Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries, by Helen Vendler, Belknap/ Harvard, 533 pp, £25.95, ISBN: 978-0674048676
White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, by Brenda Wineapple, Anchor Books, 416 pp, £10.47, ISBN: 978-0307456304
Maid as Muse: How Servants Changed Emily Dickinson’s Life and Language, by Aífe Murray, New Hampshire, 299 pp, £31.50, ISBN: 978-1584656746
Title divine – is mine!
The Wife – without the sign!
Acute Degree-conferred on me –
Empress of Calvary!
When religious belief recedes a residue remains in shapes and patterns which influence subsequent thinking. Cultural, family and personal history are also important; no thinking or making occurs in a void. But the problem is that influences and connections are inexact and unpredictable. Caution is needed when allocating weight, especially in the case of a writer of genius such as Emily Dickinson, about whose life there has long been considerable curiosity.
Despite the limited biographical materials available, it is unlikely that this curiosity will soon abate. It is as if there is a mystery which has to be solved, and if this is so, the urge to solve it is particularly felt in the United States. Dickinson is decidedly an American genius yet, unlike Robert Frost, another New England poet, she has successfully resisted efforts to read her life as a recognisable version of patriotic living. She did not strive for individual success, but rather withdrew from society. She did not, it seems, wish to have children, was not religious and certainly not God-fearing, she had little interest in the seminal political and military events of her time and, finally, did not attach much importance to conventional sexual morality. One can see how such a person might pose problems for the tireless champions of a one-dimensional and prescriptive version of American identity. Yet Dickinson in many ways, including her engagement with her Calvinist heritage, her self-reliance, her independence, her modernity, her self-belief, her inventiveness and her confidence, was thoroughly and substantially American.
Helen Vendler, author of Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries, is not particularly interested in the details of the poet’s life. As a respected practitioner of close reading, Vendler believes it is the poems that count, not the biography. This is a view which echoes one of the great divisions in twentieth century literary criticism, that between those who argued for the primacy of the artist’s text and those who saw the cultural context as, at least, usefully illuminating. In relation to this debate I would have to declare myself a moderate, in that I can see merit on both sides. Close reading of texts illuminates an author’s precise purpose in a way not possible in a broader commentary. Thus Vendler declares her objective:
Yet I hope, by focusing here on Dickinson the writer ‑ inventor of a new form of poetry on the page ‑ to emphasise, more than thematic studies can do, Dickinson as a master of revolutionary verse-language of immediacy and power.
This is an admirable purpose, in which Vendler is entirely successful, and it is an approach which Dickinson’s often oblique and enigmatic verse calls for. She herself wrote that she was committed to telling the truth but with a “slant”, presumably to tell it better. Vendler’s commentaries are enlightening and enjoyable revelations of Dickinson’s often elusive meanings; she is also a master of the technical and devotes consistent attention to the poet’s metrical skills and innovations, which are certainly important, but it might be argued that some examination of the world in which she lived and the past from which she and her language came might also prove illuminating. In any event, it seems unlikely that exercises in close reading ‑ no matter how accomplished ‑ will, alone, solve the mystery of Emily Dickinson.
The poet’s willingness to subject her feelings to exact scrutiny while denying external distraction was in the Puritan tradition of New England, which in its classic form sought to discover, within, evidence of divine approval. Her thoroughness, intolerance of linguistic excess and constant seeking after the plainest forms of language is also very much in the tradition of the radical Reformation. But in her passion for understanding she moved beyond the restrictions on inquiry inherent in the creed of revealed truth. Through her poetry she discovered that her ultimate loyalty was less to the idea of a simple and defined truth than to the different, mercurial god of beauty, the source of a deeper and more illuminating truth.
I died for Beauty – but was scarce
Adjusted in the Tomb
When One who died for Truth, was lain
In an adjoining Room –
As Helen Vendler comments: “ … under the simplicity lies a real inquiry into the relations of Truth and Beauty. The fact remains that they can never occupy the same room ,..”
Dickinson’s examination of life and especially death, without the balm of faith, created a voice, brave and honest, which many readers today find spiritually sustaining.
I measure every grief I meet
With narrow, probing eyes-
Brenda Wineapple, author of the superb White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, clearly “gets” Dickinson:
Incomparably modern, the poetry is as ephemeral as experience itself. Sensual, its decided sexuality … is expressed in a language compounded of colloquialism and religious reference, aphorism and plaint, statement and plea. Direct, dense, often excruciating, her poetry lies close to the reader, and one step beyond, fervently waiting …
It is interesting, and perhaps ironic, that readers find a spiritual force in Dickinson which is now infrequently identified with her near contemporary Ralph Waldo Emerson who, unlike her, consciously sought to create a post-religious spirituality. Dickinson eschewed grand theories and, while appreciating Emerson, seems to have been largely indifferent to the romantic transcendentalism championed by the former Unitarian minister. After all, it was, in many respects, a secular version of the evangelicalism she had already declined. Her rejection of the relatively easy route to salvation offered by revivalism was arguably the commencement of Dickinson’s seclusion from society, as this refusal automatically excluded her from certain church services confined to the “saved”. Dickinson’s attitudes may also have indirectly reflected something of the earlier and tougher Calvinist attitude to the subject.
Thomas Wentworth Higginson was also a romantic. On reading Thoreau’s Walden, he declared that nothing in nature had previously been described “… not a bird nor a berry of the woods, nor a drop of water, nor a spicula of ice, nor summer, nor winter, nor sun, nor star”. Wineapple tells us that he liked to bathe at dawn in cold lake water near his home, that he regarded animals and plants as more human than most people and more kind. “I will trust this butterfly against all the dyspeptic theologians or atheists of the world.” Considering Higginson’s views, Wineapple comments: “He sounds almost like Dickinson.” I am not so sure.
Dickinson was not evangelical, she was not transcendentalist and she was not a romantic; she was rather post-romantic, an early modern. Nowhere is this clearer than in her attitude towards nature. Romantics famously rebelled against the idea of nature as a resource to be tamed in the service of human superiority, as exemplified in the rational and controlled gardens of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The difficulty latent in the romantic revolt slowly emerged and in time it became clear that the romantics, whether Wordsworth, Higginson or any other striving soul, ultimately valued untamed nature chiefly as a foil to set off the human spirit. It was really just another version of subordinating nature to human needs, which had become more psychological than material. This was not how Dickinson viewed the natural world or her much loved garden:
Some – keep the Sabbath- going to church –
I – keep it – staying at home –
With a Bobolink – for a Chorister –
And an Orchard – for a Dome –
She worked in her garden and it gave her immense pleasure, but she knew that the garden was tentative and limited in its relationship to the natural world, which was indifferent to human needs, wonderful and autonomous:
A Bird, came down the Walk –
He did not know I saw –
He bit an Angle Worm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw,
This droll observation of the bird as it takes the worm is not unlike the approach of the modern wildlife programme: there is no romantic wringing of hands. It is a matter-of-fact affair, beyond human business and entirely free of Tennysonian alarm over “nature red in tooth and claw”.
If romantic values did not appeal to Dickinson as a route to truth and beauty, neither did religious orthodoxy. At about eighteen years and with the enthusiasts of the revival clamouring louder and louder, even in Massachusetts , she wrote to her friend Abiah Root: “Christ is calling everyone here, all my companions have answered, even my darling Vinnie believes she loves, and trusts him, and I am standing alone in rebellion.” As a lapsed Calvinist, Dickinson sought the divine, or at least the spiritual, elsewhere; her achievement would have been impossible had she conformed. At times she expressed her version of non-conformity plainly:
If any are not sure –
We show them – prayer –
But we who know,
Stop hoping, now –
And on another occasion:
Much Gesture, from the pulpit –
Strong Hallelujahs roll –
Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul –
Having designated herself in school as one who was not “saved” she sought to save herself by following her own lights. She denied the doctrine of original sin and human depravity: “While the Clergyman tells Father and Vinnie that ‘this Corruptible shall put on Incorruption’ it has already done so and they go defrauded.” By devoting her life to an uncompromising search for the deepest knowledge, she was saved and in her later years wore only white, the colour of those destined for paradise.
In Maid as Muse: How Servants Changed Emily Dickinson’s Life and Language, Aífe Murray argues, as the title suggests, that servants in the Dickinson household (particularly Margaret Maher from Co Tipperary in Ireland) had a considerable impact on Dickinson’s work. While Murray’s book contains many fascinating details her argument is, I believe, farfetched. Dickinson was about thirty-nine years old when the twenty-seven-year-old Maher joined the family. I think it is fair to say that by that stage in life the formative waxes have hardened and the only major changes that are likely to occur are those resulting from theoretical or ideological considerations of a sort which did not move Dickinson.
Murray cites JM Synge, born some forty years after Dickinson, as an example of a major writer who was influenced by the speech of servants. Synge does have some things in common with Dickinson: both were from Protestant families, though Synge’s was more evangelical. Both loved nature, but not in a romantic or pantheistic manner. Dickinson observed it clear-headedly in her garden whereas Synge pursued his passion for ornithology along the banks of the Dodder near his home in Rathgar. Both found it relatively painless to turn from inherited religious beliefs and neither experienced the acute anxiety of doubt that is found in the work of Tennyson and some other Victorian thinkers. After reading Darwin, Synge remarked “Soon afterwards I turned my attention to works of Christian evidence, reading them at first with pleasure, soon with doubt, and at last in some cases with derision.” Dickinson was more nuanced: “On subjects of which we know nothing, we both believe, and disbelieve a hundred times an hour, which keeps believing nimble.”
Synge, no more than Dickinson, had no particular interest in Hiberno-English when he set off to study music in Germany. But there the similarity ends. Later, in Paris the young Synge, who had turned to writing verse, met Yeats and was convinced by the great magus that he would never rise beyond the mediocre unless he returned not only to Ireland but to its westerly isles.
While few can regret that Synge followed the older writer’s advice, if we can imagine a young Yeats offering Dickinson his romantic panoramas over a glass of sherry in Amherst, we can also easily imagine her elliptic resistance: Much gesture, from the Pulpit – /Strong Hallelujahs roll -.
In complying with Yeats’s advice Synge found it necessary to lie on the floor of a country hotel in Glenmalure and scribble down the kitchen servants’ speech, which he could hear through a crack. Although, of their nature, ethnographers have to be snoopers, there was something faintly undignified about Synge’s procedures, leading a later Irish poet to comment:
Above the waves of Galway Bay
John Synge would smoke his pipe all day,
And later, when the day was o’er,
Listen to people through the floor.
Perhaps Synge would have envied Emily Dickinson’s proximity to an authentic Hiberno-English speaker; working cheek by jowl with Margaret Maher in her Amherst kitchen the New England poet would have had privileged access to that which Synge could only gain by eavesdropping. As an aural genius Dickinson would have undoubtedly appreciated the linguistic fluidity and difference that characterised Hiberno-English, and it is possible that words and syntax were borrowed here and there from Irish servants.
But when Murray refers to Higginson’s first attempts to “correct” Dickinson’s meter saying: “What Higginson heard rightly was her attempt to track a different musicality in her line, perhaps the ‘tonal semantics’ of African American vernacular English or the phrasing and syllabification of Hiberno-English (which might have sounded spasmodic to Higginson’s ear)”, she is stretching things. Dickinson had sent four poems to Higginson: “We play at paste”, “I’ll tell you how the sun rose”, “The nearest dream recedes, unrealised” and the amazing “Safe in their alabaster chambers”. I can hear nothing resonant of Hiberno-English in any of these poems, whereas I believe I can hear much of New England. I remain unconvinced by Murray’s other suggestions and find it hard to credit her claim that servants’ language “informed her ear and helped explain her unusual language gestures”.
Although her claims of linguistic influence may be questionable, Murray’s account of Margaret Maher’s involvement in the Dickinson household does reveal much of interest, such as the poet’s wish to liberate herself from drudgery. Dickinson enjoyed baking and perhaps some other domestic activities but could see no merit in sinking beneath endless housework. She found her sister Lavinia’s commitment to housekeeping puzzling on one occasion observing ruefully: “I don’t see much of Vinnie ‑ she’s mostly dusting stairs!”
Dickinson’s father, who is usually represented as a severe and remote figure, emerges somewhat differently from Aífe Murray’s book, where he is described leading a campaign in Amherst, undertaken on behalf of his daughter and wife, to secure the domestic services of Margaret Maher. In smaller households the intimacy between mistress and servants meant that empathy and a sort of semi-friendship between both parties was required for success. And it seems that Maher was gifted not only with domestic skills but also with intelligence, energy and emotional savvy.
Murray’s description of Margaret Maher’s life in America also provides a fascinating vignette of an Irish immigrant family. Her description of Maher’s personal history is interlaced with graphic descriptions of the starvation and oppression of the lower peasantry in Ireland which are accurate enough but fail to take adequate account of the fact that the Mahers do not appear to have come from this class. It is worth recalling that there were countless thousands of Irish economic migrants to America, from a variety of backgrounds, in the century after the Famine and it is true that the bulk of these emigrations were the direct or indirect result of British colonial policy in Ireland. Nevertheless, apart from the very poor around the Famine years, most made reasonably comfortable crossings of the Atlantic; the coffin ships, to which Murray refers, with their high mortality rates, serious overcrowding and disease were not the norm. Maher, as suggested by Murray’s researches, had actually come from fifty acres in Tipperary’s Golden Vale which, no matter how oppressive the landlord, was quite far removed from the unfortunate and oppressed lower Irish peasantry who lived in hovels and subsisted, before the Famine, on a diet of buttermilk and potatoes. Moreover, no one from a pure peasant background would have had the skills necessary to play an important role in the large house of a successful Amherst lawyer. Murray acknowledges that the Mahers were not among the poorest Irish, but her account of Famine distress muddies her narrative.
Murray’s depiction of Edward Dickinson seeking to secure Maher’s services suggests a man willing to put himself out in order to please the female members of his household, rather than a forbidding patriarch. In a much quoted remark Dickinson said of her father that he purchased her books but begged her not to read them lest they boggled the mind. Again this does not suggest a remote authority figure but rather a conservative disposition. But if Edward Dickinson was a conservative he was also uncertain and insecure. His father, Samuel Dickinson, a wealthy and determined public man committed to various causes including female education, had been more emotionally secure. In Samuel’s view: “The female mind, so sensitive, so susceptible of improvement, should not be neglected … God hath designed nothing in vain.” He was described by a contemporary as “one of the most industrious and persevering men that I ever saw”. But, as is sometimes the case with individuals who devote themselves to the public good, he neglected his affairs, became a bankrupt and lost the house he had built for his family in Amherst. This was a profound emotional shock for his son, Emily’s father, who determined to go quietly about his business in order to restore the family fortunes and especially its status.
When courting his future wife, Emily Norcross, Edward made it clear he would be devoting his life to business and offered Emily the prospect of “rational happiness”. It does not seem that this promise provoked transports of joy and perhaps it is not too surprising that it took some time for her to decide to quit her parents’ house and move to Amherst as his wife. Edward Dickinson was true to his word and lived the programme he had set out to his future wife: he was conservative, moderate in religion, politics and, I suspect, in domestic life, as he laboured to restore his family’s status. As a result of his efforts his three children grew up in comfort with their high social standing restored and lived free from the psychological indignity and insecurities that shadowed Edward’s early adult life.
There is a common strain in Emily Dickinson’s comments on her father; she seems to genuinely regret the spiritual constraints his pact with respectability entailed for him. There is no sense that I have noted of her being overawed by his patriarchal authority. He served as a moderate Whig in the Massachusetts House of Representatives and was later elected to the US House of Representatives. When he left to attend a political convention in the year before his election, Dickinson said to her brother: “I think it will do him the most good of anything in the world, and I do feel happy to have father at last, among men who sympathise with him, and know what he really is.” It seems she loved him; her sister Lavinia, ‑ who is largely responsible for his bad press ‑ blamed him for her remaining unwed but spoke lovingly of her mother. Emily on the other hand regarded her mother as cold and distant. Members of the same family can perceive things differently.
Unlike Edward, her own father, Emily’s grandfather Samuel was regarded as a deeply religious man. In his obituary it was observed “ … his piety consisted much in a deep laid principle of active, yet meek and unostentatious beneficence. The grand practical maxim of his life seemed to be to ‘esteem others better than himself’”. Apart from a few half hearted references in his letters to Emily Norcross which characterised this life as a preparation for the next, Samuel’s son Edward does not seem to have given religion a great deal of thought.
The only time I have noted him getting seriously worked up in his letters to his future wife is when Emily Norcross was about to visit New York and he considered the condition of New York’s fallen women, whom he felt were the victims of sweet-talking seducers worthy of the most severe punishments, which he, in his imagination, administered as he marched through the city restoring virtue. Emily Norcross might perhaps have wished that some of this passion would temper his commitment to “rational happiness”.
If we consider Samuel, Edward and Emily from the point of religious practice, we move from a strong and rooted faith, via a conventional one, to none to speak of. The cultural and political consequences of America’s religious history, which did not follow the Dickinson trajectory, is an intriguing subject and particularly so in New England, home to the giants of nineteenth century American literature, including Hawthorne, Thoreau, Emerson, Henry James and, of course, Emily Dickinson. Each bears the mark of New England’s Puritan past.
In the classic Maule’s Curse, poet and critic Yvor Winters argued that this past was a negative heritage. He saw the Calvinist tradition as encouraging literary obscurantism, and the avoidance of actual experience and, in its place, substituting allegory. This latter he saw as a symptom of the reductive dualism of a Calvinist morality that was unable to engage with complexity. It seems to me that the thesis of Maule’s Curse has some purchase in relation to a writer such as Hawthorne but less so in the case of Dickinson.
The book was written in 1938, and is governed by a moral rather than a historical imagination. Needless to say, it was dismissed by literary critics later in the twentieth century, in one case as “a full blooded irrationalism”. This seems to me inaccurate. The New Criticism movement, with which Winters is now generally associated, brought a new rigour and precision to the study of literature; within its terms it was both rational and clear. The results often led to critical writing of force and conviction, qualities which sometimes escaped later critics who, in their eager search for final exactitude, produced work which can be dull and without rhythm. The positive legacy of the New Criticism milieu survives: its presence is felt in the rigorous and insightful writing of critics such as Helen Vendler.
Winters and others in the New Criticism and related schools were, however, deficient in historical and political understanding, weaknesses which are present in Maule’s Curse, where powerful and sophisticated thinking exists alongside a naive and futile implication that the Reformation was “a bad thing”. Nevertheless, I believe we can learn something from Winters’s reflections on Dickinson, who clearly fascinated the Stanford critic. As a young man he wrote that she was “one of the greatest poets of our language”, but also “a terrible woman, who annihilated God as if he were her neighbor, and her neighbor as if he were God”. Winters, struck by the mystery of Dickinson, also expressed himself in verse:
Dear Emily, my tears would burn your page,
But for the fire-dry line that makes them burn—
Burning my eyes, my fingers, while I turn
Singly the words that crease my heart with age.
If I could make some tortured pilgrimage
Through words or Time, or the blank pain of Doom
And kneel before you as you found your tomb,
Then I might rise to face my heritage.
Yours was an empty upland solitude
Bleached to the powder of a dying name;
The mind, lost in a word’s lost certitude
That faded as the fading footsteps came
To trace an epilogue to words grown odd
In that hard argument which led to God.
Dickinson’s rejection of religion may not have involved a final rejection of the idea of God. Helen Vendler, writing out the old Unitarian centre of Harvard, observes: “The Christian promise of personal immortality was the doctrine that most tempted her.” The weight of Dickinson’s feeling was, it seems to me, toward rejection, but uncertainty remained:
And then a plank in reason, broke,
And I dropped down and down –
And hit a world at every plunge,
And finished knowing – then –
In 1830, when Emily Dickinson was born, virtually everyone in New England had a Calvinist background. (The Irish had not yet arrived in numbers ‑ that was soon to change, massively.) Calvin was a man favoured with an unusual degree of self-belief which may have influenced the emergence of the core doctrine of election and predestination, which is the belief that a severe God decided before you were born whether you would be among the minority chosen for heavenly bliss or among the majority destined for damnation.
There were some practical difficulties with this idea, which in its pure form entirely discounted the significance and utility of human agency. Yet it did place the emphasis on the individual rather than on the church, authority or community and in the early modern era the individual was becoming central to the practice and ideology of developing capitalism. So within Calvinism there was a conflict between selection by election, which logically would have moved Calvinism to the margins of public life, and individualism which was rapidly advancing towards centre stage. Over time, and perhaps quite early on in practical terms, this conflict was settled in favour of individualism in most of Protestant Europe and in North America and, of course, it is this individualism, rather than the creed of predestination that lies at the centre of Max Weber’s celebrated thesis on the conjuncture of Protestantism and capitalism.
As the North American colonies embraced the Enlightenment values which accelerated the movement towards popular politics and criticism of the British colonial link, the conflicts within Calvinism became pressing. Leading American thinkers imbued with belief in the power of reason to address all human needs were moving away from religious belief. New England experienced three movements which attempted to realign the Calvinist tradition within an altered world. Around 1730 the First Great Awakening occurred. This was an American version of the revivalist movement affecting segments of European Protestantism. It was not a huge success, running up against the new rationalism in full flight. Significantly, as I understand it, the theology of the First Great Awakening, like the later and immeasurably more successful Second Great Awakening, involved a questioning of the doctrine of pre-destination by election. It seems there was an awareness that the doctrine, if left in place, might affect the capacity of Calvinist Protestantism to continue its central role in American life.
The second New England movement of adaptation was later in the eighteenth century and was known as Unitarianism. The main theological feature of the new movement was denial of the Trinity, an idea which had been around earlier but which the Unitarians adopted in a sort of theological housekeeping apparently designed to make the business of religious mystery more rational. If the First Great Awakening was based on a critique of Enlightenment values, Unitarianism was effectively a surrender to reason. In New England, Unitarianism, which involved a simplified and liberal form of Christianity, became very popular, with both Harvard and Boston becoming centres of the new creed. However, a significant element within New England Calvinism ‑ while moving away from the purism of predestination and towards the idea of inner light, which held that behaviour was the only indication of God’s approval, rejected the new thinking as overly diluting central Christian affirmations. Emily Dickinson’s grandfather Samuel was one of the founders of the Amherst Academy, an institution set up to defend religion against the new Harvard theology. When one looks at the subsequent history of Unitarianism, it is clear that Samuel’s worries were well-founded. It was indeed a slippery slope. From the late nineteenth century, the American Unitarian Association began to admit “non-theistic” churches, which, in due course, outnumbered believing Unitarians.
The Second Great Awakening began in the early nineteenth century and it had more staying power than the first, which had to contend with the powerful rationalist certainties of the Enlightenment, whose precepts were to shape the American constitution. Both awakenings, particularly the second, turned away from predestination and towards the idea of salvation as open to all who engaged with Jesus the Redeemer. The new awakening thus involved the democratisation of salvation and engaged the emerging realities of modern America. The reason the Second Great Awakening was the transformative success which ensured the centrality of the Calvinist tradition in American life to the present day can be traced to its unambiguous jettisoning of the theology of election, its emphasis on the personal and crucially because it drew upon the new and hugely influential counter Enlightenment Romantic movement, with its emphasis on the personal quest for spiritual fulfilment. No matter that Romanticism was essentially irreligious, it provided the essential cultural thrust to transform Calvinism into evangelicalism and for the latter to become something as close to state religion as was possible in a republic with a secular constitution.
It seems that the Dickinson family did not embrace The First Awakening. Neither did they embrace Unitarianism, and none of the core family were caught up in the enthusiasm of The Second Awakening. (Later on there was a desultory conforming to the new orthodoxy: Austin did it to please his wife, Edward can only have done it for social reasons, while Lavinia’s motives are obscure.) Nor were the Dickinsons enthusiasts for Enlightenment anti-religion, nor later for Romantic anti-religion. In politics they were conservative compromisers ‑ Edward was a Whig and a public representative. Some found his opposition to slavery too mild and the xenophobic “Know Nothings” ensured his political downfall. In short the Dickinsons were a long established American family situated outside the main public movements from the early eighteenth century to the late nineteenth. Awareness of this, I believe, can help in understanding Emily Dickinson and her exceptional achievement.
Edward Dickinson provided a financially secure environment for his children. The trauma and insecurity caused by Samuel’s bankruptcy stopped with him; it was not transmitted to his children. They could be aware of their difference and secure in it; they could be proud of their status and heritage, evidence of which, they could see and hear about them in Amherst.
Mary Lyon, the founder of Mount Holyoke Female Seminary for Girls, was an enthusiastic evangelical. Many of the students were “saved”, having discovered a personal redeemer in Jesus and were encouraged to do so by Miss Lyon, who is usually described as formidable. Emily Dickinson declined and was not at all intimidated by the principal. Her opinion may be gleaned from the delightfully irreverent and ironic comment included in a letter to her brother Austin, which also reflects the family’s sense of being different and her own disdain for the world’s affairs and for its high rhetoric, whether religious or political :
Do you know any nation about to besiege South Hadley? If so, do inform me of it, for I would be glad of a chance to escape, if we are to be stormed. I suppose Miss Lyon would furnish us all with daggers and order us to fight for our lives, in case such perils should befall us.
On another occasion she remarked to her brother: “We’re all unlike most everyone, and are therefore more dependent on each other for delight.” Following a visit to Boston, Austin remarked that it confirmed his sister’s “opinion of the hollowness and awfulness of the world”. Emily’s self-seclusion was in the family tradition, as was her feeling of superiority, which she expressed in her inimitable manner. At a dinner during her visit to Boston, when presented with a flambé dessert she enquired from the judge sitting beside her, with characteristic poise, whether it was permissible there to eat hell fire. She had, it seems, interiorised the family line on the Unitarian capital.
Her sensitivity, intelligence and passionate vocation to serve the word made for a dangerous combination. She explained to a puzzled Higginson why she held back from men and women “They speak of hallowed things and embarrass my dog.” What then was the attraction of Higginson, whom she pursued and who recognised her brilliance but was also, it seems, frightened of her abilities? I am inclined to think her interest in Higginson, particularly after the initial exchanges, was essentially sexual.
If you are determined to never cross your “father’s ground” it is perhaps best not to have a sexual interest in others. This was clearly not the case with Dickinson. She was discouraged by the men she met, who responded to her brilliance with a baffled “what?”. Yet she experienced desire and longing intensely:
Wild Nights – Wild Nights!
Were I with thee
Wild Nights should be
Futile – the Winds –
To a Heart in port –
Done with the Compass –
Done with the Chart!
Rowing in Eden
Ah – the Sea!
Might I but moor –Tonight –
Dickinson’s ideal male, as embodied in her letters and in her “master” poems, did not resemble her repressed father but, rather, was more like her idealistic, passionate and risk-taking grandfather. Higginson the passionate lover of literature, anti-slavery campaigner and brave military man fitted the bill. Like Samuel he was also a strong advocate of female education, writing the powerful satirical essay “Ought Women to Learn the Alphabet?”. Perhaps the fact that he was a bit confused about some things was an added attraction. Wineapple tells us that with Higginson in mind Emerson wrote: “It is only those who save others, that can themselves be saved.” This is not unlike the sentiments expressed in Samuel’s obituary.
Other men for whom she is believed to have entertained sexual feelings were Byronic types and not particularly compatible with her in temperament, outlook and values. But then sexual and intellectual predilections do not always align. Dickinson had long a certain penchant for a world the opposite of her own. In 1852, as a young woman, she wrote: “Mortality is fatal-/ Gentility is fine,/ Rascality, heroic,/ Insolvency, sublime!” Samuel must surely have been in her mind when she wrote these lines.
A woman like Dickinson, who did not socialise yet still had an interest in men, was faced with certain tactical problems. Staying indoors protected one from the “what?” brigade but, as Lavinia observed, Emily was “always watching for the rewarding person to come”. As the tactic of awaiting a shining knight is at best uncertain of outcome, Dickinson complimented it with epistolary projections. In the case of Higginson it did not work; he finally visited, but when his wife died he remarried and did not approach Dickinson. Finally a widowed judge, many years her senior and presumably less physically appealing than the handsome Higginson, proposed. There does not appear to have been an erotic attraction and she put him off. Perhaps Dickinson always knew there would be a price for being different. In her brother’s copy of Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh she marked the lines:
O Ever thus, from childhood’s hour
I’ve seen my fondest hopes decay.
There is also the possibility I might be entirely wrong about this. Dickinson’s niece wrote: “My aunt had lovers … ‘all the way’ to the end ‑ men of varied professions … wrote to her and came to see her.” Her brother Austin had a longstanding and open affair in which all were complicit; perhaps Emily managed something along those lines. But it strikes me as more likely that her niece meant lovers in the “talking” sense.
Publication might well have solved this problem: “If fame belonged to me, I could not escape her”, she wrote, but declined to pursue publication, apparently seeing it as a distraction. Her reluctance to strive for publication was not shared by the determined Lavinia who devoted herself to the task following Emily’s death. Fame came, but it was too late for the poet to benefit from it. She knew she was writing for posterity:
My Splendours, are Menagerie-
But their Completeless Show
Will entertain the Centuries
When I, am long ago,
An Island in dishonoured grass –
Whom none but daisies, know –
Dickinson’s desire for intimacy and an audience expose the practical impossibility of human isolation, which in turn echoes the political and historical impossibilities of classical Calvinism. Dickinson’s life was lived at the core of these conflicts and it comes as no surprise to contemporary readers ‑ who would not tend to be convinced by Winters’s argument ‑ that conflict and great poetry are easy in one another’s company.
The freedoms and isolation enjoyed by Amherst’s non-Wordsworthian anti-Lucy allowed Dickinson the intense subjectivity to concentrate on thinking, on life and on death and on immortality.
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just ourselves –
Eventually the fellow passenger is revealed as illusory; the poet is alone in her carriage; the truth of death is exposed; it is not Calvinist salvation but, in this case as Vendler indicates, the quite different reality of a hopeless eternity in death.
Among later poets from the Reformation tradition who addressed the theme of death Philip Larkin’s: “the deep blue air, that shows / Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless” is effective but dispiriting, while the final lines of Robert Frost’s “Out, Out”: “And they, since they / Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.” are positively depressing. Dickinson’s extraordinary achievement is to write about death, without the prospect of resurrection, in an uplifting way which, in its bravery and courage, somehow preserves human dignity. In the end I believe that this is because she was lapsed in the formal sense only and that the core Puritan certitude of earlier times still governed her spirit and moves also in her verse.
It is likely that Dickinson was familiar with the bleak wisdom of Ecclesiastes:
Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.
This can be read as an injunction to get on with life and not to worry about death. For Dickinson, its message would have posed no difficulty. But the work her hand found to do was to think about life, including its defining event: death. This she did with all her might, with true grit.
Maurice Earls is a bookseller and joint editor of the Dublin Review of Books.