, 1971) 63.

^ - Hagenbtkchle 139.

5 - H agenbtichle 198.

6 - W ittg en stein 99.

^ - M ann 485.

8 - W ittg en stein 189.

^ - Sharon Cameron, Lyric Time - D ickinson and The Lim its

o f Genre (Baltim ore: John Hopkins UP, 1984) 194.

. HagenbOchle 149.
79

CHAPTER IV

CONCLUSION

J.26

It's a ll I have to bring today —

T h is, and my heart b esid e —

T h is, and my heart, and all the field s

And all the meadows w id e —

Be sure you count — Should I forget

Some one the sum could tell —

T h is, and my heart, and all thé B ees

W hich in the Clover dw ell.


80

The poem is all the poet has "to bring today." Literature,

langu age is what the poet can offer us "This, and my heart beside

—" Language and heart, language and 'affection,' language and

entertainm ent, poetry.

During this dissertation we have asked som e questions in

relation to language and literature, in relation to D ick in so n 's "This,

and my heart beside". We have tried to h ig h lig h t several asp ects o f

lan gu age and literature. Why us^ langu age, why be a poet, why try to

utter, th in gs that are so d ifficu lt to utter? In the former chapter we

have seen some hints w hich led us to some c o n clu sio n s towards

D ic k in so n 's complex ideas on human language and com m unication,

and, consequ en tly, on human r ela tio n sh ip s. In some of them,

D ic k in s o n shows langu age as in e ffic ie n t; in others, as pow erful. In

others s t i l l, she p rofesses her faith on words as "affection." In this

chapter w e w ill review some o f the m ain poin ts that were brought up

and e sta b lish a relationship betw een them.

As we have seen in the introdu ction, through some important

critic a l tex ts, many aspects o f her poetry became clearer to me. In

other c a s e s , the points h ig h lig h te d served as a bridge to other

important a sp ects, such as the role o f the poet as the language-m aker
81

— the god o f the words, language as r e lig io n , and language aa a

pow erful weapon. These asp ects, naturally, are a ll im plicated in the

paradox in v o lv in g language in e ffic ie n c y and pow er, a paradox that this

d isser ta tio n tried to analyse in readings o f sp e c ific poems.

Many critics have dealt w ith the them e o f language in

D ic k in s o n ’s poetry, through different approaches. Some o f them

pointed out the power o f words for her; som e h igh ligh ted their

in e ffic ie n c y . Some worked w ith both a sp ects. After having read her

poetry e x te n s iv e ly , and after having read som e o f that criticism , I

d ecid ed to pursue the question o f the p o s s ib le reason for using

la n g u a g e, even though it is in e ffic ie n t. I ain c o n sc io u s, though, that

this asp ect has been explored by other critics. What I wanted,

how ever, was to present my reading o f this aspect in such an

in trigu in g poetry.

H aving, then, introduced my them atic concern, I proceeded to

make som e considerations on language as a topic. I made some

com m ents on texts by W ittgen stein , Saussure and George Steiner, the

three o f them being quite different in their approaches. Saussure has

helped me understand better the idea o f langu age as a system , the

p h y sic a l characteristics o f words and the m aking o f language. A ls o , he

m akes clear the arbitrary character presented by words. W ittgen stein ,


82

in turn, a lso works w ith the arbitrariness o f language, but he stresses

the inadequacy o f language in relation to m etap hysics and m ystica l

ex p e rien ce s. Like D ick in son , he a lso sees sile n c e as an alternative.

F in a lly , George Steiner directs his d is c u ssio n to language in a

h isto r ica l and p o litic a l sense. He sum m arizes important aspects

rela tin g to lan gu age and life , and sh ow s us the distan ce b etw een truth

and w ords, reality and language. He a lso brings the poet as a s ile n c e

chooser. In general, these texts helped me have a better idea o f

lianguage as a m eans o f human com m u nication or, som etim es, o f n on ­

com m u nication .

After h avin g discussed th ese th eoretical texts on lan gu age, I

w ent back to D ickinson's poems and I read some o f them in their

rela tio n to language. I pointed to in te re stin g aspects in relation to

words in her poetry. Like Saussure, W ittg en stein , and Steiner,

D ic k in s o n is c o n sc io u s o f language's inadequacy and arbitrariness:

The sig n ifie r actually has no natural


con n ection w ith the sig n ified . ^

That w h ich mirrors it s e lf in la n g u a g e,


lan gu ag e cannot represent.2
83
It is no paradox to assert that in cardinal
respects reality now begins o utsid e verbal
language.^

J.1700

To te ll the Beauty w ould decrease

To state the Spell demean —

There is a s y lla b le -le ss Sea

O f w hich it is the sig n is —

(•••)

As a poet, though, she s till u ses langu age to express its own

inadequacy, and even to express s ile n c e as an alternative.

My h yp oth esis, in the begin n in g o f this work, was. that

lan gu age in D ickinson's poetry, although in e ffic ie n t and inferior to

s ile n c e , is very important to human r ela tio n sh ip s. Reading her poetry

w as not an easy task, due to the idiosyn crasy o f her sty le, but in som e

o f my read in gs, I was able to perceive that D ic k in so n v iew s language

and words are important for us in terms o f "affection," or because it

•^entertains," although it often "fails."

In D ic k in so n , the idea o f langu age as a rtificial and fake

becom es clear, but it is s till a joy;


84

J.1639

A Letter is a jo y o f Earth

It is denied the Oods —

L an guage for her is a human lin k , a human attempt to come together.

Perhaps it derives this fake, fictio n a l character from human nature

it s e lf . Perhaps it is a reflec tio n o f o u r se lv es, and like us, cannot be

e a s ily understood.

In c lo s in g th is chapter, and my d issertatio n , I w ould like to

say h o w intrigued I becam e by Em ily D ic k in so n 's work. The originality

o f her poetry fascin a ted me from the b eg in n in g . And I am sure many

other subjects and them es may be analysed and pursued not only in

her poetry, but a lso in her letters.

As an open end for my d is c u ssio n , I w ould like to quote

another one o f D ick in so n 's poem s in w h ich she states her b e l ie f that

literatu re, her "letter to the World," w ill keep her in contact w ith other

p e o p le , even though only through words;

J.441

This is my letter to the World


85

That never wrote to Me —

The sim ple N ew s that Nature told

With tender Majesty

Her M essage is com m itted

To Hands I cannot see —

For love o f Her — Sw eet — countrymen

Judge tenderly — o f Me
86

NOTES - CHAPTER IV

1 - Ferdinand de Saussure, "Course in General Linguistics,"

Contemporary Literary C riticism , eds. Robert C. D avis and Ronald

S ch leifer (N ew York: Longman, 1989) 160.

2 - Ludwig W ittgen stein . Tratactus L o g ico P h ilo so p h ic u s.

London; R ou tledge & Kegan Paul, 1971, 79.

5 - George Steiner. Language and S ile n c e . London: Penguin

B o o k s, 1 9 6 9 . 37.
87

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