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Romanticism on the Net

Numéro 38-39, mai 2005

Transatlantic Romanticism

Sous la direction de Joel Pace, Lance Newman et Chris Koenig-Woodyard

Direction : Michael Eberle-Sinatra (directeur)

Éditeur : Université de Montréal

ISSN : 1467-1255 (numérique)

DOI : 10.7202/011672ar

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Finding Herself Alone: Emily Dickinson, Victorian Women Novelists, and the Female Subject

Nancy Mayer

Northwest Missouri State University


Anglo-American Romanticism, beginning with Wordsworth and then beginning again with Emerson, is, in large part, a long conversation about subjectivity, especially about how to reconcile a pure "transparent" perceptive power of the poetic imagination with the recognition of other subjectivities and the limitations of one's own identity. It is a conversation that most critics have assumed excluded women writers. As a lyric poet whose subject is subjectivity, Emily Dickinson has been the intermittent exception to this rule as, in years past, the only recognized female participant in literary American Romanticism. The speculative interiority of her work does, in fact, set her apart from her countrywomen, but not from the English women writers she extravagantly admired. In placing Dickinson's poem alongside the novels of the Victorian British women novelists, I find a common interest in the existential problem of subjectivity, with central characters who could be Dickinson's lyric subject, but placed more firmly in a social setting and within the constraints of gender. I maintain that in Dickinson's poems, as in the novels of Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Emily Brontë, there is a conscious ethical engagement with the opposition between the possibilities of Romantic transcendence and the necessity of respecting the limits that define us. Although their ethical perspectives are different, each of these late Romantic women writers re-examines what it means to be a self alone.


It has become a commonplace of feminist literary theory that nineteenth-century women writers do not find themselves alone. Whether the absence of the isolated female subject is regarded as the unhappy result of women internalizing their status as "other" or the happy result of women's talent for community, empathy, and social awareness, nineteenth-century women writers have not been read into the century-long conversation about the existential limits and nature of the self.[1] The Romantic subject who confronts in solitude the sublime landscapes of the Lake District or the inner landscapes of mood and memory is a poet and a man; the greatest nineteenth-century women writers in England choose the social landscape of the novel to explore, and they do their exploring through characters who are defined by personal characteristics and particular circumstances rather than by the transcendent aspirations of the Romantic lyric poet.


In the United States, however, the most distinctive woman's voice in nineteenth-century literature belongs to Emily Dickinson, a lyric poet whose subject is subjectivity and whose natural habitat is solitude. In spite of the truncated, elliptical, and introspective nature of both her poetry and her letters, Dickinson read and extravagantly admired the populous, multi-plotted Victorian novels of Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë, and George Eliot. In re-reading those novels in close conjunction with Dickinson's poems, I find female characters who not only represent female subjectivity but also confront subjectivity as an existential problem. Gender is not incidental in these books because both the characters and their authors tend to see more clearly than their male counterparts the narrow place the world has made for any given consciousness. Constrained by lives that offer too little scope for their intelligence and talent, Brontë's and Eliot's middle class Victorian heroines are forced to emulate the productive idleness of poets. However, rather than the "sad still music of humanity," they must listen to the noisy imprecations of uncomprehending brothers, lovers, uncles and friends. What I wish to do in this essay is not to examine the influence of the novels on Dickinson's poems (which, I believe, is diffuse and indirect) but to consider what it is the novels and the poems have in common and what those commonalties might tell us about the revisions that late Romantic writers—and particularly these late Romantic women writers—bring to ideas of Romantic subjectivity.


Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë, and George Eliot share with Dickinson a profound interest in the boundaries that both limit and define us. Their main characters tend to question those limits consciously, as they choose between a spirituality that transcends personality and the rewards and dangers of personal attachment. It is my contention that the speakers in many of Dickinson's poems, like the heroines of the novels she loved, choose to align themselves with the limitations of circumstance, desire, fear, embodiment and mortality that define given lives. Furthermore, I believe that for both the novelists and the poet, the choice was deeply ethical, although the ethical imperative of the novels is different from that of the poems.


Gudrun Grabher writes that Dickinson's brand of self-reliance "presupposes a sense of self in contrast to others but implies a sense of self at the center of the universe " (228). It is this unwieldy self at the center that I believe the four novels I analyze below embody in a young, central, female character. The ethical responsibility for the novelists is to be true to that centrality, that vibrant subjectivity, at the novel's core and also to the surrounding world of multiple subjects, which is the novel's native ground. The novelist sends forth her character to negotiate—well or badly—the essential fact of her own central subjectivity with the reality of other subjects. In so doing, the novelist functions like an experimental scientist sending her highly individualistic lab animals into the complex but controlled world of the novel. Dickinson, in her most characteristic poems, is the researcher who draws a sample from a single specimen and, examining it with a microscope, finds a deeply interior landscape that is potentially shared by many or all human subjects. Her responsibility is to describe what she finds with ruthless honesty and to recognize both the significance of her vision and its necessary, even stimulating limitations.


The Romanticism Dickinson responds to most directly is Emerson's. She shares with Emerson a reliance on deeply subjective experience, though not his faith in the transcendent subject. In an article on Dickinson's "critique" of Emersonian self-reliance, Shira Wolosky points out that Emerson and Dickinson are not "merely opposed. [...] The two poets rather stand in something like inverse ratio. Emerson's exuberance, in fact, carries with it strenuous anxiety, just as Dickinson's anxiety often breaks free into exuberance" (138). The following poem is an example, if not of sheer exuberance, then of a willingness like Emerson's to peel away ego and earthly affections in a fierce hankering after transcendence:

I saw no way—the Heavens were stitched—

I felt the columns close—

The Earth reversed her Hemispheres—

I touched the Universe—

And back it slid—and I alone—

A Speck upon a Ball—,

Went out upon Circumference—

Beyond the Dip of Bell—


The sketchy narrative suggests a soul yearning for and finding the place where "I am nothing; I see all; the Currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God" (Emerson 10). The striving in the first stanza is Emersonian, although the otherworldly imagery—the cosmos hastily stitched together against the incursions of the individual ego and the temple columns that, when the speaker approaches, close like a malfunctioning electronic door—is pure Dickinson. The main difference between the teleology of the "transparent eyeball" passage quoted above and that implied at the end of the poem is the superfluous particle of ego left in Dickinson's account. The Speck upon a Ball sounds both out of place and vulnerable; its triumph may be absurd. Especially if we take into account the many Dickinson poems of unreasonable attachment to places or persons and irreconcilable grief when they are lost, Emerson’s transcendence of the ties that bind brothers and the dearest of friends (Nature 10) is also unbearably lonely.


In his book Emily Dickinson and the Problem of Others, Christopher Benfey begins with an interest "in ways the lyric poet engages or fails to engage a world of other people" (1). I am suggesting that this ethical difficulty exists for all those Romantic writers whose subject is subjectivity, and, to modify (and oversimplify) Benfey's argument, that Dickinson confronts the problem of others through a characteristically lyric strategy of imaginative introspection. Her poetry allows neither philosophy's sanctuary from personal emotion nor the comforts of fiction's narrative teleology. It dwells in a deeply interior perspective that, in order to be successful, must be recognized as both a common and a private place. For Dickinson, one way to take account of others is to contemplate losing, either through grief or her own death, the explicit attachments that tie her to a particular, if limited, life.


In many Dickinson poems, Heaven is figured forth as a transcendent temptation to a subject who is loyal or at least intrinsically attached to the circumstances, limitations, and affections of ordinary human life. Heaven is the pea under the shell—the elusive treasure offered to a shrewd Yankee who resists giving over either the joys of life on earth or her hold on the beloved dead for a prize that is merely a promise. In the following poem, the speaker helplessly explains that the proffered reward is unsuitable, but she simultaneously realizes that backing out of the game is not an option:

Their Height in Heaven comforts not—

Their Glory—nought to me—

'Twas best imperfect—as it was—

I'm finite—I can't see—

The House of Supposition—

The Glimmering Frontier that

Skirts the Acres of Perhaps—

To me—shows insecure—

The Wealth I had—contented me—

If 'twas a meaner size—

Then I had counted it until

It pleased my narrow Eyes—

Better than larger values—

That show however true—

This timid life of Evidence

Keeps pleading—"I don't know."



This poem hints at the ongoing theme of inconsolable loss that haunts so many Dickinson poems. The petulance of the first line is characteristic of those Dickinson poems where a speaker in mourning refuses the consolation that the dead are better off in heaven. She is not arguing about whether or not there is an afterlife; she is staking her claim in the present, in her own "finite" consciousness and in an earthly love that is defined by loss. The operative word is the "me" repeated in three lines. The point, to the speaker, is not ultimate truth but a truth that can convince and console the consciousness she now inhabits. The poet here, as in many other poems, acts as an advocate for a Romantic subject who can conceive of the "other values" of transcendence but who clings greedily to the sensual earthly life that pleases "narrow eyes" and is valuable in human terms.


Dickinson's speaker suspects she is being duped by supernatural con artists, but Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre conjures up a presence that may be even more dangerous: a supernatural power with beneficent intentions but clumsy sensibilities. When she imagines divine intervention coming to her aide, she scares herself nearly to death. Young Jane Eyre literally finds herself alone. Locked into the "red room" by her unloving Aunt Reed, the child Jane undergoes an initiation into the Gothic that is in many ways a direct inversion of the initiation into the sublime of another future artist, the young William Wordsworth. The setting for Wordsworth's induction is a remote lake on a moonlit night; the occasion, an exercise of self-conscious free will and schoolboy bravado. After he borrows a shepherd’s boat without permission, the boy's "guilty pleasure" (Prelude I 388) is mingled with the sudden terrible spectacle of an immense cliff that "Rose up between me and the stars, and still/ With measured motion, like a living thing/ Strode after me" (I 409-11). Jane, locked in by herself instead of striking out on her own, is smitten not by nature's grandeur but by her own vivid imagination, which insists upon a personal, horror-stricken response.


Recalling that her kind Uncle Reed requested on his deathbed that she be treated kindly, Jane conjures a terror that the avenging spirit of her dead Uncle will come "with a preternatural voice to comfort me" (17). For young Wordsworth it is the moral element that converts the terrible into the sublime, but not only does Jane's imaginary vision remain horribly unsublimated, its strangeness makes morality irrelevant. Even though Mr. Reed's ghost would come to punish those who have wronged Jane, its clumsy "preternatural" comforts "comfort not", in Dickinson's words; Jane's bafflement in the face of supernatural beneficence anticipates Dickinson's "I'm finite—I can't see—" (J696). Poor "finite" Jane Eyre is reduced to hiding her grief lest she "elicit from the gloom some haloed face, bending over me with strange pity" (17). The experience is utterly subjective, and, unlike the young poet's salutary fear, incapable of being converted into what Wordsworth called a "truth general and operative" ("Preface" 454).


Jane Eyre's resistance to the justice of the uncanny foreshadows her intermittent book-long battle with a spiritual ethic that repudiates personal emotions and ignores what Jane's schoolmate Helen Burns calls the "cast of character" (68)—those habits of personality that, whatever combination of influences produces them, seem ineradicable over a lifetime. Helen Burns, Jane's first antagonist in what may be termed a battle of soul with self, is also a mentor whose influence will serve Jane well during her two great ethical crises: Rochester's attempt to make her his mistress and St. John River's attempt to make her his acolyte and wife. Helen, precociously spiritual, fatally ill, and modeled on the oldest Brontë sister, counsels Jane in a doctrine of immanent spirituality, incorporating "an invisible world and a kingdom of spirits" that watch over earthly life and guarantee universal salvation at life's close (78).[2] If only because she, unlike Helen, feels herself to be embarking on a life that matters very much, the vehement Jane Eyre can never completely accept Helen's theology, focused as it is on spiritual life as an alternative to earthly cares ("Why, then," asks Helen, "should we ever sink overwhelmed with distress, when life is so soon over and death is so certain an entrance to happiness: to glory?" 78).


To some extent, Helen Burns serves rather like Brontë's version of the ubiquitous girl mentors to young heroines who appeared in the novels American women were writing during this period. In contrast to their conformity to religious dogma, however, Helen is a creative theologian who has invented a doctrine of guardian spirits active in the material world and an Emersonian "spark of the spirit [...] the impalpable principle of life and thought" that is immanent and immortal in all human beings (61). It is Helen's belief in her ultimate spiritual dignity and worth that allows Jane to withstand Rochester's seductions. It is, however, her own resistant belief in the value of ordinary life and the love of persons and personalities—a resistance honed against Helen's spirituality—that allows Jane to resist St. John River's chilly temptations into a life of spiritual pride and emotional emptiness.


So far, I have presented Dickinson's and Brontë's sturdy resistance to the appropriation of selves by souls, but this is less than half the picture. Each of these authors also represents spiritual yearning, although in Dickinson the desire is fiercer and darker than in any Charlotte Brontë novel except Villette. In the following poem, the speaker longs to still the voice of self-consciousness, an action that sacrifices both identity and personal attachment—the emotions Dickinson calls "All Heart":

Me from Myself—to banish—

Had I Art—

Impregnable my Fortress

Unto All Heart—

But since Myself—assault Me—

How have I peace

Except by subjugating


And since We're mutual Monarch

How this be

Except by Abdication—

Me—of Me?



The work the reader does to keep track of the split self dramatizes the difficulty of separating the ego—the assaulting "Me"—from the transparent subject, who struggles to be free of the importunate, desiring, self-conscious ego-self. The freedom from self- consciousness that the speaker seeks is a necessary component of transcendence—whether it is the flash of transcendence that surprises the youthful Wordsworth at Tintern Abbey and Emerson in the Concord woods, or the altered state of being sought out by the mystic or the saint. Dickinson emphasizes the cost: all attachment and desire, those emotions that entrap and define a self, and, finally, personal identity itself are the burdens she would lose and the price she would pay.


George Eliot's Maggie Tulliver would understand this poem, or at least the weary self-consciousness that lies behind it. Maggie of Mill on the Floss is a more vibrant child than the young Jane Eyre, but, like Jane, she is also troubled and introspective. The teen-aged Maggie, who has depended on her uncomprehending family for her meager and unreliable emotional sustenance, is thrown back on herself after the crisis that incapacitates her father and impoverishes the family. Maggie is quite capable of unreasonable anger towards those she loves, but her real antagonist is the confused and exhausting voice inside her head:

She rebelled against her lot, she fainted under its loneliness; and fits even of anger and hatred towards her father and mother, who were so unlike what she would have them to be, towards [her brother] Tom, who checked her and met her thought or feeling always by some thwarting difference, would flow over her affections and conscience like a lava stream, and frighten her with a sense that it was not difficult for her to become a demon.



More specifically than Dickinson in "Me from Myself — to banish —" (but utterly in keeping with dozens of poems in which Dickinson's speakers find themselves overwhelmed by the emotions of human relations), Eliot demonstrates why it is that someone would want to barricade herself in a "fortress" impervious to emotion. Although several critics have cited this passage as evidence of the emotional constraints placed upon Victorian girls, it is also, and more to the point here, a terrifying depiction of living within any mind that has been distorted by rage. The reader's sympathy is certainly enlisted on the side of the constantly thwarted Maggie, but in this scene Eliot closes in on the interior perspective—the experience of being trapped within one's own destructive emotions. Maggie's way out comes with her chance discovery of The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, a book that introduces her to the charms of self abnegation, or, as Dickinson would put it, self abdication. Eliot is less worried than many of her modern readers that the desire for selflessness is intrinsically self-destructive, but she recognizes the serious discipline that real self-forgetfulness requires and the dangers to an undisciplined but honest personality who will inevitably fail at the task she has set for herself. The narrator's analysis is compassionate but merciless in its honesty:

With all the hurry of an imagination that could never rest in the present, she sat in the deepening twilight forming plans of self-humiliation and entire devotedness; and in the ardour of first discovery, renunciation seemed to her the entrance into that satisfaction, which she had so long been craving in vain. She had not perceived—how could she until she had lived longer?—the inmost truth of the old monk's outpourings, that renunciation remains sorrow, though a sorrow borne willingly. Maggie was still panting after happiness and was in ecstasy because she had found the key to it.



Renunciation and the force of the desire she has repressed will lay Maggie low at last, but Eliot finds renunciation necessary and morally attractive, more so, perhaps, because the loss of her own religious belief left her firmly committed to the self-absorbing work that she called "Duty."[3] All of Eliot's heroines are tempted by self-obsession, and it is more tempting when it comes in the guise of spiritual detachment. Their most significant challenge is to combine spiritual seeking with empathy. For Maggie, spiritual vanity is overcome by the love of particular persons, but most of the people she loves lead her unwittingly into the temptation of overestimating her own judgment and strength.


Maggie's final crisis of conscience comes in the form of Stephen Guest, her cousin Lucy's glamorous and manipulative fiancé. When he sends her a letter filled with self-pity because she has refused to marry him, concern for Stephen overrides self-interest. "It was Stephen's tone of misery, it was the doubt in the justice of her own resolve that made the balance tremble [...]" (464-65). Maggie's exhausting self-doubt leads to another temptation, weariness of life. Instead of praying for death, however, she prays for meaning, and that meaning can come only if she remains alive and open to experience other than her own: "Surely there was something to be taught her by this experience of great need; and she must be learning a secret of human tenderness and long suffering that the less erring hardly know? 'O God, if my life is to be long, let me live to bless and comfort—'"(465). Clearly, for Eliot, valuable self-forgetfulness comes only with an unselfish attentiveness to other lives, and it is her responsibility to tell us the truth about the necessity for such attentiveness and the difficulty of achieving it.


If we agree with Sharon Cameron's distinction between "the novel or narrative, which connects isolated moments of time to create a story multiply peopled and framed by a social context" and "the lyric voice [which] is solitary and generally speaks of a single moment in time" (23), the end of The Mill on the Floss turns away from Eliot's ethically-informed narrative and into something that is more akin to the intense lyricism of a Dickinson poem. Rather than requiring Maggie to continue her struggle, Eliot grants Maggie "one supreme moment" (471) that collapses the present into the sensual, almost pre-verbal past, resurrecting the child "Maggsie" in the eyes of her perennially disapproving brother Tom (470). In that moment, Maggie and Tom are overcome by a flood that is, in multiple senses of the word, untimely. The end of the novel has felt like a betrayal or at least a mistake to many readers, and the abandonment of Maggie's moral engagement—which requires consequences that develop over time and implicate subjects who are not the self[4]—seems its most serious philosophical flaw. Nevertheless, the flood scene does recall something that is missing in the second half of the book—young Maggie's indomitable ego and the lyric intensity of her early life. Even the reader who invests fully in the mature Maggie's moral seriousness remains reluctant—rightly reluctant, I think—to relinquish the younger Maggie's passion and presence, her forthright and necessary selfishness. The drowning becomes an elegy for the frankly self-absorbed and all-absorbing Maggie Tulliver who dominated the first half of the novel. Without that haunting presence, we cannot fully realize the cost of Maggie's empathy with those who inhabit a world that cannot contain a girl child so scandalously alive.


Cameron's distinction between the novelist's imagination and that of the lyric poet also marks a difference in the ethical positions that inform them. Instead of imagining and then empathizing with particular lives over time, Dickinson inspects, frame by frame, emotional and spiritual conditions that are deeply subjective but not idiosyncratic. Reading her poems is like looking at magnified slides of human cells: they are intimately revealing but not personal. The information they give is about the secret, interior lives we live in common. More than empathy, such explorations require precision and courage. Dickinson sets herself the task of representing the conditions of subjectivity itself. Here she describes an encounter with annihilation that is a near inversion of the sublime:

I never hear that one is dead

Without the chance of Life

Afresh annihilating me

That mightiest Belief

Too mighty for the Daily mind

That tilling its abyss,

Had Madness, had it once or twice

The yawning Consciousness,

Beliefs are Bandaged, like the Tongue

When Terror were it told

In any Tone commensurate

Would strike us instant Dead.

I do not know the man so bold

He dare in lonely Place

That awful stranger Consciousness

Deliberately face—


The precipitating event that begins this descent into something like "Madness," which here seems to be a contagious disease is, typically for Dickinson, an encounter with death. This bare reminder of mortality leads to "the yawning Consciousness," a condition that sounds like both the abyss that is the fertile ground for madness and a heightened consciousness of the long sleep to come. In this poem, the problem is not the intrusion of desire and ego as in "Me from Myself—to banish." Instead, full consciousness itself is the threat; it is "Life" and a clear-eyed vision of one's own mortality that threatens the habitually muffled "Daily Mind."


Emily Brontë, who was an accomplished poet (much admired by Dickinson) as well as a novelist, created in Wuthering Heights a scene for the dying Cathy Earnshaw pervaded with the stricken self-consciousness that the poem describes. Terrified of her own face in the mirror, Cathy seems for the first time to be entering full adult consciousness as she enters her last illness. Like the voice in Dickinson's poem, Cathy’s voice hovers between bravado and madness, the latter signaled when she looks intently into the mirror and asks, "Who is it? I hope it will not come when you are gone! Oh! Nelly, the room is haunted! I am afraid of being alone" (122). Weak and disoriented as Cathy is at this moment, she also begins to see clearly for the first time that she is a subject among other subjects, that those around her have their own unpredictable interior lives. With the uninflected egoism of a toddler she exclaims "How strange! I thought, though everyone hated and despised one another, they could not avoid loving me—and they have all turned to enemies in a few hours" (120). This full consciousness of the subjective lives of others, of their ability to see and judge her is a symptom of Cathy's susceptibility to the annihilating power of consciousness. She has gained an adult ego and mortality in one blow.


For comfort, Cathy summons memories of her childhood with her designated alter ego, Heathcliff. Ironically, given his fierce independence and dark Manfred-like persona, it is Heathcliff's lack of resistance that seems crucial to Cathy. It is his complete adaptability to her psychic landscape that makes his the one soul that can provide her with a perfect home outside herself—a place where full self-consciousness cannot enter. The key to Heathcliff’s specific usefulness to Cathy can be found in her mad scene, where Cathy finally articulates what she lost when she lost her original, undifferentiated connection to Heathcliff, who “was my all in all.” It is not loneliness that afflicts her, but her loss of freedom and courage: “I wish I were a girl again, half savage and hardy and free ... and laughing at injuries, not maddening under them!” (114). Cathy is conjuring up the images of heather-covered moors that have become the staple of Wuthering Heights film adaptations, but her harangue starts with a dream of being shut away with Heathcliff in the bed they shared as children. Being shut in with the child Heathcliff is as evocative of and necessary to her freedom as being let out onto the hills because Heathcliff serves as the incarnation of Cathy’s subjectivity, an embodiment of selfhood she can see as an object and, at the same time, see through as a medium.


Earlier, before her marriage, Cathy attempted to explain Heathcliff's importance in the peculiarly reasoned defense of her decision to marry Edgar Linton:

This is for the sake of one who comprehends in his person my feelings to Edgar and myself. I cannot express it, but surely you and everybody have a notion that there is, or should be, an existence of yours beyond you. What were the use of my creation if I were entirely contained here? My great miseries in this world have been Heathcliff’s miseries, and I watched and felt each from the beginning; my one great thought in living is himself.


Heathcliff appears to be an incarnation of Cathy’s emotions, including those that he consciously detests. The “one who comprehends in his person” that which he deplores seems to be a kind of hollow and hapless idol, stuffed unwittingly with his worshiper’s most inconvenient desires. “An existence of yours beyond you” sounds, of course, like immortality, and the change in pronoun to the second person changes the tone from personal to philosophical and quasi-religious, an odd description of a character so fixated on the person of Cathy herself.


In Biographia Literaria, Coleridge articulates the connection between freedom and immediacy that is essential to Cathy’s remembered life with Heathcliff. Coleridge’s analysis of “the IMMEDIATE” clarifies the existential desire that animates Cathy, although the moral implications Coleridge draws from that desire almost directly oppose the implications I will draw from Wuthering Heights[5]:

The medium, by which spirits understand each other, is not the surrounding air; but the freedom which they possess in common, as the common ethereal element of their being, the tremendous reciprocations of which propagate themselves even to the inmost of the soul. Where the spirit of man is not filled with the consciousness of freedom (were it only from the restlessness of his soul struggling from bondage) all spiritual intercourse is interrupted, not only with others, but even with himself.

xiii 509

Consciousness of freedom and freedom possessed in common are precise descriptions of the gifts Heathcliff gives to Cathy. They comprise an impossible-to-imagine state of realizing one’s own freedom from self-consciousness and sharing one’s indivisibility. Although Cathy claims symbiosis with Heathcliff, Heathcliff's separateness is not only insistent, it is necessary to Cathy herself. She wants both self-forgetfulness and self-awareness, both impregnable unity and relationship.


The passage from Biographia Literaria is part of a larger passage on the philosophical imagination; it suggests that the way to achieve this longed-for impossibility is by finding one’s way to a “common consciousness” that is “connected with master-currents below the surface” (508). Among the assumptions underlying Coleridge’s argument is the one Cathy’s “Surely you and everyone have a notion ...” statement seems to share, that there is some realm of spiritual reality not ordinarily accessible but commonly held. Nevertheless, there is a crucial contrast between Cathy’s insistence that this reality is realized only through connection to a particular person and Coleridge’s insistence that it is realized only by those who are capable of spiritual striving. The exclusive province of philosophers and prophets, Coleridge’s freedom tends toward possibility; Cathy’s is centered in the irrecoverable, inarticulate past.


A number of critics, beginning with J. Hillis Miller, have found a parallel between Cathy's description of Heathcliff's spiritual significance and the sixth verse of Emily Brontë's poem "No Coward Soul is Mine." The passages are not really parallel, however, and their differences illustrate that the novel and the poem exist on different moral planes. The poem is addressed, not to the Calvinist version of the Old Testament God that Miller assumes is Brontë’s life-long obsession, but to the "soul" itself, an internal manifestation of the “wide-embracing love” that “animates eternal years”.

Though Earth and moon were gone,

And suns and universes cease to be

And thou wert left alone

Every existence would exist in thee.



When Cathy explains the necessity of Heathcliff, she reverts back to the personal pronoun and to a renewed awareness that this emotion is not, in fact, universal, but idiosyncratic: “My great thought in living is himself. If all else perished and he remained, I should still continue to be, and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the Universe would turn into a mighty stranger” (81). The claims are quite different; the poem asserts that “every existence” is somehow accessible so long as the internal felt reality of God is accessible. That is, all existence remains eternally immanent within spirits courageous enough (for the "I" in this poem is surely representative of all courageous spirits if the poem is anything other than a wild delusion of personal omnipotence) to trust their internal intimations of immortality. The “God within” is beneficent and inclusive, transcending the earth but not triumphing over it, and It (She?) promises immortality. Cathy, with unusual clarity, claims for herself only continued existence in an empty universe so long as Heathcliff persists, and estrangement from the still-present but now meaningless universe if he is absent. The first condition describes the fate of the child-ghost of young Cathy who haunts Wuthering Heights as a homeless waif; the second describes the fate of Heathcliff, alive in a hellish and meaningless universe after Cathy’s death. Where the poem represents an immortal, transcendent reality, the novel represents an ideal unity whose perfection is past. The poem describes a longed-for state of perfection and says, “Not yet”; the novel describes a memory of perfect, wordless harmony and says, “Not now”.


Cathy’s longing is spiritual in that it is ideal, and it is of unreachable first things—although these are first earthly things and not intimations of immortality. Her longing for Heathcliff is not quite sexual, but it is the root of the lack that romantic sexual longing seeks to redress. It is not religious, but, if Wordsworth’s “Ode. Intimations of Immortality” is right, memories of a childhood desire for wholeness may whisper of “obstinate questionings” (Selected Poems 141) that are at the root of religious emotion and, for Wordsworth and for Emily Brontë after him, at the root of a vocation in poetry. Cathy, however, accepts no substitutes, and she self-destructs when Heathcliff’s presence fails to overcome all resistance—including his own—to her spiritual appropriations. She cannot move to another phase of development that would transform an impossible, pre-social longing into a useable desire.


In crafting Cathy and Heathcliff, Emily Brontë's task is like Emily Dickinson's in that, instead of presenting an example of a morality that takes into account the subjectivity of others, she presents us with a portrait of scrupulously imagined emotion that tests the boundaries of subjective experience. Like Dickinson's poetry, Wuthering Heights requires the virtues of courage and honesty rather than empathy from its author. But, if this novel is informed by a poet's sensibility, Dickinson's poems sometimes work like skeletal Romantic novel plots, with characters caught in a gothic netherworld that might have been Heathcliff's. A number of Dickinson poems of mourning or anticipated mourning recall Brontë's portrait of an obsessive love that obscures the terrors of death in the terrors of loss. Here a speaker every bit as obsessed as Cathy Earnshaw or Heathcliff himself imagines the reception she and her lover will get in heaven. They'd judge Us - How - [?] She asks:

. . . . . . . . . .

Because You saturated Sight—

And I had no more Eyes

For Sordid Excellence

As Paradise

And were You lost, I would be—

Though my Name

Rang loudest

On the Heavenly fame—

And were You—saved—

And I condemned to be

Where You were not—

That self—were Hell to Me— ....



In "No Coward Soul is Mine," Brontë imagines a deeply intuitive form of revelation that is more akin to Emerson than Dickinson. In "They'd judge Us –," Dickinson invents a human love that will defy any eternity that requires the surrender of either lover or self. Dickinson's poem, like Cathy's and Heathcliff's mutual obsession, becomes a kind of blasphemy when read in the light of either traditional Christian theology or the self-reliant spirituality of Brontë's "No Coward Soul Is Mine." However, Dickinson, who requested that "No Coward Soul is Mine" be read at her funeral, had her moments of transcendent certainty, too. The distinction between the poet Emily Brontë and Dickinson is that, while they both realize that spiritual desire necessarily opposes human-centered desires, Brontë—in that poem and others—chooses the "God within my breast," and Dickinson characteristically chooses humanity in its unregenerate state of perplexity, attachment, and fear. Her partial, slanted truths are the truths of that most human of accomplishments, language: a slippery medium that allows the poet to convince us—provisionally and momentarily—of a human passion that blots out any version of the supernatural and then, in the next poem, of our consuming desire for the divine:

 The Love a Life can show Below

 Is but a filament, I know,

 Of that diviner thing

That faints upon the face of Noon –

And smites the Tinder in the Sun –

And hinders Gabriel's Wing –

'Tis this – in Music – hints and sways –

And far abroad on Summer days –

Distills uncertain pain –

'Tis this enamors in the East –

And tints the Transit in the West

With harrowing Iodine –

'Tis this – invites – appalls – endows –

Flits – glimmers – proves – dissolves –

Returns – suggests – convicts – enchants –

Then – flings in Paradise –


Characteristically, Dickinson's God of Love sends more troubling signs than reassuring ones, but the last verse—where all beings are stilled and only Love's actions remain—is an apotheosis of Emersonian ecstasy. However, when Love "flings in Paradise," there is a suspicious lack of the spiritual self-reliance that both Emerson and Brontë claimed. Dickinson's God of Love is the agent, and, whatever her destination at the poem's end, Dickinson's subject seems to reach it through a kind of casual and arbitrary grace; she is flung to her reward like a discarded rind of fruit. There is evidence for something inexplicable, lovable, and large in earthly life but no way to read it clearly with a poet's "finite eyes."


Many of Dickinson's poems, for all of their indifference to an ethic of altruism or even empathy, are steeped in loyalty to this "timid life of Evidence," that is, to the ordinary life of confusion, attachment, fear, and grief—the world of novels. Sometimes, however, the Victorian novels she read take on transcendent ambitions. In Charlotte Brontë's Shirley, there is a remarkable portrait of an ideal poet who is as universally "representative," as Emerson's deeply subjective poet-prophet. And she is female. As part of a school exercise, the adolescent Shirley Keeldar refashions the creation story into the story of a new Eve, who, unlike her domesticated prototype in Paradise Lost (a figure Shirley disparages as "Milton's cook"), is a solitary being with a direct link to the heavenly source of creative power. Her profound isolation seems to be at the heart of her poetic vocation, although she awaits the bridegroom "Genius" who will link her to the human world. Creative power consists of finding something in solitude that others will recognize and claim as theirs. The artist's heightened consciousness, or perhaps just consciousness itself, sets the speaker apart from the rest of creation, but the existential loneliness she describes is as available to the characters in Charlotte Brontë's novel as it is in the pre-social world Shirley imagines.

Of all things herself seemed to be the centre—a small, forgotten atom of life, a spark of soul, emitted inadvertent from the great creative source, and now burning unremarked to waste in the heart of the black hollow. She asked, was she thus to burn out and perish, her living light doing no good, never seen, never needed, a star in a starless firmament [... ]?



The suspicion that consciousness is an accident or an afterthought and the pervasive cosmic loneliness are familiar Dickinson moods. Eve's solitude sounds like a precondition for the Romantic sublime, but instead it creates common cause with those who, like the speaker in the following poem, find themselves unsublimated, headed for oblivion with their eyes wide open:

Behind Me—dips Eternity—

Before Me—Immortality—

Myself—the Term between—

Death but the Drift of Eastern Gray,

Dissolving into Dawn away,

Before the West begin—

'Tis Kingdom—afterward—they say—

In perfect—pauseless Monarchy—

Whose Prince—is Son of None—

Himself—His Dateless Dynasty—

Himself—Himself diversify—

In Duplicate divine—

'Tis Miracle before Me—then—

'Tis Miracle behind—between—

A Crescent in the Sea—

With Midnight to the North of Her—

And Midnight to the South of Her—

And Maelstrom—in the Sky—


While the "Son of None"—Dickinson's absolutely non-human replacement for the Son of Man—repopulates an oceanic Heaven with duplicates of himself, I picture the speaker as a single crescent in a sea of breaking waves. She is defined by time and knows that she is about to spill into oblivion, but, as far as she knows, she is the only crescent in the ocean aware that the shape of her existence is about to change. In the third stanza, the shift to the third person "she" returns us to the split in subjectivity that opened the poem. Now the speaker looks down with sympathy at her own position figured forth in the feminine: that is, subordinate, other, and, like Shirley's Eve, relentlessly conscious.


Making the representative figure for the human condition feminine in itself effectively negates pretensions to transcendence, if not the attractions of a seamless consciousness that overcomes death and all. In the Christian tradition in which Dickinson, the Brontës, and Eliot were all deeply immersed, there is no Daughter of Woman who miraculously incarnates God in human form. "She" is always a woman, and as such capable of telling the truth about the powers and limitations of living any one particular human life.


Dickinson found in the novels of the great Victorian women writers a deep interest in the spiritual possibilities as well as the limitations inherent in subjectivity. In the late Romantic age of Emerson and Carlyle, serious writers took seriously the intimations common to all of them that one life—with its limitations of perspective, circumstance, and time—seems absurdly inadequate to contain the conscious being who takes in, or creates, all that can be experienced or imagined. The desire to transcend those limitations is, therefore, not just self-aggrandizement, but a desire for coherence. Dickinson resists that desire because its cost is counted in terms the novelist understands—the loss of identity, connection to others, and a stake in the particulars of place, event, and memory. Like the great Victorian women novelists she admired, Dickinson chooses to inhabit—to see herself or her representative speaker as—"the Term between", which may be read not only as a time set apart from a timeless whole, but also as the place where we find ourselves, where we are together alone.




The Madwoman in the Attic begins with the premise that nineteenth-century women writers have inevitably internalized their status as object and Other:

[ ...] because a woman is denied the autonomy—the subjectivity—that the pen represents, she is not only excluded from culture (whose emblem might well be the pen) but she also becomes an embodiment of just those extremes of mysterious and intransigent Otherness which culture confronts with worship or fear and loathing.

Gilbert and Gubar 19

Such feminist critics as Christine Battersby, Deirdre David, Joanne Feit Diehl, and Anne Williams have followed Gilbert and Gubar's lead in assuming that the first and foremost task of nineteenth-century women authors has been to struggle against received ideas about gender.

A corollary assumption is that Romanticism itself is a male enterprise. In her essay, "Why Women Don't Like Romanticism," Anne K. Mellor acknowledges that, "The valid insights these [male Romantic] poets have given us have been many, especially into the philosophic debates we still continue concerning the relations of the perceiving mind to the object of perception, the role of feeling in our mental processes, and the ways in which language determines human consciousness." She counters, however, that these insights "encode a masculine-gendered and thus limited view of human experience" (286). Mellor examines the novels of Jane Austen and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to establish a mood of female resistance to the self-aggrandizement of the English Romantic poets. Victorian women novelists similarly questioned claims made by both the Romantic poets and their contemporaries to a transcendent spirituality that undermines the personal subject and the concerns of ordinary life. However, each of the Brontes and George Eliot create female characters who do, directly or indirectly, enter into the philosophical debates that Mellor cedes to male writers. As for Dickinson, Mellor's list of "insights" might serve as a thematic checklist that would cover much of her poetry.


Anne Bronte fleshed out a more complete version of this doctrine in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Winifred Gèrin points out that the heroine's monologue on universal salvation, which appears in the death scene of her dissolute husband, may have been inspired by Anne's reaction to her dissolute bother Branwell's early and miserable death. Anne's Helen Huntington sounds remarkably like Charlotte's Helen Burns, but is more lucid and detailed. After her husband's death, Helen Huntington explains that even an unrepentant soul will eventually achieve grace through "purging fires." Neither character's theology belongs to the Calvinist doctrine that the Brontes' father, a Calvinist minister, himself finally rejected (Gèrin 16).


In her introduction to Eliot's Selected Essays, Poems, and Other Writings, A. S. Byatt quotes "F.W.H. Myers's famous account of his conversation with the sibylline author ... on God, immortality, and duty, and her saying how 'inconceivable was the first, how unbelievable the second, and how peremptory and necessary the third.'" Byatt continues, "Eliot was negotiating a book on the 'Idea of a Future Life' [...] that might have addressed itself both to the untenable idea of 'Compensation' for suffering or virtuous self-denial, and to the requirement of obedience to duty for itself alone" (xx).


Several feminist critics, including Marianne Hirsch and Susan Fraiman ("The Mill on the Floss, the Critics, and the Bildungsroman." have read the ending more favorably as a commentary on the limitations of the male Bildungsroman.


Margaret Homans made the connection between Coleridgean “Imagination” and Emily Bronte’s poetry in 1980. Homans argues that Coleridge’s “infinite I AM” inevitably marginalizes those women poets who approach Romantic imaginative power: “Unable to identify with the masculine Word or breath of God, Bronte portrays herself as its passive object” (129). In her notes to “No coward soul is mine,” Janet Gezari notes the parallels between Coleridge’s description of the secondary or poetic imagination (“It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates in order to recreate”) and the fifth stanza of Brontë’s poem:

With wide-embracing love

Thy spirit animates eternal years

Pervades, and broods, above

Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates and rears.


Works Cited


Battersby, Christine. Gender and Genius: Towards a Feminist Aesthetics. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989.


Benfey, Christopher E. G. Emily Dickinson and the Problem of Others. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1984.


Brontë, Anne. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Ed. G.D. Hargreaves. New York: Penguin, 1985.


Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Ed. Beth Newman. Boston: Bedford-St. Martins. 1996.


———. Shirley. Ed. Andres and Judith Hook. London: Penguin, 1992.


Brontë, Emily. The Complete Poems. Ed. Janet Gezari. London: Penguin, 1992.


———. Wuthering Heights. 1847. Ed. Pauline Nestor. London: Penguin, 1995.


Byatt A.S. Introduction. Selected Essays, Poems, and Other Writings. By George Eliot. London: Penguin, 1990. ix-xxxiv.


Cameron, Sharon. Lyric Time: Dickinson and the Limits of Genre. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1979.


Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. "From Biographia Literaria." The Portable Coleridge. Ed. I. A. Richards. New York: Viking, 1950. 432-628.


David, Deirdre. Intellectual Women and Victorian Patriarchy: Harriet Martineau, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1987.


Dickinson, Emily. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas Johnson. 3 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1955.


Diehl, Joanne Feit. Dickinson and the Romantic Imagination. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1981.


Eliot, George. The Mill on the Floss. 1860. New York: Bantam, 1987.


Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Essays and Lectures. New York: Library of America, 1983.


Fraiman, Susan. “The Mill on the Floss, the Critics, and the Bildungsroman.” PMLA 108 (1993): 135-50. DOI:10.2307/462858


Gezari, Janet. Introduction. Brontë, Emily. The Complete Poems.


Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.


Grabher, Gudrun. "Dickinson's Lyrical Self." The Emily Dickinson Handbook. Ed. Gudrun Grabher, Roland Hagenbüchle, and Cristanne Miller. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1998, 224-39.


Hirsch, Marianne. The Voyage In: Fictions of Female Development. Hanover: UP of New England, 1983.


Homans, Margaret. Women Writers and Poetic Identity: Dorothy Wordsworth, Emily Brontë, and Emily Dickinson. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980.


Mellor, Anne K. "Why Women Didn't Like Romanticism: the Views of Jane Austen and Mary Shelley." The Romantics and Us: Essays on Literature and Culture. Ed. Gene Ruoff. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1990. 274-87.


Miller, J. Hillis. "Emily Brontë." The Disappearance of God. Cambridge: Belknap-Harvard, 1963.


Williams, Anne. Art of Darkness: A Poetics of Gothic. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1998.


Wolosky, Shira. “Dickinson’s Emerson: A Critique of American Identity.” The Emily Dickinson Journal 9 (2000): 134-41. DOI:10.1353/edj.2000.0024


Wordsworth, William. "Preface to the Second Edition of Lyrical Ballads (1800)." Selected Poems and Prefaces. 445-64.


———. The Prelude. Ed. Jonathan Wordsworth, M. H. Abrams, and Stephen Gill. New York: Norton, 1979.

Auteur : Nancy Mayer
Titre : Finding Herself Alone: Emily Dickinson, Victorian Women Novelists, and the Female Subject
Revue : Romanticism on the Net, Numéro 38-39, mai 2005
URI : http://id.erudit.org/iderudit/011672ar
DOI : 10.7202/011672ar

Copyright © Michael Eberle-Sinatra 2005 — All rights reserved

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