The Eco-Feminism Of Emily Dickinson
In Greek mythology, Apollo, the god of the sun, while under the magical effects of Cupid’s golden arrow, fell in love with a nymph named Daphne.Unfortunately, for the sun god, Cupid shot Daphne with a lead arrow that caused her to develop an intense hatred for the Apollo. Weary of his advances, Daphne pleaded with her father Peneus, the river god, to save her. In response Peneus transformed the beautiful nymph into a laurel tree. Undeterred, Apollo fell to his knees beneath the tree and declared that it shall be sacred. From that day on, he wore a wreath of laurels on his head to honor his love. To this day the laurel is still hailed as sacred, with its leaves woven into ceremonial wreaths worn by victorious kings, athletes, and poets alike. This tale helps to illuminate the duality of the feminine and masculine that exists in nature and the conflicts that come from these opposing forces. The male, represented by Apollo is lustful and predatory. The female, embodied by Daphne, is beautiful, desirable, and chaste. In the end, the male element overpowers the female with his insatiable desires. In order for the female to stand any chance she must strip herself of her humanity and become part of the natural world.Women have always had a special relationship with nature. It is ancient and widespread and touches upon different aspects of everyday life. Ecofeminism, first developed in the 1970’s by Francoise D’Eaubonne,melds together ideas of feminism withecological concerns.Just as Daphne transformed her femininity into the natural in order to escape the clutches of man, so does ecofeminism seek to transform hereditary patriarchal structures by inclusion of the feminine to create a more blended perspective. This movement allowed scholars to deconstruct standard patriarchal ideals that have caused a rift between human society and nature. They can then draw connections between closely held ideas of the “feminine” like nurture, softness, and beauty as they relate to nature. This perspective closely links the oppression of women with the destruction of nature as a result of male ideas of domination. Ecofeminists argue against a male-centered view of the world. They argue that the hierarchal thinking within patriarchal societies allows for the subordination of outside groups, like women and, by extension, nature. Both these groups have been objectified by the male, grouped as “others, ”and commodified
Only by looking beyond the patriarchal and adopting a more nurturing and gentle feminine view can societies create freedom and opportunity for growth for both women and nature. They propose a less androcentric and anthropocentric view of the world, claiming that placing man in the centerof all creates dangerous modes of thought and destructive actions. This is not to suggest a complete erasure of the male idea itself but rather a re-introduction of the female in order to create a more cohesive. In order to return to a more balanced state of being, feminine ideals must be allowed power and recognition.
Though the term Ecofeminist wasn’t coined until the late twentieth century, the ideas formed under it can be found in the life and work of American poet Emily Dickinson. She used the pillars of what would become ecofeminism to drive her thoughts and influence her actions. Throughout her life she pushed back against patriarchal institutions, rejecting common religious and societal beliefs and traditions in both her life and her poetry.
Though most people were swept up in Calvinism, Dickinson resisted her religious obligations even at a young age, moving from curiosity, to fear, to an outward rebellion of the Christian faith. In her poetry, God is often painted as a figure who is indifferent to human suffering. She argues against a human inferiority to a higher being and challenges God’s control over her life.In her poem Mine by the Right of the White Election, Dickinson revolts against the religious dominion of her life:
Mine—by the Right of the White Election!
Mine—by the Royal Seal!
Mine—by the sign in the Scarlet prison—
Mine—here—in Vision—and in Veto!
Mine—by the Grave's Repeal—
Mine—long as Ages steal!
In it, the poet repeats the word “Mine” six times, emphasizing her personal autonomy,almost shouting it out to the heavens for all to hear. The entire poem revolves around the word. It allows her to proudly assert ownership over her own religious freedom. In Line four, she mentions the “Scarlet prison.” The most common reference is to the scarlet A worn by Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlett Letter. In the story, Prynne is vilified by her strictly Puritan community for falling temptation to her sexuality and defying the rule of God. The scarlet A serves as Prynne’s own prison, isolating her from her community, and marking her as a sinner.
In the end, her strength and independence win out; she outlives the minister Arthur Dimmesdale, and is able to raise her daughter Pearl away from the place where she was undone.
In her poem, Dickinson speaks of Prynne, and also of herself, asserting their independence and right to claim ownership over their own souls. Both Prynne and Dickinson share Puritanical roots and lived under the shadow of religious law as doled out by their perceived male superiors. They both also sought to live independently of it. Their right to self-guidance is “Titled” and “Confirmed,” and sealed in a “Delirious Charter.” This open rebellion against religion’s stranglehold over personal authority puts Dickinson in line with the facet of ecocriticism that sees religion as a wholly patriarchal structure that exists to dominate.
This individualism found in her poems exemplifies Dickinson’s own inner fire. Her father, Edward Dickinson, was a strong male presence in her life,who ran the household sternly under Christian morals. Her mother, Emily Norcross Dickinson, was a meek, submissive woman who filled her roles as wife and homemaker as expected of her. Dickinson was raised to follow in her mother’s footsteps, brought up to aspire only to marriage. However, her poetic soul could not be contained completely within those patriarchal structures. She longed to be an artist and remain free from societal expectations. As a writer, she had to develop a strong sense of self, womanhood, and authority in order to create her poetic identity. Her poems echo notions of rebellion and individuality.
Most notable of Dickinson’s poems is her love of nature. She chose to isolate herself from mainstream society and remain close to nature. Her love is reflected in her nature poems where she describes the lives of flowers, trees, and animals in reverent detail. Through nature, Dickinson is able to create stronger connections to her exterior world; stronger than she ever could have done while tending home as someone’s wife. Her respect for the harmony of the natural world stemmed from its beauty and the independence it gave her from a trapped life. Through her appreciation of the natural world, she developed a newer understanding and appreciation of mankind.
Coghill, S. Influences on Emily Dickinson‘s Poetry. Electronic book pdf. 2002.
Dickinson, Emily. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. The United States of America. Philadelphia State University Press. 1924
Dickinson, Emily. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. With an Introduction by Martha Dickinson Bianchi. An Electronic Classics Series Publication. Pennsylvania State University. 2012.
Franklin, R. W. (1999). The poems of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Belknap Press.
Glotfelty, Cheryl and Fromm, Harold.( editors) . The Ecocriticism Reader. University of Georgia Press. Athens and London. 1996.