On Emily Dickinson's I dwell in Possibility (466) -- A Coursera ModPo Forum Post

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# Preamble

You ask massive questions.

I will start by operating under the (potentially false) assumption that Dickinson’s content begets her use of form. I say potentially false, because in truth, I don’t really know that much about Dickinson. While it is a bit of a silly story, that instructor was very influential on me in a number of ways and that she didn’t enjoy Dickinson did indeed dissuade me from ever seeking out Dickinson’s work let alone her biographical information.

I do feel comfortable, however, saying that given her time period, I don’t know that Dickinson would have even considered free verse. From what I’ve gleaned from her Wikipedia entry, she was very educated and from a well-to-do family. Therefore, I think it would not be a safe leap to entertain the idea that she would have seen free verse as respectable even in private correspondence.

Perhaps I’m committing a biographical fallacy with my assumption. Maybe not. I need to start somewhere, but I also want to point out that my chosen, starting point may be inherently based on a weak foundation.

I wrote the last 3 paragraphs and find myself wondering if it’s even possible to assume that there is a relation between form and content in “I dwell in Possibility”. Perhaps, her use of form is simply a mechanism of her 1800s sensibilities rather than artistic intent. She could be using form the way you or I use grammar. Perhaps, her form is an extension of grammar. After all, in the few poems of hers that I’ve read, she seems to be constructing her own rhetoric.

I know I ought to begin discussing her content here since my original assumption is that it begins with content, but I’m no academic or scholar. This is a forum post and not a paper. So I’m going to jump to reviewing her form and return later to the content.

# Form

## Meter

How does the meter breakdown?

I dwell in Possibility –

x / x / x / x /

A fairer House than Prose –

x / x / x /

More numerous of Windows –

x / x / x / x

Superior – for Doors –

x / x / x /

Of Chambers as the Cedars –

x / x / x / x

Impregnable of eye –

x / x / x /

And for an everlasting Roof

x / x / x / x /

The Gambrels of the Sky –

x / x / x /

Of Visitors – the fairest –

x / x / x / x

For Occupation – This –

x / x / x /

The spreading wide my narrow Hands

x / x / x / x /

To gather Paradise –

x / x / x /

Interesting to me is that, unless I’ve miscounted, there are 27 syllables in each stanza. Is there a special meaning of that number? No idea. None at all. Maybe it’s just a happy accident.

## Rhyme

What about the rhyme scheme?

Well, there are some rhymes (including slant), but overall, there isn’t a consistent one. I find this odd. Dickinson seems so deliberate; how does she overlook something as rudimentary as a rhyme scheme.

Well, having read a little about how her work was later printed, I have to ask, “What if the line breaks we are reading are not the intended line breaks?”

I don’t have a copy of Jen Bervin’s Gorgeous Nothing

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/article/246738 so I can’t tell if this poem is collected there or how Dickinson actually wrote the poem. However, as an intellectual exercise, what if I were to make new line breaks? What if there is a rhyme scheme, but the rhyme is from a syllable within a word and not the final syllable? Is that possible?

So here, I force a skewed rhyme scheme, as nothing more than an an exercise in--what I call--fun.

[I’m pairing D and B followed by vowels for the A rhyme.]

A: I dwell in Possibi

x / x / x /

B: lity – A fairer House than Prose –

x / x / x / x /

A: More numerous of Windows –

x / x / x / x

B: Superior – for Doors –

x / x / x /

[Here I’m playing with the R in Cedars with the R in Roof.]

C: Of Chambers as the Cedars –

x / x / x / x

D: Impregnable of eye –

x / x / x /

C: And for an everlasting Roof

x / x / x / x /

D: The Gambrels of the Sky –

x / x / x /

[This stanza is a little more straight-forward...]

E: Of Visitors – the fair

x / x / x /

F: est – For Occupation – This –

x x / x / x /

E: The spreading wide my nar

x / x / x / x /

F: row Hands To gather Paradise –

x / x / x /

# Dash as Navigation

I want to explore the dash as something outside form and content. I want to explore it as a guide to understanding content.

An interesting exercise would be to consider the dash’s use for parenthetical statements. Please permit me, for a moment, to consider the notion that Dickinson is actually constructing two parallel thought processes where the dash is the reader’s cue to switch back and forth. I treat the text as one might an adaptation and rearranged the lines to illustrate an interesting effect.

I dwell in Possibility – More numerous of Windows –

for Doors – Impregnable of eye – Of Visitors –

For Occupation – The spreading wide my narrow Hands To gather Paradise –

A fairer House than Prose – Superior – Of Chambers as the Cedars –

And for an everlasting Roof The Gambrels of the Sky – the fairest – This –

# Content

Now, it seems to me that, that it’s a particularly unified idea wherein you rearrange word phrases and the perceived meaning persists.

I should probably talk about the perceived meaning. What have we got, then?

Poetry = Possibility > Prose = reality

Therefore, Poetry > Prose for all the reasons discussed in the video discussion which I have no desire to rehash...

But why use the word possibility? Why not use Poetry?

Again, I play the ignorance card and say that I don’t know enough about Dickinson. I’m too surly and lazy to play catch-up beyond googling a few facts and scanning the Wikipedia page.

So off the top of my head, what if she’s seeking, in her creation of new rhetoric, to expand the definition of Poetry or to even use an altogether different word for Poetry? Should the equation simply be

Possibility > reality

While we’re looking at Possibility. These uppercase letters are really getting on my nerves. Why bother capitalizing every noun within a line including a demonstrative pronoun and not capitalize eye and my? I mean, I can see naturally forgetting to capitalize my; however, why not eye? Unless, it’s to call attention to it through inattention.

How lowly were puns back then? I have no idea. I can’t believe I’m going to do this. Maybe it’s lack of sleep and too much caffeine, but what if we substitute I for eye and just see what happens...

I dwell in Possibility –

A fairer House than Prose –

More numerous of Windows –

Superior – for Doors –

Of Chambers as the Cedars –

Impregnable of I –

And for an everlasting Roof

The Gambrels of the Sky –

Of Visitors – the fairest –

For Occupation – This –

The spreading wide my narrow Hands

To gather Paradise –

The “of I” phrase could then be read as in possession of impregnability. What then? Is it really a house that the narrator describing, or Dickinson extending the metaphor to the self? Does the equation become

I > reality ?

Or is reality the wrong idea? Should I have used another truer antonym to possibility? What about

I > limitation ?

Well, that’s interesting because the only other time the narrator uses the first person is to describe “my narrow Hands”. Based on my insane and over-reaching supposition that the narrator is actually talking about the self, the line “The spreading wide of my narrow Hands” takes on new meaning as an expansion of self. The self’s ability is not limited by the body’s physicality.

So now I have this expanding self that is transcending its physical form “to gather Paradise”. Which you could transpose with “to gather Heaven”. Which could imply the self being divine.

God = divine = self = I = Possibility > Prose = reality = limitation

Throw back in the word House and you have a divine House. I could digress even further here and talk about the body being the temple and all that fun jazz, but I’m going to move on because I want to finish writing this before I go to sleep... and, also because I think I may have made too many intuitive leaps.

# Conclusion

What was I suppose to answer?

Oh, I also realized that at a certain point I switched to discussing the work as the narrator’s. I wonder why I did that. Maybe, on some level, I knew that I was jumping so far from the original material, that it seemed unfair to attach the author’s name to the space I’d found myself in.

“Can you say more about how form and content relate in ‘I dwell in Possibility’? She seems to be constructing -- literally -- her fairer house than prose and maybe by extension some new or different or special relationship that her poetry has to its form?”

Well, I guess, in the end, I don’t know that I know exactly how the form and content relate. What is form in this context anyway? Are we speaking of rhyme and meter? Are we speaking of the rhetoric? I probably should have asked for clarification a tad earlier...

BUT! Oh-ho! With my exceptionally liberal rearrangement for rhyme and the intuitive leap (bordering on whimsical) to divinity, can I posit that Dickinson’s narrator is saying that it that the self dwells in the House of Possibility from which it expands or “spreads” into the Sky which is analogous to Paradise... and this notion of needing to expand could be applied to the form itself... that the narrator’s thought process may, indeed, be housed within a “impregnable” or difficult to understand poem, but that the “fairest” or the purest will be able to perceive its meaning and and expand their “narrow Hands” or socialized minds to understand the poem’s “Paradise” or beauty?

I hope my verbal meandering answers your question.