"Bumblebees and other nations": insects as symbols in Emily Dickinson's poetry

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1973

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Abstract

Emily Dickinson's many references to insects are not the result of accident or whim, but of policy. In denoting times of day or seasons of the year, she uses insects literally. She gives them a symbolic function by stressing particular characteristics of appearance or behavior and drawing parallels between these characteristics and human situations. The bee is the most versatile of Dickinson's poetic insects. She usually presents bees as masculine figures and associates them with springtime. They are exuberant, sensual, uninhibited, and often intoxicated. Yet even in their excesses, they remain innocent; they are unthinking and thus exempt from the fearful knowledge of sin, death, and judgment that haunts the poet herself. Summer is the season for butterflies. They are both fragile, spiritualized aristocrats and sturdy adventurers in realms denied to living humans. Unlike the earthy fly, which represents everyday life and the fact of mortality, Dickinson's butterfly is a seeker after the higher truths of art and religion. The cricket is Dickinson's emblem for autumn, the austere season preliminary to winter and death. Crickets announce the coming of the end, but their song is an elegy, not a threat or a wail of despair. The cricket poems, which Dickinson wrote rather late in her life, substitute "control" for the "escape" motifs so prominent in her earlier writing. Insects are "nature’s people." Sometimes they only serve as details in Dickinson's pictures of the human world; sometimes they represent that world in miniature. Dickinson's insect symbols help her to dramatize her emotional responses, conflicts, and process of growth.

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Dickinson, Emily,--1830-1886--Criticism and interpretation.

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