Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Emily Dickinson as the Precursor to the Dark Sublime

I was just reading from Emily Dickinson and the Modern Consciousness which was saying that Emily Dickinson saw the abyss and horror that preoccupy modern thought and indeed was the first one.  Conrad's Heart of Darkness is a classic later example of something that explicitly explores this subject as it explores the how far human beings are capable of going into the darkness.  The savagery in the minds of the British after they have succumbed to the savagery of Africa is presented as worst than the original darkness.  (The Heart of Darkness may indeed be something that was once light and has become dark.)  This idea of society overall falling into darkness, or at least having something missing is a classic idea in modern thought, but was not explicitly discussed in the time of Emily Dickinson.  Emily Dickinson writes about this in poems like this one:

We learned the Whole of Love—
The Alphabet—the Words—
A Chapter—then the mighty Book—
Then—Revelation closed—

But in Each Other's eyes
An Ignorance beheld—
Diviner than the Childhood's—
And each to each, a Child—

Attempted to expound
What Neither—understood—
Alas, that Wisdom is so large—
And Truth—so manifold!

Where religion has given way to some new way of looking at the world after "Revelation closed."

While it is not clearly mentioned in the book, this is also a form of the sublime.  The sublime in this case is something so empty or dark that it cannot be described.  In this poem that emptiness is mentioned in the ignorance in their eyes.


  1. I think you're on to something interesting, but I wonder if you might be conflating the "sublime" with existentialism or even nihilism. It seems the "sublime" has gone through a few different incarnations, and you'll want to make clear what definition you intend to use, from what time period, what set of scholars. If you are using the Romantic's notion of the sublime, I agree that there is an element of "terror" in what they discuss. But I understand that terror to be from the magnitude, elevation, loftiness of what is considered, not from indications of meaninglessness or spiritual darkness that Joseph Conrad suggests. It is the sort of "terrible" nature of god, his "awfulness" and grandeur.

    Having said that about Heart of Darkness, I think the poem you post does seem to indicate to me elements of the "sublime" as I see it, what with "Wisdom so large," and "Truth - so manifold!"

  2. Ok. I'll look into it. I think the definition I am using is an experience that is too large too comprehend. This would fall into both dark and light experiences.