Emily Dickinson's Vision: Illness and Identity in Her Poetry

Emily Dickinson's Vision: Illness and Identity in Her Poetry

Emily Dickinson's Vision: Illness and Identity in Her Poetry

Emily Dickinson's Vision: Illness and Identity in Her Poetry


In this original contribution to Dickinson biography and criticism, James Guthrie demonstrates how the poet's optical disease -- strabismus, a deviation of the cornea -- directly affected her subject matter, her poetic method, and indeed her sense of her own identity.

Dickinson's illness compelled her to remain indoors with her eyes heavily bandaged for months at a time, especially during the summer. Guthrie maintains that these extended periods of sensory deprivation caused her to seek solace in writing and to convert her poems into replacements for her injured eyes. Many poems discuss her physical pain; many mention such topics as optics, astronomy, light, or the sun; some suggest that she blamed God for what had happened to her. These poems permitted her, Guthrie says, to use her personal experience as a spring board for discussing philosophical and religious matters and led her, finally, to conceive a system of metapoetics in which she served as translator or mediator between God's will andhuman experience.

Guthrie argues that reading the poems in an overtly biographical context deepens their complexity and profundity. Dickinson emerges from this study as an accomplished artist and an eminently sane and stable woman whose patience and optimism were sorely tested by severe, chronic illness.


I reckon--when I count at all--
First--Poets--Then the Sun--
Then Summer--Then the Heaven of God--
And then--the List is done--

But, looking back--the First so seems
To Comprehend the Whole--
The Others look a needless Show--
So I write--Poets--All--

Their Summer--lasts a Solid Year--
They can afford a Sun
The East--would deem extravagant--
And if the Further Heaven--

Be Beautiful as they prepare
For Those who worship Them--
It is too difficult a Grace--
To justify the Dream--

DICKINSON BEGINS HER list of favorite things in "I reckon--when I count at all--" with poets and the sun. Next comes summer, when the sun shone at its longest and brightest, and then, somewhat pointedly in last place, the "Heaven of God." Yet in the second stanza Dickinson purports to change her mind, striking out the final three items because they are all subsumed within the first. Poets do not need the sun because they can conceive of one more "extravagant" than any the "East" could offer. Neither do they need the summer, for the fertility of their imaginations never wanes. For readers who "worship" poets and poetry, the act of reading itself creates a momentary paradise that renders the orthodox, "Further" heaven superfluous. And even if heaven did prove to be . . .

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