Emily Dickinson’s “The Loneliness One dare not sound”

I’m unsure whether it’s better to read Emily Dickinson’s Complete Poems or to settle for a “selected” version of the poems. Truthfully, reading 1775 poems by any poet can be mind-numbing. After spending much of the week reading her collected poems, I’m only up to poem 826. Although I often “speed-read” books of poetry, stopping only to meditate on those that truly interest me, Dickinson’s poems are generally too dense to read this way. Speed reading makes you feel like you’re reading gibberish, which, of course, defeats the point of speed reading.

Despite having owned the Complete Poems since college and despite several previous attempts, I’ve never managed to sit down and read all 716 pages. As a result, I’ve largely known Dickinson through poems others have selected. For me, the greatest advantage of reading the entire works is that it allows me to see favorite poems in a new light, and doing so gives me a greater understanding and appreciation of those poems. Nearly half the poems I mentioned in my first entry were poems I’d never encountered before, and, although they were probably not as “good” as poems I had read before, they allowed me to gain a new perspective on more famous poems I admired.

Obviously one cannot assume that any poem is autobiographical, but at the very least the subject of an author’s poems would seem to reveal ideas that are important to the writer. If that assumption is true, than one of Dickinson’s themes is the idea of entrapment, of being bound by a system over which she has little control:

They shut me up in Prose —
As when a little Girl
They put me in the Closet —
Because they liked me “still” —

Still! Could themself have peeped —
And seen my Brain — go round —
They might as wise have lodged a Bird
For Treason — in the Pound —

Himself has but to will
And easy as a Star
Abolish his Captivity —
And laugh — No more have I “

Of course there’s no way of knowing if Emily ever suffered such a punishment, and one would certainly hope not. In fact, the poem may merely have been inspired by the old cliche that “a child should be seen not heard.” Be that as it may, it’s obvious Dickinson resented the very idea of “Captivity,” and in the end felt any attempts to silence her were in vain because, like the Bird, her Brain had learned to sing, had learned to abolish her “Captivity.”

The same idea of trying to escape from captivity is found in:

Could I but ride indefinite
As doth the Meadow Bee
And visit only where I liked
And No one visit me

And flirt all Day with Buttercups
And marry whom I may
And dwell a little everywhere
Or better, run away

With no Police to follow
Or chase Him if He do
Till He should jump Peninsulas
To get away from me —

I said “But just to be a Bee”
Upon a Raft of Air
And row in Nowhere all Day long
And anchor “off the Bar”

What Liberty! So Captives deem
Who tight in Dungeons are.

Anyone reading the complete works realizes that the “bee” and “butterfly” are important symbols in Dickinson’s poetry. And at least in this poem it’s clear that what she admires about the bee is its freedom. The bee can “flirt all Day,” “marry whom I may,” or “better, run away/ With no Police to follow.” If this poem were written by a child, it would perhaps seem insignificant. Since it was written by a 31 year old woman, though, it must say something about the way the writer felt about the condition of women in 1862.

Accompanying this sense of captivity, perhaps even surpassing it, is a deep sense of loneliness that pervades many of Dickinson’s most famous “love” poems, a loneliness and longing that makes them all the more poignant:

The Loneliness One dare not sound —
And would as soon surmise
As in its Grave go plumbing
To ascertain the size —

The Loneliness whose worst alarm
Is lest itself should see —
And perish from before itself
For just a scrutiny —

The Horror not to be surveyed —
But skirted in the Dark —
With Consciousness suspended —
And Being under Lock —

I fear me this — is Loneliness —
The Maker of the soul
Its Caverns and its Corridors
Illuminate — or seal —

This is the kind of loneliness that threatens to engulf oneself, a loneliness so pervasive that one is afraid to admit it, much less to explore its depths. Like a ghost, or “Horror,” it is best not to confront it directly because you cannot defeat it. It is so powerful that it is “The Maker of the soul,” indeed, the very essence of the narrator.

This kind of pervasive loneliness undermines our very self:

One need not be a Chamber — to be Haunted —
One need not be a House —
The Brain has Corridors — surpassing
Material Place —

Far safer, of a Midnight Meeting
External Ghost
Than its interior Confronting —
That Cooler Host.

Far safer, through an Abbey gallop,
The Stones a’chase —
Than Unarmed, one’s a’self encounter —
In lonesome Place —

Ourself behind ourself, concealed —
Should startle most —
Assassin hid in our Apartment
Be Horror’s least.

The Body — borrows a Revolver —
He bolts the Door —
O’erlooking a superior spectre —
Or More “

How ironical, in a modern sort of way, of course, that it is precisely the “self” that the poet Is confronting in her poetry. The power of the poem comes from confronting one’s self “In lonesome Place.” Who, though, should be more aware of the danger of confronting one’s true self than one who has spent her lifetime confronting her self in her poetry?

I was probably more surprised to discover how Dickinson seems to see death as an escape for life’s pain:

The Heart asks Pleasure — first —
And then — Excuse from Pain —
And then — those little Anodyness
That deaden suffering —

And then — to go to sleep —
And then — if it should be
The will of its Inquisitor
The privilege to die “

How much pain does one have to be in before one asks for “The privilege to die?” Certainly more pain than I’ve suffered so far. Before I read the Collected Poems, I would have thought that the powerful “Because I could not stop for Death” was typical of Dickinson’s attitude towards death. I was a little taken aback to discover that poems like this are just as common as poems where she willingly dies for beauty or truth and calmly accepts death as a natural part of life. On one hand, poems like this make me question her attitude towards death more than I would have done before. On the other hand, I wonder if the creative contemplation of death can somehow lead to a healthier view of life and death. No matter, seeing the more famous poems in light of these poems gives more depth to them and makes think about them more than you otherwise would have.