By Zhang Huaming
If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold, no fire can ever warm me I know what is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?
This is the definition given by Dickinson. Unlike Whitman who seems to keep his eyes on society at large, Dickinson explores the inner life of the individual and painted “the landscape of the soul”. Whereas Whitman is “national” in his outlook, Dickinson is “regional”. However, the two poets share on thing in common, that is, they were both courageous experimentalists. Dickinson was original. She sounded idiosyncratic, sometimes. Her poems concern quite a variety of themes, death and morality, love, nature, free will and human responsibility, truth, etc.
Dickinson was a voracious reader, and her poems were deeply influenced by her extensive reading in classical and contemporary literature. She read Bible, Bunyan, Milton, Shakespeare, Sir Thomas Brown, Ruskin, Dickens, etc. to list just a few. Not only is her poetry peppered with biblical references and phrases and images from romantic poetry, but she derived much of her unusual syntax from Latin grammar, and her original rhythmic structure is often a syncopation of conventional scansion.
Dickinson’s irregular or inverted syntax often confuses reader, but many of her unusual constructions are adaptations of Latin rules. Her stylistic innovations –odd inversions, “Rekindled by some action quaint”; omission of auxiliary verbs, “Before it [can] see the Sun!”; use of adjectives and verbs as nouns, “We talk in Careless –and in toss –”; use of adverbs with verbs, “Nor what consoled it, I could trace” –are actually taken from classical forms of grammar such as hyperbaton, anastrophe, hysteron, proteron, hypallage, syncrisis, enallage, aphaeresis, parenthesis, and ellipsis. Her idiosyncratic syntax, is based on traditional usage, not ignorant or whim, as many critics have suggested.
Satirizing strict scansion, her poetry was based on the phrase, not the traditional foot; instead of an inexorably regular stress pattern, she used dashes to indicate pauses. Dickinson’s innovations influenced W. C. Williams, who called her his “patron saint,” and his “variable foot” based on the inflection of American speech – the breath as a unit to determine the length of phrases and lines –was inspired by her poetics. Dickinson’s creation of new syntactic and rhythmic possibilities had a tremendous influence on many important twentieth-century poets, including Ezra pound, Marianna Moore, Robert Lowell, and Adrienne Rich.
In addition to these stylistic influences, many of Dickinson’s poems are either a response to or a direct reworking or her reading, and her reading, and her works often contain dramatic rendering of sconces from specific novels. For example, Dickinson’s poems “I Rose –because He Sank –” is her recasting of the chapters in Jane Eyre (1857) where Jane and Rochester reunited. In the second and the third stanzas of the poem, Dickinson actually incorporates Bronte’s language to portray Jane’s triumph:
I cheered my fainting Prince –
I sang firm –even –Chants –
I helped his Firm –with Hymn –
And when the Dews draw off
That held his Forehead stiff –
I met him
Balm to Balm
In addition to being a direct response Bronte’s novel, this poem describing Jane’s increasing strength and control is a paradigm for Emily Dickinson’s emotional growth in general. The concluding lines “And Sinew from within—/ And ways I knew that I knew –till then –I lifted Him–” articulate Dickinson’s acceptance of her own power.