American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Posts Tagged ‘Khedive

Emily Dickinson’s “Suez” Crisis

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(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

Dickinson, Longfellow, and Arab Nationalism

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

Tewfik Pasha, the Khedive of Egypt and Sudan

Khedive Tewfiq, 1883

There are holes in time, call them events, around which a poet’s words leave the most intriguing traces. Not powder burns or blood spatter, but smudges, odors, rubble; signs that somebody lingered where others pass quickly. Events, of course, take many shapes, and some indeed are wounds. But the holes I have in mind are peepholes, or entranceways; moments of understanding set at a distance from the thing understood.  And yes, I know that this metaphor is faulty. But how else evoke the special character of moments when a castoff sentence draws our attention, leading us to see what is always there anyway: history. And the closer we look, the farther we see.

Call the above a hypothesis; I’m not sure it is really workable as a model of understanding. Holes of time rimmed with language quickly enough become holes of language rimmed by time. The reversibility is beffudling; the fact that texts can be “in,” “of,” and “about” history, all at the same time, makes nonsense of all prepositional knowledge. And knowledge of history is indeed prepositional: it establishes direction, articulates relationships, arranges an order. Where is poetry, or a poet’s language, in all this?

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Written by Ben Friedlander

January 19, 2009 at 5:33 am