Amatory strains: Erotic love in the poetry of Emily Dickinson and Christina Rossetti

K. Linnea Takacs, Fordham University


Much has been generated about Dickinson 's and Rossetti's creative and female natures that is apocraphal, mistakenly equating their self-imposed seclusion with a renunciation of life. To the contrary, they are not "spinster recluses." Their poetry signals that they have desires and drives, just as aware of love's carnality as its essence. At times, they outwardly deny physical love, but they do so for a variety of reasons: they cannot or will not give up their independence, but they cannot give in to their own sexual needs. Yet their poetry indicates that they are fully cognizant of these needs. Recent feminist criticism, especially French theorizing of l'ecriture feminine or "writing in the feminine," has done much to reinvest the poetry of Rossetti and Dickinson with rich multiplicity. While modern poets such as Adrienne Rich and Denise Levertov consciously strive to "write in the feminine," their precursors Rossetti and Dickinson were wary of making art out of their lives and their bodies. Yet their poetry evinces intense sexual natures--though discretely and decorously conveyed. Dickinson's interests are more personal and more modestly exposed. She is interested in human mannerisms and modes of dress; she notices female figures--the sexual nuances in a woman's movements or in the way her clothing fits. At the same time she describes coy, sexually explicit courting--and mating behaviors. Because of her modesty, her descriptions of sexual liaisons in nature are more explicitly erotic than her human situations. Rossetti is more interested in socially unsanctioned sexual relationships. She is most concerned about the Victorian woman's dilemma in fulfilling sexual desire--of her entrapment by society's "double standard." Because sexual relationships fail in Rossetti's inequitable social setting, her tone is often bitter. Yet, at times she can shift her focus to limited possibilities for sexual success--most specifically mother-child bonding. Although their paths of discovery differ considerably, both poets move toward the same conclusion. They both long for and yet reject human sexuality, often project that untapped passion onto God, and in so doing create a telling poetry of women's sexual energies.

Subject Area

Comparative literature|American literature|British and Irish literature

Recommended Citation

Takacs, K. Linnea, "Amatory strains: Erotic love in the poetry of Emily Dickinson and Christina Rossetti" (1988). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI8818481.