Winter 1993, Volume 10.1

Critical Essay

William E. H. Meyer, Jr.

Emily Dickinson's "Final Decision" : Masculine Voyeurism or Feminine Exhibitionism?

William E. H. Meyer, Jr. (M.A., U of Chicago) is presently a free-lance artist and writer. He has taught at Houston Community College and the University of Houston. He has published 30 essays on hypervisuality in the United States, Canada, Germany and Australia, and his poetry, fiction, and art work have appeared in numerous journals in the United States and Canada. His work has appeared in Thought, Philosophy Today, Stanford Literature Review, Thomas Wolfe Review, and others.

See other work by William E. H. Meyer, Jr. in Weber Studies: Vol. 12.2 (essay)Vol. 13.2 (poetry)Vol. 17.0 (poetry), and Vol. 18.3 (poetry).

With what delight shall I witness their suspense while I make my final decision.

Letter to Abiah Root, 7 May 1845

Emily Dickinson, at age fourteen, was filled with girlish exuberance over the future, confiding to her friend, Abiah Root, that "I am growing handsome indeed!" and that, as the Belle of Amherst, "I shall have perfect crowds of admirers" by age seventeen (Letters 1:13). Indeed, Dickinson, even in her more isolated and eccentric years, never entirely lost this sense of her feminine attractiveness or of the implications of such New-World femininity and beauty for what she early called her "exceedingly edifying compositions." That is, Dickinson early realized both the power and the paradox of being a woman writer in Americaof being ruled not only by what Emerson called the "genius in America, with tyrannous eye" ("Poet" 238) but also by what Dickinson herself intuited as her own incarnation as "America the Beautiful," as herself as the exhibited "city set upon a hill" wherein "the eyes of all people are upon us" (Winthrop 1:27). Caught between the relentless ideal of masculine perusal, of "a sharp eye for the White Whale," and the thrill of feminine exposure, of Hester Prynne's "glorious ignominy" upon a Boston scaffold, Dickinson was forced to make a "final decision" about what her real capabilities and responsibilities were; and she epitomized the choice of every major woman poet in America, from Bradstreet to Sexton. She chose the bliss of being seen (or heard) over seeing; she chose to restrain the power of naked observation for the grace of delicious and captivating versifying; she chose refined exhibitionism/revelation over brute voyeurism/"lust of the eyes."

In what follows, we shall rediscover how Dickinson's "very Lunacy of Light" (291) and her final acceptance of a New-World hypervisual femininityfrom her self-exaltation as "the Belle of Amherst" to her self-immolation as the "Empress of Calvary"create the passionate character of not only her art but also her religious dilemmas and her thwarted interpersonal relationships. Of course, along with any such insights we might gain into either Dickinson's achievement or American aesthetics in general, there is also the potential for a too-surprising conversion of both reader and critic to the revolutionary light of "America the Hypervisual" (Meyer 20)Emerson's warning that "perception is not whimsical, but fatal" ("Self-Reliance" 156) and Dickinson's caution concerning her own self-exposure:

The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind (507).


And Saints to windows run
To see the little Tippler
Leaning against the Sun
Poem # 214
I'll let my Heart be just in sight
Poem #1391

With the early invitation, "Into my garden come!" (4), Dickinson begins her life-long drive to be seenby God, by New England, by lovers and by natural "friends." On the cosmic or religious/royal level, such a wish impels Dickinson to repeatedly insist on how she is noticed and esteemed by the highest beings, how "in my awkward gazing face/The Angels softly peered" (117), or how these same angels will return "with a crown" and show off the "Queen" or Belle to the entire universe"turn me round and round/To an admiring sky" (159). Repeatedly, all the heavens watch"Grave Saints stole out to look at me"and even God himself is captivated and amused with this brazen little "Tippler": "A Smile suffused Jehovah's face" (229). Truly, The Complete Poems is filled with such cosmic egocentricity and exhibition is magnificent bridal occasion wherein Dickinson herself, like Hester Prynne, is "the point which drew all eyes" and is looked upon with glory: "And Cherubim and Seraphim/The unobtrusive Guest" (308). And although Dickinson is quite aware that she operates upon a diminutive scale, she has the cosmic hubris to exclaim

My Splendors, are Menagerie
But their Competeless Show
Will entertain the Centuries (135).

Here, Dickinson, in her transcendent/modest self-exposure"I take vaster attitudes/And strut upon my stem" (135)discovers that her desire for attention has so commingled itself with the Emersonian/American passion for "an original relation to the universe" ("Nature" 21) that she can entertain "no other gods" before her own hypervisuality; and even the highest symbol of New-England religiosity must be superseded by her thirst for adulation and transfiguration. With "dazzled Face" she confessesshe demands of the All-Seeing God himself

See! I usurped thy crucifix to honor mine! (704).

All her private frustrations give way to ecstasy as she consoles herself and her assumed earthly readership and heavenly witnesses:

For I wear the "Thorns" till Sunset
Thenmy Diadem put on (705).

Of course, equally important to Dickinson is the adoration she receives from real or imaginary loversthe flocks of "admirers" she hoped to have by age seventeen. Here, this "Phantom Queen" finds that her highest bliss is not corporeal but visual"Heaven in a Gaze" (308)as she exhibits herself as the perfect bride, "Dressed to meet You/Seein White!" (185). Moreover, Dickinson clearly demonstrates that she realizes that her feminine power to attract either readers or lovers includes a certain mystery and mystification in both her person and poetrya "coquettishness" or feminine vanity that is perhaps more at the root of Dickinson's acclaim than is generally conceded:

A Charm invests a face
Imperfectly beheld
The Lady dare not lift her Veil
For fear it be dispelled (201).

The dangers of such a programme of "feminine intuition" and secrecy in regards to Dickinson's own life are painfully obviousthe too-coy mistress "Immured the whole of Life/Within a magic Prison" (662) and the New-Critical reception of her"New Circumference" which stresses her "profusion of paradox, ambiguity, and irony" (Brooks 2:1220). However, to counteract these "psychological," "literary" and essentially Old-World tacks, I do not believe that we can easily overemphasize the extent to which Dickinson's poetic and personal powers ultimately derive from her New-World hypervisualization, her innate feminine exhibitionism which flirtingly promises her lover/ "Moon""obedient to the least command/Thine eye impose on me" (205)or which more boldly "strip-teases" us in the midst of a flood of passion:

But no Man moved Metill the Tide
Went past my simple Shoe
And past my Apronand my Belt
And past my Bodicetoo (254).

Dickinson has intuited that in "America the Beautiful," she herself must be attractive to succeed, must somehow incorporate what Emerson and Whitman called "our incomparable materials" ("Poet" 238) to please either herself or her audience, and so she "prays" for that "trait" which will "make Me fairest of the Earth" (452). In both her poetry and her interpersonal relationships, then, we find Dickinson in the act of a playful self-revelation in a quintessentially feminine self-exposure and posturing on a good many more occasions than we might at first suspect:

But if He ask where you are hid
Until tomorrow Happy letter!
Gesture Coquette and shake your Head! (238).

The above "Happy letter" is probably not going to Thomas Wentworth Higginson; but the same "coquettishness" and coy femininity is manifested in Dickinson's correspondence with her literary mentor. Far from being as myopic as Brooks, Johnson and others have assumed, Higginson immediately sensed in Dickinson "a wholly new and original poetic genius" (Complete vi), and he elicited her assumption of his keen powers of observation: "The Mind is so near itselfit cannot see, distinctly" (Letters 2:403). Thus, the exhibitionist appealed directly to the voyeur's forteshe revealed to the masculine perusal the feminine mystery: "While my thought is undressedI can make the distinction, but when I put them in the Gown they look alike, and numb" (Letters 2:404). Walt Whitman, of course, as he unflinchingly and microscopically examines "the body electric" is "disgraceful" to the New-England Nun; but Dickinson early knew how to stimulate Higginson's interest by performing for him, in poems that she sent, her own dance of the seven veilsin her "gleeful" private ballet, the "mad Prima" with "Gown of Gauze" and "Ringlet" in her hair, cavorting with "One Claw upon the Air" (155). Higginson was simply unable to resist the titillation of this suppliant "half unconscious Queen" (247): he was made Dickinson's "Monarch in my life" and the witness of how her "little Force explodes," leaving her "bare and charred" (Letters 2:414), the exhausted but satiated exhibitionist. Indeed, Dickinson was to be Higginson's "Barefoot" studentblind, but trusting his "Needle" : "The Sailor cannot see the Northbut knows the Needle can" (Letters 2:409). Indeed, the woman who "writes today from my pillow" and who coyly refused to give her personal characteristics was simply too much for the man to resist; and no doubt some of this "interplay" captivated the critic and kept him at arm's length for as long as it served the purposes of the little exhibitionistic artist/spider: "You see my posture is benighted. . . . Are you perfectly powerful?" (Letters 2:414). In Higginson, Dickinson found the power of the masculinenot heavenlyeye: "Me to adornHowtell/Trinketto make Me beautiful" (227).

Here, however, we should note that while Dickinson continued what we may call her "normal" /predictable exhibition to God, lover, and critic throughout her career, perhaps her most satisfying and unusual rehearsals or self-presentations occurred vis-a-vis her natural "friends" or phenomenafrom the grand ("Her Publicbe the Noon") to the apparently trivial ("To an admiring Bog!"). In these natural realms there is little of that religious or sexual or artistic guilt that marred her "interpersonal" relations. Here Dickinson found a theater in which she could both act and enjoy "the show" without any limitations other than the ones she herself brought to these miniature "dramas"confidential productions in which she could be the leading lady:

Behold how great a Firmament
Accompanies a Star (643).

Here, Dickinson could freely exult in vast distances while under the scrutiny of the natural heavens"We know that their superior Eyes/Include Usas they go" (462)or again she could participate, as her own high-priestess, in some "Unobtrusive Mass" (485). Here Dickinson is free to be naturally at ease, to be a flower of "pretty lips" which "puts its nightgown on" (63); or she can be the naturally sensuous flower, with "Depths of Ruby, undrained,Hid, Lip, for Thee" (158)or even more promiscuously, as "my Cactussplits her Beard/To show her throat . . . Thy Daisy/Draped for thee!" (160,161). Indeed, no matter whether she goes, the poet finds herself noticed: "The Mermaids in the Basement/Came out to look at me" or "Bowingwith a Mighty look/At meThe Sea withdrew" (254, 255). In fact, Dickinson can even present and identify with the day itself in an amazing feminine self-disclosure:

The Day undressed Herself
Her Garter was of Gold
Her Petticoat of Purple plain
Her Dimities as old
Exactly as the World
And yet the newest Star
. . . .
The Lady of the Occident
Retired without a care (352).

At this point we could go on and on with a myriad of instances of how Dickinson either exhibits her most private self to her personified natural surroundings or of how she merges with and identifies/sympathizes with almost every conceivable phenomenon, from "A Traveling Flake of Snow" (488), to "a Whiplash?/Unbraiding in the Sun" (460), to "The Mountain sitting on the Plain" (456), to the dawn's "Purple Programme" (405, to herself as the emergent/transformed butterfly"My Cocoon tightensColors tease/I'm feeling for the Air" (496). But perhaps the most consistent and telling identification that Dickinson makes with exhibited natural phenomena is that of the unnoticed, unappreciated or "secret" life that surrounds everyone, "the familiar species/That perished by the Door" (215), or, again, the simple, confidential, waiting "flower":

I hide myself within my flower,
That fading from your Vase,
You, unsuspecting, feel for me
almost a loneliness (427).

CarefulDickinson warns in this poemthe reader should not project too much of a pity for the poetess/flower, for she has achieved in her quaint identification and exhibition a fuller life than might appear to be true to the "owner" of the "Vase." Indeed, in all her poems of exhibitionism, Dickinson has discovered that the real power of natural phenomena is precisely their natural nakedness, their availability to the Emersonian/American "genius in America, with tyrannous eye" ("Poet" 238). To possess honor, wealth, fame, or family without this "dazzling" truth is to fail to reach one's New-World potential at the crucial point. The woman, the mater/"incomparable materials," must realize her place in the shameless American "Eden": this "surprising conversion" to hypervisuality/exhibitionism is the sine qua non of "The American Religion of Vision" (Meyer 1045)

The Garment of Surprise
Was all our timid Mother wore
At Homein Paradise (578).

Finally, Dickinson's desire for surrender and self-exposure took even the form of her intense fascination with death and all its accoutrements. In death, there is absolute display and visible evidencea thanatopsis or autopsy "Impossible to feign" as "The Eyes glaze once" (110). In death, there is exhibition in "The Parlor" so that "Visitors may come" (226); and there is the adulation for the dead friend or relative who is specially dressed for the occasion and who is spoken of with deep feeling and often esteem. In an early letter, Dickinson notes how her friend, Sophia Holland, "was too lovely for earth and she was transplanted from earth to heaven" (Letters 1:32)another instance where Dickinson instinctively identifies the character of the girl with the "lovely, " "transplanted" flower. In the midst of such fascination with death, perhaps Dickinson's famous line, "I died for Beauty" (216), will take on a whole new "hypervisual" meaning. And perhaps, now, we are better able to understand both the transcendent rapture Dickinson feels at the prospect of her own deathits "royal" ride in the splendid "Carriage" exhibited to "the Fields of Gazing Grain" (350, italics mine)and also her envy at the feminine dead and the ultimate "exhibitionism":

We noticed smallest things
Things overlooked before
By this great light upon our Minds
Italicizedas 'twere.
. . . .
a Jealousy for Her arose
So nearly infinite (497).

Perhaps, too, this poem points to the poet's own intuition that she herself must die and be exhibited and scrutinized in her own "Italicized" corpus/volumes before she will finally receive the adulation and respect due to her life's accomplishment:

Content of fading
Is enough for me
Fade I unto Divinity
And DyingLifetime
Ample as the Eye (338).


By intuition, Mightiest Things
Assert Themselves
Poem #420

Women poets in America feel or "intuit" the power of the "tyrannous eye"they do not necessarily or fully participate in that voyeurism. In this section, we aim to explore some of the difficulties which Dickinson and a few other women poets in America have experienced in confronting the ideal of the "transparent eyeball" or of the dogmatism which demands, "The eye is final; what it tells us is the last stroke of nature" (Emerson, Journals 13:166).

Here, the question of "feminine intuition" naturally comes to the fore and, along with it, the assumption that such "sensitivity" or even "sentimentality" ultimately obscures the woman's vision or at least so colors her perceptions as to serve as a kind of natural "blinders." Anne Sexton, for example, announces that "our eyes are full of terrible confessions" (All 65), and one "secret sin" herein disclosed might be that of the woman's intense self-reflectionan exhibitionism that essentially renders itself blind by comparison with an Ishmael's passion "to see the world" (Moby-Dick 120) or Wallace Stevens' need to "see the sun again with an ignorant eye" ("Notes" 214). In her poem, "We talked as Girls do", perhaps Dickinson may have acknowledged just this blinding self-centered "sensibility" when she writes

But fondest, dwelt upon Ourself (286).

The "genius in America, with tyrannous eye" does not finally focus upon a "song of myself" but upon "our incomparable materials," upon "Texas and Oregon" or "America as a poem in our eyes" ("Poet" 238). What Dickinson intuited in the following apparently trivial exchange may be precisely this limited "feminine" self-awareness:

I heard a Woman say
"Poor Child"and something in her voice
Convicted meof me(287).

Of course, no one could possibly deny Dickinson's New-World orientation, her awareness of the extreme importance which sight plays even in "literary" art. Rosenbaum's Concordance will quickly illustrate how Dickinson employs the term see twice as many times as the term say or four times as often as the term hearhow the poet reaches for the term eyes five times as often as she chooses the term ears. Such statistics, however, are only generally indicative of Dickinson's fascination with ocularity. More important is the passion she evinces in exclaiming, "'How shall you know'?/Consult your Eye!" (201), or "Not 'Revelation''tisthat waits,/But our unfurnished eyes" (339), or, "As much of Noon as I could take/Between my finite eyes" (155). But even here, in the midst of Dickinson's rapture at being "Shattered with Dawn!" (153) or discovering "Heaven in a Gaze" (308), one still senses an "intuition" in operation upon "Mightiest Things"a feeling after reality which is done more with the "Heart" than the "tyrannous eye." Thus Dickinson's spider remains less than fully observed"The Spider holds a Silver Ball/In unperceived Hands" (297), while Whitman's spider is observed "endlessly reeling" its minute "filaments," or Frost's spider is "dimpled, fat and white," or Edward Taylor's spider "Bites Dead" its victim "'hind the head," or Johnathan Edwards' spider is held perfectly precarious over the flames of hell by that New-World Almighty Eye which "is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight" ("Sinners" 1:102). Behind all of Dickinson's observations there is always lurking the feminine, exhibitionistic "Heart":

Fabrics of Cashmere
Never a gown of Dunmore
Raiment insteadof Pompadour
For MeMy soulto wear(227).

Dickinson may rebel at the notion that "little girls should be seen and not heard"; but her verses reveal how her preoccupation with her "dazzled Face" and "Round Hair" (227) result in her own "terrible confession""I could not see to see" (224).

Again, we stress how Dickinson recognized the novelty of her situationthe presence of a "new species" (46) or "new Circumference" (147) or "new Equation given" (142) or "New Horizon" (455) or even "new Dilemma" (681). D. H. Lawrence called this the "inconceivable difference between us and America"a phenomenon which would "hurt horribly" as it forced condescending Europeans to "open new eyes" to the art and culture of the New World (Symbolic 17). But even in the midst of this hypervisual American revolution, Dickinson does not escape her "girlish" fascination with "Ourself." While she may "seeNew Englandly" (132), the woman poet nevertheless falls back upon her feminine intuition in confronting what William Faulkner called "Light in August":

A Color stands abroad
On Solitary Fields
That Science cannot overtake
But Human Nature feels (395, italics mine).

This last quotation and its emphasis upon "Science" and "Human Nature" brings up another facet of Dickinson's intuitive styleher preoccupation with the abstract, the invisibly "seen" or "felt." The Complete Poems is filled with references to "Immortality" and "lonesome Glory" (590) and "Dreams" and "Torrents of Eternity" (593) and "Fame" and "Joy" and "Time" and "an Elegy of Integrity" (598). To be sure, such abstractions are, at times, given an unusual pungency and concretenessa dress that almost makes the invisible visible, such as in "that White Sustenance/Despair" (318) or "my Right of Frost" (317) or "Latitude of Home" (307) or even "sumptuous Destitution" (594); but the result is more often a sense of vagueness or even sentimental and trite generalization, as in "For Ardor or for Tears" (621) or "Beauty is Infinity" (623) or "Love is done when Love begins" (627). Whether or not Dickinson's infatuation with eternity and time, or glory and shame, or dream and reality is the product of her New England background and education, such abstractionism/didacticism serves to obscure the "original relation to the universe" in which the New-World poet stands. And although the packing of her short, traditional stanzas and lines with such abstractions lends a certain weight to the import of those lines, the final effect is nothing like Whitman's "democratic vistas" or panoramas of the eye. Indeed, even Dickinson's "off-rhyme" or "eye-rhyme" and picturesque diction can do little to offset the limitations of her "Dimensions/Of Possibility" (533)her feminine intuition of "Velvet Limbs" (313) or "Love of Theea Prism be" (301). In such "Glory of Decay" (559) there may well be the detritus for a new "garden"the realization of the tremendous struggle which the woman poet in America must face in order to confront the Emersonian "new commandment": "Observe without ceasing" (Journals 12:478):

Had I not seen the Sun
I could have borne the shade
But Light a newer Wilderness
My Wilderness has made (542).

In an early letter to Higginson, Dickinson admitted, "My Business is Circumference" (Letters 2:408). The implication here and in the frank confession of "The Sailor cannot see" or "The Mind . . . cannot see, distinctly" is that the woman poet relies upon her "Perfectly powerful" preceptor/voyeur to appreciate and breathe life into her exhibited verses to hypervisually probe her "conceptions," if you will. Indeed, although the assumption generally is that poem #327, "Before I got my eye put out," alludes primarily to Dickinson's ophthalmological malaise or injury, perhaps the truer assessment would be that here Dickinson learns the "dazzling' truth about the American woman attempting a too-acute glance at masculine ocularitywhat Thomas Wolfe called his "superhuman intensity of vision" (Web 273) and what Dickinson discovers in the effects of "As much of Noon as I could take/Between my finite eyes" (155). The actual, masculine vision of the world, "All Forests Stintless Stars," would simply overwhelm the exhibitionist, "The News would strike me dead". Hence the woman falls back upon "intuition" to perceive these "Mightiest Things":

So safer guess with just my soul
Upon the Window pane(155).

Truly, there is a pun here on "pane"/painthe realization of the woman poet's "Circumference" in confronting "America the Hypervisual" (Meyer 20). And perhaps all the references which Dickinson makes to "Divorce" or "Cleaving" or "Parting" or "Funerals" refer to this underlying phenomenonthe man and the woman on "Opposing Decks" and bound for geographies both infinitely apart and yet "with just the Door ajar" (318).

O Say, Can YOU See why the national symbol of what Whitman called "these United States" is the tyrannous-eyed Eagle of 6X vision; and why the prominent figure exhibited to all those visiting or immigrating to "America the Beautiful" is the newly-refurbished Statue of Liberty, not so much seeing aswith her torch raised highseen.

Dickinson, of course, was not alone with her "magic Prison" and "terrible confession"the power and paradox of being the exhibited "city upon a hill"although she asks concerning her elevated ignominy, "but will the secret compensate/For climbing it alone?" (863). Anne Bradstreet, her early Massachusetts neighbor, had "found a new world and new manners"and a new aestheticat which her "spirit rose" (Brooks 1:68). Bradstreet, like Dickinson, early came to "intuit" that the masculine ideal was hypervisual"That there is a God, I see" ("Children" 1:71, italics mine)and, like her "descendant," she found the danger of "higher on the glittering Sun I gazed" ("Contemplations" 1:73). Bradstreet even "submits" to the masculine observer just as Dickinson had done with Higginson: Bradstreet calls her husband "mine eyes" ("Letter" 1:75). In all of this, too, there is the "domestic"/feminine touchthe penchant for "homespun cloth" over "public view," and the abstract rejoinder, such as the only slightly more ironic Dickinson could also have written my hope and treasure lies above ("Burning" 1:76).

In the twentieth century, Dickinson's exhibitionistic and "confessional" sisters abound, from Marianne Moore's confidential "dislike" of poetry and her struggles with abstract intuition or "introspection," with"imaginary gardens with real toads in them" ("Poetry" 94); to Elizabeth Bishop's feminine cruelty to the "man-moth""If you catch him,/hold up a flashlight to his eye" (16); to Sylvia Plath's excruciating inability to come to terms with the hypervisual reality of not only war but also even the most mundane of circumstancesthe "revolted eye" unable to confront "absolute fact" and the exhibitionist caught in the terror of her own nakedness:

The photographic chamber of the eye
records bare painted walls, while an electric light
flays the chromium nerves of plumbing raw.
. . . .
Yet always the ridiculous nude flanks urge
the fabrication of some cloth to cover
such starkness ("Tub" 24, 25).

But here, among Dickinson's "descendants," perhaps it is Anne Sexton who most inspires comparison with "the Belle of Amherst," who most struggled with the dilemma of the naturally exhibitionistic woman poet in the voyeur's paradise, and who found in "Lunacy" or "Death" a kind of expiation/explanation for her "corpus" and career. Like Dickinson, Sexton knows that the American poet is always bereft of words to transmit the visionwhat the earlier writer had described thus: "'Nature' is what we see/. . . . Yet have no art to say" (332). In Live or Die, Sexton declares

Now I have entered the year without words.
I note the queer entrance and the exact voltage.
Without words they exist.
Without words one may touch bread
and be handed bread
and make no sound (45, italics mine).

Like Dickinson, Sexton knows the danger of the "dazzling" New-World ideal" of fish/coming up for the sun/who stayed forever" (Live 3). Like Dickinson's "Day," oblivious and undressing herself, Sexton's art exults in the power of nakedness, of blind exhibition:

I lay, a blind lake, feigning sleep, while Jack
pulled back the wooly covers to see
my body (Live 19).

Or, again, Sexton's poetry emphasizes that for the woman to be seen is to render her effectually blind: the American New Adam tells his beloved

. . . "Look! Your eyes
are seacolor. Look! Your eyes
are skycolor."
And the naked New Eve's response is
. . . And my eyes
shut down as if they were
suddenly ashamed (Love 15).

Like Dickinson, Sexton knows that "women are born twice"once naturally and once hypervisually, "under the startling sun" and carrying a "magical transparent belly" (Live 64). And like Dickinson's realization that "Madness" itself must become transparent "To a discerning Eye" (209), so Sexton laments the failure of modern scientists and doctors to minister to what Kurt Vonnegut calls "maniacs in the fourth dimension":

The surgeons shook their heads.
They really didn't know
would the cripple inside of me
be a cripple that would show (Live 81, italics mine).

Finally, like Dickinson's "Jealousy" over the minutely exhibited and scrutinized corpse, the adoringly observed dead friend and "flower," Sexton's own tinge of envy manifests itself in her final tribute to Sylvia Plath:

What is your death
but an old belonging
. . . .
O funny duchess!
O blonde thing! (Live 40).

"Torn Down From Glory Daily"Sexton's title could well be the motto for each woman poet in the New World, as each author attempts to scale the impossible Emersonian/American mountainto forego the woman's heart and intuition for the man's ruthless vision, to meet the challenge to "bring the past for judgment into the thousand-eyed present, and live ever in a new day" ("Self-Reliance" 152-3).


Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne'er succeed.
Poem #67

This epigraph on "success" may imply that the poet has attained her goals but found them somewhat less exhilarating than expected; or it may imply that the poet has not captured either those personal or public "honors" of which she is enamoredthat she still craves her "sweet success." No matter which interpretation bests suits Dickinson, there is still a sense of diminution which accompanies her accomplishments, her obvious "successes." And perhaps in admitting this, we come to the goal of this essay the demonstration of which will make it a "success" viz., the insistence that every American "minority" faces terrific problems in contending with "America the Hypervisual." We cannot, of course, rehearse in any detail here how the hypervisual ideal creates in the black American a conflict over his African/aural roots,1 or how the traditional-less "tyrannous eye" prods the Jewish American into a refusal to "assimilate" his Torah/"Hear-O-Israel" traditions with the "New English Canaan."2 But our hope remains that we have in some degree elucidated how the "woman's choice" of blind intuition and exhibitionism makes it essentially impossible for a poet such as Emily Dickinson to fulfill the highest office demanded of the "transparent eyeball"the surrender of what Dickinson called her precious "Ourself" to the insatiable voyeurism of "I am nothing; I see all; I am part or parcel of God" (Emerson, "Nature" 24).

Of course, to put the matter in more "critical" terms, to lose either a Whitman or a Dickinson would be a most significant loss to the evolution of American literature. But here it is impossible to escape the conviction that any attempt to equalize the importance of Dickinson's "Menagerie" of paradox and despair/delight with the robust vitality, panoramic scope and outspoken patriotism of Leaves of Grass, would be to effectively "short-out" the nineteenth century's main "power-cable" supplying what Hemingway would come to call our American writers' workshop, "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place." Dickinson's "Business" may well be "Circumference"the circuitous motions of the intuition and heart, the abstractionism that provokes ambiguity and reflection. But Whitman's work is the "line o'sight"the eschewing of didacticism for the radical and self-explanatory observation: "Undrape!" There is simply no way in which we could ever trade Whitman's perspicacious "spotted Hawk" and its "barbaric yawp" for Dickinson's monosyllabic "Robin" and its "Criterion."


1 William E. H. Meyer, Jr. "Black Poetry in America: Aurality Disintegrating Under the 'Tyrannous Eye,'" The University of Portland Review, Fall, 1986, pp. 22-31.

2William E. H. Meyer, Jr. "Jewish Literature in America: Impossible Assimilation Under the 'Tyrannous Eye,'" Western Humanities Review, Winter, 1984, pp. 305-13.


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