Emily Dickinson's Fascicle 17
Approaching Emily Dickinson’s poetry as one large body of work can be an intimidating and overwhelming task. There are obvious themes and images that recur throughout, but with such variation that seeking out any sense of intention or order can feel impossible. When the poems are viewed in the groupings Dickinson gave many of them, however, possible structures are easier to find. In Fascicle 17, for instance, Dickinson embarks upon a journey toward confidence in her own little world. She begins the fascicle writing about her fear of the natural universe, but invokes the unknowable and religious as a means of overcoming that fear throughout her life and ends with a contextualization of herself within both nature and eternity.
The first poem in the fascicle, “I dreaded that first Robin so”, shows us a Dickinson who is intimidated by even the most harmless creatures in the world around her. Despite the title she gives herself, “The Queen of Calvary”, her fears seem to hinge on a feeling of inferiority to these small harbingers of spring (24). The first chirp of the robin holds some awful power, while the daffodils become fashionable critics of Dickinson’s simplicity. These comparisons set Dickinson up as someone very small and “childish”—she cannot even stand up to birds and flowers without fear of being exposed to them and found lacking (26). The next poem, “I would not paint—a picture—” continues this idea, but with a slightly more pleasant spin. While somewhat paradoxically rejecting the idea of making art herself (even devoting a stanza to why she should not write poetry), she gives a sense of the exhilaration she finds in being the audience for any kind of art. Ultimately, however, art becomes just as intimidating as nature and she recoils from so much power for fear of hurting herself. The last two lines of the poem are a timid reflection on what might happen “Had I the Art to stun myself/ With Bolts—of Melody!” (23-24). The idea that creation is a power that can get loose and injure even the creator illuminates why in this poem the artist positions herself firmly as a mere spectator. In these first two poems, we meet a Dickinson who is not entirely familiar to us—even though we are accustomed to her strong desire for privacy, these poems can be startling in the way they reveal the intensity of Dickinson’s fears. She is, after all, shrinking from what is dearest to her—nature, one of her favorite subjects, becomes a harsh judge, and poetry, her favored medium of communication, can suddenly render the reader “impotent” and the writer “stun[ned]” (19, 23). The extremity of her positions in shrinking from the small and beautiful things she loves creates the sense that this is just the beginning of a journey by leaving so much room for change.
The change begins in the next poem, “He touched me, so I live to know”. This “He”, presumably God, has the effect of calming...