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literature

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Dickinson, Emily (1830-1886)  
 
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Dickinson uses several networks of imagery to depict her love for Sue, including two clustered around images of wealth and of nature's mystery.

The first of these in particular reveals the extent to which the poet regarded Sue as her primary source of inspiration. Dickinson employs metaphors of wealth to depict Sue ("the Pearl -- / That slipped my fingers through -- / While just a Girl at school"); her love for Sue ("feelings so like gems, that I was sure I gathered them in whole baskets of pearls"); the poetic gifts she offers Sue ("I could bring You Jewels..."); the poetic trophies with which she hopes to triumph over Sue ("No matter -- now -- Sweet -- / But when I'm Earl / Won't you wish you'd spoken / To that dull Girl?..."); and, ultimately, her writing ("I'll clutch -- and clutch -- / Next -- One -- Might be the golden touch...").

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The link suggested by Dickinson's use of the same imagery to portray her love for Sue and her writing is made explicit in "It would never be Common...." This poem recounts how, when the poet had her "drop -- of India" (Sue is identified with India in two other poems) to write with and for, she "dealt of word of Gold / To every Creature" she met. But then,

...suddenly -- my Riches shrank --
A Goblin -- drank my Dew --
My Palaces -- dropped tenantless --
Myself -- was beggared -- too ....
I felt the Wilderness roll back
Along my Golden lines....

Once Sue became engaged to Austin and saw less of his sister, Dickinson felt as if she had been expelled from an Eden where poetic inspiration was "common." Nonetheless the poet remained devoted to Sue.

We might distinguish Dickinson's early and later views of Sue as naive versus informed idolatry. Conceding that she would never possess Sue completely, the poet compared her to Cleopatra, stressing her capacity to whet one's appetite for her without ever satisfying it.

She conflates Cleopatra, Sue, and nature in her writing by using similar imagery to describe them: In "The tint I cannot take -- / is best..." a sunset "swaggers on the eye / Like Cleopatra's Company," whereas in "Were nature mortal lady..." and "Like Some Old fashioned Miracle...," nature is depicted as feminine and beguiling.

But "What mystery pervades a well!..." most clearly associates nature's wiles with Sue's: One draft of the poem replaces "nature" with "Susan" in the line, "But nature is a Stranger yet." Like the well of the nature draft, Sue was unfathomable yet contained, domesticated, and familiar; and she was "a neighbor from another world / Residing in a jar," because Dickinson continually observed her comings and goings, from her bedroom facing Sue's house.

Dickinson apparently never tired of watching her; a few years before her own death, she wrote Sue,

To be Susan
is Imagination,
To have been
Susan, a Dream --
What depths
of Domingo
in that torrid
Spirit!

Sue's role in the development of Dickinson's writing cannot be overemphasized: As a source of love and frustration, of literary camaraderie and competition, she provided the poet with both a source of material and an ideal reader. Sue's early friendship inspired her to express her love candidly in poems and letters, but her perceived defection forced Dickinson to resort to poetic language to communicate with her.

No matter how strained their relationship, however, the poet continued writing to and for Sue, determined to keep her as an audience at any cost. As she wrote Sue in 1873, "We remind her we love her -- Unimportant fact, though Dante didn't think so, nor Swift, nor Mirabeau." Functioning as the poet's love object, wellspring of pain, ideal reader, and literary rival, Sue was Dickinson's muse. She elicited from the poet a body of homoerotic love letters and poems as passionate and elusive as any in western literature.

Nancy Hurrelbrinck

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    Bibliography
   

Bennett, Paula. "'By a Mouth That Cannot Speak': Spectral Presence in Emily Dickinson's Letters." Emily Dickinson Journal 1. 2 (Winter 1992): 76-99.

_____. Emily Dickinson: Woman Poet. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991.

Faderman, Lillian. "Emily Dickinson's Letters to Sue Gilbert." Massachusetts Review 18 (Summer 1977): 197-225.

Farr, Judith. The Passion of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Hart, Ellen Louise. "The Encoding of Homoerotic Desire: Emily Dickinson's Letters and Poems to Susan Dickinson, 1850-1886." Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 9.2 (Fall 1990): 251-272.

Leyda, Jay. The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson. 2 vols. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1970.

Miller, Cristanne. Emily Dickinson: A Poet's Grammar. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987.

Pollak, Vivian. Dickinson: The Anxiety of Gender. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1984.

St. Armand, Barton Levi. The Soul's Society: Emily Dickinson and Her Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Sewall, Richard B. The Life of Emily Dickinson. New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1974.

Smith, Martha Nell. Rowing in Eden: Rereading Emily Dickinson. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992.

Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Hurrelbrinck, Nancy  
    Entry Title: Dickinson, Emily  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated December 28, 2007  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/dickinson_e.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  
 

 

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