The Speaker’s Unique Poetic Voice

Dickinson’s speakers are numerous and varied, but each exhibits a similar voice, or distinctive tone and style. Poets create speakers to literally speak their poems; while these speakers might share traits with their creators or might be based on real historical figures, ultimately they are fictional entities distinct from their writers. Frequently, Dickinson employs the first person, which lends her poems the immediacy of a dialogue between two people, the speaker and the reader. She sometimes aligns multiple speakers in one poem with the use of the plural personal pronoun we. The first-person singular and plural allow Dickinson to write about specific experiences in the world: her speakers convey distinct, subjective emotions and individual thoughts rather than objective, concrete truths. Readers are thus invited to compare their experiences, emotions, and thoughts with those expressed in Dickinson’s lyrics. By emphasizing the subjectivity, or individuality, of experience, Dickinson rails against those educational and religious institutions that attempt to limit individual knowledge and experience.

Read about the related theme of the subjective nature of reality in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.

The Connection Between Sight and Self

For Dickinson, seeing is a form of individual power. Sight requires that the seer have the authority to associate with the world around her or him in meaningful ways and the sovereignty to act based on what she or he believes exists as opposed to what another entity dictates. In this sense, sight becomes an important expression of the self, and consequently the speakers in Dickinson’s poems value it highly. The horror that the speaker of “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—” (465) experiences is attributable to her loss of eyesight in the moments leading up to her death. The final utterance, “I could not see to see” (16), points to the fact that the last gasp of life, and thus of selfhood, is concentrated on the desire to “see” more than anything else. In this poem, sight and self are so synonymous that the end of one (blindness) translates into the end of the other (death).

In other poems, sight and self seem literally fused, a connection that Dickinson toys with by playing on the sonic similarity of the words I and eye. This wordplay abounds in Dickinson’s body of work. It is used especially effectively in the third stanza of “The Soul selects her own Society—” (303), in which the speaker declares that she knows the soul, or the self. She commands the soul to choose one person from a great number of people and then “close the lids” of attention. In this poem, the “I” that is the soul has eyelike properties: closing the lids, an act that would prevent seeing, is tantamount to cutting off the “I” from the rest of society.