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Emily Dickinson and the Punctuation
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Interpreting Poetic Punctuation
|While current scholarship ignores the possible Sterne
connection, a heated battle rages over the meaning of punctuation in Dickinson's
poems, triggered by two landmark publications. In 1955, Harvard University
obtained access to material from both the Dickinson and the Todd descendents;
"for the first time since the 1890's both portions of the manuscripts were
available to the same editor" and Thomas H. Johnson published the three-volume
variorum (Franklin, Editing xvii). Unlike earlier editors Thomas Wentworth
Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd, who regularized Dickinson's punctuation,
Johnson chose to include the peculiar marks as straightened en
dashes. Then in 1981, R.W. Franklin's three volume The Manuscript Books
of Emily Dickinson allowed researchers to finally view holograph reproductions
in fascicle order, after years of "disarray" when the originals stood "divided
between families and, finally, between libraries" (Manuscript ix).
|Computer technology prompts current efforts to show
all variations digitally on CD-ROM and on the Internet through the Dickinson
Hypermedia Project at Maryland, while several critics have adopted unusual
strategies to translate her various symbols into print. For example, Poet
Susan Howe indicates the proportional "space between handwritten words"
(132). Even print conventions of academic journals become suspect; Benjamin
Lease argues (in a footnote within the publication) that The Emily Dickinson
Journal should use "the less obtrusive en dash" rather than "the overly
obtrusive em dash" (52).
|As scholars saw the eccentric dashes, first typeset
and later in the poet's own hand, interpretations blossomed. Kamilla Denman
offers the amusing image of critics rescuing Dickinson as "an eccentric
transcendentalist" or scolding her as a "grammatical reprobate," while
others elevate her punctuation to "the lofty realm of para-language" (24).
In 1955, Johnson condemned Dickinson's dashes as "especially capricious"
("Creating" xiii). In 1967, Franklin downplayed the marks as mere "habit[s]
of handwriting" and sarcastically dismissed critical possibilities by applying
them to a cake recipe that Dickinson scribbled with typical dashes ("Editing"
120). In a controversial 1963 Saturday Review article and again
in a 1971 book , Edith Wylder proposed that the dashes served as systematic
phonetic elocution marks. In 1968, Swedish critic Brita Lindberg-Seyersted
admitted that Dickinson's punctuation "sometimes adds extra-linguistic
meaning to a poem" but reduced this effect as "only a minor poetic device"
|Among the current slate of commentary, Martha Nell
Smith sees the dashes "sashay across the page" and "dance up or down" as
"giddy punctuation" (110); but, in contrast, Beth Maclay Doriani views
the dashes as adding "slowness and solemnity" to the "homiletical rhetoric"
of the "poetic prophet" (48). Focusing on specific poems, Roseanne Hoefel
observes the marks indicating "stuttering tenseness" (57), while Kamilla
Denman notes parallels to "stretching stitches of the tugging bodice" and
"the erratic beat of the speaker's bursting heart" (38, 39). David Porter's
explanation focuses on gaps; he argues that the dash links two words in
order to "carry the freight of at least eight or nine words that must be
supplied silently" so the reader must "recover in his mind and not in the
poem itself, the absent sense" (43, 44). Porter jokes: "Sentences are left
scattered in a do-it-yourself kit, with no assembly plan" (134). Precisely
this sense of reader responsibility for choosing among multiple possibilities
gives the dash such charisma.
|In the critical debate between functionalists led
by Susan Howe and accidentalists led by Ralph Franklin, I side with the
functionalists by arguing that Emily Dickinson's deliberate use of nonconventional
dashes is partly an attempt to symbolize typographically the analogical
leaps and insightful flashes of advanced cognition. In addition to the
linguistic, rhetorical, and poetic functions of experimental punctuation,
the dash indicates the mental processing of ideas as the poet confronts
the overwhelming internal stimulation resulting from her intellectual gifts.
But I acknowledge that sometimes the dash appears as little more than a
strong comma or a parenthetical indicator or a breathing cue.
hang our head ostensibly
|Dickinson forces us as readers to work, to struggle
through options, to "dwell in Possibility" (P 657). The poem "To hang our
head ostensibly " (P 105) illustrates the classic Dickinsonian
ambiguity, both on the levels of literary significance and grammatical
function. Explore with me three layers of interpretation, from social commentary
to religious challenge and finally to illumination of cognitive processing:
|To hang our head ostensibly
And subsequent, to find
That such was not the posture
Of our immortal mind
|Affords the sly presumption
That in so dense a fuzz
You too take Cobweb attitudes
Upon a plane of Gauze!
|At the first level of meaning, Emily Dickinson warns
us not to play the fool, not to lower our head
or intellect in the face of social norms which encourage passive acceptance
of irrational traditions. In the holograph, Dickinson frames the word ostensiblywith
emphasis; ample white space surrounds the preceding dash and the
at the end displays a long dipping tale, separated from the letter itself
and pointing toward the dash which completes the line. This typographic
strategy stresses the qualifier, alerting the reader that the hanging head
merely evokes an appearance or charade of submission rather than sincere
meekness. I picture Dickinson sneering this word, under her breath, just
as she "sneers softly" over perceived smallness in "A solemn thing
it was I said " (P 271).
|Next she reminds us of the grandeur of the "immortal
mind," alluding to the God-empowered eternal consciousness and situating
the everlasting part of the self within the mind rather than the traditional
soul. The mind must face upward toward the heavens and upright with dignity
to distinguish truth from misconceptions. In the second stanza, Dickinson
asserts that such a submissive posture leads onlookers to presume vagueness,
limited intelligence, and agreement with antiquated beliefs. Dense "fuzz"
could refer to blurred perceptions, while "Cobweb attitudes" indicts
the outmoded conservatism of traditional society and the "plane of Gauze"
implies the thin, insignificant surface upon which such beliefs are based.
In The Capsule of the Mind, Theodora Ward argues that Dickinson
"ridicules the behavior induced by the demands on society, which force
the individual to assume a mask" (43). Although ridicule is implicit in
the image of cobweb-covered conceptions, I disagree with Ward's choice
of the word force; Dickinson reserves for herself the options of
posing as the meek one, withdrawing to the freedom of her private room,
or subverting the established order through double meanings. Society may
attempt to impose conventional thoughts, but Dickinson advocates independent,
|Given Dickinson's proclivity for ambiguous pronouns,
a second interpretation views God as the "You" of "Cobweb attitudes." William
Sherwood interprets the poem as an "incantation" in which Dickinson "audaciously
accuses Him of a similar sly attitudinizing" (56). Perhaps Dickinson, rather
than society, makes the "sly presumption" -- assuming that God's elevated
mind parallels our human bafflement. In the last two lines, Dickinson brazenly
accuses God of using flimsy justifications to judge human worth, of sealing
our fate for reasons as superficial and incomplete as gauze. The rhyme
of "You too " evokes the sense of echoes. Dickinson calls to
God and her words reverberate off the dashes. To borrow from Sterne criticism,
Roger Moss describes punctuational direction; on one hand, we might view
the dash with "an invisible arrowhead, carrying the meaning forward," but
the dash owns no spear tip and can only indicate "unfathomable, directionless
space" (199). The poet must cry out in all directions, unsure where the
Holy Trickster hides.
|Although the current fashion in Dickinson criticism
highlights such recurring feminist and religious themes, I believe the
poet's relationship to her own genius underlies her canon. If we read Poem
105 from a third perspective, with the assumption that Dickinson reflects
on her mental abilities, then the cobweb image provides a positive -- even
accurate -- representation of cognition. Imagine Emily Dickinson exhausted
from a late evening of poetic struggle and frustrated over finding the
perfect word; she drops her head down against her paper. And then a voice
within her mind whispers "ostensibly,"
an adverb meaning apparent, based on the Latin ostendere (to
show or to offer). Bracketed by dashes to indicate an internal thought,
the word becomes encouragement, hinting that the solution will eventually
be apparent. And as the poet subsequently realizes, her mind continues
searching for language and processing ideas even when conscious attention
shifts elsewhere. The mind seems "immortal" in the endless flow of cognition.
Another dash ends the first stanza, joining "mind" to the following line.
Mental gifts allow "the sly presumption" or the clever overstepping of
boundaries without prohibitive cost, because associative meanings can arise
spontaneously from the "fuzz" of multiple possibilities within the "dense"
interconnections of the brain. Interestingly, the choice of "fuzz" harks
back to the seventeenth century slang fuss which describes excessive
nervous activity and predicts forward to the technical jargon fuzzy
logic which describes advanced computer decision making.
|From a cognitive reading, the dashes bracketing "you"
and "too" again indicate how the mind talks to the self. Like many other
eighteenth-century writers, Laurence Sterne uses pairs of dashes as his
sole method for indicating direct speech and conversational dialogue. Perhaps
Dickinson borrows this technique to symbolize overlapping, interrupting
voices within the mind. The brain urges, even orders Dickinson to sit upright,
to actively witness the brilliant interweaving of web-like connections,
no matter how thin or intangible the original stimulus. The final exclamation
mark signals appropriate celebration for such mental accomplishments.
|Visualizing the brain as a cobweb correlates to spider
images in other Dickinson poems and anticipates dendrite receptors drawn
by modern neuroscience. In Emily Dickinson: The Mind of the Poet,
Albert Gelpi summarizes: "The spider is Emily Dickinson's emblem for the
craftsmen spinning from within himself his sharply defined world" (151).
Gelpi's comment reflects the spider within, producing art from mental labor.
In Poem 605, the "Spider holds a Silver Ball" and "unwinds a Yarn of Pearl,"
indicating priceless creations. In Poem 1138, the "Spider sewed at Night,"
just as Emily Dickinson stitched her mental achievements into packets of
poetry. And in Poem 1167, a spider "assiduously crawled" on the narrator's
"reticence," persevering to make connections when the poet hesitates to
communicate. Although Johnson dates this poem twelve years before the pioneering
scientist Golgi first saw a neuron under his microscope, the spider metaphor
anticipates the dendrites, protoplasmic filaments branching from brain
cells. Writers frequently claim similar images to portray the mind; David
Noonan describes "A charged web that hangs in every human body" (11) and
Robert Grudin envisions how "the mind momentarily unifies these polarities
of experience . . . transcends its own formalized and rationalized past
and weaves new strands into the future" (33). Visual artist Todd Siler
documents "9,000 miles of fibers for each cubic inch" of brain power (57).
And where the dendrites intersect, the tiny gap of a synapse provides a
pause before connection, symbolized graphically through the dash. Dickinson
accurately senses the complex branching, weaving, and interwebbing of the