Emily Dickinson, modernity and war

Some commentators have regarded Dickinson as being one of the first modernists (Porter, 1981). This fanciful notion is at odds with the poet’s notorious antipathy towards the personalities associated with American modernity such as T.P. Barnum, Harold Lloyd and Carrie Bradshaw. Nowhere can the advance of modernity be better observed than on the battlefield and where the Spanish Civil War failed to reject such outdated concepts as the trench, the cavalry charge and the use of huge timber representations of horses on wheels containing hundreds of well-armed troops to bring a siege to a happy completion. It can however truly be said that the conflict brought the use of the heavy machine gun as an infantry support weapon to centre stage.

The Russian-manufactured Maxim was the New England poetaster’s first weapon of choice. Weighing up to 900Kg, Dickinson became sufficiently proficient in its use to enable her to shoot peanuts from the hands of children in the yard of an orphanage 4Km behind the lines at Jarama.

The poet (right), after a trip to the barber's and the delousing station, takes careful aim at the fascists

This feat impressed Ernest Hemingway enough to offer the poet a position as his personal bodyguard and secretary, a proposition the poet initially rejected out of hand. Hemingway, as ever, had the last laugh and later went on to outrageously libel the New England poetaster by depicting her in a particularly unfavourable light in For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Dickinson has been generally credited with the formulation of a tactic where several belts of tracer rounds would be fired over the heads of advancing fascist troops, who, convinced that that the MGs were firing high, would break cover and advance, only for the poetess to order the guns to be lowered by 20 degrees, making mincemeat of the advancing fascists.

The poet's first reprimand came about as she succeeded in shooting a banana out of Langston Hughes' mouth at 800m

The poet remained untroubled by the edicts of the several Geneva Conventions and was known on occasion to take pot shots at fascist prisoners. This became a regular occurrence in the trenches at Jarama throughout the spring of 1937, especially noted after the poet had had a frustrating afternoon with her notebook, with nothing save a blank page of verse – where lines in her own manly hand should have terminated in a vertical series of dashes, preceded by short enigmatic phrases. These lines usually moaned about food, lack of ammunition and Ernest Hemingway’s increasingly lewd advances on her honour (written in a code designed to hoodwink the military censor).

The poetcaster's Maxim was confiscated after the accident at the children's hospital

With war comes modernity and with modernity comes fascism, reality television and sexual disappointment. Dickinson’s own advancement of the doctrine of literary modernity arrived indeed after a brief period when she became Hemingway’s lover. In fact Hemingway’s torrid relationship with the New England poetcaster was to colour all of his subsequent writings on the war; her eventual rejection would force him to find eventual solace in big game fishing and achieving mastery of the hammer dulcimer.

We will return to this in a later post.

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