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The child speaking in these poems triggers a retroactive appreciation for the limitless centrifugal potential of prevocal language so frequently at odds with the stabilizing language of the adult—that voice whose authority depends on conformity within the social order. The child, not yet constrained by history or identity, defines for the reader a space within which language and the speaking subject articulate a potential never fully realized but most evident just prior to the subject's entering history. For an instant, the child speaks the language of pure potential. To hear this voice, we must listen for unencumbered utterances.

Wolff's comments are again useful in clarifying the proximity of voices that "are not always entirely distinct from one another: the child's [v]oice that opens a poem may yield to the [v]oice of a young woman . . . the diction of the housewife may be conflated with the sovereign language of the New Jerusalem . . . " (178). Thus, even in a poem like "I'm ceded—I've stopped / being Their's—" (P 508, MBED 363-64), in which the speaker is determined to sever all bonds to childhood, the advance into adulthood is not clear. What we see instead is the hierarchic, rule- bound adult consciousness opposed to the child's assumption of supreme authority. Dickinson shows us the tension that complicates and binds these very different discourses as a means of challenging the notion that the child is subsumed by the adult. Within her formulation, abstract social codes and the artificial demarcations of class and age are all adult means of confining the child's limitlessness. . . . Because the speaker retroactively recalls an authority she surrendered unknowingly, we can hear the voice of that earlier authority in her present determination.

When the speaker puts her dolls behind her and proposes for herself a new baptism ("But this time, consciously, / of Grace—"), she founds her achievement on a historically based perception of self—all sense of accomplishment depends on the perception that change is possible only if she clings to what she has been in the past instead of becoming what she hopes to be. Her insistence that there be a new baptism shows her intent to improve upon what happened "before, without the / choice." The poem reads as a prelude rather than an entrance into new consciousness; the last line suggests a state about to be entered and not a presence already achieved. The speaker sees herself as having been a "half] too unconscious Queen / But this time" things will be different, this time she possesses the "Will to choose . . . just a Crown—." And here the poem leaves us: in a place somewhere between the child and the adult. The speaker's dismay at having been named and baptized without the knowledge that she was subscribing to an external authority opens her mind to the infinity of her experience as a child. An upward-pointing dash after "Crown" counters the downward-pointing dash after "Queen" as a way of underscoring the speaker's overly simplistic belief that she can correct the error of her earlier "unconscious" station.

Dickinson’s considerable use of visual effects like these dashes alerts readers to the constructed nature of language that the speaker wades through in an effort to reassert her independence. Through lineation, in particular, Dickinson further disrupts culturally determined continuities already undermined by dashes. Separating "being Theirs" from the first line magnifies the speaker's detachment from her parents, a violation of conventional notions of physical, emotional, and spiritual connectedness that is extended to her face in line 4 and the church in line 6, and concludes with "Crown." The collective impact of this fragmentation is first an increased awareness of the centrifugal force that dismantles the ritual of baptism and second a heightened sense of the speaker's struggle to make the now disassembled ritual come together and serve her ends.

The first stanza concludes with a powerful visual comment on the unraveling of logic that is extended through the second stanza and countered in the third. Dashes that frame "too" at the end of line 12 combine with the misplaced horizontal cross of the manuscript "t" to effectively reduce the symbolic coherence necessary to see "too" as a word and not as a meaningless duster of marks (see fig. 3, page 48). We "read" the word as a cartoon enactment of the speaker's determination to cease her "threading" of adult logic; now she will take advantage of her power to act as she believes adults do by making symbols serve her authority.

This illustration of the way readers must consent to symbolic meaning by making raw data conform to anticipated patterns sets the tone for the next stanza's interrogation of the highly symbolic ritual of baptism. When Dickinson situates three crosses in the spaces between lines 18 and 20 and then writes in the word "Eye" on line 19, she seems to be commenting on the way readers actively exercise their eyes to gather all the physical data that must be processed before discerning meaning. The combination of three crosses simultaneously suggests a pun on "eye" and "I" that positions the speaker among three crosses, as if her earlier baptism corresponded to Jesus' mortification on Golgotha—a humbling experience over which she will ultimately achieve Christlike triumph. Ironically, the poem so effectively demonstrates the reader’s role in the construction of meaning that it erodes the speaker's efforts to turn ritual authority to her own ends. Though she may not be conscious of what she has done, her deconstruction of baptism has emptied it of the very power she wishes to employ.

By introducing a speaker who rejects a known past and is about to enter an imagined but undefined future, the poem establishes a link connecting past and future at the instant that the speaker's anticipation of change is greatest. Thanks to visual signals and the disjunctive power of dashes, we see the speaker's entrapment in circular reasoning, where all she imagines of a more liberated future—a future in which she has "stopped / being Their's"—is what she has learned from adults. As readers, we see more than she does: that in order to achieve her aim of discarding all that she now finds burdensome and oppressive, she must step outside of herself, creating what Kristeva describes as "an area of chance" that makes possible the discovery of a new semantic and ideological self: "a localized chance as condition of objective understanding, a chance to be uncovered in the relationship of the subject of metalanguage to the writing under study, and/or to the semantic and ideological means of constitution of the subject" (Desire 98). We contribute to the makeup of this "area" by reading the poem's visual commentary on meaning construction and setting it in dialogue with the expectations we attribute to the speaker.

This participation in the speaker's desire for change increases our awareness of a primary instability that de-centers the subject. Our activity as readers parallels that of Dickinson who, as poet, reads what she has written and responds by creating new text based on her experience as a reader of her own words. The visual signals built into the poem are our clearest indication that she wants readers to participate with her on this level. If the voice that emerges is allowed to register the many shifts in perspective that inevitably occur as the writer grasps the implications of a particular stance or attitude, the resulting poem is necessarily made up of many voices, not a single unified voice. As the poem's interplay of thought and perception proceeds, each voice is subjected to the same destabilizing process, and each voice acquires new form as new choices occur to the writer and the readers. The area of chance defined by the repeated rupturing of logical sequence feeds a growing realization that the self is far greater than any linguistic manifestation. In this sense, Dickinson’s child speaker surfaces through a voice that dissipates once it enters language, making the child the least stab1e of all Dickinson’s speakers. Listening to the child, therefore, is always a matter of hearing a voice that mutates in the direction of adulthood even as it speaks. If we as readers decide that the speaker who claims that she has already "ceded" in the first line is the same speaker who is in the act of choosing in the last line, we do so as a matter of choice, not because the poem commands such a reading.

In order to consider the broader dimensions of the poem, as readers we must consider the poem's overall coherence. At the outset we know only that the poem inhabits a space created by the writer, the speaker, and the reader. As we read the poem in its entirety, we notice shifts from present to past as the speaker aggressively denies the objects and actions of her past and struggles to define a future she lacks the language to describe in concrete terms. We can immediately see how concrete and abstract language correlate with the speaker’s movement from past to present and future tenses. "They dropped" water on her face in the past, but she is "ceded" now; she was "Crowned—Crowing—on [her] / Father’s breast" before, but now she is" Adequate— / Erect."

We can see also that the longest continuous syntactic units occur in the first stanza, where the greatest attention is given to the past. Dickinson chooses not to use a period that would close the door on the ordered and concrete past that has taken up so much of the speaker’s life and dictated so much of the poem’s form. When in the second stanza we are told that "Existence’s whole Arc" is now "filled up, / With one small Diadem" we hear a voice mocking the linear progression of historically grounded sentences. Following visual effects that assert the role of the "Eye" (and "I") in constructing meaning, the speaker's words communicate her refusal to accept as sufficient a diminished perception of self and world: a "small Diadem" fills "Existence's whole Arc."

In the final stanza, the speaker dismisses the past, reducing all recollections to impotent fragments no longer able to impose order on the poem’s form. The "Will to choose" is finally "will" in the service of a speaker struggling to assert her power "to choose, / or to reject" and who decides to "choose, just a / Crown." We are left with a speaker who, by assuming the crown, claims dominion over time and identity. The inconclusiveness of the last line, as signaled by the disjunctive dash, reminds readers of the discrepancy between pure potential and the certainty of limited existence. The poem shows us that the crown symbolizing the speaker’s achievement of personal authority is incapable of fulfilling the child’s expectations because its power depends on conformity within established symbology. Situated at the threshold of a present that is about to unfold, the speaker approximates as closely as possible the limitless potentiality that characterizes the child. Our efforts to imagine the experience the speaker seeks to recapture take us back through heteroglossia to the materiality that predates and surrounds even the most potent symbols.

"I'm ceded—I've stopped / being Their's—", demonstrates that the child's voice must be thought of in dialogue with other voices. To hear the child is also to hear the voices that instruct, curse, comfort, and punish an innocent, unformed consciousness. These voices represent social discourses on parenting and religious belief, for instance, that enter poems as verbal distillations of the environment readers must interpret according to their understanding of prevailing conventions. Speaker, writer, and reader construct meaning through a process of affirming or denying values perpetuated in these discourses. Consequently, speakers define themselves in terms of voice properties perceivable within the reader's horizon of expectation. Because the child trusts adult authority, the child articulates conventional social expectations in the baldest terms imaginable and in this way informs the reader’s horizon.


From Inflections of the Pen: Dash and Voice in Emily Dickinson. Copyright © 1997 by The University Press of Kentucky.