Emily Dickinson's Vision
Illness and Identity in Her Poetry

James R. Guthrie

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"A full, dramatic, and sympathetic picture. . . . It is both rare and refreshing to see a literary critic write not only with persuasive authority, but also with such style and felicity of phrase."--Barton L. St. Armand, Brown University

In this original contribution to Dickinson biography and criticism, James Guthrie demonstrates how the poet's optical disease--strabismus, a deviation of the cornea--directly affected her subject matter, her poetic method, and indeed her sense of her own identity.
Dickinson's illness compelled her to remain indoors with her eyes heavily bandaged for months at a time, especially during the summer. Guthrie maintains that these extended periods of sensory deprivation caused her to seek solace in writing and to convert her poems into replacements for her injured eyes. Many poems discuss her physical pain; many mention such topics as optics, astronomy, light, or the sun; some suggest that she blamed God for what had happened to her. These poems permitted her, Guthrie says, to use her personal experience as a springboard for discussing philosophical and religious matters and led her, finally, to conceive a system of metapoetics in which she served as translator or mediator between God's will and human experience.
Guthrie argues that reading the poems in an overtly biographical context deepens their complexity and profundity. Dickinson emerges from this study as an accomplished artist and an eminently sane and stable woman whose patience and optimism were sorely tested by severe, chronic illness.

James R. Guthrie, associate professor of English at Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio, is the author of articles in The Midwest Quarterly, The Explicator, and The Emily Dickinson Journal.

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AAUP Book Jacket Typographic Award - 1998

"In his excellent debut book, James R. Guthrie atgues that much of Dickinson's way of understanding and relating to the world, and hence her writing, resulted from a chronic optical weakness for which she was treated in Boston in 1864 and 1865." "Emily Dickinson's Vision is a powerful and persuasive book. In particular, the chapter on her changing attitutde to publication is a timely and intelligent contribution to the contemporary debate about her attitude to print."
--Emily Dickinson International Society Bulletin

"The argument of Emily Dickinson's Vision would have made a suggestive article of an identifiably psycho-biographic kind; its monocular view does not reward expansion to book length. If there is one thing Emily Dickinson's poetry does not have, it is tunnel vision. Too much explicitness puts the book's readings in jeopardy of naivete, and one wishes that the author's style did not suggest quite such confident access to the poet's views and intentions." - American Studies
--American Studies

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