Essay, Research Paper: Dickinson's Humor


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While much of Emily Dickinson's poetry has been described as sad or morose, the
poetess did use humor and irony in many of her poems. This essay will address
the humor and/ or irony found in five of Dickinson's poems: "Faith" is
a Fine Invention, I'm Nobody! Who are you?, Some keep the Sabbath Going to
Church and Success Is Counted Sweetest. The attempt will be made to show how
Dickinson used humor and / or irony for the dual purposes of comic relief and to
stress an idea or conclusion about her life and environment expressed by the
poetess in the respective poem. The most humorous or ironic are some of the
shorter poems, such as the four lined stanzas of "Faith" is a Fine
Invention and Success Is Counted Sweetest. In "Faith"..., Dickinson
presents a witty and biting satirical look at Faith and its limitations. While
it still amuses readers today, it must be mentioned that this short poem would
have had a greater impact and seriousness to an audience from the period
Dickinson lived in. Dickinson was raised in a strict Calvinist household and
received most of her education in her youth at a boarding school that also
followed the American Puritanical tradition she was raised in. In this short,
witty piece Dickinson addresses two of the main obsessions of her generation:
The pursuit of empirical knowledge through science, faith in an all-knowing,
all-powerful Christian god and the debate on which was the more powerful belief.
In this poem Dickinson uses humor to ease her position in the debate on to the
reader. Dickinson uses her ability to write humourously and ironically (as seen
in her suggestion of the use of microscopes) to present a firm, controversial
opinion into what could be dismissed as an irreverent, inconsequential piece of
writing. In Success..., Dickinson's emphasis is less on humor and more on
expressing irony. This poem may be partially auto-biographical in nature.
Dickinson made few attempts during her life to be taken as more than an armature
poetess. On one occasion, she sent a collection of her poems to a correspondent
who was also a published poet. His criticism of the poems devastated Dickinson,
and she never made another attempt towards publishing her works. In Success...,
Dickinson reflects on the nature of success and how, ironically, it can be best
appreciated and understood by those who have not achieved it and have no taste
of it. As in "Faith"..., Dickinson powerfully presents her thoughts in
a few lines. The poem deals only with one, ironic but universal, idea in its
short length. It is the bitterness expressed at this irony (as found it
Dickinson's juxtaposition of the words sweetest and sorest, separated by two
lines) that is most felt by the reader. While the previous poem expresses the
poetess' bitterness and sorrow with one aspect of her life, I'm Nobody! Who Are
You? uses humor without irony to address another. In this poem, Dickinson style
appears almost child-like in its of descriptions including frogs and bogs, as
well as the lively energy expressed by the poem through its use of dashes and
brief wording. Dickinson seems to be addressing her spinster, hermit-like
existence (I'm Nobody) and her preference to it. The poetess seems to relate
that her situation has not left her without a sense of humor, but in fact has
allowed her to maintain a child-like outlook on life rather than adapting to the
boring norms of her society ( How dreary - to be - Somebody!). She mocks the
conventional need for self-importance through publicity (How public - like a
Frog - / To tell one's name - the livelong June -), suggesting that the audience
isn't that interested ( / To an admiring Bog). She instead seems to idealize her
solitude by creating the mysterious feeling of a secret society of social
outcasts (Don't tell! they'd advertise - you know!). In this poem, she
effectively uses humor to soften a critique of certain members of her society.
While this poem is longer than the other poems discussed, it too is able to
express the quality of brevity and lightness in that it's composition is full of
dashes, with even full sentences broken into short, quick actions that easily
roll off of the tongue when spoken aloud (How dreary - to be - Somebody). The
technical composition of this poem is two stanzas, however, Dickinson is able to
refresh the form with her use of dashes and short words to give it energy and
liveliness. The poem Some Keep the Sabbat Going to Church, is the longest poem
discussed in this essay, composed of three stanzas. When comparing her humorous
poems to the other poems found in this collection, it is found that these poems
are the shortest in length. They are also composed in stanzas, which is not
found in all Dickinson's poem. It might be that in the attempt to keep the
nature (if not the subject matter) of the poems light-hearted, Dickinson
purposely chose this traditional and un-challenging form. In Some..., Dickinson
again turns to humor and irony to address issues she has with the conventions of
religion common to her society, as seen in "Faith".... Dickinson
questions the sincerity of those who attend Church on Sunday on a regular basis.
Through the use of comparing the conventions of Church (such as the Bell, the
Sermon, Dome and Choir) with her own celebration of the Sabbat through the
appreciation of nature, Dickinson ironically suggests that those in attendance
at Church may not be as sincere in their worship as she is. The poetess' mocks
the congregations attendance as being merely for show and to gain status in the
community by doing what is expected of them (God preaches, a noted Clergyman).
As well, she argues with the assumption that attending church alone will lead
towards salvation, suggesting that it is her own actions of finding God in
Nature (And an Orchard, for a Dome) on a regular, constant basis (I'm going all
along) which is the more true path towards salvation. The humor in the last poem
is not as explicit as found in the other poems discussed, nor is the irony as
directly expressed as in Success ... The irony is first suggested in the opening
lines of "Some keep the Sabbat going to Church - / I keep it staying
home" and reaches it most explicit form in the closing lines of "So
instead of getting to Heaven, at last I'm going, all along." It might
be that due to the fact this poem addresses social conventions more than actual
spirituality and a belief in God that Dickinson chooses to keep the level of
irony lower than found in "Faith"... The humor found in this poem is
less explicit as well. While the contrasts of a Bobolink for a Choirister and a
Orchard for a Done is humourous, in these descriptions Dickinson appears to be
confessing her own individual, private communion with God to the reader. Thus
she does not accentuate the humor in the juxtaposition of the objects in order
not to trivialize her own beliefs, but allows enough humor to enter the
description to stamp the poem with the child-like free spiritedness found in
...Nobody.... Again in this poem, the poetess' desire for seclusion and
unconventionality is expressed eloquently through a light-handed treatment of
the subject matter. In conclusion, it can be stated the examples of Emily
Dickinson's work discussed in this essay show the poetess to be highly skilled
in the use of humor and irony. The use of these two tools in her poems is to
stress a point or idea the poetess is trying to express, rather than being an
end in themselves. These two tools allow her to present serious critiques of her
society and the place she feels she has been allocated into by masking her
concerns in a light-hearted, irreverent tone.
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