American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Posts Tagged ‘Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson’s “Suez” Crisis

with 3 comments

(part three of an essay; part two is here; part one is here)

Susan Gilbert Dickinson

Susan Gilbert Dickinson

I want to take up a remark left unexplained in part one of this essay, which focused on Emily Dickinson and Egypt by way of a brief, cryptic note sent by the poet to her sister-in-law Sue, probably in September 1882. That was the date of the Battle of Tel el-Kebir, fought between British troops and Arab nationalists. Dickinson makes reference to that battle in her note, signing her name with the title of the Egyptian governor (“Khedive”) instead of with “Emily.” The note is witty, and its wit lights up an event that most readers of Dickinson will not know. Lit up in this way, moreover, the event becomes a hole in time through which Dickinson’s own historicity becomes more visible.

With any other poet, this historicity would hardly be worth remarking, but Dickinson’s withdrawal from public life and the loftiness of her habitual concerns makes it necessary even still to say that she was interested in world affairs, even if only as the basis for one of her jokes. She was, emphatically, a creature of society. The joke is proof of that, and not only because of its topical concern. Jokes are the most social of all speech acts, the very opposite of the solitary writing for which Dickinson is best known. They are in effect a testing of the social contract’s looser provisions; when successful, they ratify the contract with laughter. The assent of the governed find its truest parallel in the ungovernable assent of the amused.

But what society is involved in this joke? In my previous reading, I remarked in passing that Dickinson’s ultimate subject is probably not Egypt. I did not elaborate on this point, but did suggest that her comment was likely intended as an illumination of something having to do with the note’s recipient, Sue, whose name, I added, is echoed in the cause of the Egyptian crisis: Suez.

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Written by Ben Friedlander

February 15, 2009 at 11:50 pm