Emily Dickinson’s use of nature imagery in her poetry incorporates elements of both romanticism and realism. These usually contrasting visions allow Dickinson to express a duplicity of perception, a duplicity which can be considered as a part of nature itself, as expressed through human consciousness. Although the overall impact of Dickinson’s nature imagery is romantic and reveals perception of nature as a mode of transcendence, the imagery and diction of Dickinson’s poems also establish a convincing realist tone, which separates her work from strictly transcendentalist nature-poets such as Emerson or Thoreau.
It is not difficult to pinpoint individual poems by Dickinson where nature emerges as an obvious transcendent force. Her poem #214 “I Taste a Liquor Never Brewed” (Perkins, 990) utilizes an obvious metaphorical dynamic: the speaker of the poem is “drunk” on elements of nature: “Inebriate of Air — am I — / And Debauchee of Dew –” (Perkins, 990) and the exuberance of the speaker is meant to be both humorous and extreme.
The poem strikes a comic tone, due to Dickinson’s belief that “the comic or humorous is no less serious than the tragic” (Eberwein 150) and in her mind, the “depths of human existence could never be climbed, would never be plumbed, without a humorous attenuation to the world” (Eberwein 150). The humor in poem #214 is meant to emerge from the irony of a speaker blatantly celebrating their drunkeness. Despite the poem’s comical overtones, the theme of the poem is, in fact, quite serious. The poem’s theme is that nature is a “gate” through which ecstacy is reached.
The true irony of the poem is that liquor is superfluous to true ecstacy; all that is needed is nature itself. In this way, Dickinson is casting a criticism on her society’s reliance on “artificial” stimulants. Nature will endure where actual liquor runs dry: “When `Landlords` turn the drunken Bee/Out of the Foxgloves door –/When Butterflies — renounce their `drams` –/ I shall but drink the more! ” (Perkins, 990) The seriousness of the poem’s theme is in the implied isolation of the speaker, who is acknowledged only by the “Seraphs” and “Saints” (Perkins, 990) who watch “the little Tippler / Leaning against the — Sun -” (Perkins, 990).
It is impossible to escape the feeling that “Leaning against the — Sun” (Perkins, 990) is a dangerous position even fro an ecstatic poet; so while the poem demonstrates transcendence, it also expresses isolation and alienation. By contrast, Dickinson’s poem # 328, “A Bird came down the Walk –” (Perkins, 995) begins with a sense of alienation and rigid realistic description and opens toward the end to a transcendentalist vision of nature. The beginning line describe how a bid hopped on the speaker’s walk and “bit an Angleworm in halves” (Perkins, 995).
The poet’s observation that the bird “ate the fellow, raw,” (Perkins, 995) suggests anything but a transcendental vision of nature. rather, the scene evokes a stark, biologically precise depiction of natural processes. Nevertheless, a duplicity of perception is hinted at in the following lines “And then he drank a Dew /From a convenient Grass –/ And then hopped sidewise to the Wall/ To let a Beetle pass –” (Perkins, 995) where the previously predatory scene gives way to one of “civility” and calm.
The duplicity of perception is extended by the phrase “Like one in danger, Cautious” (Perkins, 995) which “may modify either the preceding “He stirred his Velvet Head” or the following “I offered him a Crumb,” hence either the bird or the speaker or both” (Eberwein 85) and, as such, admits an ambiguity into the poem’s diction which is foreshadowed by the imagery.
This ambiguity is not quite resolved, but merely turned toward an image of transcendent nature in the poem’s closing lines: “Too silver for a seam –/Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon/ Leap, plashless as they swim” (Perkins, 995). Whereas poem #214 began with a blatant expression of intoxicated transcendence and ended with an ambiguity of isolation and alienation, poem # 328 begins with a sense of alienation and even violence,but resolves in a harmonious, transcendental uplift of diction and imagery.
Obviously, Dickinson aim in her poetry was to represent the duality of human perception and the duality of the natural world which can be resolved in aesthetic expression, but not by methods based solely on rationalism or realism.
Eberwein, Jane Donahue, ed. An Emily Dickinson Encyclopedia. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998. Perkins, George; Perkins, Barbara. The American Tradition in Literature 11th Edition 2007