erences in Emily Dickinsons WorkWhile some might believe that Dickinson is a chaste and eclectic hermit from New England, I found her work to be saturated in oblique (by today’s standards) sexual references, many of which would be referred to today as lesbian. Homosexual imagery is not what typically comes to mind when thinking of works by Emily Dickinson, but I found that element to be present while reading select poetry and letters from her repertoire. Ongoing debate seems to be centered on the nature and commonality of romantic friendships, and the extent to which female interrelations must progress before acquiring the nomenclature of “lesbian.” I tend to agree with Lillian Faderman’s assertion that “‘Lesbian’ describes a relationship in which two women’s strongest emotions and affections are directed toward each other.
Sexual contact may be a part of the relationship to a greater or lesser degree, or it may be entirely absent.”(Faderman 17)Because of the commonality of “romantic friendships” between women of pre-Victorian/Victorian eras in the United States and Britain, sentimental writings were common among women, but according to Faderman’s definition, Dickinson clearly had erotic feelings for her most treasured friend and confidant, Susan Gilbert Dickinson. In fact, many contemporaries of Dickinson featured loving relationships between women, a notion that was generally non-threatening because of the presumed asexuality of women (Faderman 154) and the idea that women could not have sexual relations without the interaction of a male (ibid 149). Although there have been female friendships that were characterized as abnormal that have been stigmatized as such by their overtly lesbian nature, and thus discouraged, these relationships were mostly encouraged. “A women who is not capable of the tenderest feelings and deepest intimacy toward her friend is lacking in a an essential human component.”Due to the separation of spheres between men and women, a condition that caused both sexes to have few common interests, thereby encouraging homosocial behavior. Men and women found it nearly impossible to communicate with each other, and preferred the company of a member of their own sex, many times finding it a more emotionally (but not necessarily economically) fulfilling relationship than a heterosexual relationship.
(Faderman 159)This segregated socialization in combination with the idea that sexuality and gender is socialized might explain why there are numerous references to what seems to be erotic love within the sexes. Love between women flourished at this time in history because it was condoned by society, providing satisfying and loving relations when men were typically emotionally absent. This is akin to Faderman’s theory that lesbianism blossoms during wartime and other times when male companionship is scarce.
In Dickinson’s case, she prized Susan above all else. Dickinson writes in a letter to Susan: “when he said ‘Our Heavenly Father,’ I said ‘Oh Darling Sue’; when he read the 100th Psalm, I kept saying your precious letter all over to myself, and Susie, when they sang—it would have made you laugh to hear one little voice, piping to the departed. I made up words and kept singing how I loved you, and you had gone while all the rest of the choir were singing Hallelujahs. I presume nobody heard me, because I sang so small, but it was a kind of comfort to think I might put them out, singing of you. (Dickinson 2936)Reciting a letter from Sue within her heart inappropriately during religious worship, singing quietly words of praise and worship to Susan during the same service, not only rank Susan above all others as far as preference, it places her as a deity above Dickinson’s god. Dickinson furthers this by the grammatical comparison of “Our Heavenly Father” and “Oh Darling Sue,” the former of the two commonly capitalized, the later punctuated and emphasized by capitalization and implied sentiment.
Presuming that the muse of poem number 640, “I cannot live with You—” is Susan Gilbert, we see the same sort of deification in which she pays religious homage to her subject, favored above her savior:Nor could I rise—with You—Dickinson’s poetry reflects that she is aware of the need for secrecy concerning her relations, once again, presumably with Susan, although editing has ensured the omission of telling details. Poem #1737, “Rearrange a “Wife’s” affection!” plays with gender roles and expectations, scoffs at traditional “Wifehood,” and speaks of a secret to be borne to the grave:Rearrange a “Wife’s” affection!Blush, my spirit, in thy Fastness—Blush, my unacknowledged clay—Seven years of troth have taught theeLove that never leaped its socket—Trust entrenched in narrow pain—Constancy thro’ fire—awarded—Burden—borne so far triumphant—For I wear the “Thorns” till Sunset—Big my Secret but it’s bandaged—Dickinson speaks to her muse directly and scornfully, because of the upsetting events leading to Gilbert’s engagement to Austin Dickinson, Emily’s brother (Lauter 2933). The rearrangement she writes of in stanza one could be the betrayal she might feel at the betrothal, when Dickinson had wifely affection for Susan. Exclamation points at the end of each sentence of the first stanza might indicate this is her outraged response at the expectation that she live in close context of the couple, and possibly be expected to share the happiness of their event.Stanza two realizes that she is unacknowledged in her role of lover, “clay” being her physical form, and if one were to take lines seven and eight in a sexual context, we might assume that Dickinson is remarking on the inhibition of sexual relations of heterosexuals in Victorian times, and the comparatively great amount of carnal knowledge that might be associated with lesbian sex.
Although romantic friendships were encouraged, I suspect that Dickinson’s relationship was masquerading as a romantic friendship, but that there was sexual activity that caused them to keep the intensity of their relationship quiet. This is probably because female sexuality was a vice, not a virtue, and was considered low and debasing (Faderman 151). Dickinson sees this secretive “burden” (line 13) as necessary, but painful, associating it with religious significance as a crown of “Thorns”. She distinguishes herself by being proud of her affections nonetheless, by a “Diadem” of royal standing. This also bears religious significance, as Christ is often symbolized with regal adornments post resurrection–“sunset” in Dickinson’s case. Dickinson’s work and her “Secret” are subject to conjecture mainly because the changing sensibilities concerning sexuality and the popularization of Freudian principles that stigmatized these intense relations between women, made the subject of her poetry scandalous at the time when her niece, and Gilbert’s daughter, Martha Dickinson Bianchi sought to publish them (Faderman 174). This convergence led to a slash and burn style of editing that replaced pronouns and names with ambiguities and masculine references where there they other wise may not have been.
There are still “traditionalists” who believe that there is not enough evidence to make any such assertion about Emily Dickinson’s private life via her works, and certainly, the more the traditional the establishment, book or website, the more invisible this possibility becomes. Since Dickinson’s works were unintended for publication, the public is entitled via her family to make their own assumptions about her and her work. I contend that the writing style of Dickinson’s letters and poetry was conceived with genius, edited and re-edited with that same genius. To take pen to her works, which are by their nature, concise and spare in language, but rich in symbolism, ingenuity, punctuation and grammatical engineering is an insult to her work, and frankly few would succeed in retaining that genius unless merely replacing gender indicative words and imagery. Bibliography:Faderman, LillianSurpassing the Love of Men : Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present