Examining the fields of Philosophy and English, one can say without a doubt that two extremely influential people in these two areas were Plato for his work in Greek philosophy, formulating the “Ideal Form” and recording Socrates’ dialogues, and Emily Dickinson for her contributions to American Letters, specifically through her poetry. But one would rarely think of these two well known figures in relation to each other, if not only for the vast ocean of time that separates them – over two millennia. Examining issues common to both poets, one may find more in common than at first glance; the issue of phenomenology or interpretation, concepts of imagination and knowledge as they relate to inspiration and poesy, and finally a formal treatment of tension due to time-space and death tropes as an extension of the metaphysical Ideal. Through a synthesis of Plato’s groundbreaking ideas on universal archetypes and recurring themes such as death and impermanence in Dickinson’s poetry, I wish to show that she could be regarded as a Platonic philosopher in the highest degree.
In many cases, people wish to simplify Dickinson’s poetry as “just” personal diversion, not meant for scholarly treatment. This argument is supported by the sheer amount of poetry included in letters written to friends and family from Emily Dickinson from her home in Amherst, Massachusetts. This “Poetry of the Portfolio”, or a writer’s creation of literature simply for the enjoyment of the act itself, without the desire of publication (Ferlazzo 20), mainly sees Dickinson’s poetry as parochial as her correspondence, without regard for the philosophical or even literary merit. Also, with Dickinson’s life being what it was, one could also argue that she had neither the education nor intellectual capacity to know of these complicated Platonic Forms or philosophize about time or death.
Whatever the case may be, one thing is for certain: the proverbial jury is still out on the case of a holistic interpretation of Emily Dickinson’s works. Surprisingly, one finds a very similar case in a treatment of Plato’s work. When reading Dickinson’s work, interpretations abound. Even between scholars, there are so many readings of her more well known poems such as “’Twas like a Maelstrom”, that honest men and women agree to disagree. As one scholar and teacher puts it, “Dickinson’s poems and Dickinson studies, like mutually notching maelstroms, whirl around fundamental questions – from punctuation to poetic intention – that can never really be settled,” (Ladin 3). As for Plato’s body of work, the problem of interpretation is much the same: with what intent did Plato record his Dialogues and Republic? How are we to take the many different voices in Plato’s work, when in the end they sum up to something greater than the whole? “For his works abound with mathematical examples, illustrations from…Athenian life, quasi-religious myths and quasi-rhetorical speeches.” One sees the same theme as with Dickinson, “It is not surprising that over the ages interpreters have failed the test,” (Tarrant 1). Whatever the case may be, one can conclude that these two poets (in the truest sense of the Greek poesis, or “creation”) spark something within the human psyche that has yet to be quantified.
Moving from similarities between the difficulties of interpretation to actual interpretation, Dickinson’s body of work treats the Platonic Philosopher to a spectacular view of her life, as well as opening the reader’s eyes to the subtlety and intricacy of her poetry. Regarding Plato’s work, we see a particular emphasis on getting in touch with the perfect Forms or “the Ideal” from which all matter emanates. Applying this to a reading of Dickinson’s poetry, one searches for recurring themes, noticing the subtle similarities and differences in language and trope, an attempt at discovering the literary Ideal. For example, when the world is examined through the eyes of a Platonist, all different breeds and ages of a dog can be synthesized into one, Ideal, Formulaic concept of a dog. This information is then imprinted on our soul or psyche, and this is how one comes to the realization that when one sees an animal with four legs wagging its tail, the concept of a dog rushes into our brain. Extending the metaphor, Dickinson’s poetry could be said to reach us on this a priori level of knowledge, whereas the reader may not be able to reach a specific, concrete interpretation, he or she can come up with broad interpretations of the archetypes presented throughout her work. For example, birds and bees appear numerous times throughout the body of poems, and through a little research (or ingenuity) one realizes that these symbols could be used to represent the Puritan sexual ethic. Not only does this help with the interpretation of any poem containing this specific trope, but it also opens up more questions. Why birds and bees? Why did Puritans choose to hide behind this façade of natural rhetoric? As hinted at above in the former paragraph, each question answered with Dickinson is sure to bring up many more that this paper has neither the time nor space to examine. This driving at the essence of a work rather than stopping for individual interpretations is referred to as phenomenology, and can prove useful in interpreting intricate texts with deep archetypes such as Dickinson’s letters.
Relating this poesis to the Ideal in Emily Dickinson’s poetry raises yet another question that I will attempt to answer: If this a priori knowledge is possessed in each one of us, why is it that most people cannot be such great poets as she? Also, where does this knowledge reside? How do we access it? Looking at one of my favorite poems, we read:
It’s all I have to bring to-day,
This, and my heart beside,
This, and my heart, and all the fields,
And all the meadows wide.
Be sure you count , should I forget,
Some one the sum could tell,
This, and my heart, and all the bees
Which in the clover dwell.
I posit a Platonic interpretation of this poem: the “it” and “this” is in fact the seat of this a priori knowledge that gives unadulterated access to “all the fields, and all the meadows wide,” much like Wordsworth’s “mind’s eye”. Modern terms for this place refer to it as the imagination, memory, or psyche. Each of these concepts tie into the Greek concept of mnemosyne, “the gift of memory, the mother of the muses,” (Plato, Theaetetus 191d). Calling on the muses is a tradition that dates back centuries, and when giving any scholarly treatment to Platonic Forms, one must take it into account, for this concept is the gateway to the oral and literary tradition, the seat of all creative knowledge and inspiration. The act of “invoking the muse” is a metaphor for this calling down of the knowledge of the Ideal and converting it (through poesis) to an understandable oral or literary form. In the eyes of a Platonist, this inspiration is of the utmost importance; what separates the wheat from the chaff. Unfortunately, it happens differently for each person - Coleridge’s laudanum, Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey, and Dickinson’s secluded upper room – and for those who are not literary geniuses, maybe not at all. This secluded upper room ironically provided Dickinson with the ability to be the one who climbed out of Plato’s allegorical cave to see “the light”, and perhaps provides some explanation as to why we are still struggling with her works to this day.
As noted above, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave can provide us with a look into what life is like for these people who find their inspiration, then come back and unfortunately not being understood seclude or destroy themselves, for the ones in the shadows have only a vague conception of the Ideal that the subject has experienced first-hand. This obviously creates tensions between the fleeting, mortal existence of humanity and the immortality of these Ideals imprinted on our psyche. Hence Wordsworth’s fleeting Intimations of Immortality and the continuous tension in Dickinson’s poetry between life in the outside world of nature and her cloistered existence, “tug(ging) childish at (her) bars, only to fail again”. Also, in Dickinson’s treatment of death in much of her war poetry, one finds how acutely aware she is of the impermanence of human life (“They dropped like flakes, they dropped like stars”), compared with the staggering immortality of the Platonic Ideal, or even a poem written down on paper. These tensions in time and space illuminate even more genius on the part of Emily Dickinson, whether intentional or unintentional. Perhaps she knew she was going to die, and chose to live a life dead to the world, transcending the material through her literary poesy, further manifesting the tension from her poetry into real life. Whichever the case, she definitely uses these two integral parts of human existence to great effect in extending her conception of the metaphysical Ideal.
As vitriolic as the idea of locking oneself in a room for most of one’s life sounds to most people today, it is the way Emily Dickinson lived her life. Amazingly and most surprising of all, she seems happy throughout her life, too. Perhaps it is in fact this absurd nature of her life as well as the ambiguity and difficulty of her poetry that has kept and keeps people interested in her to this day. Looking at her life from the view of Platonic philosophy, one is tempted to say that ironically she indeed was this person who climbed out of the allegorical cave, and is still revealing things about the world around us through her immortal poetry. Unfortunately, there are still no definitive answers, and scholars continue trying to respond to questions such as, “What was the intent behind her poetry?” And like Emily Dickinson, Plato gives us a glimpse of what is to come; we have yet to understand him completely, and his work is thousands of years older than Dickinson’s. If it is any indication, I think both of these poet-philosophers will continue to be studied and debated for a long time, continuing the tradition of the immortality of text.
Works Cited and Consulted
Appelbaum, Stanley. Emily Dickinson Selected Poems. Dover Publications, Inc. Mineola, New York. 1990.
Ferlazzo, Paul J. Critical Essays on Emily Dickinson. G. K. Hall & Co. Boston, Massachusetts. 1984.
Ladin, Jay. “Goblin With a Gauge: Teaching Emily Dickinson”. From The Emily Dickinson Journal. Volume XI, No. 2. The Johns Hopkins University Press. Baltimore, Maryland. 2000.
Tarrant, Harold and Hugh Tredennick. Plato: The Last Days of Socrates. Penguin Books. New York, New York. 1993.
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