Emily Dickenson


Faith Is Not All It?s Cracked Up to Be. While much of Emily Dickinson's poetry has been described as sad or morose, the poet did use humor and irony in many of her poems. This essay will address the humor or irony found in five of Dickinson's poems: "Faith" is a Fine Invention" (185), "I'm Nobody! Who are you?", "A Service of Song" and "Success Is Counted Sweetest". The attempt will be made to show how Dickinson used humor or irony for the dual purposes of comic relief and to stress an idea or conclusion about her life and environment expressed by the poet in the respective poem. The most humorous or ironic are some of the shorter poems, such as the four lined stanzas of "Faith is a Fine Invention" and "Success Is Counted Sweetest". In "Faith", Dickinson presents a "witty and biting satirical look at Faith and its limitations" (Hartman 113). While it still amuses readers today, it must be mentioned that this short poem would have had a greater impact and seriousness to an audience from the period Dickinson lived in. Dickinson was raised in a strict Calvinist household and received most of her education in her youth at a boarding school. In this short, witty piece Dickinson addresses two of the main obsessions of her generation: The pursuit of empirical knowledge through science, faith in an all-knowing, all-powerful Christian god and the debate on which was the more powerful belief. In this poem Dickinson uses humor to ease her position in the debate on to the reader. Dickinson uses her ability to write humorously and ironically to present a firm, controversial opinion into what could be dismissed as an irreverent, inconsequential piece of writing. In "Success" Dickinson's emphasis is less on humor and more on expressing irony. This poem "may be partially autobiographical in nature." (Loving 200) Dickinson made few attempts during her life to be taken as more than an armature poet. On one occasion, she sent a collection of her poems to a correspondent who was also a published poet. His criticism of the poems devastated Dickinson, and she never made another attempt towards publishing her works. In the poem, Dickinson reflects on the nature of success and how, ironically, it can be best appreciated and understood by those who have not achieved it and have no taste of it. As in "Faith", Dickinson powerfully presents her thoughts in a few lines. The poem deals only with one, ironic but universal, idea in its short length. It is the bitterness expressed at this irony that is most felt by the reader. While the previous poems express the poet?s bitterness and sorrow with one aspect of her life, "I'm Nobody! Who Are You?" uses humor without irony to address another. One critic, Dorothy Oberhaus, likes Dickinson?s comic techniques. The poem is "Reinforced by uneven metrics, its frequent pyrrhics, and Dickinson?s typical condensation and brevity" (118-19). In this poem, Dickinson?s style appears almost "child-like in its off descriptions including frogs and bogs" (Lakoff and Turner 209), as well as the lively energy expressed by the poem through its use of dashes and brief wording. Dickinson seems to be addressing her spinster, hermit-like existence (in the line "I'm Nobody") and her preference to it. The poet seems to relate that her situation has not left her without a sense of humor, but in fact has allowed her to maintain a child-like outlook on life rather than adapting to the boring norms of her society ("How dreary - to be - Somebody!"). She mocks the conventional need for self-importance through publicity ("How public - like a Frog", "To tell one's name - the livelong June"), suggesting that the audience isn't that interested ("To an admiring Bog"). She instead seems to idealize her solitude by creating the mysterious feeling of a secret society of social outcasts ("Don't tell! they'd advertise - you know!"). In this poem, she effectively uses humor to soften a critique of certain members of her society. While this poem is longer than the other poems discussed, it too is able to express the quality of brevity and lightness in that it's composition is full of dashes, with even full sentences broken into short, quick actions that easily roll off of the tongue when spoken aloud ("How dreary - to be ? Somebody").