Christine de Pizan and Emily Dickinson: Feminine Power Through Textual Production


From The Book of the City of Ladies, Christine de Pizan, 1405

by Keith Kopka

Christine de Pizan and Emily Dickinson are unlikely literary figures to link together. The two wrote hundreds of years apart, in different cultures, on entirely different continents. However, they were both authoritative female voices that attempted to create and publish in the male dominated trades of writing and textual production, while walking the tightrope of femininity in a patriarchal society. Although the localities and time periods in which they lived and wrote were geographically and culturally different, the roles of women in society and the challenges that women faced by virtue of their sexual identity remained basically unchanged. In their works, both Dickinson and Pizan commented quite candidly on womanhood in the domestic sphere, using similar rhetorical tools to achieve a place for their feminine voice within a male dominated society. Structurally, both women cultivated a veiled approach in their commentary on femininity: Dickinson in her use of experimental form in poems like “The Sea Said ‘Come To The Brook’” and Pizan in her allegorical retelling of a common female history in the City of Ladies (Cité des dames, 1405). Both authors also present themselves as scholarly women who are cloistered against the world. This image of self-imposed isolation allows each of them to embrace her own feminine voice by diminishing the influence of the patriarchal dominance that was prominent in all facets of their social existence. Although both authors successfully presented the image of a cloistered woman, it must be acknowledged that their feminine power was still complicated by male authority. While each is distinct in her approach, both authors raise questions about audience relevance and the impact that an audience has on a literary work.

Moreover, both authors question the integrity of textual editing, and both women understand the machinations of publishing; both are aware of the impact that presentation has on the perception of a given work, especially in regard to a female author. In contemporary literary scholarship, much time has been spent exploring the historical lineage of male writers. In The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry, Harold Bloom famously breaks down what he sees as the attempt of each new generation of male writers to overthrow the old guard.[1] Unfortunately, as critic Betsy Errkila points out, no one has “significantly questioned the validity of the Bloomian model as a tool for understanding the female poetic tradition.”[2] I argue that the feminine poetic tradition dates at least as far back as the fifteenth century. I also assert that this tradition, which is a distinct threat to the masculine literary tradition, is illustrated through the works and the publishing efforts of Pizan and Dickinson. Thus, we have the powerful literary voices of two female authors: one, an early fifteenth-century author who edited and published her own texts in order to control the way the world received her writing, and the other, a nineteenth-century poet whose output was distorted by editors who sought to manipulate audience reception of her texts. I will show how both of these women, by taking control of the publication of their own texts, circumvented the patriarchal control of their writing.

It is well documented that Pizan was a known author during her lifetime and that Dickinson was a mostly unpublished recluse. However, what has not been discussed is the way in which Dickinson, within her limited social sphere, used some of the same strategies as Pizan to market her persona to those who would listen. Both authors relied on unique signatures and, most importantly, on the production of their own manuscripts to increase the power and mystique around their personalities and their distinctly feminine writing. The very fact that these two women wrote and published at all in their male dominated worlds lends a subversive agency to their actions, and though their subject matter is not always blatantly subversive, each author effectively challenged the accepted image of the female in a male dominated culture. It seems almost absurd that society’s perspective of women and the roles of women had not significantly changed between fifteenth-century France and nineteenth-century America.

However, at the time when Dickinson was writing, women’s rights and the women’s suffrage movement were still in their infancy in America, and the dominant perspective on gender roles in the nineteenth century continued to embed its roots in the European tradition of gender difference.[3] According to Jamie S. Crouse, in her article “If They Have a Moral Power,” in this long tradition:

. . . western culture came to identify women primarily with the body and men with the mind; therefore, since the body is controlled by the mind, women’s nature was considered inferior to men’s and women’s role to be subordinate to men.[4]

As industrialism increased in America, the divide between the work of men (social) and the work of women (domestic) increased. The dominant belief was that a “woman’s nature” made her more well-suited for the domestic sphere, and her biological function as mother and nurturer associated the female body and mind with the passive “virtues” of sympathy, altruism, selflessness, and spirituality. It was best for a woman to stay at home. Contact with the outside world could only harm these feminine virtues and, in turn, damage the fragile body in which these were virtues lodged. Jerome Loving, author and critic, explains that this kind of thinking “rendered the female politically inferior by proclaiming her superior as a mother and thus the keeper of social mores and religious principles.”[5]

This perspective on gender roles and its limiting effects on women is deeply rooted throughout history. The primary role for a woman in medieval society was to bear children, raise them according to their station, and to remain virtuous in the eyes of God. From society’s perspective, the first two tasks were more readily realized than the third. In her writings, Pizan expresses the importance of a woman’s virtue and how this virtue is threatened time and time again by the outside world. In The Duke of True Lovers, she uses the voice of the virtuous Sybil, Lady of the Tower, to explain how a woman must “Always…be on her guard that no one may perceive in words, glance, or countenance anything unseemly or inappropriate.”[6] Her warning illustrates how cautious a female was expected to be in the male oriented medieval world. As a result, it is logical to conclude that in medieval times, and in 19th century America, the socially active female was in constant danger of losing her virtue; whereas, it was easier for the cloistered” woman to maintain the honor of her reputation.

In Album de Christine de Pizan, a collection of research on the manuscripts that Pizan produced as head of her own scriptorium, one can clearly see how Pizan uses this image of herself as “cloistered woman” in her manuscript illuminations, which depict her as a clergesse, a scholarly woman, cloistered away in her monastic study, toiling over the task of editing her manuscript. [7] This visual is later reinforced in the text itself. At the opening of The Book of the City of Ladies, arguably the most important work [8] within the London, BL, Harley Manuscript 4431, [9] Pizan begins by writing: “One day, I was sitting in my study surrounded by many books of different kinds, for it has long been my habit to engage in the pursuit of knowledge.”[10] Here, Pizan establishes her persona as a solitary and virtuous woman. The passage also illustrates how Pizan uses the ideal of a cloistered woman to “distance herself from any possible sexual identity as historically specific woman”[11] and to present herself in a familiar and non-threatening way to a male dominated society. However, she also establishes herself as an educated woman with a subtle aura of authority, while still retaining the stereotypical image of the virtuous subservient female. One might argue that it is problematic to use Pizan’s own words as evidence of her persona throughout the manuscript because The Book of The City of Ladies is one of the last works contained in the Queen’s Manuscript. However, the second miniature that Pizan placed at the beginning of the manuscript, found on folio four, introduces this same persona through a similar visual representation of the author, and subliminally sets the tone for the entirety of the collection.

The aforementioned miniature found in the opening of the Queen’s Manuscript portrays Pizan framed in the act of textual composition while cloistered in her study. Accompanied only by the faithful dog at her feet, a traditional symbol of fidelity in medieval art, Pizan’s cloistered persona is affirmed not only by her solitude but also by the details of her clothing. In the miniature, Pizan is clad in a deep blue dress with a white wimple. Traditionally, the color blue, especially royal blue, that Pizan is illustrated wearing, is symbolic of heavenly grace.

Throughout medieval art, the Virgin Mary is often portrayed wearing this same type of royal blue clothing.[12] This shade of blue is also representative of hope, good health, and, most importantly to Pizan’s persona, a state of servitude. By using elements of the monastic tradition, as well as religious imagery, Pizan presents herself as a virtuous scholar instructing those around her as they maneuver through the pitfalls of the medieval social world. These images help Pizan to subtly introduce an image of female authority to a male dominated society by placing herself in direct relation to the Virgin Mary, the medieval ideal of the virtuous woman, whose authority, as the mother of Christ, is beyond question. This saintly persona culminates in the introductory chapter to The Book of the City of Ladies, where Pizan is very clear about her relationship to the Virgin Mother, but instead of the gift of a child (the Annunciation), she receives the gift of knowledge from the Three Virtues that appear to her to help with the construction of her city.

Pizan writes:

Sunk in these unhappy thoughts, my head bowed as if in shame and my eyes full of tears, I sat slumped against the arm of my chair with my cheek resting on my hand. All of a sudden, I saw a beam of light, like the rays of the sun, shine down on my lap…I woke with a start… and all at once saw before me three ladies, crowned and of majestic appearance. [13]

This clever co-opting of religious authority is also reflected in Pizan’s signature, which is often written as “Xpine de Pizan.” The first two characters of this signature recall “the Chi Rho,”[14] which can be associated to the way that “. . .the Christogram is formed by superimposing Chi (Χ) and Rho (Ρ), the first two letters of the name “Christ” in Greek.”[15] Therefore, through the story of her epiphany, as well as by her signature, Pizan is carefully, almost subliminally, constructing an authoritative persona by associating herself, her teachings and her womanhood with the two religious figures that the predominantly Christian population of Medieval France considered to be the greatest teacher (Jesus Christ) and the most virtuous woman of all time (The Virgin Mary). Pizan has taken great care with every detail of her image in order to create a persona that is non-threatening to the patriarchal construct of medieval society, while, at the same time, allowing her a subtle political authority that she wields with expert hands throughout her texts.

The idea of women possessing authority as teachers occurs throughout Pizan’s work. In The Book of the Body Politic, Christine de Pizan makes her feminine authority quite clear by telling her audience composed of the future leaders of France to “keep in mind the teaching of the philosopher who says that, however great you are, you should not disdain a lowly person who teaches you a good lesson.”[16] Here, Pizan cunningly challenges the perception that only the aristocracy, and by association only males, have the intellect to be creative thinkers. Pizan makes a similar argument in the final exemplum of the Epistrea Othea where the Cumaen Sybil teaches Caesar Augustus about the Jesus Christ and helps to change the course of human history.

Pizan continues to use her persona as a political tool in her Epistre Othea (Othea’s Letter). Here, she uses the character of Othea, who serves as a feminine figure of wisdom and prudence, to teach important socio-political lessons to the aristocracy. In the letter, the Goddess Othea addresses her teachings to Hector, Prince of Troy. The address becomes an allegorical tool that allows Pizan to relate her teachings to multiple contemporary leaders. In the Queen’s Manuscript, the characters of Othea and Prince Hector are analogous to Queen Ysabel and the Dauphin, a metaphor that would not have escaped Queen Ysabel, considering the emphasis that is placed on the Epistre Othea within the context of the manuscript; 101 of the manuscript’s 132 miniatures are located within the narrative of the Epistre Othea.[17] Many of these miniatures reinforce the wisdom of woman, and when combined with the gloss and allegory, they champion femininity by depicting strong mythological female figures like Cassandra, Pasiphae, and Andromeda. Marilyn Desmond and Pamela Sheingorn, co-authors of Myth, Montage, and Visuality in Late Medieval Manuscript Culture: Christine de Pizan’s Epistre Othea, argue that the text and the images in the Epistre Othea interact to produce a unique feminine perspective on traditional mythological morality. Desmond and Sheingorn compare Pizan’s versions of myth with those found in the Ovide Moralisé, a moralized version of Ovid’s traditional mythological history published anonymously in the beginning of the fourteenth century and argue that Pizan’s versions of the many myths found in both the Othea and the Ovide Moralisé are unique in their feminine rhetoric.[18] An example of this type of rhetoric can be found in Pizan’s version of the wedding myth of Perseus and Andromeda. According to Desmond and Sheingorn, the traditional version of the myth focuses on Andromeda’s sexuality “within the patriarchal order” of marriage.[19] However, Pizan’s use of the illuminations within the Othea subverts the masculine agency of Perseus found in the text and changes the focus from Andromeda’s marriage to her confrontation with the beast that threatens her. [20]

Desmond and Sheingorn explain that Andromeda’s gaze represents a unique feminine sexual power:

. . . the Othea image depicts Andromeda without bonds and clothed rather than nude so that the visual economy denies the specularity of the received Ovidian tradition. Instead of being the object of the male gaze, Andromeda powerfully deploys her own gaze. [21]

Desmond and Sheingorn go on to argue that it is inversions of power like this one that “queer the Andromeda confronts the beast. “Epistre Othea.” Christine De Pizan: The Making of the Queen’s Manuscript.patriarchal and heterosexual assumptions”[22] that are inherent in the myth of Andromeda. Although there is definite merit in Desmond and Sheingorn’s application of feminist, queer and film theory to Pizan’s work, the most important aspect of Pizan’s rhetorical retelling of the Andromeda myth, and other similar myths within the Othea, has less to do with gender performativity or psychoanalytical representations within the manuscript and more to do with the way in which Pizan appealed to her audience though her rhetorical choices. All of the rhetorical choices within the version of the Epistre Othea found in the Queen’s Manuscript were consciously made by Pizan in a work of art specifically crafted to influence and curry favor with the most powerful woman in France, Queen Ysabel, for whom she created the Queen’s Manuscript. By producing an image for the Queen, which illustrates the female gaze of Andromeda as the primary factor motivating Perseus to battle the beast, Pizan is making an explicit argument for feminine power. According to Pizan’s visual rhetoric, she is arguing for the Queen to turn herself into an Andromeda figure who motivates the future generations of the French aristocracy. However, the tailoring of the images and text within Queen’s Manuscript to influence Ysabel is just one of the techniques that contributes to Pizan’s unique rhetorical voice.

Within these customized rhetorical works, Pizan also focuses a great deal on the important role of woman as teacher, not only for her own sake but also for the sake of future generations of women. The Epistre Othéa, and The Book of the Body Politic, one in French, the other in English, addressed to both her own son and to the Dauphin, emphasize her belief in herself as an influential feminine voice who passes on knowledge and non-traditional opinion to her young male pupils to influence their thinking as they become adults. Pizan responds to the stereotype of mother as simply a nursemaid and caregiver by re-envisioning her own role as mother and woman to include teacher and mentor. By changing this stereotype, Pizan is attempting to work “within the system,” while actualizing the latent power that exists in the role of mother as an influence on future generations.

Through her social position, it is evident that Pizan was an influential presence writing for a powerful audience. This leads one to question the validity of the image Pizan created for herself as a humble cloistered female. The fact that Pizan’s influence was a tangible reality seems to verify that her subservient image is merely a ploy that allowed her “subversive” femininity to operate within a patriarchal sphere. Whether a valid representation of herself as a subordinate or merely a ploy, it is still important to remember that Pizan’s femininity would not have any power without her hands on approach to the actual physical production of her texts.

Christine de Pizan was not only an author; she was also a publisher. According to the data collected by French Scholar Gilbert Ouy in his authoritative study, the Album Christine de Pizan, on Pizan’s publishing history, Pizan self-published many editions of her own work. Ouy has discovered over fifty extant manuscripts of Pizan’s work, which indicate that she directly oversaw the publishing process. Ouy, in his research, has discovered twenty manuscripts believed to have been handwritten by Pizan herself. This meticulous attention to the production of the manuscript by a woman is unique to Pizan, and it is especially impressive considering the time-consuming and tedious process of manuscript production in the Middle Ages. In his article “Christine de Pizan: A Publisher’s Progress,” Laidlaw briefly explains the process of manuscript production during the time of Pizan:

The preparation of a manuscript required careful planning. The work of transcribing the text or texts had to be allocated: where one scribe might copy a single work or a small collection as a unit, it might be more convenient, in the case of a large collection, to use more than one scribe and to divide the material into sections to be copied separately. The format had to be chosen, a choice, which depended on length of the work…and on the availability and relative cost of parchment of suitable dimensions. Layout had to be considered: not just the number of columns and lines to be ruled, but also how the text was to be set out and illustrated…The position and size of drawings or miniatures had to be fixed, and care taken to see that, as far as possible, they were not cramped by coming too close to the foot of a column or page. [23]

This description barely touches on the enormity of the task of publishing in the Middle Ages. The fact that Pizan was so involved indicates that she understood the importance of the physical appearance and visual rhetoric of her work in book form and that she wanted to make sure that each part of the production of her rhetorical creation went as planned. The production of these texts was Pizan’s way, as a woman living in a society that did not afford her equality, to gain influence, power and authority as a woman and as an author.

Hedeman, in her book The Royal Image, argues that the person she calls “the Master of The City of Ladies” [24] made important innovations in the way that manuscript miniatures were used as political tools in medieval manuscripts. According to Hedeman, the miniatures produced by “The Master of The City of Ladies” move away from the tradition of manuscript images being either carefully coordinated with the text to convey a specific political message to a specific ruler or coordinated to show a general political royalist theme to the court. Instead, The Master of The City of Ladies, according to Hedeman, directs their political message to the princes of the bloodline and the supporters of these princes.[25] Although Hedeman does not specifically discuss Pizan’s involvement in this innovation, when drawing a connection between Pizan’s focus on the Dauphin as the future of the French monarchy and her deep involvement with the physical production of her own manuscripts, it becomes clear that the innovations made by Hedeman’s “Master of The City of Ladies” might actually be innovations made by Pizan, herself. According to Hedeman, Pizan’s type of unique political commentary was so influential that it was repeated in the Grandes Chroniques, a royal compilation of French history. Hedeman points to several images within the Grandes Chroniques, which illustrate the importance of Queen Ysabel’s influence, as well as the importance of the education of Louis de Guyenne, the Dauphin. One of these images, folio 373 Of BR MS 3, dating from the second decade of the fifteenth century (P. 169), specifically illustrates the importance of the Dauphin by depicting John the Good presenting King Charles with the young heir: [26]

This image and others like it show the growing importance of Pizan’s themes and influence throughout French social history. Because her books were popular at the time they were written, Christine de Pizan purposefully maintained her image of being the passive female stereotype of “cloistered widow” in order to establish a voice that, though subtle, was filled with the potential for the development of a new feminine influence in a patriarchal society. It is important to note that Pizan was not trying to overthrow the system of government nor completely change a culture that had developed over thousands of years. Pizan may be likened to a saboteur or, rather, a double agent unconcealed and openly visible, seemingly satisfied with her station in life as a woman living within the confines of the misogynistic tradition. Cleverly using humility and self-deprecation, devices she honed during her very public debate with seasoned clerics over the moral merits of the thirteenth-century “bestseller” The Romance of the Rose, she works carefully within the parameters of the system to initiate change and to establish a feminine influence.

In the opening passages of many of her works, Pizan humbles herself at the feet of her patron (usually male) or generally belittles her womanhood by illustrating the faults and the stereotypes associated with her gender before going on to speak with compelling feminine authority. This strategy can be seen many times in the exchange between Pizan and Jean de Montreuil during the debate of The Romance of The Rose. In this debate, Pizan fights vehemently to expose the bias within the text and to renounce Montreuil’s appreciation of a text (The Romance of the Rose) that she views as “obscene” and slanderous towards women. She immediately employs this strategy in her opening argument when she still humbles herself before Montreuil. She writes:

Reverent and respectful greetings to you my lord provost of Lille, most cherished lord and master, wise in behavior, a lover of knowledge…from me, Christine de Pizan, a woman of untrained intellect and uncomplicated sensibility. May these factors in no way induce your wisdom to scorn the slightness of my arguments, but rather to consent to make up for their deficiency out of consideration for my feminine weakness.[28]

Pizan is fully aware that she is neither deficient nor weak in her femininity, but she uses humility as a rhetorical tool in order to lull her male audience into the belief that she remains subject to the superiority of the “dominant” sex, a strategy that Pizan employed successfully throughout the debate of The Romance of The Rose. The debate, itself, was a kind of public moral forum that had serious social and religious implications for its participants. The seriousness of this particular debate is demonstrated by the threat of excommunication that Jean Gerson levels against Pierre Col over the course of their exchange. However, while other critics of the Romance of the Rose were being threatened, Pizan’s expert use of persuasive rhetoric and ingratiation combined with Gerson’s awareness of Pizan’s already prominent social standing gained her Gerson’s praise.[29]

Her opponents in the debate clearly saw her as a threat, but the fact that Gerson supported her arguments effectively silenced them. Gerson was impressed with Pizan’s theologically well- grounded reasoning defending women in The Romance of the Rose, illustrating that when Christine de Pizan was working at her best, she remained a subversive force working against existing social mores, all the while reinforcing her influential authority through her textual production and dissemination of her work. Collectively, Pizan’s influence on figures of power through her role as teacher to future monarchs, her rhetorical talents and her creativity as a publisher and distributor make her not only a unique female in the Middle Ages but also a unique artist of any gender in any time period.

The connection between the textual production and influence of Christine de Pizan and that of Emily Dickinson might seem to be unlikely at first. On the surface, both women appear to have very little in common other than the fact that they were both female authors. However, upon closer examination, it becomes evident that Dickinson faced many of the same challenges that Pizan did while living and working as a female author in a patriarchal society. Dickinson, like Pizan, used the power that resides in personal textual production and selective distribution, coupled with an understanding of male ego, to her own distinct advantage. Although she wrote almost six hundred years after Pizan, Dickinson faced a society that stranded women in the same intellectual desert faced by the earlier poet. Like Pizan, Dickinson subverts these societal restraints in as many ways as she can. She does not marry or have children. She enters Mount Holyoke Female Seminary to live an independent and contemplative life with God, but then recants and leaves a formal religious cloister for another less structured but still reclusive life.

Alone in her self-imposed exile, Dickinson often spends her time questioning the life she chose to leave behind. Her writing moves back and forth between virtuous and dark, playful and meditative. As temperamental as her psyche seems to be, her writing is unique, and perhaps it is because she remains essentially cloistered and protected from prejudicial social influences that she remains true to her feminine self. The capricious quality of her poetic voice reflects an unfettered imagination that challenges the old poetic guard.

Much has been written about the gender and feminine voice of Dickinson’s poems, but less has been said about her feminine acumen as it relates to the production and publication of her individual poems and collected fascicles. David T. Porter, in his essay “Emily Dickinson: The Formative Years,” argues that Dickinson “contrived her encounters with the world”[30] because of her emotional vulnerability. This vulnerability might be a personal character trait brought on by any number of experiences. Nonetheless, the argument can be made that this state of emotional vulnerability is more manufactured than many critics give Dickinson credit for.

Porter bases much of his argument on the communiqué between Dickinson and Thomas Higginson that began in 1862 and continued intermittently for most of Dickinson’s life. Critic David T. Porter believes that because of her emotional vulnerability, Dickinson would use the letters as a way to “dispatch her voice to divert the clumsy world from that obsessively guarded precinct.”[31] Although Porter’s argument is compelling and does point out Dickinson’s carefully constructed public persona, it fails to connect this persona with anything other than Dickinson’s emotional vulnerability. This vulnerability does, in fact, exist, and it is the product of her female

identity in a society that does not afford her the luxury of speaking openly. However, emotional vulnerability does not have to completely negate a person’s ego and self-assuredness. When Dickinson asks Higginson for instructions by pleading, “Could you tell me how to grow [as a poet]?,”[32] She, like Pizan, uses self-deprecation as a means of control because she is already confident in her poetic ability. Dickinson affects the persona of an emotional and eager schoolgirl communicating with a male master in order to gain entrance into a conversation that is usually reserved for men. Much like Pizan, who almost always opens her works by humbling herself before her male audience, Dickinson approaches Higginson, a representation of a largely critical patriarchal audience, meekly. This is a clever tactic that she uses as a means to infiltrate and to examine the value system by which she is being judged. While both Dickinson and Pizan employ this rhetorical use of false humility, it is Pizan who uses illuminations and the power of association to introduce her persona. Dickinson takes a different approach and uses intrigue, mystique and imagination as the means to present herself.

Only a few letters into their correspondence, Higginson, a product of a society that refers to women as “the fair sex” and that judges women by physical beauty, asks Dickinson if she would be willing to send him a portrait of herself so that he “might form some impression of [his] enigmatical correspondent.”[33] Dickinson’s response to this arguably sexist inquiry was even more enigmatic. She asks:

Could you believe me without? I had no portrait, now, but am small, like the wren; and my hair is bold like the chestnut bur; and my eyes, like the sherry in the glass that the guest leaves. Would this do just as well? [34]

This description, which is both abstruse and slightly sexually suggestive, as well as a challenge to Higginson to believe in her without a picture, illustrates that Dickinson is conscious of the power of her written words, as well as of the power of the persona that she is creating. However, the feminine power of this constructed persona lies in her ability to control the production of her image in Higginson’s mind. If Dickinson were to send a portrait to Higginson, she would no longer have the power to control his imaginative process through her writing. While Pizan uses illuminations to manipulate her audience, Dickinson’s “illuminations” are more imaginative and ethereal. They play on the stereotypically masculine focus on the specifics of the physical, especially the female body. This male need for the physical or concrete is a problem that Dickinson encountered not only during her life but also after her death. The men who edited her poems and, in turn, influenced the public perception of her feminine persona were relentless in concretizing her poetry to make it conform to publishing standards.

Dickinson’s careful construction of a playful, mysterious persona continues throughout her exchange with Higginson and is illustrated by the way that she signed and packaged her letters. The use of the letter form as a vehicle for subtle female authority is something that both Dickinson and Pizan have in common. The letter form provides both of these authors with the means to present their particular voice in an unassuming manner, while influencing their specific audience with rhetoric tailored to the recipient’s particular agenda. In Dickinson’s very first letter to Higginson, she pleads with him to tell her if her verse “is alive.”[35] However, the question is all but occluded as she uses her rhetorical acumen and stimulates Higginson’s imagination by signing the letter nontraditionally and establishing her own enticing persona. Instead of a common closing, Dickinson wrote her name on a separate piece of paper, which she placed in a smaller envelope within the larger one. Higginson was intrigued; he writes, “this name was written—as if the shy writer wished to recede as far from possible from view—in pencil, not in ink.”[36] As it was for Christine de Pizan, in many of her letters to Jean de Montreuil during the debate of the Romance of the Rose, this construction of a modest feminine persona is essential to developing Dickinson’s feminine influence, as well as to her ability to operate within a patriarchal publishing system. As long as male society viewed her as charmingly demure and unassuming, Dickinson posed no threat to masculine authority.

The stereotype of Dickinson as female recluse is accurate. However, during her lifetime, Dickinson did manage to have at least ten of her poems published, predominately in The Springfield Daily Republican.[37] Unfortunately, these published poems were all subject to the control of an editor, and according to Dickinson, this was a disastrous mistake. Whether a protest or a ploy, in another one of her letters to Higginson, she writes, “I told you I did not print.”[38] However, in this same letter, she also enclosed a copy of “The Snake,” which is an earlier version of “A Narrow Fellow in The Grass.” When a version of this poem was printed in The Springfield Daily Republican, Dickinson is outraged by the insertion of a comma after the word “not” in the first stanza of the poem so that the printed version read, “You may have met Him— did you not, / His notice instant is,” as opposed to Dickinson’s preferred “You may have met Him— did you not / His notice instant is.”[39] Dickinson, herself, comments on this insertion with dramatic zeal in still another letter to Higginson where she explains:

Lest you meet my Snake and suppose I deceive it was robbed of me— defeated too of the third line by the punctuation. The third and fourth were one— I had told you I did not print- I feared you might think me ostensible.[40]

According to Martha Nell Smith in her article “Gender Issues in Textual Editing of Emily Dickinson,” the addition of this comma, a seemingly innocuous edit, robs the poem of its playfulness:

The comma separates ‘not’ from ‘notice’ spoiling the anaphoric pun. ‘Not,’ followed so quickly by ‘notice,’ with no pause underscored between, brings to mind ‘Did you note?’ On the other hand, the divisive punctuation discourages the punning and ambiguity made possible in its absence.”[41]

Dickinson’s protest seems to be directed more toward the editing process rather than her being “ostensible.” It is not so much the publication of her work that offends her. It is the modification of her technique and style that is most offensive. Astonishingly, even today, most published versions of this poem have a comma inserted after “not,” as if editors are still compelled to tell the female author to shape up and get in line with convention.

Another more dramatic example of the manipulation of Dickinson’s work again occurs in The Springfield Daily Republican version of “I Taste The Liquor Never Brewed.”[42] The original wording of the poem is “I taste a liquor never brewed –/ From Tankards scooped in Pearl –/ Not all the Frankfort Berries/ Yield such an Alcohol![43] The Republican version changes the last two lines to read, “Not Frankfort Berries yield the sense/ Such a delirious whirl!”[44] Unable to see the creativity in Dickinson’s free verse, the editors changed the poem to meet the poetic standards they deemed publishable. It is also important to note the controversial subject matter of Dickinson’s poem. Although the consumption of alcohol was a common occurrence during Dickinson’s lifetime, it was usually a social practice reserved for men. Even though Dickinson’s poem uses the idea of being drunk as a playful metaphor for her blissful interaction with nature, the openly intoxicated female speaker and the direct emphasis on alcohol in the first stanza may have shocked the editorial staff into forcing a content change.

Despite her protest to Higginson, there is no question that Dickinson desired to publish her poems. If she did not want to publish them, she would neither have contacted Higginson nor submitted her poems to The Springfield Daily Republican. Ultimately, it was her negative experience with the publishers’ editing process that stopped her from sending new pieces out into the world. This is an example of what Dickinson critic Vivian Pollak means when she argues that “Most of Emily Dickinson’s poetry…originates in frustration.”[45] In contrast to Pizan, Dickinson did not have an influence over a powerful audience. The publication of her work did not add to her authority. In fact, publishing publicly took authority away from her own unique and experimental form and voice. Without the capacity to control the unrestricted editing of her work, she turned to private publishing.

Undaunted and determined to have an accurate presentation of her poetic voice, Dickinson created her own manuscripts with a painstaking attention to detail, resulting in manuscripts or “fascicles” that are artifacts of beauty which rival, in their own way, the brilliant manuscripts that came from Pizan’s scriptorium. Smith, a Dickinson scholar, describes Dickinson’s manuscripts in elegant detail:

To see the quiet weave of the fine linen stationery and the pinholes where those leaves had been so carefully threaded together to make the fascicles, the forty or more manuscript books she folded and tucked and left in her drawer (or chest) for posterity, and to see the poems written and rewritten, sometimes even revised after they had been carefully copied onto these sometimes edged in gold leaf, sometimes embossed (with a capitol building or a queen’s head or flower) pages. . . then [she] lovingly laid the little books of lyric away in a place where they were sure to be discovered. [46]

From Smith’s description, it is clear that Dickinson loved her poems and took great care in determining the way in which the manuscripts of her poetry were to be presented to a future audience, while purposely maintaining a discreet distance from an unappreciative contemporary public. These artistically produced manuscripts illustrate Dickinson’s concern for her poetic legacy and her eye towards the future. They are the work of an author who displays the vision and confidence in her poetic talent to see a time when her work will be appreciated on a more sophisticated level.

Upon closer examination of the small details of Dickinson’s correspondence with Higginson, allusions to fame, along with an initial hope for a wider audience become evident. One of the most direct of these references is seen in one of Dickinson’s first letters to Higginson where she writes:

Two editors of journals came to my father’s house this winter, and asked me for my mind, and when I asked them ‘why’ they said I was penurious, and they would use it for the world.[47]

These two men essentially accuse Dickinson of being stingy with her work because she does not disseminate it into the world. In this light, it is entirely possible that there was more demand for Dickinson’s work than has originally been thought. However, if this is the case, it is not clear why her work was not more widely published until after her death. The answer may lie in the lack of respect for feminine creative power that Dickinson encountered with her few experiences in the publishing world.

Paradoxically, although the seed of her personal feminine power lies in the production of the texts themselves, this power cannot blossom until the texts interact with society. The idea that Dickinson deliberately held off from publishing her work after her experiences with the editors from The Springfield Daily Republican indicates that she did not want her work bastardized or changed in any way. The only way that she could maintain the integrity of her work was by controlling the publishing process itself. Unlike Pizan, Dickinson did not have the patronage of a queen or a scriptorium at her disposal. Despite her moderately wealthy lifestyle, because she was a woman, she was not going to receive money to self-publish her poetry.

Therefore, Dickinson created a unique means of thrifty publication by simply binding her own books and by sending her poems in letters directly to her audience. These efforts allowed Dickinson to maintain the initial control over her textual production, unfettered by the traditions of a patriarchal society, and also allowed her the freedom to explore new rhetorical options in her work that would not have been available to her if she had published traditionally.

Dickinson, in effect, was her own publishing company. Poet Susan Howe, in her analysis of the Amherst Manuscript, illustrates through close textual analysis of The Sea Said ‘Come’ To The Brookthe freedom that Dickinson’s “self-published” works afforded her. The short poem reads:

The Sea said

“Come” to the Brook—

The Brook said “Let me grow”— The Sea said “Then you will be a Sea—

“I want a / Brook— Come now”

The Sea said “Go” to the Sea—

The Sea said “I am he

You cherished”— “Learned Waters—

Wisdom is stale to Me.[48]

Although in some ways this poem is fairly simple, in the self-published transcription of the work, Dickinson used her editorial authority to bestow even greater emotional meaning to her poem by shaping the written text to mimic her subjective content. As Howe explains it, “ . . . the S’s are shaped like waves and the T’s formed to resemble choppy seas.”[49] This type of visual textual experimentation is well ahead of its time and is unique to Dickinson. It remains unique only because she had the opportunity to publish her work without the editorial bias of rhetorical masculine convention. There are other handwritten versions of this poem in the collection at Amherst that were sent to various recipients over the course of Dickinson’s lifetime. Some of these, such as the version received by Higginson in 1872, a part of what is now known as the Franklin Variorum collection[50],  change the lineation even more drastically:

The lineation of this original version reads as follows:

The Sea said “Come” to the Brook—

The Brook said “let me Grow”— The Sea said “Then you will be A sea—

I want a Brook— “Come now”

The Sea said “go” to the Sea— The Sea said “I am he

you cherished”

Learned Waters Wisdom  is stale to me [51]

Dickinson’s changes to the lineation in this version greatly affect the lyricism of the poem, especially in the penultimate line where the break causes the reader to pause on the word “is” before approaching the conclusion of “stale to me” rather than on the word “stale” as seen in the previous version. However, the experience of these poems in their primary form is completely alien to most of the versions that readers encounter. The original version of this poem illustrates that Dickinson maintained careful control over her poetic line, while the most widely published versions of this poem, edited without Dickinson’s consent, present the poem in a much more traditional form that has been edited down from its initial seventeen lines to eight, or even four lines. Dickinson’s fragmentary style has been abandoned in favor of a much more simplistic lineation, and the initial message of the poem is all but lost:

The Sea said “Come” to the Brook, The Brook said “Let me grow!”

The Sea said “Then you will be a Sea— I want a brook, Come now! [52]

In effect, despite a limited audience, self-publishing allowed Dickinson to assert the power of her feminine creativity, and Dickinson, like Pizan, was aware of the power that personal textual production afforded her. In what must have been a difficult decision, Dickinson chose to self-publish in order to maintain the integrity of her poetry. She purposely withheld her work from mass publication to maintain control over her texts until her death, after which her editorial approval was no longer possible.

After her death, Dickinson’s work was published widely, and she achieved the fame denied her during her lifetime. However, fame, especially for a woman, often comes with a price. Many of Dickinson’s poems continued to be altered. Even Robert N. Linscott, a contemporary editor and publisher, states in his edition of Dickinson’s work that many of her poems are edited because “Emily Dickinson’s erratic punctuation and lavish use of capital letters were changed to conform to accepted usage, and occasional liberties were taken with the text in order to correct grammatical vagaries or to clarify rhyme and meaning.”[53] This incredibly understated and condescending description of the editing process that was applied to Dickinson’s poems is still an avowed criticism present today, and it is a gross insult to Dickinson’s genius. The changes made to “The Sea Said ‘Come’ To The Brook,” are just one of the ways in which Dickinson’s work, in many cases, was stripped of its excitement and power. Furthermore, any indications of subversive feminine independent thought or any consideration of women as being vital participants in society were expunged from the text. Pronouns were changed from feminine to masculine to construct more socially heteronormative relationships, sometimes with absurd results. In a letter from Dickinson describing time she spent with her sister-in-law, the pronoun “she” was changed to “he” without much forethought: “I shant see him [her] this morning, because [s]he has to bake Saturday, but [s]he’ll come this afternoon, and we shall read your letter together, and talk of how soon you’ll be here.”[54] Changes such as this truly illustrate the absurd way in which Dickinson’s voice was amended after her death so that her work could be consumed by a large-scale audience. It is clear by the many different handwritten editions of Dickinson’s poems that are available in her archives that Dickinson was a writer who was concerned with the subtlest aspects of her poetic production. Poems such as “We Play at Paste” and even the famous “A Bird Came Down The Walk” have different hand written editions, each with subtle differences. However, the originally published versions of both of these poems, as well as many others, include changes that eradicate Dickinson’s originality and creativity.

Ironically, Dickinson’s poetic voice is so enticing, it screams for publication. On the other hand, it is so unique that it rankles the conventional creative psyche of publishers, editors, and scholars. In the end, by not mass publishing her poetry, Dickinson achieved her goal of introducing a uniquely feminine voice to the literary world, even if it took until well after her death for her uniqueness to be valued. If Dickinson had not controlled the publication of her own work, future generations would have never had the opportunity to understand her unique creativity. Without her self-published fascicles her original voice would have been edited beyond recognition.

Christine de Pizan and Emily Dickinson are writers from different time periods who were faced with very similar challenges. Their paramount challenge as female authors was living and working in a social structure that was repressive toward women. However, both women were resourceful and were able to work within their respective cultures, ingeniously producing their own texts. They both employed similar rhetorical tools to build authorial personae that allowed them to express a feminine power of control as the transformers of their art and creators of a rhetorically feminine literary voice, a moniker that is ironic since so much social emphasis was placed on the inferiority in their biological role and duties as mother and creator by their male counterparts. Dickinson and Pizan responded to this oppressive perspective by authoring texts that are unique to their social situation. Pizan, through a work such as the Queen’s Manuscript, takes advantage of the stature of her audience (Queen Ysabel) and also uses the stature gained through association with the queen to assure her own personal power within the patriarchal male construct to become a voice of reason and change for women in medieval France and beyond.

Conversely Dickinson, by consciously abstaining from traditional publishing, pulls away from popular society in order to ultimately achieve a feminine voice that is uncorrupted by the pressures of patriarchal publishing standards. Though living in different times and addressing different audiences, each of these women endeavor to control the publication and dissemination of her own works in defiance of a patriarchal culture, and in so doing, shape and empower the ideal of a feminine literary voice for generations to come.

This essay was first published in The International Journal of the Book, vol.14, and won the International Award for Excellence from the Books Publishing and Libraries Research Network.  


[1] Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 103.

[2] Betsy Erkkila, “Toward a Theory of Female Poetic Influence,” American Literature 56, no. 4 (1984): 542.

[3] Helen R. Deese, “Caroline Healey Dall and the American Women’s Movement, 1848-75,” American Nineteenth Century History 3, no. 3 (2002): 2–4.

[4] Jamie S. Crouse, “If They Have a Moral Power,” 260.

[5] Jerome M. Loving, “Whitman’s Idea of Women,” Whitman, Sex, and Gender, ed. Geoffrey Sill (New York: Walt Whitman Assoc., 1989), 26.

[6] Christine de Pizan, Debate of the Romance of the Rose, ed. David F. Hult (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 118.

[7] Gilbert Ouy, Christine McArdle Reno, Inès Villela-Petit, Olivier Delsaux, and Tania van Hemelryck, Album Christine de Pizan (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2012), 135–6.

[8] It is by far the longest text in the manuscript, extending from pages FOLIOS 288 to 374.

[9] I will henceforth refer to this text as The Queen’s Manuscript.

[10] Pizan and Brown-Grant, The Book of the City of Ladies, 5.

[11] Kevin Brownlee, “Widowhood, Sexuality, and Gender in Christine De Pizan,” Romanic Review 86, no. 2 (1995): 339.

[12] Michel Pastoureau, Blue: The History of a Color (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001) 52.

[13] Pizan and Brown-Grant, The Book of the City of Ladies, 7.

[14] Lori J. Walters, “Signatures and Anagrams in the Queen’s Manuscript,” (London, British Library, Harley MS 4431), 1.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Christine De Pizan, The Selected Writings of Christine De Pizan: New Translations, Criticism, ed. Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski, trans. Blumenfeld-Kosinski and Kevin Browlee (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1997), 203. Henceforth this work will be indicated as SW, followed by a comma and page number(s).

[17] James Laidlaw, ed., Christine De Pizan: The Making of the Queen’s Manuscript (Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Library, n.d.), 1.

[18] Jacqueline Weever, Chaucer Name Dictionary (New York: Garland, 1988), 1.

[19] Marilynn Desmond and Pamela Sheingorn, Myth, Montage, and Visuality in Late Medieval  Manuscript Culture: Christine De Pizan’s “Epistre Othea” (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, 2003), 137.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Laidlaw, Christine De Pizan: The Making of the Queen’s Manuscript, 38.

[23] Anne D. Hedeman, The Royal Image Illustrations of the Grandes Chroniques De France, 1274–1422 (Berkeley: University of California, 1991), 153.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Grandes Chroniques de France, Bibliothèque Royale, MS 3, fol. 373.

[26] de Pizan, Debate of the Romance of the Rose, 50.

[27] Ibid., 226.

[28] David T. Porter, “Emily Dickinson: The Formative Years,” The Massachusetts Review 6, no. 3 (1965): 559.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Emily Dickinson, Selected Poems & Letters of Emily Dickinson, ed. Robert N. Linscott (New York: Anchor Books, 1959), 9.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid., 5.

[34] Ibid., 6.

[35] Martha N. Smith, “Gender Issues in Textual Editing of Emily Dickinson,” Women’s Studies Quarterly 19, no. 3/4 (1991): 78.

[36] Ibid., 79.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Emily Dickinson, “Dickinson/Higginson Correspondence: Early 1866 (Letter 316),” ed. Martha N. Smith (Dickinson Electronic Archives, n.d.).

[39] Smith, “Gender Issues in Textual Editing of Emily Dickinson,” 79.

[41] Helen McNeil, Emily Dickinson (London: Pantheon Press, 1986), 33.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Thomas W. Ford, Heaven Beguiles the Tired: Death in the Poetry of Emily Dickinson (Alabama: University of Alabama Press), 32.

[42] Vivian R. Pollak, Dickinson: The Anxiety of Gender (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986), 9.

[43] Smith, “Gender Issues in Textual Editing of Emily Dickinson,” 81–3.

[44] Dickinson, Selected Poems & Letters of Emily Dickinson, 7.

[45] Transcribed from the Amherst Manuscript.

[46] Susan Howe, “Women and Their Effect in the Distance,” Ironwood 28 (1986): 62.

[47] Emily Dickinson, The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Variorum Edition, ed. R. W. Franklin (Cambridge: Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1998), 38–9.

[48] Emily Dickinson, The Sea Said Come To The Brook. MS. Am. 1093 (Boston Public Library, Rare Books and Manuscripts Collection, n.d.), 1–2.

[49] Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson With an Introduction By Her Niece Martha Dickinson Bianchi (Boston: Little, Brown, 1924), 1.

[50] Dickinson, Selected Poems & Letters Of Emily Dickinson, 27.

[51] Smith, “Gender Issues in Textual Editing of Emily Dickinson,” 84.

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About the Author:

Keith Kopka is the Managing Director of the Creative Writing Program at Florida State University. His poetry and criticism have recently appeared in The International Journal of The Book, Mid-American Review, New Ohio Review, Ninth Letter, and others. Kopka was a finalist for the 2016 National Poetry Series and won the 2017 International Award for Excellence from the Books, Publishing & Libraries Research Network. He is also the co-founder and the Director of Operations for Writers Resist, an Assistant Editor at Narrative Magazine, a recipient of a Chautauqua Arts Fellowship, and a Vermont Studio Center poetry fellow.

Keith presents on Christine de Pizan and Emily Dickinson: Feminine Power through Textual Production from 15:20-17:00 at this year’s International Conference of the Book held at Imperial College London on 7 July 2017.