tagReviews & EssaysEmily Dickinson's Penis Poem

Emily Dickinson's Penis Poem

byCal Y. Pygia©

Anyone who has read any of Emily Dickinson's poems knows what an intensely passionate perspective she had upon life and, for that matter, death. Janis Joplin once said, "The only time I ever feel alive is when I'm on the stage." Something similar might be said of Dickinson. Of her, one might conclude, the only time she felt alive was when she wrote her poems. Fortunately for the rest of us, she, like other great artists, lives on, through her work and is able, therefore, to share that passion for life with us.

Most people conceive of Dickinson as having been but a shy, even timid, recluse and spinster who, withdrawn from society and living at home, even as an adult, by necessity as much as by choice, being compelled, as it were, to do so because of her timidity, flitted, moth-like, about the backyard garden of her parents' home. Her poems suggest a very different picture of the woman, depicting her spirit as defiant, rebellious, skeptical, confrontational, dynamic, and even sexually passionate, if conflicted. A few feminists have gone so far as to make the wild, unsubstantiated assertion that one of her poems, "The Soul has Bandaged moments--" suggests that she might have been the victim of sexual abuse. Be that as it may, another of her poems, and the one with which I am here concerned, shows that, regarding sex, the poet, although she might seek to repress her thoughts and feelings about such a matter, seems to have struggled, on a subconscious level, at least, with these notions and emotions.

The poem, "In Winter in my Room," which has been long in the public domain, is short by the standards of most poets, readers, and critics, but, by Dickinson's own standards, it is, at thirty nine lines, a relatively long verse. Although normally I would not spoil the reader's fun, as it were, by pointing out that the poem is alleged by its speaker, or narrator, to be the description of a dream--and, from her point of view, a rather disturbing one--it seems to me to be necessary to do so in this case, for, otherwise, the reader is apt to dismiss the poem's argument as ludicrous before he or she has had a chance to experience its perspective. Like Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, "In Winter in my Room" is explained, at its end, as having been the product of a dream, a deux ex machina sort of ending that has since become immensely unpopular among the literati and their critics and readers alike. Armed--or forearmed, one might say--with the knowledge that the poem reflects a dream, one may allow him- or herself a greater suspension of disbelief regarding the speaker's observations and the experience upon which they are based.

Winter is often symbolic of a time of infertility and barrenness, during which the world is frigid, and weather, in literature, of course, often represents the inner, emotional state of a character--in this case, that of the speaker of the poem, whose "Room" may be regarded as her body, the place in which she lives or, at least, sleeps. At the period of her life which this poem describes, she is, or feels, infertile and barren, as sterile as the natural world is during the winter of the year, and, perhaps, she also feels emotionally cold, or numb. It is at this time that she comes across an intruder who has dared to trespass upon her "Room," a flaccid worm in whose presence she feels uncomfortable or "not quite. . . at home" because, she understands, worms "presume"--that is, they are amorous, seeking to initiate sexual relations--and which she, therefore, leashes with "a string":

In Winter in my Room
I came upon a Worm--
Pink, lank and warm--
But as he was a worm
And worms presume
Not quite with him at home--
Secured him by a string
To something neighboring
And went along.

She could have stomped the worm or simply discarded it. Instead, she has chosen to keep it close by, albeit under control, leashed, as it were, and tied to "something neighboring," a piece of furniture or another object in her room, perhaps. Although she is not altogether comfortable in the presence of this phallic symbol, she is attracted to it as well and is unwilling to part with it. At this point, although, "as. . . a worm," the creature might "presume," it seems safe enough, "pink, and lank and warm," to keep, especially if it is controlled by being tied with a string to something larger and heavier than itself. Having solved the dilemma of the worm, the speaker "went along," about her usual business.

Not much later, however, she returns to find that the worm has metamorphosed into a snake "ringed with power." She beholds its transformed state with trepidation, or "creeping blood," as the serpent scans her bedroom "floor," the string with which she had tied it, when it had been but a "pink, lank and warm" worm, still attached to it, but no longer securing it to the object to which she'd earlier tethered it. The worm, having become a snake, has escaped its leash, assuming a threatening and frightening aspect. The snake looks nothing like the worm, any more than an erect penis resembles its flaccid self:

A Trifle afterward
A thing occurred
I'd not believe it if I heard
But state with creeping blood--
A snake with mottles rare
Surveyed my chamber floor
In feature as the worm before
But ringed with power--

The very string with which
I tried him--too
When he was mean and new
That string was there--

With horror, the narrator realizes that the puny string, which had seemed strong enough to control, or "secure," the worm, is absurdly inadequate to leash the potent penis, the power and virility of which are obvious in its erect state and its "mottles rare."

Afraid of the mighty phallus that has taken the place of the innocuous worm, the speaker seeks to placate it by offering it a compliment, by which action the snake assumes that she is afraid of it. However, she corrects the serpent's misunderstanding. She is afraid, all right, but not of the snake itself; rather, she is afraid that it might "presume," that it might seek "cordiality"--that is, that it might seek to engage in sexual relations with her. As soon as she has explained herself, the snake acts upon her repressed sexual urges, fornicating with her in "a Rhythm Slim," to the point of ejaculation, during which moment, the speaker herself is lost in sexual bliss and the attendant confusion of orgasm:

I shrank--"How fair you are"!
Propitiation's claw--
"Afraid," he hissed
"Of me"?
"No cordiality"--
He fathomed me--
Then to a Rhythm Slim
Secreted in his Form
As Patterns swim
Projected him.

Her fear of sex, as expressed by her fear of the ithyphallic snake, is brought to a crisis, represented by the snake's ejaculation and her own orgasm, but the climax is too intense. Overwhelmed, she rejects the sexual impulse upon which, in her sleep, she has been tempted to embrace, fleeing, with an eye out for the snake's pursuit, to "a distant Town," perhaps representative of the waking world of her everyday, conscious life (and of the world of art in general), and records the strange, threatening, and revelatory dream she's had:

That time I flew
Both eyes his way
Lest he pursue
Nor ever ceased to run
Till in a distant Town
Town on from mine
I set me down
This was a dream.

In her sleep, the speaker has been offered a chance to embrace her own sexuality and to accept that of the male, moving from an innocent, virginal relationship with the opposite sex, in which the penis, if considered at all, is something like a worm, "pink, lank and warm," which, although it may "presume," can be controlled, or kept leashed, with nothing more substantial than "a string," to a mature, sexual relationship in which the penis, unleashed (that is, erect), is "ringed with power" and becomes a predator which not only "presumes" but also ravishes its female prey. The speaker views men as tempting, but bestial, as attractive but threatening, as seductive but potentially overwhelming, and she ultimately decides to flee sexual experience and the "dream" of passion, excitement, and ecstasy that it offers for the safer, conscious, and deliberate, artistic life, wherein, as a poet, she can "set" herself "down" by committing her "dream" to paper. Communication through poetry is safer than communion through sexual experience, but, in its own way, the latter is as passionate--at last for a soul as intensely alive and aware as that of Emily Dickinson.

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byCal Y. Pygia© 0 comments/ 14489 views/ 1 favorites

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