The Curtain or the Veil: Loneliness and Doubt in Emily Dickinson’s Exploration of Individuality (Grade B+)

on July 11, 2016 in Essays, Masters Degree, Poetry

It is difficult to disassociate the sense of self in the works of Emily Dickinson from the biographical and sociological elements that would have been present during their composition. Neither can it be wholly divorced from the idea of American exceptionalism, thought of as a particular byproduct of American individualism, or the transcendental and autonomous selfhood of Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”. The latter of these influences could not but have had an impact as, however obliquely, Dickinson was a literary descendant of transcendental thought. Ultimately though, it is perhaps this very disassociation that Dickinson seeks through the opaqueness of her lyric, the experimentation of her form, and the repetition of her theme. Her work veers away from the Emersonian self in its purest form by introducing the limitations of human experience. As Shira Wolosky puts it, Dickinson’s work, “…that seems to assert the power, completeness, and sufficiency of self also questions, exposes, and subverts such assertions.” (Wolosky 134) Dickinson searches through the construct of individuality by means of two of its more oppressive implications, those of loneliness and doubt. What follows is a close reading of three poems, without consideration for their composition date, as essays in Emily Dickinson’s understanding of her own individuality and that of individuality as a concept. While she appears to walk the path laid down by the transcendentalists, she is less willing to adopt the idealized self-reliant self and finds problems with the construct throughout her explorations. Being unable to bar the biographical from the gates even to the length of an introductory paragraph, it is hard to overlook the freedom Dickinson’s search is afforded by her reclusive habits. The humility that led her to ask Thomas Wentworth Higginson if her poems were worth publication and her lifelong distaste for attention will be mirrored in her honest doubt which is, and must be, the first step in the search for self.
Wolosky shows that “On a Cloumnar Self” is a valuable place to start any investigation of Dickinson’s views on self-reliance, and, hazarding a slight retreading of ground, there will be no exception found here. However, where Wolosky focuses on the cost of selfhood as a, “…downward metamorphosis…into inorganic stone.”(Wolosky 135) there is also an implied contradiction in the column as a symbol for the individual self. Dickinson’s column is at least as important in the elements that go unmentioned as they are in those that are voiced. It is perhaps easier to look at the word, and conjure the image, of “columnar” then it is to pair it with its siblings, society and use. A column rarely stands alone and is never built by a single person. Armed in this manner a reader might find the inherent contradiction in the idea of being truly self-reliant in that one’s individuality would necessarily be a construct of people rather than person. This in turn implies that the individual, as a product of a collective, is also intended for some end that justifies or inspires its construction. Columns are used commonly in concert and in the effort of bearing a load no structure could on its own. However, this form of identification comes with its own problems, particularly those of the need for some form of exterior affirmation. At first subtlety in, “Though none be on our side” and more explicitly with, “Suffice Us”(Fr740) Dickinson invites the condemnation or validation of an unseen third party as a constituent part of that individuality’s construction. Herein lies the first doubtful and lonely steps that will sound out Dickinson’s problematic individuality in the upcoming poems. If, rather than a consciously engineered and self-determined identity, one is the construction of elements beyond that identity’s control, how isolated would it feel when it inevitably wonders what it’s meant to be holding up?
It is this questioning that would eventually lead to the attempt to disassociate with the idea of a community of individuals holding up a single structure in which that very individuality has now become suspect. A natural response for this train of thought is Dickinson’s poem, “I tried to think a lonelier Thing.” Upon the realization that the column of individuality is only indestructible and commandable once it has been completed, the recourse of this discourse is to seek out that “lonelier Thing” and find that construct which is devoid of community influence in its genesis. Dickinson’s first effort is the thought of being alone in the polar wilderness followed closely by the contemplation of the nearness of death. The second stanza,

I probed Retrieveless things
My Duplicate- to borrow –
A Haggard comfort springs (Fr 570)

is interesting in that not only is it truncated, but it also hints that being alone is the individual broken down to its absolute smallest part. In essence to be truly individual one must be truly alone. Even here the narrator finds his or her “Haggard comfort” in the person of their “Duplicate”. This extreme limit to even the thought of loneliness belies the boundaries of human perception and by proxy individuality. Not only is the speaker not alone in that loneliest of places, but finds in fact her doppelganger. In this context, that mirrored self could be another “columnar” self expressing how limited the narrator’s individuality is even when it comes to the processes of the mind, or a mental barrier conjured by the narrator’s physical inability to comprehend loneliness to its furthest degree. The small comfort that is felt in this discovery seems to be in the narrator’s inability to find that atomic particle of self, but therein also lies the frustration for the questioner. Unfortunately, this leaves the once certain and columnar self incapable of even accurately fathoming loneliness much less able to see it realized. In the absence of that ideal individuality which loneliness personifies, comes the second axiom of that construct undiscovered, doubt.
Katie Peterson argues that, “Dickinson constructs poetic authority by focusing on her own anonymity and invisibility…” (Peterson 76), and though not specifically addressing the auditory in “The Loneliness One dare not sound” it is that anonymity to which she strives in contemplating that which is perhaps beyond the borders of human understanding. By refraining from using a personal pronoun for as long as is tenable, the narrator chooses to use the more general term “One” that they might strip away all vestiges of self. However, there is a clear warning to this mode of exploration in the poem’s second stanza,

The Loneliness whose worst alarm
is lest itself should see-
And perish from before itself
For just a scrutiny-(Fr877)

In this warning there is an eerie echo of the narrator’s previous failure to grasp onto that loneliness which in turn would see itself and be gone. The episode of the “Duplicate” revisited. Despite the speaker’s supreme effort to hold on to that amorphous and truly independent thought he or she submits on the brink and returns to the dialogue of the poem, “I fear me this- is Loneliness” and, as though it were a thing just on the verge of comprehension, humbly leaves it there and fearfully wonders if it is the “Maker of the soul.”
In the end the search for the individual can be paradoxical. Which parts of self contribute most to oneness? Is the intrinsic worth more than the inherited? Are we only capable of defining our identity though being conscious of being observed? In this humblest of readings, Emily Dickinson was followed from her “Columnar Self” on a path she may have shared for a few steps with Ralph Waldo Emerson. But, having shared those first few steps, his road went upward, and hers went inward. Seeking the solitude of pure individuality, Dickinson conjures the limit of that individuality, or perhaps merely the perception thereof. Where Emerson’s self-reliance and autonomy are vessels for congress with the transcendental and interconnected Soul, here Dickinson seems to seek solitude from a connectedness it cannot escape. If limitation is the only sin, is doubt the only certainty? Where Emerson might see a veil, the natural world in which a person needs be enmeshed to see through to the great Self beyond, Dickinson portrays a curtain that can be felt giving shape to something that is otherwise beyond comprehension. Ultimately the paradox returns and this self, which Dickinson attempts to shed in “The Loneliness” as the last barrier to understanding, is it not only indivisible, but indispensable? And is there enough humility to allow for there being no answer? Perhaps, as an individual it depends on whether what is seen is the curtain or the veil.

Dickinson, Emily. “I tried to think a lonelier Thing.” Franklin 570 The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Edited by R.W. Franklin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 2005. Print.

Dickinson, Emily. “The Loneliness One dare not sound.” Franklin 877 The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Edited by R.W. Franklin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 2005. Print.

Dickinson, Emily. “On a Clumnar Self.” Franklin 740 The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Edited by R.W. Franklin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 2005. Print.

Peterson, Katie. “Surround Sound: Dickinson’s Self And The Hearable.” Emily Dickinson Journal 14.2 (2005): 76-88. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 22 June 2016.

Wolosky, Shira. “Dickinson’s Emerson: A Critique Of American Identity.” Emily Dickinson Journal 9.2 (2000): 134-141. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 22 June 2016.

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