The Smut of Emily Dickinson

I would not paint — a picture –

I’d rather be the One

Its bright impossibility

To dwell — delicious — on –

And wonder how the fingers feel

Whose rare — celestial — stir –

Evokes so sweet a Torment –

Such sumptuous — Despair –

I would not talk, like Cornets –

I’d rather be the One

Raised softly to the Ceilings –

And out, and easy on –

Through Villages of Ether –

Myself endued Balloon

By but a lip of Metal –

The pier to my Pontoon –

Nor would I be a Poet –

It’s finer — own the Ear –

Enamored — impotent — content –

The License to revere,

A privilege so awful

What would the Dower be,

Had I the Art to stun myself

With Bolts of Melody!

—Emily Dickinson

(With apologies for WordPress’s lummox-like formatting decision to insert a mandatory single line space after every press of the “enter” key)

This poem, which my colleague and I used to set our students in I. B. English A1, became the eye of a whirlwind for some time, and as such illustrates problems surrounding the teaching of poetic interpretation.[1]

Before telling you more, let me mention the work done by I. A. Richards on poor interpretation and misinterpretation in his famous book Practical Criticism. Richards gave a number of unidentified poems to his students to interpret, and then he analyzed their work.  He found that a number of impediments exist to the sound reading of poetry. One of them, usually explicable as the result of faulty preliminary understanding, is to achieve one small tenuous insight and let that serve as the basis of a thorough (mis)interpretation of the poem as a whole.

I think this is what happened to send my colleague to my room one day after her English class, eyes wide with upset. Both of us knew that Dickinson sometimes stretches syntax and signification, but we were confident that, handled right, the poem was not too hard for sixteen-year-olds with a good command of English to get. Both of us reject the view, held by some literature teachers, that any opinion of meaning offered by a student must be accepted as valid, even if it cannot be justified by a careful examination of the work interpreted. If the opinion has its origins in careless or cursory reading, we are certainly not obliged to credit it.

So when my colleague told me that one of her students, reporting on this poem to the class, had asserted that it was “about masturbation,” we knew that we needed to do some quick but calm remediation. The basis of the student’s “interpretation” depended on a lurid and decontextualized notice of the words “fingers feel,” “lip,” and “stun myself.” Leave it to a sixteen-year-old or a graduate student in critical theory to come up with that! It is one thing to assert that this poem makes use of some erotic imagery—perhaps even autoerotic imagery—but another to say that it is “about masturbation.” We therefore decided that we should discourage students from drawing hasty conclusions about the poem’s subject matter from a cursory reading or from overemphasizing a poem’s debt to Eros. Knowing that by the time my own students appeared for their class this “interpretation” would have swept through the cafeteria, I preemptively reproved hasty overgeneralizations about poems based on cursory readings and, in particular, a view that this poem is “about masturbation.” I accompanied that reproof with some hints at how the poem might convincingly be interpreted. Since I didn’t want the students to take my offering as a “canned interpretation,” I didn’t go into comprehensive detail, but they took my point.

Eventually my colleague and I determined that “the masturbation poem” had gone back to being an ambivalent and deeply felt meditation on art, the artist, and the audience and that Dickinson’s work was not in danger of being honored during Banned Books Week. (Mind you, we would not have minded teaching a Banned Books Week poem, and indeed we taught Philip Larkin’s “High Windows,” though we allowed students who found it objectionable to demur discreetly to the study of it.)

Here is a bit of imitation Dickinson, in this case meditating on interpretation from an inexperienced student’s point of view:

Nor would I be a teacher –

I’d rather be the one

Who conjures a significance –

Not rigorous but fun –

A deconstructionist declares

My thesis — the last word –

No matter how divorced from words –

In import how absurd –

Let me end with a nod in the direction not of critical theory, much of which is repellent and unreadable, but of one of its critics, the late Denis Dutton, who wrote an article worth noting in connection with the determination of meaning. He asserts that the author’s intentions cannot be dismissed, and he proves the assertion by “interpreting” a passage of David Hume as being ironic, which of course it is. Most of us agree that irony exists, though sixteen-year-olds have their doubts. If an author’s intention didn’t matter, what would happen to irony? If intentionalism will not go away, neither will the belief that Dickinson would not have written a poem “about masturbation.” And if that doesn’t clinch the argument, there is always recourse to the poem itself.


[1] I suspect that it also illustrates the phenomenon of chain-pulling, which sixteen-year-olds love, and that of prurience, in which love they are like the voice of Tom Lehrer’s song “Smut,” which sings, “All books can be indecent books/Though recent books are bolder,/For filth (I’m glad to say) is in/the mind of the beholder./When correctly viewed/Everything is lewd.”)

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