Emily Dickinson’s Poem

Symbolically, the use of the hand in literature often represents varying concepts depending on what the author needs to portray. When depicting the aging process, the hands reveal the diminishing youthful appearance of the physical body and thus denote death’s approaching grip. Not to mention, time melts away as the hands of the proverbial clock tick ever so swiftly away. Also, when exploring male and female interactions, the male figure generally holds the “upper hand,” so to speak, or the control of the relationship, thus furthering the symbolic nature of the hand. Emily Dickinson uses the hand throughout poem 511 to symbolically demonstrate the control to which her character feels trapped, to express the limits of said control, and to imply or suggest her character’s only saving grace.

Emily Dickinson brilliantly employs the symbolic imagery of the hand as a clever way to illustrate the force of control throughout the poem. During the poem, she, the speaker, expresses her thoughts directly towards the man she loves, almost as if he where there in her presence or on the receiving end of a letter. Almost begging, Emily’s character yearns for a specific time frame, an answer, as to when she will see him again. With each questionable length of time, she describes the actions by which the narrator would take to pass the time until her love is there beside her. Dickinson states in stanza one that,
“I’d brush the summer by
With half a smile, and half a spurn,
As housewives do a fly”
As each time frame grows ever longer, Emily Dickinson allows the speaker’s actions to approach an almost obsessive extreme. She implements imagery that sequentially evolves into a neurotic state of self-destruction and self-denial. Emily’s character starts first by simple brushing aside the time as if it where only a nuisance, a slight bother. Then she describes how, if the time frame consisted of a year, she would, “wind the months in balls-/And put them each in separate drawers.” Dickinson’s narrator progresses all the way to calling upon eternity as a possible alternative to earthly existence without her lover. She connects the action of choosing death with the insignificant chore of throwing away useless garbage. Emily uses the word “rind” to illustrate how life without her love would lose its sweet, nurturing, luscious qualities and succumb to nothing more than worthless and pathetic rubble.

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Emily Dickinson uses the hand to represent control or lack of control throughout the poem. She calls upon the symbolic nature that the body part conjures up and uses this nature to further show the undesirable, but tolerable, control placed over her. However, throughout the duration of the poem, Dickinson never gives hint as to the possible identity of the speaker’s lover.

“In keeping with her tradition of looking at the “circumference”
of an idea, Dickinson never actually defines a conclusive love or
lover at the end of her love poetry, instead concentrating on passion
as a whole” (Morris, 99).

Although this may add mystery and anonymity involved in the poem, she has other reasons for not even whispering the name of the secretive lover. Possibly, Emily chooses to keep the lover’s identity secret to further demonstrate her lack of control over the relationship in which she finds herself. Along with unidentified loves, Dickinson speaker neither receives an answer nor a reprieve from the burdening question of when, thus further, illustrating the narrator’s lack of power and her seemingly subservient role in the relationship. She indirectly touches upon the secondary existence that women of her generation endured; the lack of a substantial grip in a male dominated society. “The woman’s existence is only contingent to the encircling power of the man” (Morris, 104).

Emily Dickinson also employs everyday activities such as, winding balls of yarn and finger counting, throughout her poetry giving an invigorating intensity to inherent ideas. She seems to use these activities to lesson the blow or emotional complexity to her writing. “Such an audacity has seldom invaded poetry with a desire to tell immortal truths through the medium of a deep sentiment for old habitual things” (Shackford, 6). On the other hand, Dickinson almost purposely undermines the complexity of the narrator’s life by linking her with commonplace activities. She transforms the narrator into a regular “Jane” with everyday crushed dreams and disappointments. By doing this, Emily substantiates the notion of the submissive, meek female held down by the hand of a male dominated society.

With each passing stanza, Emily Dickinson correlates actions that the hands make possible with a certain allotment of time. She ingeniously links the speaker’s lack of control over the relationship, which almost seems to exist only in her mind, with her control over passing the time through such actions expressed in the poem. Emily’s character, in a slight way, gains control through the connection and tolerates her situation in a more fashionable manner better suited to her needs. In a situation of apparently no control, she, the narrator, grasps onto her only outlet and tightly clings to her only evident truth, uncertainty.

Strikingly similar to the short, blurred lines on the palm of the hand, Emily Dickinson suggests, in the last stanza, that control does not necessarily equate certainty. She hints that the lines drawn by control diminish and fade into almost obscurity and uncertainty. Emily states that all clarity has vanished for the narrator. “But, now, uncertain of the length/Of this that is between.” She allows the poem to progress from hopeful fantasies to absolute impossibilities. By the beginning of the last stanza, Dickinson permits the narrator to lose all anticipation and expectation for accompanying her love, thus expressing the limits of the narrator’s control.

Throughout the poem, Emily Dickinson eloquently elaborates on the limits of control that her narrator endures. She follows the speaker down the spiral of unpredictability. However, at the end of the poem, Emily implies that the narrator has one outlet left, one viable expression that seems to ease the troubling situation. Without mentioning it directly, she discreetly suggests that the narrator still possesses the ability to write her way through the situation. Dickinson describes the nuisance as a, “Goblin Bee-/That will not state-its sting.” She personifies the bee by granting it the ability to speak or to “state,” linking the bee to her love. Since he, her love, will not divulge a when, Emily feels that, since she cannot control the relationship, she can at least control her outlet, her relief. Therefore, she expresses her feeling through her other true love, writing.

In poem 511, Emily Dickinson utilizes the hand to symbolically represent the existing grip of control over her life indirectly imposed by the man she loves, to express the limitations of the imposed grip, and to hint at the way in which she deals with the out of control situation. She shows her finely tuned mastery through the commonplace correlations and unmentioned activities that lie at the root of her work, this poem being a vivid example of her skills. “Passionate fortitude was hers, and this is the greatest contribution her poetry makes to the reading world” (Shackford, 8). Through heart felt expressions and creative connects, Emily Dickinson divulges her inner most thoughts and secrets for the unintended pleasure of her adoring public.


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