Emily Dickinson (1830-86)
It’s all I have to bring today –
This, and my heart beside –
This, and my heart, and all the fields –
And all the meadows wide –
Be sure you count – should I forget
Some one the sum could tell –
This, and my heart, and all the Bees
Which in the Clover dwell.
(a wedding poem?)
A slash of blue –
A sweep of Gray –
Some scarlet patches on the way,
Compose an evening sky.
I’ve been wanting to write a foremother poet blog on Emily Dickinson for quite some time now. I love so many of her poems: There’s a certain slant of light/on winter afternoons; snow: It sifts from leaden leaves. I used to repeat her opening lines over and over: Success is counted sweetest by those who ne’er succeed/To comprehend a nectar/Requires sorest need … ending on she defeated. I’ve not written about Dickinson for the reasons I’ve not written on Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rosetti, or Sylvia Plath: the body of poetry and critical study is so large, so much sensible has been said (Poetry Foundation).
But now galvanized by my blog on Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, and rereading her poetry today, I’ve made this attempt:
In Dickenson’s case the controversies that result from her withdrawal while in her 20s from society are utterly intertwined with our readings and understanding of her poems. The life cannot be separated and since she was unconventional in ways not unacceptable today, not admired, the life cannot be ignored nor the implied attacks. You can quote her joking poem about being nobody and imply you identify, but you don’t want anyone thinking you don’t mind. It’s irritating to realize her other women poets of the 19th century who were socially active are forgotten or made to appear the oddities when Dickinson was.
Well, did she have a shattering nervous breakdown?
The first Day’s night had come–
And grateful that a thing
So terrible–had been endured–
I told my Soul to sing–
She said her Strings were snapt–
Her Bow–to Atoms blown–
And so to mend her–gave me work
Until another Morn–
And then–a Day as huge–
As Yesterday in pairs,
Unrolled its horror in my face–
Until it blacked my eyes–
My Brain–began to laugh–
I mumbled–like a fool–
And tho’ ’tis Years ago–that Day–
My Brain keeps giggling–still.
And Something’s odd-within–
That person that I was–
And this one–do not feel the same–
Could it be Madness–this?
Lines like these testify to a breakdown:
After great pain, a formal feeling comes
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
Or this poem:
It was not death, for I stood up,
And all the dead, lie down.
It was not night, for all the bells
Put out their tongues for noon.
It was not frost, for on my flesh
I felt siroccos crawl,
Nor fire, for just my marble feet
Could keep a chancel cool.
And yet it tasted like them all,
The figures I have seen
Set orderly for burial
Reminded me of mine,
As if my life were shaven
And fitted to a frame
And could not breathe without a key,
And ‘twas like midnight, some,
When everything that ticked has stopped
And space stares all around,
Or grisly frosts, first autumn morns,
Repeal the beating ground;
But most like chaos, stopless, cool,
Without a chance, or spar,
Or even a report of land
To justify despair.
And –I love the third and fourth stanzas: “I heard them lift a Box … Wrecked, solitary here:
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through -
And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum -
Kept beating – beating – till I thought
My mind was going numb -
And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space – began to toll,
As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race,
Wrecked, solitary, here -
And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down -
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing – then –
The nature of her sexuality is fiercely contended over: was she lesbian, loving her sister-in-law, Susan, who lived next door and with whom Emily corresponded and discussed her poetry. In Open Me Carefully, a collection of Emily’s letters (printed in the often child-like form they were sent) to this sister-in-law, Susan Huntington Dickinson, edited by Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith, stress the personal and literary importance of this exchange and relationship for both women and its influence on Dickinson’s production.
Or was it a heterosexual romance, one intense experience with William Smith Clark, a botanist and geologist far more famous in his day than Dickinson; he was the first Ph.D. scientist with a European doctorate to teach at Amherst College, and he lived on a hill behind the Dickinson Homestead, now a museum and historical site of the poet’s life. (See also Ruth Owen Jones, “Neighbor — and friend — and Bridegroom —‘: William Smith Clark as Emily Dickinson’s Master figure,” Emily Dickinson Journal, 11:2 [2002:2]: 48-85).
These are autobiographical — or feel so:
“I got so I could hear his name
Without — tremendous gain –
That stop-sensation on my Soul,
And thunder in the room …
In it she talks of a box “In which his letters grew,” so I say ah ha, he wrote her letters! It is a very strained poem and ends in great misery. There’s another about letters, No 636:
The way I read a letter’s this:
‘Tis first I lock the door,
And push it wit my fingers next,
My transport to make sure
Then draw my little letter forth
And slowly pick the lock ..
Or did she have no lovers and her master was Thomas Higginson, the only person to have published her poetry: the letters are (again) strange because abject and yet so vitally alive.
Did she live in dreams:
Wild nights! Wild nights!
Were I with thee,
Wild nights should be
Futile the winds
To a heart in port,
Done with the compass,
Done with the chart.
Rowing in Eden!
Ah! the sea!
Might I but moor
To-night in thee!
If so, can we empathize because she was a victim of incest? destroyed by her father, Edward Dickinson? There’s a long article by Martha Nell Smith over at the Dickinson Electronic Archive, dealing with other complex personal relationships that have shaped the editions and receptions of Emily’s person and poetry. Smith argues for the importance of Emily’s mother, Susan Huntington Dickinson (her role suppressed or marginalized).
Emily’s sister: they lived together all their lives and the relationship resembles that of Jane and Cassandra Austen (or Gaspara and Cassandra Stampa). There is also a dearth of photos of Lavinia (as there is of the two Cassandras).
Maybe like Austen she didn’t marry because she didn’t want to be suppressed the way women are.
She writes of love this way generally:
‘Why do I love’ You, Sir?
The Wind does not require the Grass
To answer — Wherefore when He pass
She cannot keep Her place.
Because He knows — and
Do not You —
And We know not —
Enough for Us
The Wisdom it be so —
The Lightning — never asked an Eye
Wherefore it shut — when He was by —
Because He knows it cannot speak —
And reasons not contained —
— Of Talk —
There be — preferred by Daintier Folk —
The Sunrise — Sir — compelleth Me —
Because He’s Sunrise — and I see —
Therefore — Then —
I love Thee –
But this is marriage:
She rose to His Requirement — dropt
The Playthings of Her Life
To take the honorable Work
Of Woman, and of Wife —
If ought She missed in Her new Day,
Of Amplitude, or Awe —
Or first Prospective — Or the Gold
In using, wear away,
It lay unmentioned — as the Sea
Develops Pearl, and Weed,
But only to Himself — be known
The Fathoms they abide —
Reminding me of the films, Before Sunset, Before Sunrise, and Before Midnight.
Emily Dickinson, place setting at Chicago’s Dinner Party
May be none of the above biographical speculations matter. What matters are these extraordinary poems. Emily Dickinson may be said to have had the great fortune to have no opportunity to publish her poems as really written by her (the one attempt showed her how her poetry would be immediately censored, changed, altered by conventional ideas at the time). They are sincere, from the heart, not thinking about pleasing a particular set of people who have control of press or book:
Publication — is the Auction
Of the Mind of Man –
Poverty — be justifying
For so foul a thing
Possibly — but We — would rather
From Our Garret go
White — Unto the White Creator –
Than invest — Our Snow –
Thought belong to Him who gave it –
Then — to Him Who bear
Its Corporeal illustration — Sell
The Royal Air –
In the Parcel — Be the Merchant
Of the Heavenly Grace –
But reduce no Human Spirit
To Disgrace of Price –
Just to have these favorite poems is enough:
There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul.
A precious — mouldering pleasure — ’tis –
To meet an Antique Book –
In just the Dress his Century wore –
A privilege — I think –
His venerable Hand to take –
And warming in our own –
A passage back — or two — to make –
To Times when he — was young –
His quaint opinions — to inspect –
His thought to ascertain
On Themes concern our mutual mind –
The Literature of Man –
What interested Scholars — most –
What Competitions ran –
When Plato — was a Certainty –
And Sophocles — a Man –
When Sappho — was a living Girl –
And Beatrice wore
The Gown that Dante — deified –
Facts Centuries before
He traverses — familiar –
As One should come to Town –
And tell you all your Dreams — were true –
He lived — where Dreams were born –
His presence is Enchantment –
You beg him not to go –
Old Volumes shake their Vellum Heads
And tantalize — just so —
No 561, back to grief, not as evidence of a breakdown, but of her humanity shared with others: this one much stronger at the opening than the ending though (as are many of her poems):
I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing, Eyes –
I wonder if It weighs like Mine –
Or has an Easier size.
I wonder if They bore it long –
Or did it just begin –
I could not tell the Date of Mine –
It feels so old a pain –
I wonder if it hurts to live
And if They have to try –
And whether — could They choose between –
It would not be — to die –
I note that Some — gone patient long –
At length, renew their smile –
An imitation of a Light
That has so little Oil –
I wonder if when Years have piled
Some Thousands — on the Harm –
That hurt them early — such a lapse
Could give them any Balm –
Or would they go on aching still
Through Centuries of Nerve –
Enlightened to a larger Pain –
In Contrast with the Love –
The Grieved – are many – I am told
There is the various Cause –
Death — is but one — and comes but once
And only nails the eyes –
There’s Grief of Want — and Grief of Cold
A sort they call “Despair” –
There’s Banishment from native Eyes
In sight of Native Air –
And though I may not guess the kind
Correctly — yet to me
A piercing Comfort it affords
In passing Calvary –
To note the fashions — of the Cross
And how they’re mostly worn –
Still fascinated to presume
That Some — are like My Own –
How we cannot divest ourselves of ourselves:
Me from Myself — to banish –
Had I Art –
Impregnable my Fortress
Unto All Heart –
But since myself — assault Me –
How have I peace
Except by subjugating
And since We’re mutual Monarch
How this be
Except by Abdication –
Me — of Me?
#520: is this famous one about a sexual or other kind of human relationship disillusion?
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 –
I felt his Silver Heel
Upon my Ankle — 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 –
She wrote ostensibly about the seasons (No 812):
A light exists in spring
Not present on the year
At any other period.
When March is scarcely here
A color stands abroad
On solitary hills
That science cannot overtake,
But human nature feels.
It waits upon the lawn;
It shows the furthest tree
Upon the furthest slope we know;
It almost speaks to me.
Then, as horizons step,
Or noons report away,
Without the formula of sound,
It passes, and we stay:
A quality of loss
Affecting our content,
As trade had suddenly encroached
Upon a sacrament.
I don’t like religious doctrinal poetry, and was taught in high school to read her poetry as just that — so didn’t like it! I was not told that Dickinson was at one time excluded from partaking of the Eucharist in her church (Sarah Klein,
“adjusting the Symbols — /”: Emily Dickinson & Her Sacraments”)
The book I recommend which I learned most from (there are so many essays too), was most moved by was Paul Ferlazzo’s Emily Dickinson (published by Twayne in 1976). Here’s a brief review:
In brief he confronts the problem or oddity of Dickinson’s life by talking about the poetry first and in terms of its themes and then in terms of what it shows of her as a writing presence and what we can infer from her life. The first chapter does go over all the myths of lovers (impossibly sentimental books, memoirs, novels, plays) and shows their absurdity.
Then he moves on to the poems. A section shows how deeply engaged she was with Calvinistic or Evangelical Christianity; how could she not be (asks Ferlazzo), and that from her poems he finds she was not converted and remained a strong sceptic. This is one reason she could have secluded herself from her community. Then he close-reads the poems on death which are so prevalent in her oeuvre, and also poems about dreams of erotic love. He does not flinch himself from suggesting men she loved and his candidates make sense: they are all strong highly intelligent men she met in her father’s house: the first we don’t know his name; the second was married, and the last did become a widow and apparently she could have married him but chose to stay in her isolated life. It was isolated: she often did not speak to most of her family members either.
It does appear her father was a super-dominating presence not only on her but her brother and her mother too. Her brother ended living next door and following his father’s footsteps into Amherst. Her younger sister never married, burnt all or most of Emily’s letters but allowed the poems to survive.
Two more buiographical-poetic chapters follow: one on her struggle for sanity. He suggests people have been chary to say she had a bad breakdown and became perhaps catatonic or nearly insane for a period, and her struggle to contain and control this, to write what she experienced down provides some of the most powerful of her poems. The last I read was on her response to the natural world from which I picked my opening three lines.
Throughout he really brings you close to the poems and woman in them. I felt why she has this hold on us today, contemporaries leading different kinds of lives often (outwardly anyway) and with different struggles on the surface. I think it’s the lack of cant and how direct she is; you may feel she writes aslant (using metaphors too) but there is little convention between you and her. At the same time I saw (as I think many would) how distant I am from her; we are not to normalize and make her us (I have no religious beliefs and am not troubled about conversions as she was apparently a lot, no super-dominating males about me, not in a small tight community).
Here and there the stories of her and her family members (like her sister-in-law) reminds me of what I read about her earlier. He does this deftly.
When I returned to bed (for I read a bout in the wee hours of the morning today) I was greatly comforted and felt strengthened and sustained by some of Dickinson’s poems as well as Ferlazzo’s tone and comments. I see my favorites are precisely those where she struggles for sanity (“After great pain …”) and engages deeply with the natural world (pictorial) as well as shows her vulnerability to love and sense of isolation and beautiful humility (“I’m nobody …”).
This is my letter to the world,
That never wrote to me, — Emily Dickinson