224. (Emily Dickinson)

In this third and last in a series of posts on Emily Dickinson and decorum, I’ll try to bring decorum into contact with another preoccupation of the blog in the last few months: the sustained awareness of the body that serves as limit and horizon for the an imaginative experience that, I’ve suggested, characterizes what we refer to as “literature” and even “art.” I don’t mean that all literature is really about the body, but instead that the experience of a body (the feel and requirements of bodily experience) is one (a) of the foundations for the literary imagination, along with (b) a concern with probability and possibility as opposed to actuality, and with (c) the thought that art and literature both judge and contain within the judgment the conditions of the judgment.

Combining the three, I’d arrive somewhere like: literature judges what is possible for human life and gets within its judgments the conditions of those judgments, where the possibilities for human life, and the conditions of judgments themselves, are always understood somatically, whatever else they might be (and they will no doubt have to be a great deal more). The task of criticism is, then, interpretive, in the sense that critics interpret the judgments being made as well as the conditions of those judgments, bearing in mind that they are judgments of possibility and probability, rather than actuality; without coincidence, though also without the consciousness of the critics themselves, the best critics are themselves highly attuned, and consistently attentive, to the bodily imagination in works of literature (and all art)–as well, and here is an addendum that I’ll not get into, as being attuned and attentive to the “shadow” that bodily experience casts: the experience of time.

Literature, then, can be distinguished from history, without valuing history less, and elucidating the distinction sheds some light on what I’ve tried to explain. Whatever the perspicuity or judiciousness in historical writing, it does not offer a sustained attention to imagining bodily experience–however, even, it might generalize about what people thought or did with their bodies–and this because it cannot do so: it seeks to recover what is actual, and to imagine the experience of a body would go beyond the sanction of such recovery, would enter flagrantly into the realm of literature.

Decorum bears on this because it concerns itself with the expression of judgments (in proper language) and with the conditions of those judgments, according to a social standard that seeks to preserve an identity by conformity to behavior and guarding of boundaries. But decorum is also relevant because of the relationship it has to the body in particular: the question of decorum and manners is often a question of bodily control and of how one may or may not speak about the body and its functions or urges. Where bodies are present, decorum works hardest.

The admonitory relationship between the body and decorum gives us also a way of approaching the suspicion that Emily Dickinson’s poetry depend upon a strangely (queerly) isolated code of decorum. Decorum is easiest to detect and appreciate in poetry when it can be read in the context of other documents; however much a poem might get the conditions of the judgment into the poetry, the system of decorum is too social, too diffuse, for a single poem to accommodate in its complexity; a lyric poem cannot do what an Austen or James novel can.

But where decorum is a private fiction, as I’ve suggested Dickinson’s decorum is, no such broader social code can be read in documents. That is not to say that Dickinson writes in a private language. Her poems are riddled with the phrases of the society she knew, and often loathed; but she writes against them often (as I tried to show in a reading of a Dickinson poem at the end of my last post), and she would set against them another standard, which she considers more proper, and which often makes her poems, I believe, as riddling as they are. They do not riddle to tease or perplex, but to meet a private notion of propriety, only indirectly implying a fictional social order which she would serve. Or so I suspect.

Since it is fictional, since it is felt only in the traces of phrasing, the esoteric loft that distinguishes and opens her poems, how are we to understand it as decorum?

Dickinson’s awareness of the body is here of help. Accepting that decorum is often most perplexing and perplexed when considering and articulating what is most difficult to ignore but also most privately experienced in the body, we can read Dickinson’s poetry on the hypothesis that her perplexed and perplexing phrases, those most disjointed and resistant to public idiom, are doing something similar. The goal is not to decode them, to decide what body part or bodily motion she cares to disguise, but instead to find there a focal point of bodily imagination. Take, for instance, from 1863, numbered 718 in the Thomas H. Johnson edition:


I meant to find Her when I came–

Death–had the same design–

But the Success–was His–it seems–

And the Surrender–Mine–


I meant to tell Her how I longed

For just this single time–

But Death had told Her so the first–

And she had past, with Him–


To wander–now–is my Repose–

To rest–To rest would be

A privilege of Hurricane

To Memory–and Me.


Less enigmatic than many Dickinson poems, an enigma does arise nonetheless, in the final stanza, cinched by the phrase “a privilege of Hurricane.”

The enigma itself ought to be worked through first. Here are several readings: wandering is what she must do if she is to achieve a repose, and to rest would be to yield to the hurricane violence of memory and self that she would avoid; or else, wandering is a suitable punishment, because rest would be a privilege afforded to hurricanes when they die out, which she cannot afford herself, since she does not want for the fury of memory to abate like a storm; or else, “rest” means death, and she would rather live and wander and find repose in sustaining the memory, rather than die and therefore, like a hurricane, prove fatal to both the memory and the self.

The question of the body arises with “wander,” “repose,” and “rest,” where we are to wonder whether “wander” is spatial or emotional, or more broadly existential, and likewise whether “rest” is euphemistic or existential, spatial or emotional; so the body enters the poem with the last stanza, even more than it has in the earlier desire of “longed.” The enigma not because of “privilege of Hurricane,” but because of the uncertain status of those earlier words, “wander,” “repose” and “rest.” But “privilege of Hurricane” does something to the way in which it thought through. With the legal tincture of “privilege” we are brought to the notion of personhood (hurricanes are people too?) but with the intrusion of “Hurricane,” a word as foreign to the poem as the weather phenomenon would be to Dickinson’s Amherst, the notion of violence on a scale and in a form enters also–and it is not certain what to make of it, except to think of what drama would unfold, consuming and emanating from the person at once, and to consider that drama as physical, there being, by virtue of its incongruity in the poem’s imagery, a necessity of both imagining a hurricane in concrete detail (as opposed to immediately transmuting it to a symbol) and then in imagining the speaker of the poem as a concrete dramatic personage in order to work out what it would mean for her to be like a hurricane, and in possession of its privilege. She is evidently, the stretch and breadth of the phrase suggests, talking around something; and the physicality of violent weather implies that the something need to be imagine somatically.

Elsewhere, Dickinson thrives on an awareness of what decorum can do, with the result an ironic evasion of what it is to have a body. Decorum, she understands, can run amok; and that is why she would offer her own.


It’s easy to invent a Life–

God does it–every Day–

Creation–but the Gambol

Of His Authority–


It’s easy to efface it–

The thrifty Deity

Could scarce afford Eternity

To Spontaneity–


The Perished Patterns murmur–

But His Perturbless Plan

Proceed–inserting Here–a Sun–

There–leaving out a Man


To what extent is this supposed to delight in the spontaneity and contingency of creation? Certainly not as much as the glib words would were they not charged with an excess of polite ease and sanctioned household wisdom. That excess, in the words “gambol,” and “thrifty” and “afford” and “efface” and “easy” and the alliterative “P” of the final stanza, itself represents a judgment and a condition of the judgment, whereby we ought to perceive the ironic inadequacy of the words. Dickinson’s poem performs so briskly its own creation, and reminds us so nonchalantly of its own dispensable spontaneity, that it testifies to what it says, as, say Tennyson’s more wrought stanzas of In Memoriam, cannot. What the language of Dickinson’s poem talks around, or talks right by, as Tennyson’s “Nature red in tooth and claw” does not, is that these effaced lives suffer and feel.  Dickinson does not seem much interested in acknowledging it, because her decorous language cannot, and so it would seem to be a rebuke against that language. She puts on a show of trusting that this way of speaking is fully adequate even to dealing with the cosmic contingencies of life and death, creation and extinction, so she she draws attention to the shortcomings of this way of talking, implicitly belittling it for its belittlement.

And yet, as Empson knew, all good ironies catch at and take hold of more than one truth, even if unevenly doing so…the poem also admits, even endorses, the thought, the cynicism of which is not shallow and not alien to Dickinson, that the perspective of decorum is in fact justifiable on this case: that the pain and reality of what is bodily and felt is not, all of the time, relevant for imagining creation and extinction. In so doing, however, she in effect suggests that what seems like a decorous way of talking about “these horrid matters of life and death of individuals and species,” is in fact a metaphorical handle for addressing them quite directly. The decorum is no longer to be judged decorous.

From another perspective still,  a final example:


Two Lengths has every Day–

Its absolute extent

And area superior

By Hope or Horror lent–


Eternity will be

Velocity or Pause

At Fundamental Signals

From Fundamental Laws.


To die is not to go–

On Doom’s consummate Chart

No Territory new is staked–

Remain thou as thou art.


Begin with the first stanza. Hope as X and Horror as Y, their product forming the area of any day; eternity in the second stanza can move at a given velocity along X and Y (visualized as a vector perhaps) or else can represent a pause; perhaps it is a railroad map she has in mind, with signals from the “fundament” of the heaven; the notion of a pause is taken up in the joke that opens the third stanza. Beckett would have appreciated (did he know) “To die is not to go,” which means both that death allows a person to remain in place, in the memory we have of them, over a particular span of time, and also that death means an end to motion, since the dead are unable to go anywhere. The dead are remains and the dead remain. The most completed chart, or the only complete chart, or the last chart to be made, depending on how you read “consummate” belongs to Doom, and that, showing the entirety of a life, does not offer a guide for how to stake out new territory; the staking has been done. The weight on “Remain” is heavy without being heavy-handed, since it all the while also invokes the corpse of a body–the human remains–without ever saying so directly.

The place of decorum in this poem is quite different from in the first two, since it has none of the sudden esoteric drama of phrasing we find in the first, and since it lacks the playful irony of the second. Instead, this shows Dickinson moving with a classical steadiness of gait, the argument of her poem like the bones of a metaphysical lyric, the syntax straightforward and conventionally sequenced, the parallels and address clearly established. To look for the presence of Dickinson’s decorum, then, we need to look beyond the blaze of a single line to the conceit that structures the whole: the movement of a life through each day along two axes of Horror and Hope. To register what is decorous, we do not need here to think of what bodily experience is being evoked or intimated, but to appreciate that the poem abstracts an entire emotional life in a physical form that attributes to a life two directions only, Hope and Horror, until it dies.  And only with the word “die” does the poem approach life as a bodily phenomenon, that can remain alive or become remains of life. “As abstract as you would like it to be; reduce it to a binary of feelings if you like; nonetheless, this is life and it will die, since it rests in your body.”

And with that mention of death, the metaphor does change slightly, becoming less abstract, becoming not a matter of vectors or rails or a geometric area, but instead a territory to be explored, staked out, claimed for one’s own; but the bodily imagination is most animated when it is denied, since on Doom’s consummate chart–and we can hear a note of admiration in “consummate”–there is no new staking of territory.

The poem does not evade or avoid the body; it reduces it to few variables, to movement, to Hope, to Horror; and it suggests also, in the final line, what is among the most crucial aspects of a body-in-time, and what the poem has hitherto excluded entirely: change. “Remain thou as thou art” hangs uncertainly onto the phrases that proceed it. It might be a direction: remain as you are, moving through time and space, and do not die. But it also might be dependent on one of the earlier phrases in the stanza. “To die is not to go; it means you remain as you are,” so that we now read “to go” as meaning not “to move in space” but “to change from one thing into another,” emotionally but corporeally also. Or it might mean “On Doom’s consummate chart, you remain as you are,” so that the idea of moving into someplace new and becoming something new is held out at the end as a warning of death.

It is a poem about space and movement, about hope and horror, with life being all of these, until there is death; no body transforms in the poem, and neither is a body transformed by a poem; it plots a person’s course in life with such stringent abstraction away from the corporeal that it never seems euphemistic, embarrassed, prude, or prurient; it claims nothing about a body, but in final words about death and remains, it returns to the body as the seat of horror and hope that give time its breadth and length.  It is perfectly and idiosyncratically decorous in its acceptance of human mortality.








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