When I state myself, as the Representative of the Verse — it does not mean — me — but a supposed person. Emily Dickinson to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, July 1862.
Emily Dickinson sent this cryptic statement to her mentor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, as the United States entered its second year of civil war. This paper aims to decode the statement, by paying special attention to that innocuous word ‘supposed’. What is a ‘supposed’ person? How does Dickinson go about supposing them? What lives do they live in verse? The paper will offer two routes through this problem. First it will investigate Dickinson’s interest in dramatic monologue. Her poems have attracted the label of lyric, but this is not a truth inherent, and we should be confident in pursuing their relationship with other modes. If a supposed person is something like a character, how far are Dickinson’s poems from those of her heroes, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning? The second route is towards the Civil War. Dickinson wrote this letter to a Higginson away at war, where she feared he had become ‘impossible’. This part of the paper will argue that ‘supposing’ was a necessary talent for civilians waiting for news of combatant relatives or friends: with no guarantee of survival, soldiers had to be imagined alive. This kind of supposing found its way into Dickinson’s poems in the voices of soldiers. The paper will end by trying to draw the two routes together, proposing, via an encounter with Shakespeare, that Dickinson’s poems can be read as the monologues of impossible people.