The Ambiguity of Emily Dickinson

emily-dickinson1Emily Dickinson is an interesting figure.  A social introvert who read heavily and literally locked herself in her room, she died unmarried and published very few poems in her lifetime.  Though she wrote prolifically, she did not live to see her work and her name reach famed levels, nor did she get to see the audiences who embraced her work. In that, she was like other artists, such as William Blake and Vincent van Gogh. She started her studies at the age of 10 and continued until the age of 17 (though she missed some terms due to illness).  Given her limited education, coupled with untutored reading, it is hard to gauge how well Dickinson understood literature, and though her poems are often celebrated and widely read, reading them can sometimes cause one to wonder: Is her work the product of an enigmatic genius, or the creation of a poet whose voice if fueled by a love of poetry but flawed by a lack of education?


Image borrowed from here.

One of the more problematic poems is ‘My Life Had Stood – a Loaded Gun’ (the poem, untitled as were all her poems, is referred to by its first line).  In the poem, Dickinson speaks in a voice that may be male or female and the poem’s narrator suggest that his or her life is like a loaded gun.  Dickinson refers to the “Owner” of the gun as a “He”, and is sure to capitalize the letters of “Owner” and “He” when referring to him, but she also capitalizes the narrator’s self-referential words like “Me” and conjoins the two as “We” when they go out hunting together.  Their target is a doe, and so Dickinson’s narrator helps to kill the doe.  If it is a female voice, this can be problematic in terms of a feminist reading because firstly, the woman is defined solely by how she is employed by the male figure, and secondly because she helps him to subjugate other females in that she helps him to kill the doe.  Dickinson also capitalizes: Sovereign Woods, Mountains, Valley and Doe, lending a certain authority to the natural world that is undermined by the human world who assaults it.  This use of capitals is employed throughout the poem (she also capitalizes: Yellow Eye, Thumb, Pillow, Head, Night and Day), which dilutes the power of the capital and raises more questions as to how it’s used and what the purpose is.  Dickinson also opts to not use capitals for other words (foe, time, light, and face), which makes matters even more problematic.   Dickinson also makes reference to the Eider Duck in the loaded-gun1poem, a curious reference that does not offer much insight into the poem.  The Eider Duck is a matriarchal society of birds who share parental responsibilities with relatives (a female may lay an egg in the nest of a sister bird who will then take care of it).  Considering this aspect of the bird, the reader must first ask if Dickinson was aware of this, and if so, what does this choice add to the poem?  To have a pillow stuffed with the feathers of this bird in particular is a curious choice, but what does it add to the poem?  In the passage the voice states that it is better to stand guard than to share the bed with the “Master”.  Is this a suggestion that the two share the bed?  Is this a romantic link?  Likewise there is a reference to the “Yellow Eye” that is curious.  A yellow eye can be the result of jaundice, or venereal disease, but could also be a reference to gunpowder (which would perhaps be the most fitting).  The poem though has been read a variety of ways.  Some suggest that the poem is about her relationship to god, others suggest a lover, but since Dickinson never married this could be problematic.  It could perhaps even be a poem about her father as she did go on journeys with him when she was young, and then stayed home later in life (a pattern that could be seen as similar to the one shared between the master and the gun of the poem).  If it is a romantic poem, does she target the doe because she sees other women as potential competition?  And then does that suggest that her jealousy keeps her from sharing the bed with her lover and instead keeping guard over him?  And if instead the “Master” is her father, these questions become even more curious.  It is also interesting to consider that Dickinson’s work was largely unpublished during her lifetime, and so it would be interesting to consider her as a loaded gun in a literary sense, one whose poetry existed, but was undiscovered and so carried the potential to explode, but is never employed to do so.  The closing lines in which she suggests that she has only the power to kill is curious as well.  Is she speaking as a male voice and noting the limits of man, that man can kill, but they cannot create life (only women can bear children).  Or is she simply speaking as herself, who, unmarried, is not able to create life?  Dickinson also presents a paradox at the end of the poem in which her narrator states that he/she will outlive his/her master, but then concedes that the master will outlive the master.  What her intent is with this conflicting statement is unclear.  While the poem succeeds in setting the mind of the reader into questioning what is written before them, at the same time fails to articulately express the intent of the author. 


Dickinson's idea of a 'wild night' likely differs greatly from a contemporary idea of the same phrase.

Dickinson’s idea of a ‘wild night’ likely differs greatly from a contemporary idea of the same phrase.

Wild Nights!” is an equally curious case.  At the end of the poem Dickinson’s narrator, who speaks to a potential lover, proposes: “Might I but moor- Tonight-/In Thee!”  This is interesting because in a sexual context it would be the man who “moors” in the woman.  This suggests that the narrator is perhaps a masculine voice, but it could also be a feminine voice if the woman were to wish herself moored in her lover’s arms.  Like ‘My Life Had Stood –a Loaded Gun’, there is not only the potential of the voice being male or female, but also a potential reading that the poem may be written to a lover, or to god.  The “rowing” reference could be read as a metaphor for sex, but the reference to Eden suggests a potential reference to god.  The Eden reference also suggests a return to a harmonious relationship between humanity and nature, something that is also suggested when Dickinson’s narrator says: “Done with the Compass-/Done with the Chart!”  Here the poems’ narrator rejected these manmade methods of defining nature and wishes instead to be rowing in Eden.   Like ‘My Life Has Stood – A Loaded Gun’, the poem’s intent remains unclear, and what seems like explicit sexual references, are undermined by Dickinson’s reputation as a celibate, unmarried woman who was devotedly Christian.  If this poem had been attributed to Walt Whitman, it would have most certainly been read as a sexual poem written in a masculine voice, but Dickinson’s name seems to work against the poem. 


Was Dickinson channeling her inner Odysseus when she wrote "I'm Nobody"?

Was Dickinson channeling her inner Odysseus when she wrote “I’m Nobody”?

I’m Nobody’ is perhaps more precisely executed but still offers multiple readings.  One might be tempted to see the title as a reference to Homer‘s The Odyssey and the narrative where Odysseus attacks a cyclops after introducing himself as ‘Nobody’, but such a reading does not seem to fit with Dickinson’s poem.  Dickinson makes precise use of punctuation and shares with the reader one half of a conversation.  With the first dash of the poem, Dickinson inserts a pause as she is about to ask the unheard speaker of the conversation who he/she is, and we can see that the speaker is pausing in order to consider how to word her question.  There is no response to the question, so the reader is not sure if Dickinson’s narrator is simply continuing the conversation without waiting for an answer, or if she is simply opting not to share the other half of the conversation with the reader, who is then forced to create the other half of the conversation themselves.  This is an interesting tact as it encourages the reader to co-author the poem in a way, and even perhaps sets the reader up of the other participant of the conversation.  The poem could be read as a feminist piece.  Women in this era were not expected to be seen in the public sphere, and so women were ‘nobody’ in a political and public sense, and Dickinson uplifts this position and celebrates it.  This can be seen as empowering for women as they are relegated to a position that is actually more enviable than the one they would have in the public sphere.  Interesting too is the comment that people in the public must always croak like frogs.  Not exactly a complimentary view of how public speakers voice themselves.  Perhaps this is a satiric element of Dickinson’s work.

Emily-Dickinson2The poem could also be read as a commentary on publication.  Dickinson, having published less than 10 poems in her life time, though writing upwards to 1800, would have been seen as a “nobody” in the literary world, and since the poems she did get published were heavily edited, she may have viewed it as more liberating to remain unpublished as her work would remain intact and not cut up by some editor who had no voice of their own, or who didn’t recognize her voice.  In a third potential reading Dickinson may have been referring to her lack of a husband.  A woman of the era would take on the name of her husband, and so would be given a name upon marriage.  They would become somebody, but Dickinson, who was not married, only ever had the name she was born with and could not introduce herself as “Mrs. Somebody”.  In this way, the poem may be read also as a celebration of abstinence from marriage.  One of the lines that are most curious is at the end of the first stanza when Dickinson says: “Don’t tell!  They’d advertise – you know!”  The word “advertised” is replaced with “banish” in some publications.  Weather the change was one made by editors is not clear.  They may have been two versions that Dickinson wrote herself, but which she preferred is unclear.  A woman who embraces the single life may be considered a spinster and as such may be banished from the community, so reading the poem as a tract against marriage is possible.  If it is meant to read as “advertise” that has a different sort of potency, as if a woman in her position is such an oddity that papers might advertise her for other to come and see.  Which reading fits best is again unclear though.


birdwormThe poems ‘A Narrow Fellow’ and ‘A Bird Came Down the Walk’ are both interesting from an ecocritical perspective.  In ‘A Bird Came Down the Walk’, Dickinson’s narrator notices a bird who lands and eats a worm then drinks water from the grass.  It is an interesting presentation because it at once humanizes the natural world, but at the same time illustrates humanity’s inability to understand the natural world.  The worm that is eaten is referred to as a “fellow” and Dickinson describes the bird in human terms, referring to the top as his head as “Velvet” as though he were wearing a hat.  She then offers him some bread.  This is curious because she has seen the bird has adopted a carnivorous approach to its diet, yet she offers him grains, which he flatly refuses and flies away, and as he flies Dickinson describes his flight in terms humans can understand; by comparing flight to swimming.  Flight being a foreign experience to humans Dickinson sets out to describe the bird’s flight in a human context.  The poem at once illustrates humanity’s need to communicate with nature, as well as its inability to understand nature.  Dickinson is taking the first step by making the attempt to understand nature, but she doesn’t listen, and so articulates humanity’s flawed approach to nature.  It is reminiscent of Lincoln in one of his early attempts to help Black Americans achieve liberty.  Lincoln at one time had thought that being returned to Africa would be ideal for Black Americans since that was their ancestral home, but when he put the idea to some Black people in the abolitionist movement their response was that they were American and that they helped to build America and wished to stay in America as free people.  Lincoln was making the effort, but initially didn’t understand the wants and desires of the Black community.  Likewise, just as whites who were speaking on behalf of Blacks during times of slavery, humanity must speak on behalf of nature.  And just as whites often misspoke on behalf of Blacks, so too will humanity misspeak on behalf of nature.  This is akin also to Said’s Orientalism where the Eastern world is understood through a Western lens, which is obviously flawed.  Likewise humanity will try to understand the natural world through a human lens, which will also be flawed.  Throughout the poem Dickinson opts to capitalize random nouns, in this instance: Bird, Ocean and Crumb.  In instances such as the bird and the ocean, this is empowering as it lends to elements of the natural world capitalization that is generally reserved for human names, but then the capitalization of the word crumb doesn’t fit in with this reading. 


A Narrow Fellow’ likewise deals with some problematic aspects of ecocriticism.  In the poem Dickinson’s narrator comes across a snake in the grass.  Just as she did in ‘A Bird Came Down the Walk’, she humanizes the snake by referring to him as a fellow.  She also capitalizes words like: Grass, Bogey Acre, Corn, Sun and Nature’s People (as well as capitalizing the “He” that referred to the snake).  This again lends a status to these elements of the natural world generally reserved to the human world, but this again is undermined by the fact that Dickinson also capitalizes words like; Floor and Whip.  In the poem the snake frightens Dickinson’s narrator and while the narrator indicates that he/she is on a cordial basis with many of “Nature’s People”, and claims to know them as they know him/her, the narrator also states that such cordiality does not exist with the snake.  This is a key element to ecocriticism as nature is not always seen as a simple and peaceful element of the world.  William Blake addresses this in his poems ‘The Lamb’ and ‘Tyger, Tyger’, where the peaceful nature of the lamb is celebrated and god is attributed as its creator, while the tiger’s origins are questioned.  Be it in the form of predators, or natural disasters, the power of nature can be devastating and so humanity has reason to be terrified of nature which fills humanity in turn with the desire to tame nature.  The ironic things is that in ‘A Bird Came Down the Walk’, Dickinson’s narrator witnesses the carnivorous nature of the bird but is not scared of the bird, but with the snake, he/she sees no such carnivorous inclinations yet is terrified of it.  This lack of true understanding of the natural world permeates throughout the human world and Dickinson articulately illustrates this, and though she does not offer answers, she does show clearly the need for better understanding between humanity and nature. 


I'm not sure who the artist is that put this together, so please be sure to forward me the information if you know so that I can give credit to the artist.

Emily portrait in collage by John Morse.

Dickinson’s poetry, though it does carry elements of a potential ecocritical reading, are often problematic and her seemingly random use of capitals creates problems in the reading of these works, and her narrative voice, which lends itself to multiple readings, also makes her intent unclear and so makes her inarticulate at times.  The poetry is ripe for multiple interpretations, and so is great for generating conversations, but at the same time leaves the reading wanting in a finite answer.  It remains unclear to me weather Dickinson is a genius who masterfully creates duality, or whether such dualities are an unintended flaw that undermines the intent of her writing.

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Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.


  1. Jason, Have u considered coursera
    Al Filreis made quite a stir with the 1st ModPo class last fall and is at it again. The group studies are hugely entertaining and insightful.
    Your essay gave much food for thought. Thank you!

  2. Emily portrait in collage by John Morse

  3. Thanks Karen!

  4. Hi Jason – I’m in the same ModPo class as Roz above – we somehow found your post independently. I was looking for art for a post about the class, and the first assignment, an essay on the Emily Dickinson poem. It’s amazing we crossed paths here! I loved the art so I went searching for it and discovered Stardog Studio.

    I realize now my comment may have seen abrupt – I was trying to get a lot done quickly, so I just entered the essentials. I’m really much friendlier than that. 🙂

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