TRADITIONALLY, Walt Whitman is considered the bard of vastness, the poet of the American Sublime. Emily Dickinson is seen as his opposite, as having reveled in enclosed spaces, in solitude. Everything about her, except her talent, appears tiny: her sequestered life in her Amherst family home, the petite white dress she wore (now hanging on display there), the scraps of paper she wrote her poems on in minuscule handwriting. Even the verses have short lines--tetrameter or trimeter, as a rule--and rarely extend beyond a stanza or two. "I am small like the wren," she herself coyly informed a correspondent who had not met her. Thus the image most of us gleaned in school of an eccentric if engaging New England spinster who wrote about unrequited love and the beauty of nature, and who was so shy toward strangers that she would not come down to the parlor to meet them, but sat listening to their conversations from atop the staircase or from behind a door.
Over the last few decades, though, a number of feminist critics have chipped away at this picture. Adrienne Rich's volcanic essay "Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson"; Sharon Cameron's fierce interpretation of the Lyric "My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun," in her essay "The Dialectic of Rage"; Cynthia Griffin Wolff's 1986 biography, portraying a dissident daughter of Calvinism blazing her own theological trails--all these and similar challenges to conventional Dickinson scholarship depict a complicated rebel turning against the rigid roles defined by her society, a colossus defying Victorian patriarchy with her female language and values.
In The Passion of Emily Dickinson (Harvard, 390 pp. $29.95), Judith Farr takes stock of the contradictory views, winnows them, and comes up with yet another perspective. She sees the poet as a complex figure whose largeness defeats attempts to neatly categorize her. The book's epigraph, from Emerson's "Nature," alludes to the essential quality the critic perceives in Dickinson's work: "This transfiguration which all material objects undergo through the passion of the poet...."
Part of Farr's study concentrates on the issue of influence, "the poet's connection with literary or artistic works: her reclusion and self-description as a nun with the nuns of Tennyson and the Pre-Raphaelites, for example; her mysterious emblem of the white dress with scriptural Revelation and [Dante Gabriel] Rossetti's saintly maidens.... Even as Dickinson's quotation of mid-Victorian literary texts was wider than has been supposed, she knew far more about 19th-century visual art than has generally been thought." In poem after poem, Farr observes, Dickinson connected her writing with the pictorial. Sometimes she called her word-painting "needlework," the most common female art practiced in her day. But often the poems actually refer to painters: Van Dyck, Holman Hunt and, most notably, American Luminists like Frederick Edwin Church or Thomas Cole.
"The Voyage of Life," a tetralogy of canvases painted by Cole, was especially esteemed in the New England area. Its sequence depicts an Everyman in infancy, youth, adulthood, and old age, steering a small boat through landscapes that blend exotic foliage and the rugged grandeur of the Adirondack wilderness. In the artist's suggestion that our scenery reflects an Edenic, unfallen nature, Dickinson recognized a perception of the sublime corresponding to the one that she strove to express:
Perhaps I asked too large--
I take--no less than skies--
For Earths, grow thick as
Berries, in my native town--
My Basket holds--just Firmaments--
These--dangle easy--on my arm,
But smaller bundles--Cram.
The Amherst social life that Emily renounced was, in many respects, more claustrophobic than her narrow room. Her brother, Austin, and sister-in-law, Sue, were convivial and ambitious. Many famous men and women enjoyed the hospitality of their house, "The Evergreens," viewable from the recluse's window. Talk there was often exalted, for Sue was a brilliant, educated woman who craved the company of writers, artists and public figures. Yet the couple was unhappy. Austin conducted a long, unconcealed liaison with Mabel Loomis Todd, the wife of a friend. No wonder Emily felt that "earths" (taken as worldly preoccupations) choked out her breathing space, or that she sought the freedom of airier mental vistas. Farr argues persuasively that Emily's preference for timelessness and a grand scale over temporal pettiness fueled her attraction to the contemplative nun's role. She identified herself with the vestal by wearing white, the color of novices, and by wedding her virginity to solitude, instead of turning to the conventional marriage chosen by her beloved Sue.
STILL, FARR does not hesitate to acknowledge that the poet was motivated by something more than her esthetic need. In two crucial middle chapters the author addresses a pair of enduring mysteries in Dickinson scholarship: whether an unhappy love affair prompted Emily's withdrawal from society, and the identity of "Master," to whom she wrote three passionate letters and a series of ecstatic verses. It is undeniable that Sue, her close friend since their school days, was the recipient of many ardent poems and missives, and that her waspishness often wounded those who loved her. Biographers have long speculated on the nature of the relationship between the two. Farr believes that Sue was, in fact, Emily's muse, as well as one of her two great passions. Recent feminist analyses have cut through the old rationalization that Victorian women habitually addressed friends with endearments we misread as lesbian effusions. The letters and verses clearly express erotic feeling. Sue, however, disliked sex, and though she courted admiration, gave little in return. All three Dickinson siblings learned the high cost of loving her. The pain stung Austin into infidelity, Lavinia into bitterness, and Emily into poetry.
Among the frequenters of Sue's parties was a handsome editor with considerable charismatic charm, especially in the company of women. Samuel Bowles soon became an intimate of the entire Dickinson clan. Amherst gossip linked his name with Sue's, since she often entertained him alone. But he was also one of the small number of people Emily received, and the first to publish any of her verse while she was alive. Farr claims he was the "Master" addressed in the passionate letters (preserved in drafts), and in such erotically charged poems es "Wild nights," "A wife at daybreak I shall be," and "He touched me, so l live to know."
The married but susceptible Bowles is only one of the candidates who have been advanced for the honor. Yet by cracking some of the poet's private literary iconography, Farr makes the strongest case for him. The critic notes that just as Emily linked Sue with Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra and Tennyson's Maud, so she associated Bowles, who adored the novels of Charlotte Bronte, with Rochester of Jane Eyre and Lucy Snowe's "Cher Maitre" in Villette. The dates of the Master cycle seem to correspond with known episodes in Bowles' life, moreover, as well as his contact with the Dickinson family. It further appears that the overwrought Emily told him of her troubles with Sue--which the poems suggest marked the onset of mutual love between poet and editor.
The scenario, of course, has its problems. If Dickinson actually engaged in a love affair with Bowles, she must have shared him with several women, including his wife, with whom she corresponded even after his premature death. In addition, one of the strong arguments that "Master" is a fiction of Emily's is that she wrote many fervid poems to her sister-in-law at the same time. Is it credible that she simultaneously loved a man and a woman? Farr is convinced that the idea--dubious to many in the 20th century--would have struck the poet as natural. After all, Shakespeare was her model, and his sonnets, addressed in erotic terms to both a fair man and a treacherous dark lady, were her favorite poems.
There is no evidence, in Dickinson's case, that either affair was fully consummated (though Emily and Lavinia were known to indulge in "petting" with suitors). Nevertheless, Farr contends that Emily took the ordinary erotic confusion of her two conflicting relationships and made something epic out of it. Whatever happened, her luminous vision of Eros, depicted on the emotional scale of a Cole painting, has moved readers ever since Mabel Todd and Sue Dickinson began to vie in getting her work published. The 19th century had more than its fair share of Bohemian women writers whose melodramatic lives and loves shipwrecked their artistic discipline. Emily Dickinson, like Charlotte Bronte earlier, recognized that her powerful reactions to stimuli were best channeled into writing when she kept herself sequestered. There passion could not overwhelm her, nor mundane society fritter away her contemplation of eternities.
No doubt other Dickinson scholars will question Farr's readings and identifications. Those who live closely with this poet jealously guard their own understanding of her. But it may be a long time before someone counters with a more carefully reasoned or compelling interpretation. The Passion of Emily Dickinson broadens the horizon of scholarship by adding to our knowledge of the poet's artistic sources. At the same time, it pays elegant tribute to a genius who lived and loved heroically. Dickinson's is the voice of the seas and mountains of the psyche, and, no less than Whitman's, expands the vast landscape of the American Sublime.