Monday, April 9, 2012

National Poetry Month—Emily Dickinson, “The skies can’t keep their secret!”

The only photo of Emily was made when she was 16,  This widely used illustration imagines her in her later years based on descriptions left by family.

Emily Dickinson was born on December 10, 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts.  The Dickinsons were an influential family in the cultural and commercial hub of western Massachusetts.  Her paternal grandfather was one of the founders of Amherst College, a defiant orthodox Calvinist challenge to Harvard and the Unitarians to the east.  Her father, Edward, was a lawyer, the Treasurer of the College and a Whig/Republican politician who served in the legislature and one term in Congress.  Their large home in the center of town near the College and the graveyard was a local landmark called both the Homestead and the Mansion.

Emily, the second of three children adored her stern, demanding, and controlling father.  At least, with all of his demands for educational achievement, virtuous conventionality, and unquestioned obedience, he displayed some affection for the girl.  She lived under the same roof with a mother who she regarded as cold and unloving—hardly a mother at all in any conventional sense—and had to tend the woman in her long final infirmity and illness.  She doted on her dashing older brother Austin, to whom she often turned for emotional support when her mother offered her none.  In turn, she mothered her younger sister Lavinia.  All three siblings remained close their entire lives—Emily and Lavinia remaining unmarried in the Homestead and Austin establishing his own unhappy household next door.

Called in childhood by her first name, Elizabeth, the girl was well behaved, but lively.  She was a fine musician and loved to sing in a clear, sweet voice and play the parlor piano.  At her father’s insistence, the children were rigorously educated and he demanded no less achievement in a heavily classical education from his daughters as he did for his sometimes rebellious son.  After attending a nearby primary school, Emily and Lavinia enrolled in the newly co-educational Amherst Academy where for seven years—minus missed time for sometimes extended illnesses—Emily studied English grammar and composition and classical literature, Latin, botany, geology, history, “mental philosophy,” and arithmetic.  She loved literature but also excelled in botany, a lifelong interest evidenced by the keeping of volumes of pressed flowers and other specimens and the spectacular gardens she became locally famous for later in life. 

Her adolescence was marked by several deaths which affected her deeply.  She became obsessed with death, and its alternative, immortality and suffered what may have been the first of a series of emotional breakdowns that required her to be withdrawn from school.  In 1845, when Emily was 15 the Great Revival swept Amherst and many of her friends made public confessions of faith.  In correspondence, Emily indicated that she had experienced a transforming rebirth, and became for a while a faithful church goer.  But she never made the public declaration that was expected of her, despite the evident social pressures to do so.  She soon stopped attending services and began to keep the Sabbath “at home.”  She was fascinated with Christ, redemption, salvation, and an afterlife but also embraced the holy in Emersonian nature, and could acknowledge doubt.  All became repeated themes of her poetry.

In her final years at the Amherst Academy, Emily forged friendships with fellow female students that she sustained by correspondence he entire life. Her closest friend was Susan Gilbert.   Their relationship was close but “tempestuous” do to Emily’s demands for reassurance of affection.  Sue later married her brother Austin—quite unhappily—and lived next door to Emily the rest of her life.  Emily also became very close to the young principal of the school, Leonard Humphrey.  She continued to correspond with him after she graduated and went off with her sister to attend Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in nearby Hadley.  He was the first of a series of men Emily would turn to as mentors and spiritual guides.

Emily stayed at Mount Holyoke for only ten months.  Despite doing well academically she never felt entirely comfortably.  In March of 1848, her brother Austin brought her home.  The reason for the sudden departure has never been entirely clear.  Emily may have been ill, lonesome, or experienced another emotional crisis—perhaps all three.

She compensated the end of her formal education by falling under the advice and tutelage of a young attorney, Benjamin Franklin Newton, who was described as being “much in the family” as a result of a professional relationship with Emily’s father.  Newton brought Emily a whole new world of literature including William Wadsworth and the English romantics and most influentially by a volume of poetry by Ralph Waldo Emerson.  She was thunderstruck by his use of language—and surprised to find sympathy for the Transcendentalism that was an anathema to her father.  Norton also introduced her to the popular work of Lydian Maria Child, the first female professional writer in America.  Her brother smuggled her new work by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and another friend introduced her to Emily Brontë.  Under these influences, as well as the work of William Shakespeare—a frequent topic between Emily and Newton—and the Bible Emily began her first efforts at verse, sharing only efforts like comic valentines with family and friends.

At twenty, Emily seemed to be ready to enjoy her young adulthood.  Hardly a recluse, she enjoyed the company of her family and friends as well as the attentions of her mentors.  The only authenticated photo of Emily, taken as a teenager a few years earlier, shows a young woman with large, warm eyes.  She was described in those days as far more attractive than her later image as a “plain spinster.”  Her hair was a vivid chestnut red and her complexion smooth. Although she always dressed demurely and simply and wore her hair tied back, she was more than attractive enough to have attracted the attention of young men, had she encouraged them.  But she did not. Humphrey’s death at the age of only 25 in 1852 was a serious blow.  He had been the first of the men Emily sometimes called Master.  His death and others returned her to deep melancholia.

Back in Amherst, Emily took on greater responsibility for the management of the household, including doing the family baking and much of the mending and sewing.  She also kept the elaborate flower garden.  Her mother, although not appreciative, relied ever more heavily on her.

In 1855 in the company of her mother and sister, Emily took an extended trip far from home.  Together they visited Washington, D.C.  to see her father in service in the House of Representatives, then went to Philadelphia to visit family.  In Philadelphia Emily accompanied friends to hear the Rev. Charles Wadsworth of the Arch Street Presbyterian Church, one of the best known preachers of the day.  After a brief meeting, the two established an intense relationship by correspondence.  They met only twice more before he moved to California in 1862.  The third of Emily’s mentors, Wadsworth was older than Humphrey or Newton.  They continued correspondence until his death in 1882.  Emily called him “my clergyman” and “my greatest friend on earth.”

Shortly after the trip, Emily’s mother began her serious decline in health and was soon largely bed ridden.  Demanding constant attention, the role of caretaker fell to Emily although Lavina was also home.  Staying home to care for her mother seemed less a conscious decision than a habit fallen into.  By the late part of the decade Emily seldom left the home.

Despite the demands of managing the household and caring for her mother, Emily was writing a good deal—both poems on scraps of paper and many letters to a wide circle of family and friends.  In 1858, she began to collect and revise the many poems she had written and assemble them into small booklets stitched together with red yarn.  Some poems she revised several times, and apparently she re-organized the poems in the booklets more than once.  These were not collected chronologically, but in some, not always apparent, system.  The works were untitled and unconventionally lined and punctuated with a system of long, short, and tilted hyphens and dashes that each seemed to have some different meaning.

Emily shared a good many poems with family and friends, often including them in letters and notes.  She enclosed them in the bouquets from her garden that she sent to friends in Amherst.  It was no secret that she was a poet—and that she took her poetry seriously—although she never showed anyone many of her most deeply personal work.  Emily was introduced to Samuel Bowles, editor of the Springfield Republican through her father.  Over the next few years she added him to the circle of her correspondents and sent him more than 50 letters, including a dozen or more of her poems.  Beginning in 1858 with a poem he named Nobody knows this little rose and continuing for ten years Bowles occasionally published Emily’s poetry anonymously.  He edited her punctuation, line arrangement, and sometimes vocabulary to be consistent with convention.  Although these changes irked her, Emily must have been pleased to see some of her work in print because she continued to send Bowles poems.

It was during this same period than Emily wrote three long, unsent letters addressed to The Master.  The identity of the master is a matter of scholarly dispute.  Both Wadsworth and Bowles are possible candidates.  Others speculate an entirely different mystery man.  Some believe there may have been at least a platonic romance. Others believe Emily was writing to an abstraction or ideal—or even to Christ.  Confusion is added in that Emily applied the same term to various individuals through her life.

By the early 1860, Emily was in almost total seclusion—although she was not yet to the point of only conversing with visitors through a closed door as she did late in life.  But it was the period of her greatest activity as a poet.  Hundreds of her poems date from this period.  She also found encouragement from yet another older mentor.  In 1862 she opened up correspondence with Thomas Wentworth Higginson. 

Although her father was a Republican, the Dickinsons were not abolitionists.  The family did not rush to support the war.  Austin paid a substitute to take his place in the Draft and Emily and Lavinia declined to join the other ladies of the town rolling bandages or collecting supplies for the Sanitary Commission.  But Higginson, a Unitarian minister of note, a fiery and uncompromising abolitionist, and a support of women’s rights, attracted Emily’s attention for an article in the Atlantic Monthly advising young writers.  She sent him an unsigned letter that read in full:

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 –
Should you think it breathed – and had you the leisure to tell me, I should feel quick gratitude –
If I make the mistake – that you dared to tell me – would give me sincerer honor – toward you –
I enclose my name – asking you, if you please – Sir – to tell me what is true?
That you will not betray me – it is needless to ask – since Honor is it’s own pawn –

She enclosed a card and four poems.  Higginson responded encouragingly.  In their exchange of letters, Emily provide what has become a famous self description, “I am small, like the wren, and my hair is bold, like the chestnut bur, and my eyes like the sherry in the glass that the guest leaves.”  Later she would tell him that the onset of their correspondence in 1862 had “saved my life.”  Letters continued when he went to war as Colonel of a regiment of South Carolina freed slaves. 

In 1864 Emily allowed a handful of her poems to be published anonymously to benefit wounded veterans and another was published in the Brooklyn Daily Union.  In the early 1870’s Higginson sent some of her work to editor Helen Hunt Jackson, who had been a classmate of Emily at the Amherst Academy.  Jackson persuaded Emily to publish one poem anonymously in an anthology.  It was the last poem published during her life.

In 1866 a series of blows sent Emily into her final near total seclusion and marked a sharp decline in the production of new poems. She lost her Newfoundland dog named Carlo for an Emily Bronte character, who had been her beloved companion for 16 years.  When the family’s only servant left the household to marry, she was not replaced and Emily had to assume all of the physical labor of the home including cooking, baking, cleaning, and even laundry—in those days an enormous labor—in addition to the care of her erasable and ungrateful mother.  Although close to her brother’s children and maintaining here wide circle of correspondence, Emily spoke to visitors only through a door.  She began to wear only white clothes, which she identified with solemn purity. 

In 1872 she finally did consent to meet Higginson when he journeyed to Amherst to see her.  He later described the experience saying that he was never, “with anyone who drained my nerve power so much. Without touching her, she drew from me. I am glad not to live near her.”  But he continued to be supportive in his letters.

Various reasons have been ascribed for Emily’s seclusion from simple, crippling shyness, to the onset of agoraphobia or perhaps even epilepsy.  Others have suggested extremely depressive bi-polar disorder, a condition common among creative people.  A physician who examined her diagnosed her simply, but vaguely as suffering from nervous prostration.

Whatever the reasons, plenty of causes contributed to unhappiness in her final years.  On June 6, 1874 Edward Dickinson collapsed while speaking in the legislature and died alone in his boarding house room later that day.  The sudden death was a blow to the whole family, but particularly Emily.  The whole town turned out in morning, but Emily listened to the funeral service, conducted in the front parlor of the Homestead through the closed door of her bedroom.

The following year, her mother suffered a paralytic stroke that required even more intensive care.

A bright spot was a new relationship.  Emily had been an acquaintance of Otis Phillips Lord, an elderly judge on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court from Salem  in the early 1870’s after the Judge’s wife died in 1877 the two developed what some have described as a “late life romance,” although undoubtedly a chaste one.  Their letters were extremely affectionate and demonstrative, but often settled down to mutually interesting literary topics, particularly their shared passion for Shakespeare.  Although at Emily’s direction most of their correspondence was destroyed, surviving examples show that they ritually wrote one another each Sunday, writing at the same time to deepen the connection.

But death and tragedy staked Emily’s final days.  Wadsworth died in 1882.  The same year Austin took up with Mable Loomis Todd, a beautiful and overtly sexual young wife of an Amherst College professor. Despite his long estrangement from his wife, Emily’s childhood friend Sue, the affair more or less open affair devastated the family.  Although Emily never personally met Todd, she and Austin sometimes conducted their trysts within earshot at the Homestead.  Austin, always close to his sisters, began to disengage himself from them as he conducted the affair.  Despite this Todd and Emily did engage in a somewhat stiff and formal exchange of letters. 

Also that year Emily’s mother finally succumbed on November 14.  It brought a mix of relief and guilt.  Emily wrote “We were never intimate ... while she was our Mother—but Mines in the same Ground meet by tunneling and when she became our Child, the Affection came.” Emily’s favorite nephew died of typhoid the following year. Lord died in 1884 after an extended illness. 

Through it all, Emily continued to write poetry, but at a much diminished rate.  She stopped re-editing her work or trying to systematically organize it.  The poems were once again left on vagrant scraps of paper. 

In the summer of 1884 Emily collapsed in her kitchen and her health went into a steep decline.  She was confined to her bed, tended by Lavinia, through much of the next two years.  In the spring of 1886 she rallied to send off a spate of letters to surviving friends and family before dying at the age of 55 on May 15.  Her doctor pronounced the cause of death Bright’s Disease, the kidney disorder now associated with chronic nephritis

The simple funeral was conducted in the Parlor.  Higginson, who had personally met Emily only twice, was on hand not to officiate buy to read one of her favorite poems, No Coward Soul is Mine by Emily BronteBy request instead of the body riding in a hearse, the white coffin was carried through the streets and the “fields of buttercups” to the family burial plot at the West Cemetery on Triangle Street.

After Emily’s death, Lavinia was obeying her instructions to burn her letters when she uncovered a cache of poems, many bound in the neat sewn booklets, which no one ever suspected existed.  Luckily Lavinia did not burn them.  Instead she wanted to preserve and publish them.  She reached out in an unexpected direction, to Mable Loomis Todd, an accomplished writer and editor.  Together Todd and Higginson edited a first edition of some of the more than 1800 poems Emily left behind.  The book was published in 1890 to generally favorable reviews, although the work was savaged by traditionalists.  William Dean Howells and other important critics, however, championed it.  The volume continued with the practice of heavily editing Emily’s poems to make them conform to conventional forms and punctuations.  The first book went through more than 11 printings in its first two years.  Todd and Higginson followed up with additional collections in 1891 and ’96,

But a dispute over Austin’s property caused a rift between Lavinia, Susan Dickinson and her children on one hand and Todd on the other.  The remaining manuscripts got divided between the two sides, and each continued to publish from the vast reservoir. 

It was not until 1955that a “comprehensive” edition of all of Emily’s known poems was edited and published in a three volume set by Thomas H. Jackson.  The poems were largely, but not completely, restored to Emily’s punctuation and line scan and organized without titles by number in what Jackson thought was close to chronological order.  In 1981 The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson edited by Ralph W. Franklin tried to further restore the poems found in the hand sewn book to their original groupings and sequences as well as trying to more greatly approximate Emily’s eccentric punctuation with dashes of different lengths.

In recent years scholarly interest in Emily Dickinson has exploded and several new biographies are available.  Various theories about her relationships, health, and literary intentions arouse vigorous—sometimes nasty debate. 

Emily, herself, remains an enigma.  She cannot be confined to the clichés of either the Belle of Amherst, the 1976 one woman play performed by Julie Harris or the bird like, half insane recluse that occupies the public imagination.  The real Emily Dickinson is vibrantly alive and leaps of the pages of any volume of her work.

The Skies can’t keep their secret!
They tell it to the hills—
The hills just tell the orchards—
And they the daffodils!

A bird, by chance, that goes that way

Soft overheard the whole.
If I should bribe the little bird,
Who knows but she would tell?

I think I won’t, however,
It’s finer not to know;

If summer were an axiom,
What sorcery had snow?

So keep your secret, Father!
I would not, if I could,
Know what the sapphire fellows do,

In your new-fashioned world!

—Emily Dickenson

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