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Dorkin, Andrew: "'the mind alone without corporeal friend': Emily Dickinson’s Depictions of Language"

“the mind alone without corporeal friend”: Emily Dickinson’s Depictions of Language

Andrew Dorkin, University at Buffalo, SUNY

Arguments asserting Dickinson’s attention to visual and material aspects of her manuscript page carry with them under-examined implications concerning her perceptions and conceptions of the world around her—and of language in particular. This paper reconsiders the extent to which Dickinson conceived of her poems as visual, aural, material, or immaterial by looking at the poems and letters that contain references to or depictions of language itself: do Dickinson’s recorded thoughts about language offer any evidence of her conceiving language as a fundamentally visual or material medium?
Scholars have emphasized readings of visual effects in individual poems, measurement and analysis of the physical manuscripts, demonstrations of metrical experimentation, and historical details of Dickinson’s reading and schooling, but few have sought evidence in Dickinson’s own metaphorical and non-metaphorical articulations about language and writing. Looking closely at passages where Dickinson defines, dramatizes, critiques, or contrasts the spoken and written word, I find little evidence in these “depictions of language” to support Dickinson aspiring to a primarily visual poetics or consistently conceiving of writing as a visual act on the field of a page. My analysis does, however, highlight “One note from One Bird” (Fr1478), in which Dickinson entangles the visual and aural by mixing eye- and ear- rhymes; I argue that this short, relatively late poem implies her trajectory toward a poetics that, far from asserting the primacy of either the visual or aural dimensions of language, seeks—much more characteristically—to cultivate tensions between them.