PAGE THREE  -  Dashing Genius: 
Emily Dickinson and the Punctuation of Cognition
Intro | Page Two | Page Three | Page Four | Page Five | Page Six | Works Cited
     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" (191). 
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. 
     Functionalists versus Accidentalists
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. 
     To 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 y 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, rational evaluation. 
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 thought process.
Author: Elizabeth Howell Brunner