That Emily Dickinson published almost no poems while she was alive yet became enormously popular when her first book appeared four years after her death is a well known fact.1 The 1890 volume went through eleven printings and led to a Second Series in 1891 and a Third Series in 1896; an edition of her letters appeared in 1894 (Sewall 707, n.1). Today she and Walt Whitman are generally regarded as the two greatest American poets of the nineteenth century. In Jungian terms, she is a “visionary” artist who compensates for collective psychic imbalance through an archetypal vision of another possibility (see Snider 6-7). What Jung says of visionary literature clearly applies to the best of Dickinson’s work:
[. . .] it can be a revelation whose heights and depths are beyond our fathoming, or a vision of beauty which we can never put into words. [. . .] the primordial experiences rend from top to bottom the curtain upon which is painted the picture of an ordered world, and allow a glimpse into the unfathomable abyss of the unborn and of things yet to be. (“Psychology and Literature” 90).2
Something in her psyche drove her to probe those “heights and depths,” which were often beyond her own fathoming. This something Jung calls an “innate drive” (ibid. 101), and I believe that the archetype she chiefly represents and is driven by is shamanism.
Not a shaman in the traditional sense as described by Mircea Eliade in his classic, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, Dickinson nevertheless fits Joan B. Townsend’s description of neo-shamans as people “often disenchanted with traditional religions and often with much of Western society. Although they tend not to be affiliated with any organized religion, they all continue intensive personal quests for spirituality, meaning, and transcendence” (78). Her personal quest–her personal myth as expressed in her poetry–compensates for contemporary imbalance through a search for meaning in the face of the breakdown of collective myths. Had she lived in another era and been associated with a religion or belief system that included shamans, no doubt Dickinson would have been a shaman in the traditional sense, for she is concerned about the same mysteries that concern shamans and investigates these mysteries using the imagery of shamanism. These mysteries include death and the afterlife, as well as suffering, loss, and healing.
The word “shaman” comes from the Siberian Tungus tribe ( Harner 7); and, according to Eliade, “Shamanism in the strict sense is pre-eminently a religious phenomenon of Siberia and Central Asia.” Although he or she is not, strictly speaking, either one, the shaman has traits similar to the magician and medicine man, but “beyond this, he is a psychopomp, and he may also be priest, mystic, and poet” (4). Because it is an archetype, shamanism is not limited to Siberia and Central Asia. It is a world-wide phenomenon with roots in the Paleolithic period. Joan Halifax comments on the fact that “Shamanic knowledge is remarkably consistent across the planet”; further, “the basic themes related to the art and practice of shamanism form a coherent complex” (5).3 An examination of Dickinson’s poetry will demonstrate the American poet’s close relationship to the shamanic state of mind.
Eliade was among the first to link shamanism to the creation of lyric poetry: “It is [. . .] probable that the pre-ecstatic euphoria [of the shaman] constituted one of the universal sources of lyric poetry.” Furthermore, “Poetic creation still remains an act of perfect spiritual freedom. Poetry remakes and prolongs language; every poetic language begins by being a secret language, that is, the creation of a personal universe, of a completely closed world.” Eliade’s assessment of course applies to any great poet, but it applies especially to Dickinson. He continues: “The purest poetic act seems to re-create language from an inner experience that, like the ecstasy or the religious inspiration of ‘primitives,’ reveals the essence of things” (510). That Dickinson has her own “language,” her own poetic vocabulary that probes her “inner experience” and creates a “personal universe,” is clear to any perceptive reader.
In Jungian terms, she has created her own personal myth. Inspired by other poets such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning (“I think I was enchanted / When first a sombre Girl– / I read that Foreign Lady– / The Dark–felt beautiful–” 593; all numbers refer to the numbers assigned to poems in Johnson’s The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson), Emily Dickinson created her own inimitable poetry. She had, indeed, what she disclaimed having: “A privilege so awful / What would the Dower be, / Had I the Art to stun myself / With Bolts of Melody!” (505).
Here is her definition of a poet:
This was a Poet–It is That
Distills amazing sense
From ordinary Meanings–
And Attar so immense
From the familiar species
That perished by the Door–
We wonder it was not Ourselves
Of Pictures, the Discloser–
The Poet–it is He–
Entitles Us–by Contrast–
To ceaseless Poverty–
Of Portion –so unconscious–
The Robbing–could not harm–
Himself–to Him–a Fortune–
Exterior–to Time– (448)
The high value she places on poetry she reveals in the poem that begins “I reckon–when I count at all–” First she counts poets, then the sun and summer, and she adds:
But, looking back–the First so seems
To comprehend the Whole–
The Others look a needless Show–
So I write–Poets–All–
Their Summer–lasts a Solid Year–
They can afford a Sun
The East–would deem extravagant–
And if the Further Heaven–
Be Beautiful as they prepare
For Those who worship Them–
It is too difficult a Grace–
To justify the Dream– (569)
Dickinson in both these poems affirms Eliade’s belief that lyric poetry “reveals the essence of things.”
Living in the middle of the nineteenth century, Dickinson, a product of New England Puritanism, rejected membership in the church and the conversion offered by the many religious revivals that descended on her home town of Amherst, Massachusetts, in her early years (Sewall 24). Still, she was troubled by such Puritan ideas as “Divine immanence, providential history, the Whole Duty of Man; the sense of being Chosen, or Elected; the idea of Redemption” (Sewall 25). Most important of all, the issue of immortality, what she called her “Flood subject,” haunts her poetry and letters (see Sewall 26). It is, one might say, a shamanic issue–what happens after death.
She lived in an age when the secular spirit was on the rise. If Holger Kalweit, a contemporary expert on shamanism, can write that today “the one-eyed paradigm of materialism is in a state of decline” (20), in Dickinson’s day just the opposite was true. She was a student of science and observed the world with the eye of a scientist:
“Faith” is a fine invention
When Gentlemen can see–
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency. (185)
Yet she would probably not argue with Michael Harner’s observation that “shamans say that we need to talk to plants and trees, animals, and rocks because our lives and our spirits are connected with theirs. In shamanic cultures all things are seen to be interrelated and interdependent [. . .] everything that exists is alive” (10). Although nature can be the “blonde Assassin” that beheads the “happy Flower [. . .] In accidental power” (1624), she is also a living being to be revered:
Touch lightly Nature’s sweet Guitar
Unless thou know’st the Tune
Or every Bird will point at thee
Because a Bard too soon– (1369)
Here Dickinson suggests one shouldn’t interpret nature poetically until one is qualified–initiated, as it were. In one of her most famous poems, she writes: “I taste a liquor never brewed– / From Tankards scooped in Pearl [. . .] Inebriate of Air–am I– / And Debauchee of Dew” (214). In modern parlance, she gets “high” on nature. Even a casual acquaintance with her poetry will show how intimate she feels with nature. Her intimacy is akin to what Owen Barfield calls “original participation” (40-42), the “essence” of which, Barfield says, “is that there stands behind the phenomena . . . a represented which is of the same nature as me” (42).
In a fragmentary poem she declares: “To see the Summer Sky / Is Poetry” (1472). One of the few poems to which she assigned a title (“My Cricket,” Johnson, Poems of Emily Dickinson, vol. 3, 1206), goes as follows:
Further in Summer than the Birds
Pathetic from the Grass
A minor Nation celebrates
Its unobtrusive Mass.
No Ordinance be seen
So gradual the Grace
A pensive Custom it becomes
Antiquest felt at Noon
When August burning low
Arise this spectral Canticle
Repose to typify
Remit as yet no Grace
No Furrow on the Glow
Yet a Druidic Difference
Enhances Nature now (1068)
The vocabulary of religious ritual and the reference to pre-Christian myth (“a Druidic Difference”) indicates that, like the shaman, she has recognized that nature is endowed with sacred life.
Poem 986, in which the speaker is a man, illustrates the original participation such a recognition permits:
A narrow Fellow in the Grass
You may have met Him–did you not
His notice sudden is–
The Grass divides as with a Comb–
A spotted shaft is seen–
And then it closes at your feet
And opens further on–
He likes a Boggy Acre
A Floor too cool for Corn–
Yet when a Boy, and Barefoot–
I more than once at Noon
Have passed, I thought, a Whip lash
Unbraiding in the Sun
When stooping to secure it
It wrinkled, and was gone–
Several of Nature’s People
I know, and they know me–
I feel for them a transport
But never met this Fellow
Attended, or alone
Without a tighter breathing
And Zero at the Bone–
The speaker of this poem has an intimate, spiritual relationship with nature; he feels “a transport / Of cordiality–” for “Nature’s People.” Feeling “Zero at the Bone” suggests there’s something in Dickinson’s psyche that matches or at least connects with the snake. The snake is a projection of her psyche, something she encounters on the outside that’s already inside, perhaps an extension of the animus that frightens her on account of its cold blooded ruthlessness–possibly her objectivity as an artist.
Another extraordinary snake poem illustrates my point:
In Winter in my Room
I came upon a Worm–
Pink, lank and warm–
But as he was a worm
And worms presume
Not quite with him at home–
Secured him by a string
To something neighboring
And went along.
A Trifle afterward
A thing occurred
I’d not believe it if I heard
But state with creeping blood–
A snake with mottles rare
Surveyed by chamber floor
In feature as the worm before
But ringed with power–
The very string with which
I tied him–too
When he was mean and new
That string was there–
I shrank–“How fair you are!”
“Afraid,” he hissed
He fathomed me–
Then to a Rhythm Slim
Secreted in his Form
As Patterns swim
That time I flew
Both eyes his way
Lest he pursue
Nor ever ceased to run
Till in a distant Town
Towns on from mine
I set me down
This was a dream. (1670)
The last line indicates clearly that this poem, like Whitman’s “The Sleepers,” expresses the contents of the unconscious.
On a first reading, it’s almost impossible to not interpret the poem as portraying a Freudian fear of sex. Afraid of intimacy (“cordiality”), the speaker feels more than “Zero at the Bone.” She feels a mixture of attraction (“‘How fair you are’!”) and fear (“Nor ever ceased to run”). The worm that becomes a snake is obviously sexual (the flaccid penis that becomes the erect phallus), and were the speaker clearly masculine as in “A narrow Fellow in the Grass” the implications would be even more intriguing than they are already. The worm/snake is elemental, phallic, chthonic, and the speaker at first tries to control this potent archetype, symbolic, as J. E. Cirlot writes, of “energy itself–of force pure and simple” (285). Jung points out that in Egyptian myth, “the snake, because it casts its skin, is a symbol of renewal [. . . and] a sun-symbol, which was believed to be of masculine sex only and to beget itself” (Symbols of Transformation 269). The “renewal” here is actually a transformation from a relatively harmless worm to a scary and sexy snake and a scene reminiscent of Eve’s temptation in the Garden of Eden. The snake “fathomed” the speaker as if exploring her desire and depth–physically and psychically. Sexual as he undeniably is, I suggest the snake also symbolizes Dickinson’s own latent power as a poet. Fecund, she has power to recreate herself, as does the snake (“ringed with power”) and to fathom and project as he does, and she fears this immense potential. (See Figure 1.) Because we do not know when Dickinson wrote this poem, a precisely biographical interpretation is impossible and probably, in any event, not necessary. The body of her work demonstrates that she learned to use her power and that the poet in her conquered her deeply felt fears of poetic ruthlessness by proceeding with her calling.
Fig. 1, Zuni Serpent Warrior Kachina, with Kolowisi, the horned, plumed water serpent on his head, by Steven Comosona (from the collection of Clifton Snider). Although it is doubtful Dickinson ever saw a Zuni kachina, this example illustrates the kind of ritual power her serpent poems evoke. The phallic power of the water serpent, well known in Native American mythology, most famously as the Aztec god, Quetzalcoatl, is further emphasized by its horn. The powerful double stare could easily “fathom” a persona like the speaker of poem that begins, “In Winter in my Room.”
Eliade notes that there basically are two ways of becoming a shaman: “hereditary transmission or spontaneous vocation” (21)–a call, in other words, not unlike the Puritan notion of “election.” Dickinson describes her call to become a poet thus:
Conversion of the Mind
Like Sanctifying in the Soul–
Is witnessed–not explained–
‘Twas a Divine Insanity–
The Danger to be Sane
Should I again experience–
She is recalling how her reading of Elizabeth Barrett Browning called her to poetry. She continues:
‘Tis Antidote to turn–
To Tomes of solid Witchcraft–
Magicians be asleep–
But Magic–hath an Element
Like Deity–to keep– (593)
Like the shaman, the poet is a magician, a maker of witchcraft, insane to outsiders. This idea is echoed in a well-known poem:
Much Madness is divinest Sense–
To a discerning Eye–
Much Sense –the starkest Madness–
‘Tis the Majority
In this, as All, prevail–
Assent–and you are sane–
Demur–you’re straightway dangerous–
And handled with a Chain– (435)
Poet Adrienne Rich comments insightfully about this poem: “It is an extremely painful and dangerous way to live–split between a publicly acceptable persona, and a part of yourself that you perceive as the essential, the creative and powerful self, yet also as possibly unacceptable, perhaps even monstrous” (175). Pain, as we shall see, is an essential part of the experience of the shaman-poet.
“The Riddle we can guess,” Dickinson writes, “We speedily despise– / Not anything is stale so long / As Yesterday’s surprise–” (1222). The riddle is one of her chief rhetorical devices, a device typical of the shaman-poet, as well as of the trickster archetype, betraying the superior knowledge that comes with the “secrets of the profession” (Eliade 17). She writes, for example, of loss without indicating quite what has been lost. Consider two poems on similar themes:
I never lost as much but twice,
And that was in the sod,
Twice have I stood a beggar
Before the door of God!
Reimbursed my store–
I am poor one more!– (49)
My life closed twice before its close–
It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
A third event to me
So huge, so hopeless to conceive
As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell.4 (1732)
Both poems are clearly about loss, and the diction (the metonymous “sod” and “Immortality”) suggests that death is responsible for the loss. The loss could also be that of a loved one or ones and the suggestion of death metaphorical. We do not know whom she has lost in either poem. It’s worth observing, also, that she’s intimate enough with God, the “Father,” to accuse Him of being a “Burglar” and a “Banker.”
The poem that begins “My Life had stood–a Loaded Gun–” also relies on the riddle but it is far more complex (William Shullenberger notes the poem gives “students the pleasure of reading a fable and solving its riddles,” 102):
My Life had stood–a Loaded Gun–
In Corners–till a Day
The Owner passed–identified–
And carried Me away–
And now We roam in Sovereign Woods–
And now We hunt the Doe–
And every time I speak for Him–
The Mountains straight reply–
And do I smile, such cordial light
Upon the Valley glow–
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let its pleasure through–
And when at Night–Our good Day done–
I guard My Master’s Head–
‘Tis better than the Eider-Duck’s
Deep Pillow–to have shared–
To foe of His–I’m deadly foe–
None stir the second time–
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye–
Or an emphatic Thumb–
Though I than He–may longer live
He longer must–than I–
For I have but the power to kill,
Without–the power to die– (754)
This poem has elicited an amazing amount of critical comment. Rich believes it is “about possession by the daemon, about the dangers and risks of such possession if you are a woman, about the knowledge that power in a woman can seem destructive, and that you cannot live without the daemon once it has possessed you” (173). Helen McNeil believes the poem “is a definition of self as pure artistic agency” (175). The speaker of the poem, she adds, is “feminine, masculine, an object and an animal–all sexes and none, a commanding voice for the expression of knowledge” (176). Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar comment on the “Loaded Gun”:
This Gun clearly is a poet, and a Satanically ambitious poet at that. [. . .] The irony of the riddling final quatrain, moreover, hints that it is the Gun and not the Master, the poet and not her muse, who will have the last word. (609)
Judith Farr sees the poem as “primarily [. . .] an accomplished and mysterious ballad with suggestions of Elizabethan obliquity and physicality” (242). She suggests looking at the speaker by turns as a boy, then as a woman, always keeping in mind “the pleasure the speaker experiences” and that “For Dickinson, love is always the muse” (243): “She herself–the gun, the artist–can never ‘die’ like a real woman. . . She is but the arresting voice that speaks to and for the Master” (244).
Camille Paglia, as might be expected, provides the most arresting critical commentary:
The most blatant of Dickinson’s masculine self-portraits is “My Life had stood a Loaded Gun,” where she is a totem of phallic force . [. . .] The “Owner” or “Master” is only he, a pronoun. She is the real power, without which he cannot act. [. . .] This poem is one of Romanticism’s great transsexual self-transformations. [. . .] the poet is reaching for the remotest extreme of sex experience. (642-643)
That Dickinson frequently adopts a male persona is a given (see Rebecca Patterson, “Emily Dickinson’s ‘Double’ Tim”), so that Paglia’s and McNeil’s comments are in this respect not astonishing.
To add my own contribution to the welter of commentary surrounding this poem, I think it pertinent to note that the poem, like many of Dickinson’s, is a narrative, albeit told in lyrical form–that is, it is a ballad, as Farr points out. Although she is rightly known as a lyric poet, Dickinson does indeed tell stories, as does the shaman when he or she talks about out-of-body experiences and visits to the afterworld. Her subjects in the concluding stanza again include shamanic concerns: mortality and immortality. The concluding two lines (“For I have but the power to kill, / Without–the power to die–“) do indeed, as Paglia suggests, indicate the speaker may be a vampire; and in fact a shamanic method of healing is to suck blood from the person who is ill (Eliade 307), so that here we have evidence of a positive side of the vampire archetype. I tend to agree, too, that Dickinson is, at least here, an “androgyne” (Paglia 643).
This poem, as well as numerous others such as Patterson discusses in the article I cite above, presents a persona whose gender is ambiguous. To suggest, as Theodora Ward does, citing Jung as her authority, that the “image of man in woman [. . .] represents the woman’s mind” and that a “large proportion” of Dickinson’s poems bare this out (70), is, to say the least, an oversimplification and a reduction of Jung’s ideas.
Dickinson’s creative animus–and poetic persona–is more complex than that. Take, for example, the poem, “I started Early–Took my Dog–” (520). Here the speaker, apparently a female with her “Apron” and her “Bodice,” is chased in images that suggest attempted rape by a masculine sea. Of course, the usual gender assigned to the sea is feminine. In “I make His Crescent fill or lack–” (909), a testimony to the shamanic power of poetry, Dickinson makes the traditionally feminine moon male. And “Wild Nights–Wild Nights!” (249), one of Dickinson’s most explicitly sexual poems, reverses the usual sexual/gender activity in the final two lines: “Might I but moor–Tonight– / In Thee!”
Rebecca Patterson feels that the poem I cite above, “I make His Crescent fill or lack–” (909), refers to Kate Scott (Riddle 175), whom Patterson, writing in 1951, believes was the great love of Dickinson’s life. Although much of Patterson’s evidence regarding Kate Scott is conjectural, a close and open-minded reading of Dickinson’s letters and poetry will leave no doubt that Dickinson loved erotically members of both sexes–in addition to Scott, Dickinson loved her sister-in-law, Sue Dickinson, and probably the family friend Samuel Bowles, and late in her life Judge Otis Phillips Lord. That Dickinson’s erotic orientation was at all lesbian was a fact I, for one, was never let in on during my many years of education, in which her work figured prominently; and certainly the poems that appear in the standard anthologies wouldn’t indicate such. Yet a close examination by Lillian Faderman of “Emily Dickinson’s Homoerotic Poetry” leads Faderman to conclude: “Read as a whole, these poems present a picture of a woman whose love for another woman is characterized often by a quality akin to worship–or ‘Idolatry’ as Dickinson calls it [. . .]” (25). Like Walt Whitman, Dickinson was capable of changing pronouns in her love poems. Poem 494, for instance, she wrote in two versions. One begins: “Going to Him! Happy letter!” while the other begins: “Going–to–Her! / Happy–Letter! [. . .]” Both continue in the same vein. I quote the second version:
Tell Her–the page I never wrote!
Tell Her, I only said–the Syntax–
And left the Verb and the Pronoun–out!
Tell Her just how the fingers–hurried–
And then–you wished you had eyes–in your pages–
So you could see–what moved–them–so–
Stephen Coote includes this poem in The Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse. The following is also in that anthology:
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–built there
Sweet of twigs and twine
My perennial nest. (84)
These poems and the evidence of many other poems, as well as the evidence from the letters and the findings of Patterson, Faderman, and, more recently, Suzanne Juhasz, Cristanne Miller, and Martha Nell Smith (Comic Power in Emily Dickinson ), and Betsy Erkkila (“Homoeroticism and Audience: Emily Dickinson’s Female ‘Master'”), and others form, I think, incontrovertible evidence of Dickinson’s erotic love of women.
What has this to do with my reading of Dickinson as a neo-shaman? I see it as an aspect of her poetic need to cross the gender boundaries of her time; it places her into the shamanistic frame of the “berdache.” The berdache is a cross-gender figure in many American Indian tribes; that is, a man-woman or a woman-man who took on roles of the opposite gender and often had sex with and even married the same gender the berdache was originally born to. The connection between such cross-gender figures and shamans goes back probably to the origin of shamanism itself (see Roscoe 24). Eliade cites several examples of “transvestitism and ritual change of sex” among shamans worldwide (257-258). Walter L. Williams, an authority on the berdache, writes: “Shamans are not necessarily berdaches, but because of their spiritual connection, berdaches in many cultures are often considered to be powerful shamans.” Furthermore, he notes, “The Mohaves believed that female shamans were spiritually stronger than male ones, but that berdache shamans were stronger than either women or men” (35). Paula Gunn Allen, an American Indian author and professor, writes:
In some groups such as the Cherokee [. . .] shamans are typically trained along cross-gender rather than same gender lines. Thus male shamans train female apprentices, and female shamans train male apprentices. [. . .] gender is understood in a psychological or psychospiritual sense much more than in a physiological one. (206-207).
Finally, lesbian poet Judy Grahn writes: “Had I been born into a tribal society as were my European genetic ancestors, I believe I would have been the European equivalent of a shaman: a hag, a wisewoman, a sorcerer, a dervish, a runic bard, a warrior-priest, a wiccan-woman” (38). Almost the same could be said for Emily Dickinson; and her sexual orientation (whether ever physically realized with another person) and her experimentation with traditional Western gender roles in her poetry both support my contention that she is a neo-shaman who, in another era, like Grahn, would have been a traditional shaman.
Dickinson is famous for dressing in white during the later, secluded years of her life. Whatever else may be said about this idiosyncrasy, clearly it suggests the deliberate adoption of a particular persona (see my chapter on Stevenson and Housman). In “Of Tribulation, these are They” (325), Dickinson connects the wearing of white with victory over tribulation: “the ones who overcame most times– / Wear nothing commoner than Snow–” In another poem she connects the color with death:
Take Your Heaven further on–
This–to Heaven divine Has gone–
Had You earlier blundered in
Possibly, e’en You had seen
An Eternity–put on–
Now–to ring a Door beyond
Is the utmost of Your Hand–
To the Skies–apologize–
Nearer to Your Courtesies
Than this Sufferer polite–
Dressed to meet You–
See–in White! (388)
Interestingly, white is a color associated with the dress of some shamans. In the initiation of Buryat shamans, the neophytes wear white (Eliade 118). Buryat culture divides shamans into white (those assisted by good spirits) and black (those assisted by evil spirits). The white shaman wears a white fur (Eliade 150; see also Figure 2).
Fig. 2, a woman shaman of the Clayoquot tribe from Vancouver Island, photo by Edward S. Curtis, early 20th century (Pritzker 34). Although the photo is in black and white, clearly most of the feathers she wears are white and likely so is the weaving in her apparel.
Death, of course, is one of Dickinson’s favorite topics–part of her “Flood” subject. As Farr notes: “In her last years she would call ‘the secret of Death’ her central preoccupation. [. . .] But it had always concerned her” (4). She depicts death as a suitor in more than one poem. “Death is the supple Suitor / That wins at last–” (1445) she writes in a poem written about 1878. In poem 712 her posthumous speaker declares: “Because I could not stop for Death– / He kindly stopped for me– / The Carriage held but just Ourselves– / And Immortality.” I agree with Jungian critic Martin Bickman that “an attraction toward death can reflect a deeper urge toward individuation” (127). Bickman further comments that “apparently irreconcilable opposites [in poem 712 marriage and death] are linked by moving to a deeper psychic level” (121) in Dickinson. This traditional Jungian idea is valid applied to this poem and others like it, but I suggest another approach. I suggest Dickinson depicts a shamanic role, what Eliade calls the psychopomp–the guider of souls after death. (Another poem recalls the shamanic search for souls after death: “My soul, to find them, come, / They cannot call, they’re dumb,” 1436.) Eliade believes that originally this probably was the role of the shaman: to “escort the soul to the underworld” (208). “The shaman becomes indispensable,” Eliade writes, “when the dead person is slow to forsake the world of the living” (208-209). Although Dickinson is not often acknowledged as a mythic poet, here she clearly writes in a mythic tradition. One of the few mythological characters she actually names in her poetry, Orpheus (“The Bible is an antique Volume–” 1545), is perhaps the most renowned of all psychopomps, albeit she alludes to him as a singer/poet (“Orpheus’ Sermon captivated– / It did not condemn–“) rather than as a conductor of souls after death.
Like Orpheus, the shaman sometimes suffers the dismemberment of his or her body. Part of his or her initiation, the neophyte shaman’s dismemberment is followed by the replacement of old organs with new ones. Sometimes “spirits cut off his head, which they set aside (for the candidate must watch his dismemberment with his own eyes).” The spirits then cut the neophyte into “small pieces, which are then distributed to the spirits of the various diseases.” The purpose is to “gain the power to cure. [. . . the neophyte’s] bones are [. . .] covered with new flesh, and in some cases he is also given new blood” (Eliade 37). Even if there is no dismemberment, there is suffering and illness. The shaman is a “wounded healer” (often self-wounded) “who has cured himself” (Kalweit 90). The symbolism is that of death and rebirth.
Dickinson wrote obsessively about what I call her “Big Hurt” or her “Big Loss.” It was apparently the loss of love and the loved one or ones, whose identity no one knows for sure; the “Master” letters address this love object too. (There are also poems about her other great loss–publication and the public recognition that would have accompanied it.5) “The Soul has Bandaged moments–” she writes, “When too appalled to stir– / She feels some ghastly Fright come up / And stop to look at her” (512). Here, as in so many other poems, she relives the “Big Loss”: “The Horror welcomes her, again, / These, are not brayed of Tongue.” The pain is deeply psychic: “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” (280), she says in one of her best poems. In poems that echo the dismemberment of the shaman, she writes, “Proud of my broken heart, since thou didst break it” (1736); “Before I got my eye put out” (327); and “Rearrange a ‘Wife’s’ affection! / When they dislocate my Brain! / Amputate my freckled Bosom! / Make me bearded like a man!” (1737). Here she has adopted her persona of “Empress of Calvary”: “None suspect me of the crown, / For I wear the ‘Thorns’ till Sunset– / Then–my Diadem put on.” Also, she is crossing genders again (“Make me bearded like a man!”). But she refuses to say the exact nature of her “Big Hurt”:
Big my Secret but it’s bandaged–
It will never get away
Till the Day its Weary Keeper
Leads it through the Grave to thee.
Who “thee” is we can’t be absolutely sure.
The same is true for the “Master” letters. They ooze almost embarrassingly with masochistic self-pity and pain:
If you saw a bullet hit a Bird–and he told you he was’nt [sic] shot–you might weep at his courtesy, but you would certainly doubt his word.
One drop more from the gash that stains your Daisy’s
bosom–then would you believe ?
(Letters, vol. 2, no. 233)
A love so big it scares her, rushing among her small
heart–pushing aside the blood and leaving her faint . . .
and white in the gust’s arm–
(Letters, vol. 2, no. 248)
Examples of similarly violent imagery from the poems include, “She dealt her pretty words like Blades / How glittering they shone– / And every One unbared a Nerve / Or wantoned with a Bone–” (479); and poem 264:
A Weight with Needles on the pounds–
To push, and pierce, besides–
That if the Flesh resist the Heft–
The puncture–cooly tries–
That not a pore be overlooked
Of all this Compound Frame–
As manifold for Anguish–
As Species–be–for name–
In a poem that again refers to the “Big Hurt,” she declares: “Joy to have merited the Pain– / To merit the Release– / Joy to have perished every step– / To Compass Paradise–” (788). The beginning of the second stanza (“Pardon–to look upon thy face– / With these old fashioned Eyes–“) echoes the second Master letter: “it were comfort forever–just to look in your face, while you looked in mine” (Letters, vol. 2, no. 233).
Finally, in poem 410 she not only relives the “Big Hurt” but also describes how it impelled her “to sing,” to work out her personal myth in her poetry:
The first Day’s Night had come–
And grateful that a thing
So terrible–had been endured–
I told my 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 its 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 Something’s odd–within–
That person that I was–
And this One–do not feel the same–
Could it be Madness–this?
Dickinson here describes the transformation her suffering and subsequent growth as a poet has wrought. The change is so great she feels as if she’s a different person, and symbolically she is. Without the foundation and support of tribal religion, her final questioning of her sanity rings true, for her intellect and intellectual environment seemed inimical to such almost mystical experience.
If these poems and letters illustrate the “Big Hurt,” where is the healing? Part of the answer lies in the following poem:
On a Columnar Self–
How ample to rely
In Tumult–or Extremity–
How good the Certainty
That Lever cannot pry–
And Wedge cannot divide
Conviction–That Granitic Base–
Though None be on our Side–
Suffice Us–for a Crowd–
And that Assembly –not far off
From furthest Spirit–God– (789)
Similar pronouncements appear in “The Soul selects her own Society–” (303) and “The Soul’s Superior instants / Occur to Her–alone–” (306).6
These poems are an introvert’s declaration of independence, a claiming of the insights that come from the integrity of the Self. The first example, in particular, also shows a key difference between the neo-shaman and the traditional shaman. The latter doesn’t look to a “furthest Spirit”; she knows the spirits intimately. Unlike the traditional shaman, Dickinson isn’t quite sure what happens after death. If she believes in God, she argues with Him or refuses to communicate altogether.
In a letter of condolence on the death of their father, she writes to her cousins, Louise and Frances Norcross: “Let Emily sing for you because she cannot pray” (Letters, vol. 2, no. 278). She then writes out a version of poem number 335 (“‘Tis not that Dying hurts us so–“). When her friend and possible love-object, Samuel Bowles, was sick with a chill and acute sciatica, Dickinson sent the following poem in a letter to him (Sewall 481):
Would you like summer? Taste of ours.
Spices? Buy here!
Ill! We have berries, for the parching!
Weary! Furloughs of down!
Perplexed! Estates of violet trouble ne’er looked on!
Captive! We bring reprieve of roses!
Fainting! Flasks of air!
Even for Death, a fairy medicine.
But, which is it, sir? (691)
The poem reminds me very much of Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market, except that here the spices and berries are “fairy medicine.”7 Sewall is right to declare “she seems to be showering him [Bowles] with metaphors to convince him of the value of metaphors (and of her poems) and of their specific value, right now, to help him get well. A poem is a kind of prayer.” And, Sewall continues, “poems are life-giving: she spoke once of the ‘balsam word’ as having more power to heal than doctors” (482). The natural images she offers are blessed, healing medicines such as a shaman could provide. (See Figure 3.) In one of her few poems of “greeting card” quality, she writes, as Sewall notes: “If I can stop one Heart from breaking / I shall not live in vain / If I can ease one Life the Aching / Or cool one Pain [. . .] I shall not live in Vain” (919).
Fig. 3, Yarn art from the Huichol Indians of Mexico which depicts a
shaman (“El Chaman”) blessing in various ways “la milpa,” a
cultivated field of corn or maize, by Luchina Pérez Glez.
(from the collection of Clifton Snider, purchased in Puerto Vallarta,
Jalisco, Mexico, May 1997.)
Writing to Thomas Wentworth Higginson (the famous author who infamously failed to recognize her full poetic stature while she lived), Dickinson says in regard to a death: “I felt a palsy, here–the Verses just relieve–” (Letters, vol. 2, no. 265). If, as Kalweit suggests, “only self-borne suffering will stimulate true tolerance and genuine compassion” (98), Emily Dickinson possessed that kind of tolerance and compassion. Manifestly, poetry provided healing for herself from pain–self-inflicted or not–and she meant her poems to provide healing for others. In this she is very much in the shamanic tradition.
Many so-called “New Age” adepts believe in the healing power of crystals. This a shamanic idea. While their bodies are dismembered, many shamans receive a rock or quartz crystal into them (Eliade 132 and 135). Sometimes shamanic power is transferred by the vomiting of a quartz crystal over the neophyte (Kalweit 80). Or the neophyte may drink water that has had crystals in it (Eliade 135). There is something magical and healing about the chthonic substance of crystals. Describing the effects of deep psychic trauma, one of Dickinson’s best poems goes as follows:
After great pain, a formal feeling comes–
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs–
The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore,
And Yesterday, or Centuries before?
The Feet, mechanical, go round–
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought–
A Wooden way
A Quartz contentment, like a stone–
This is the Hour of Lead–
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow–
First–Chill–then Stupor–then the letting go– (341)
With profound insight, she implies that such pain can kill (“if outlived”), yet if it does not kill, what remains is “A Quartz contentment.” Now this is a metaphor, to be sure, but it is also descriptive of the “letting go” necessary for the healing to come. The catharsis symbolized by the shaman’s dismemberment and replenishment with new organs and rock crystals is here strikingly recalled in a highly personal poem which nonetheless applies to all who’ve experienced such injury to the spirit.
Other shamanic ideas are the bridge that connects earth with heaven (Eliade 397) and the power to fly (Eliade 140). Let us first consider the bridge idea, alluded to in the following poem:
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading–treading–till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through–
And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum–
Kept beating–beating–till I thought
My Mind was going numb–
And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space–began to toll,
As all the Heaven were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race
Wrecked, solitary, here–
And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down–
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And finished knowing–then– (280)
As I’ve indicated, part of the shaman’s initiation is a symbolic death and rebirth. And the drum, as Eliade notes, “has a role of the first importance in shamanic ceremonies.” Drumming “carries the shaman to the ‘Center of the World,’ [which can be the bridge itself–see Eliade 397] or enables him to fly through the air, or summons and ‘imprisons’ the spirits, or [. . .] the drumming enables the shaman to concentrate and regain contact with the spiritual world through which he is preparing to travel” (168). Cynthia Griffin Wolff has shown that Dickinson’s “Plank in Reason” alludes “to the iconography of conservative, mid-nineteenth-century religious culture” (229-230). She includes in her discussion a picture of what looks like a plank labeled “faith” in Holmes and Barber’s Religious Allegories (1848). The plank stretches from solid rock through clouds to the celestial kingdom of heaven. A man holding the Bible walks across on the plank. The emblem is called “WALKING BY FAITH,” and is based on II Corinthians 5:7: “For we walk by faith, not by sight” (Wolff 230-231). Wolff concludes that “having renounced faith, Dickinson substitutes a ‘Plank in Reason,’ which breaks because no rational explanation can be adequate to bridge the abyss between earth and Heaven. The poem concludes with a fall that is an apotheosis of confusion” (230).
Of course Dickinson, as Wolff surely knows, never entirely renounced faith, and I question whether this poem, unlike others such as “I died for Beauty–but was scarce” (449) or “Because I could not stop for Death–” (712), is truly written from the posthumous point of view. Rather, I suggest it describes psychic pain so great it’s like a great funeral ceremony separating the poet from the common lives of others. It describes the symbolic death a shaman must endure. The “Plank” is analogous to the bridge, and reason alone, as Wolff says, will not achieve the transport to the other side. It takes being done with “knowing” in a rational sense to do that. It takes spiritual “knowing,” shamanic transformation, the kind of experience she describes in poem 875:
I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my Feet the Sea.
I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch–
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.
I disagree with Wolff that the last line of this poem “explicitly repudiates religious or transcendent implications and converts the verse into no more than an aphoristic definition” (479). The planks are between the stars and the sea, that is, in the center, and her experience, precarious as it is, leads her on.
Here is a definition poem that actually defines what Dickinson means by experience:
Experience is the Angled Road
Preferred against the Mind
By–Paradox–the Mind itself–
Presuming it to lead
Quite Opposite–How Complicate
The Discipline of Man–
Compelling Him to Choose Himself
His Preappointed Pain– (910)
This is Gnostic, in Jung’s sense. Experience, Dickinson maintains, supersedes intellect. There is in this poem the Puritanical idea of predestination (“Compelling Him to Choose Himself / His Preappointed Pain–“). It is written by an obsessive-compulsive introvert who has been called to poetry. She is compelled by the complex Jung says governs all visionary artists, which drives them to remain true (against rational considerations) to their essentially shamanistic vision.
The shamanic idea of flight or ascension is also contained in Dickinson’s work:
As from the earth the light Balloon
Asks nothing but release–
Ascension that for which it was,
Its soaring Residence.
The spirit looks upon the Dust
That fastened it so long
As a Bird
Defrauded of its song. (1630)
Here death is looked upon as a joyful release–a flight like that of a bird. Birds, especially the eagle, are closely associated with the shaman as symbols of intercession between the gods and humans (Halifax 23), and Dickinson’s poetry is filled with birds. Although the eagle is not prominent, she writes frequently of blue birds, robins, the bobolink, and other birds from her daily observations. She writes of the blue bird:
Before you thought of Spring
Except as a Surmise
You see–God bless his suddenness–
A fellow in the Skies
Of independent Hues
A little weather worn
Of Indigo and Brown-
With specimens of Song
As if for you to choose–
Discretion in the interval
With gay delays he goes
To some superior Tree
Without a single Leaf
And shouts for joy to Nobody
But his seraphic self– (1465)
The “seed form” of such bird song, as Joan Halifax declares, “is found in the psyche of the shaman” (24). The bird is a transcendent symbol, a spiritual symbol par excellence, as the adjective “seraphic” implies. Using bird imagery, Dickinson writes: “With Pinions of Disdain / The soul can farther fly / Than any feather specified / in Ornithology–” (1431). The soul, then, transcends the symbol and, shaman-like, flies.
Like the bridge or plank, Jacob’s Ladder also extends from earth to heaven, and Jacob’s wrestling with the angel at Peniel is a favorite Biblical story for Dickinson. Referring to the poem recounting this story (“A little East of Jordan,” 59), Wolff writes: “Jacob the wrestler was a model for the poet-pugilist; Jacob’s struggle was a starting point for Dickinson as artist” (151). Dickinson alludes to the story in the final lines of the poem that begins “How dare the robins sing” (1724): “Extinct be every hum / In deference to him / Whose garden wrestles with the dew, / At daybreak overcome!” The struggle Wolff refers to is the pain and suffering required of the shaman-poet; the reward comes in the rare moments one is allowed to climb the ladder to insight and transcendence–to ecstasy, one of Dickinson’s favorite words. “Take all away from me,” she writes, “but leave me Ecstasy” (Poem 1640).
Jacob’s Ladder is emblematic of the World Tree which connects the three Cosmic Zones or Planes in which shamans believe the world to be configured: underworld, earth, and sky (Eliade 259; see Figure 4). Far more prominent in Dickinson, however, is another “axis” connecting the three worlds: the Cosmic Mountain. As Eliade asserts, the two symbols–World Tree and Cosmic Mountain–are “complementary,” and “it is only the shamans and the heroes who actually scale the Cosmic Mountain” (Eliade 269). Now Dickinson, a neo-shaman, never actually reaches the other side of the mountain. A little like Moses on Pisgah, she reaches the summit occasionally and has tentative glimpses of the afterlife. Death, she says in “Of Death I try to think like this–” (1558), is something positive that must be seized by the bold:
I do remember when a Child
With bolder Playmates straying
To where a Brook that seemed a Sea
Withheld us by its roaring
From just a Purple Flower beyond
Until constrained to clutch it
If Doom itself were the result,
The boldest leaped, and clutched it–
As in so many of her poems, she seems to be saying that we know the opposites by each other–here death by what we know of life.8
Fig. 4. This photograph by Louis C. Faron nicely illustrates at least four Dickinsonian shamanic motifs: the ascent, the World Tree, drumming, and out of body or supernatural experience. Joan Halifax writes of this picture: “A female machi (shaman) has ascended her rewe or notched pole. The pole has steps, and the machi climbs to the seventh level to complete her skyward journey. She plays a frame drum that assists her in her climb up the World Tree. In the Mapuche region of Chile, the hallucinogens Anadenathera, Datura, and Brugmancia were used during shamanic seances” (85). Note also that the shaman appears to be dressed in white.
As we have seen she compares herself to Vesuvius in “My Life had stood–a Loaded Gun–” (754), just as she does in poem 1705:
Volcanoes be in Sicily
And South America
I judge from my Geography–
Volcanos nearer here
A Lava step at any time
Am I inclined to climb–
A Crater I may contemplate
Vesuvius at Home.
The image of the volcano as herself is a potent symbol, but also, like her famous (albeit inferior) poem, “I never saw a Moor–” (1052), it shows the shamanic ability to travel (fly, as it were) to foreign places without leaving home.
The shaman is able to do this by means of her ability to travel the World Axis. Sometimes she celebrates that axis, just has she has flown via her intuition and imagination to see it:
Purples of Ages–pause for you–
Sunset–reviews her Sapphire Regiment–
Day–drops you her Red Adieu!
Still–Clad in your Mail of ices–
Thigh of Granite–and thew–of Steel–
Heedless–alike–of pomp–or parting
I’m kneeling–still– (666)
Wolff interprets this poem as an “image of nature as distant from human concerns and utterly independent both of God’s force and of mankind’s needs [. . .] because the speaker knows no other way to manifest her respect, she concludes her meditation by ‘kneeling’ in reverence” (434). I suspect there is more Wolff in this comment than there is Dickinson. A nineteenth-century critic would probably label the speaker’s reverence “pantheistic,” but I would call it an example of original participation, what Lucien Lévy-Bruhl called participation mystique. Consider what Jungian psychotherapist D. Stephenson Bond says: “the experience of participation mystique is bound up with a subjective perception of intensity, usually an emotional and physical intensity. Perhaps the greater the intensity, the more likely it is that objects will be experienced as having a life of their own” (9). That Dickinson never actually saw the snow-capped volcanic peak of Teneriffe in the Canaries with her physical eyes is evidence of the intensity of her participation. She projects something of herself, whom she sees as a volcano, unto Teneriffe. The mountain is hardly distant from human affairs or from God. In a most profound sense, it is human; it is God–just as it (and God) is in (and therefore is) the speaker herself. It connects the three worlds she as a shaman-poet is most concerned with.
If the number of poems with a posthumous speaker weren’t evidence enough of Dickinson’s interest in the underworld, one of her few poems published in her lifetime (and one of her better poems) should confirm her interest. Here is the first stanza of the 1859 version:
Safe in their Alabaster Chambers
Untouched by Morning
And untouched by Noon–
Sleep the meek members of the Resurrection–
Rafter of satin,
And Roof of stone. (216)
Even though she sees the “members of the Resurrection” as sleeping (or lying in the 1861 version), a modern point of view, the poem is sufficient to show her interest in the afterworld. Another poem suggests that the sleep of these dead ones continues only until the Resurrection:
‘Tis Anguish grander than Delight
‘Tis Resurrection Pain–
The meeting Bands of smitten Face
We questioned to, again.
‘Tis Transport wild as thrills the Graves
When Cerements let go
And Creatures clad in Miracle
Go up by Two and Two. (984)
Here she writes as a true believer in the Christian doctrine of the Resurrection.
The number of poems which show her interest in the middle and upper Cosmic Zones are almost too numerous to give adequate examples. She has an incredible number of poems about flowers, birds, butterflies, sunsets, and many other aspects of nature; and an amazing number of these are introverted poems that examine the meaning of these and other images vis-à-vis her inner life–her psyche. Consider the following:
‘Tis Sunrise–Little Maid–Hast Thou
No Station in the Day?
‘Twas not thy wont, to hinder so–
Retrieve thine industry–
‘Tis Noon–My little Maid–
Alas–and art thou sleeping yet?
The Lily–waiting to be Wed–
The Bee–Hast thou forgot?
My little Maid–‘Tis Night–Alas
That Night should be to thee
Instead of Morning–Had’st thou broached
Thy little Plan to Die–
Dissuade thee, if I could not, Sweet,
I might have aided–thee– (908)
Gilbert and Gubar call this one of Dickinson’s “most chilling dramatic monologues” (623). Dickinson interweaves images of three periods of the day (sunrise, noon, and night) with the lily and the bee to create a portrait of the shadow archetype. She speaks, as Gilbert and Gubar assert, “as the murderous madwoman whom she ordinarily fears” (623).
Because it is an archetype, the shadow, or double, can be positive as well as negative. Shamans can sometimes become animals, which thus become their archetypal doubles. Eliade writes: “we might speak of a new identity for the shaman, who becomes an animal-spirit, and ‘speaks,’ sings, or flies like the animals and birds” (93). Moreover, “the tutelary animal not only enables the shaman to transform himself; it is in a manner his ‘double,’ his alter ego” (94). In Dickinson we find at least a parallel to this idea in the following delightful love poem:
Because the Bee may blameless hum
For Thee a Bee do I become
List even unto Me.
Because the Flowers unafraid
May lift a look on thine, a Maid
Alway a Flower would be.
Nor Robins, Robins need not hide
When Thou upon their Crypts intrude
So Wings bestow on Me
Or Petals, or a Dower of Buzz
That Bee to ride, or Flower of Furze
I that way worship Thee. (869)
To say the least, the speaker of this poem is androgynous. The bee, the robin, even the flower (the furze is prickly; it has spines) are all masculine images. The beloved is apparently a she, so that we have another example of gender-crossing and same-sex love where the speaker transforms herself into a bee, a robin and a “Flower of Furze.”
Such transformation is typical not only of the shaman, but also of the trickster archetype. For example, as Eliade notes, the Nordic trickster Loki “can take various animal shapes” (386, n.39). Other tricksters from North American Indian culture which are associated with the shaman are Raven and Otter (Halifax 38).
Note how in the following (a poem about the sky–the third Cosmic Plane–and flight) Dickinson subtly identifies with the bird:
She staked her Feathers–Gained an Arc–
This time–beyond the estimate
Of Envy, or of Men–
And now, among Circumference–
Her steady Boat be seen–
At home–among the Billow–As
The Bough where she was born– (798)
The bird symbolizes transcendence, the kind that achieves “Circumference,” another of Dickinson’s favorite words. If the Cosmic Mountain and the World Tree are the center, the axis, then circumference contains the achievement of wholeness, what Jung calls the Self. Taken as a whole, it is what her poetry achieves–the culmination of her personal myth.
Here is a final example of Dickinson’s original participation:
My Faith is larger than the Hills–
So when the Hills decay–
My Faith must take the Purple Wheel
To show the Sun the way–
‘Tis first He steps upon the Vane–
And then–upon the Hill–
And then abroad the World He go
To do His Golden Will–
And if His Yellow feet should miss–
The Bird would not arise–
The Flowers would slumber on their Stems–
No Bells have Paradise–
How dare I, therefore, stint a faith
On which so vast depends–
Lest Firmament should fail for me–
The Rivet in the Bands (766)
This poem reminds me of Jung’s discussion, recounted in Aniela Jaffé’s oral biography of him, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, with a Taos Pueblo chief, who said:
“[. . .] we are a people who live on the roof of the world;
we are the sons of Father Sun, and with our religion
we daily help our father to go across the sky. We do
this not only for ourselves, but for the whole world.
If we were to cease practicing our religion, in ten
years the sun would no longer rise. Then it would
be night forever.” (252)
The shaman-poet is the rivet that holds human life together on this planet. To a rational, extraverted mind, the idea is absurd. Note, however, what Bond writes:
Our culture is now experiencing the death of myth, which is precisely what Jung meant when he said that when the aging myths of former generations pass away, the mythmaking process is constellated in the lives of individuals. For the birth of the personal myth in the imagination of a single individual may become the rebirth of the greater myths in the imagination of the culture. (75)
The poem I’ve just quoted is part of Emily Dickinson’s personal myth, one rooted, like shamanism itself, in the collective unconscious of our species.
The high regard Dickinson had for poetry she illustrates in the following poem:
To pile like Thunder to its close
Then crumble grand away
While Everything created hid
This–would be Poetry–
Or Love–the two coeval come–
We both and neither prove–
Experience either and consume–
For None see God and live– (1247)
Like a traditional shaman, she would, “after great pain” “see God and live.” Dickinson, of course, is not a traditional shaman; she is a neo-shaman who equates the archetype of love with poetry and through that poetry does what shamans have always done.9 She explores the major issues of human life–love, ecstasy, pain, suffering, death, doubt, faith, the afterlife, a Higher Power–and she reports what she’s found. That was her job on earth, her personal myth, her letter to the world.
1Sources vary as to the number of poems published in her lifetime. The editor of the authoritative edition of her poems puts the number at seven (Johnson, Poems of Emily Dickinson, vol. 3, 1207) and a recent biographer puts it at eleven (Wolff 245). In any case, the number is very small compared to the 1775 poems she actually wrote.
2Other critics who have to varying degrees used Jung to analyze Dickinson include Theodora Ward (The Capsule of the Mind), Albert Gelpi (Emily Dickinson: The Mind of the Poet and The Tenth Muse: The Psyche of the American Poet), and Martin Bickman, American Romantic Psychology). I know of none, however, who has viewed Dickinson in quite the way I view her.
3Although traditional shamanism is on the decline, shamans continue to practice their rituals and beliefs. See “Korean Shamanism,” by Joon-hyuk Kang. Other contemporary cultures that practice shamanism include the Aborigines of Australia, the Huichol Indians of Mexico (Halifax 70-71; see Figure 3 above), and the modern Maya in such locations as Chiapas and Yucatán, Mexico, and Guatemala (Schuster 50-53).
4Despite the wide separation of these poems in The Complete Poems, we do not know even the approximate date of the second poem; it could be early or late. See Johnson, Poems of Emily Dickinson , vol. 3, 1166.
5For example, take poem 985:
The Missing All–prevented Me
From missing minor Things.
If nothing larger than a World’s
Departure from a Hinge–
Or Sun’s extinction, be observed–
‘Twas not so large that I
Could lift my Forehead from my work
The loss here, however, goes beyond public recognition of her work. No doubt it includes the “Big Loss” I’ve alluded to. In any case, this poem is another example of Dickinson’s obsessive devotion to her vocation as a poet.
6Here, incidentally, is a good example of her use of dashes to emphasize her meaning: the word “alone” made alone by the dashes.
7Interestingly, Dickinson’s contemporary, Christina Rossetti (they were both born in 1830), responded favorably to the edited, posthumous volume of Dickinson’s work that appeared in 1890. Rossetti wrote to her brother William on 6 December 1890: “There is a book I might have shown you. [. . .] Poems by Emily Dickinson lately sent me from America–but perhaps you know it. She had (for she is dead) a wonderful Blakean gift, but therewithal a startling recklessness of poetic ways and means” (qtd. in Doriani 37). We do not know for certain whether Dickinson read Rossetti, although it is quite possible that she did. For a discussion of this possibility, see Marsh 539-540. For a discussion of Goblin Market in the context of Dickinson’s poetry, see Daneen Wardrop, Emily Dickinson’s Gothic.
8This reading is not entirely original with me. Poet Richard Wilbur comments on “Success is counted sweetest” (67): “Certainly Emily Dickinson’s critics are right in calling this poem an expression of the idea of compensation–of the idea that every evil confers some balancing good, that through bitterness we learn to appreciate the sweet, that ‘Water is taught by thirst'” (131). Thanks to my colleague, Richard Spiese, at California State University, Long Beach, for drawing my attention to this essay. Another example of Dickinson’s doctrine of compensation is poem 689:
The Zeroes–taught us–Phosphorus–
We learned to like the Fire
By playing Glaciers–when a Boy–
And Tinder–guessed–by power
Of Opposite–to balance Odd–
If White–a Red–must be!
The shaman-poet who lives in both the natural world and the supernatural world and experiences both genders is thus able to know each of these pairs of opposites intimately.
Judith Farr calls Dickinson “a poet of the transitus,” the word theologians of the Middle Ages used to refer to the “soul’s passage” from life to “Eternity” (6-7). With her sister Lavinia and her brother Austin she talked about “‘the Extension of Consciousness, after Death'” (qtd. in Farr 9). Dickinson’s siblings “were always aware of the facility with which their sister’s contemplation moved between this world and an hypothetical other” (9).
9Significantly, Jung has written that “the psychological inference that may be drawn from shamanistic symbolism [. . . is] that it is a projection of the individuation process” (Alchemical Studies 341).
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–Copyright © Clifton Snider, 2000.
This essay first appeared, in a different form, in The San Francisco Jung Institute Library Journal 14 (1996): 33-64.
Last revised: 31 December 2000.
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To read more about the poetry and criticism of Clifton Snider,
click on Poetry and Criticism. The Age of the Mother has poetry
Read about his Snider’s latest book of poetry, The Alchemy of Opposites.
Read about his novels, Wrestling with Angels: A Tale of Two Brothers, Bare Roots, and Loud Whisper.
Page last revised: 21 January 2004.
California State University, Long Beach