By contrast, how daring Dickinson was to write so openly about the nature of sexuality and her own ecstatic and orgasmic nature, the spiritual and sexual naturally intertwined, in tantric manner it seems to me - or as she herself put it, her "near-paralyzing bliss" and (in another poem) her "daily bliss."
Even if Dickinson didn't publish (that is, monetize?) many of her poems in her lifetime, it seems to me that for her to will herself to confront and name truth (flesh made word; word made flesh) despite all the silencing taboos of puritanical culture is a breakthrough achievement of artistic actualization in itself.
I'm no Dickinson scholar. I've done some reading about her but am bad at retaining "facts." My musing about her is "imaginal" on my part, based on my responses to the texts of her poems, as many as I've thus far recently read.
In the biographical literature I see references to her supposedly having renounced a lover so as to devote herself to her art. I find it difficult to buy this trope. I wonder if, rather, she herself had been toyed with and ultimately rejected by a male lover about whom she felt inordinately passionate, and that after this peak experience she simply didn't want to settle for anything less than the ideal bliss and union that she had experienced. Or, perhaps she had such an ideal love affair in mind, even if she didn't experience it - but I sense that she did experience it, and that she was spurned and lived for ever after unable to consummate her passion the same way. So she sublimated this energy into her poetry, for an extended period of time when her poetry was at its most passionate (certainly c. 1862-63). I wonder if she hadn't been expertly seduced, and it was an explosive experience for her.
He fumbles at your soul
As Players at the keys
Before they drop full Music on--
He stuns you by degrees--
Prepares your brittle nature
For the Ethereal Blow
By fainter Hammers-- further heard--
Then nearer--Then so slow
Your breath has time to straighten--
Your brain-- to bubble cool--
Deals-- One-- imperial-- Thunderbolt--
That scalps your naked soul--
When winds take Forests in their Paws--
The Universe-- is still--
This strikes me as a radically daring, forthright poem, even today but particularly so in her day 150 years ago. I recently perused a volume of Adrienne Rich essays, including one on Dickinson. I don't have it in front of me, but if I'm not mistaken her interpretation of this poem included the assumption that Dickinson was describing rape. I don't think so at all. I think she's describing ecstatic, mutual, passionate union. She's not passive in her sexuality, she's an active, engaged, impassioned participant. Can you get more feminist than that, to own your own erotic, sexually charged nature?
We live in such a silly culture. I can hardly bear to turn on the television anymore, including PBS. The other morning at breakfast I turned on The History Detectives. There was a lot of exaggerated tittering about the provenance of an 1890s image that showed long-skirted women playing football, with glimpses of stockinged ankles and calves. The "historians" interpreted this to be an erotic image for its day, which I instantly found hard to buy. The image wasn't erotic at all, and plus if back in the day one really wanted erotic images, well - you could go to Diamond Street in Hudson, or avail yourself of photographic images of naked damsels - again, I'm no expert, but I'm sure something more erotically gratifying could be viewed. No, I think the image was, rather, political. I'm guessing it was a dig against suffragists - look, next thing you know they'll be playing football, but won't that be a sight for sore eyes for the menfolk heh heh heh, was the message I got.
So, well into the 21st century silly History Detectives perpetuates a lazy, false, assinine and even on any kind of credible prurient level utterly unsatisfying interpretation of an image, while on the other hand Dickinson, decades earlier, was a keen observer and strict recorder of her own at times ecstatic modes of being. She was radical in that she was a true artist devoted to aiming for truth (her gender, while certainly not irrelevant, seems less important to me in this regard - she wrote the truth from her perspective). In her own lifetime Dickinson didn't seek public recognition for her output, sharing her poems with only a carefully selected few. But she was cognizant of her own achievement, aware that when the time was right what she had written and carefully tucked away would count.
But after all we are not children, not illiterate juvenile delinquents, not English public school boys who after a night of homosexual romps have to endure the paradox of reading the Ancients in expurgated versions. -- Vladimir Nabokov, On a Book Entitled Lolita, November 12, 1956.