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Emily Dickinson and Possibility

Updated on August 27, 2016

Portrait of Emily Dickinson

Only authenticated portrait of Emily Dickinson later than childhood. She is around 16 or 17 in this picture.
Only authenticated portrait of Emily Dickinson later than childhood. She is around 16 or 17 in this picture. | Source

Emily Dickinson's "I dwell in Possibility -- "

Emily Dickinson was an early American poet known for her pithy poetic works. She was said to be a recluse while she wrote her poems, living in a room in her father's home in Massachussetts. Yet, her poems showed an ambitious and wide-ranging imagination that seems contradictory to her rather confined lifestyle. Dickinson’s poem "I dwell in Possibility -- " (almost all of her poems were untitled and now go by their first lines) creates a metaphor that captures the unlimited potential in the imagination and poetry. This poem is about poetry itself and the possibilities that it opens up.

The poem is reprinted below:

I dwell in Possibility –

A fairer House than Prose –

More numerous of Windows –

Superior – for Doors –

Of Chambers as the Cedars –

Impregnable of eye –

And for an everlasting Roof

The Gambrels of the Sky –

Of Visitors – the fairest –

For Occupation – This –

The spreading wide my narrow Hands

To gather Paradise –

Essentially, Dickinson is imagining a House of Poetry. Dickinson doesn't use the word "poetry" itself in her poem, instead likening it to things. She portrays poetry as a house with numerous windows, a roof of which is the sky, and chambers of which are cedars. The house is imaginative, impractical but exists in the realm of possibility, made possible by its creation by poetry. She also gets at poetry by positioning it relatively as a "fairer House than Prose." If poetry is likened to possibility, than by analogy prose is likened to reality or certainty. Poetry pries open the realm of imagination, creativity and perhaps can serve as an inspirational source that prose cannot.

Continuing the metaphor of poetry as a house, Dickinson mentions “visitors” to this house. She insists that they aren’t ordinary visitors either but “the fairest.” “Fair” is a vague term to use, meaning pretty, or just, or light-skinned, or generically good. In this context, “the fairest” might mean something along the lines of the best suited to enter the house of poetry. These visitors might be the most imaginative, the most creative, the most willing to enter. The line might even be a reference to the poem itself, the visitors being the readers. As the metaphorical house of poetry invites visitors to its doors, the poem invites readers to its text. What kind of readers does Dickinson want? In this context, it appears that she wants those who are most willing to understand it and do the hard work of unpacking her pithy language and powerful images. In a way, Dickinson’s poem begins to look elitist or exclusive in her language. (We recall that she lived a rather exclusive life, living and writing poetry in her room). Nonetheless, her ambitious imagination of poetry is something that we can appreciate and derive inspiration from.

The following line, "For Occupation – This –," is also powerfully packed. Ambiguous as "This" is in the poem, it has several possible references. "This" may refer to the two lines that follow afterward, an image of the metaphorical receiving of poetic inspiration. "This" is also the poem itself. "This" poem that Dickinson wrote is her inspiration. "This" may also be the act of writing poetry, her occupation being "this" kind of writing. What makes this poem so irresistible for me is that the images and depth of thoughts conveyed in the poem itself reflects what poetry should do to readers, which is to open up their imaginations and introduce them to the realm of possibilities, the possibility of coming to interesting interpretations of images and single words.


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