Queer Appropriations

Shakespeare's Sonnets and Dickinson's Love Poems


  • Páraic Finnerty University of Portsmouth


While it is expected that nineteenth-century love poetry would engage with Shakespeare's Sonnets, considering their status and pervasive appeal at the time in Anglo-American culture, this paper puts forward the case for Emily Dickinson's specific borrowings from these poems. More specifically, within the context of their afterlife, it argues that the Sonnets provided the American poet with an authoritative and, at the same time, controversial resource for her construction of love. It examines Dickinson's use of a vocabulary of aristocratic and economic tropes, love triangles, imagery of light and darkness, physical beauty and erotic multiplicity, which she would have identified as Shakespearean. His unconventional sonnets, it will be suggested, offered Dickinson a means of validating the traditionally feminine position of powerlessness within the discourse of love, of representing female desire for a male figure, and of constructing poems that connote same-sex love. Like the Sonnets, Dickinson's love poems are queer: They unsettle repressive categories of gender and sexuality and make possible the signification of same-sex passion. This paper continues current discussion of the queer afterlives of both writers as an antidote to the intrusive and spurious biographical readings of their brief, repetitious, and figurative lyrics.

Author Biography

Páraic Finnerty, University of Portsmouth

Páraic Finnerty is a lecturer in English at the University of Portsmouth. He was the first recipient of the Emily Dickinson International Society's Scholar in Amherst Award in 2001 and was a Copeland Fellow at Amherst College in 2004. In 2006, his book entitled Emily Dickinson's Shakespeare was published by the University of Massachusetts Press. He has also published articles on Shakespeare's cross-dressing plays, Othello, and Oscar Wilde. He is currently researching transatlantic literary relations and ideas of English masculinity.