Emily Dickinson's Subversive Voice

An Excerpt from a Research Essay by Randy Wells

....Dickinson's poems to or about Susan are somewhat erotic and could lead to a lesbian interpretation.

Her breast is fit for pearls,
But I was not a 'Diver' -
Her brow is fit for thrones
But I have not a crest.
Her heart is fit for home-
I - a Sparrow - build there
Sweet of twigs and twine
My perennial nest.(Johnson 43)

Emily's poems to Susan suggest an eroticism that could be intentional, subconscious, or coincidental. Calling attention to Dickinson's jewel imagery, with the use of pearls, Susan's breast(s) are fit for pearls that Emily cannot provide. Although she had never seen the sea she claims a correspondence with it (Patterson 88). Dickinson's love poetry "takes other forms: it is anticipatory; it is hypothetical," she can't have pearls because not only is she not a "diver" but she has never been to the sea. The sea could be allegorical to the vagina that Emily has not seen or dived into. She doesn't dive into depths but soars above them on a higher less physical level.

The physical aspect of a potential relationship seems to be removed because the sparrow (Emily) builds in the heart. This could be the act of developing a heart-felt relationship with another person, or the bird nestled in Susan's breast -- the heart being near the center of the breast. The bird metaphor in Dickinson's poetry helps her transcend the limits of imposed societal, physical, and sexual circumferences. The symbol that relates to the bird is the nest, "with the conscious meaning of a loved friend's heart or breast" (Patterson 53). Emily in letters and poems shows her jealousy of Susan's child and "the poet appears to reflect, half jealously, on that earlier nest, the womb" (Patterson 54).

The heterosexual circumference that is expanded by a phallocentric society is flown over or through by these small metaphoric birds. However, Dickinson may take these fights to observe the circumferences that surround her and overcome them with the fight of her giant sometimes hymnal prose. This wonderful bird had white plumage but she was not pure, and her songs of prosody oscillate at a frequency that may perplex the minds of men but warm the heart of Susan.

The fluttering of Dickinson's intellect within her prose doesn't remain "still" as she has tirelessly demonstrated with over seventeen hundred poems. For a refreshing insight these poems could be read as subversive to the will of a male bias and maybe ironic or sarcastic with onion layers of meaning to be peeled away. At the core of Dickinson there may have been a lesbian without physical manifestations, or possible a lustful admirer and secret lover of women. Subversion of male dominated institutes with unorthodox meter and careful metaphor combine with her gender shifting personas form Emily Dickinson into a powerful closet feminist and perhaps lesbian.

Works Cited

Johnson, Thomas H., ed. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. 1960. New York : Little, 1961.

Patterson, Rebecca. Emily Dickinson's Imagery. MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1979.

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