Dickinson’s Nimble Subjunctive

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“We do not hesitate, in poetry, to yield ourselves to the unreal, when it is possible to yield ourselves.”
— Wallace Stevens, “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words”

Among the more critically challenging peculiarities of Emily Dickinson’s poetry is her use of odd verb forms. How are we to read “be,” “decay,” and “make” in the following short poem?

Essential Oils – are wrung –
The Attar from the Rose
Be not expressed by Suns – alone –
It is the gift of Screws –

The General Rose – decay –
But this – in Lady’s Drawer
Make Summer – When the Lady lie
In Ceaseless Rosemary – (F772)[1]

On a first reading, “Decay,” “make,” and “lie” appear to be conjugated wrongly, either in regard to person or number. They are either first person, singular verbs (“I decay/make/lie”) tied to third person, singular subjects, or third person, plural verbs (“They decay/make/lie”) attached to third person, singular subjects. “Be” appears not to be conjugated at all. But its lack of inflection serves here as a clue: perhaps “decay” and “make” are also not conjugated. If this is the case, then there is a simple grammatical answer to the question of how to read these verbs: Dickinson has put them in the subjunctive mood. Beside the imperative mood, which does not quite fit these usages, the subjunctive is the only grammatical entity that makes grammatical sense of the verb forms, since its present tense form calls for the use of an infinitive shorn of its “to.” But does it make semantic sense to read them as subjunctives in this context? Is it accurate to say that such verbs express being, decaying, and making “not as a reality but as a mental conception…as doubtful, imagined, desired, conditional, or otherwise contrary to fact?”[2]

20th-century critics of Dickinson largely argue that it does not. Instead, they assign to these strange verb forms an equally strange, extra-grammatical quality of “timelessness” or “universality.” The argument depends in part on the striking uniqueness of Dickinson’s poetry, so unlike the work of virtually any of her contemporaries and still a touchstone for lyricism at its most intense.[3] The way she handled verbs becomes one more facet of her singularity as a poet, and deserving as such of a singular explanation. At times, these critics seem intent on preserving Dickinsons’s singularity, not to say her eccentricity, at the expense of intelligibility, as though her poems have a mystical dimension impervious to (or only ruined by) the linguistic standards from which they are held to deviate. But while the major premise of her uniqueness certainly holds, the specific conclusion about her uninflected verbs does not readily follow from it. It does not follow that these verbs are something other than subjunctive because, for one, the effects continually attributed to them can be achieved with simpler verb forms, indeed with what is literally the simplest of them all: the simple present tense. Dickinson often availed herself of the simple present, and in pursuit of the same sense of “timelessness” and “universality” critics are wont to find in her unconjugated verbs. And since these effects were available by other means, it is reasonable to surmise that Dickinson was pursuing something else with these verb forms, especially when they appear alongside the simple present, as they often do—for instance, in “Essential Oils.” Upon inspection, this other thing often proves to be caught up with desires, doubts, counterfactuals, and various tenuous or conditional states of being. Furthermore, reading the verbs as subjunctives makes highly precise sense of some of Dickinson’s specifically religious lyrics, in which these kinds of verbs enact or contribute to the oscillation between seemingly exclusive viewpoints that characterizes her religious sensibility in general.


Simple Presents

Following Thomas Johnson, the first true editor of Dickinson’s poetic corpus, critics have tended to think of her odd verbs as in some way “universalizing” or “essentializing” what could be taken, they imply, for overly local or specific actions. She used “uninflected” or “unmarked” verb forms, sometimes referred to as “verb stems” or “roots,” not to convey contingency or perspective, but to broaden the scope of her statements. As Johnson influentially argued, this broadening is specifically temporal:

what at first seems to be a subjunctive mood might better be called a continuing or universal present indicative. She recognized her dilemma in the line ‘Beauty—be not caused—It is.’ As a suggested change she offers ‘is’ for ‘be,’ as though she were uncertain whether the substantive sense was too unidiomatic to convey her idea clearly. But even the first reading cannot be called subjunctive, for it does not denote a contingency, but expresses an idea as fact. She was trying to universalize her thought to embrace past, present, and future.[4]

Roughly a decade and a half later, David Porter substantially agrees with Johnson, and in substantially the same terms. Dickinson’s use of uninflected verbs “can be interpreted as a way…of denying time or transcending it, of taking an utterance out of time by using only the verb root and assiduously refusing any inflection that signifies restriction of tense or number;” her “gnomic deviance” from conventional grammar “[calls] attention to language and simultaneously [removes] the language further from the referential reality outside the words.”[5] Cristanne Miller hews closely to Porter’s formulation: “Without the restrictions of person and tense,” she writes, “the verb’s action is unlimited; its reference is essential, not historical.”[6] Thus the verbs from “Essential oils” “embody the process of transformation from time-bound Rose to essential Attar that is the subject of the poem. These verbs present their root meaning fully but leave their action universalized, unfinished, unspecified. ‘Essential Oil’ is continuously ‘expressed’.”[7] Finally, Helen Vendler converges with Miller: the unmarked verbs create “axioms of universal application, no matter whether we speak of past, present, or future.”[8]

The first problem with the “timelessness” interpretation is its redundancy. It either overlooks or understates the fact that the effect of timelessness can be had without recourse to verb roots and stems. The simple present tense is quite enough to generate it, and often does so in Dickinson’s poems. Another of Vendler’s remarks on “Essential Oils” casts this fact into relief. She argues along the conventional line that “Dickinson begins her poem in the present tense of eternal truth: ‘Essential Oils – are wrung – .’ But with ‘The Attar from the Rose’ she changes her marked ‘are’ to the unmarked ‘Be,’ aligning it with her later statements, all…given unmarked verbs—‘decay,’ ‘make,’ and ‘lie’—creating axioms of universal application, no matter whether we speak of past, present or future.”[9] What is the difference between axioms that remain applicable “no matter whether we speak of past, present, or future” and an “eternal truth” marked by the simple present tense? As George T. Wright has argued, the “presentness” of constructions like “I walk through the long schoolroom questioning,” or “Darkling, I listen,” or (this example is mine) “The general rose decays” turns out to be almost purely grammatical. In terms of the meaning they generate, the verbs belong to a “new aspect or tense, neither past nor present but timeless—in its feeling a lyric tense.”[10] To hear the difference they introduce, we need only compare them with the present progressive, whose use in speech sounds as ordinary as the simple present would sound odd. Except to be arch, we would not say, “Look, the bus comes. The driver beckons to us;” we default to “The bus is coming.” Conversely, Marcellus’s “Look, my lord, it comes…It beckons you to go away with it” seems entirely natural in Hamlet.[11]

This tense’s prevalence in poetry, and especially in lyric poetry, has desensitized us to its temporal oddness. In the gap between the simple present in the poem and the reader’s present, timelessness becomes noticeable as a poetic effect, along with all of the “essential” or “transcendent” meanings that Dickinson’s critics have sought in verb stems. Placed in this tense, speakers suddenly inhabit an intensified, lyric equivalent of what Frank Kermode termed the aevum, repurposing for narratology a theological term developed by Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas used it to describe the stratum of time in which angels could exist, since they were at once immutable and given to temporally successive actions. Aquinas’s angels provide Kermode with a neat analog for characters in novels, who “are independent of time and succession, but may and usually do seem to operate in time and succession.”[12] They change, but the changes themselves are determined, the same upon every reading. Dickinson’s (and Yeats’s and Keats’s) use of the “lyric tense” simply makes this condition more apparent. It is easy to suspend our disbelief in actions described in the past (the substance of most fiction) or the future tense, since these zones of time are only ever imaginatively present to us. But despite their grammatical designation, actions expressed in the simple present are no less phantasmal, and so an air of timelessness emerges—counterintuitively in regard to grammar, but intuitively in regard to meaning—from their ostensible simplicity.

Such actions simply cannot be simply present to us, therefore they seem to occur (and occur and occur) in a state of suspended animation. They come to signify regularity, typicality, or ceaselessness: “Yeats in his schoolroom does not walk again when we reread the poem; rather, when we return to the poem we find him still walking… Keats still listening in the dark.”[13] We find a domestic speaker in Dickinson going likewise endlessly through the motions:

I tie my Hat – I crease my Shawl –
Life’s little duties do – precisely –
As the very least
Were infinite – to me – (F522, ll. 1–4)

The “infinite” precision with which the speaker makes her vacant rounds is meant not only to fill up their vacancy but also to hide her own. She claims that “existence – some way back / Stopped – struck – my ticking – through” (ll. 11–12), and the only appropriate response to this ambiguous break with her prior and presumably fuller life is to comport herself with “scrupulous exactness” (l. 27), to be aggressively normal. We do this, she claims, shifting to the first person plural, not because it allows us to hide a painful truth from ourselves, but because it spares certain, very discerning others the painful experience of that truth. Their “Telescopic eyes” (l. 22) must be deceived for their benefit. As readers, however, we are privy to the painful state from the start, and largely because of the simple present tense. I tie, I put, I throw, I push: we do not need augmented ears to hear in this litany of simple actions their repetitive, mechanical quality and the accompanying numbness of their agent. An ongoing “quartz Contentment” (F372) has come audibly upon her since the vital “ticking” of her life has ceased.

Elsewhere, Dickinson commands the simple present without finding the dread of repetition in its quality of timelessness. Thus she clearly had a sense of its range. One of her most famous stanzas elides discrete instants into representative spans of time:

And now We roam in Sovreign Woods –
And now We hunt the Doe –
And every time I speak for Him
The Mountains straight reply – (F764A, ll. 5–8)

The effect of these lines is like that of montage. The speaker celebrates life as a “Loaded Gun” brandished by her “Owner” by splicing specific frames of their time together—now We…now We…—and thereby gives an overall impression of that life’s character. Combined with the simple present—We roam, we Hunt—these “nows” appear more emblematic than determinate. Instead of riveting specific actions to a chronology, they loosen them into a seriality that approaches the explicit generality of “every time.” No competent reader imagines a single hunting trip or an unwilling hunting partner.

The major exception to this effect is, of course, the verb “to be,” whose simple present form need not display any of the temporal misalignment characteristic of active verbs in the same tense.[14] Especially in its predicative function, it can quite seamlessly unite reader and text in the same temporal space (however far from one another they may find themselves conceptually). “The Moon is distant from the Sea” while we read that line of Dickinson’s, and no questions of presence or alternative time-strata arise.[15] The copula presents an immensely complicated set of issues, but for now we need only note that it tends to evoke a sense of timelessness similar to, if less problematic than, verbs in the simple present, and that Dickinson altered its conjugation as she did those other verbs, as is evident from the stanza with which we began.


Dwelling in Possibility

Given the simple present’s temporal effect, and Dickinson’s specific modulations of it, the critical attribution of this same effect to her unconjugated verbs begins to look like an attribution of carelessness to her. Yet if Dickinson intended these verbs to do something else, what could it have been? Not only do standard grammar and the process of elimination argue for their subjunctive status, Dickinson’s usages accord with it. And in many cases, insofar as they accord, they contrast decisively with the effect of the simple present. We have noted that the latter evokes a sense of the recurrence and thus the timelessness of events and actions. But it is important to note that they do occur. Whatever happens in the simple present is represented as definitely happening, however odd its temporality may be. The speaker ties that hat and creases that shawl, roams the woods and hunts the doe, and Dickinson clearly leverages the tense to make these concrete actions signify more expansively. Things are otherwise with the uninflected verbs, a fact visible even in the interpretations that would deny their status as subjunctives. According to Miller, these verbs refuse the constraints of “tense and number” the better to express “universalized, unfinished, unspecified actions.” Either these actions have not fully or definitely taken place, or they have been enacted by no particular agent. In Porter’s terms, the verbs locate actions “further from referential reality,” although not because they deny or transcend time as he claims, but simply because what they describe is to some extent unreal: the potential, the incomplete, the speculative. In Dickinson’s own terms, the events and actions “dwell in possibility” (F466), and it is this dwelling that the verb forms express in part. To be sure, they express it to different degrees, for the realm of the inactual is an altogether hazier place than that of indicative actuality. Among a range of effects, some of the uninflected verbs plainly relate what the poem or its speaker only supposes to be the case, some insist on the unreality of results not yet obtained, and some deal in the slippery category of the counterfactual.

We begin with those uninflected constructions that are tied straightforwardly to supposition. Among the more famous non-events in Dickinson’s corpus is the non-appearance of God in “I heard a fly buzz when I died” (F591). The crowd around its dying speaker begins to breathe more audibly in anticipation of “that last Onset—when the king / Be witnessed—in the room—,” the speaker makes her will, signing away “What portion of me be / Assignable,” and at the point of greatest tension, the bathetic, blasphemous fly flits in (ll. 7–8; 10–11; emphases added). The first “Be” retroactively takes on its full subjunctive weight at this earthly intrusion, revealing certain belief in god as a pure supposition. The second relays just as lacerating a judgment on secular worth: there is no actually “assignable portion” of a person, only his or her external estate.[16] A poem on the Christian reversal of death at the Second Coming (to which we will return later) makes its supposition literal:

No Crowd that has occurred
Exhibit – I suppose
That General Attendance
That Resurrection – does –

Circumference be full –
The long restricted Grave
Assert her Vital Privilege –
The Dust – connect – and live – (F653)

All of the verbs in the second stanza (and many in stanzas thereafter) follow from “I suppose.” Their form declares the speaker’s imagination of the Resurrection.

Dickinson also uses uninflected verbs to emphasize incompletion, to insist on the absence of unrealized results, though the processes that may generate them are underway. Consider the two conditional statements in the following, the first a past tense indicative and the second uninflected:

’Twas warm – at first – like Us –
Until there crept opon
A Chill – like frost opon a Glass –
Till all the scene – be gone. (F614, ll. 1–4)

“Till all the scene was gone” or “is gone” would correspond to the total frosting-over of the glass, whereas “Till all the scene be gone” leaves it unfinished, the creeping still underway. The rest of the poem records the minute progression of the chill. In a series of indicatives, it suggests a body terribly active in the proliferating processes of its own dying.

The Forehead copied stone –
The Fingers grew too cold
To ache – and like a Skater’s Brook –
The busy eyes – congealed

It straightened – that was all –
It crowded Cold to Cold –
It multiplied indifference –
As Pride were all it could – (ll. 5–12)

The speaker’s observation in the ninth line that “that was all” cannot stop the multiplication of actions, which make even the corpse’s blankness appear (in a subjunctive construction) expressive. Finally, the speaker wonders why the peculiarly active body does not pridefully resist its relegation to the ground, instead allowing itself to be “lowered, like a weight,” even appearing actively to “drop” itself into the grave (ll 14–16). Only at this point does the “scene” of the poem cease, the passive and conditional process of the initial simile heavily qualified by the corpse’s assumed participation.

A conditional moment in “God made a little Gentian –” (F520) can similarly be read as subjunctive. Rising out of a deep freeze, the gentian thrives in defiance of both the rose, a flower it had once strived to be, and the summer in which the rose flourishes:

The Frosts were her condition –
The Tyrian would not come
Until the North – invoke it –
Creator – Shall I – bloom? (ll. 9–12)

“Until the North – invoke it -” can be read two ways. Either “The Tyrian,” a figure for the Mediterranean and for Summer, will not come “Until the North – Invoke[s] it” to come, as though the North were active in summoning summer, or the “I” awaits the North’s invocation in order to bloom, as though it controlled the speaker’s flourishing. In either case, the subjunctive stresses that the invocation is outstanding. The north has done nothing yet. If summer is its object, then we are in a situation much like that of “’Twas warm – at first – like Us –,” with an inevitable result—death, the coming of a season—ruled speculative in the strict sense because it is not yet actual. If the speaker is the object, the result is simply imaginatively desired, a clear case of the subjunctive.

Perhaps the most elusive category to which Dickinson applies the subjunctive is that of negative potential or counterfactuality. We find it in the poem on which Johnson founded his interpretation of her odd verb forms:

Beauty – be not caused – It Is –
Chase it, and it ceases –
Chase it not, and it abides –

Overtake the Creases

In the Meadow – when the Wind
Runs his finger thro’ it –
Deity will see to it
That You never do it – (F654A)

Recall that Johnson’s Dickinson was “uncertain whether the substantive sense was too unidiomatic to convey her idea clearly,” so she offered “is” as a variant for “be” in the first line. She was uncertain of how to assert an idea, but not of the idea itself, which we can plausibly (if inelegantly) gloss as “beauty is not a thing that can be caused.” This she formulated gnomically in order “to universalize her thought to embrace past, present, and future.”[17] We have seen that the last of these claims does not hold. The first of them is also suspicious. For while “Beauty – is not caused – / It is –” might be more idiomatic, it is strikingly less logical. It sounds like a bare contradiction—“Beauty – is not caused – It Is [caused]”—so long as we do not read the second copula as referring to existence simpliciter. However odd it may sound, “be” helps us to avoid this confusion. Indeed, in its oddness lies part of its force. So near to definitive, unconditioned “Is,” “be not caused” sounds tentative, conjectural—in short, subjunctive. Whatever state of being “be” refers to, that state is less definite than the state to which “Is” refers. Read as a subjunctive, “be” emphasizes the speculative quality of the non-causation, which remains entirely a “mental conception,” and a difficult, doubtful one at that. Beauty lies beyond causation? The poem enacts its (and our) partial disbelief in this assertion beginning in an odd, stanzaless line (a rarity in Dickinson’s corpus). Following “Chase it, and it ceases – / Chase it not, and it abides –,” “Overtake the creases” sounds like beginning of a third conditional pair. Yet its other half never appears. As opposed to a consequence (cessation, abidance) following immediately from a fulfilled condition (chasing, not chasing), the poem first dwells for a longer moment on the bare thought of “Overtaking,” isolating it on its own line, then descriptively elaborates this action into a concrete scene. We find ourselves already running in “the meadow – when the Wind / Runs his fingers thro’ it–.” We find ourselves not just chasing but overtaking the wind in the grass—the poem does not say “Try to overtake the creases”—but then god abruptly and above all arbitrarily cancels this vision, interrupting causative logic and parallel grammar alike. God does not “see to it” that we fail because we have attempted to overtake the wind; rather, the “overtaking” is revealed to have been impossible all along. We experience it, nevertheless, each time we read the poem, as though we could not but treat its impossibility as a supposition. The same holds for causing beauty. Given beauty’s certain existence, the impossibility of causing it appears to us a dubious confection of thought . Be that as it may, the poem says, already making for the meadow.

This precision in imagining results “contrary to fact” is again crucial in “Essential oils.” Miller, like Johnson before her, reads the poem’s uninflected verbs as expressions of an ongoing present. They contribute to the sense of attar being continuously created.[18] This reading not only discounts the power of the simple present, which Dickinson might well have used to conjure ongoingness, it disregards the presence of simple negation.

Essential Oils – are wrung –
The Attar from the Rose
Be not expressed by Suns – alone –
It is the gift of Screws –

Be not expressed: this stanza admonishes to labor and against idleness by relegating the latter to a negative subjunctive, which is one more form a counterfactual may take. The attar remains only notional so long as we imagine that the sun alone will bring it out. Yet by trying to dispel this fantasy, the poem implies that we do, in fact, indulge in it. Far from describing the “continuous expression” of essences, the stanza envisions the conditions in which their extraction fails, conditions which we desire because they require less work from us. In like manner, Dickinson’s winsome portrayal of the crickets and the end of summer also evokes what is not there:

Further in Summer than the Birds
Pathetic from the Grass
A minor Nation celebrates
It’s unobtrusive Mass

No Ordinance be seen
So gradual the Grace
A Pensive custom it becomes
Enlarging loneliness (F895d)

The minor crescendo is so gradual that we only infer its appearance. We do not actually see the insects’ “ordinance,” although it is as though we do, just as their “spectral Canticle” only appears to “Arise” (l. 11) to alter the late August air, when in fact it has simply appeared without our noticing.

The second and final stanza of “Essential Oils” has three more uninflected verbs, whose action Miller takes as “unlimited…essential, not historical” and Vendler as “axiomatic.”[19] But again the verbs emphasize contingency and speculation rather than an expanded sense of reference.

The General Rose – decay –
But this – in Lady’s Drawer
Make Summer – When the Lady lie
In Ceaseless Rosemary – (F772)

There is certainly something essential and ahistorical about “The General Rose,” but it has been purchased at the expense of actuality. And where there is no actual flower, there is nothing to decay, save imaginarily. English allows this thought to be formulated in the indicative (“The General Rose decays”), but the subjunctive here insists on the ideality of the ideal blossom. The poem begins to contrast it with the durable essential oil that might be wrung from an instance of it, but the oil too remains partially in suspension. If we also read “Make” as subjunctive, then we are left with an attar whose scent is equally imaginary, and the contrast apparently collapses. There is, however, both a simple, local reason for reading it as a subjunctive and a more global justification, which together preserve the difference. Locally, the “when” generates contingency enough for the subjunctive, present in both “make” and “lie.” Though her death is inevitable, the lady has not yet died. She has not yet entered the past perfect realm of rosemary, a flower with strong memorial associations.[20] Thus the endurance of the attar’s effect remains a supposition in the strict sense. It remains to be seen whether the scent will outlast the decease, since neither has happened yet. “Make” as subjunctive also returns us to the subjunctive of the first stanza: “The Attar from the Rose / Be not expressed by Suns – alone –” (ll. 2–3). Not idly or passively, but only by way of “Screws” does extraction happen. Without the “gift” of painful labor (and gifts are often arbitrary and contingent) there will be no expression of the essential oils; and without the oils, of course, there will be no perfuming.[21] The poem takes seriously its own status as an admonition, just as “Beauty – be not caused –” self-consciously warns against pursuit. Both place the possibilities they conjure—chasing or not, laboring or not—under the sign of a counterfactual—caused beauty, effortless attar—and acknowledge that the possibilities may not be actualized. “Essential Oils” simply lengthens the chain of contingent results.


The Nimble Subjunctive

“Beauty – be not caused – It Is –” and “Essential Oils – are wrung –” use the same grammar toward opposite ends. The first strives to deny the efficacy of human effort in the manifestation of beauty, yet also enacts the irresistible appeal of effort. We chase because we can’t quite believe that our chasing will be futile. The second poem asserts the necessity of effort to beauty’s preservation, yet leaves the products of effort in suspension. The contingent “gift” of labor may or may not outlast a human lifespan. Depending on the reader’s temperament, the opposition between these poems will evince either Dickinson’s great range and playfulness or her frustrating indecisiveness. Should we work for beauty or not? This question is perhaps truly salient only for artists, but aesthetics is not the only subject on which Dickinson seems fully to inhabit opposing positions. Of more metaphysical and social moment, especially in her own time, her poems on religion display a similarly baffling diversity. Some are straightforwardly devotional. “He gave away his Life –” (F530), for instance, imagines faith in Jesus as almost instantly rewarded:

He chose – Maturity –

And quickening – as we sowed –
Just obviated Bud –
And when We turned to note the Growth –
Broke – perfect – from the Pod – (ll.12–16)

This revision of the parable of the sower sees the seeds of faith become the flower of the Lord even as they are planted. Jesus springs, full-grown, from good soil. The speaker of “I think just how my shape will rise – ” (F252), however, cannot think of salvation without sarcasm:

I think just how my shape will rise –
When I shall be “forgiven” –
Till Hair – and Eyes – and timid Head –
Are out of sight – in Heaven – (ll. 1–4)

Her “long bright – and longertrust –” (l. 15) in divine forgiveness proves a sort of delirium in the end, and she drops her efforts at penitence. Somewhere between these extremes, a more pensive speaker tries to envision the afterlife stripped of human coordinates:

Is Heaven a Place – a Sky – a Tree?
Location’s narrow way is for Ourselves –
Unto the Dead
There’s no Geography –

But State – Endowal – Focus –
Where – Omnipresence – fly? (F476, ll. 5–11)

What would it mean for an Omnipresent thing to fly, since it is already everywhere? And what would it mean for there to be flight in a “place” without extension? The poem takes seriously the falseness of earthly categories to heavenly existence, but it also seriously supposes heaven.

These three examples only very partially map the gamut of Dickinson’s religious poetry, which shuttles constantly between disparate positions on God, belief, the afterlife, and Christian ritual. Her poems display what James McIntosh names, after one of her letters, “nimble believing.” She was, he argues, a poet “willing to vacillate to get her whole truth down,” and given to conjecture as a means of “[r]eveling in not knowing.” She was especially given to it when writing “at circumference,” that is, about the extremes of experience, where “ordinary conceptual language falters, and one resorts to fluid contradictions—one sees God face to face and one doesn’t; one dies in the act of love or the practice of poetry and also survives.”[22] Eschewing definite belief or disbelief, she could, for instance, “entertain a variety of ideas concerning the afterlife and represent them in a variety of separate dramas with points of view sufficient unto themselves.”[23] This is surely true, but reading vacillation and conjecture at the level of separate poems deemphasizes the extent to which they could characterize single lyrics, the extent to which Dickinson “resorts to fluid contradictions” within poems in order to approach limit experiences. What the above argument about the subjunctive allows us to see is how powerful a tool it could be in achieving just such fluidity. For the subjunctive is a grammatical category purposely intended for “reveling in not knowing.” It allows her poems to imagine and to inhabit states of affairs as though they were actual while always reminding us of their contingency, unreality, and solely subjective validity. Reading Emily Dickinson’s uninflected verbs as subjunctive allows us access to the purposeful, nimble vacillation in her religious poems, especially where they touch on the grandest claims of religion.

We have already seen two examples of these kinds of verbs used to this end. “We pray – to Heaven – ” (F476) ends with an interrogative that itself ends with an uninflected verb:

Unto the Dead
There’s no Geography –

But State – Endowal – Focus –
Where – Omnipresence – fly? (ll. 7–11)

On its own, the question mark retroactively unsettles in the poem’s last moment what seemed like a plain affirmation. For the dead—perhaps—“There’s no Geography,” no space as we understand it, but rather some other “State” of being which admits of only the most abstract and tentative description. It is a gift, an endowment of some sort, and a “Focus,” perhaps a kind consciousness more pointed or clarified than we have known on earth. But whatever its features may be, the poem stresses that they only may be as it says. The verb “fly” makes this uncertainty clear, pointing up the strain and self-conscious doubt in the speaker’s attempt to compass the afterlife in merely human terms. The poem admits that, without space, and given His omnipresence, God’s “flight” is at best a kind of metaphorical placeholder, a pure hypothesis.

The same holds at much greater scale for the descriptions of “No Crowd that has occurred” (F653). Very much a poem of “circumference,” it exemplifies the use of the subjunctive to offer with one hand and retract what it offers with the other, in this case nothing less than a vision of the resurrection of the body at the Second Coming of Christ. The poem both imagines and interrogates the very possibility of imagining an event so massive, transformative, and singular. Its speaker wonders, like an overly self-conscious prophet, how her vision could even be meaningful, given what it is a vision of, and yet does not hold it for meaningless. Like the reader, she cannot help but invest in what she imagines, despite her awareness of it as imaginary, an effect that clearly depends upon the subjunctive.

No Crowd that has occurred
Exhibit – I suppose
That General Attendance
That Resurrection – does –

Circumference be full –
The long restricted Grave
Assert her Vital Privilege –
The Dust – connect – and live –

On Atoms – features place –
All Multitudes that were
Efface in the Comparison –
As Suns – dissolve a star –

Solemnity – prevail –
It’s Individual Doom
Possess each – separate Consciousness
August – Absorbed – Numb –

What Duplicate – exist –
What Parallel can be –
Of the Significance of This –
To Universe – and Me?

As a technical matter, the case for the subjunctive is extremely easy to make in this poem. “I suppose” in the second line makes explicit the sheerly speculative character all that follows it, while “No Crowd…Exhibit” already displays the telltale lack of conjugation. The speaker does not go on to offer a clairvoyant account of the Resurrection, but an uncertain and idiosyncratic description of it. She surmises, and the majority of the remaining verbs highlight precisely this: Circumference be, grave assert, dust connect and live and place, Multitudes efface, Solemnity Prevail, Doom possess, Duplicate exist. The subjunctive allows these actions to remain in suspension, to be imagined without being strictly affirmed.

This prevalence of the subjunctive appears first like caution in the face of the scale and strangeness of the Resurrection. Above all, this is a vast event. “No crowd that has occurred” in history approaches in size that of the “General Attendance” of all the living plus all of those who have ever lived—that is, of all people ever—at the Resurrection of the body. This occurs, of course, in the fullness of time, which in the poem is also the fullness of “Circumference,” of space or extension itself, as though the contents of the cosmos had reached critical mass, triggering a reaction that Dickinson describes as explicitly atomic. The universe is not only full, but full of innumerable tiny particles, of dust and atoms, and the subjunctive underwrites the properly sublime movement between these magnitudes. It keeps in view the fact that the content of this vision is effectively unimaginable in size and number.

The subjunctive also continually calls attention to the strangeness of the processes that the poem describes. The grave, restricted in space but also from exercising a sudden “vital” power, somehow induces the fusion of its contents. The dust, into which all bodies disperse, connects to form new bodies, “placing” features on seemingly blank atoms. The poem then dips back out of the subjunctive for a moment, again noting that “All multitudes that were,” e.g. that “have occurred,” vanish in comparison, effaced by the vastness of the spectacle, which becomes a case of cosmic light pollution, a swarm of suns obscuring the shine of a single star. In a subtle but significant pun, the atoms supposedly take on the “features” of the dead, their faces, but the faces are then “effaced” by their own numbers. The individual fuses with the cosmic swarm. Nonetheless, as the fourth stanza predicts, the individual’s fate will still be of the essence for itself: “each – Separate Consciousness” remains solemnly preoccupied by its own fate. Each is “August,” distinguished to itself, “Absorbed” in and perhaps “Numb” with self-regard despite the incredible mass movement underway.

In the final, interrogative stanza, the poem goes searching for an analog for this vision, something by which to gauge or ground its meaning, and comes up empty-handed. Since the Resurrection is a one-time event, an event that would “Duplicate” its significance can “exist” in the subjunctive alone. There will be no second Second Coming with which to compare it. A “Parallel” to its significance appears possible, some likeness, but the poem names none. Nor does it distinguish “Significance” from the point of view of the Universe from “Significance” to the individual I. Since the entire universe is at stake—all of “Circumference” and all life, ever—the very frame in which a meaningful comparison might be made has been shifted, and the compound question simply hangs, possibly unanswerably, in midair. Nothing presents itself to authorize the act of imagination that saw dust particles connect and gave them faces, or represented myriad individual souls steadfastly and perhaps selfishly (in the most neutral sense of the term) engrossed in their separate transmutations.

And yet, like the speaker, we minimally assent to this act, suspending our possible disbelief and trying to sort out the contents of the speculation at hand, perhaps even comparing it against Christian scripture. The small but significant difference that the subjunctive introduces is to keep this disbelief present or, to put it in religious terms, to complicate our faith in what we’ve read. The subjunctive ensures that we don’t take Dickinson’s poem for holy writ in any sense, but for the vision of the I who supposes at the beginning and questions her suppositions outright at the end. Together, the questions and the verbs construct and sustain not just a vision, but also the subjective perspective from which it originates. The uncertainty of this perspective separates the poem from the often originless pronouncements of the Bible, to which any self-identified, authorial I would seem adventitious. Writing of its most profound and metaphysical chapters, George Steiner once held himself “unable to accord with [them] any sensible image, however exalted, of normal authorship, of conception and composition as we seek to grasp them in even the greatest of thinkers and poets.”[24] It is possible to imagine Shakespeare, he goes on to say, discussing the day’s work on King Lear over lunch, but we balk at assigning anything so mundane to the author of Genesis or Job or Revelation. “No Crowd that has occurred” does not present us with Dickinson in her room in Amherst, but it does keep its own artifice to the fore. The poem is thus not only nimble, moving between an exalted vision and thorough doubt, but also humble, preserving the fact of its speaker’s point of view in such a way as to unsettle its own descriptive claims. This last effect depends in large part on the subjunctive, which both endorses and checks the imagination. And perhaps the significance of which the speaker finally speaks is just that of imagination itself, in which we can (perhaps must) dwell even as we see it for what it (may) be.


[1] All quotations of Dickinson’s poems come from the 1998 variorum edition edited by R.W. Franklin, whose numbering of the poems I will cite parenthetically in the text.

[2] Chicago Manual of Style, 177.

[3] At least initially, Sharon Cameron read the extremity of Dickinson’s poems as reaching the generic bounds of the lyric itself. See Cameron 1979, 23.

[4] Johnson, 77.

[5] Porter 1980, 54.

[6] Miller, 65.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Vendler, 325.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Wright, 566. Emphasis added.

[11] Ibid, 434.

[12] Kermode, 72.

[13] 566; 568 (emphases in original).

[14] Wright’s focus on the latter leads him to call it “the tense of ‘truth’,” and he turns to proverbial formulations to make his case: “Strength stoops unto the grave. It is true: strength may not be stooping at this moment, but it customarily, regularly does so.” (567) His omission of the copula is at least odd, given that predicative constructions of the type “X is Y” are for most people the paradigm case of language expressing truth.

[15] F387A. In its “existential” form, as in “There is a certain slant of light,” the copula raises those questions, since such constructions assert presence much as the simple present of an active verb would. We know the light is not here and now, and that we are getting something like a timeless description of it. For a fuller exploration of this in relation to Dickinson, see Perlmutter, 109.

[16] In a sense, the entire poem is a non-event, predicated as it is on impossible because posthumous speech. See Cameron 1979, 115.

[17] Johnson, 77.

[18] Miller, 65.

[19] Ibid; Vendler, 325.

[20] See Vendler 323. Ophelia: “There’s Rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray, love, remember.” (Hamlet Act 4, scene 5)

[21] Further evidence for the subjunctive comes in what must surely be one of this poem’s intertexts, Shakespeare’s fifth sonnet, as Vendler notes (323). I add only the following emphases: “Then were not summer’s distillation left / A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass, / Beauty’s effect with beauty were bereft, / Nor it, nor no remembrance what it was.”

[22] McIntosh, 6, 19, 121. Reckoning from the dozen or so other poems in which she uses the term, “Circumference” means for Dickinson an immense space or extent, or a scalable totality, on the model of Emerson’s circles. It is “The Ultimate – of Wheels,” a venerable image for cosmic motion, in “When Bells stop ringing – Church – Begins” (F601), and the speaker of “I saw no way – The heavens were stitched” (F633) feels the universe contract and expand, “touching” it somehow before becoming “A speck opon a ball” that nonetheless goes “Out opon circumference / Beyond the dip of Bell” (6–8). “Circumference” replaces “firmament” in a revision of “Two Butterflies went out at Noon” (F571) as that in which the insects “waltz;” in the much later “A single clover plank” (F1297), a bee fights the “The Billows of Circumference” as it clings to a clover “Twixt Firmament above / and Firmament below” in an attempt to keep “From sinking in the sky” (4–8). The space of “circumference” can also undergo metaphorical inversion, as in “Pain – expands the Time –” (F833), wherein “Ages coil within” the “minute Circumference” of the human brain under duress; and in “A Coffin – is a small Domain” (F890), a man grieving over a newly buried friend finds the “restricted Breadth” of the grave suddenly encompasses “Circumference without Relief – / Or Estimate – or End” (11–12);(fn) With its “long restricted Grave” suddenly asserting an inverse, “Vital Privilege,” “No Crowd” presents a similar image: in the fullness of time, the narrow room of the sepulcher is assimilated to the cosmic.

[23] Ibid., 61.

[24] Steiner, 389.



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———. Choosing Not Choosing: Dickinson’s Fascicles. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992.

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