Publication by 2008 DPDF Animal Studies Fellow Aaron Shackelford.
Dickinson’s poems and letters include a menagerie of creatures. From her beloved dog Carlo to the birds flying through her garden, Dickinson’s animals provide a rich opportunity to study her descriptions of external objects as understood by human perception. This essay uses the debates surrounding anthropomorphism in Dickinson’s time to provide a framework for understanding her own use of the human to describe the animal. For generations, scientists found that human concepts and emotions could productively aid in their study of animal life and activity. Charles Darwin, for example, uses anthropomorphism in order to describe his observations on the Galapagos Islands. Yet the emergence of Darwin’s theories helped accelerate a shift away from these approaches toward the stance of scientists such as Louis Agassiz, who believed that humans could perceive and describe animals in a way that effaced an anthropocentric bias. Dickinson’s own poetry evinces skepticism about both sides of this debate. Her work demonstrates the impossibility of eliminating this anthropocentric approach as we observe the external world. At the same time, these poems unsettle the reliability of the very human perceptions we cannot escape. This dual uncertainty is common in many of Dickinson’s anthropomorphized descriptions, and it makes her animal poems a revelatory if often overlooked scene of her contemplations on human knowledge and consciousness itself.