Confident Despair and the Circuitry of Truth
The Poetry of Emily Dickinson
For Emily Dickinson, poetry is an expression of her ceaseless pursuit of Truth and, in a sense, Immortality. To the extent that her idealized progress toward certain knowledge must be engaged with the ill-suited mortal faculties of sense and comprehension of what is sensed while tied to an imperfect world, this progress is perpetually frustrated. In stark contrast with the romantic and transcendental temperament of many of her American and Continental contemporaries, though, Dickinson acknowledges her imperfect, human perspective as an ineluctable element of her quest. Her poetry, then, can be seen both as the instrument by which she reworks her perception and as the product of that reworking.
Within this dynamic relationship, however, Dickinson consistently returns to a few primary symbols which seem to represent some unchanging elements and conditions of the quest as a whole. The most prevalent of these symbols are related to visual perception: the night, which is the symbol of her benighted, “fallen” perception, or spiritual blindness; noon and the sun, which represent absolute visionary glory, fulfillment of quest, the eradication of any division between perceiver and perceived; and physical eyesight itself, which must mediate between these two absolutes and align the real and temporal with an envisioned ideal. But the relationships among night, noon, and perception are dynamic and in constant flux; truth can only be glimpsed obliquely. “The Truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind” (P 1129)–that is, true vision involves the ability to perceive relationships, to comprehend noon in terms of the night which is the human condition, the only condition Dickinson knows firsthand.
Poetic vision, therefore, is not a transcendental oneness with noon, a facile appropriation of the object of spiritual longing into the frame of a mere perceptual moment (though Dickinson did experience such moments, characterizing the them as “ecstatic instants”) but rather a multi- faceted endeavor toward gaining perspective upon that object, a perspective which absolutely necessitated distance. Dickinson characterizes the relationship between the perceiver and the perceived as paradoxically self-defeating, precisely: “Perception of an object costs / Precise the Object’s loss” (P 1071). What this means is that; 1) in order to see something, one must be separate from it and that 2) complete identification with an object necessarily precludes one’s perception of it. The most impressive and ominous logical off-shoot of this (one that resurfaces under innumerable guises throughout the Dickinson canon) is that in order to really know the capital concepts of God or Truth, to know anything at all, the singular identity of the perceiver must cease to exist.
But if the quest cannot be completed short of death, let alone organized into a single coherent thrust, individual moments of vision–attainments of true perspective–can be recorded, shaped into discrete poetic wholes. In order to place herself–a poet working “at night”–in an appropriate relationship to “noon,” the object of quest, it was necessary to experiment constantly with visionary perspectives in her poems; thus the poems often appear as fictions, the arguments of artificial personae bound to deliberately static (and therefore imperfect) perspectives. Some of these personae utter seemingly profound truths, but often the fictions also subtly qualify the speakers’ claims; sometimes the personae are still naive, in the state of innocence–and their naïveté is obvious, rather pathetic; and on occasion the speakers simply make fools of themselves.
To understand the complexity of Dickinson’s quest is to become sensitive to her various, often cunning uses of personae and their inadequately recognized affect: dramatic irony. To this affect, she creates a variety of fictions whose personae represent differing postures and attitudes toward the quest itself. Some speakers are self-deluding, others are merely complacent,
and still others make bold claims for the speaker’s own perception and intelligence, her need to scrutinize carefully perceptual relationships–measuring distances, establishing ratios between perceptual gains and losses–and thus her ability to hold her own in her courtship with death. The burden of establishing a link with omnipresence then, for Dickinson, falls not upon faith but upon human perception, which must constantly adjust its focus, never relax into certainty; otherwise, these narrow, artificial conceptions may be mistaken for the infinitely complex reality.
This perpetual shifting of perspectives from one poem to the next gives the body of Dickinson’s work an animated quality, an illusion of movement comprised of a series of flickering glimpses. As such, her poems have often been characterized as fragmentary bits of insight which make up a large, loosely related whole, but actually the opposite is true: the canon itself is fragment while individual poems are each self-contained units, singular perspectives. This is the paradox of a quest which requires numberless strategies, the sum of which–if the number were finite–would succeed in producing complete vision, and thus the poet’s union with it in the act of envisioning, the fulfillment of the quest. In the act of establishing the inextricable relationship between perception and its object’s loss, between artistic gain and personal depravation, she finds her identity and the role of her own “physiognomy” in the quest for immortality.
The noon of spiritual fulfillment is omnipresent, and to achieve it one must have “developed” sophisticated eyes. But since human perception, no matter how shrewdly developed, can sustain only instants of vision, oblique glimpses of immortality, the inevitable state of the human questor is despair. For Dickinson, however, this despair contains the key to its own transcendence, precisely because the energy of her quest is so unflagging, and her understanding of its conditions and limitations so thoroughly clear-sighted. As the poems examined above should indicate, the human night and the spiritual noon have their multi-faceted relationship through the mediation of perception and through the creation of poetic stances which enhance perceptual effectiveness. The following excerpt is a clear statement of the central emotional stance underlying this delicate mediation:
‘Tis failure–not of Hope–
But Confident Despair–
Advancing on Celestial Lists–
With faint–Terrestrial power–
‘Tis Honor–though I die–
For That no Man obtain
Till He be justified by Death–
This–is the Second Gain–
This poem is one of her most ambitious: it charts the poet’s quest from those presumptuous hopes of a naive questor to the “confident despair” which is the poet’s mature stance; and, like much of Dickinson’s canon, it points toward death as the crux of all meaning and relationship. The poem also contains an intense and beautiful pride, claiming the “honor” inherent in a quest that can achieve no sustained fulfillment; this honor itself sustaining and helps maintain the difficult stance of confident despair. The speaker who feels herself “Advancing on Celestial Lists– / With faint–Terrestrial power–“ knows that no certainty or true justification can exist on this side of death; but, if she despairs at the “faintness” of her own vision, she nonetheless remains confident in its relationship with the noon of her pictured fulfillment. Confidence in the reality of grace, despair at its incalculable distance–here the central paradox of Dickinson’s poetic insight, that perception of an object requires its loss, is stated poignantly in terms of her religious/artistic quest as a whole. Only through the effort of her poetic strategies could she alleviate that loss, cultivating a vision of her own questing self and of her position.
Emily Dickinson Presentation Assignment
Follow these steps:
1. Go to www.americanpoems.com/poets/emilydickinson
2. Read the poems until you find one that you like.
3. Copy and paste it into a Word document.
4. List all of the reasons that you like it.
5. List all of the words that you don’t know, including their secondary and archaic meanings.
6. Address each of our 13 poetry questions.
7. Decide which 5 of the 13 questions gave you the most interesting ideas.
8. Sign up for your presentation day and time.
9. Dig deeper into those 5 questions and use them as the basis of your presentation.
10. Give me a list of all of the equipment you will need.
11. Create your presentation, making sure that you do the following things:
a. Create an outline that highlights the information you will be covering in class.
b. Create any materials (audio, video, pictures, handouts, overheads) you will need to get your ideas into our heads.
c. Streamline your presentation so that it takes exactly 10 MINUTES!
d. Rehearse your presentation and your timing in front of others.
e. At least one day BEFORE your presentation slot, double check to make sure that EVERYTHING WORKS!!!
f. Teach us your poem.