On Emily Dickinson
in The Daily Telegraph
‘I’m so old-fashioned Darling, that all your friends would stare’, wrote Emily Dickinson, aged twenty-three, to one- time schoolmate, Abiah Root. Turning down an invitation to visit, she pictures herself tucked away with her pussycat and work basket in the family Homestead. As early as 1854 this young woman devised the blueprint for her legend: a retiring quaintness, too effaced to publish. Yet this image is belied by the sassy voice of poems that lasso the reader: ‘I’m Nobody! Who are you? /Are you – Nobody – too?’ That Nobody (with a capital N) is no nonentity nor was ever meant to be.
In 1863, when the poet was thirty-two, she shows off a well-conducted woman, creasing her shawl as she goes about the duties of her clock-bound day with an air of having so much to do. Yet mild domesticity guards a ‘Bomb’ in her bosom for which no words exist but which she demonstrates with an explosion of dashes as she recounts how, some time back, ‘Existence – stopped – struck – my ticking – through – ’.
This explosive voice can catch us by the throat if we read beyond poems that fed the legend: the pathos of her ‘letter to the World / That never wrote to me – ’ and the tremulous voice of an over-anthologised poem, ‘”Hope” is the thing with feathers – ’. More exciting is the eruptive voice of a ‘still – Volcano – Life’ beneath the New England propriety of her appearance: the clean white dress, crocheted shawl and the two smoothed bands of auburn hair held in a brown chenille snood.
In her character as ‘Vesuvius at home’, she wrote on a table eighteen inches square in the privacy of her room. It was her custom to work at her poems from 3 am until noon. ‘My Wheel is in the dark’, she begins one poem. The invisibility of night set her free to bare the ‘red fire rocks’ of her nature, sturdy enough to stand up to visitations from her divine ‘Guest’, an encounter that was ‘never twice the same’.
There in her room, with windows looking in two directions, she hones her ‘quiet Earthquake style’. This style turns on her deployment of the dash. In her manuscripts dashes of different lengths go in different directions with an oddity yet to be explained. Jolting dashes interrupt spasms of words. Her pauses push words apart, inviting us readers to enter into an experience of an extreme kind – deathless love, it may be, or loss or pain with its ‘element of blank’.
These poems carry us to a ‘frontier of consciousness where words fail but meanings still exist’. I’m quoting TS Eliot whose lines likewise carry us towards silence with blanks on the page. Where Eliot’s silence is accepted as experimental Modernism, Dickinson’s silence - her use of the dash – was misunderstood. To men of letters she appeared an unschooled woman, who didn’t know how to punctuate.
In fact, Emily Dickinson was highly educated in geology (the hot subject in the 1840s), botany and Latin at Amherst Academy and then at what became Mount Holyoke. This earliest college for women, founded in 1836, was only nine miles from Amherst, and Emily was there in 1848, the year, as it happened, that American women took their stand on rights at Seneca Falls. The following year, she was excited to come upon the new, burning voice of Jane Eyre, revealing a nature unlike the passivity expected of Victorian women.
Between 1860 and 1863, when Dickinson’s creative outpouring was at its height (during these years she turned out 662 poems), she developed a Brontë-inspired character as a ‘Wife without the sign’. Poems and letters dramatise an illicit passion, in some part imaginary, for a bearded and married ‘Master’ to whom the speaker is bound by drops of blood.
Seven candidates for ‘Master’ were part of the critical ferment around the Dickinson legend, and for most of the twentieth century he was identified as a minister, the Revd Charles Wadsworth, who once called at the Homestead before going out West and didn’t know how to spell the poet’s name. This rumour was developed in the 1920s by Dickinson’s niece, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, who was a romantic novelist. She promoted the poet as a moral icon who renounced her one and only love in whose memory she immured herself as a recluse. Readers in the last century learnt to revere a harmless homebody mourning a disappointment in love.
This sentimental legend has proved tenacious, and then too, Emily Dickinson is hard to know. ‘Abyss has no biographer – ’, she once said. She herself remains persistently invisible, more elusive than almost any other biographical subject. What do we make of her confessional ‘I’ and ‘My’? What exactly did she mean when she wrote, ‘My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun’? And what was it that ‘struck – my ticking – through – ’? This voice has the compelling first-person intimacy of ‘Reader, I married him’, but she warned a Boston man of letters, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, that her ‘I’ could be a performance.
Her reader has a role as co-performer. No poem may be complete in itself; each asks us to complete it with some experience or opinion of our own. Her roles and improvisations transcend cliché with tough questions – say, about nineteenth-century marriage from a woman’s point of view. The poet sums up a woman’s surrender to the consuming marriage plot with devastating brevity: ‘Born – Bridalled – Shrouded – / In a day – ’. Poor deluded women to comply with this scenario. ‘”My husband” – women say – / Stroking the Melody – / Is this – the way?’ To the poet, who had no intention to marry, this can only be a rhetorical question.
In fact, she had an offer of marriage from a distinguished man, Judge Lord, an older widower who courted her when she was in her late forties into her fifties. Though she turned down the offer, it was not because in the words of her first editor, Mabel Loomis Todd, that ‘she was too ethereal for marriage’, ‘too holy for commonplace life’. The Emily who liked the Judge’s touch does not fit this image; she was not, after all, invariably withdrawn; she was a physical being, confessing a physical love with extraordinary freedom to a particular person. In one of the erotic letters she wrote after Lord visited from his home in Salem, she tells him that she felt his touch so keenly that it lingered into the night when she lay alone in bed. She cannot bring herself to wash. This is the woman of ‘Wild nights – Wild nights!’. Whether it is the wildness of the flesh or the spirit, it’s consistent with the intensity of her response to all experience. The reason she did not marry, linked with her seclusion, is a matter for conjecture, but my guess is that it had to do with what she terms ‘sickness’ or, more secretively, ‘it’.
Her confessional dramas can tug us towards biographical decoding. But there’s what we might term an anti-biographical challenge in play for readers willing to meet it. In the most extraordinary way, the poems distil theorems of experience from her life: desire, parting, death-in-life, spiritual quickening, the creative charge and creative detachment just short of freezing. This means that the poems work when a theorem is applied to the reader’s life. The real challenge is to find our selves. She demands a reciprocal response to the Existence that ‘struck – my ticking – through – ’. That last dash is not casual; it’s a prompt, bringing us to the brink of words. We experience the need to speak, if only to ourselves.
A Dickinson poem can open out into any number of dramas to fill its compelling spaces. As a woman unmodified by mating, a stranger to her time, speaking most intimately to those who are not members of a dominant group, Dickinson’s dashes push the language apart to open up the space where we live without language.
Emily Dickinson found a quickened spirit and freedom, her ‘Mortal Abolition’, on her own terms. But her hidden life, the ‘Bomb’ she carried, is rooted in New England individualism, the Emersonian ethos of self- reliance, which in its fullest bloom eludes classification. It’s more radical and quirky than anything in Europe, more awkward and less lovable than English eccentricity; in fact, dangerous. ‘My Life has stood – a Loaded Gun’ makes it clear how ruthless her art is. For the Gun, as I read this poem, is her art, taking its aim through ‘a yellow eye’. Scary, that eye. The Gun, as art, will outlive its owner, the mortal body who takes charge of it so long as she lives.
During the formative years from ten to twenty-five, Emily Dickinson lived in a different Amherst house where her bedroom overlooked the cemetery. She eyed burials every day. Death was always in her sights, sharpening the lifespan with an intensity that could drain someone unprepared for the force-field of her attention. Her poems compel us to face the fact that we live en route to mortality. In one poem she looks back from the afterlife, teasing us about the relics of an absurdly legendary Little Me: her ‘Little Book’ will be found and her shoe, which fits the little tracks ‘close prest’ made by her feet. Those tracks can be traced so far, and then they vanish. It’s a parable of sorts for the biographer and reader. What Emily Dickinson knew when she wrote this poem and what her reader will know in after years, is that these footsteps were destined for immortality. All her life she saw it coming.