Mary Jo Thomas.

Articulation and the agoraphobic experiences in the poems of Emily Dickinson online

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Copyright 1989

Mary Jo Thomas


I would like to acknowledge the following for granting permission
to reprint previously published material:

Reprinted by permission of the publishers and the Trustees of
Amherst College from The Poems of Emily Dickinson , Thomas H. Johnson,
ed., Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press,
Copyright 1951, (c) 1955, 1979, i983, by the President ana Fellows of
Harvard College.

Poems from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson edited by Thomas
H. Johnson. Copyright 1914, 1929, 1935, 1942 by Martha Dickinson Bianchi;
Copyrignt (c) renewed 1957, 1963 by Mary L. riampson. Published by Little,
Brown and Company. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Reprinted by permission of the publishers from The Letters of
Emiiy Dickinson , Thomas H. Johnson, ed. , Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap
Press of Harvard University Press, Copyright (c) 1958, i986 by the
President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Reprinted by permission of the publishers from Dickinson: The
Modern Idiom by David Porter. Copyright (c) 1981 by Harvard Univer-
sity Press.

Reprinted by permission of the publishers from The Art of Emily
Dickinson's Early Poetry by David Porter. Copyright (c) 1966 by Harvard
University Press.

Reprinted by permission of the publishers from After Great Pain:
The Inner Life of Emily Dickinson by John Cody. Copyright (c) 1971 by
Harvard University Press.

Reprinted by permission of the publishers irom The Years and Hours
of Emily Dickinson by Jay Leyda. Copyright (c) 1960 by Yale University

Reprinced by permission of the publishers from Agoraphobia: A
Clinical and Personal Account by J. Christopher Clarke and Wayne
Wardman. Copyright (c) i985 by Pergamon Press, Australia.

Reprinted by permission of the publishers from The Life of Emily
Dickinson by Richard B. Sewall. Copyright (c) 1974 by Farrar, Straus
and Giroux, Inc.

Reprinted by permission of the publishers from Emily Dickinson's
Poetry by Robert Weisbuch. Copyright (c) 1972, 1975 by the University
of Chicago Press.

Reprinted by permission of the publishers from The Three Voices
of Poetry by T. S. Eliot. Copyright (c) 1954 by Cambridge University

















Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School

of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment oi the

Requirements lor the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy




August i989

Chairman: Donald Justice
Major Department: English

Finding a language in which to utter oneself is the preoccupation
or Emily Dickinson, probably the nineteenth century's most famous agora-
phobic. At the center of Dickinson's agoraphobic world is the panic
episode which includes che spontaneous feeimg of change in both the
inner world and the outer world: depersonalization and derealization.
Although overwhelming, involving strong and even hyperbolic cognitive re-
sponses, the panic evades articulation. The agoraphobic ambiguously com-
plains of strange, uncertain perceptions and unstable environments. Un-
aoie to identify the experience, the agoraphobic fears a break with reality
and a complete loss of control: madness. Most distressing, however, is
the proiound aesire to share the experience without the ability to exe-
cute articulation.

The extraordinary circumstance of agoraphobia is reflected in Dickin-
son' s use of language and metaphor. Metaphor seems to allow Dickinson
the control only vaguely realized in her real life. This need for con-
trol is specifically addressed in Dickinson's language of geometry, par-

ticularly the poems that use the home or house image or metaphor.
Dickinson often attempts with such metaphors to reduce the environ-
ment to exact, dependable, but often abstract formulas or traces. This
reduction suggests the agoraphobic need tor a predictable, even for-
mulated, environment.

The selection and use of words in a specific group of Dickinson's
poems suggest the agoraphobic need for freedom as well as control. Two
kinds ox diction, or treatments of dictions, distinguish the two needs.
The styles are informed by the sometimes incompatible orientations or
the agoraphobic lifestyle. Eacn of the two viewpoints, one obsessed
with control and one with freedom, uses a dominant motir. The death
metaphor responds to the need for control, and the subjective, or "mad-
ness," metaphor responds to the need for freedom.

Ultimately, Dickinson acknowledges that the extreme subjectivity of
the agoraphobic condition, particularly the panic episode, resists ob-
jective meaning. Articulation breaks down; Dickinson concentrates upon
conveyance of the limitations of language to deal with certain profound
but personal experiences. Rather than "correct" the unreal reality of
her phobic experience, rather than make it fit within a rational system
of expression, Dickinson attempts to represent the sense of detachment
that results when language interferes with the chaos of the phobic ex-




A doctor who practiced medicine in Boston in the late nine-
teenth century encouraged one of her many patients with neurasthenic
disorders to be "f rank— utter yourself in confidence and trust, so we
shall be one in exploring your case." The perplexed woman is reported
to have said: "Doctor, I know no language in which to utter myself."

The problem of articulation, of finding the "language in which to
utter (oneself j," is crucial to the neurasthenic, especially the agora-
phobic, experience. At the center of the agoraphobic world is the panic
episode which includes the sudden, seemingly spontaneous reeling or
change in both the inner world and the outer world (depersonalization
and derealization), involving strong and even hyperbolic cognitive
responses, the panic is, nonetheless, oniy vaguely expressible. The
subjective changes are difficult to describe:

The feeling is like no other. There is a readiness to get
away, but the object of that feeling is often not apparent.
It is as though something dreadful is about to happen, iike
sitting on a volcano. Although popularly described as the
"flight or right" reaction, anxiety in the agoraphobic sense
is more than that. The physiological components are similar
but the inner tensions are much greater because the "out of
the blue" panic attacks have no obvious cause .2

Unable to identify this ambiguous experience, the agoraphobic often
win complain or uncertain, strange, or surreal, perceptions. The
sufferer fears a break with reality and a complete loss of control

which he may label as madness. The lear results in the obsessive avoid-
ance of or 1 light from any situation considered by the agoraphobic to
be panic-provoking. Most distressing for the sufferer, however, is the
profound desire to share the experience without the ability to effect
articulation. Even though the phobic individual knows the panic in-
timately, it remains verbally inaccessible. Although our Boston prac-
titioner assumes an availability of language, her patient's response
suggests an experience that is resistant to language. The woman can-
not find words with which to discuss her situation.

Finding a language in which to utter oneself is a preoccupation
of the poet Emily Dicxinson, probably the nineteenth century's most
famous agoraphobic. Dickinson's agoraphobia is evidenced in a letter
she wrote to her friend Susan Gilbert; in it she attempts to describe
what is, almost certainly, a panic episode:

I'm just from meeting, Susie, and as I sorely feared,
my life was made a "victim." i walked — 1 ran — [ turned
precarious corners — One moment I was not — then soared aloft
like a Phoenix, soon as the toe was by — and then anticipat-
ing an enemy again, my soiled and drooping plumage might
have been seen emerging from just behind a fence, vainly
endeavoring to fly once more from hence.... 1 smiled to
think of me and my geometry, during the journey there — it
would have puzzied Euclid, and it's doubtful result, have
solemnized a Day.

[And j there I sat, and sighed, and wondered [why] l was
scared so, for surely in the whole world was nothing I need
to fear — Yet there the Phantom was, and though I Kept re-
solving to be as brave as Turks, and bold as Polar Bears,
it did'nt help me any. After the opening prayer, I ventured
to turn around. Mr Carter immediately looked at me — Mr
Sweetser attempted to do so, but 1 discovered nothing , up
in the sky somewhere, and gazed intently at it, for quite
a hali an hour. During the exercises I became more calm,
and was able to get out of church quite comfortably. Several
soared around me, and, sought to devour me, but I fell an
easy prey to Miss Lovina Dickinson, being too exhausted to
make any further resistance then. She entertained me with
much sprightly remark, until at last our gate

was reached, ana I need'nt tell you Susie, just how I
clutchea the latch, and whirled the merry key, and fairly
danceci ior joy, to find myself at home !

A century after Dickinson's experience, a diagnosed agoraphobic
attempts to give her description of a similar panic attack:

I was inside a very big shopping precinct and all of a sudden,
it happended: in a matter oi seconds, I was like a mad woman,
it was like a nightmare, only I was awake.... I felt as if I
were going to collapse; it was as if 1 had no control over my
limbs; I felt as though it were impossible to move. It was
as if I had been taken over by some stronger rorce. I saw
all the people looking at me — just faces, no bodies, ail
merged into one. I could hear the voices oi the people but
from a long way off. I could not think of anything except
the way 1 was feeling and that I had to get out and run quick-
ly or 1 would die. Outside it subsided a little, it leaves
you with a hopeless leeiing because you know it will happen ,
again and again. I was absolutely drained when i got home....

ii differences in time and place are disregarded, the accounts oi
the two subjects show several similarities: anticipatory anxiety; physi-
cal exhaustion; an exaggerated sensitivity to peopie ; a feeling of being
watched (observed); ana a sense of entrapment, victimization, or hope-
lessness. Both women seem to be experiencing essentially similar episodes.

More significant, however, are the differences of narration in which
the episodes are couched. Using allusions, hyperboies, and metaphors,
Dickinson's account is the more figurative of the two. As the poet re-
ports it, her experience is nearly epic: she sees herself as the Phoenix-
iike victim of a pursuing Phantom. The Phoenix image implies a recur-
rence of the episode; our second agoraphobic teiis us simpiy "it will
happen again aao dgain." The second woman feels "ail the peopie [are]
looking" at ner and their faces merge into one face; Dickinson's crowd
"roars" and threatens to "devour." The poet's difficult waik involves

her as the Phoenix soaring and then hiding from its enemy; our modern
subject reels she has iost control of her legs and cannot easily move
away from her problem. Dickinson's "Phantom," I believe, impresses
us as a more accessible foe than "some stronger force." She ascribes
to her experience adversarial characteristics which animate, if not
personny, the oppressive feeling. The comparison ot tne two accounts
is not given as proof of Dickinson's agoraphobia: if agoraphobic behavior
(extreme anxiety, panic, withdrawal) defines one as an agoraphobic, then
Dickinson must be identified as such. Whatever eise the tacts or her
life prove or disprove, they strongly suggest a phobic personality.

I wouid rather hope that the comparison of the two accounts might
demonstrate something of Emily Dickinson's genius: in ner metaphors,
the inexpressible moment is given an utterance. Although both experi-
ences remain ambiguous (in its own way, "Phantom" is probably no less
illusory than "some stronger force"), Dickinson's metaphor does involve
containment and location of the experience within a Rind of body. An
immaterial semblance of what remains abstract, incorporeal, or even
unreal, "Phantom" provides the perfect representation for the ambiguous
situation. "Force," on the other hand, remains nearly abstract; it
has no representational body that might carry it or express it (or
allow it to be avoided or escaped from).

Additionally, the comparison might suggest different points of
view. Dickinson's Phoenix, her metaphoric self, soars in and out
(ana above) the situation. Escape and avoidance are associated with
flight: "soon as the foe was by," she "soared aloft iiice Phoenix."
Unlike the second woman, Dickinson creates for herself an imaginative


perspective above the experience. The position perhaps aiiows control
that can be realized only metaphorically. Because Dickinson's proDlem
is contained, nearly personified in the "Phantom" and "foe," control
seems possible, imaginable. In metaphor the relationship between trie
experience and the experiencer is manageable, even alterable: the episode
no longer need overwhelm and surround. The poet need not remain at the
center of the experience as if she had "been taken over oy some stronger
rorce." Both despair and hope are manifested in the Phoenix image. The
women share a terror, but the poet seems also satisfied that she can
rebound from each setback. Despite the circuitous geometry of her route,
which she amusingly insists "would have puzzled Euclid," Dickinson con-
tinues. She heroically defies the limitations which the "Phantom's"
appearance imposes upon her environment.

Language, too, has certain limitations which DicKinson's poems
curiously and often inexplicably transcend. Although treated with
familiarity, her metaphors, as we shall see, are difficult to compre-
hend. Many of her poems simply refuse to relax a Dasic insistence
upon abstruseness. So much a part of tne Dickinson style, the ambiguous
metaphor reflects, I believe, strategies closely related to the poet's

David Porter is one of tne few readers who have considered the
connection between style and withdrawal in Dickinson's work, in Dickin -
son: The Modern Idiom , Porter speaks of the idiosyncratic style that
results from the lack of an "informing design" in many of the poems:

[Dickinson J withdrew in all tne physical ways with which we
are familiar, and we must at long last consider what the
effect was on her poems.... The lack of architecture is a
consequence of a linguistic reflexiveness, and both are part
of the harsh artistic freedom that opens up when reality and
language undergo a separation.

[Her language] detached itself from the authority of
experience and [became], in its cramped form and selectionai
daring, self-regarding and hyperbolic. 5

Unlike Porter, 1 associate the separation of Dickinson's language
from the "authority of experience" specifically with an agoraphobic
management of conflict. Her withdrawal and her styie, 1 believe, do
not have a causal relationship, though both are influenced, perhaps
even determined, by the poet's agoraphobic demands. The Dickinson
metaphor suggests concealment of ideas and experiences, of conflicts,
that cannot be faced directly. Identification of "things so terrible"
is avoided repeatedly in much of her work.

As in many of the poems, the occasion of "The first Day's Night
had Come" (J. 410) remains ambiguous:

The first Day's Night had come —
And grateful that a thing
So terrible — had been endured —
I told ray Soul to sing —

She said her Strings were snapt —
Her Bow — to Atoms blown —
And so to mend her — gave me work
Until another Morn —

And then — a Day as huge
As Yesterdays in pairs,
Unrolled it's horror in my face —
Until it blocked my eyes —

My Brain — begun to laugh —

I mumbled — like a fool —

And tho' 'tis Years ago — that Day -

My Brain keeps giggling — still.

And Somethings' odd — within —
That person that I was —
And this One — do not feel the same-
Couid it be Madness — this?

indifferent to the identity of the horror and yet expressive of its
essence, the metapnor of the poem provides a kind of masking. We learn,

however, about the intensity, the explosiveness, of the experience:
it has damaged the soui, snapped its sensitive strings, and blown its
dow to atoms. Instead of lingering over the experience, the narrator,
who has survived despite the damage, seems more concerned with regaining
control and avoiding the probable recurrence of the episode. In the
metaphor or the poem, the narrator cleverly evades direct confrontation.
Continuously she connects the horror to the light and to seeing. Avoid-
ance (escape) is, therefore, accomplished in predictable darkness or
blindness. Even as the poem begins, night already has provided a grate-
ful refuge from the unidentified horror. Again in the second and third
stanzas, morning ushers in a day that carries the experience. The "thing
so terrible" then unfurls itself in the narrator's face until it blocks
her view.

As it happens, the horror will move no further into the poem than
this, no closer to the narrator. The poem continues in the present tense:
"And tho' 'tis Years ago — that Day...." In metaphor the experience has
been stopped and controlled but neither identified nor seen. Ironically,
the horror itself has been infused with the darkness (the inevitable
blocking of sight) into which the narrator can escape. In her life,
as we shaii see, DicKinson often gains a kind of control by refusing
co face experience directly. In her poems and metaphors, fears which
cannot be confronted often become these unimaginable, these blinding

Dickinson discovered in metaphor an utterance that would seem
completely compatible with her phobic demands. Indeed, agoraphobia
might be regarded as the equivalent of an "informing design" otherwise,
according to Porter, missing from her work. Scholarship that would
consider agorpahooia an interesting but purely biographical footnote


to Dickinson's work tails to understand the pervasive influence of
tne disorder in the life of its victim. We know that Dickinson's
obsessive need for privacy restricted her socially; the obsession
dominated her intellectual and creative activities as weii. She seems
i:o have focused her energies into those areas ox her iife over which
she leit most confident of control: her home and family, a selected
society of friends, and, most successfully, her writing of poems
and letters. (We might acknowledge the significance of Dickinson's
exaggeration when she writes to Thomas Higgmson: "My Lexicon — was my
only companion"). Agoraphobia must be regarded as a serious handicap
lor her; it provided, however, a kind oi structure for her life. The
practical, philosophical, and aesthetic concerns or her work reflect
this structure. Furthermore, the precision and control associated with
Dickinson's metaphors are demonstrated not only in her verse but also in
a kind of metaphoric involvement with and control over the world in
which she lives.

Dickinson recognizes and credits metaphor as the area in which
she can establish the most control. In a Valentine letter anonymously
submitted to The Indicator , an Amherst College student publication,
Dickinson whimsically demonstrates her faith in metaphor:

Sir, I desire an interview; meet me at sunrise, or sunset,
or the new moon — the place is immaterial. In gold, or in
purple, or in sacKclotn — 1 look not upon the raiment . With
sword, or with pen, or with plough — the weapons are less than
wielder . In coach, or in wagon, or walking, the equipage far
from the man. . . .

And not to see merely, but a chat, sir, or a tete-a-tete,
a confab, a mingling of ODDOSite minds is what I propose to
have. We will be David and Jonathan, or Damon and Pythias,
or what is better than either, the united States of America.
We will talk over what we have learned from the pulpit, the
press and the Sabbath School.

This is strong language, but none the less true....

Our friendship, sir, shaii endure tiii sun and moon shall
wane no more, till stars shall set, and victims rise to grace
the final sacrifice. Vie' 11 be instant, in season, out of sea-
son, minister, take care of, cherish, sooth, watch, wait, doubt,
refrain, reform, elevate, instruct. All choice spirits however
distant are ours, ours theirs; there is a thrill of sympathy — a
circulation of mutuality — cognationem inter nos! I am Judith
the heroine of the Apocrypha, and you the orator of Ephesus.

That's what they call a metaphor in our country. Don't
be afraid 01 it, sir, it won't bite.°

She continues by contrasting metaphor and her dog, Carlo ("the
noblest work of Art"). Unlike metaphor, she insists, Carlo would de-
fend his "mistress's rights to his end." The author, of course, engages
in playful understatement, for metaphor proves an extremely faithful
companion to Dickinson. In fact, the letter suggests the poet recognizes
the mastery she has in metaphor. The equipage , the raiment are relatively
unimportant. "With sword, or with pen, or with plough," the wieider is
far more significant, she insists, than the weapon.

Dickinson's attraction to equipage, to disguises and anonymity,
to metaphor and "all the truth Uoldj slant," is revealed also in those
rare but dramatic encounters with individuals over whom she had no control.
The careful selection 01 poses often afforded Dickinson as extraordinary
a control in personal relationships as her metaphor achieved in language.
Too few encounters with the poet are recorded. Of these rare meetings,
certainly the visit paid Dickinson by Thomas H. Higginson on August 16,
i870, allows us the greatest penetration of her disguise. Fortunately,
the experience was intense enough for Higginson that he chose to share
it immediately in a letter to his wife. The night following his visit,
he wrote of his impressions of the poet:

A step like a pattering child's in entry and in glided
a little plain woman with two smooth bands of reddish hair
and a face a little like Bell Dove's; not plainer — with no


good feature — in a very plain and exquisitely clean white
pique ana a blue net worsted shawl. She came to me with
two day lilies wmch she put in a sort of childlike way into
ray nana and said "These are my introduction" in a soft fright-
ened breathless childlike voice— and added under her breath
Forgive me if I am rrightened; i never see strangers and
hardiy know what to say — but she talked soon and thencefor-
ward continuously and deferentially — sometimes stopping to
ask me to talk instead of her — but readily recommencing. Man-
ner between Angle Til ton and Mr. Alcott— but thoroughly in-
genuous and simple which they are not and saying many things
which you would have thought foolish and 1 wise. . . .9

The poet's fear is unquestionably genuine. 3y 1870, she was re-
ceiving lew visitors; meeting Higginson, a man she greatly respected,
was very difficult. The sincerity of the cnildiike pose (Dickinson
was nearly forty years old at the time) might be questioned. Ihe effect
of the pose is calculable: Higginson is convinced of the poet's simple
wisdom, her ingenuousness, even perhaps of her helplessness. The in-
nocent pose is one Dickinson would frequently use. Seven years later,
the impressions of Clara Bellinger Green, another visitor, will concur
with Higginson's. Dickinson, Green win write, "spoke rapidly, with

the breathless voice of a child ana with a peculiar cnarm j She was |

quaint, simple as a cmld and wholly unaffected."

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Online LibraryMary Jo ThomasArticulation and the agoraphobic experiences in the poems of Emily Dickinson → online text (page 1 of 13)