In a recipe for turnip soup the cookery writer Ambrose Heath asserted that turnips have 'an entirely masculine flavour, peppery and very definite'. For several centuries male writers have been saying much the same thing about poems: from Dryden to Hopkins and beyond, adjectives like 'masculine', 'virile', 'manly' were used freely as value-judgments in critical discourse. As Helen McNeil points out in her centenary study, Emily Dickinson entered the 20th century seeming to have written a series of 'over-sensitive, coy, rather ill-disciplined poems'. Feminist critics have challenged this sexist view of her writing, and argued that she radically undermines traditional masculine values. In another centenary study, however, John Robinson insists that she is a timeless lyric poet whose work is not 'centrally representative of women'. Robinson's refusal to consider Dickinson's polemical and subversive imagination is disappointing, but it can be argued that certain writers identify with various generic categories - national, sexual, political - while others identify against them: I would no more want to publish a book of essays entitled We Men, than I would want to identify with one called We Irish. Dickinson referred to God as 'Burglar! Banker - Father!' and in many of her poems she identifies herself against the dominant masculine values of 19th-century American culture. She searched for role models among famous women writers of her day - George Eliot, the Brontės, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Yet as Christanne Miller points out, Dickinson didn't actively support the political campaign for women's rights 'or, apparently, sympathise with women generally'. It is in the radical new language of the poems themselves that the battle against the father is fought.
LRB 29 October 1987 | PDF Download