Changing Rapture: Emily Dickinson's Poetic Development

By Del Guercio, Gerardo | Historical Journal of Massachusetts, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Changing Rapture: Emily Dickinson's Poetic Development


Del Guercio, Gerardo, Historical Journal of Massachusetts


Changing Rapture: Emily Dickinson's Poetic Development. By Aliki Bamstone. Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 2006. 208 pages. $45.00 (hardcover).

Critics have traditionally viewed Emily Dickinson as a poet whose work remained stagnant but was read because of its intrigue and possible hidden meaning. Aliki Barnstone's published doctoral dissertation Changing Rapture: Emily Dickinson 's Poetic Development argues that Dickinson's work developed in a very complex three-phase progress. Dickinson's poetic development, or rapture, as Barnstone terms it, is marked by a struggle against Calvinism and her involvement with Transcendentalism. Barnstone, a Professor of English at the University of Missouri, describes Dickinson's three-step development as follows: the use of satire to critique Calvinism and Sentimentalism; a 'self-conversion' or intellectual crisis where she mastered Calvinist theology; and a struggle with Calvinism and selfinhalation to a re-evaluation of Ralph Waldo Emerson's selfhood and self-reliance. Barnstone's study carries a Massachusetts tenor, given that it questions the very basis of American culture from its Puritan origins to the late nineteenth century by challenging and reworking philosophies of American culture that originated in Massachusetts.

Barnstone describes the first phase of Emily Dickinson's development as a satirical criticism against Calvinism and Sentimentalism. Dickinson's stance was largely grounded in the dual premise that either rejected women or depicted women as passive. Through Calvinism Dickinson believed that women functioned "within the discourse of man, a signifier that has always referred back to its opposite signifier which annihilates its specific energy and diminishes or stifles its very different sound" (39). If women were to create their own voice they would have to "turn it around, and seize it; ... make it theirs . . . bite that tongue with her very own teeth to invent for herself a language to get outside of' (39). Dickinson, in turn, suggested that women create their own language and form of expression, one based on a poetic technique whose meaning lies primarily hidden in narrative gaps. Sentimentalism - because of its overtness - depicted women as passive, in Dickinson's estimation.

The second phase of Dickinson's development was marked by an intellectual crisis wherein she mastered Calvinist theology. Throughout her second phase Dickinson maintained a radical shift from traditional orthodox views to heterodox ones. …

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