Symbolic Images: the Poetry of Emily Dickinson

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The poetry of the Imagists is short, simple, and quite literal in its meaning in order to create a vivid picture in the reader's mind. When they describe an object, it means just what they say. A tree is a tree, a flower is a flower, and a bird is a bird. Imagists have little use for abstract words or ideas, and tend to shy away from them as much as possible. Emily Dickinson doesn't fall under the same category as the Imagists, as she doesn't use the same techniques as the Imagists.

Dickinson's poems center on very vivid images, with very different takes on them. They very often contain abstract concepts, which are often given concrete principles and are incorporated as part of her images. She implants deeper meanings behind her images, and tends to rely on a different technique than the Imagists. The majority of her work relies heavily on a different type of imagery – symbolism.

One of the poems where this symbolism is most evident is "My Life Had Stood – A Loaded Gun." This poem is obviously based around a strong metaphoric image, as Dickinson is comparing herself to a gun belonging to someone else. In the poem, she uses the gun as a symbol to show her role in the patriarchal society she lived in. The first stanza shows this feeling:

My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun –
In Corners – till a Day
The Owner passed – identified –
And carried me away –
In this stanza, Dickinson never explicitly mentions the owner to be a man, but as women didn't use guns in those times, it is understood that the owner would be male, which she does clarify later in the poem. Even without an outright declaration of male ownership, these lines imply the role that women were supposed to take in Dickinson's time, sitting silently in the background until a man wishes to take them away.

In the last stanza of the poem, Dickinson echoes the same theme of needing a man to access her power.
Though I than He – may longer live
He longer must – than I –
For I have but the power to kill,
Without – the power to die –
These lines tell of Dickinson's feeling of dependence upon a male figure. One can only guess which male figure Dickinson had in mind when she wrote this poem, but it is easy to see that whoever it is, she feels he must live longer than her, as she can't do anything without him. The lines "For I have but the power to kill/Without - the power to die –" sum up Dickinson's feelings of the power of women. She obviously feels that women do have tremendous power, but in the heavily male-oriented society of her time, that power lay dormant without a man to use it.

Another poem heavily laden with symbolic images is "The Lightning is a Yellow Fork." This poem uses symbolism in a different way than the first. Rather than using symbol to show her view of the roles of women, she uses it to pose a question to the reader without explicitly asking one. This poem closely resembles the poems of the Imagists, as she makes a short description of a lighting strike. However, the description becomes only half the poem, as she goes deep into metaphor and abstract ideas. In the first stanza, she uses metaphor to compare the fork dropped from a table.

The Lightning is a yellow Fork
From Tables in the sky
By inadvertent fingers dropt
The awful Cutlery
This stanza shows how lightning seems to be an accident, dropped on Earth objectively wherever it may land. The following stanza seems to ask the question of where the fork was dropped from.
Of mansions never quite disclosed
And never quite concealed
The Apparatus of the Dark
To ignorance revealed.
In these lines, the reader can see the implicit question, where does this lightning come from? Dickinson seems to wonder what is hidden up in the sky that we can't see, and displays the disappointment of mortal beings not being able to see the riches beyond this world, and it's gone all to quick, leaving us in the dark again.

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