Posted by: Tom Triumph | July 12, 2014

210. I started Early – Took my Dog -: Emily Dickinson

What do you do with texts that may or may not be sexual?

I’m not talking about handling clearly sexual material, like a Judy Blume book or a racy poem. This is more about innuendo, and not clear innuendo but what a reading might interpret from the text.

For example, a very good professor I had at SUNY Cortland was fond of gender criticism. It was the lens he saw literature through, and he would always share a gender–often homosexual–interpretation of the text. By having most of the action happen on a boat, for example, the author was able to explore male relationships without the reader wondering why no one had a wife. This isn’t even sexual, but a look at how males interact with each other without women about. He never pushed it, but made us think about the author’s intent and what, as T.S. Eliot notes, we, as critics, bring to the text. I benefited from it greatly, even as I thought some critics pushed things a bit far.

It is not something I would even mention to my students, but what do you do when you know it’s a possible reading? I teach Grimm’s Fairy Tales, for example, but stop short of talking about the “wolf” wanting to “Eat you up.”

See, now it’s in your head. And while I have no doubt the Brothers Grimm did not have that in mind, gender criticism would argue that the deeper lessons about the dangers that prey on young women in society underlie many of the cautionary and horrific stories we tell each other. The Grimms were just collecting established folk tales, after all.

And I would not touch it. But, every time I do this unit, I get some boy who snickers when that line comes up. As a scholar, I can’t deny anything. Not wanting the topic to dominate the lesson–and it would–I give the “joke” a nod and move on. The child is, after all, acting immature and not providing an alternative interpretation of “The Story of Little Red Riding Hood.”

My wife came home from a week-conference on Emily Dickinson that was held at Amherst College, the holder of most archival information you might want on her and a stone’s throw (literally) from her house. She had a great time. But one of the professors there looked at all of Dickinson’s work as being sexual. I can see it. She’s an intelligent women who explored passion and life in great depth.

But then the professor examined “My Life had Stood–A Loaded Gun.” The link to my post on that poem is here.

My argument is that Dickinson was experimenting with point-of-view and giving an inanimate object a personality–a soul. Simple. Looking at the development of American literature, and her groundbreaking work, it seems the obvious answer. Occam’s Razor and all of that.

But the more I talked about it with my wife, the more I thought it might be both. It’s certainly an interesting idea, which was fleshed out through discussion. I’m skeptical, but the door is open.

So what do you do when something else might be there? As Freud said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” And certainly, a gun is often just a gun. This was written long before Hemingway and the cliche of phallic symbols existing on every page. You CAN find sex everywhere, but where does that get us? I think it diminishes greatness. But I also don’t want to be naive. And we seek truth.

That professor tipped her hand, a bit, when she kept emphasizing the loaded gun was dangerous. Not only was it sexual, but Dickinson, the professor argued, saw that topic as to be handled with kid gloves because guns are dangerous. But that’s a modern view of guns. At the time Dickinson wrote, guns were useful tools. Powerful, but not seen as inherently dangerous as we often see them in our post-Columbine world. Again, I defer to T.S. Eliot’s concerns that the critics sees him or herself in the poet.

My solution, as I’ve noted, is not to raise the issue. I tend to steer towards safer poems and push interpretation in all sorts of directions. Still, we know that even innocent children’s stories often have deeper allegories and symbols.

I leave with a link to a post written by Professor Lilian Milani for a course she taught at CUNY Brooklyn on Emily Dickinson. It offers a balanced look at the many interpretation of this Dickinson poem. One is sexual, but several are not. Her final thoughts are worth noting, but she’s also writing for mature adults.

Looking at my old post for “Loaded Gun”, I noticed I had used Milani there, too. For a better analysis of that poem, and an argument for it being Art, read this analysis.

Milani’s final thoughts bring around, for me, a point I’d raised earlier: Where does that get us? I cannot imagine Dickinson’s be-all landing on sex, although I can see it being a stepping stone to several deeper themes. Perhaps I’ll just skip that stone as I make my way down the path.

In fact, I’d skip this poem and focus on her other works. But my wife doesn’t feel comfortable with “Loaded Gun” now that her professor’s argument is in her head. Don’t get me thinking about “A narrow fellow in the grass”, an old staple of my classroom which has only a kid’s snicker of underlying sexuality (it’s a nature poem!)….

How would you teach this poem, if you’d teach it at all?

Update: When I mentioned this post to my wife, and the water imagery and its possible sexual nature, she looked at me and said, “No, she just really loved that dog and went for walks with him every day.”

I started Early – Took my Dog –
Emily Dickinson

I started Early – Took my Dog –
And visited the Sea –
The Mermaids in the Basement
Came out to look at me –
And Frigates – in the Upper Floor
Extended Hempen Hands –
Presuming Me to be a Mouse –
Aground – upon the Sands –

But no Man moved Me – till the Tide
Went past my simple Shoe –
And past my Apron – and my Belt
And past my Bodice – too –

And made as He would eat me up –
As wholly as a Dew
Upon a Dandelion’s Sleeve –
And then – I started – too –

And He – He followed – close behind –
I felt His Silver Heel
Upon my Ankle – Then my Shoes
Would overflow with Pearl –

Until We met the Solid Town –
No One He seemed to know
And bowing – with a Mighty look –
At me – The Sea withdrew –

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