“Rowing in Eden”: What We Can Learn From Emily Dickinson

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Along with countless others I am in love with Emily Dickinson for her brilliance, unique use of language, her gardens and flowers, her solitude, fragility, and her quirkiness and grace. Some maintained she lived “on the outskirts of sanity.” I wish I had been there on that day, May 19, 1886 in Amherst, Massachusetts, when her coffin was carried through fields of buttercups to the cemetery. Her devoted sister Lavinia had placed heliotrope in her hand and ringed her neck with violets and lady slippers. During her lifetime Emily was known more as a gardener than a poet. English literature scholar and biographer of Dickinson, Judith Farr, writes about her love of flowers in her beautifully illustrated The Gardens of Emily Dickinson (2004). Emily lived the last twenty-five years of her life as a recluse in the big house on Main Street where she continued to write some of the finest poetry we know, nearly 2000 over her life. During these years she was often referred to as “the Myth of Amherst.” What renewed my interest in her were four articles in the Summer 2014 issue of the literary journal the Kenyon Review where one of the contributors writes, “I find her the single most ferocious, terrifying , and intrepid lyric poet of our language…for the sheer proximity to chaos, devastation , psychic and physical rupture, oblivion.” Her gardens, flowers and poems were, I think, stays against confusion, chaos, disorder and darkness.

In several of her letters Dickinson spoke of her poetry as originating in, and responding to states of wonder and astonishment. Writing in the late Romantic period Emily resisted the all-too-bright and illusory light of the Enlightenment. She simply did not believe in the answerability of all questions. As did Nietzsche she inhabited an imaginative world overflowing with the force of being where sensuous life ran in her veins and time broke open – “Flora unimpeachable/To Time’s Analysis.” Her poetry often written late at night or before dawn reflected her intense microclimates of mood where astonishment is in the ascendancy: “The Dandelion’s pallid tube/Astonishes the Grass”; the Robin brings “ecstasy/ Among astonished boughs.”   Dickinson’s analysis of wonder moves us to an epistemological realm in one of her poems where she assesses the meaning of wonder as a way of knowing: : “Wonder- is not precisely Knowing/And not precisely Knowing not-/A beautiful but bleak condition/ He has not lived who has not felt-.”  Several phrases from another poem inform us that Enlightenment reason is far from our only way of knowing and being: “I felt a funeral in my brain…./ And then a plank in reason, broke,/And I dropped down, and down-/And hit a World, at every plunge,/ And Finished knowing – then.” Hers was a diurnal knowledge, a metaphysics of the quotidian.

“Come slowly—Eden!” Images of Eden roamed in Dickinson’s mind constantly and in a remarkable group of love poems she featured ‘Eden’ as the “garden we have not seen” and as a symbol and place for intense romantic ecstasy. She often spoke of her own two acre garden as “a little bit of Eden.” In one of her more erotic poems, “Wild Nights – Wild Nights!” appears the enchanting line, “rowing in Eden” that I find intriguing. We can probe some of the line’s possible meanings from a postmodern writerly/readerly perspective. Rowing, especially in concert with another, it has been suggested, is a metaphor for the possibility of interchanges and dialogue Dickinson imagined between her poetical texts and readers. She did not want passivity from her readers and from the perspective of Roland Barthes she wished her readers to be coproducers of texts. Dickinson scholar Christanne Miller asks us to look at her way of choosing words and phrases as an activity of quilting in which the reader participates. Miller notes that Emily’s poems are nonlinear, and fluid “revealing a consciousness that without anxiety knows itself to be incapable of complete control.” It’s likely that she viewed her textual world as perpetually Edenic as it is made, remade, dismantled, restructured and reassembled with every reading – “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.”

“Rowing in Eden” perhaps can be seen as representing failure, loss, abandonment and absence. Dickinson summoned the vision of the rowboat from the imagery of many American Painters representing an endangered boat imperiled by rough seas. In Frederic Church’s An Old Boat (1850) failure and loss were metaphorically depicted by an abandoned rowboat; James Whistler’s The Sea (1865) pictures utter defeat with a rowboat aground at the edge of somber tides. It is in Genesis 2:8-9 that the Garden of Eden appears along with the two fateful trees: the tree of life and the tree of forbidden knowledge (of good and evil). One Hebrew Bible scholar suggests that this sets up a contest between life and knowledge with knowledge ultimately winning out when the expulsion from the garden occurs and the garden is closed down for eternal renovations with celestial bouncers and a flaming sword preventing any return to the tree of life.

Dickinson created every day her own Eden in her poetry and garden, where her garden was a refuge for her creative, artistic thoughts with her beloved flowers as metaphors for her own self and for others. In her own garden it may be that she imagined herself as Eve for brief ecstatic moments where, as she wrote to a friend, “Expulsion from Eden grows indistinct in the presence of flowers so blissful.”

I have long tried to imagine what social work could be if it drew on the arts and humanities for its knowledge and practice rather the natural sciences, social sciences and medicine. I thought of Dickinson’s phrase “rowing in Eden” at this year’s October GPTSW gathering on the shore of Lake Champlain at the Bishop Booth Conference Center just north of downtown Burlington, Vermont. It seemed to me that this 137 acre place of peace and tranquility was itself a kind of symbolic Eden with its 113 species of identified birds, and well over 20 kinds of trees many comprising old growth forest. The GPTSW gatherings will now always be associated in my being with the divine Emily.

Allan Irving
Independent Scholar
GPTSW Board Member
[email protected]

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6 years ago

So, inspired by your post, I found “Wild Nights,” reading this parallel Dickinson draws between Eden and the sea, rowing and relationships. In her writing chaos may be darkness, but it might also be paradise. The winds are wasted on those who languish in the safety of port. The only way you will get somewhere is by heading out into the disorder, and also risking shipwreck. Is the ultimate joy engaging in this rhythmic way with the perfect wilderness, an exchange that allows you to ride the confusion? Is that what we find in each person we encounter? Maybe in the dialogues that flow out of the Vermont gatherings we discover the original Edenic chaos and beauty of humanity in each other.