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Kohler, Michelle: "'Her – last Poems': Barrett Browning, Brontë, and Posthumous Authorship in Dickinson’s Elegies "

“Her – last Poems”:
Barrett Browning, Brontë, and Posthumous Authorship in Dickinson’s Elegies

Michelle Kohler, Tulane University

This paper will examine Dickinson’s poems about the deaths of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Charlotte Brontë, approaching them not primarily as poems that mourn the dead or that eulogize women writers but as poems that think critically about how readers mourn the deaths of authors. The poems stage scenes of mourning only to problematize the act of mourning an author’s death by casting readerly grief as overwrought (as readers “Suffocate – with easy Wo –”) or strangely morbid in its attention to the author’s body (as they strive “To look opon Her like – alive –”). While these poems critique the effort to initiate an intimate relationship between reader and dead writer or otherwise to revitalize the writer, the poems attribute vitality to the writer’s oeuvre, a vitality that is threatened by a desire for the author herself. In “Her – last Poems –” (Fr600), for example, Dickinson skewers the notion of a writer’s “last Poems,” a phrase referring to the title of Barrett Browning’s posthumous collection and one that seems at once to elicit the poem’s hyperbolic attachment to Barrett Browning herself and to account for the poem’s dramatic account of the end of poetry. Dickinson suggests that “last” makes us think too much of the dead author and thus distracts us from the vitality of “Poems.” The poems I will examine also evince an ironic concern with where the writer is and where she (or the reader) travels to, variously placing the dead author in graves, heaven, and European places; these references show Dickinson thinking both literally and figuratively about where writers are, whether dead or alive, in relation to readers and in relation to texts. Ultimately, I will suggest that these poems can help us to think about our own relationship to, and distance from, Dickinson as a dead author whose work was published almost entirely posthumously and about how Dickinson herself might have conceptualized her relation to a posthumous readership. I consider this particularly with regard to how we choose to approach the manuscripts made available at (and by) her death: How might Dickinson’s dead authors inform our approach to her as dead author? How might she help us understand what motivates our efforts to “look opon Her like – alive –” at the scene of writing, to envision the physical processes by which she wrote her poems?