9 May 2017

The Poetry of Emily Dickinson:
Metaphor and its Philosophical Mysteries

Professor Belinda Jack

This is my last lecture – the twenty-fourth - as Gresham Professor of Rhetoric. It has been a great privilege to hold this position and I have found the college and ‘my’ public (if I can put it that way) to be immensely loyal, interesting and encouraging. So my thanks to you – and to everyone who works at Gresham, particularly the Provost, Sir Richard Evans and Dr Valerie Shrimplin, the Academic Registrar.

We’ve been listening to Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 ('Jupiter') in C major. Dickinson was a great lover of music, Mozart’s in particular.

In my first three years, my lectures were on ‘The Mysteries of Reading and Writing’. Reading is a complex activity and its history is remarkable. I also wanted to emphasise genres and to consider how writers explore different areas of human experience in ways which are intimately associated with the genre in which they choose to write whether it be poetry, drama, or the novel. As readers we engage very differently with different genres.

This year my overall title has been ‘Rhetoric and Life of Literature’. I’ve explored various rhetorical tropes – or figures of speech – in relation to a number of major and favourite authors.

Rhetoric makes sense of how we use language, how we communicate successfully and persuasively. Figures of speech – personification, irony, simile, metaphor and so on describe the workings of language and explain – to some extent – how creative language, creative writing, has its effect on us – how it moves us, seduces us, enlightens us and so on. But it has its limits. Or rather, in the hands of great writers the rhetorical trope, the figure of speech, is used in ways which are no wholly and completely consonant with the trope’s definition. Creative writers tweak the figure of speech; they use it subversively; they exploit its ambiguities and creativities. Recognising rhetorical tropes helps us to identify how literary works make their effects. But they have their limitations.

Tonight I have chosen to explore perhaps the most problematic of all rhetorical terms – metaphor. It’s a figure of speech that has long troubled anyone who has made the mistake of thinking about it too much! It is conventional to speak of a metaphor’s ‘tenor’ and ‘vehicle’, as I mentioned in my last lecture on simile. The ‘vehicle’ generally assists us in understanding the nature of the ‘tenor’. I’ll give an example in a moment.

Analytical philosophers, theologians, linguisticians, and literary critics, have all written about metaphor and even within each of these intellectual disciplines there is little or no consensus as to what it is, exactly.

The etymology of the word is relatively straightforward. It comes from the Greek, via Latin – ‘to bear or carry across’. As a linguistic and literary term, metaphora denotes the transfer of a word to a new sense, and, in particular, the transfer of a name from an object where its use is commonplace to an object where it is unusual. The same term is used for both the process of transference and the name transferred.

An anonymous poem used to be used as a pedagogical tool when explaining metaphor:

The steed bit his master

How came this to pass?

He heard the good pastor

Cry, “All flesh is grass.”

‘Flesh’ is the tenor, ‘grass’ is the vehicle.

So metaphor is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable – here flesh and grass.

So why do we need metaphor, and why is metaphor so common in our use of language, poetic language in particular?

In a famous passage from his Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein explores a limitation of language:

‘Describe the aroma of coffee. Why can’t it be done? Do we lack the words? And for what are words lacking? But how do we get the idea that such a description must after all be possible? Have you ever felt the lack of such a description? Have you tried to describe the aroma of coffee and not succeeded?’

Wittgenstein never wrote an extended treatise on metaphor but he uses metaphor to great effect in his writings. For example, in his 1921 work, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, he states that although his propositions are at some

level incorrect, they can nevertheless be used like steps on a ladder to help one reach a higher level of understanding.

He also observed that words have what he called ‘rough edges’. Even what we consider to be ‘literal’ language is rarely straightforward. He believed in the reliability of metaphor as a vehicle for truth, despite the inevitability of certain ‘raggedness’ along the edges of words. And one way in which he tried to sand the edges of words, so to speak, was by means of language games. And these are akin, it seems to me, to Emily Dickinson’s riddles which I’ll come to in a moment.

Metaphor has various sub-categories.

Take ‘mixed metaphor’. I remember my sons, when quite young, insisting that the dining table could be moved into a larger room for the purposes of table tennis. I rather doubted that the table would fit through the door but was carried along by their enthusiasm. They managed to get the table stuck – well and truly – in the door frame and I remember Jamie declaring, ‘now we’re really up a gum tree – without a paddle’!

There is a wonderful comic absurdity about mixed metaphors.

Then there is ‘dead metaphor’. What do we mean by it?

A dead metaphor is a figure of speech which has lost its original meaning (or imagery), due to over-use. Because dead metaphors have a conventional meaning which is distinct from the original, they can be understood without knowing their earlier meaning and connotations. Dead metaphors are generally the result of a change in the evolution of a language, sometimes called the literalization of metaphor. Linguists sometimes distinguish between dead metaphors whose origins are unknown to most users (like the idiom ‘to kick the bucket’), and those whose source is widely known or whose symbolism is easily understood even if it isn’t often considered, the idea of ‘falling in love’, for example (based on the definition @ Wikipedia.org).

There is some debate among scholars as to whether so-called ‘dead metaphors’ are dead or are metaphors. R.W. Gibbs noted that for a metaphor to be dead, it would necessarily have lost the metaphorical meaning(s) that it comprises. These qualities, however, still remain. A person can understand the expression ‘falling head-over-heels in love’ even if they have never encountered that particular version of the common phrase ‘to fall in love’. The British-American analytic philosopher, Max Black, argued that the dead metaphor should not be considered a metaphor at all, but rather classified as a separate item of vocabulary.

So a dead metaphor is one in which the sense of a transferred image no longer strikes us. It is closely related to cliché where, again, the meaning of the constituent words passes us by.

Here are some examples: ‘to grasp a concept’; ‘to gather what you've understood’. These expressions use a physical action – ‘grasp’, ‘gather’ - as a metaphor for understanding. The listener or reader doesn’t need to visualize the action; we tend not to be aware of dead metaphors.

C.S.Lewis worried about the hi-jacking of words with specific and important meanings to express approval or disapproval. It’s a linguistic trend that shows no signs of abating. I’m thinking of ‘wicked’, ‘evil’, ‘awesome’, ‘epic’, and so on.

Metaphor is as old as language itself. Metaphors occur in the Epic of Gilgamesh, often regarded as the earliest surviving great work of literature (written c. 2150-1400 BCE).

It’s a vast, complex and fascinating subject. Some think it so various and unstable that there is no point thinking about it at all. And this is rather my position!

Because in the work of a poet like Emily Dickinson, metaphor reaches an absolute limit, even a breaking point. So this evening we’ll be reading some of Emily Dickinson’s wonderful poems with particular attention to what we might, at least at first sight, call metaphor.

Dickinson led a famously reclusive life – although not as reclusive as the Dickinson myth suggests. (For a brief up-to-date biography see the Dickinson website and website of the the Academy of American poets from which my account is taken. The websites draw on the authoritative biography by Richard Sewall, Harvard, 1972). Her biography is – it is true – relatively devoid of movement and event in the literal, physical sense. She was born on December 10, 1830, in Amherst, Massachusetts. [1] ] It was an academic, agricultural, and manufacturing town.

She attended Amherst Academy from 1840-1847. [2] The school lacked resources. During Dickinson’s years at the school, most of the teachers and even the heads were recent graduates of Amherst College or various female seminaries, and in general they taught for a year or less. But they were young and intellectually keen, and Dickinson wrote of them with warmth.

For a year she was a pupil at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley. [3,4] She then returned home and stayed at home for virtually her whole life. And there were few visitors. But the small number of people whom she did meet were a huge influence on her poetry. The Reverend Charles Wadsworth, [5] whom she met on a rare trip - to Philadelphia - was a particular source of inspiration. In 1860, after he had visited Dickinson at home, on his way to the West Coast, she composed a number of poems which describe feelings of lost love. While it is clear that he was a key figure in her life, it’s uncertain as to whether their relationship was a romantic one.

By the 1860s, Dickinson lived in almost total isolation from everyone barring her family. But given her extensive reading and frequent correspondence with a wide circle of friends, she was far from cut off intellectually. Her social contact was with her immediate - and extended – family. Conversations were varied and lively. Her father, Edward Dickinson, was involved in both local and national politics, and served for a term in Congress. Equally important to her were her brother, Austin, and his wife, Susan Gilbert. Austin had studied law and became an attorney. Lavinia, Dickinson’s younger sister, also lived at home throughout her life. Both siblings were important to Dickinson not just emotionally, but intellectually too.

Dickinson’s poetry was heavily influenced by the seventeenth-century Metaphysical poets and by the Bible and Shakespeare. In fact she believed that to be a poet in the English language all that really mattered was a thorough knowledge of the King James Bible and Shakespeare which gives us hope for those cast away on Desert Island Discs!

The other significant influences on her poetry were those associated with an upbringing in a Puritan New England town where a Calvinist, orthodox and highly conservative approach to Christianity was promulgated.

She admired the poetry of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, as well as John Keats and although she was dissuaded from reading the poetry of her contemporary Walt Whitman [6] – it was considered ‘disgraceful’ - the two poets are now connected by the distinguished place they hold as the co-founders of a uniquely American poetic voice. While Dickinson was extremely prolific as a poet and regularly enclosed poems in letters to friends, she was not, unlike Whitman, publicly recognized during her lifetime. The first volume of her work was published posthumously in 1890 and the last in 1955. She died in Amherst in 1886. [7]

And it was only after her death that her family discovered the extent of her writings. They found forty hand bound volumes of nearly 1,800 poems, or ‘fascicles’[8,9] as they are sometimes called. Dickinson had made these little booklets by folding and sewing five or six sheets of paper and copying what are assumed to be the final versions of poems. The handwritten poems show a variety of dash-like marks of various sizes and directions (some are even vertical) and an unconventional use of capital letters. The poems were initially unbound and published according to the aesthetics of her many early editors, who removed her unusual and varied punctuation, replacing them with traditional punctuation. The original order of the poems wasn’t re-established until 1981. The Dickinson scholar Ralph W. Franklin used the physical evidence of the paper to work out the original order using smudge marks, needle punctures, and other clues. But since then, some critics have argued that there is a thematic unity in the original small collections.  Reading the poems chronologically may not have been what Dickinson would have wanted.

So now to the poetry – and how metaphor is exploited – or subverted.

Dickinson’s subjects – in so far as the poems can be said to have a ‘subject’ are relatively conventional – love, loss, death, eroticism, nature – its beauty, its mysteries – fear, pain, faith or faithlessness, the workings of the mind, and above all, language itself. But if these subjects are conventional, her tone is much less so – irreverent, flirtatious, witty, violent, philosophical, teasing, tragic, disturbing; the list could include as many adjectives as the number of poems she wrote.

Dickinson didn’t give her poems titles, no doubt because a title prejudices, in some sense, how the poem will be understood. As I mentioned earlier there is often something of the riddle about her poems (not unlike Wittgenstein’s word games) and a title would give the riddle away. So let’s start with ‘The Lightning is a yellow fork’ of 1867.[10,11]

The Lightning is a yellow Fork

From Tables in the sky

By inadvertent fingers dropt

The awful Cutlery

Of mansions never quite disclosed

And never quite concealed

The Apparatus of the Dark

To ignorance revealed.

‘The Lightning is a yellow fork’; syntactically this might be metaphor. We don’t read that the lightning is like a yellow fork – this would be simile; rather the lightning is a yellow fork.

But we speak of ‘forked lightning’; this is dead metaphor – at best - as the expression has come into the language, like a ‘fork’ in the road, or a ‘forked tongue’.

Lightning and fork can, therefore, be regarded as synonymous – but only temporarily. So this isn’t really metaphor. It is a form of repetition. The subsequent lines, however, require us to re-consider. The ‘Fork’ has been ‘dropt’ from a table and is then re-described as ‘Cutlery’.

The adjective ‘awful’, introduces a note of malice. The ‘awful’ quality is not consistent with a mundane item of domestic life. Lightning can, of course, be illuminating – it has the potential briefly to lighten the ‘Dark’. A domestic fork is in no way illuminating.

And who was sitting at the table and ‘dropped’ the yellow fork? The origin or deliverer of lightning? Some omnipotent force? Despite the ‘enlightening’ power of lightning nothing is ‘quite disclosed’; nor on the other hand ‘quite concealed’. The mysterious ‘apparatus of the dark’ is ‘revealed’, but only to ‘ignorance’.

Dickinson often remains mysteriously teasing. And one reason for this is that her metaphors, here likening the lightning to a ‘fork’ hovers uneasily between metaphor and a literal comparison. And this is where we might discover Dickinson’s real subject – language. The dead metaphor, ‘forked lightning’ is revivified. The excitement of the comparison of the prongs of a form with the dazzling prongs of light of lightning comes back to life. And the fingers, in line three, further strengthen the visual images – fingers rather like the ‘prongs’ of a fork, or lightning. The strangeness of language is also forcefully impressed on us. And perhaps we want to know more about lightning. At least I did.

The average lightning bolt measures only an inch wide. This is more or less the width of a fork. The average lightning bolt measures about five miles long. The power – and danger – of lightning is forcefully impressed on us. It may seem distant and alienated from us but almost every day someone in the world is struck by lightning.

Now, the vocabulary in the poem ranges from the familiar and domestic – fingers, fork, cutlery, table, mansion, to the disconcerting and uncertain: lightning, inadvertent, dropt, awful, never quite disclosed, never quite concealed, Apparatus of the Dark, To ignorance revealed.

‘Lightning’ turns out not to be the poem’s central revelatory ‘apparatus’, but the metaphorical structure of ‘The lightning is a Fork’ which allows for the appeal to ‘Dark mansions’ that are neither wholly revealed nor wholly concealed’. What the poem reveals remains paradoxical by virtue of the unstable status of the opening metaphor.

I don’t want to paraphrase the poem because the point is that it can’t be.

"The more you look at Emily Dickinson's work, the more you come to appreciate the stature of her poetry," declared Archibald MacLeish in (1959). And his famous poem ‘Ars Poetica’ must surely have been influenced by his reading of her poetry:

A poem should be equal to:

Not true.

For all the history of grief

An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love

The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—

A poem should not mean

But be.

The epigrammatic quality of MacLeish’s poetry, its movement from the abstract to the concrete, ‘grief’ to ‘doorway’, its tone, alluding to the riddle, ‘A poem should be equal to: Not true’, at the same time as Romantic, likening love to ‘leaning grasses’ and ‘two lights above the sea’, and philosophising, ‘A poem should not mean/ But be.’ Is all reminiscent of Dickinson.

We could all write a recognisable paraphrase of ‘The Lightning is a yellow Fork’ but each would be different. This is in part because metaphors are not dead or alive; they may be moribund – they may be brought back to life! One of the wonderful things about learning a language other than our mother tongue is that it takes some time to encounter ‘dead’ metaphors. On first reading, ‘On the AutoRoute between Paris and Lyon there are often bouchons’, one can be amused by the idea that in France, famous for its wine-drinking, one will encounter a good many wine corks on the road between Paris and Lyon. A ‘bouchon’ being, of course, a metaphor for a traffic jam. But the French wouldn’t get the joke!

Modern theorists insist on the importance of metaphor’s ‘retention of differences’. The expression is Paul Ricoeur’s. Metaphor, he writes, ‘arrests resolution’.

Dickinson’s use of metaphor exploits the ‘unresolved difference’ theorised by Ricoeur, decades after Dickinson’s death. Dickinson’s use of the trope is very different from her contemporaries – Ralph Waldo Emerson, Elizabeth Peabody, Rowland G. Hazard, for example.

Emerson argued, in Nature (1836) that the natural world imparts spiritual meaning and metaphorical language unifies the link between nature and the spirit. Dickinson’s use of metaphor sets her apart from her 19th century romantic contemporaries. While they sought to confer an epistemological role on metaphor, a revelatory role, Dickinson exploited the unresolved differences allowed by the trope. In ‘The Lightning is a yellow Fork’, the poem explores the tension between the two parts of the metaphor – vehicle and tenor – rather than using metaphor to conjure a third, divine force.

Something equally exciting goes on in her poem, ‘The lilac is an ancient shrub’[13,14],

The Lilac is an ancient shrub
But ancienter than that
The Firmamental Lilac
Upon the Hill tonight—
The Sun subsiding on his Course
Bequeaths this final Plant
To Contemplation—not to Touch—
The Flower of Occident.
Of one Corolla is the West—
The Calyx is the Earth—
The Capsules burnished Seeds the Stars
The Scientist of Faith
His research has but just begun—
Above his synthesis
The Flora unimpeachable
To Time's Analysis—
"Eye hath not seen" may possibly
Be current with the Blind
But let not Revelation
By theses be detained—

Here two material objects are brought into relationship – the lilac and the sunset, ‘the flower and the Occident’. The materiality of the two is, however, very different. One is tangible, and can be seen, smelt, held in the hand. The other is an effect of light – distant, ever-changing, mysterious. And the ‘Occident’ is conceptual rather than material. Is this a poem about spiritual ‘revelation’, about ‘immortality’? The approach is empirical, based on ‘contemplation’ .

The poem explores ideas of longevity; the ‘firmamental lilac’ is ancienter than the lilac. The ‘dying sun’ suggests both the mortal lifespan but underlies that the sunset outlives it; the sunset’s death is part of a continuing cycle.

As Michelle Kohler points out (in ‘The Apparatus of the dark’, 19th c History (June 2012), pp. 58-86 (p.72), the lilac-sunset metaphor allows for an appeal to three different temporal structures – ‘epochal history, a mortal lifespan, and a plant’s (seasonal) life cycle’.

The conclusion alludes to both the biblical –‘Revelation’ and the scientific (‘theses’). But the assertions remain abstract; no revelation occurs.

We are not given a straightforward metaphor, ‘the sunset is immortality’, any more than we read that the ‘lightning is divine power’ (in ‘The lightning is a yellow fork’). Rather these poems hint at the idea that metaphor can be revelatory because the two-part structure prevents conceptual resolution or any transcendent claims to truth.

This poem opens straightforwardly, suggesting that it is another of Dickinson’s flower poems. The syntax is simple, unpoetic. The ‘turn’ – the point where the poem moves suddenly in a different direction and essential to the structure of so many of Dickinson’s poems, comes early - in the second line: ‘But ancienter than that / The Firmamental Lilac.’ The ‘firmament’ is a relatively old-fashioned word, common in the King-James-Bible.  Genesis 1, the Creation Story begins: ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth’, and a little later, ‘And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.… And God called the firmament Heaven’. In Dickinson’s poem the ‘Sun subsiding on his Course’ indicates that the day is dying, leaving a last inheritance, ‘the Flower of Occident’, the flower of the west. In contrast to the ancient shrub of the opening line, this ‘plant’ is no longer tangible. All that can be done is to ‘contemplate’ it. The following stanza enacts the meditation which is based on an exploration of the key metaphor of the first stanza: lilac = sunset. Technical botanical terms are used: the corolla is the collective term for the petals of a flower that form a ring around the reproductive organs and which are encircled by an outer ring of sepals. The calyx is the group of sepals, usually green, around the outside of the flower that protects the bud. The capsule is the fruit containing the seeds which are released when the flower matures. When a lilac’s flowers fade they turn into brown seed pods.   As Susan VanZanten writes (‘Mending a Tattered Faith: Devotions with Dickinson’, ed. Clayton J. Schmit and J. Frederick Davison, Art for Faith’s Sake, 2011 (pp.71–72) : In the sunset, the pinks and lavenders of the western sky are the petals, the green earth the calyx, and the glowing evening stars that gradually emerge are the burnished (shimmering) seeds, as the dying sun gives birth to other distant suns. She then mocks herself, a ‘Scientist of Faith’, intent on ‘research’, on ‘Synthesis’ and ‘Analysis.’ But this approach doesn’t bode well. It has only ‘just begun’, and the ‘Flora’ is ‘unimpeachable’, that is not able to be doubted, questioned or criticised.

Trying to make sense of the metaphor will fail; so too will a scientific explanation of flowers or sunsets. The extraordinary beauty can only be apprehended for real.

Line 17 is a quotation from Corinthians 2:9,’Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.’ But the voice of the poet questions this, arguing that it ‘may possibly / Be current with the Blind’. On the other hand, those have seen a real sunset may have enjoyed a foretaste of heaven.

Before I attempt a conclusion, I’d like to look at one final poem which also features a sunset, or rather two sunsets. Like so many of Dickinson’s poems it is deceptively simple; childlike in its versification, short – but endlessly perplexing [15].

I SEND two Sunsets—

Day and I in competition ran,

I finished two, and several stars,

While He was making one.

His own is ampler—


But, as I was saying to a friend,
Mine is the more convenient
To carry in the hand.

The poem establishes a relationship between two sunsets – a literal sunset and a metaphorical one. During the course of a day – before sunset – a competition takes place. Day is preparing for sunset and the poet is writing about sunsets. The poet finishes ‘two, and several stars’, alluding perhaps to the poet’s ‘star’ status, while ‘He’, Day, or perhaps a divine power, makes one.

The second stanza reflects on the competition. The poet recognises that the ‘actual’ sunset is ‘ampler’ than the poet’s, while the poet’s is more ‘convenient’ as it can be carried ‘in the hand’. The conversational, ‘as I was saying to a friend’, highlights the poet’s diffidence and also suggests that this was a one-off competition, the poet may lose next time around.

As in other Dickinson poems, one of the things that is going on has to do with the metaphor’s tenor and vehicle.

The real sunset is the vehicle for the implied tenor, ‘poem about a sunset’. But if the two poems (in line 1) in the first line are representations of a sunset, then the ‘real’ sunset is the tenor. In addition as both Day and the poet are making sunsets, the poet acts like Day and Day acts like the poet. What at first sight looks like a series of comparisons turns out to be a competition! And the subject of the poem is as much metaphor, as poetry-making, although the second depends to a great extent on the first.

Dickinson’s poems enact the forever receding resolution of metaphor and underscore what much later theorists, like Ricoeur, recognise as metaphor’s reliance on unresolved difference. Dickinson’s metaphors, unlike those of her contemporaries, explore, even delight in, unresolved difference rather than pointing to potential unity or truth. In this sense metaphor in Dickinson is both the method and the object of knowledge.

That same sense of irresolution fascinated Wittgenstein.

He came up with a wonderful visualisation of ambiguity – the famous duck-rabbit. [16]

Can it be both a rabbit and a duck? We certainly can’t see both simultaneously.

Perhaps it’s best described as something of a riddle. And Dickinson loved riddles. In, ‘The Riddle we can guess’, [17] she wrote:

The Riddle we can guess

We speedily despise —
Not anything is stale so long
As Yesterday's surprise —

Dickinson’s poetry celebrates ambiguity. It is suggestive, allusive and teasing. And just as a ‘dead’ metaphor may be very much alive for someone less familiar with it, so we will all engage with the richness of Dickinson’s poetry in slightly different ways. ‘The Riddle we can guess’, just like the poem we can quickly paraphrase, ‘we speedily despise’. Dickinson’s poems, like all the best poems, make a demand on us, but we are richly rewarded. Dickinson said ‘To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else.’ Reading her poetry is equally startling. She also wrote a poem which begins, ‘I dwell in Possibility’; so do her poems and they offer us all manner of ways of understanding our own humanity and place in the universe. And the mystery is that all she has at her disposal, like all writers, is words – or as Thomas Gresham might have said - rhetoric.

And she wrote 

A WORD is dead 

When it is said,

Some say. 

I say it just 

Begins to live; 

That day. 

Thank you! 

Professor Belinda Jack, 2017