Perhaps the flagpole legend was not intended to be taken literally and was merely created as a prankish bit of misinformation used in the initiation of new recruits (much in the vein of the “snipe hunt,” a ritual in which newcomers to a group are sent in quest of ridiculous, non-existent objects, their naivety in undertaking such tasks providing a source of great glee to the all-knowing veteran members). If so, that the legend is now widely-believed (or at least taken seriously enough to be questioned) might demonstrate that the legend has since taken on the secondary, unintended effect of reinforcing the symbolic importance of both the flag and a soldier’s devotion to duty.
Much energy has been invested in trying to identify a concrete, flesh-and-blood male lover whom Dickinson is supposed to have renounced, and to the loss of whom can be traced the secret of her seclusion and the vein of much of her poetry. But the real question, given that the art of poetry is an art of transformation, is how this woman’s mind and imagination may have used the masculine element in the world at large, or those elements personified as masculine—including the men she knew; how her relationship to this reveals itself in her images and language. In a patriarchal culture, specifically the Judeo-Christian, quasi-Puritan culture of 19 th -century New England in which Dickinson grew up, still inflamed with religious revivals, and where the sermon was still an active, if perishing, literary form, the equation of divinity with maleness was so fundamental that it is hardly surprising to find Dickinson, like many an early mystic, blurring erotic with religious experience and imagery. The poem I just read has intimations both of seduction and rape merged with the intense force of a religious experience. But are these metaphors for each other, or for something more intrinsic to Dickinson? Here is another: