Is Emily Dickinson a Transcendentalist?

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Is Emily Dickinson a Transcendentalist?

Post  Annie Fu on Fri May 15, 2009 8:05 am

Emily Dickinson was indeed a unique individual. It seems as if in one poem, she sounds very transcendentalist while in another, it seemed more anti-transcendentalist. It could be that I view it so because I misread or misunderstood the meaning behind her poems. On the other hand, she could be displaying the inconsistency of geniuses as explored in Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” essay. Perhaps she felt transcendentalist one day and not the next – perhaps she’s constantly grappling with the two sides, constantly unsure of which way she would lean more towards. Let’s explore her poems a bit more.

In “I Never Saw a Moor,” I would say she was very much a transcendentalist. In the poem, she expresses her not ever having seen the moor or the sea. An author’s every choice in his or her writing will always reflect the author’s personality in some way, because fiction can never be objective. Emily Dickinson chose to deal with things of nature, which is a topic commonly dealt with by the transcendentalists and reflects that trait back on her in some way. She then directs the poem to God and Heaven. She never saw these things before, yet she knows what they look like. That could be a reference to intuition – intuition here would be what allows her to see that, and she puts complete faith in her intuition (as shown by her certainty of the existence of these things as well as what they’re like).

In “Hope is the Thing with Feathers,” she again expresses her transcendentalist views when she said that hope is everywhere, even in the chillest land, even on the strangest sea. Indeed, transcendentalists are very hopeful. The underlying connection between everything, the unlimited human potential, does indeed give people hope in the kind of things that they could do to change the world. This hope is expressed in the poem, and is reflected in Emily Dickinson herself.

Yet in “I Took My Power in My Hand,” a little bit of both sides was portrayed. The act of taking power in my hand parallels the transcendentalist belief that power transcends fate. She spoke of sticking to her individualism instead of conforming with the world, which is yet another transcendentalist act. However, in the second stanza of the poem, she expresses doubt in unlimited human potential, as she was the one that fell when she struck out against the world. This could be her saying that sometimes, one cannot transcend reality.

In “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass,” Emily Dickinson seems to be expressing her view that some entities are just naturally evil (or at least fear-inspiring, like the snake). That would be an anti-transcendentalist viewpoint, as it addresses the evil side of reality that transcendentalists often did not discuss. However, although in “Apparently with No Surprise,” there is a similar feeling of foreboding, as it starts off with a flower being beheaded, it expresses a different point of view. I think it is basically saying that nature goes on; death is but part of nature – it is natural and normal, and life would not pause in its tracks whenever something dies. While on the surface level it may seem indifferent and chilling, I think she is actually just exploring another side of life, as in “Thanaptopsis.”

I would say Emily Dickinson is more of a transcendentalist than an anti-transcendentalist, though it is not very apparent. Many of her poems delve into the exploration of nature and human potential, although some of her poems expresses anti-transcendentalist beliefs. She led a secluded life, which could’ve helped her in her contemplation on life and observations of nature – it would’ve also kept her more secluded and away from the society so that she had less opportunities to exchange ideas with the world. Her beliefs would’ve had much less influence from the society than most other people’s, which could partly be why her ideas constantly changed. She had an intense inner life; much time would’ve been devoted to thinking, and, as if her life were one long freewrite, she constantly explored both beliefs. In her intellectual “debates” with herself (as most of these poems weren’t intended for publishing), she delved into both transcendentalism and anti-transcendentalism. However, in her search for the truth, her self-reliance (because she did not depend on others to set her opinion for her), and her focus on nature, she had a transcendentalist attitude. That is why I would say she leans a bit more towards the transcendentalist side than not.
Annie Fu

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Re: Is Emily Dickinson a Transcendentalist?

Post  Kenny on Sun May 17, 2009 3:18 pm

I'll be honest and say that i didn't read all of that, but I got the gist of it. She does portray values from both sides but I think that these values fluctuated over time rather than manifested in her being all at once. It seems to me that she was more Transcendentalist before her life took that screwy turn in which (this is only from a very cloudy memory so I may be wrong) she lost her lover and had to go through some deaths in the family. Those tragedies hit her and gave her a sort of reality check, and so from then on she started to see the Anti-transcendentalist side of things, she lost the whole optimist view on life and took on realism. At least, that's how I see it.


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