Emily Dickenson Essay, Research Paper
Faith Is Not All It?s Cracked Up to Be.
While much of Emily Dickinson’s poetry has been described as sad or morose, the poet did use humor and irony in many of her poems. This essay will address the humor or irony found in five of Dickinson’s poems: “Faith? is a Fine Invention? (185), ?I’m Nobody! Who are you??, ?A Service of Song? and ?Success Is Counted Sweetest?. The attempt will be made to show how Dickinson used humor or irony for the dual purposes of comic relief and to stress an idea or conclusion about her life and environment expressed by the poet in the respective poem.
The most humorous or ironic are some of the shorter poems, such as the four lined stanzas of “Faith is a Fine Invention? and ?Success Is Counted Sweetest?. In “Faith”, Dickinson presents a ?witty and biting satirical look at Faith and its limitations? (Hartman 113). While it still amuses readers today, it must be mentioned that this short poem would have had a greater impact and seriousness to an audience from the period Dickinson lived in. Dickinson was raised in a strict Calvinist household and received most of her education in her youth at a boarding school. In this short, witty piece Dickinson addresses two of the main obsessions of her generation: The pursuit of empirical knowledge through science, faith in an all-knowing, all-powerful Christian god and the debate on which was the more powerful belief. In this poem Dickinson uses humor to ease her position in the debate on to the reader.
Dickinson uses her ability to write humorously and ironically to present a firm, controversial opinion into what could be dismissed as an irreverent, inconsequential piece of writing. In ?Success? Dickinson’s emphasis is less on humor and more on expressing irony. This poem ?may be partially autobiographical in nature.? (Loving 200) Dickinson made few attempts during her life to be taken as more than an armature poet. On one occasion, she sent a collection of her poems to a correspondent who was also a published poet. His criticism of the poems devastated Dickinson, and she never made another attempt towards publishing her works. In the poem, Dickinson reflects on the nature of success and how, ironically, it can be best appreciated and understood by those who have not achieved it and have no taste of it. As in “Faith”, Dickinson powerfully presents her thoughts in a few lines. The poem deals only with one, ironic but universal, idea in its short length. It is the bitterness expressed at this irony that is most felt by the reader.
While the previous poems express the poet?s bitterness and sorrow with one aspect of her life, ?I’m Nobody! Who Are You?? uses humor without irony to address another. One critic, Dorothy Oberhaus, likes Dickinson?s comic techniques. The poem is ?Reinforced by uneven metrics, its frequent pyrrhics, and Dickinson?s typical condensation and brevity? (118-19). In this poem, Dickinson?s style appears almost ?child-like in its off descriptions including frogs and bogs? (Lakoff and Turner 209), as well as the lively energy expressed by the poem through its use of dashes and brief wording. Dickinson seems to be addressing her spinster, hermit-like existence (in the line ?I’m Nobody?) and her preference to it. The poet seems to relate that her situation has not left her without a sense of humor, but in fact has allowed her to maintain a child-like outlook on life rather than adapting to the boring norms of her society (?How dreary – to be – Somebody!?). She mocks the conventional need for self-importance through publicity (?How public – like a Frog?, ?To tell one’s name – the livelong June?), suggesting that the audience isn’t that interested (?To an admiring Bog?). She instead seems to idealize her solitude by creating the mysterious feeling of a secret society of social outcasts (?Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!?). In this poem, she effectively uses humor to soften a critique of certain members of her society. While this poem is longer than the other poems discussed, it too is able to express the quality of brevity and lightness in that it’s composition is full of dashes, with even full sentences broken into short, quick actions that easily roll off of the tongue when spoken aloud (?How dreary – to be ? Somebody?).
The technical composition of this poem is two stanzas, however, Dickinson is able to refresh the form with her use of dashes and short words to give it energy and liveliness. The poem ?A Service of Song?, is the longest poem discussed in this essay, composed of three stanzas. When comparing her humorous poems to the other poems found in this collection, it is found that these poems are the shortest in length. It might be that in the attempt to keep the nature of the poems light-hearted, Dickinson purposely chose this traditional and unchallenging form.
In ?A service??, Dickinson again turns to humor and irony to address issues she has with the conventions of religion common to her society, as seen in “Faith….?. Dickinson questions the sincerity of those who attend Church on Sunday on a regular basis. Through the use of comparing the conventions of Church (such as the Bell, the Sermon, Dome and Choir) with her own celebration of the Sabbath through the appreciation of nature, Dickinson ironically suggests that those in attendance at Church may not be as sincere in their worship as she is. The poet mocks the congregation?s attendance as being merely for show and to gain status in the community by doing what is expected of them (?God preaches, a noted Clergyman?). As well, she argues with the assumption that attending church alone will lead towards salvation, suggesting that it is her own actions of finding God in Nature (?And an Orchard, for a Dome?) on a regular, constant basis (?I’m going all along?) which is the more true path towards salvation.
The humor in the last poem is not as explicit as found in the other poems discussed, nor is the irony as directly expressed as in ?Success…?. The irony is first suggested in the opening lines of “A Service?? (Some keep the Sabbath going to Church – I keep it staying home”) and reaches its most explicit form in the closing lines (”So instead of getting to Heaven, at last ? I’m going, all along”). It might be that due to the fact this poem addresses social conventions more than actual spirituality and a belief in God that Dickinson chooses to keep the level of irony lower than found in “Faith…?. The humor found in this poem is less explicit as well. While the contrasts of a Bobolink for a Choir and an Orchard for a Dome are humorous, in these descriptions ?Dickinson appears to be confessing her own individual, private communion with God to the reader? (Bu*censored* 45). Thus she does not accentuate the humor in the combination of the objects in order not to trivialize her own beliefs, but allows enough humor to enter the description to stamp the poem with the child-like free spiritedness found in ?I?m Nobody…?. Again in this poem, the poet?s desire for seclusion and unconventionality is expressed eloquently through a light-handed treatment of the subject matter.
In conclusion, it can be stated the examples of Emily Dickinson’s work discussed in this essay show the poet to be highly skilled in the use of humor and irony. The use of these two tools in her poems is to stress a point or idea the poet is trying to express, rather than being an end in themselves. These two tools allow her to present serious critiques of her society and the place she feels she has been allocated into by masking her concerns in a light-hearted, irreverent tone.
Bu*censored*, E. Miller. Emily Dickinson and the Life of Language: A Study in Symbolic
Poetics. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1985.
Hartman, Geoffrey H. Criticism in the Wilderness: The Study of Literature
Today. New Haven: Yale UP, 1980.
Lackoff, George, and Mark Turner. More Than a Cool Reason: A Field Guide to
Poetic Metaphor. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989.
Loving, Jerome. Emily Dickinson: The Poet on the Second Story. Cambridge:
Cambridge UP, 1986.
Oberhaus, Dorothy Huff. ??Engine Against th? Almightie?: Emily Dickinson and
Prayer.? ESQ: A Journal of American Renaissance 32 (3rd quarter 1986)
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