The Subterranean Freight of Emily Dickinson

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Author: C.R. Resetarits
Date: Fall 2017
From: Confrontation(Issue 122)
Publisher: Long Island University, C.W. Post College
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 2,806 words
Lexile Measure: 1310L

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Emily Dickinson had a thing for nether regions and underworlds. Here's an example in the opening of the poem "Under the Light, yet under":

Under the Light, yet under, Under the Grass and the Dirt, Under the Beetle's Cellar Under the Clover's Root.(1)

That is a focused consideration of under. And in spite of our usual expectation of nothing much going on in the dead zone underneath the earth, Dickinson always finds a lot of things going on in the great Under (its greatness both announced and illustrated by her repetition). In the last two lines (little lines, their primacy suggesting an almost childish simplicity, a primary world in all senses), she suggests a world, an under-civilization with its own flora and fauna: the Beetle's Cellar (full, no doubt, of Beetle provisions and old flasks of Beetle brew) and the Clover's Root (the growing, absorbing, burrowing, white anchor of the Clover). Both the Beetle and the Clover hang out above but are nourished (the Cellar) and anchored (the Root) below, much like, one imagines, Emily Dickinson is nourished and anchored in the subterranean realms of her imagination, in her subconscious, and in the depths of her artist's soul. Dickinson's underworlds are full, busy places, which provide not only anchorage and nourishment but commentary (reflecting, refracting, redirecting, slanting) on the things above.

This essay will consider several poems from Dickinson's crisis and creative period, delving into the various cellars, mines, graves, and subterranean spaces they employ, and offering a few guesses as to what might be going on down there.


So from the mould, Scarlet and Gold Many a Bulb will rise- Hidden away, cunningly, From sagacious eyes. So from Cocoon Many a Worm Leap so Highland gay, Peasants like me-- Peasants like Thee, Gaze perplexedly! (2)

This poem was composed in 1859 at the beginning of Emily Dickinson's most productive period (roughly 1858-1865). She liked the word "mould," which anchors the first verse, and employed it often in her poems, with both the British spelling (mould) and the American spelling (mold) used interchangeably. The word and image are anchored in her "underworld," and the word is certainly part of her poetic lexicon (along with mines, cellars, graves, chambers). In other poems she speaks of a "Mouldering Playmate" dressed in a jacket "Long buttoned in the Mold" or of a Bosom "Ages beneath the mould" or of the "rare tenant of the mold." There is always something changed and changing in such mouldering references. And although one might first think of corporal decay when thinking of mold, as always with Dickinson there is something lurking beneath the first surface, something under the under as it were. These moulderings are often as much about becoming as decaying, for what, after all, is decay but another word (world) for becoming. That's why the word and the images it evokes are so loaded and so perfectly a part of Dickinson's underworld. Mold denotes the gathering of tiny fungi that form and grow on...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A520582056