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 


Stanza Excersise – Church Ave.

Matthew Korb, Engl 220, 9/12/11

I am drawn back to settle.

And to contemplate my mettle

And start for things ahead.

But as I move to sit,

A yell comes and hits,

And I must away from the nettle.

                I know it is a poor critic who needs to draw upon background information for his analysis, but such a short snapshot of an otherwise larger poem requires a bit of background information.

The stanza describes Church Avenue, a stretch of road behind the Weiss Center and the President’s House. At night and, more specifically, on the weekends students use the street to go to and from parties. My apartment is right next to the street and, from my porch, I can hear students screaming and yelling at each other through much of the night.

The poem was inspired by a Saturday evening where, having coming back from a meeting, I sat on my porch to take a nap before meeting friends. I jotted the first line out before setting off for the night.

I wanted to have the stanza’s structure emulate the jarring nature of the yell on an otherwise pleasant evening. The poem is metered and has a rhyme scheme. The first three lines and the last line, intended to represent the speaker’s restful actions, are intended to be a long narration of actions and re-actions.

The fourth and fifth lines are designed to disrupt the flow of the story. The rhyme scheme for the piece is A-A-B-C-C-A. The A and B sections form a base to the story, a beginning that flows naturally into a narrative. The Cs are clumped together and brief, a jarring sensation that break the flow of the story. But, in the final line, we return to the A ‘base’. In later lines and stanzas, if the poem were to go on, the narrative would continue along the A and B scheme with other rhyme schemes coming in to simulate the yells and shouts.

Much of the inspiration for the story’s form is drawn, rightfully so considering our recent studying, from the poetry of Robert Frost. The narrative nature and topic of “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening” was the elements most used, with its narrative nature and repetition carried over into the stanza. In Frost’s poem he pauses to enjoy a scenic scene before being distruped because of an inner purpose. In this stanza the speaker, who is also the writer, is attempting to find privacy for self reflection as well. However, instead of internal reasons, the speaker is drawn out of his reverie forcefully by an outward exclamation.