Roses and Rebellion: Emily Dickinson’s “Blakean” Use of Hymn Poetry

It’s no secret that Emily Dickinson’s poetry has, over the course of time, become well-known as a lyrical and whimsical representation of hymn-like poetry. From her more popular poems such as “Much Madness is divinest Sense,” “Because I could not stop for Death,” and “Hope is the thing with feathers” to her lesser known poems like “A not admitting of the wound” and “Publication-is the Auction” Dickinson’s use of hymn-like structure and symbols of the natural world work to invoke moral arguments or lessons to her audience. We, as her readers, more than a century later, often focus on the ways in which her environment, life, and relationships affected her poetry. Her reclusive behavior and status as a single woman being some of the more prominent topics of discussion.

Emily Dickinson

What we, as her fans, seem less attracted to are the ways in which Emily Dickinson’s predecessors shaped, formed, and developed her style of poetry. From what poets did Dickinson draw on for structure? For content? For fixation? For tone?

While Dickinson’s influences include a number of poets of the romantic era, one possible candidate stands out from all the rest. While there is little evidence to suggest Dickinson frequently read or took example from his writings, much of Dickinson’s work mirrors and shares several characteristics with the poetry of the romantic author, William Blake, especially when considering Blake’s famous companion works in “Songs of Innocence and Experience.” Both these poets use natural elements, hymn structure, and an almost whimsical tone to convey their responses and feelings towards the societal practices and norms which they were exposed.

Nature and its many moving parts seems to take the spotlight in the work of both William Blake and Emily Dickinson. Both poets exercise what is known as the “emblem tradition” in their works, using natural symbols “impart a moral lesson in verse,” while, at the same time, subverting that same tradition through the insinuation of morals that do not fit the society with which they operate within (Blackstock 36). If we look at Blake’s “The Sick Rose,” we can see his employment of such a strategy. Blake uses the rose to represent love in a negative way, rather than the pure emotion often portrayed by society. In this poem, the rose is painted as being ill and the victim of the “invisible worm” (Blake 194). The worm, being phallic in shape, alludes to the concept of the masculine aggressor, leaving the rose to be the feminine casualty. Such images suggest the potential ideas of rape and violation of the feminine participant within the structure of what is commonly known as “love.” According to Blake, love can be violent and love can destroy. In a similar fashion, Emily Dickinson creates a different perception of negative love. A love that is more one-sided and torturous, rather than a place of sanctuary and acceptance. Dickinson, too, symbolizes love as a flower that the narrator “hides [herself] within.” The concept of a fatal love is still in play, even in Dickinson’s “With a Flower.” The flower ends up “fading” from the audiences “vase.” This, once again, alludes to the reality that love is not always a positive experience and can seem deathly painful to many who experience it.

We can still look at these two poems and realize even more similarities in the ways in which they function. Both poems are only two stanzas in length and written in a simple manner. Both poets, Blake and Dickinson, have crafted these poems to be easily read, distributed, and understood by the generalized public. The two are determined to share their message of love to whoever may want to know. These poems are not meant to be analyzed on a deep and scholarly level, rather they appeal much to the pathos of the audience which will read these works. Words such as “dark” and “destroy” and “loneliness” are not the type to go “over the heads” of less educated readers and also carry incredibly heavy, sad, desperate, horrible connotations. These are not words that one wishes to experience or feel.

Both “The Sick Rose” and “With a Flower,” while still exhibiting these somber images, retain an almost whimsical, sing-song tone. They read very much like a child’s nursery rhyme. Short with a relatively easy rhyme scheme, and can be easily set to music. In fact, Blake’s “The Sick Rose” was set to music by an English rock band, known as Amplifier, in their 2010 album, The Octopus. This song-like quality and simplicity aid these poems to function like a “children’s verse” (Blackstock 36). Both these poems are intended to mimic the oral traditions and written traditions used to teach children of moral and ethical lessons for the world. However, both authors use this verse or hymn style to teach lessons that one would not necessarily expose a child too. The concept of a violent and fatal love affair is a concept intended for those of an older age group, however, these ideas are being shown through the uncomplicated filter of a childlike song.

So, what do all these similarities really mean? There is no real proof that Emily Dickinson was a fan of William Blake’s works or even read a significant amount of his work. Even so, I find it difficult to accept that Dickinson did not come across Blake’s style at some point in her life. The main basis of so much of her poetry shares so much, on a stylistic level, with Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience.” Had only one element overlapped in their works, it would seem less likely. However, there are multiple, and even more, less prominent consistencies in other poems the two have written. Did Emily Dickinson purposefully model her own poetry after her predecessor? We may never actually know. Despite that uncertainty, it seems highly plausible that, in some way, she was influenced by the romantic poet. The two share an affinity for nature and subversion of what their societies would consider the “natural order of life.” They coincided with their passion for roses and rebellion.

Blackstock, Alan. “Dickinson, Blake, and the Hymnbooks of Hell.” The Emily Dickinson Journal, vol. 20, no. 2, 2011, pp. 33–56., doi:10.1353/edj.2011.0013.

“Amplifier (Band).” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 11 Sept. 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amplifier_(band).

1846-47, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emily_Dickinson

Abosch, Kevin. Forever Rose. DP Review, https://www.dpreview.com/news/6617425004/crypto-art-forever-rose-photo-sells-for-1m-making-it-the-world-s-most-valuable-virtual-art