Emily Dickinson was born on this day in 1830. It is not known why she withdrew from society so completely. Theories abound, the latest being that she was epileptic. Books have been written. But the mystery remains. What we have are her poems. A wide interior life lived in one room.
Here is the review I wrote of The Belle of Amherst, starring Julie Harris.
I can’t settle into her poems and flip through the pages of her volumes with satisfaction and happiness and enjoyment of the verse. It’s too raw. The long dashes in her lines, the lack of titles, the dashed-off immediate quality to almost all of it … like she would be sweeping the parlor, an entire poem would pop into her brain full-blown about, oh, death, or love, or fear – and she would stop sweeping, jot it down on a scrap of paper she kept in a pocket of her dress, and then go back to sweeping.
She CAN’T have really existed, can she?
Camille Paglia theorized in Sexual Personae that Emily Dickinson was an heir to the Marquis de Sade, that her insistence on boundaries, limits, restraints has more in common with the erotic underbelly of literature, the sado-masochism of some of history’s criminals, like de Sade than with any of Dickinson’s contemporaries. Dickinson was someone addicted to sensation. She is constantly pricking herself with a pin, and gasping at the pain. In many ways, Dickinson stole from no one. She read widely, she loved poetry, but it appears that she had her own voice from the start. Dickinson sounds like no one else. But generations of writers following her imitate her. She is that distinct. She is one of the few poets where you can recognize a poem of hers just by looking at it.
Such a shy retiring lady. But with a personality as giant as a movie star’s.
Michael Schmidt wrote, in his wonderful book Lives of the Poets:
She sewed her poems into little books and put them away, one after another, in a box, where after her death her sister found them, nine hundred poems “tied together with twine” in “sixty volumes.” And it’s not an untenable theory that the beloved whom she mourns, departed, may be Christ, the soul’s lover, rather than a particular man — or a particular woman.
Dickinson scares the shit out of me. The emotional life is a vast universe. You don’t have to travel widely to “have a life”. You don’t have to have tons of experiences. You are alive. What does it feel like to be alive?
Here’s a poem.
I taste a liquor never brewed –
From Tankards scooped in Pearl –
Not all the Vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an Alcohol!
Inebriate of Air – am I –
And Debauchee of Dew –
Reeling — thro endless summer days –
From inns of Molten Blue –
When “Landlords” turn the drunken Bee
Out of the Foxglove’s door –
When Butterflies – renounce their “drams” –
I shall but drink the more!
Till Seraphs swing their snowy Hats –
And Saints – to windows run –
To see the little Tippler
Leaning against the — Sun –
In the poem below, we could read whatever we want into it, it’s not “clear” – who is “You” – it would depend on where you are at in your life, the answer. You could read it as being addressed to God. Or it could be to a great lost love, one of those experiences that mark a person forever. “Because you saturated Sight / And I had no more Eyes / For sordid excellence / As paradise”. I have felt that way about a man.
I cannot live with You –
It would be Life –
And Life is over there –
Behind the Shelf
The Sexton keeps the Key to –
Our Life — His Porcelain –
Like a Cup –
Discarded of the Housewife –
Quaint — or Broke –
A newer Sevres pleases –
Old Ones crack –
I could not die — with You –
For One must wait
To shut the Other’s Gaze down –
You — could not –
And I — Could I stand by
And see You — freeze –
Without my Right of Frost –
Nor could I rise — with You –
Because Your Face
Would put out Jesus’ –
That New Grace
Glow plain — and foreign
On my homesick Eye –
Except that You than He
Shone close by –
They’d judge Us — How –
For You — served Heaven — You know,
Or sought to–
I could not –
Because You saturated Sight –
And I had no more Eyes
For sordid excellence
And were You lost, I would be –
Though My Name
On the Heavenly fame –
And were You — saved –
And I — condemned to be
Where You were not –
That self — were Hell to Me –
So We must meet apart –
You there — I — here –
With just the Door ajar
That Oceans are — and Prayer –
And that White Sustenance –
Quotes and excerpts below about Emily Dickinson, in honor of her birthday.
“She is the spider, not the fly.” — Alison Brackenbury
“Her relationship to books , to literary preedent and example, was similar. She was no ransacker and devourer of libraries. Like Lincoln, she knew relatively few volumes but knew them deeply. As a girl she attended Amherst Academy and also Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, a few miles distant, during her seventeenth year, but school gave her neither intellectual nor social satisfactions to compensate for the reassuring intimacy of home and family she keenly missed. The standard works she knew best and drew on most commonly for allusions and references in her poetry and vivid letters were the classic myths, the Bible, and Shakespeare. Among the English Romantics, she valued John Keats especially; among her Englishc ontemporaries she was particularly attracted by the Brontes, the Brownings, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and George Eliot. None of these, however, can be said to have influenced her literary practice significantly. Indeed, not the least notable quality of her poetry is its dazzling originality. Thoreau and Emerson, especially the latter, as we know from her letters, were perhaps her most important contemporary American intellectual resources, though their liberal influence seems always to have been tempered by the legacy of a conservative Puritanism best expressed in the writings of Jonathan Edwards. Her chief prosodic and formal model was the commonly used hymnals of the times with their simple patterns of meter and rhyme.” — Norton Anthology of American Literature
“No great poet has written so much bad verse as Emily Dickinson …” — Richard Chase
“When I state myself, as the Representative of the Verse — it does not mean — me — but a supposed person.” — Emily Dickinson to Thomas Wentworth Higginson
I congratulate you.
Disaster endears beyond Fortune –
– letter written to a friend after the friend’s house had burned down
“Throughout her life ED was especially sensitive to such occasions.” — Emily Dickinson’s editor, commenting on a poem Dickinson wrote on the 4th anniversary of Charlotte Bronte’s death
“Whitman, Dickinson and Melville seem to me the best poets of the nineteenth century here in America.” — Randall Jarrell
“The language is not literary. It enacts heard experience. Kinsmen, unexpectedly met, chatting late into the night from their different places: it brings beauty and truth into intimate focus. Strange: These are the same great terms of Keats’s ‘cold pastoral’.” — Michael Schmidt
“Her coy and oddly childish poems of nature and female friendship are products of a time when one of the careers open to women was perpetual childhood.” — Richard Chase
“I never read his book – but was told that he was disgraceful.” — Emily Dickinson on Walt Whitman
“My Mother does not care for thought.” — Emily Dickinson to Thomas Wentworth Higginson
“I am growing very handsome indeed!” — Emily Dickinson, age 14
“More than any other poet, Emily Dickinson seemed to tell me that the intense inner event, the personal and psychological, was inseparable from the universal; that there was a range for psychological poetry beyond mere self-expression.” — Adrienne Rich
“We have the legend, but the crucial facts in the recorded life are absent. Dickinson’s reticence seems part of her poetical strategy: if we could assign the poems to specific emotional events, we would ground them. As it is, they are a miracle and a mystery of language.” — Michael Schmidt, “Lives of the Poets”
“Her wit is accuracy.” — Alison Brackenbury
“Immense in scale and oratorical in tone, this amazing short poem [Safe In Their Alabaster Chambers] departs from Dickinson’s usual four-line stanza format, based on sturdy Protestant hymn measure. The first five-line stanza rolls out in a single, thrilling sentence, delivered in the magesterial public voice of a sermon or eulogy. Its as if the poem’s disturbing theme – the dead and their defeated hopes – can barely be contained by traditional structure.” — Camille Paglia, “Break, Blow, Burn”
“Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive? The mind is so near itself it cannot see distinctly, and I have none to ask.” — Emily Dickinson to Thomas Higginson, 1862
“Emily, you wretch! No more of this nonsense! I’ve traveled all the way from Springfield to see you. Come down at once.” — Samuel Bowles, shouting up the stairs at Emily. Emily finally did come down.
“A step like a pattering child’s in entry & in glided a little plain woman with two smooth bands of reddish hair & a face a little like Belle Dove’s; not plainer – with no good feature – in a very plain & exquisitely clean white pique & blue net worsted shawl. She came to me with two day lilies which she put in a sort of childlike way into my hand & said ‘These are my introduction’ in a soft frightened breathless childlike voice — & added under her breathe Forgive me if I am frightened; I never see strangers & hardly know what I say — but she talked soon & thenceforward continuously — & deferentially — sometimes stopping to ask me to talk instead of her — but readily recommencing…I never was with any one who drained my nerve power so much. Without touching her, she drew from me. I am glad not to live near her.” — Thomas Wentworth Higginson
Joseph Cornell, American artist, who specialized in making boxes built boxes for Emily Dickinson. He didn’t build them as gifts FOR Emily Dickinson (who, of course, was long dead). He built them as spaces that she might inhabit. He was “preparing a place” for her. That’s why so many of the Emily boxes are empty. With open windows. Which is interesting, too. He always wanted to make sure that Emily had a way to escape. However, let’s not forget that he was creating a box for her, another prison.
Here is the most famous box he made for Emily Dickinson. It is called “Towards the Blue Peninsula”:
I can feel her presence in that box. It’s like she just left, via the window, but an afterimage remains. The Belle of Amherst has already flown the coop.