Emily Dickinson & Erectile Dysfunction: A Secret History

Emily Dickinson wrote a poem called “I started Early – Took my Dog” which comes in, prestige-wise, right after the ones about “Funeral brains –” and “Slants of death –” that you had to read in high school. The early Dickinson impresario – and amusingly named – Yvor Winters declares “I started Early” to be one of Emily's “most nearly perfect poems.” The poem is so fucking good, as a matter of fact, that its “defects do not intrude momentarily in a crudely obvious form.” What an asshole.

The poem is also, in my opinion, entirely about sex. It is on this proposition that I propose to meditate.

Confession: I see sex everywhere. In every situation that admits doubt or calls for interpretation, my interpretation is invariably, “They're doing it.” If there's only one person, my interpretation is usually that he or she wishes he or she was somewhere else, doing it. If there are three or more people, I posit that all the people just did it together and are dealing with the attendant shame each in his or her own way, or – when one of them is fat or a eunuch or on the rag or something – that at least two of them wish they were somewhere else doing it together, and whoever's left over is feeling pretty jealous about it and would like to be somewhere else doing it, too.

Maybe I'm crazy. Maybe this is the stone-soberest, clean-livingest, no-private-parts-havingest poem there is. But...

Before the poem: a summary of what I imagine to be the poem's essential plot points, rendered in Edgy and Hip contemporary youth-speak:

“So I'm this girl, and I live in Solid Town with my folks. One day I told them that I was going to start walking the dog. They were cool with it. They figured the dog would protect me in case the shit goes down, like, “woof woof woof!” haha. I'm pretty stoked to get out of the house and be on my own, so I leave pretty early and start walking around with the dog, just checking people out. All these women look at me, but who cares about them, right? Meanwhile though, there are all these old guys and stuff who are like, flirting with me, like “Hey baby,” thinking I'm easy, like I'm naïve or innocent or something and they're all touching me and I'm like “gross!” None of the guys ever did it for me or kick-started my four-stroke or made my flame burn blue or whatever. Until... well, there was this One guy. He took me under the boardwalk, and he lifted up my dress, and then he put his mouth on me like he was going to eat me all up. [extrapolation] Then we had sex, [end extrapolation] and I came, and then he came right after me. I could tell because I felt it, and then it started dripping out of me. After, he walked me back to Solid Town. He was worried about running into somebody he knew, like he was embarrassed to be with me or something. We didn't run into anybody he knew for a while, but then we DID run into somebody he knew, and he acted all like we had this really innocent friendship and like he was my stupid uncle or something and then he took off.”

The poem:

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 Floors –
Extended Hempen Hands –
Presuming Me to be a Mouse –
Aground – opon 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 Boddice – too –

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

And He – He followed – close behind –
I felt His Silver Heel
Opon my Ancle – 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 –

We, fellow argonauts, we are not the first to ponder upon the poem's meaning. It was Mr. Winters himself who made all of our all of our head-scratching worthwhile by misunderstanding the poem so badly out of the gate (1947) that one shudders to think he judged its quality in clear conscience: “The sea is here the traditional symbol of death.” (At this, in the margins, I noted: “I thought it was about fucking!”) Winters writes that the poems is about navigating “forces which tend towards the dissolution of human character and consciousness.” (I wrote, “Orgasm!”). Mr Winters does not mention orgasm.

A short while later, in 1951 – not coincidentally, the same year King Leopold III abdicated the Belgian throne in favor of his son Baudouin – a woman named Kate Flores took off the kid gloves and slapped Baby Yvor around something awful. Miss Dickinson, she writes, has been “rather misinterpreted... the sea can hardly be so understood” as a symbol of death. The poem is, on the contrary, “a study in fear, fear of love.” (Marginal comment: “?!?!”) The poet's “fear of the sea is based upon the very power to undo her.” Her “whole being is endangered” by the sea's awesome power to ablate her identity. In the final stroke, Flores deals Winters the blow that kills: the sea, she writes, threatens “the dissolution of human character and consciousness.”

No, I'm just kidding, she didn't write that. Remember? Winters wrote that! Then Flores said he was totally full of shit and rubbed it in by stealing his point.

But Ahh, but the bittersweetness of the poem! In the poetess's “blind terror of the sea [she] can know no man.” But though she's doomed to spinster virginism, untouched by man-hands and man-stuff and so forth, the poetess will not be swallowed by the sea; she succeeds, “by the strength of her intellect, her will, in turning to go.” This is a supreme celebration of the lady-poet's valor and ingenuity. It is a triumphant expression of her feministic overmanning. I have no idea what the fuck she's is talking about.

But still, Flores has saved her most persuasively unintelligible assertion for last. It “seems clear that [the poetess] will never venture forth again.” Ruh-roh. Good thing she lives under the floorboards of a sybian factory.

As you might imagine, it took the Dickinson industry no great time nor energy to totally disregard this bewildered Flores woman and her impossible ideas. In 1952, Laurence Perrine – a young paladin in the holy order of Not Reading All That Much Into Things – drove his rapier as deep into the debate as practically no effort at all could drive it: “Both Yvor Winters and Kate Flores... load Emily Dickinson's 'I Started Early, Took My Dog' with a weight of meaning, symbolism, and emotion which this wholly delightful bit of poetic fancy simply will not bear.”

Legend has it that, after writing this sentence, Perrine was so exhausted that he had no choice but to loosen his belt to play with his balls for a while in a kind of self-satisfied stupor. And yet, with a last gasp of effort – an impossible phrenzy of will – Perrine's vim rushed back and, summoning all his Inner Resources, he set the record straighter than a bunch of bankers in Hawaiian shirts and shit playing in a Jimmy Buffet cover band on Thursday nights in a guy named Maury's semi-finished basement: “The poet is describing a morning walk to the sea – real or imaginary.” After writing this, perhaps inevitably, all the capillaries and shit in Perrine's brain fucking exploded from just thinking too hard and his roommate Cooter had to spend days scraping brains and shit off the walls with a plastic fucking dustpan, and he didn't have any paper towels either. Nothing would ever be the same after this, Perrine's great doomed sally, which all but matches Jimmy Buffett in its undeniable elan vital.

The bitterness of critics, who actually had to work for a living, was palpable. In 1962, when the aftershock of Perrine's back-to-basics approach was showing first signs of settling, Eric W. Carlson desecrated the memory of our fallen Ur-Lebowski by claiming Perrine's interpretation “left unresolved the question of the basic meaning of this poem.” One cringes to think how much more the allegation would sting were there so much as a grain of truth in it.

But Carlson wasn't done. All simultaneously, he danced and pissed and puked and cried on Perrine's grave by claiming the poem is about the “frightening realization that toying with love may arouse a tide of emotion too powerful to control.” Make no mistake: “toying with love” is a singularly mean-spirited reference to Perrine's heroic, recuperative balls-fingering a decade earlier, and the “tide of emotions” is the typhoon of blood and gray matter bursting through skull, all of it looking like a stepped-on frog. And poor Cooter, who had to clean it up, synapses and dendrites and all, still alive to read such villainous calumny!

Yet Carlson's analysis is too dangerous to be ignored, too alluring to be cast aside – like the bag of weed you found outside Burger King, next to where the immigrants break down boxes.

Carlson's analysis is compelling because – Jesus Christ, took long enough – it introduces the notion of the narrator's “pleasure and desire.” No longer is she a wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim'rous beastie, but a woman with wants – a woman on fire!

And yet, Carlson claims, the poem is haunted by a “power greater than romantic love.” Only in “mystic surrender to Nature” – as opposed to just the regular kind of surrender to Nature – “lies the most insidious threat – the loss of self-identity.” Cowardly editors expurgated the most significant conclusion Carlson draws from this point, still one of the most insightful observations in the history of the debate over the meaning of Dickinson's poem: “Didn't that Yvor Winters thing about this poem say something really similar? I think he said exactly what I'm saying about identity! And then that Flores lady introduced the idea of romantic love, but then she said exactly what Winters said about identity! And now I'm saying exactly what he said about identity to argue against this romantic love business that she said! Jesus Christ, I can't believe this is an actual job that people actually get paid to do. In fifteen years of tenured scholarship all we've agreed upon is that the ocean can threaten your identity. What a joke.”

After this, perhaps from shame or perhaps from confusion, critics forbore analyzing the poem for over two decades. They split into small groups, huddling together for warmth and debating in decreasingly affluent dialects about their next move.

Finally, in the wake of this Great Tribunal, there was an anointed one: Cristanne Miller – all the way in nineteen hundred and eighty seven – the first to mention the term “sexual” – god bless her, amen. The poem is, she claims, “deceptively innocent.” (But I think she means deceptively lascivious. I mean, right?) It begins as what seems like a single event – starting early, taking dog – but it quickly seems to be something “repeated” or “customary.” Our dear little poetess has been cruising the beach! On the regular! She “teases” the reader and she “teases” herself. She even teases – and I swear to God, there seems to be absolutely no registration that this is an all-time egg-on-the-face unintentional pun – the “Sea/man.”

She teases the “Sea/man.”

She “pretends to be entirely innocent in her motives” while she teases the “Sea/man.”

Then, having teased the “Sea/man” enough, the poetess gets “to the point of mutual arousal” with the “Sea/man” before she “runs away.” So, in this reading, the “Sea/man” becomes aroused, which is a lot like the Poop Monster in Dogma pooping. One can't help but feel that Ms. Miller could have pushed into herself just a knuckle or two deeper, analytically speaking.

In '88, Kenneth Stocks – I call him Ken, because he hates it and he's a douche – claimed that, in “the bad fright and the race for home,” our poor pretty poetess is “pursued by the rising tide of consciousness.” This avails nothing. We forge ahead.

Ahead! To a woman named Shakinovsky. In '99, we get from Shakinovsky – who is a Russian stripper/dancer or I will eat my hat – one of the more delightfully symptomatic readings of the poem. We should not, however, conclude from this that she's a “no means yes” kind of girl.

In Shakinovsky's adorably doe-ish eyes and easily terrified brain, the “welcoming, 'extend[ing] hands of the Frigate are not entirely friendly and contain a slight sense of threat, as 'Hempen' implies the possibility of trapping, tying, and strangling.” I know I, personally, cannot escape the throes of panic, when I'M STANDING ON A BEACH, that I am going to get TRAPPED, TIED, AND STRANGLED by the motherfucking SAILS OF BOATS WAY OUT IN THE OCEAN. It's a close cousin of that terror we none of us can escape: The fear of falling out of a tree you're not in. Which in turn has rent near as many hearts as the fear of slipping on ice you're not on. Pooping your pants when you're wearing a skirt.

[Here it is worth noting that Shakinovsky is the author of the classic studies, “I'm Afraid of My New Neighbors: They Might Be Foreign, or They're At Least Jewish or Something”; “Falling Coconuts: A Blight on The Nuclear Family”; “The Effects of Nuclear Fallout on the Coconuts of Enewetok Atoll”; and “Shark Attacks: Just Because They're Rare Doesn't Mean They're Not Still Scary.”]

Later, Shakinovksy writes, “This threat is made explicit as the Sea turns into a Man who follows the narrator, which serves to sexualize the image.”

[Be on the lookout for Shakinovsky's new book, “When My Cat Oliver Follows Me Up the Stairs I Feel Like He's Going to Rape Me and Sometimes I Get So Scared I Run and That Makes Him Run and Then I Scream and My Neighbors Call the Police,” forthcoming from Palgrave.]

This “increasing encroachment... and... personal threat... REACH THEIR CLIMAX [all-caps added] in 'And made as He would eat me up.' The threat here is that the narrator will be incorporated into the Sea and swallowed up... The relative size and impact of a drop of dew in relation to the ocean also serves to indicate the narrator's sense of her own powerlessness and fear of ravishment.”

[Shanikovsky doesn't date much. It's not that she doesn't want to meet somebody. It's just... it's complicated.]

So what about it? Who's going to lance these jokers off their steeds and be presented with my laurel-bush to wear around his head?

Russell Reising takes the prize (my bush). First, because he's the only critic who even comes close to acknowledging the weird, but also eyebrow-raisingly straightforward, female sexuality of the poem as something other than timidity and oppression and and running away from a cat named Oliver.

Second, because it does it in a fucking hilarious way.

So here it is: the only academic article I've seen which talks about the sexuality of “I started early,” and gets bonus points for doing it in terms that somehow manage to be over-the-top in their explicitness, and euphemistic, at the same time.

Reising doesn't wast time. He goes straight for the poem's “nearly pornographically fetishistic specificity.” Without, that is, specifying it. What's wonderful about this formulation is that not one of the critics perused above noticed the “nearly pornographically fetishistic specificity.”

Thought experiment: can you imagine any other form, any other medium, in which something could attain “nearly pornographically fetishistic specificity” and it would take experts in that field over fifty years just to notice it?

So wait, what's fetishistic? Well... each item of clothing – shoes, apron, boddice, and belt – takes up a “demarcating and fetishizing position on the speaker's body.” You see... shoes go on your feet. And feet are a fetishizing position. And then an apron goes over, like, your whole front area. And your front area, that's for fetishizers. And then your boddice, don't get me started on your boddice that covers pretty much the same stuff as your apron. And your belt, oh my stars, that's on roughly the same area as your belt and your apron. So, as we can see, this is a pervert's dream vacation. How many women have the common courtesy these days to highlight and demarcate their fetishizing positions by wearing clothes on them? They might as well just go naked and paint big florescent arrows on themselves towards their naughty bits. But not their normal naughty bits, just their weird naughty bits. Such as a belt would cover. Also, did you know the ocean is a pervert? We can tell this because Reising tells us that “fairly explicit sexual maneuvering [is] attributed to the sea.” He gets goo all in her shoes!

But is the ocean just a pervert, or is the poetess a pervertess, too? Reising notes that “I started” might be construed as a “sexual awakening.” IT ONLY TOOK US FIFTY YEARS to get from “The sea is here the traditional symbol of death” to “maybe 'I started' is kinda sorta a euphemism for orgasm.”

Ah, but the disgusting euphemisms will come hot and heavy now, because – in 1999 – women get to want to have sex in our interpretations of literature. This is the best thing that's ever happened to hermeneutics, if this is the kind of stuff it cranks out.

You see, “whereas the speaker 'started,' the sea could only 'follow' her lead.” So our new, dominant, desirous poetess “domesticates and limits the previously irresistible and overwhelming force of the sea within the phrases 'His Silver Heel' and 'Pearl,' both of which transfer the fetishistic specificity previously reserved for the representation of her own body to the body of the sea.”


Q: What are we fetishizing?

A: The “ejaculatory culmination of the sexual act.”

Q: Why are we fetishizing the ejaculatory culmination of the sexual act?

A: Because of “the appropriation of the male emission as an object of female ownership (pearls and jewelry).”

Q: What weird, hard left turn are you about to take?

A: “Even if we read the image of her shoes overflowing with pearl as one of male sexual climax, the speaker nonetheless represents that climax as equally female – it is her shoes that overflow, suggesting the possibility that her desire, however generated, culminates in its own dripping fulfillment.”

Ladies: did you know this is what happens to your shoes?!

* * *

One Parting Reason to Fire All English Professors Post-Haste: “The 1862 composition date for this poem also enables us to read 'started' within a context capable of highlighting its responsiveness to the confinements and oppression peculiar to a slave culture, in this case reimagined by Dickinson to include the oppression of American women, even in the North. Frederick Douglass, to cite just one example, refers to his and his companions' planned escape from slavery as their 'intended start.'” The only way I could brook this is if Douglass wrote of his and his companions' planned escape from slavery as their “intended orgasm.”


Sisyphus said...

Ooh look, you're neither dead nor in jail! Shocking.

Sisyphus said...

I take issue with your reading:

"but then we DID run into somebody he knew, and he acted all like we had this really innocent friendship and like he was my stupid uncle or something and then he took off.”

Dude, it's "a Mighty look" --- clearly that look is saying "you, me, same time, same place tomorrow --- don't bring the fucking dog next time."

D said...

Haha -- I'll cite you when I present this at MLA.

Anonymous said...

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!

Shana said...

Nice. I laugh, I (think) I learned something and had to look up "sybian" on wiki.


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