I have been reading Paraic Finnerty's Emily Dickinson's Shakespeare for the last few weeks, and it is one of the most thorough and finely woven pieces on Dickinson's inspiration available. I'm sure I will write a review of this book when I'm done, but chapter 4 made me stop and reflect on the American perception of Shakespeare during the 19th century. Finnerty provides rare, albeit formulated, insight into Dickinson's contextualization of poetry in American life, and to no surprise, Finnerty understands how most Americans, like Dickinson, understood how “The more vivid drama of everyday life is connected with a female-specific, domestic, and undisclosed sphere, beyond the realm of audiences” (94).
Americans in the 19th century saw English authors with a “powerful mystique”: “Keats and Lamb seem to our young people to be existences as remote and legendary as Homer” (Thomas Wentworth Higginson qtd. in Finnerty 81). And while America attempted to shake off the old England, or at least appropriate it as un-American, developing their own national literature was of utmost importance in the 19th century.
Finnerty brings up a powerful example of this mindset from Longfellow's Kavanagh, in which two characters, Mr. Hathaway and Mr. Churchill discuss their plans to establish an American literary magazine: “I think, Mr. Churchill...that we want a national literature commensurate with our mountains and rivers, - commensurate with Niagra, and the Alleghanies, and the Great Lakes... We want a national epic that shall correspond to the size of the country...We want a national drama in which scope enough shall be given to our gigantic ideas, and to the unparalleled activity and progress of our people!.... In a word, we want a national literature altogether shaggy and unshorn, that shall shake the earth, like a herd of buffaloes, thundering over the prairies” (Finnerty 80). Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The Poet” echoes Hathaways' thoughts: “America is a poem in our eyes; its ample geography dazzles the imagination and it will not wait for long metres” (qtd. in Finnerty 87).
The fresh independence from a monarchy, no doubt, plays a role in this. For example, Whitman saw Shakespeare as unnecessary to America: "an ‘actuating motive’ and ‘one of the springs of’ Whitman’s poetry was his belief that he was the poet of democracy, Shakespeare the poet of feudalism” (Harrison qtd. in Finnerty 92-93). In order to write about the democracy, American writers wrote about the common day, the tree on their land, the bird in the tree on their land, or the work they did in their own kitchen. The ownership mentality of Americans, trickled over into the literary world, and while the Bard was still genius, suddenly everyone had the capacity to be genius; this is America after all. All Americans had to do was take up a pen and write about their own very ordinary, yet independent, lives.
For example, In Emerson’s quintessential 19th century work, “The American Scholar,” he hails Shakespeare for his poetic mastery, but warns his American colleagues to create their own literature: “The world still wants a poet-priest, a reconciler who shall not trifle, with Shakespeare the player, nor shall grope in graves, with Swedenborg the mourner, but who shall see, speak and act, with equal inspiration” (Emerson qtd. in Finnerty 87).
At the same time American writers turned away from imitating English writers, they were cognizant of the need to emulate what Shakespeare did so well: write about universal themes. In the same Longfellow novel, the character Mr. Churchill replies to Mr. Hathaway's desire to focus on American experiences by reminding him that it is more important that American literature be universal, rather than merely national (81).
Finnerty applies this thought to Dickinson's argument from a letter she wrote: "He has had his Future who has found Shakespeare". To Finnerty, Dickinson is speaking of Shakespeare's "universality, not his nationality. Perhaps, like many of her contemporaries, she regarded Shakespeare as not threatening but benign, honor-bestowing” (Finnerty 82). For example, in her “This was a Poet- It is That” (What a great poem that is!) Dickinson sees poetry as comprised of universal ingredients that are “somehow available to all,” (Finnerty 85), but the poet or magician is able to transform the ingredients into something that is art. A very similar theme is developed in “The Poets light but Lamps”. In this way, Dickinson is not unlike Emerson. In his work, “The Poet” Emerson sees Shakespeare (or the poet/ magician) as Prospero, "able to appropriate all objects, and to make connections between the remotest things: all material objects are transfigured through his ‘passion’ as poet" (qtd. in Finnerty 87-88).
With all this talk of universality, it is important to understand that creating poetry as a common practice is still a very American idea- the thought that a anyone can be a poet, and that that poet is able to conjure up art with the everyday resources surrounding him is distinctly and unequivocally American at its core.
Which brings me to the the Dickinson poem, “Drama’s Vitallest Expression is the Common Day” . In this piece, the speaker argues the American literary argument of the 19th century: "the existence of compelling, daily, internal dramas [are] more potent and real than Shakespeare's plays" (Finnerty 93). In other words, while Shakespeare is a master at reading and writing the human heart, because it is written for stage, it is not at its most authentic (93-94). The most authentic human experiences are owned by the human involved: "Hamlet" to Himself were Hamlet—/ Had not Shakespeare wrote—". Simply, when the external poet got involved, the experience lost realness. Besides, the speaker in this poem affirms that the "only Theatre recorded" is the "human heart", and that the "Owner cannot shut". I think the very American speaker here is showcasing how the everyday life, the dailiness of life, the common life, is powerfully breathtaking, comic, tragic... worthy of the stage. Not only that, but we own the stage, and we are the playwrights! We are the poet/magicians! What can be more accurate, more human or dramatic, than life lived "When the Audience is scattered/ And the Boxes shut—"?
Finnerty, Paraic. Emily Dickinson's Shakespeare. Amherst: U of Mass., 2006. Print.