American Literature
Research and Analysis Web Site

This page was produced by the students at the University of South Florida in Fort Myers under the direction of Dr. Jim Wohlpart. For more information, please see the ALRA homepage.


Emily Dickinson
"I dwell in Possibility"
(Johnson 657)

 

Contents

  • Religious Influences on Emily Dickinson: Puritanism and Transcendentalism in Her Poetry
  • The text of "I dwell in Possibility" with Anchors for Primary Symbols and Images
  • Public vs Private: Opportunity and Gender in Emily Dickinson's "I dwell in Possibility"
  • Critical Readings of Emily Dickinson's "I dwell in Possibility": The House of Poetry

  • Religious Influences on Emily Dickinson: 
    Puritanism and Transcendentalism in Her Poetry

    Jennifer Gage Edison
     

    Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1830. Her father, Edward Dickinson, was a prominent lawyer in Amherst and a well respected trustee of Amherst College (Blankenship 576). Emily Dickinson was educated at Amherst Academy and, for only a single year, at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (now Mount Holyoke College) under Mary Lyon (Hart 224). Emily Dickinson was considered to be a high-spirited and energetic young woman until her withdrawal from society in 1850. After her withdrawal, virtually all of her contact with friends and family existed through her letters and poems. The traditional reason given for her seclusion was that she suffered a broken heart by "the one true [male] love" of her life, Reverend Charles Wadsworth of Philadelphia (McIntosh and Hart 2872-2873). She spent the majority of her days alone in her house until the year 1861 when she completely secluded herself and her poetry from the rest of the world. The two types of religions present in Emily Dickinson's life, Puritanism and Transcendentalism, had great influence over her poetry. Puritanism allowed Dickinson to remain grounded in her faith of God, while Transcendentalism permitted her to release herself from limiting conceptions of humanity which enabled her to view herself as an individual with an identity. To understand the complexities of Dickinson's works, her relation to religion must be examined.

    One of the major religious influences of Emily Dickinson's life was Puritanism. While Puritanism emphasized human goodness because of a belief that something of God exists in everyone, it also recognized the presence of evil in humans. During the 1820's and 1830's, the Second Great Awakening was in full force attempting to rejuvenate Puritan zeal through a series of religious revivals. The two focuses of the Second Great Awakening were the relationship inside the person, between the self and God, and the relationship outside the person, between the individual and community. The Puritan religion consisted of a "strictness in morality that verges on intolerance" (Hart 689). Puritans believed that "the world is a divinely ordered achievement and that man is placed on earth for the primary purpose of glorifying God by faith and obedience. The idea of morality pervades all things, and the final, indeed the only, judgment of everything must be made on the grounds of moral goodness" (Blankenship 53). The Puritans believed in "predestination, the absence of free will, and the arbitrary division of mankind into the elect and the damned, [and] the conviction that Heaven and Hell are the ultimate realities . . ." (Murdock 91).

    In "The Puritan Tradition in American Literature," Kenneth Murdock suggests that there are two different divisions of Puritanism, a conformist tradition, "the heritage of later Puritanism, which welds rules into systems," and a nonconformist tradition, "nearer to the nonconformist spirit of the first settlers on Massachusetts shores, which also makes moral values and Biblical precept supreme, but conceives of them not merely as grim idols cut in the stone of inherited reverence but as part of the expression of the enthusiasm and richness of the spirit of man" (101). The latter of the two is where critics place Edward Dickinson and his family and is the tradition that greatly influenced Dickonson's poetry. The Dickinsons were considered "a representative family of the age, a family which retains the social rigidities of puritanism but lacks the passionate faith which once gave those rigidities justification . . ." (Weisbuch 4). At the age of twenty-five Emily wrote to her brother Austin, "we do not have much poetry, father having decided that its pretty much all real life" (qtd. in Weisbuch 4). Aware of the disparity between her own convictions and beliefs and those of her father, Emily Dickinson refused to accept her father's view on life. She opposed the idea of a higher power, God, as influencing her every move and thus governing her thoughts and beliefs toward her life. Dickinson's poetry is closely related to other American Romantics influenced by Puritanism: "like them [Romantics], she longs for the spiritual nourishment but not for the dogmatic beliefs and tortured consciences . . .[of the Puritans]" (Weisbuch 7).

    During this crucial period of transition between Puritanism and Transcendentalism in Emily Dickinson’s life, Transcendentalism was transforming traditional religion and thus became another influence in Dickinson’s poetry. Transcendentalism involved a rejection of the strict Puritan religious attitudes that were the heritage of New England, where the movement originated. "Transcendentalism, with its unflinching faith in the worth of the individual and its reliance on the goodness of his nature, brought a full close to the doubt and pessimism of early Puritanism" (Blankenship 286). More important, the Transcendentalists were influenced by romanticism, especially such aspects as self-examination, the celebration of individualism, and the integral relation between nature and humankind (Hart 858). Consequently, Transcendentalist writers expressed semireligious feelings toward nature and saw a connection between the universe and the individual soul. Transcendentalists believed "the soul of each individual is identical with the soul of the world, and latently contains all that the world contains" (Hart 859). The purpose of life for the Transcendentalist was the union with the Over-Soul which according to Emerson’s Essays, First Series is the "'great nature in which we rest . . . that Unity within which every man's particular being is contained and made one with all other'" (qtd. in Hart 628).

    Transcendentalism allowed Emily Dickinson to emerge from her Puritan heritage. It permitted her to discover her self-worth by realizing that what she felt in her heart was substantial of recognition. "The high destiny of man and society could no longer be questioned when the guide was the unfettered conscience of man, for this conscience was the audible voice of God speaking through the divinity that ennobled each individual" (Blankenship 286-287). In relation to Dickinson’s poetry, she "discovers and confides" her feelings through verse (McElderry 19). "Exactly at the time when the public voice of transcendentalism was declining in influence, Emily provided the still small voice of private conviction" through her poetry (McElderry 19).

    The strong conflict of Puritanism and Transcendentalism in Emily Dickinson's poetry is what allowed her to become one of the greatest and most influential American poets of the nineteenth century. Her Puritan heritage is evident in the early years of her life when she was influenced by a strictly Puritan family, but what is of greatest "importance is not the Puritan tradition itself so much as the breakdown of that tradition that was taking place in Emily Dickinson's lifetime" (Welland 74). In her mind, and only her mind, she can relate to the Puritan foundation because of the influence of her family's beliefs. Emily Dickinson's conforming reverence for God is derived from the beginning of her life, but she could not deny her self-expression. Transcendental philosophy was "asserting the greater importance of the individual as a law unto himself, [and the need to be] his own arbiter of conduct . . ." (Welland 75-76). "[I]n her impatience at the conventional piety of orthodox forms of religious observance Emily Dickinson is only carrying to an extreme the Puritan belief in the necessity of a personal experience of salvation . . ." (Welland 74). Transcendentalism was "a natural outgrowth both of a literary time when visionary ideas were powerfully set abroad and [a time] of personal, exuberant discovery of self in poetry" (Weisbuch 1). As Transcendentalism was beginning to emerge, so was Emily Dickinson's soul.

    Emily Dickinson's alternative to traditional religion is a combination of both Puritanism and Transcendentalism. Dickinson was searching for a medium between her conflicting beliefs of Puritanism and Transcendentalism. Dickinson's third alternative is "a region not only outside the walls of conventional paradise, and even outside the sanctum of the Romantic self, but outside the poet's own competence, the boundaries of her religious experience and the verse conventions that experience habitually employs" (New 4). Elisa New suggests Dickinson's third alternative to religion is closely related to the ideas of Kierkegaard, a philosopher and theologian. Dickinson "is quite simply no longer able to conceive God in the sanguine, essentially 'centered' or logocentric terms Emerson borrows . . . from Augustine . . ." (New 4). For Kierkegaard, as for Dickinson, "the very nature of religious experience requires that we yield up our sense of God as centered in our world, yield up the logos or knit of Reason that makes God's order explicable through Revelation. Replacing the centre, then, is the 'unknown,' a limit distinctly outside the boundaries of what the mind can grasp . . ." (New 4).
     

    Works Cited

    Blankenship, Russell. American Literature As an Expression of the National Mind. New York:

    Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1958.

    Hart, James D. The Oxford Companion to American Literature. 4th ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1965.

    McElderry, B. R., Jr. "Emily Dickinson: Viable Transcendentalist." ESQ 44 (1966): 17-21.

    McIntosh, Peggy, and Ellen Louise Hart. "Emily Dickinson." The Heath Anthology of American

    Literature. Gen ed. Paul Lauter. 2nd ed. Vol. 1. Lexington: D. C. Heath, 1994. 2869-2875.

    Murdock, Kenneth B. "The Puritan Tradition in American Literature." The Reinterpretation of

    American Literature: Some Contributions toward the Understanding of its Historical
    Development. Ed. Norman Foerster. New York: Russell & Russell, 1959. 83-113.

    New, Elisa. "Difficult Writing, Difficult God: Emily Dickinson’s Poems Beyond Circumference."

    Religion and Literature 18.3 (Fall 1986): 1-27.

    Weisbuch, Robert. Emily Dickinson’s Poetry. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1975.

    Welland, Dennis, S. R. "Emily Dickinson and Her 'Letter to the World.'" The Great Experiment in

    American Literature. Ed. Carol Bode. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1961. 53-78.

    Return to Top


    Emily Dickinson's "I dwell in Possibility" (J 657)

    with anchors for the primary symbols and images
    Kathi M. Taliercio
       

    Major Symbols and Images found in "I dwell in Possibility"

    Possibility: 1. "Possibility is Emily Dickinson's synonym for poetry. Its house alone affords sufficient opportunities for observation and for voyages through the perceived vistas" (Weisbuch 1). 2. "'Possibility' is a concept: it is the idea of the imagination itself, where what has not occurred in external reality may be thought of as occurring. 'Possibility' is mental space" (Juhasz, "'I dwell in Possibility'" 105). 3. "This house is 'Possibility,' the imagination. Dwelling there, the lady of the manor makes not cakes but poetry. Possibility becomes associated with poetry in stanza one, when it is contrasted with its opposite--not impossibility, but prose" (Juhasz, Undiscovered Continent 20). 4. "In the poem 'I dwell in Possibility' (J657) she is again talking about her poetry--poetry being the logical opposite of Prose and poetry being a type of possibility . . . " (Walker 21). 5. "'Possibility' implies both a poetic and a theological movement" where "The poem, conceived as a kind of Temple, admits on all sides a 'Possibility' suffused with the psalmist's confidence and grace . . ." (New 7, 6). Return To Text.

    House, Windows, Doors: 1. "the poem is explaining that the imagination can be as vast as the subjects of its speculations. The language building this house attests to its figurative construction. Its rooms are not cedars but like cedars--solid . . ." (Juhasz, Undiscovered Continent 20). 2. "The suggestion of openness to experience, in the number of windows and doors, is belied by the 'impregnable chambers.' The doors, in retrospect, seem as much for exclusion as for admission--only the 'fairest visitors' are admitted. ('Inference,' one might say, dwells more in the house of prose.)" (Benfey 28). Return to Text.

    Chambers, Impregnable of Eye: 1."This poem . . . says something about privacy, as though privacy is tied in some necessary way to what Dickinson calls 'possibility.' The chambers must be 'Impregnable of Eye' if this is truly to be a dwelling place of possibility. Prose would then correspond to the public realm" (Benfey 28). 2. The Chambers are an "enclosure experienced in the place of the mind, an enclosure that can mean confinement and internal strife . . . . Yet those same windows and doors can as well outline the spaciousness that only the imagination can create, reminding us once again of the power that is derived from the cultivation of consciousness" (Juhasz, Undiscovered Continent 19). Return to Text.

    spreading wide of my narrow Hands: 1. "the occupation of she who lives in the mind, the spreading wide her narrow hands 'to gather Paradise,' may be interpreted as the creation of poetry. Paradise is the farthest space conceivable, and the mind can expand to include it. When this happens, because of the power of the imagination, the 'housewife' can be a poet" (Juhasz, Undiscovered Continent 20). 2. "By 'spreading wide [her] narrow Hands' the poet will gather in a redemption neither guaranteed nor made particularly available by her forbears' faith, a redemption whose paradoxes will deepen and compound" (New 7). Return to Text.
     

    Works Cited

    Benfey, Christopher E.G. Emily Dickinson and the Problem of Others. Amherst: U of

    Massachusetts P, 1984.

    Juhasz, Suzanne. "I dwell in Possibility': ED in the Subjenctive [sic] Mood." Emily

    Dickinson Bulletin 32 (1977): 105-109.

    Juhasz, Suzanne. The Undiscovered Continent: Emily Dickinson and the Space of Mind.

    Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1983.New, Elisa. "Difficult Writing, Difficult God: Emily Dickinson's Poems Beyond Circumference."
    Religion and Literature 18 (Fall 1986): 1-27.

    Walker, Julia M. "ED's Poetic of Private Liberation." Dickinson Studies 45 (1983): 17-22.

    Weisbuch, Robert. Emily Dickinson's Poetry. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1975.
     

    Return to Top


    Public vs Private: 
    Opportunity and Gender in Emily Dickinson's "I dwell in Possibility"

    Kathi M. Taliercio
     

    Early nineteenth-century American society, through beliefs such as the Cult of True Womanhood, emphasized and upheld specific gender roles that restricted women to the private sphere, while allowing men to explore the public world. This of course raised the question: through what channel or opportunity were women of this era able to seek their own identity or connection to community? Emily Dickinson addresses this issue quite specifically in her poem "I dwell in Possibility" where she suggests, rather ironically, that this channel or opportunity can only be sought in the very same closed space of the "private" room that women were restricted to. More specifically, Dickinson suggests in the poem that the closed space of the private room will allow a freedom that fosters the creation of poetry.

    Emily Dickinson suggests like the Transcendentalists that the creation of poetry is necessary because the poet alone may transcend the problems of society and reach to the world beyond. This suggestion clearly shows her belief in Transcendentalism, which held that each and every person needs to be connected to the oversoul to find harmony in community and that this connection must be sought through the use of Reason and Understanding. Understanding is the mechanical faculty of knowledge, whereas Reason is linked to instinct, intuition, and imagination. Ralph Waldo Emerson in "Nature" says, "The understanding adds, divides, combines, measures, and finds nutriment and room for its activity in this worthy scene. Meantime, Reason transfers all these lessons into its own world of thought, by perceiving the analogy that marries Matter and Mind" (1514). Transcendentalists further believed that the Poet is the link between the real world and the spiritual oversoul because the poet is one of the few capable of using Reason. Emerson's "The American Scholar" is one of the seminal texts that develops the Transcendental theory of art; here, Emerson says specifically that the poet is the only one who can express and relate the connection to the oversoul. These ideas heavily influenced Dickinson in her writing as she sought this type of spiritual opportunity or experience. In his book Emily Dickinson's Poetry, Robert Weisbuch notes that "In Dickinson's celebratory, Transcendentalist world, everyday events and objects are italicized into symbols, appearances rush toward essences, and possibilities never end" (2). These very same Transcendental ideas played a major role in the lives of many individuals like Emily Dickinson, who perhaps read and wrote poetry in order to learn how to reach, or to describe their connection to, the oversoul.

    This is not to suggest, however, that Dickinson felt she was this poet who could take everyone to the oversoul. Yet her description of poetry in "I dwell in Possibility" suggests that her poetry originates from the closed spaces of the private sphere and allows her to access the power and ability of Reason. Poetry, therefore, written in the confines of her room, becomes her only possible link to the spiritual world. The creation of poetry is the channel that directly leads her to the oversoul and to a realm where she has an identity and is connected to community.

    Dickinson begins in the first stanza of "I dwell in Possibility" by setting up the difference between Poetry and Prose in order to describe the realm of freedom that she accesses in her creative endeavor. She says, "I dwell in Possibility-- / A fairer House than Prose--." Here there is a clear contrast between Prose and Poetry, in which Poetry is certainly superior. Robert Weisbuch says, "Possibility is Emily Dickinson's synonym for poetry. Its house alone affords sufficient opportunities for observation and for voyages through perceived vistas" (1). Weisbuch suggests then that poetry is not only synonymous with possibility but is also synonymous with exploration and opportunity, because as Dickinson is writing and using Reason she is able to explore a variety of "perceived vistas." In other words, Dickinson is describing her ability as a poet to connect to the oversoul; by doing this she establishes her own identity within the community.

    This exploration is done in the house of possibility which is poetry itself. Dickinson suggests that this house is "More numerous of Windows-- / Superior--for Doors" than the house of Prose. Here Dickinson clearly portrays the creation of poetry as an opportunity in which she is able to express herself in a free and unrestricted manner. Writing Poetry, which occurs through the use of Reason, provides a door to freedom and creation, while writing Prose, which occurs through understanding alone, provides a limitation to the restricted public realm that is governed by social convention. Poetry is a "fairer house" than prose because of this freedom as Suzanne Juhasz points out: "Possibility is a concept: it is the idea of the imagination itself, where what has not occurred in external reality may be thought of as occurring" ("'I dwell in Possibility'" 105). The world of poetry for Dickinson then, as for many Transcendentalists, is the window to the realm of possibility, the realm of the oversoul.

    Although this opportunity or connection with the oversoul is sought through writing and reading poetry, Dickinson implies that it must be done in privacy and thus links this Transcendental act to the world of women. In the second stanza, she defines these private spaces or rooms within the house of poetry when she says, "Chambers as the Cedars-- / Impregnable of Eye--." On a simple reading this passage would seem to contradict the lines about the "doors and windows" (Benfey 28). However, on a deeper metaphorical reading, it suggests rather that as she begins her journey of possibility through her writing she must be out of sight in the closed chambers of her home away from society and its stifling restrictions. In Emily Dickinson and the Problem of Others Christopher Benfey says, "This poem . . . says something about privacy, as though privacy is tied in some necessary way to what Dickinson calls ‘possibility.’ The chambers must be ‘Impregnable of Eye’ if it is truly to be a dwelling place of possibility. Prose would then correspond to the public realm" (28). Benfey suggests that privacy is necessary for Emily Dickinson's opportunity. She must be completely enclosed and away from the public realm because the public realm would only interfere with a woman's attempt to establish an identity or connect to community. The private spaces are necessary because only within them will the door of opportunity open to show her the way to the "Gambrels of the Sky--." This image suggests that for Emily Dickinson creating poetry is a journey to the spiritual world. In this world, Emily Dickinson connects to the oversoul, where the "Visitors" are the "fairest" and where everything will be transparent and clear.

    In the last stanza, Dickinson describes the actual "occupation" of the poet as one which allows for exploration in order to reach the oversoul. She describes this exploration when she says, "The spreading wide of my narrow Hands / To gather Paradise." Here the spreading of her narrow hands implies that as she is writing her poetry she is able to surpass all that she could have conceived of achieving. In "Difficult Writing, Difficult God: Emily Dickinson's Poems Beyond Circumference," Elisa New suggests that while many of Emily Dickinson's poems may show a qualified Transcendentalism, "I dwell in Possibility" demonstrates her belief in Transcendental philosophy:

    On the other hand, it is important to note that this "religion" is not conventional but the newly created Transcendental myth that says, through connection to the oversoul, it is possible to reach out and "gather paradise." In other words, the realm of the oversoul is the only true place where humans and nature are in complete harmony, and for this reason it seems quite like a paradise.

    Dickinson suggests, then, that the oversoul becomes the only channel in which the women of this restricted era may seek their own identity and find a connection with the whole of humanity. Dickinson illustrates this quite well throughout "I dwell in Possibility"; as Weisbuch and New demonstrate, the Transcendental ideal played a major part in her poetry, just as it perhaps played a role in the later readers of the work.
     

    Works Cited

    Benfey, Christopher E. G. Emily Dickinson and the Problem of Others. Amherst: U of

    Massachusetts P, 1984.

    Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "The American Scholar." The Heath Anthology of American Literature.

    Gen ed. Paul Lauter. 2nd ed. Vol 1. Lexington: D.C. Heath, 1994. 1529-1541.

    Juhasz, Suzanne. "'I dwell in Possibility': ED in the Subjenctive [sic] Mood." Emily

    Dickinson Bulletin 32 (1977): 105-109.

    Juhasz, Suzanne. The Undiscovered Continent: Emily Dickinson and the Space of Mind.

    Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1983.New, Elisa. "Difficult Writing, Difficult God: Emily Dickinson's Poems Beyond Circumference."
    Religion and Literature 18 (Fall 1986): 1-27.

    Walker, Julia M. "ED's Poetic of Private Liberation." Dickinson Studies 45 (1983): 17-22.

    Weisbuch, Robert. Emily Dickinson's Poetry. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1975.
    Return to Top


    Critical Readings of Emily Dickinson's "I dwell in Possibility": 
    The House of Poetry

    Maureen Sweeney Legenski
     

    Critical readings of Emily Dickinson's "I dwell in Possibility" suggest that Emily Dickinson had found a way to survive in a world not quite alien to her but a world which she viewed as being unaware of the wealth of communication available through poetry. According to critics, Emily Dickinson's poetry was her life, a life which was filled with double meanings and contradictions; these double meanings and contradictions became embedded in her poetry and provided it with provocativeness and richness. While the critics focus on different aspects of "I dwell in Possibility," they all agree that in this poem Emily Dickinson describes poetry as providing her the freedom to see beyond the obvious and thus allows her to explore endless possibilities without discretion or interruption.

    In Emily Dickinson's Poetry, Robert Weisbuch explains that Emily Dickinson lived in an intellectual Paradise that allowed her to use poetry to navigate her mind into uncharted and forbidden places through various meanings and uses of words. Weisbuch notes that "Dickinson discovered that the most ordinary word, tenderly nurtured in the mind's rich soil, could become a signifier of utmost mysteries . . ." (1). He explains that Emily Dickinson used words to enable her to circumnavigate the usual and invent the sublime in her mind. Weisbuch uses "I dwell" in the introduction to his book as an example of Emily Dickinson's unique vision. Words such as "chambers" and "impregnable" used in conjunction with a word like "everlasting" give rise to the idea of a dense, impenetrable, confined space. Yet the house described in the poem was not impenetrable but was, instead, a secure house of freedom. Dickinson seemed to hold her contemporaries in contempt not so much for accepting the status quo but for their inability to question their own culture and to understand that common words could convey a variety of meanings. Weisbuch observes that Dickinson used words to their greatest ability and contrived a puzzle for the intellect giving rise to thought, not just for a moment but for long after the poem was read. Weisbuch states that Emily Dickinson set out "to make words mean as much as they can" (13).

    In The Undiscovered Continent, Suzanne Juhasz suggests that Dickinson, through her imagination, contrived a house in the mind wherein she could live. The house of poetry provided safety and security while at the same time gave her the opportunity to imaginatively pursue endless possibilities. Juhasz concentrates on several of Dickinson's poems addressing the idea of enclosed mental strength. Juhasz notes that "In all of these poems the enclosure experienced in the place of the mind, an enclosure that can mean confinement and internal strife, is established with an architectural vocabulary" (19). Juhasz suggests that the imagination established a secluded haven for Dickinson. She disguised her poetry with the use of words and created a house that was perceived as open to all who could imagine it and closed to those who could not understand the meaning of the poetry. In discussing "I dwell," Juhasz notes that "This house is 'Possibility,' the imagination. Dwelling there, the lady of the manor makes not cakes but poetry . . . . because of the power of the imagination, the 'housewife' can be a poet" (20). These observances clarify Dickinson's egalitarianism wherein she believed everyone had the opportunity to access the outer limits of the mind.

    In "'I dwell in Possibility': ED in the Subjenctive [sic] Mood," Suzanne Juhasz suggests that Emily Dickinson used the subjunctive verb tense in order to allow the intellect to be safe and bold at the same time. Juhasz explores "the function of the subjunctive mood in her [Emily Dickinson's] poetry, finding it to provide protection for extreme daring: a formal, rhetorical, hypothetical framework circumscribing intense, extravagant emotional reality" (105). Juhasz notes that "The subjunctive structure consistently provides protection for the speaker of the poem, so that her excessive emotional states can be expressed within a context that is overtly hypothetical" (108). Although "I dwell" is not written in the subjunctive mood, Juhasz uses it to describe that mood. Juhasz notes that "To dwell in Possibility does not mean, for Dickinson, to dwell in unreality. Possibility, as her poem on the subject maintains, is the space of the mind and of the poem: the space of emotional and intellectual experience. Dickinson's poems in the subjunctive mood are one version of that strategy with which she as woman and poet could in fact achieve both power and safety. By living in the mind, in Possibility, she [Emily Dickinson] establishes a harbor from which she can do no less than gather Paradise" (109).

    In Emily Dickinson and the Problem of Others, Christopher E. G. Benfy explains that privacy was important for Dickinson because it provided a safe area within which she could allow her imagination to expand. Benfy notes that "The suggestion of openness to experience, in the number of windows and doors, is belied by the 'impregnable chambers"' (28). According to Benfy, it would appear that since Emily Dickinson regarded poetry as possibility, an area in which she chose to dwell, she may have chosen to lock her thoughts away and share them with only those with whom she felt were fair, meaning equitable or unbiased as opposed to comely or attractive. He notes that "The doors, in retrospect, seem as much for exclusion as for admission--only the 'fairest visitors' are admitted" (28). He continues: "The chambers must be 'Impregnable of Eye' if this is truly to be a dwelling place of possibility" (28).

    In "ED's Poetic of Private Liberation," Julia M. Walker reacts against feminist readings of Emily Dickinson's poetry which claim that Dickinson wrote from an oppressed subject position. Walker, however, explains that Dickinson's self-containment was chosen and not the result of oppression. Unlike material protection which presents confinement, the mental protection Dickinson coveted allowed her access to a unique kind of freedom. Walker states that "This is a use of poetry for a liberation which far transcends the generic classification of 'feminist.' This is a PERSONAL liberation--that of the human spirit. In ED's poetry there is a rare paradigm of personal freedom, of private liberation of an individual thru [sic] the medium of poetry" (19). This liberated self-containment protected Dickinson with the closed doors and closed windows of her surprisingly open home which was composed of infinite possibilities. Walker notes that Dickinson used her self-containment to foster inner growth and states that "In this poem Dickinson uses poetry as the definition of the place in which she lives. It is a house of infinite proportions--numerous windows for gazing out, a superior number of doors for going out and coming back in, as many chambers as the trees in the forest. It is a house which protects but does not confine" (21). Walker continues: "The process of writing the poem generates the pleasure which stimulates the process of writing the poem. It is a totally self-contained experience" (21). The content of Dickinson's imagination drove the poem which, in turn, drove the content and so on.

    In conclusion, the house of poetry sustained Emily Dickinson, giving her a refuge within which to use her creative poetic ability. Poetry pushed aside the confines of a traditional lifestyle and allowed Dickinson to breathe freely in what could have been a smothering existence. Her poetic environment gave Dickinson access to unlimited imagination and intuitiveness through which she came to know the universe and, ultimately, her own idea of Paradise. In Emily Dickinson and the Life of Language, E. Miller Budick explains that poetry provided the means by which Dickinson explored life and was connected to the universe. Budick comments that "For Dickinson writing poetry is not just one of life's activities, it is a way of existence, life itself" (19). Indeed, poetry enabled Dickinson to live an elaborate and full life through mental images without regard to physical confines. Budick notes that "For Dickinson there are intimate and important relationships among the structure of the cosmos, human perceptions of that cosmos, and the ways the poetic mind formulates its cosmological and epistemological discoveries" (19). "I dwell in Possibility" presents a description of Dickinson's self-inspired and self-contained intellect and the means by which she obtained and nurtured her inspirations.
     

    Works Cited

    Benfy, Christopher, E. G. Emily Dickinson and the Problem of Others. Amherst: U of

    Massachusetts P, 1984.

    Budick, E. Miller. Emily Dickinson and the Life of Language: A Study in Symbolic Poetics.

    Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1985.

    Juhasz, Suzanne. "'I dwell In Possibility': ED in the Subjenctive [sic] Mood." Emily

    Dickinson Bulletin 32 (1977): 105-109.

    ---. The Undiscovered Continent: Emily Dickinson and the Space of the Mind. Bloomington:

    Indiana UP, 1983.

    Walker, Julia M. "ED's Poetic of Private Liberation." Dickinson Studies 45 (1983): 17-22.

    Weisbuch, Robert. Emily Dickinson's Poetry. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1975.
     

    Return to Top



    This page was last updated in December of 1996.
    Please send questions and comments to Dr. Jim Wohlpart at Florida Gulf Coast University.
    This page has been accessed  times since it was originally created in December of 1996.
     

    Return to Top