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Dichotomy not only informs Dickinson's themes but structures her rhetoric and form. To begin with, the brevity of her poems sensitizes us to the minutest literal details of her language by juxtaposing material or quantitative limitation with semantic, metaphoric, or qualitative expansion. "I dwell in Possibility— / A fairer House than Prose" (P-657) is the manifesto of this poetic, which stages the logic of poetic language. "Dwelling" in "possibility" both separates and joins the determined and the indeterminate, limitation and freedom, houses and nature, closure and expansion. Dickinson presents poetry as a house of words that closes to open and—as "spreading wide my narrow Hands / To gather Paradise" suggests—opens to close. Prose, by contrast, is simply closed:

They shut me up in Prose— As when a little Girl They put me in the Closet— Because they liked me "still"—

Prose cannot sustain a dialectic of limitation and freedom, because such a dialectic is generated by playing formal elements, which emphasize the letter, against figurative features. And the same dialectic operates within metaphor itself, for describing one thing in terms of another constitutes a mutual redefinition that simultaneously limits and liberates. To describe a house as nature, for example, is to blow it apart:

Of Chambers as the Cedars— Impregnable of Eye— And for an Everlasting Roof The Gambrels of the Sky—

Yet this description also defines and delimits nature as a house. For Dickinson, poetic language exposes the coeval emergence of the literal and the metaphorical, the material "seen" and the nonmaterial "unseen," the letter and the breath or spirit; in other words, she lays bare the logic of the Logos.


From American Poetry: The Rhetoric of Its Forms. New Haven: Yale UP, 1987. Copyright © 1987.