Thursday, June 12, 2014

How Emily Dickinson wrote her best poems

What she needed before she could do her finest work was a situation, a figure, that would set out most of the structure for her. She was in trouble whenever some little thing had to be amplified, developed, teased. In the great poems she seizes her theme, normally, not as an idea but as an image or, better still, a relation. And, best of all, the relation has domestic analogies or can be translated directly into domestic or social terms. And then there is a new relation, often a marvelous counterpoint between the intimate relation and the new domestic figure that it has annexed. And the most conclusive example of these felicities is "Because I could not stop for Death":

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me – 
The Carriage held but just Ourselves – 
And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring – 
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain – 
We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed us –
The Dews drew quivering and chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –

Since then – ‘tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –

In this poem all the civilities meet. If we think of it as an achievement of language, we should say at the same time that it has nothing at all to do with a fussy search for the mot juste. Once Emily Dickinson had come to the point of imagining the social image - the afternoon visit, the drive into the country - and had perceived its justice, half the battle was won. She would still have to win the rest of it, but she would do that largely by attending to the "facts" as directly as possible. The style is at once dry and noble; but this is a bonus, a grace, given to her because of the fine confidence with which she entrusted the whole affair to the determination of its leading figure. - Denis Donoghue

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