Eroticism in Poetry
When one thinks of erotic themes and natures involving words the name Emily Dickinson does not jump to the forefront of your mind. Yes, the name is familiar and most if not everyone has indeed heard of at least one her poems. While she was thought to be a firm recluse, one might believe she led a life of secrecy shared between her and her readers, making her a prime feminist of her time. ‘The feminist critic often merely needs to point to what women writers say that readers have largely overlooked, and this is certainly the case with Emily Dickinson. Her poetry lends itself to feminist readings because Dickinson herself raises feminist issues in her poems (White, Fred D. pg.63).’ She was a mysterious woman shrouded in white but when she put ink to paper illicit thoughts and experiences filled the page. For a person of her time she was shameless to those around her, scandalous even. Theorized in this essay is her influence from classical writers that could have swayed her to write toward the taboo.
Emily Dickinson was a very well educated woman. Well versed in the classical literature of her time, which one can greatly assume was Shakespeare and Chaucer. But, who influenced them? How did their prose then go on to excite works from Emily Dickinson such as: “Because I did not stop for Death” and “Wild Nights — Wild Nights!”? Could it be the eroticism they used to eloquently describe each voluptuous character making the sex drizzle off the page and into the mind and racing heart of the reader. After all, the Marquis De Sade was so devilishly macabre and erotic that he was not only institutionalized but his novellas were illegal and punishable by law to own or sell. Could he have influenced her to write her letters of adoration to Wadsworth, or could these letters have been a ruse for her Sapphic behavior.
Often thought to have had a female lover one can easily imagine that the hidden letters and poems were about their torrid love affair. People all around know that she never married and the only man that she has ever been tied to is Wadsworth. Is this totally out of the realm of possibility? Studying the classic literature of the Romans and Greeks could have touched her Sapphic nature dwelling within her that she had to keep hidden from the world.
If one were to determine which of her poems were about sex and passion the two that spring to mind are instantly, “Wild Nights-Wild Nights!” and “Come slowly-Eden!” Her clever use of metaphors in both poems paint an imagery of what a sensation and wanton feeling would feel like is so erotic and thick. It makes one want to find the nearest appealing person and ravish them, consequences be damned! Normally Dickinson’s poetry, the ones she published, seemed subdued and timid.
Often because they would revise her work from the original context it was written in. In the poem “Wild Nights-Wild Nights!” ‘The speaker goes on to complete her thought in the next two lines: “Wild nights should be / Our luxury!” The poem is written from the perspective of a person who is craving the “luxury” of someone’s companionship (Gale. From Literature Resource Center pg. 1).’ Even her poems of death and rebirth are sensual in nature, but the most provocative and illicit poem one could come across is “Come slowly-Eden!” …
Come slowly — Eden!
Lips unused to Thee —
Bashful — sip thy Jessamines —
As the fainting Bee —
Reaching late his flower,
Round her chamber hums —
Counts his nectars —
Enters — and is lost in Balms (Dickinson Lines 1–8)
Line 5 of this very poem “Reaching late his flower, /” is indicative to a sexual encounter with a person that has reached sexual climax. How can this not stir an emotion within a person as a reader when it causes the very nature of the feminine being exploding into internal gratitude after reading it.
Now looking for a moment at Publius Ovidius Naso, known as Ovid, born in 43 B.C. and died in 17/18 A.D. it would not been hard to image that his works were considered among the classical texts with which Dickinson read and treasured. He was and is regarded as the last Latin love elegists of his time having wrote six books called the “Ars amatoria I-VI”. ‘Ovid’s first work, Amores (The Loves), a series of short poems depicting the various phases of a love affair with a woman called Corinna, had an immediate success and was followed, in rapid succession, by Epistolae heroidum, or Heroides (Epistles of the Heroines), dramatic monologues about legendary women such as Penelope and Dido; Medicamina faciei (“Cosmetics”; The Art of Beauty), a witty, frivolous exercise of which only some 100 lines survive; Ars Amatoria; and Remedia amoris (Remedies for Love), a mock recantation of the Ars Amatoria (Merriam-Webster pg. 1)’. A man so consumed for the lust he has for a woman that he waged war for her much like history has seen in epics like Troy.
As students are taught an elegy is a lament for the dead but can also mean a lament for the things we wanted most in life but were never granted. Love unrequited, faithfulness, passionate love that turns into companionate love with each passing year. However, when one is unfaithful to her husband like Corinna how will she ever be faithful to you? So, this is why they are elegies, he lusted, he craved, he tasted the forbidden fruit, waged internal wars, waged actual wars, won her, lost her, and realized she never really loved him at all. Perhaps he laments a now dead heart.
Before he was crushed, in Book I Elegy V there is a poem titled:” His Delights at having Obtained Corinna’s Favor” …
Behold Corinna cometh, her shift ungirdled, her
Tresses hanging loose on either side of her snowy
Neck. In such guise did the fair Semiramis offer
Herself to the caresses… (Ovid Lines 9–12)
This is a man fixing to have an afternoon of fun with a married woman he is in love with. She came to his room with her tunic undone and her hair down, which in these times was a clear sign that either she was going to bed for the night or she was going to her lover’s arms willingly. He compares her to an Assyrian goddess Semiramis famed for her beauty and power, this is a man smitten and finally about to get the prize he has so anxiously waited for. He continues…
When her apparel laid aside, she stood naked
Before mine eyes, not a blemish was to be seen
On her whole body. What shoulders, what arms it
Was my privilege to behold and to touch. What
Bliss to press a bosom shaped so perfectly for
Such caresses. How soft and smooth her skin
Beneath her lovely breasts, how divine her figure,
How firm and plump her thighs. (Ovid Lines 20–27)
Can one now draw the parallel with which Dickinson may have been inspired to write such erotic works and words? If she studied the classics she surely would have come across something of this nature if not this very set of elegies.
Emily Dickinson was a hedonist in every sense of the word. Breaking her cultural rules that bound her to live a life of conformity to the very nature of not caring for society’s demands put upon women in her day and age. In the 1850’s being a female poet was not unheard of but being an unwed female was practically sacrilege. Her refusal to not gender conform has inspired countless generations or women, writers, and poets alike to follow their own path in this world.
She was a woman that did not want to be seen, but she most assuredly wanted to be heard. Her poems have inspired women the world over to look for the kinky in everything, after-all poems are meant to stir not stress. It is a feeling that one gets that consumes when reading it that makes a poem good. Having a writer that can form a good prose and stir those emotions helps too.
Alas, sometimes great people are born to the world too soon for a society to appreciate how truly magnificent they really are. No matter the case, erotic poetry she and Ovid did make. However she became influenced she was and is a tremendous influence today. Without her prose we might not have the abundance of feminine writers the world does today.
Whether it was Ovid, Shakespeare, Chaucer, or countless others that inspired her to be the writer she was the world was forever changed. A simple poem describing an act of love making is so short yet so powerful and yet so erotic and sensual that I am sure the people of that day and age were shocked. A woman talking so crass about a male orgasm, unheard of. Yet this is exactly what she did and how the times have changed. If only she had been born in a different era but things have a way of working out for the best. Her eroticism and influence will be passed on from generation to generation as those who influenced her. This is not the end of her torrid tale just a new chapter for a new writer to pick up.