Emily Dickinson 1830-1886
An American poetess born in Amherst, Massachusetts. Her father was a prominent lawyer, treasurer of Amherst College and a two term United States Congressman. Well-educated, Emily attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary and Amherst College. Apart from a few trips to Boston for medical treatment she never travelled outside the Amherst community. Only four of her poems were published during her lifetime. She described herself as “small, like the wren; and my hair is bold, like the chestnut burr; and my eyes, like the sherry in the glass that the guest leaves.” Today she is regarded as one of world’s greatest women poets, the product of a bed-ridden “fussy, silly mother and a possessive, domineering father.”
“I shall not murmur if at last
The ones I loved below
Permission have to understand
For what I shunned them so
Divulging it would rest my heart
But it would ravage theirs
Why, Katie, treason has a voice,
But mine dispels in tears.”
Her lifelong supporter was T. W. Higginson, who was at that time editor of the Atlantic Monthly. There were remarkable literary events for America at that time. Emerson lived less than sixty miles away and was at the height of his career. Nathaniel Hawthorne published House of Seven Gables and Melville, Moby Dick. All of which passed over the reclusive Dickinson as a kind of moral, bleak, toneless assonance.
In 1860, following the death of her father, she dressed only in white and withdrew from society to the second floor of the house where she was born. This became a lasting prison. Thus we add to the already documented afflictions of poets (neurosis, depression, suicide, addiction) agoraphobia. Emily did not change overnight into an “anguished hermit.” There were signs in her early life, the withdrawal was foretold, “an uncreative withering” activated by the loss of her father. Studies of agoraphobia indicate that one: it originates in childhood and two, it is activated by a sudden change of circumstances. Resorting to bizarre behaviors she remained invisible even when friends came visiting “she talked with them from an adjoining room”; “she had dresses fitted on her sister rather than on herself;” “she cut letters out of newspapers and pasted them together to form addresses” to avoid directly contacting friends. When her father was alive and her presence was required at Commencement celebrations it is reported that “she was accustomed to sweep into the room, apparitional in her white dress, bow left and right, and then disappear without saying a word.” She was “a shadow on the curtained window, a distant figure in the garden.”
She acknowledged no identity and wrote “What I state myself, as the representative of verse, it does not mean me but a supposed person.” Deprived of love, deprived of companionship, deprived of literary recognition, she wrote “I have mastered life by rejecting it…when I took my power in my hand.”
“A perfect, paralyzing bliss
Content as despair.”
Emerson once said that “the most interesting department of poetry would hereafter be found in what might be called The Poetry of the Portfolio; the work of persons who for the relief of their own minds, and without thought of publication.” If what Emerson believed was true the truest candidate would be Emily Dickinson. More than 600 of her cached poems were published years after her death and for the first time in a collection titled Bolts of Memory. Of the nearly 1,700 poems, 340 either begin with “I”, “I’ve”, “I’d” or “I’m”. They were said lightly in jest, in mimic, in symbolism, in allusion, pastiche, or paradox, in daring coinage, or as epigram: but in whatever manner they were said these mostly tragic quatrains, spoken behind a protective screen.” Bliss Carmen in the Boston Evening transcript wrote “Pending the coming in of Kipling’s The Seven Seas it is safe to say that the publication of a new volume of poems by Emily Dickinson is the literary event of the season…yet so distinctive was her note, so spiritual and intense, and absolutely sincere, that she sprang at once into posthumous fame, unadulterated and almost splendid.” What we know of her we gather from her letters. She was a copious correspondent. Among her more frequent correspondents were Samuel Bowles, Helen Hunt Jackson and William Ellery Channing. She writes “A letter always feels to me like immortality, because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend.”
It was not nature but human nature that frightened her. Here is By the Sea:
“I started early – Took my Dog-
And visited the Sea –
The Mermaids in the Basement
Came out to look at me –
And Frigates – in the Upper Floor
Extended Hempen Hands –
Presuming Me to be a Mouse –
Aground – upon the Sands –
But no Man moved Me – till the tide
Went past my simple Shoe –
And past my Apron – and my Belt –
And past my bodice – too –
And made as He would eat me up –
As wholly as a Dew
Upon a Dandelion’s Sleeve –
And then – I started – too –
And He – He followed – close behind –
O felt his Silver Heel
Upon my Ancle – Then my Shoes
Would overflow with Pearl –
Until We met the Solid Town –
No One He seemed to know –
And bowing – with a Mighty look –
At me – The Sea withdrew –
Dickinson cared little for how the rhyme evolved, caring only for the thought. But had not Ruskin written earlier that “No weight nor mass nor beauty of execution can outweigh one grain or fragment of thought”? We offer this example where the final consonants are identical not the vowels:
“Who never wanted – maddest joy
Remains to him unknown;’
The banquet of abstemiousness
Surpasses that of wine.”
Most of her poems were written in octosyllabic quatrains or couplets, none of which gave us an identifiable rhyme sequence. In subject they were overwhelming about jewels, bees, and death. Their strength lay in mood and tone. Critics, there were many. In an attack on Ruskin, one critic wrote that “Mr. Ruskin has published a volume of the most tedious verse that has been printed in this century, rhia hardly qualifies him as an expert….and Dickinson’s versicles with their incoherence and formlessness are fatal.’ And yet, James McNeill Whistler, in one of his ten-o-clock lectures said: “Listen! There never was an artistic periods. There never was an art-loving nation. But there were moments, and there were persons to whom art was dear, and Emily Dickinson was one of those persons, one of these moments in a national life, and she could as well happen in Amherst, Mass., as in Athens.”
Our first characteristic is fascination for moment of death and dying.
“To know just how he suffered – would be dear
To know if any human eyes were near
To whom he could intrust his wavering gaze,
Until it settled firm on Paradise.
To know if he was patient, part content,
Was dying as he thought, or different;
Was it a pleasant day to die,
And did the sunshine face his way –
What was his furthest mind, of home, or God,
Or what the distant say
At news that he ceased human nature
On such a day –
And wishes, had he any –
Just his sigh, accented,
Had been legible to me.
And was he confident until –
Ill fluttered out in everlasting well –
And if he spoke, what name was best,
What first –
What one broke off with
At the drowsiest –
Was he afraid, or tranquil – Might he know
How conscious consciousness could grow –
Till love that was, and love too blest to be
Meet – and the junction be Eternity -”
“Because I could not stop for Death – he kindly stopped for me.” See Poems: The Chariot
“I died for Beauty- but was scarce
Adjusted in the Tomb
When One who died for truth, was lain
In an adjoining Room –
He questioned softly “Why I failed”?
“For beauty”, I replied –
“And I – for truth – themselves are One –
We Brethren are:”, He said –
And so, as Kinsmen, met a Night –
We talked between the Rooms –
Until the Moss had reached our lips –
And covered up – our names –
“I heard a fly buzz when I died” See Poems: I Heard a Fly Buzz
“Delayed till she had ceased to know!
Delayed till in its vest of snow“
Her loving bosom lay.
An hour behind the fleeting breath!
Later by just an hour then death!
O! lagging yesterday!
Could she have guessed that it would be;
Could but a crier of the glee
Have climbed the distant hill;
Had not the bliss so slow a pace,
Who knows but this surrendered face
Were undefeated still?
O! If there may departing be
Any forgot by victory
In her imperial sound,
Show them this meek-appareled thing,
That could not stop to be a king,
Doubtful if it be crowned!”
“The bustle in a house
The morning after death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon earth,-
The sweeping up the heart,
And putting love away
We shall not want to use again
“I like a look of agony,
Because I know it’s true;
Men do not sham convulsion,
Nor simulate a throw.
The eyes glaze once, and that is death.
Impossible to feign
The beads upon the forehead
By homely anguish strung.” Real
Comments from critics, colleagues, and herself.
“Such things could have come only from a woman’s heart to which the experiences in a New England town have brought more knowledge of death than of life.” William Dean Howells
“Her description of death is not melodramatic nor even dramatic: Death merely comes whether we wish his presence or not.” McGill
“These mortuary pieces have a fascination above any others….a still, solemn, rapt movement of thought and music that is of exquisite charm.” William Howells
Our second characteristic is vividness of descriptive and imaginative power.
“A prompt, executive Bird is the Jay,
Bold as a Bailiff’s hymn,
Brittle and brief in quality
Warrant in every line;
Sitting a bough like a Brigadier,
Confident and straight,
Much is the mien
Of him in March
As a Magistrate.” LXVI
“The butterfly obtains
But little sympathy,
Though favourably mentioned
Because he travels freely
And wears a proper coat,
The circumspect are certain
That he is dissolute.
Had he the homely scutcheon of modest Industry
‘Twere fitter certifying for Immortality.” XLII
“The leaves unhooked themselves from trees
And started all abroad;
The dust did scoop itself like hands
And throw away the road.” (thunderstorm description)
“I send two Sunsets-
Day and I in competition ran,
I finished two, and several stars
While He was making one.
His own was ampler-
But as I was saying to a friend,
Mine is the more convenient
To carry in the hand.” LV
Comments of critics, colleagues and herself.
“Wayward and unconventional in the last degree; defiant of form, measure, rhyme, and even grammar; she had a rigorous literary standard of her own… Higginson
“She borrowed from no one; she was never commonplace; always imaginative and stimulatin.” Bliss Carmen
“Flashes of wholly original and profound insight into naure and life; words and phrases exhibiting an extraordinary vividness of description and imaginative power.” Higginson
“Miss Dickinson’s versicles have a queerness and a quaintness that have stirred a momentary curiosity in emotional bosoms.” Thomas Aldrich
“Miss Dickinson was absolutely indifferent to form and rule, She used rhyme when it came handy, and she ruthlessly abandoned it when it did not. She fell back on assonance.” Anonymous
“…in a great deal of her work there is a kind of perfection in imperfection…rhyme which is not a rhyme…a kind of imaginative triumph.” Miles London Mercury
“She had no life except that of imagination.” Lowell
Our third characteristic is brevity and spontaneity through symbolism and imagery.
“Presentiment is that long shadow on the lawn
Indicative that suns go down;
The notice to the startled grass
That darkness is about to pass.”
“Tis this – invites – appalls – endows –
Flits – glimmers – proves – dissolves –
Returns – Suggests – convicts – enchants –
Then – flings in Paradise – #673
“At half-past seven, element
Nor implement was seen,
And place was where the presence was,
“Great streets of silenced led away
To neighborhoods of pause;
Here was no notice, no dissent,
No universe, no laws.
By clocks ‘twas morning, and for night
The bells at distance called;
But epoch had no basis here,
For period exhaled.”
Comments of critics, colleagues and herself.
“Her poems are remarkable for their condensation.” Foerster
“Few of the poems are long but none of the short, quick impulses of intense feeling or poignant thought can be called fragments. They are each a compassed whole, a sharply finished point…” William Dean Howells
“Beyond any doubt, to Miss Dickinson must be ascribed this cardinal literary virtue, Spontaneity – the birth-right gift of the lyric poet…”
“For some critics they will always appear too bare, bleak and fragmentary. They have no trappings, only here and there a shred of purple…until she becomes what one might call an epigrammatic symbolist.” Aiken
“A symbolist of the symbolists, she is with them a reviver and establisher of the religious sentiment.” Bliss Carmen
“ the poem beginning by clocks is technically a mystical poem: that is, it endeavors to render an experience, the rapt contemplation, eternal, and immovable…”
In F. S. Flint’s Criteria for an Imagist Poem 1) direct treatment of the object, 2) brevity-“use no word that does not contribute to the presentation, and 3) “compose in the sequence of a musical phrase. Dickinson deals in all three as in:
“The moon is distant from the sea-
And yet with Amber Hands-
She leads him – docile as a boy-
Along appointed Sands-
He never misses a degree-
Obedient to Her Eye-
He comes just so far – toward the town-
Just so far goes away.”
Our fourth characteristic is pungent satire, irony, and humor.
“If I shouldn’t be alive
When the robins come,
Give the one in red-cravat
A memorial crumb.’
“If I couldn’t thank you,
Being just asleep,
You will know I’m trying
With my granite lip!”
“I know that He exists.
Somewhere – Silence –
He has hid his rare life
From our gross eyes.
‘Tis an instant’s play,
‘Tis fond Ambush –
Just to make Bliss
Earn her own surprise!
But – should the play
Prove piercing earnest –
Should the glee – glaze –
In Death’s – stiff – stare-
Would not the fun
Look too expensive!
Would not the jest –
Have crawled too far!”
“What Soft – Cherubic Creatures –
These Gentlewomen are-
One would as soon assault a Plush –
Or violate a Star-
Such Dimity Convictions-
A Horror so refined
Of freckled Human Nature-
Of Deity – ashamed-
It‘s such a common – Glory-
A Fisherman’s- Degree
Redemption- Britly Lady-
Be so- ashamed of Thee –“
Comments from critics, colleagues and herself.
“In a way the failure of the mask (of cautiously cultivated self-effacements)constitutes the ultimate irony about Emily Dickinson. No longer the mistress of her response, she now becomes the victim of an irony – not one that she has created, but one which exists at her expense.” Griffith
“Irony used by Emily Dickinson…is a carefully composed mask which one slips between one’s self and the external world.” Griffith
“The unspoken assumption of the irony is the poet’s refusal to shrink from contact with this freckled world.” Gelpi
“Great streets of silence led away
To neighborhoods of pause;
Here we notice, no dissent,
No universe, no laws.
By Clocks ‘t was morning, and for night
The Bells at distance called;
But epoch had no basis here,
For period exhaled.”
We close with this: “The stray health of genius came to the support of this hermit’s instinct, and preserved her to the end of life sweet and blithe and contented in that innocent nun-like existence in which she chose to be immured. Her own room served her for native land, and in the painted garden beyond her window-sill was foreign travel enough for her. For that frugal soul, the universe of experience was bounded by the blue hills of a new England valley.” Bliss Carmen
Oh! Lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!
“This is my letter to the world
That never wrote to me;’
The simple news that nature told
With tender majesty.
Her message is committed
To hands I cannot see;
For love of her, sweet countrymen,
Judge tenderly of me!