Introduction:  Emily Dickinson and the Orient

This site brings together materials for reading Dickinson's poem "He touched me" within the context of the popular oriental poem Lalla Rookh by Thomas Moore, and within the context of orientalism in the U.S. more generally. 

The introduction below begins with definitions of orientalism in the Webster dictionary the Dickinson's owned and in the latest edition of the OED.  Then it offers a brief summary of Edward Said's seminal work on the rise of oriental studies in the nineteenth century.  This is followed by a couple of paragraphs on orientalism in the U.S. and information on Lalla Rookh.  Finally, the introduction provides information about Dickinson's knowledge of eastern lore and politics and the circulation of Lalla Rookh among Dickinson family members.

An American Dictionary of the English Language, by Noah Webster, 1855:

Orient, n.: The east

Oriental, adj.: Eastern, situated in the east; particularly, in or about Asia

Oriental, n.: A native or inhabitant of some eastern part of the world.  We give the appellation to the inhabitants of Asia, from the Hellespont and Mediterranean to Japan.

Orientalism, n.  A term applied to doctrines or idioms of the Asiatic nations.

Oxford English Dictionary 1989


a.       Oriental character, style, or quality; the characteristics, modes of thought or expression, fashions, etc. of Eastern nations

b.      Oriental scholarship; knowledge of Eastern languages


Although the 1855 Webster does not include "Oriental scholarship" as one of its definitions of Orientalism, academic study of the East burgeoned in the nineteenth century. Indeed, beginning in the first decades of the nineteenth century, the East became a popular topic, especially in England, and Western authors wrote travel literature, economic treatises, histories of religion, poems, and novels about the East.

Critical thinking about the assumptions implicit in this body of nineteenth-century writing about the East by Westerners began in earnest in 1979 with Edward Said's Orientalism. The popularity of Eastern themes had long been noted, but Said sought to identify patterns in how Westerners figured the East and to assay the political significance of orientalist discourse. According to Said, Orientalism is ultimately "a political doctrine willed over the Orient" by Occidentals (204). As he reminds us, the "Orient is not only adjacent to Europe; it is also the place of Europe's greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilizations and languages, its cultural contestant, and one of its deepest and most recurring images of the Other." In short, "the Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience" (1).

Nineteenth-century orientalist discourse turned the East into a subject that could be known by the West and by so doing it disguised the West's specific, political interests in eastern lands and people. (In a discussion of "empiricist foundationalism," Judith Butler explains: "insofar as power operates successfully by constituting an object domain, a field of intelligibility, as a taken-for-granted ontology, its material effects are taken as material data or primary givens." This is a fundamental move of nineteenth-century race science and also nineteenth-century orientalist discourse.) Once posited, the East became a fact. As Said points out, the Orient became "an almost unconscious (and certainly untouchable) positivity" (206). Or, as Michael Dalby suggests, "the Orient subsists in fact only as a structural relationship in contrast to Us’ (488).

Although Western writers might invoke the Orient in order to figure a wide variety of ideas, in general, nineteenth-century Western images of the Orient foreground sexuality and politics. Eastern lands are places of exotic and sexually available women, effeminate men, and political intrigue. The Orient is seen as radically different from "us" and thus was often used to posit a unified West. The Orient was typically figured as eccentric, backward, silently different, sensual, and passive. For many writers the East had a tendency towards despotism and away from progress, and it represented not only the Other but also a conquerable and inferior Other.


            Significantly, Said begins his study by exempting the United States from his commentary: "Unlike the Americans, the French and British--less so the Germans, Russians, Spanish, Portugese, Italians, and Swiss--have had a long tradition of what I shall be calling Orientalism, a way of coming to terms with the Orient that is based on the Orient's special place in European Western Experience" (1).  Indeed, the U.S. was not involved in colonizing the east in the nineteenth century, as were the English and the French.  Between 1790 and 1830, more than one hundred and fifty million people primarily in the East were brought under British imperial rule.  During these same years, the U.S. had little direct engagement with the east.

            Nevertheless, by the middle of the nineteenth century, the lore of the Orient had reached the U.S. and the east was a popular topic for many writers.  Whittier evoked the east in his poems, collected English translations of moral sayings from Hindu classics in his "Oriental Maxims," and owned many works about the Orient, including W. R. Alger's Poetry of the Orient and R. H. Stoddard's The Book of the East.  Both Emerson and Whittier read extensively in the Bhagavadgita, and Lydia Maria Childs's history, The Progress of Religious Ideas, which gives Eastern religions ample and respectful treatment (Christy).


            One of the most popular oriental poems, both in England and in the U.S., was Thomas Moore’s 1817 book-length poem Lalla Rookh.  Orientalism was not only popular by the early 1800s, it was also profitable.  A few years before Moore wrote Lalla Rookh, Byron encouraged him to write about the Orient: "Stick to the East . . . The North, South, and West, have all been exhausted. . . the public are orientalizing . . . ".  Bryon's EasternTales (1813?) was immensely popular, and his publisher noted this success and subsequently commissioned Moore's Lalla Rookh for an unprecedented three thousand guineas (Leaske).

            Moore's poem offers a complex oriental tale in which desire and politics are woven together.  The frame tale tells of a princess’s trip from Delhi to Cashmere to meet her betrothed.   Along the way a poet, Lalla's husband-to-be in disguise, recounts to her historical tales of insurrection and ecstasy, of revolutionary heroes and passionate women.  Moore’s book was popular in the U.S. (it became a standard against which other orientalist narratives—fictional and historic—were judged), and the edition in the Dickenson household was lavishly illustrated by some of the best-known illustrators of the day [link to images page]. Significantly, the illustrations, much like Moore's poem, use the east to invoke worlds and to write of lives not sanctioned in the west. The illustrations in particular eschew dainty femininity ensconced in private spaces for images of a sumptuous female sexuality in a world of political action.


The Dickinson family was attentive to political news and literary treatments of the east:

1. Susan Dickinson and Emily named a drafty hallway where they often met the "Northwest passage" in honor of Sir John Franklin's failed efforts to discover a Northwest passage to the Orient (see Patterson 91). 

2. Dickinson wrote a short note to Susan in 1882 that refers to both a Longfellow poem that mentions Arab tents and to the recent British invasion of Egypt --"Love and Conquest"

3. Susan owned an 1860 anthology that included selections from Lalla Rookh.  The copy of the complete poem in the Dickinson household has three passages marked.  One scholar suggests that these passages about the pleasures, pangs, and disillusionments of love are marked in a manner typical of Emily Dickinson, while another scholar notes that many books were shared between the two households and that markings commonly taken to be Emily's might well be Susan's. 

4. Susan also makes a reference to Lalla Rookh as a book one might have on the bedstand in an essay she drafted on domestic help (see

Introduction | Lalla Rookh | He Touched Me | Contexts
Critical Issues | Student Projects | Bibliography