Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Quietly demolishing conventionality and myths of heroic pomposity

The overwhelming impression conveyed in Dickinson’s letters to Susan Dickinson and to her other correspondents is of someone who couldn’t stand - who had a visceral shudder in the presence of - the flatulent rhetoric of church and state around her. I don’t believe that her feelings toward Susan were modified by Susan’s “availability” after her marriage to Austin. I think they cooled when Dickinson discovered that Susan was conventional in her language and in her religious views, and that Susan tolerated her and enjoyed her poems as one might enjoy the quirky writings of a child.

Susan was not equipped to understand that Dickinson’s genius lay in her brittleness of language, and her refusal to indulge in the dead metaphors and sentimental nature worship that studded Susan’s prose. Dickinson was out to purge her own language of deadness. This is what she meant when she asked Higginson whether her verse was “alive.” This is what she was trying to explain when she told him that she shunned men and women “because they talk of Hallowed things, aloud - and embarrass my Dog.” This is why people constantly disappointed her, including Higginson, who remarked after an intense visit with Dickinson in 1870 that “she often thought me tired.” With Higginson, with Susan, and others, infatuation yielded to a friendly formality, as Dickinson increasingly preferred the company of children, animals, and people of her father’s more restrained generation.

Already in her teenage year at Mount Holyoke Dickinson had shown her intellectual honesty in her refusal to count herself among the “saved.” Hollow religious language disgusted her: “He preached upon ‘Breadth’ till it argued him narrow . . . The Truth never flaunted a Sign— / Simplicity fled from his counterfeit presence / As Gold the Pyrites would shun.” Dickinson was immune to the war fever around her as well. Scholars have combed her verse and prose for mention of the Civil War, which coincided with her greatest outpouring of verse. But her inspiration during those years seems to have been resistance to high rhetoric. A reference to bells tolling here and to bullets there have been adduced to show her awareness of the war. (As though she could have been oblivious to it!) But Edmund Wilson may well be right in claiming that she never referred to the Civil War in her poetry. Her father’s commitment to the Whig values of compromise - he had served a term in Congress and campaigned for Zachary Taylor and Henry Clay - may have tempered her response. While Julia Ward Howe was writing her saber-rattling “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and Whitman his “Drum-Taps,” Dickinson was quietly demolishing myths of heroic pomposity:

Finding is the first Act

The second, loss,

Third, Expedition for the “Golden Fleece”

Fourth, no Discovery—

Fifth, no Crew—

Finally, no Golden Fleece—

Jason, sham, too—

- Christopher Benfey