EMILY DICKINSON'S RICH CONVERSATION: POETRY, PHILOSOPHY, SCIENCE by Richard E. Brantley, Reviewed by Eric G. Wilson
 

EMILY DICKINSON'S RICH CONVERSATION: POETRY, PHILOSOPHY, SCIENCE
By Richard E. Brantley
(Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) xii + 272 pp.
Reviewed by Eric G. Wilson on 2013-10-07.

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For decades now, ever since the publication of Wordsworth's "Natural Methodism" in 1975, Richard E. Brantley has rigorously sounded one of Romanticism's deepest mysteries: the relationship between physical experience (the exquisite vitalities of the senses) and metaphysical faith (those visions of realms beyond--but somehow in--space and time). Whether studying how Wordsworth tried to square the empiricism of Locke with his yearning for the ideal worlds "evermore about to be," or how Dickinson struggled to reconcile her ecstatic love of nature with her evangelical heritage, Brantley has deepened our understanding, as A.O. Lovejoy and M.H. Abrams did before him, of the great oscillations of the human condition, those "stupendous antagonisms" --in Emerson's fine phrase--that we are forever trying to reconcile, or at least place into productive conversation.

In looking back to this august critical tradition, one based firmly on the history of ideas, Brantley was also gazing ahead (as his studies of both Wordsworth and Dickinson intimate) to the recent scholarly interest in transatlantic romanticism. In particular, Brantley has unearthed vital connections between Wesley and Jonathan Edwards, and between Emerson and Carlyle as well as Tennyson, showing how powerful ideas crossed the great ocean, with mutually illuminating results.

Brantley's latest book interweaves these two ongoing concerns: the dialogue between experience and faith, and the conversation between England and America. In the first half of the book, Brantley shows how Dickinson's commitment to the sensual world--its storms, flowers, and birds--inspired her to read, quite systematically, the leading scientific texts of her time. In fact, borrowing a distinction made by E.D. Hirsch, Brantley usefully demonstrates that a full understanding of Dickinson's "belle lettres," her literary output, requires an engagement with the "bonne lettres"--the philosophy, science, and theology--in which she immersed herself.

It turns out that Dickinson was "rich in conversation"--her phrase--with Locke, Wesley, and Charles Wadsworth, among others, from whom she learned a "natural methodism" that "heartily endorse[d] sense-based reasoning" and "up-to-date knowledge of empirical philosophy and of science" (43). Attuned to physical experience and experiment, Dickinson adopted a "tough-minded tone" in her expressions of the geology, astronomy, medicine, and biology of her age, particularly in her interpretation of Charles Darwin.

Brantley's interdisciplinary readings of Dickinson poetry are enlightening, not only in showing how this compellingly dialectical poet oscillated "among [the] incandescent prospects of this world" but also in providing fresh scientific and philosophical contexts for understanding her poetry. Especially fruitful are his readings of "Experiment escorts us last," "On a Columnar Self," and "Apparently with no Surprise."

Yet Brantley's greatest service to Dickinson studies and to Romantic studies in general is in disclosing the "double-ness" of the Myth of Amherst and-- by extension-- of several of her transatlantic forbears, such as Wordsworth and Emerson. Over the years, critics have often split Romanticism into polarities such as emotion vs. reason and experience vs. faith, and subsequently favored one over the other, ranking emotion and experience above their opposites. For Brantley, these great antinomies are not oppositional so much as conversational, perpetually shifting in their mutually inclusive relationships, with one side constantly shaping and generating the other. Dickinson, Brantley argues, doesn't choose between experience and faith; she places them into dynamic dialogue that "allows experience its fighting chance against . . . faith, notwithstanding this poet's nostalgia for, nay her love of, her evangelical heritage" (34).

While the first part of this book studies Dickinson's exciting, complicated efforts to balance experience and faith, the second part shows how she grapples with the depressing aftermath of exuberant experience: with those terrible losses--of loved ones and of hope--that left her in "excruciating" "disillusionment and disaffection" (17). What Brantley finds is that the "post-experiential," "late-Romantic" Dickinson unflinchingly faces earth's inevitable tragedies, and still discovers hope, often in the deepest darkness. Her resiliency is Wordsworthian, drawing from his "own post-experience sounding 'hope that can never die'" (104). In her poetry of aftermath, such as "They say that 'Time assuages'" and "The Soul has Bandaged moments," she "recounts the twofold experience of holding despair at bay and keeping hope-against-hope, though not quite full blown, alive" 104).

In the end, Dickinson's experiences of the failure of experience (to grant vitality, creativity, and joy) only reconfirmed her faith that if held open and expectant, the senses could gather what one requires to live. Rejecting both nostalgia for a better time and blind optimism for a brighter future, Dickinson realized that "Knowledge Avenue" and "Aftermath Byway" intersected one another (158). For Dickinson, Brantley reminds us, thirst teaches water, just as sorrow instructs joy: you can't know what one is without the other, and the more extreme the encounter with one, the more intense the experience of the other. This potent middle path is properly one of melancholia, in the mode of Wordsworth and Coleridge, both of whom embraced the darkness as an invitation to the most powerful light.

This book gives us a newly riveting Dickinson, a capacious, complex, and supple poet who could out-do Darwin in staring at the earth's chaos but who could also, at the core of the turbulence, channel Wordsworth's undying sense that order would prevail: not the rigid orders of the logicians or the philosophers, but the more aesthetic structures of the heart, always attuned, even when saddest, to beauty, which, as we know from Keats, can only exist if it's already dying. Remarkably, given his past achievements as a historian of ideas and a literary critic, this is Brantley's best book yet.

Eric G. Wilson is Thomas H. Pritchard Professor of English at Wake Forest University.


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