Say the name Emily Dickinson and you conjure the image of the poet cloistered in her house, writing poems and speaking to visitors from behind her bedroom door upstairs. The story of Emily’s reclusiveness begins with reasons that remain unclear, coinciding, in 1862, with an eyesight problem that tormented her with the fear of blindness. And yet, it is this mysterious social withdrawal in her late thirties, continuing until her death in 1886, that has culminated in the extensive mythology of her personhood and poetry, even though critics now tend to agree that her isolation was a deliberate choice, and may have very well represented the rejection of a society that offered her little in terms of literal and emotional independence. I’ve recently found myself returning to Emily Dickinson’s poetry, contemplating her self-prescribed solitude and the ways in which it, and her literature, can offer us a range of human responses to the ordinary and ineffable, from her defiance of social norms and rebuke of injustice, to her quiet contemplation of life’s “larger — Darknesses” (Fr 428).
Oddly enough, Emily’s formative years were situated against a nineteenth-century scene that bears striking resemblance to our 2020 reality: tuberculosis, the rampant “wasting” disease known as consumption, had every household in Amherst constantly on edge. Emily grew up in Amherst during the 1840s and 1850s; the first twenty years of her life, in other words, coincided with the peak years of the TB pandemic in America. With increasing urbanization in Massachusetts, the spread of tuberculosis overwhelmed Amherst, making measures of isolation and quarantine routine. As a teenager, Emily suffered her own bouts of ill health while living through the near-constant fear of contracting the disease, dubbed “the great white plague,” alluding to the pallor of its victims as well as the black plague of the medieval period. The constant presence of death overwhelmed her and seeped into a budding poetic preoccupation with dying and grief. “Necromancer! Landlord!”, she writes in one poem, “Who are these below?” (Fr 100). Her bedroom location, which overlooked Main Street, featured funeral processions to the town cemetery behind her house, providing her with powerful imagery for her poems. Imagining herself as a tenant in the cemetery, looking down at the coffins lowered into the ground (much like she probably looked down at the processions from her window), she spun her symbols of death in every direction: as the bird departing for the South, the volcano’s gush of red lava, or the sun of remission.
Oddly enough, Emily’s formative years were situated against a nineteenth-century scene that bears striking resemblance to our 2020 reality.
Faced with the presence of mortality in the prime of her life, she confessed that “Living” with this knowledge “hurts us more” (Fr 528). In other poems, she granted some reassurance by positing that “Dilapidation’s processes / Are organized Decays — ” (Fr 1010).
To Emily, the “Crumbling” nature of “Ruin,” whether grief over the death of a loved one or a personal failure, must be more than the singular moment when everything falls apart. Instead, with the advantage of hindsight, she asks us to backtrack and retrace the “formal” process of the “Crumbling,” likely built over days, months, and/or years; these are the “Consecutive and slow” pieces that set into the puzzle of our present despair. By reframing chaos as having order, she proposes that the solution to chaos is also ordered: do the work of learning from your experiences with pain, and you too make “Consecutive and slow” moves in the other direction, aware and perhaps even prepared for another eventual “Slipping.”
Even though Emily never published in her lifetime, she wrote over 1,800 poems (only a handful were published while she lived, without her consent). By way of the postal service, she could stay at home and send poems to her friends without completely isolating herself. In “I’m Nobody! Who are You?”, she connects the prospect of an outside readership, or the publication of her own poetry, with a kind of self-reliance. Her refusal to compromise her own artistic integrity, however, relied on the fact that she could afford not to publish. She was lucky enough to be have been educated at Amherst Academy and Mount Holyoke Female Seminary until she was about seventeen, and she furthered her education by means made available by her father, Edward Dickinson, a prominent lawyer. She read from his extensive library, and he later bought her a furnace for her bedroom, meaning that she was free at night and in the winter months to have a room of her own to write.
Her refusal to compromise her own artistic integrity, however, relied on the fact that she could afford not to publish.
Aware that her class position freed her of professional necessities, she nonetheless directed poems like “I’m Nobody” to her imagined reader in a kinship of anonymity, convincing us to also keep to ourselves, lest we be “advertise[d]” by the powers that be.
The poem’s genius is that the speaker is a nobody pretending to be a somebody. And yet the public recognition that comes with being a somebody has less to do with Emily’s shaming of those who achieve recognition through their work, and more so with her insecurity of being a nonconformist. “How dreary” to be “a Frog,” her speaker claims, suggesting discomfort with the idea of standing out from the crowd. Though it seems strange for someone of Emily’s talent not to want to go public — to remain a “nobody” — she nonetheless chose to enter into a smaller, intimate sphere of her own selection, sharing and not selling her poems with her closest friends. Intent on maintaining that sphere even after death, she told her sister Lavinia to burn all of her papers after she died, a task that Lavinia thought twice about when she came across Emily’s boxful of poems, totaling around 800, in a bureau drawer. By then, Lavinia had burned all of Emily’s letters, but in an ironic twist of events, she realized the significance of her sister’s poetry and took to finding an editor who could share it with the world.
Emily was drawn to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s notion of self-reliance when thinking about the boundaries of her social involvement. Emerson envisioned self-reliance as a push-pull between the forces of consistency, or the reliance on your own being not to violate its nature, and the pressures of conformity, or the violation of your own nature in bending your will to another’s. Emily’s translation of Emerson’s philosophy became one of her most infamous poetic lines: “The Soul Selects her own Society — / Then — shuts the Door — ” (Fr 409). This confident, “Unmoved” proclamation is based on the radical separation of the self from the other, a kind of self-preservation that makes the speaker virtuous. But elsewhere, Emily meditated on a more sinister sense of self. In “Like Eyes that looked on Wastes — ,” her speaker bemoans: “So looked the face I looked upon / So looked itself, on me” (Fr 693). The image here is quite different: a mirror that splits the very self into an unrecognizable reflection. The radical separation is of the self from the self, and the beautiful touch of madness is in the moment of being unknown even to yourself.
Yet Emily refused to be caught in the ebb and flow of her own identity. If “Captivity is Consciousness,” she wrote, “So’s Liberty — ” (Fr 649). Where today our freedoms are constantly refracted through the idea of moving about the world without restraint, Emily looked to qualify these ideas. What makes us feel free? What constitutes a self-ruling mind? Her defiance was entirely relatable. This is what she likely meant when she wrote to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the Unitarian clergyman and author that she reached out to in April 1862 to inquire about the qualities of her “living verse,” about rejecting those who “talk of hallowed things, aloud, and embarrass my dog” (Sewell 271). People disappointed Emily. Their deadened formalities disappointed her, and their lack of care or attention to what she saw as the substantive issues of life disappointed her even more.
Yet Emily refused to be caught in the ebb and flow of her own identity.
Emily took that disappointment and also aimed it at some of the most important issues of her time. Although she had stopped visiting other people’s houses by 1860, her poetic productivity significantly peaked in 1862 in the midst of the Civil War, as she wrote nearly 227 poems that year. During the five-year period of 1861–1865, she finished nearly half of what would become her total poetic output. She reflected elegiacally on the political and racial climate that consumed the nation, writing again to her friend, Higginson, one of the leading abolitionists of the day (remarkably, Higginson was one of the members of the Secret Six of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859, as well as the colonel of the first black regiment in the War). In her 1863 letter to Higginson, who had arrived at the Sea Islands in February 1863 ready to lay his life for his regiment of formerly enslaved men, Emily found the inspiration for her poem, “The Black Berry — wears a Thorn in his side — ” (Fr 548), in which she chastises her audience in their neglect to bear witness to the suffering of the African American community. Anthropomorphized, the black body is used and “offer[ed]” up to indifferent passers-by, which she compares to Christ. In another poem, “The Lamp burns sure — within — ” (Fr 247), she delivers a politically charged rebuttal to the South’s argument of the country’s need for slavery, likening the nation to a “lamp” whose “golden” light, once provided by the labor of enslaved people, will continue to “burn” even after the “Slave — is gone.”
The staggering creative momentum that Emily had until 1865 eventually, and naturally, resulted in her artistic and emotional exhaustion. Withdrawing further into the domestic pace of life at home, which was not necessarily slower, as the Dickinson’s employed an ethnically diverse group of servants from Irish, African American, and Native American backgrounds to help with the upkeep, she continued her share of daily household chores, such as sewing clothes and heating the home. Her favorite task, however, was cooking and baking (she baked the family bread every day); along with her bedroom, the kitchen was likely the other place where she felt most comfortable. She scribbled her poems on the back of chocolate wrappers while experimenting with recipes and ingredients made possible by the growing global market: coconut and rum from the Caribbean, coffee, molasses, and spices like ginger.
Starvation and renunciation became her new symbols for the art of survival and self-reliance. In “I had been hungry, all the Years — ” (Fr 439), the speaker is a deprived outsider who partakes in her desire (hunger) but is then strangely disappointed when the sweeter moment of anticipation subsides. If hunger translates to powerlessness, in other words, Emily wondered how the paradoxes of desire — absence and presence — reflect the ways in which our imagination of reality never quite syncs up to our experience of it. How many of us starve off satisfaction when we move toward a goal that we want to obtain? What is the force that keeps us going even when we know something vital has been lost? Emily Dickinson gave her answer: “Either the Darkness alters — / Or something in the sight / Adjusts itself to Midnight — / And Life steps almost straight” (Fr 428). This endearing embrace of the imperfect remains, as she put it, her “letter to the World” (Fr 519).
Dickinson, Emily. The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition. Edited by R. W. Franklin.
Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1999.
Sewall, Richard Benson. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard UP, 1994.
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