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.

 

Resouces:

Dickinson’s poem: http://www.online-literature.com/dickins…

Dictonary of Literary Theory by David Macey

Trauma and Experience: Introduction by Cathy Caruth

 

In Her Head: Psychological Criticism and Dickinson


Photo of Emily Dickinson

A photo of Emily Dickinson taken in 1848.

 

Psychological Analysis, in its simplest form, is the dissection of an author’s works and theuse of these parts to understand their subconscious (Or, sometimes, conscious) intentions. As subjects for psychological analysis go, Emily Dickinson is as good a candidate as any. For much of her fifty-six years of life the poet remained at home and out of the public life. She shared her works mostly through letters with friends and family and, for the most part, rarely communicated with others. The poet kept council with friends or those in her family and her talents as a poet weren’t appreciated during her lifetime.

Now, we don’t want to go too much into the writer’s life. This is a post about psychological criticism, after all, not biographical. But this pension for isolationism can’t be ignored in the analysis and, in a way, forms the main point of Dickinson’s life and subconscious drives. Many of Dickinson’s works focus on loneliness and inward reflection, a habit that can be described as a subconscious, or unintentional, drive towards expressing her own isolationism.

Now, to start, it’s wise to delve into the root of this isolationism in Dickinson. Using bibliographic evidence it is hard to say why Dickinson had such a deep-seated desire to remain at home. Even at a young age she preferred to remain around her family, evident when she left Mount Holyoke Female Seminary when the homesickness became too much. It’s very probable that the desire to not leave home is an unconscious desire born from some past trauma, a topic Cathy Caruth dedicates some attention to in her work. Yet Dickinson’s past is so incomplete and any sign of trauma so buried that it is unlikely to find any source on the topic.

With biographical evidence lacking the written word is the next step. In the title-less “I had been hungry all the years” the speaker details how she, starving for so long, is given a chance to eat but, ultimately, refuses. Now, with psychological criticism you can look at the poem’s subject matter two ways: The food is literal and it is a poem written by someone who is suffering from anorexia or the food is a metaphor, the meal representing the things that the rest of the world enjoys (Everyone eats, after all) and that her presence as one of the “persons outside windows” means that the speaker is an outsider, only ever observing the action of “eating” and never partaking herself.

Social interaction has never looked so delicious.

Now, it could be that Dickinson suffered from Anorexia. The ailment was certainly around at Dickinson’s time and, while there is no evidence to support it, neither is their evidence to deny it. More likely, however, is this idea of the poem tapping into Dickinson’s own feelings of being isolated from society. She is the one outside the window, always watching other people indulging themselves on the pleasures of life. When given the chance to indulge herself in this meal, however, she is tempted but ultimately refuses, finding that she has no appetite for the food.

Using psychological criticism alone we can tell that Dickinson, through whatever early trauma or twist of subconscious imprinting, has lost her ‘appetite’ for social interaction. She is content with her place and is content with her life at home. She surrounds herself with family members who she has already formed bonds with, and for the writer that seems to be enough. And in a way she is fine with that: In the last stanza of the poem she accepts that she has no need for what others think they need to survive and accepts her psychological state, for good or ill.

Biographical Information

Online Poetry Source