Psychological Criticism and Dickinson’s Poetry

The psychological approach is a unique form of criticism in that it draws upon psychological theories in its interpretation of a text. Linking the psychological and literary worlds bring a kind of scientific aspect into literary criticism. The three branches of psychological criticism that we have discussed in class are Psychoanalytic criticism, trauma and Cognitive criticism.

The first approach that we have discussed was psychoanalytic criticism. According to our Dictionary of Critical Theory, psychoanalysis is, “1) a discipline founded on a procedure for the investigation of mental processes that are otherwise inaccessible because they are unconcious; 2) a therapeutic method for the treatment of neurotic disorders; and 3) a body of psychological data evovling into a new scientific discipline.” Freud believes that society sublimates, or channels its unconscious through the creative process. This is where literature come into play. When criticizing Emily Dickinson’s poetry a psychoanalytic approach can be utilized. Take for example Dickinson’s poem There’s a certain slant of light,:

There’s a certain slant of light,
On winter afternoons,
That oppresses, like the weight
Of cathedral tunes.

Heavenly hurt it gives us;
We can find no scar,
But internal difference
Where the meanings are.

None may teach it anything,
‘Tis the seal, despair,-
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the air.

When it comes, the landscape listens,
Shadows hold their breath;
When it goes, ‘t is like the distance
On the look of death.

The psychoanalytic critic would look of the unconscious desires sublimated by Dickinson in her poem. In the psychoanalyst’s mind everyone’s actions are governed by sexual/pleasure seeking motives. Dickinson would have these desires and since they cannot be expressed in society she must sublimate them in her creative outlet, poetry. For example, with Freud’s theories in mind, we might draw the conclusion that Dickinson got a sexual pleasure from pain.

The second approach of psychological criticism discussed in class is trauma. According to Caruth’s article Trauma and Experience: Introduction”, “…in trauma the greatest confrontation with reality may also occur as an absolute numbing to it, that immediacy, paradoxically enough, may take the form of belatedness.” The affects of trauma on an author can manifest itself in their writing. Say for instance we learned that Emily Dickinson’s mother had killed herself in front her, this traumatic experience would be influential on her writing and we could interpret her poems with this in mind. (Trauma does not stand so much on it’s own as it is linked to psychoanalysis. The unconscious desires, perhaps influenced by trauma, of an author are the true meanings underlying all of their work.)

The third approach of psychological criticism discussed in class is the Cognitive Approach. Whereas the psychoanalytic approach  focused on the author and why they wrote what they wrote, the cognitive approach focuses on the reader and how their mind works while reading literature. This approach explains why humans associate certain mindsets with situations. The process is scientific in nature and draws evidence such as evolutionary findings to support its claim. The cognitive critic would read Dickinson’s poem, There’s a certain slant of light, and focus on what mindsets the reader associates with each line and why they do so. Through an understanding of a cognitive approach on literary works such as Dickinson’s poetry the reader can reach a better understanding of the poem’s intellectual complexity and the logic behind how easily they can follow what is going on in the poems.



Dickinson’s poem:

Dictonary of Literary Theory by David Macey

Trauma and Experience: Introduction by Cathy Caruth


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About James George

James is an undergraduate English major at Dickinson College located in Carlisle, PA. In his free time he collages, sings in vocal ensembles (Infernos a cappella and Collegium), and writes poetry. His perfect night would involve all three of those activities and a thanksgiving dinner where everything looks like food but is in fact candy.

15 thoughts on “Psychological Criticism and Dickinson’s Poetry

  1. James,
    Your post was really helpful in terms of broadly understanding the ways in which we can concretely apply each psychoanalytic theory to Dickinson’s poetry. I liked how you noted the “scientific aspect” that results from the merging of psychoanalysis and literature.
    Also, in your discussion of trauma, you explain that trauma is connected and linked with psychoanalytic theory, but cannot necessarily stand alone. I found this point particularly interesting.

  2. James,
    Your post on “Psychological Criticism and Dickinson’s Poetry” was very informative and thought-provoking. I appreciate how you clearly linked the psychological world and literary world through the examples of psychoanalytic criticism (cognitive, trauma, and psychoanalysis) which we discussed in class. Your explanations and applications of the three psychoanalytic criticisms, specifically through, “There’s a Certain Slant of Light”, were insightful and particularly interesting to read. In specific, I was intrigued by the connection you made between interpreting Woolf’s poetry and the trauma of her mother committing suicide, and the possibility of her suicide being in front of Woolf.

  3. James,
    Your post was really effective because of its clear organization. I liked how you set it up with, first introducing the poem, and then bringing up three different subsections of psychological criticism (psychoanalysis, trauma, and cognitive approaches) and their implications standing alone as well as applied to the poem. The part of your post that I found most successful and interesting was the connections you made between each subsection of psychological criticism. You state that unconscious desires that are studied in psychoanalysis are influenced by trauma, and you state that the cognitive approach is similar to the psychoanalytical approach, except it focuses on the reader rather than the author. These connections made your post effective and easy to follow.

  4. I thought your analysis and summary of psychological criticism was both concise and in depth. The structure of the post was very effective in succinctly conveying your point. “There’s a certain slant of light” is an interesting poem to evaluate. Its theme of death and sadness, not to mention its negative outlook on religion, make it a great choice for psychological criticism.

  5. James,
    I think your post was really good, I thought when you stated that the authors trauma can be included in the authors writing was nice to include and I agree. What ever the author I feel faced during their life has a lot to do with the reasons for the way they wrote something and the fact that you specified that trauma doesn’t stand on its own but it’s connected to psychoanalysis was important.

  6. First off I like to say that the way you stated the different methods of psychoanalytic criticism was both concise and well worded. Secondly, I’d like to ask if you think there is a right way to analyze a poem in a psychoanalytic manner or do you advocate a combination of all of these different techniques? Or do you think that you should focus on one of these while analyzing a work of fiction?

  7. Clarification: In my second to last paragraph, I gave the example of Dickinson’s mother killing herself. This example is purely hypothetical and I only use this example because it is a potent example of an event that would be traumatizing.

  8. Brett: I don’t believe there is any “right” psychological approach, but I do believe there are better ones according to what text is being analyzed. The application can vary between texts, but I believe it is most effective when only one approach is applied. It allows for a more focused analysis.

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