Sexuality in Emily Dickinson’s Poems 14 & 764

Emily Dickinson, rather than constructing a singularly focused representation of sexuality, portrays a continuum of manifestations of sexual desire in her poetry. In ‘One Sister have I in our house, Poem 14’ and ‘My Life had stood – A Loaded Gun, Poem 764’ we can see these desires distinctly differ, not only by the poetic verse in which they are contained but by time and the gender of the subject demonstrating Dickinson’s portrayal of queer desire. ‘Poem 14’ is a declaration of admiration and dedication to her sister in law, Sue, that crosses the bounds of platonic friendship and introduces elements of sexuality and desire. ‘Poem 764’ is part of the collection of poems that talk of sexual desire towards a masculine subject. The poem alludes to a very different power dynamic that depicts a sexual surrender that sets it apart from the way she celebrates same-sex desire and sisterhood in ‘Poem 14’. This duality in her love poetry allows for an expression of sexuality that embraces different modes of desire and relationship dynamics. Viewing these desires as diametrically opposed might be useful in comparing Poems 14 & 764, but if we understand them as part of a queer continuum we can better understand the relationships between the modes of sexual expression.

Dickinson invokes the constant and enduring bonds of sisterhood in the first lines of ‘Poem 14’ whilst simultaneously complicating this familial relationship, drawing a distinction between biological sisterhood and the sisterhood entwined with desire (lines 1-4). The duality of this relationship is highlighted as Dickinson details the essential differences between herself and her ‘sister’, describing the impact of this fresh and exciting new addition to the familial dynamic (lines 9-12). The celebration of these differences is given a lyrical and musical quality, relishing the harmony and contrast between the different ‘songs’ of their hearts.

In ‘Poem 14’ Dickinson simultaneously invokes the joy and innocence of childhood, whilst also positioning the relationship between the two ‘sisters’ as being adult and ‘far from childhood’. In Hart’s exploration of the relationship between Sue and Dickinson, she highlights this constancy and enduring quality evoked by the fiction of a childhood friendship that never existed (Hart 1990, pp. 260). The entwined hands are symbolic of entwined fates that share a history and a future, a constant and close friendship and meeting of mutual desires. The poem is at once nostalgic and hopeful, talking of mornings and beginnings as well as mouldering. The use of dew and moisture is emblematic of her poetic expression of lesbian desire and feminine sexuality, implying cunnilingus, which stands in contrast to the rigidity and phallic imagery in poems such as ‘Poem 764’ (Henneberg 1995, pp. 7). This opposing imagery, the natural and man-made, the temporary, but daily replenishing dew and the night is not set up in direct contrast to the ‘morning dew’ but is instead a continuation of the unfolding days and the progression of the relationship. The days and nights roll on and whilst they are separate and distinct they both have a role to play in the expression of Dickinson’s sexuality, with the day being a time for rambling, observation and exploration, and the night being a time for desire, wistfulness and longing. The choosing of a star and the wideness and expanse of the night seem to heighten the desire rather than dull it, leading to the exclamation and dedication to ‘Sue forevermore’. Dickinson creates an association between natural phenomena and sexuality that is not only a key part her work that is often viewed as queer, but is also apparent in more heteronormative works, such as the mountains and valleys of ‘Poem 764’.

In contrast to this consistent building of desire, ‘Poem 764’ is explosive and violent in its nature. The extreme suddenness breaks apart the consistency and constancy of ‘Poem 14’. The past in ‘Poem 764’ is a time of anticipation, of tension and potential. The events of Dickinson’s life are portrayed as leading inexorably to this moment. Rather than the melodic trail of a song through the seasons we are confronted with the brutality of mechanised weaponry in the form of a gun. But Dickinson does not abandon the natural world in this poem taking the reader through woods, mountains and valleys, but rather than journeying through these environments as travellers the ‘owner’ of her desire is a hunter.

The two poems engage in the sexual politics of ownership with contrasting dynamics;  in ‘Poem 14’ Dickinson talks of her subject belonging to her (line 4), but in ‘Poem 764’ she describes the identification of the ‘owner’ of her sexual desire (line 3), making her the ‘owned’. Dickinson’s sexual desire has a master in ‘Poem 764’, rather than a beloved subject. However, the poetic voice in this poem is not entirely passive, playing the role of the protectorate (lines 14 & 17) and, as denoted by the ‘we’ (lines 5 & 6) there is a partnership and collaborative effort involved in hunting the doe. The voice could perhaps be best characterised as that of a willing servant to the masculine using words like ‘Sovreign’ to denote masculine power and the killing of the female deer, demonstrating an implied supremacy over femininity.

The sexual desire in ‘Poem 764’ stretches into the future and across vast geographic space. It does not inhabit the fields, flowers and morning dew of the home and its surrounds, but traverses landscapes and speaks to mountains, which are compelled to reply. Dickinson’s increased use of ellipses in ‘Poem 764’ enhances the feeling of the vast expansiveness of the sexual desire explored throughout the poem. These ellipses hint at omission and provide tremendous scope for the reader to continue the thought beyond the words on the page. These unfinished thoughts and spaces between words invite reader interpretation and speculation on the sexual connotations surrounding sleep and death (lines 13-16 & 21-24). The poetic voice in ‘Poem 14’ and ‘Poem 764’ does not portray night as a time for sleep, staying vigilant rather than sharing the soft pillow (Poem 764) or scouring the night sky for the single star (Poem 14).

Dickinson’s modes of expressing sexuality in ‘Poems 14’ and ‘Poem 764’ inhabit different spaces in time. The desire of ‘Poem 14’ exists in the past, the present and the future simultaneously, it is the eternal and constant thread of desire. Whereas the sexual desire of ‘Poem 764’ explodes into the present and looms large over the future, it is sweeping and intense, disrupting and distorting time and reality, ending only in death. Rather than viewing ‘Poem 764’ as depicting a sexuality that eclipses and supplants the sexuality of the earlier ‘Poem 14’ it is possible to view these manifestations of sexuality in terms of duality rather than distinctly separate phenomena. These forms of desire differ in many ways but are both manifestations of Dickinson’s sexuality within her poetry. The vast scope and depth of these desires inhabit different spaces and elicit different responses but are both powerful parts of Dickinson’s continuum of sexual identity within her poetry. Hart maintains that despite the disruptions to their friendships the love and desire between the poet and her female subject remained constant and enduring and ‘Poem 14’ clearly signposts the early stages of this ‘constancy’ alluded to in Dickinson’s letters (Hart 1990, pp. 251).

Henneberg points out that explosive desire and violence are not only evident in the ‘master’ poems but are also evident in other poetry that focuses on a female object of desire defying ‘a simple hetero/homo divide’ (Henneberg 1995, pp.1). This means that the gender of the ‘owner’ does not necessarily reflect the intensity of the poetic expression, leading to a more fluid representation of the relationship to gender and sexuality within the poems. The differences the between two poems and their expressions of sexuality merely represent different parts of a continuum that spans sexuality and gender leading to a more nuanced understanding of the queer status of Dickinson’s work. Dickinson represents sexuality in ‘Poem 14’ and ‘Poem 764’ as borderless and enduring. She demonstrates the tethering of sexuality to different levels of agency, gender and relationships, but leaves an ambiguity allowing for those roles to be unbound and reassigned. Instead of giving one kind of sexual desire primacy she allows same-sex desire and hetero-normative desire to inhabit different spaces at different times, expressing a queerness that does not create a distinct hierarchy between modes of sexual expression but moves freely between the two creating a continuum. This continuum is even evident in these seemingly dissimilar poems that tether sexuality to natural phenomena, with a poetic voice that proclaims desire and devotion to the mountains and to the wide night sky.

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