Emily Dickinson's Master Letters

Emily Dickinson’s Master Letters stand out within her body of work for me. Dickinson was a well-known letter writer, an agoraphobic who avoided physical contact with other people for most of her life, who was none-the-less passionate in her pursuit of relationships through correspondence. There is grave speculation surrounding many issues concerning when and how her body of work was discovered after her death. Her sister, being the individual who made the discovery, was fiercely protective of her family and their reputation. It is believed that many poems were destroyed, along with Dickinson’s entire collection of letters, both those that she received and the drafts of those she sent. The Master Letters, however, survived. The fair assumption, therefore, is that these particular letters were placed specifically with her poems and not her collection of correspondences. These three letters, addressed simply to “Master,” are believed to be excerpts from a much larger collection. They bear no date, and have been ordered by biographers of Dickinson, based on handwriting from different periods of her life. There is no record of them having ever been sent, although the three that do remain are only drafts. In the letters, Dickinson pleads with “Master” to forgive her for nameless faults, and to allow her to be closer to him. There is a particular drive to pin down the identity of the Master that appears again and again in writing about the Master Letters. The need to attach an individual addressee to the Master Letters is one of the most telling reactions to them.

One of the most difficult things about discussions of oppression is the challenge of finding a name for the oppressor. The Master Letters complicate this issue. In her essay “The Power of Discourse and the Subordination of the Feminine,” Luce Irigaray discusses the complications of the female voice. She conducts an interview with herself about the issues of feminine discourse that are important to her work in her book The Sex Which is Not One. Her understanding of language in relation to women – both the voice of tradition and what happens when woman speaks – is helpful in beginning to dismantle the particular female voice in Dickinson’s Master Letters and why the letters are important to discussions of gender within language. Irigaray’s essay addresses the issues of the subordination of the feminine voice to the masculine, representation of the self – the impossibilities of this act that exist, and how we may undermine them, the role of female pleasure, of female as commodity placed into a specific box within language. She discusses the structures of language that create particular roles for women, and how they may be disrupted – all of which is crucial to understanding the Master Letters.

Irigaray writes, “The important thing, of course, is that no one should know who has deprived [women], or why, and that ‘nature’ be held accountable” (Irigaray 71). We have no record of to whom, or what, these letters are addressed, other than the title of the Master, who, in pronoun form, is sometimes referred to as “you”, “he” and sometimes, as “it”. The struggle to assign the identity of the Master to an individual is working in an opposite direction with regards to the Master Letters. Isolating this text as being related to a single person would negate the power this text has in relation to tradition and to society. Irigaray writes:

[The interpretation of] women’s sufferings, their symptoms, their dissatisfactions, in terms of their individual histories, without questioning the relationship of their “pathology” to a certain state of society, of culture. As a result, he generally ends up resubmitting women to the dominant discourse of their father, to the law of the father, while silencing their demands. (Irigaray 70)

By attempting to assign the Master Letters to one addressee, we are seeking a personal reason for Dickinson’s submission. If we have a name of someone Dickinson was personally relating to as her master, we may negate the concept of Dickinson as a woman, as speaking for women, and her addressee as the tradition of masculine dominance she was working against her entire life as a woman and as a poet. And so we may fold Dickinson’s oppression back into the safe place of personal struggle and “pathology,” and undermine the social structures that are in place which have positioned her. Dickinson seems to be working against this interpretation when she uses the pronouns “he” and “it”.

Oh – did I offend it –

Daisy – Daisy – offend it – who

bends her smaller life to

his (it’s), meeker (lower) every day –

(Dickinson 22)

Since the Master Letters are drafts of a final product, we have the unique privilege of viewing Dickinson’s editing marks. In this instance, she has written in above her usage of the word “his”, “it’s”, showing clearly that these were carefully made decisions, not merely a product of style or language, but rather some issue Dickinson was grappling with – him or it? While the use of the third person “he” may be easily construed as a style choice, “it” is a far more directed decision. Since on most other occasions, Dickinson, without hesitation, uses the pronoun “he”, it is a safe assumption that she was not working toward stripping her subject of gender. What seems to be more likely is that she is stripping her subject of personality, that is, of individuality. “It” is something more abstract than one individual person.

Dickinson’s personal relationship to religion was always a complicated one. Raised strictly in the puritanical tradition, she found herself at odds with the general religious fervor that surrounded her. For Dickinson, this was a disconnect. She felt isolated because of this difference. The Master Letters, however, are full of religious imagery, the clear parallel, of course, being the relationship of human being to God, the relationship of Dickinson to her Master. In the second Master Letter, Dickinson writes:

but must she go un-

pardoned – teach her grace – (preceptor)

teach her majesty --


Low at the knee that bore

her once unto (wordless) rest,

Daisy kneels,

a culprit – tell her

her fault – Master –

if it is small

eno to cancel with

her life, she is satisfied –

(Dickinson 25)

The language Dickinson employs is that of a faithful servant, one of confession and self-denial, referring to her “fault” or sin, and how she may pay her master for it. She asks to be instructed in grace and majesty, clearly Biblical language. In this way, Master may be read as both a masculine and deified figure. Irigaray writes, “[The “elsewhere” of female pleasure might be sought in] the place where it serves as security for a narcissism extrapolated into the ‘God’ of men. It can play this role only at the price of its ultimate withdrawal from prospection, of its ‘virginity’ unsuited for the representation of self” (Irigaray 77). Dickinson is creating an exaggerated form of the discourse that already operates between the masculine and the feminine. The Bible states that a man is to love his wife as Christ loves the Church, the applied reversal of this understanding being the placement of the female in a position of faithful servant to the deified male figure. Dickinson, growing up in a strictly puritanical home and town, would have had a firm understanding of these roles. Also because of her puritanical background, Dickinson would have understood that the establishment of these roles would mean the submission of her pleasure to the masculine – to her master. Irigaray discusses the difficulty of the representation of female pleasure within language, thus: “Feminine pleasure has to remain inarticulate in language, in its own language, if it is not to threaten the underpinnings of logical operation. And so what is most strictly forbidden to women today is that they should attempt to express their own pleasure” (Irigaray 77).

The inherent deification of the male necessitates the withdrawal of female exuberance in order to operate, or be read, within the established order. Dickinson pushes this idea to extremes with her excessively submissive language. She actively draws attention, whether satirical or genuine, to the position of herself as below her master, as suffering, as denying and suppressing her own desires for the glorification of her addressee. In fact, the only desires she actively expresses, and even then with apologetic undertones, are that of serving her master and, if he wishes, being in her master’s presence. From the second letter:

who only asks – a task –

something to do for

love of it – some little way

she cannot guess to make

that master glad --

(Dickinson 22)

And from the third:

I want to see you – Sir –

than all I wish for in

this world – and the wish –

altered a little – will be my

only one – for the skies –

(Dickinson 43)

Both times Dickinson claims that these are her only desires, her only wishes. She has pushed beyond repressing the expression of self-pleasure and has completely denied that she even has a desire pertaining to anything other than the pleasure or company of her master. Irigaray writes, “The fact remains that this masquerade [of femininity] requires an effort on her part for which she is not compensated. Unless her pleasure comes simply from being chosen as an object of consumption or of desire by masculine ‘subjects’” (Irigaray 84). This idea is often written under and may be extrapolated from many historical texts written by, from the perspective of, or about women. Dickinson, however, makes a clear-cut case of this argument. She makes no qualms about it – her sole satisfaction within this text remains to be fulfilled by herself only in relation to the desire of her master. Irigaray discusses how the discourse of women is dictated by the need to define themselves only in relation to men: “Woman herself is never at issue in these statements: the feminine is defined as the necessary complement to the operation of male sexuality, and, more often, as a negative image that provides male sexuality with an unfailingly phallic self-representation (Irigaray 69-70)” Dickinson is defined in relation only to her male addressee within the letters. She is a reflection of his desire, but this is complicated within the text because she is not only speaking of her master’s desires directly, but of her desire to please him. This is another example of the Master Letters pushing a traditional aspect of the female voice into an extreme, and thereby calling more attention to it in the process. Dickinson’s voice is strong – even if it is strong only to speak of her master. She is still heard. By committing herself so extremely to submission, Dickinson ends up speaking loudly.

If one aspect of the Master Letters may be sequestered as an example of the definite and intentional undermining of tradition, it is her use of grammar and punctuation. Dickinson habitually used pluses and minuses, as well as dashes, rather than traditional punctuation, within her poetry. Throughout the Master Letters, dashes are used to indicate places of pause or breath, with very little other punctuation. In many places, Dickinson also breaks down grammar:

that is enough – I

shall not want any

more – and all that

Heaven will

(only) disappoint me – (because) will be

it’s not so dear


Structurally, it seems Dickinson is merely toying with rhythm, playing with the sounds of carefully arranged internal rhyme and words rubbing against each other in a certain order. But this inclination to toy with grammar is precisely the reason many of her poems were criticized and rejected by the few eyes they passed beneath (primarily male) while Dickinson was alive. Irigaray claims this action to be a necessary task to undertake in order to fully, or even partially, examine the structures that exist within the male-dominated world of language: “What is called for... is an examination of the operation of the ‘grammar’ of each figure of discourse, its syntactic laws or requirements, its imaginary configurations, its metaphoric networks, and also, of course, what it does not articulate that at the level of utterance: its silences” (Irigaray 75). Whether Dickinson was aware of it or not, her situation makes a neat metaphor for the predicament in which women writers find themselves, operating within a highly structured system of language, a highly structured system of socialized gender, and a highly structured system of male editors and censors.

The reason for the curiosity that surrounds the Master Letters is precisely the reason they are so useful in dismantling ideas of the female voice: the letters have no context. If a recipient of the letters was discovered, not only would we be able to dismiss Dickinson’s undertaking as personal rather than a reaction to a tradition, but we would also have a storyline to follow – a narrative. What we would have would be a reason -- an explanation for the letters, a means of justification, a way of making sense out of them. In order to question the established system of language while using language, we have to stop making sense. Irigaray writes, “If [reversal] is to be practiced for every meaning posited – for every word, utterance, sentence, but also of course for every phoneme, every letter — we need to proceed in such a way that linear reading is no longer possible” (Irigaray 80).Dickinson’s interrupted grammar, combined with a lack of context, serves to disrupt our ability to make linear sense of the letters. It is not only impossible to dismiss the letters as merely personal, it is also impossible to dismiss the letters as fictional. We may not read them as we read stories, and so they have to be acknowledged as something else. They have to be acknowledged.

One of the most fascinating elements of the Master Letters is that Dickinson slips in and out of referring to herself directly as other women, who have existed in the fictional world of other writers’ work. Irigaray directly deals with activity such as this in her essay:

The “matter” from which the speaking subject draws nourishment in order to produce itself, to reproduce itself; the scenography that makes representation feasible ... its actors, their respective positions, their dialogues, indeed their tragic relations, without overlooking the mirror, most often hidden, that allows the logos, the subject to reduplicate itself, to reflect itself by itself. All these are inventions on the scene; they ensure its coherence so long as they remain uninterpreted. Thus they have to be reenacted, in each figure of discourse, in order to shake discourse away from its mooring in the value of “presence.” (Irigaray 75)

Women have historically playacted, or been reduced to, certain roles in relation to men and to the world. Society operates on the notion of certain people playing certain parts, without the option of self-representation. Irigaray is arguing that in order to disrupt this operation, the roles need to be reenacted and interrupted, which is precisely what Dickinson is doing:


If you saw a bullet

hit a Bird – and he told you

he wasn’t shot – you might weep

at his courtesy, but you would

certainly doubt his word –

One drop more from the gash

that stains your Daisy’s

bosom – then would you believe?


In this opening passage from the second master letter, Dickinson makes clear allusions to the female characters of Dickens’ David Copperfield and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh. Dickinson goes on to assume the voice of Daisy for most of the second and third letters, referring to herself in the third person to draw specific attention to this mimesis. When examining the Master letters, it is important to understand that there is a particular system at work that establishes feminine discourse, and that in order to disrupt this system, we must first examine it to understand where there may be possibilities for subversion and reorganization:

We have had to go back to [philosophical discourse] in order to try to find out what accounts for the power of its systematicity, the force of its cohesion, the resourcefulness of its strategies, the general applicability of its law and its value. That is, its position of mastery and of potential reappropriation of the various productions of history. (Irigaray 74)

By assuming the voice, the role of Daisy, Dickinson is, first, conducting an investigation of this role. She is exploring the traditional role she has been assigned through another, fictional woman who has also been assigned that same role. The system is remarkably good at reappropriating any definition of self, which steps outside the bounds of the regulated order, so creating new voices, new “roles” which are not roles, is virtually impossible. What we must do, instead, is learn to reappropriate for ourselves the roles that have been established for us. We must mimic the voices that already exist for us in order to find a way to destroy them. And so women must step into the one-size-fits-all role of the feminine if they are to disrupt these notions. Irigaray addresses the notion of mimicry, and how it functions as a form of reappropriation of the feminine voice:

To play with mimesis is thus, for a woman, to try to recover the place of her exploitation by discourse, without allowing herself to be simply reduced to it. It means to resubmit herself – inasmuch as she is on the side of the “perceptible,” of “matter” – to “ideas,” in particular to ideas about herself, that are elaborated in/by a masculine logic, but so as to make “visible,” by an effect of playful repetition, what was supposed to remain invisible: the cover-up of a possible operation of the feminine in language. (Irigaray 76)

By taking on the role of Daisy, Dickinson is fighting the idea of the role of Daisy, the suffering woman. In the same way that her submission to the master is drawing attention to itself by the mere fact of extreme exaggeration, so also is her submission to the role she is playing. She not only directly assumes the name of a woman in this role, but the name she assumes is that of a fictional character – quite literally, a role, a role assigned by the author, a man writing a woman. She draws even further attention to this voice assumption by referring to herself as Daisy in the third person. In this way, Dickinson effectively renders her position visible. She is using the modes of communication she is trapped in as a woman to complicate this communication.

And so, suddenly, Daisy speaks. Dickinson speaks. The traditional role of woman as object speaks. This is not supposed to happen. Objects are spoken of. Daisy is not a narrator – she is a character who is spoken of. Dickinson, the enigma of reclusive, sexless poetess, is certainly spoken of. In a capitalistic society, women function as commodities. Women are traditionally exchanged from father to husband as possessions, objects. Marx famously raised the question, what would objects say if they could speak? How would an object with a voice disrupt our separation from the objects we exchange within a capitalistic society? Within this system, women function as commodities, and commodities are not to speak. Such speech would undermine the very fiber of this particular form of society. Irigaray raises this question:

What modification would this process, this society, undergo, if women, who have been only objects of consumption or exchange, necessarily aphasic, were to become “speaking” subjects as well? Not, of course, in compliance with the masculine, or more precisely the phallocratic, “model.” (Irigaray 85)

Dickinson is in complete submission to her master, yet Dickinson’s voice is the only one we have. We do not hear the Master’s voice – either there was no Master’s voice, or the letters were destroyed. We have only the subject’s side of the dialogue – only the subject speaks. This is perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of the Master Letters. Dickinson, through her poetic skill and a keen understanding of connotation and detail, as well as a woman who was vastly affected by her context – her position as a woman writer in a puritanical town in New England in the mid-nineteenth century, has successfully managed to leave us a rare example of not only an object who is also a “speaking subject,” but also an object who speaks without the voice of a managing subject, a master.

Whether the Master Letters were specifically addressed to an individual or not, they were rightly placed in the drawer of Dickinson’s body of work. With these letters, Dickinson has mastered the subversion of the tradition she struggled against for her entire life. The unpublished, unrecognized poetess found a voice for her voicelessness. As Irigaray points out, this may have been the loudest Dickinson could have spoken.

To speak of or about woman may always boil down to, or be understood as, a recuperation of the feminine within a logic that maintains it in repression, censorship, nonrecognition. ... They should not put it, then, in the form “What is woman?” but rather, repeating/interpreting the way in which, within discourse, the feminine finds itself defined as lack, deficiency, or as imitation and negative image of the subject, they should signify that with respect to this logic a disruptive excess is possible on the feminine side. (Irigaray 78)


Reise-ohne-Ende said...

God, Liz-

I know this is old, but it is damn powerful stuff. That was a fascinatingly well-written essay; I love how you use your extensive vocabulary to dig toward a subtle meaning that is almost unattainable through language rather than to convolute an already comprehensible idea - that's rare in academic writing as far as I'm concerned, and you did it masterfully (excuse the word choice...!)

As far as the topic goes, I agree that the stylistic choices Dickinson made serve to render her voice unencumbered from the societal context of femininity, but I wonder if this change is only perceivable by those who have already viewed themselves in that way - i.e., as individuals that exist outside of their societal roles. Maybe it could even tap into the subconscious of a woman (or other oppressed group) and help them achieve that novel perspective. But would a white male, especially at that time period, have obtained any kind of renewed or strengthened perspective from her words?

If there are two kinds of birds, caged and uncaged, and the caged bird sings of freedom...how could that possibly mean anything to those privileged birds that had never known anything else? It would seem either trivial (why does it matter whether you're free or not?) or preposterous (you are a caged bird, you can't feel freedom; we are a different type).

How can you make someone with white male privilege understand?

Out of curiosity, what led you to write this? I assume a particular course or...? Anyway, I look forward to reading the rest of your blog; there are so many good ones I'm settling into lately that all my books are getting ignored!! :-/

Joe DiMattio said...

Dear Ms. Powerful Cool,


We don’t know much about Emily Dickinson, either, although many biographies have been written that read like they know everything. Her sexuality remains rather hazy. She wore a dress. She wrote many small poems; she had a great sense of language and drama. We know also that she was an independent thinker; we also know that she was a dependent daughter who lived in her father’s house all of her life.

This is getting too long. Recently, it has been postulated with a good deal of evidence that the object of her affection was a 6’ 8” male, friend of her brother Austin, who lived in a neighboring town. It seems that they were engaged for some unknown period of time about when she was about 21 or 22 and he was 24-25 years of age and that the father, Lawyer Dickinson, put an end to it. He, George Gould, moved on after the rejection and she remained trapped in her father’s house and in a culture that limited her opportunities in so many ways. She was stuck and consequently wrote poems about nature, life, love and pain management. Please see: “Thinking Musically, Writing Expectantly: New Biographical Information concerning Emily Dickinson,” published in the New England Quarterly, June 2008, Vol. 81, No. 2, Pages 330-340. Carol Damon Andrews (CDA). My Blog. Joe DiMattio- Unraveling Poetry; Emily Dickinson: The unraveling.

Let us try to find out what little facts there are about ED and then have a larger discussion about her sexual issues. Currently, I see her as a bright, strong, talented, generally female human who was trapped in her place and time. She was frustrated in love and struggled with not knowing what to do or how to handle her predicament. Eventually, her Man, her Master, with a good deal of irony, became a preacher-minister and married another woman. She did the best she could under the circumstances.

Please feel free to carry on the discussion.

Sincerely, Joe DiMattio

Joe DiMattio said...

Dear Ms. I’m no Picasso; Dear Madam; Dear human, (I’m not sure how best to address you)

Dear Ms. Powerful Cool,

I can only begin by introducing myself as Mr. generally white, generally male, generally frustrated, generally angry Italian immigrant guy from New York.

I also must delineate my current view of human sexuality so as to have some starting point in discussing Emily Dickinson’s Master letters and poetic writing.
I am retired and currently a gardener, but I earned a living as a Vision Scientist at NYU Med. Center in the Dept. of Physiology (I was surrounded by neuro-physiologists) and consequently must introduce some working model of brain physiology as regards sexuality. This is a giant subject; too large and too unclear a subject for any consensus to have evolved in the greater human family. Everyone has there own idea as to sexuality and some have evolved to a more modern view and some have tried not to, to not give up their simple male-female view-point.

We do know that the brain is made up of cells and these cells each have some individual identity as well as some greater role that evolution and chance has given to them. Collectively and in subsets they form communities and/or circuits. Some brain cells form circuits that are used to make decisions as to how the greater body is to function. Very big topic, but sexuality is one of those identity issues that can no longer be seen as male or female bifurcations or simple choices of right or left. This may have been the case in simpler time when we lived in small hunter-gatherer groups. It was perhaps enforced as a simple choice but that is all over. The game has changed, evolved. People have tried to keep it simple, but this is not possible because it isn’t.

Currently, sexuality is seen as far from simple, but one way to see it is that during the process of human development decisions were made or buttons were set or forks laid out where circuitry was put down that impinged on different systems and tracks were laid out in different states that went on to form an individual human and a variety of sexual outcomes resulted. Currently, any number of manifestation of sexuality are seen in our more open societies. As a working model consider that perhaps as many as 20 or 50 or 100 physiological decisions were made in circuitry before and even after birth that made you who you are. Thus, of the 20 node points, let us say very crudely that in individual A- node #1, #3, #7, #8 and #19 went on way so as to make you generally a more or less Male type – a big, hairy guy. Similarly another arrangement of circuitry decisions led to female types. Now all kinds of node point possibilities are possible. All kinds of actual sexual identities result. My point is that any simple discussion of male and female, today, makes little sense.

We have no clear idea of the reality of the actual physiology of this complex circuitry in the actual human brain. So currently we just talk, but we don’t actually know much.

Joe DiMattio said...

Note: Joe DiMattio comments are in reverse order. Read Comment #3 first, the #2.