“These are the voices which we hear in solitude, but they grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world. Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs”.

“Men have looked away from themselves and at things so long that they have come to esteem the religious, learned and civil institutions as guards of property, and they deprecate assaults on these, because they feel them to be assaults on property. They measure their esteem of each other by what each has, and not by what each is”.

“I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions”.

All three quotes come from Self-Reliance, first published in 1841.

One of only two photographs of Emily Dickinson, we're told.

It’s well-known that Emily Dickinson was a recluse, but not so well-known that she was extremely erudite and well-read. She enjoyed Wordsworth and Whitman;  there is a record of her attending a lecture by Ralph Waldo Emerson, champion of the American Romantic (or Transcendental) notion of self-reliance (apparently, though, she was too shy to visit the next-door neighbour’s house in which Emerson was staying at the time). Like Thoreau and Whitman, Emerson opted out of quite a lot of society’s institutions, claiming as you see that everything one needed was provided for without capitulating to the shackles of society.

Dickinson was clearly thinking of these notions and, although the originality and consequent obscurity of many of her poems separates her from the declarations of other Romantic poets, her thought is more conventional than allowed for by scholarship, at least the conventional wisdom of what passes for Leaving Cert. scholarship. Many of the textbooks like to concentrate on the “wild witchy woman locked inside because some man screwed her over” school of gossipmongering, rather than engaging with a remarkable talent on its own terms. Pity.

Advertisements