116th Annual Conference - Bellingham, Washington
Friday, November 9 - Sunday, November 11, 2018

Literary Implications of Emily Dickinson’s Ambivalence in the Anthropocene Era

Seoyoung Park, The University of Arizona

Considering the contradictory nature in the conception of the Anthropocene, this paper will examine the implications of ambivalent and contradictory voices of Emily Dickinson’s poetic persona to suggest that the dialectic investigation of existential humility and cognitive self-assertion embodied in her poetry provides an opportunity to reflect on the bitter irony of as well as the extended understanding for the Anthropocene literature beyond the level of apocalyptic imaginings or evocations of ecological pathos.


Anthropocene is a contradictory concept, being post-human in its definition and anthropocentric in its signification. Though the term was coined to accuse the human race of its geological impact on Earth, it also urges the need for a human to intervene actively in the global environment with science and technology. Given the magnitude of both current and anticipated ecological catastrophes, however, it’s difficult for an individual to fully recognize the causality and enormity of the issues, reactions to which are evasion or dismissal at best.

Timothy Clarke defines Anthropocene fundamentally as “an emergent ‘scale effect’”(72). Global-scale environmental problems have suddenly emerged as so great a leviathan that they cannot be easily comprehended or explained by the mechanical accumulation of insignificant human actions. Therefore, Anthropocene “enacts the demand to think of human life at much broader scales of space and time [...] and challenges us to think counter-intuitive relations of scale, effect, perception, knowledge, representation and calculability”(13). The vastness of environmental phenomena on a planetary scale might humiliate the human, but, at the same time, it provides means for reaffirmation of the human reason that can understand and fix the planetary problems. Clarke considers the elusiveness of Anthropocene as both “frightening” and “intellectually liberating”(xi). It’s frightening because the incomprehensible scale of the current environmental and ecological issues engenders “the sense of being overwhelmed, of paralysis, even despair,” whereas it’s intellectually liberating because of the very uncertainty and ambiguity being “a means of disclosure and revision [...] tempering the sense of alarm with a host of new insights.” In this regard, art and literature in the Anthropocene era should not only instill ecological consciousness and evoke “environmental humility” but also be able to build a meaningful bridge between two different scales, i.e., the vast external reality and the individual human existence.

Inspired by the debate between Wai Chee Dimock and Mark McGurl on deep time in Critical Inquiry several years ago, this paper aims to examine Dickinson’s inconsistent and contradictory poetic persona to find literary implications in the Anthropocene. The common themes of Dickinson’s poetry such as nature, imagination, soul, death, and divinity readily place her in the tradition of Romanticism, but several critics find the anti-Romanticist tendency in Dickinson focusing on the way she willfully alienates herself from the natural world accepting its inscrutable alterity. While Dickinson’s resignation awakens a sense of anxiety and fear, her choice to remain as the Other in nature allows her to be deemed a precursor of the contemporary ecological thought. Moreover, this paper will also discuss how the poet countervails against the overwhelming vastness of reality—which marks the Anthropocene era itself—through exuberant imagination, sharp senses, and even human emotions in order to unsettle scalar hierarchy as well as make it comprehensible and relatable. Finally, this paper will suggest that the dialectic interplay between existential humbleness and cognitive self-assertion in Dickinson’s poems provides a possibility for the Anthropocene literature beyond mere eschatological depictions or deployment of the pathos of living things.