Emily & Isabel; Literary Heroines in Dreams


Many women writers I know, and not just those of my generation, still struggle with giving themselves permission to write, which is tantamount to permission to believe in themselves. It’s true those of us who came of age in the sixties and seventies with all the motifs of liberation, still looked for men to complete them, And we wondered if we could really speak our truth. Since I was fascinated by my dreams and knew that I found it intimidating to compete with men, I hoped to gain more confidence and courage through Jungian psychotherapy.

One dream I had during my analysis astonished me with its sad but sacred beauty. It showed me how I strove to believe I had talent to write poetry but unconsciously identified myself with sacrifice, even martyrdom. At the time of the dream I had been reading Judith Farr’s biography

of Emily Dickinson. Emily had an overbearing father whom she referred to as “Vesuvius at Home,” yet despite him, she wanted to present her work to the world. However, well before the end of her life as most of us know, Dickinson was virtually a recluse. She retired to her room garbed

in her white dresses, writing her poetry, as poetry is often written, in solitude. She stopped trying to get the attention of editors and stopped sending her work to her mentor at The Atlantic Monthly.

I believe by then she had a sense of her own genius and eventually reconciled herself with the circumstances that kept her from making her mark on her Victorian world. Perhaps she knew how far ahead of her time she was. After she died and her 1789 poems were discovered so beautifully packaged, and perhaps deliberately prepared for publication, of course, she was appropriately, if posthumously, admired, studied and praised. Her enigmatic inner life has been a subject for scholars ever since.

Earlier in her life Emily had submitted poems to Samuel Bowles, the editor of The Springfield Republic. Not only did he reject them but Bowles discouraged her from writing poetry at all. She also corresponded with T.W. Higgison, the editor of The Atlantic in Boston, who became a kind of friend to her. Higgison was totally befuddled, if intrigued, by her writing. Captivated, but suspicious of her innovations, her slant rhymes, her unconventional punctuation, he cautiously began a correspondence with her. Her letters were especially coy and displayed her curious originality. Higgison and others who did have an opportunity to meet her socially have all attested to the
insufferable intensity of her personality. It is evident that Emily had been wounded emotionally by someone with whom she had fallen in love, possibly on a trip to visit family friends in Philadelphia or a visitor to her home where her father, a state senator, often entertained various dignitaries. It seems she corresponded with this man, and there are several spellbinding letters where she addresses him as “Master” and tells him of her feelings often in muted jokes and coy posturing: “I’ve got a tomahawk in my side but that don’t hurt much.”

Teaching her work and reading her letters undoubtedly provoked my dream. Whoever “Master” really was, and whatever projections he invited, it was Emily’s coquettish, half-plaintive, self-deprecation that was the right hook for my unconscious. And I had issues with my own bigger-than-life father as well.

I was in an art museum in my dream and turned a corner into a room where there was a huge, gorgeous, “alabaster” (one of Emily’s words) statue of Emily Dickinson crucified on a cross. She was partially alive but also a statue, i.e. to say, “frozen” in stone. In the dream I take her down from the cross and hold her in my arms with great compassion and love.

In awe of the image in my dream, I dropped by a local Catholic church to look at the Stations of the Cross. I was aware that the dream adopted the posture of Michelangelo’s Pieta and that one of the stations reflects that image. Interestingly, it is the thirteenth station where Christ is taken down and held in the arms of his mother, which corresponded with the image in my dream. The dream had come during the period in my therapy when my analyst Noni, had been asking me about the numbers thirteen and fourteen that continued to show up in my dreams. Myown family trauma occurred when I was thirteen and fourteen and my father had a breakdown. Adolescence is a challenging time for most of usand I recall overwhelming emotional turmoil in response to my father’s emotional turmoil. A few years later my father died suddenly and a psychological complex, my complicated relationship to the opoosite sex, was born at that time.

After having the dream, I wrote a poem using some of Emily’s language from her letters to “Master.” Certain poems were addressed to Master as well. His specific identity has never been known with certainty, although most critics name the married Reverend Charles Wadsworth.
Emily’s three famous letters to Master include phrases broken with dashes. As in her poems, the style is beyond her era, almost contemporary, her method obtuse, and her meanings oblique. Yet we can recognize from the excerpt below the voice of someone who is suffering from repudiated expressions of love:


God made me—Master-— didn’t be—myself. I don’t know how

it was done. He built the heart in me—Bye and bye it outgrew me–

and like the little mother–with the big child I got tired holding him.

I heard of a thing called “Redemption”—which rested men and

women. You remember I asked you for it—you gave me something else.

I forgot the Redemption and was tired–no more— am older—tonight, Master—but the love is the same—so
are the moon and the crescent . . . (Farr 204)

Have you the Heart in your breast—Sir—is it set like mine—a little to

the left–has it the misgiving—if it wake in the night-perchance-itself

to it-a timbrel is it—itself to it a tune? (Farr 212)


Like many of her readers, I found the letters puzzling, beautiful, disturbing and heartbreaking. And I was in awe of the image in my dream of the smooth white structure, its austere beauty. Moreover, the dramatic statement of a “crucified woman” poet stunned me to the core. My dream seemed to conflate Dickinson with Jesus Christ. The dream gaveme a deep respect for the ingenious way that the human unconscious will draw together the combinations of assorted data and arrange suggestive symbols. I realized the unconscious often exaggerates to get our attention, but I never doubted that my unconscious knew so much more than I did and that it had much to teach me.

Reworking the images in the intuitive act of writing the poem helped me feel them consciously. I could have compassion for those feelings and then move away from the martyrdom with which I unconsciously identified. After having the dream, my own poem came on its own easily
and afforded me relief and satisfaction. It became a made thing outside of me, rather than ill feelings festering within.

Consciously, I would never have thought of grafting myself onto Emily Dickinson. She has been a difficult poet for me always; I felt her poems were often over my head. What this dream did was choose to suggest the size of my ambition and show me how I really felt about my

relationship with my father and the other men in my life. Writing the poem helped me release these victimized judgments. I wanted her own language in my poem and readers familiar with her work will recognize the snatches from her letters and some vocabulary from her poems:

I Dream The Passion of Emily

after the Master Letters

In the museum

under a great basilica—

the crucifixion of Emily Dickinson.

I lift her off

her alabaster cross,

an image of the Church’s 13th station.

Holding the small-boned wren

of her body in my arms,

we form a pale Pieta.

Through a hole

in her white dress

where the evidence of the spear would be,

my fingers find the wound

of Master’s tomahawk.

And I know white sustenance, know

what was sacrificed

for the poems tied

in fascicles, disinterred

from the father’s house.

I lift her fallen hand,

read the palm,

infinity’s pencil,

promise of circumference

yet to come. Loose

beneath her bridal veil,

the sherry-colored hair

overruns the crown

of buttercups and daisies.

Her heart is set

to the lower left

just like she said—

a full moon

folding to a crescent.

But the love is the same.


Emily’s poetry is cosmic, concerned with higher consciousness, death and transcendence. In a puritanical era, she eschewed institutionalized religion openly and yet her sensibility is entirely spiritual. I believe that by the end of her life she understood that she was ahead ofher time. Many readers are spellbound by her baffling words and I can’t claim to fully understand many of her poems. Yet it’s as if the language and form together create something beyond words and we are
drawn to reread the poems over and over. Several poems lead me to suspect she had commerce with other dimensions and sensory access to thespirit world.

I had identified with Emily unconsciously. Though we lived in different centuries, our role as women inhibited us. Emily was infinitely more brilliant, talented and mysterious than I am. But my
unconscious chose some of her posturing as a self-reflection. I was honored to have been gifted with this dream, honored by its stunning visual, and the fact that I know that all the images in the dream are aspects of myself, my unconscious projections as well as my ego self, remains. That I was the crucified one was a concept I understood. But there was also the message that I was tending to my own dying self, holding her in my arms, so-to-speak, which may have been a statement about seeking therapy and honoring my unconscious calling.

Isabel Archer

Both in and out of analysis, I have had prescient dreams. One of these dreams took three years to prove relevant. It boggled my intelligence and threw my left brain for a loop to fathom just how my
unconscious registered the significance of this dream when real life circumstances had not yet played it out. Furthermore, it seems entirely by accident that I discovered the dream’s revelation. I have my analystto thank for her advice. Here is the dream:


I’m working behind the counter at my bookstore. A customer

has requested that I get down a big art book that’s on display

on one of the higher shelves. I stand on the stool and lift the

book down. It weights a ton—is heavy and huge, about two feet square.

When I lay it on the counter I see it is “The Portrait of a Lady” by

Henry James. It has a picture on its cover that I recognize from the Penguin

Edition paperback, which is a beautiful painting of a woman by

John Singer Sargent. The customer wants to buy it. I notice the book

costs $14.00.


I thought the dream was simply day residue because I had unpacked a box of penguin clasics the day before. As I was shelving them, I admired the many classical and modern paintings which the series’ editors have chosen to replicate on their covers. My analyst, Noni, explained to me that even “day residue,” or the quotidian hum-drum banality of our daily lives which later shows up in our dreams, is selected specifically by the unconscious, not because of it’s recent
occurrence but for its symbolic content.


We were not surprised to see that the book cost $14 as the numbers thirteen and fourteen had been showing up in my dreams for a while now and connected with the age I was during my adolescent trauma. The pricetag of the book in the dream was not logical, as a big art book is
usually a lot more than $14.00. (This was years before I was familiar with Barnes & Noble’s remainders.) Noni asked if I had read James’ novel, The Portrait of a Lady. I had not. Our session time was up; I stood to leave. As she walked me to the door, very quietly and casually, she suggested I read the book.


The next day I took it home. All five hundred something small print pages with the gorgeously serpentine, Jamesian sentences that went on and one, clause after clause like intricate vines containing an English manor house. It took me about a month to read and I did love story
about Isabel Archer, a young—if naive—wealthy American woman who comes to Europe to see her relatives and eventually marries an Italian man without any money to back up his aristocratic title. Isabel discovers at the end of the story that her husband and the woman who has become

Isabel’s best friend had an intimate relationship and have hoodwinked her into supporting their child. Isabel is both pensive and adventurous.She takes a risk marrying this morally questionable man and ends up quite unhappy. Once she realizes she has been manipulated, she must

decide how to react. She maintains her dignity and one assumes in the end, although she understands her mistake in choosing this unfortunate marriage, she reconciles herself to her fate, or in other words, in her time and place, behaves like a respectable “lady.”


I could find nothing in the situation of the story to relate to myself except for certain characteristics in Isabel’s personality, her Pollyanna attitude of trust in others and the scope of her psychological
self-probing. She is devastated by her double betrayal, but her will and some deep, residual confidence, helps her keep going.


Noni and I could go nowhere with the dream. Yet strangely enough, three years later, a confession from my best friend suggested strange parallels to the novel. I too, had been deceived, but preferred to look forward rather than back. I was no longer in therapy though I called
Noni to tell her. I was already divorced and on my own, and seeing that Iwas not trapped in the nineteenth century like Isabel, I had escaped the situation which had betrayed me. I was angry however, that once again, like discovering the true circumstances behind my father’s premature death, I learned the truth about something concerning me that was purposely kept from me by the two people with whom I was closest at the time. When my anger evaporated, as for me anger inevitably does, I suppose you could say I remained a “lady” by forgiving my betrayers. Yet

this incident energized me and motivated my decision to move out of the small town atmosphere of Maine to Boston.


There is a long scene in James’ novel where Isabel is sitting alone by the fire and thinking through her predicament. Years earlier I had
underlined this passage in my book:

. . . she should some day be happy again. It couldn’t be

she was to live only to suffer; To live only to suffer – only to feel the

injury of life repeated and enlarged – it seemed to her she was too

valuable, too capable, for that.

Henry James


I doubt if I was consciously relating Isabel and myself at the time I marked that text, although it’s possible I was attracted to the idea of psychologically moving on from a position of injury. What I found most truly bizarre then—was that my unconscious mind managed to deliver up
the information it had stored quite subtly long before the facts became clear. Nowadays I don’t find the idea at all odd. I just continue to be impressed by the impersonal, unconscious psyche and its wikepediac specificity.


It appears that the unconscious extends beyond our concept of linear time. Jung himself even defined the dream as “athe small hidden door in the deepest and most intimate sanctum of the soul, which opens to that primeval cosmic night that was soul log before there was conscious ego
and will be soul far beyond what a conscious ego could ever reach.” This quote confirms for me what I had already suspected, that with the right induction, our conscious intuition could have access to information outside our usual boundaries. My fascination with the unconscious

knowledge we possess continued to grow. In joining a training dream group, I discovered methods that would facilitate that access.


I find dreams and poems to be similar in that they both utilize unconscious material. We are often confused as to why we would dream a certain dream, yet as we feel our repressed emotional knowledge, we can deepen our understanding of the unconscious.


When we write poetry, we put ourselves into a theta brain state where the unconscious arises and helps us “hear” the words. Often we don’t know where we are going and are surprised by what we say. After several drafts, we can then work the material with our left brain, finding the
right form for the poem so it yields its message in a manner that seems to evade paraphrase. Poems speak so that particular words and their nuances rub against one another in order for feeling to arise in the reader. Literary dreams offer a whole other body of meaning to contend

with. I couldn’t have willed either one of these dreams. But by their

references alone, they brought me deeper connections to myself.




Farr, Judith, The Passion of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992.

James, Henry, The Portrait of a Lady. New York: Modern Library Paperback Edition, 2002.

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