Monday, April 6, 2015

Poetry Review Special Feature: "Dickinson’s Use of Synesthesia" by the Editor

Editor's Note:  The following essay was written in fulfillment of the open response exercise for week 2 of Harvard University's month-long Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) Poetry in America:  Dickinson, currently being offered by edX.

Dickinson’s Use of Synesthesia
Steven Wittenberg Gordon

Emily Dickinson sometimes uses synesthesia, the intermingling of two or more senses, in order to covey sensory experience in her poetry.  These multiple sensory experiences allow the reader to run the poem through the body as it is read.  A fine example of this device is the opening and titular line of “Bring me the sunset in a cup--”
https://courses.edx.org/c4x/HarvardX/AmPoX.4/asset/140_Bring_me_the_sunset_in_a_cup_v2.pdf.  Here the colors of the sunset are fused into a fantastical beverage.  The reader cannot help but wonder what such a draught would taste like, smell like, feel like in the mouth, feel like going down the throat.  Would it be warm, like whiskey?  For that matter, would such a luxurious and unusual drink make one drunk like whiskey?

Another example of Dickinson’s use of synesthesia, perhaps less obvious than the above example, may be found in the first stanza of “There’s a certain Slant of light” https://courses.edx.org/c4x/HarvardX/AmPoX.4/asset/320_Theres_a_certain_Slant_of_light.pdf.

There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons --
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes --

Here Dickinson compares light, which normally is thought to possess only ethereal qualities, as a “tune” or sound with the additional quality of “Heft” or substance.  The reader now conceives of light in an unusual and different way.  This light is not just something to be seen.  It is also somehow heard and felt.  The senses of sight, hearing, and touch are simultaneously engaged.  The light washes over the body and enters the body through the ears as well as the eyes.  In sight, in Dickinson, there is much insight.

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