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.”
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.”
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
Our fourth characteristic is pungent satire, irony, and humor.
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
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