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literature

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Dickinson, Emily (1830-1886)  
 
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Recent critics have opted for a wide range of terminology to describe the poet's relationship with Sue, some calling it a "romantic friendship," others outing her outright. The prevalence of both hetero- and homoerotic imagery in her writings suggests that Dickinson was bisexual, but did she regard herself as such? And, if she did, how are we to know?

Some critics claim that she expresses guilt at having transgressed her own line between affection and homoerotic desire in some of her love letters to Sue. But could she have felt guilty if female homosexuality was not available to her as a concept? Smith-Rosenberg finds the theme of lesbianism in only one nineteenth-century literary genre, male French fiction, which would hardly have been accessible to the poet.

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So when we analyze Dickinson's writings to Sue and other women, we need to entertain the possibility that the poet may not have acknowledged the homoerotic strain in her letters and poems. Some notes to women friends seem frankly erotic, but others seem more ambiguous.

For instance, when Sue was out of town, she wrote:

It is sweet to talk, dear Susie, with those whom God
has given us, lest we should be alone -- and you and
I have tasted it, and found it very sweet; even as fragrant flowers, oe'r which the bee hums and lingers, and hums more for the lingering.

But she also sent Eudocia Flynt, a cousin to whom she was not particularly close, a rose accompanied by a poem ending with these lines, "Depths of Ruby, undrained -- / Hid, Lip, for Thee, / Play it were a Humming Bird / And sipped just Me." Both writings seem to allude to female sexual pleasure, but the fact that the poet was in love with the first addressee and barely knew the second leads me to question whether we can draw any conclusions about her intentions in the passage to Sue.

But whether or not the poet recognized the erotic undercurrent in some of her writings to women, her fear of making herself too vulnerable to Sue is obvious. Torn between her desire to express her love and her need to protect herself, Dickinson used a variety of tactics for concealing her feelings.

First, she sent Sue only a fraction of the hundreds of poems she wrote addressing the relationship, and when she did show them to her, she edited out some of the love evident in her private drafts.

Second, in those poems she did send Sue she used metaphorically cryptic language likely to perplex her, placing the poet in a position of power.

And third, she sent Sue some poems without framing them with a note, a salutation, or a closing, leaving her to guess whether to read them as communiqués or artifacts.

This tendency to send a poem without clarifying its rhetorical purpose reflects Dickinson's tendency to blur the distinction between letters and poems, though most editions of her work separate the two. A look at her manuscripts suggests that many of her writings might best be described as "letter-poems" because her prose gives way to poetry without a pronounced shift in tone, rhythm, or appearance.

In letters, poems, and letter-poems, she uses the same imagery and literary techniques, the same rhythms (sections of some letters might be transcribed into three- and four-beat lines to read as poems), and the same oblique yet confiding voice.

The poet's characteristic gesture, to Sue and other correspondents, was to offer precise analogies for her emotional state, without specifying the source of the pleasure or pain. She wanted to conceal the details of her passions but had a consuming need to disclose their intensity.

One note to Sue reads in its entirety, "'For Brutus, as you know, was Caesar's Angel,'" while another reads, "Great Hungers feed themselves, but little Hungers ail in vain." A third note acknowledges that both women appreciated such enigmas: "In a Life that stopped guessing, you and I should not feel at home."

The main way the poet kept Sue guessing was by using densely figurative language that might simultaneously intensify her expression of love, display mastery over her feelings, protect her pride, and baffle Sue. This language baffles critics also, but when we read difficult poems within the context of more accessible ones sharing their imagery, they become clearer.

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