This essay argues that Emily Dickinson’s poetry intervenes in the broad cultural assessment of epistemology provoked by the evolutionary debates of the 1860s. While scholars have begun to explore the thematic correspondences between Dickinson’s poetry and some aspects of this cultural conversation, this essay examines the ways in which her intervention occurs at the level of poetic form and is in fact profoundly dependent upon form. Specifically, it analyzes a set of her poems from the early 1860s through the early 1870s in which she uses the dual structure of metaphor to elicit a way of thinking about truth that is aligned with the empirical methods of research that were widely embraced in the mid nineteenth century; however, in the face of an increasingly contingent notion of truth, Dickinson’s way of thinking significantly revises cultural assumptions about what those methods might yield. The metaphors examined here amplify the distinctions between two material entities—lightning and fork, or sunset and lilac, for example—rather than merging them or leaping beyond them to stable, transcendent meaning. What Dickinson plays with is the possibility of a revised version of revelation or truth, one that is not only derived from the observation of material difference through the two parts of a metaphor, but that is more radically contingent on the perpetuity of such dual perception. Altogether, Dickinson’s metaphors are both critical and recuperative, as they contribute to the dismantling of fixed truth while embracing the limited revelations made possible by—only made possible by—sustained process.
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