Demonic Possession and the Dilemma of a Woman Artist

In yesterday's class we talked about Emily Dickinson and her strange but beautiful poems. As a "virgin recluse," she selected her society prudently, and avoided strangers, especially during the later years of her life. Only seven poems were published in her lifetime, all edited by other hands. More than a thousand poems were hidden away in her bedroom chest, to be discovered after her death.

Unlike another great American woman poet Sylvia Plath whose persona and poems are conventionally known to be corporeal and inflamed, Emily Dickinson is more ethereal and gossamer. However,recent critics, inflected by feminism, have pointed out that underneath the elfish, deceptively ingenue-like surface of this "virgin recluse," a volcano keeps seething, which could, had it chosen, have submerged an entire city, not only a city, but the whole universe. Dikinson's biographer and editor Thomas Johnson has said that she often felt herslef possessed by a demonic force. And many of her poems can surely be read as poems of possession. Adrienne Rich in her famous essay "Vesuvius at Home:The Power of Emily Dickinson" has emphasized Dikinson's dilemma as a woman poet in the nineteenth century, her schizo status as being torn between society's expectation of a proper femininity and her unwomanly, aggressive, demonic, and volcanic creativity. Can you discern her dilemma in any of her poems we read? Or how does her account of her creativity "Vesuvian" and unfeminine from your point of view?


How did Sylvia Plath's work as a visual artist influence her poetry?

The following excerpt is from the BBC's "Woman's Hour" program that was broadcasted on 5th November, 2007:

Last month was the 75th anniversary of Sylvia Plath's birth. Although well-known for her poetry, her turbulent relationship with Ted Hughes and her tragic death, her artistic life is scarcely acknowledged. In fact, Sylvia’s diaries, letters and school notebooks are full of doodles and self-portraits and it was only at the age of twenty that she decided to leave fine art behind as her chosen career and opt for the written word. Jane is joined by Kathleen Connors, who has brought out a new book celebrating Sylvia’s artwork, and by the poet Ruth Fainlight, who was friends with Sylvia in the 1950s.

Listen to this item and write down anything that is of your interest.

Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess"

"My Last Duchess" is a poem in which the speaker, the Duke of Ferrara, shows a visitor round his mansion. The visitor is a representative of the young woman that the Duke is going to marry. The Duke shows the representative the portrait of his former wife, who is now dead. In the Duke's remarks about his dead wife, he seems happier with the portrait of her, "as if alive," than he was with her when she was alive. What's wrong with his dead wife? In this dramatic monologue, how do you describe the personality of the Duke?

Sylvia Plath and the Electra Complex

In an introduction to "Daddy" prepared for the BBC, Sylvia Plath explained that

"the poem is spoken by a girl with an Electra complex. Her father died while she thought he was God. Her case is complicated by the fact that her father was also a Nazi and her mother very possibly part Jewish. In the daughter the two strains marry and paralyze each other--she has to act out the awful little allegory once over before she is free of it."

The figure of "Electra" used by Plath is a Greek daughter whose relationship to her tyrannical father--Agamemnon, who sacrificed his other daughter, Iphigenia, to the winds--is erotically charged. After Agamemnon is killed, Electra's mother, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus, abuse Electra because of her loyalty to the memory of her father. Out of her hatred toward her mother and her love for her father, Electra urges her exiled brother to return and to kill Clytemnestra and Aegisthus.

The conflation of Agamemnon-father-Hitler-husband is both haunting and powerful in "Daddy," in which the pull of patriarchy is so strong that the daughter/speaker needs to kill her father/husband in order to free herself from them. However, even when she has resolved to kill her father, she is still half in love with him. Give me some lines or imageries that for you illustrate this emotional ambivalence.