Thursday, 14 August 2014

Emily Dickinson — A Visit to Amherst

Emily Dickinson Daguerreotype (restored)

On travels when KumKum and I are near enough to a poet’s grave or museum to pay a visit, we go. In this manner we have paid our respects to Keats, Ghalib, Melville, Wharton, Longfellow and Poe, and this time we were driven from Boston to Amherst to see the Emily Dickinson Museum, located in the house where she spent the major part of her life.

Emily Dickinson's house - she worked in the upper right bedroom

The docent who guided a group of seven was a retired lady, specialising in 19th century history, and had an intimate familiarity with the life of ED and her close family (sister Lavinia, brother Austin and future sister-in-law Susan). She said there were many myths about the poet – that she was a recluse, that no one in her lifetime knew she wrote poetry, that she never left Amherst, etc.

ED was a fond aunt to children who came to play in the grounds outside her upper storey bedroom, and would lower shortbread cookies to them in a basket. There is a museum of her memorabilia in Harvard University, at the Emily Dickinson Room of the Houghton Library,

which preserves “more than a thousand autograph poems, and some 300 letters, by Emily Dickinson, and is the largest Dickinson collection in the world, including additionally such treasures as the poet’s Herbarium.” The herbarium was a collection of pressed specimens of plants ED made in her youth. Replicas of her bureau (chest of drawers), chair and small table stand in her room stand
Cherry bureau and small cherry writing table and chair in ED's bedroom

The writing table’s surface is small; it could not have held more than the working sheet of paper she wrote on. The original furniture is at Harvard. It is spare for a poet furnished with such a lavish imagination. The bureau contained the fascicles (little booklets) into which ED hand-sewed her precious poems and let them lie. 

Since July 2016 the Museum has allowed visitors to rent her bedroom for $100 an hour and sit and write at her desk:

The ED house has a small shop at the entrance:

Emily Dickinson Museum - the small shop at the entrance to the house

selling poems and books, including a 3-volume variorum edition

“The Johnson edition of 1955 (the old "definitive" edition) of the complete poems makes choices for the reader -- choices which, unfortunately, are not always the best. This new edition presents the poetry with all the variations intact, so that the reader could choose for him/herself a particular reading when Dickinson herself did not leave a final preference.”

As for why she did not publish, the docent told us it was because ED had many alternative words for particular lines in her poems and could not decide. Poets always have alternatives when they search for the best expressions of their thoughts, and have to decide which one creates the surprise or the harmony intended. That is the reason why poets publish revisions in later editions. So an inability to decide the best word choice could hardly be a reason to desist from publication.

She wrote to a contributor in the Atlantic Monthly, Thomas Higginson, sending four poems and asking his opinion: “say if my Verse is alive.” This may have been a fateful mistake, for he, not knowing that she had already written several hundred poems (her output was 1,700+ by the time she died), and being a non-poet himself and a poor judge of literary merit, as history bears out, “counseled her to work longer and harder on her poetry before she attempted its publication.” You can read more at

ED was in a small town devoid of poets, and she had no personal contact with true literary figures. This Higginson gambit seems to have been her first and only attempt to get published, and it met with the rebuff of a man who had little capacity to enter the mind or poetry of ED.

But the world of poetry did not lose. After her death in 1886 her family discovered the hand-sewn fascicles in her bureau containing more than a thousand poems. Since it was her practice to send letters to friends and relatives with poems, and hundreds were sent, it is quite possible several hundred more are lost, when the receiver did not preserve those letters and transmit them to the executors of her literary estate.

The query to Higginson may be the clue to why she did not publish. When a poet of her outstanding genius stoops to ask a comparative hack his opinion of her poetry, it is a sign of diffidence, arising from her own high bar for versification to be considered poetry. She was not convinced her poetry matched the standard she hoped to attain – that I think is the reason she gave them away as trifles in letters, often not even bothering to keep a master copy before dispatching them in chatty missives to friends and relatives.

Her one visit to Boston (by rail) was to have her eyesight examined. A severe difficulty in vision set in and this was reflected in her handwriting. In the annotations for her Herbarium it is minute (8-point), elegant and cursive. It remains cursive but becomes quite large (16-point) after the difficulty in vision, and later it takes the form of disjoint printed characters.

A hundred yards away stands the much more luxurious home connected by a narrow walkway which she described as "just wide enough for two who love."

KumKum & Joe standing by the walkway from Emily's to the home of her brother, Austin, described by her as 'just wide enough for two who love'

The new home was built for her brother, Austin, by their father, with the intention of retaining him in Amherst. Austin was also a lawyer like their father, and like him became the Treasurer of Amherst College, the institution started by the grandfather. Austin and wife Susan enjoyed the luxuries of life – two live-in servants, paintings on the wall, plush furniture and an elegant dining room where they entertained guests. The docent read from a menu for Valentine’s Day which was on exhibit beside the dining service laid out. It was a sumptuous meal with many courses such as might have been served in a royal palace!

As to why ED did not marry – the question should not even come up in modern times since the feminist movement has led us to believe that women can do as they wish, and their fulfillment in life is not necessarily tied to marriage or childbearing. However, in those times it was uncommon for women to remain unmarried. Then why ED? She certainly was a vivacious and witty person in her youth, and exchanged a Valentine’s poem with a young man in her father’s office. KumKum thinks ED remained single because of her domineering father’s disapproval of the men she considered favourably as suitors. Is she confusing with Elizabeth Barrett Browning (whom ED admired)?

But there may be an alternate explanation. She was after all ready to exercise her own judgment in many matters, e.g., at a certain point when the revivalist ardour got too much for her, she ceased going to the Congregationalist church, and wrote the poem (#236) which begins
Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –
I keep it, staying at Home –

She drifted away from college after ten months at Mount Holyoke. She decided to wear white. She knew her mind and did as she thought fit. But she was a poet in her mind and her imagination, one with a reflective bent and a fine ability to surprise. Perhaps she never found a man whose sympathy for her temperament would make him a good companion for life.

From The Emily Dickinson Handbook by Gudrun Grabher

She was no wall-flower; at age 14 she wrote about herself in a letter to a friend, saying she had no doubt she would be ‘the belle of the ball’ when debutantes came out at age 17. She certainly had suitors. And being determined to follow her own thinking, she would not have been lacking in courage to pursue a relationship, had she found one that suited her singular temperament. The fact is she found her writing vocation early and pursued that. Her poems have a quality of arising out of meditation. She must have been alone with her thoughts much of the time to give birth to such poems as she did. That kind of sensitive, meditative mind demands a definite sympathy in a potential partner. Could such men, rare at the best of times, have been easy to come by in a small town?

Among the major influences on her poetry are the Bible and Nature. You can recognize the hymnal beat of quatrains 8/6/8/6 in much of her poetry. She is full of God, but not as a conventional pietist might be. Her take on God and his immanence in the world is akin to that of a mystic, but she does not preach from any particular religious persuasion. 

She observed Nature closely and her descriptions yield the particulars of her observation, such as this:
A narrow fellow in the grass
Occasionally rides.
You may have met him, — did you not?
His notice sudden is.

The grass divides as with a comb,
A spotted shaft is seen;
And then it closes at your feet
And opens further on.

He likes a boggy acre,
A floor too cool for corn.
Yet when a boy, and barefoot,
I more than once, at noon,

Have passed, I thought, a whiplash
Unbraiding in the sun;
When, stooping to secure it,
It wrinkled and was gone.

The unique signature of her poems lies in the unusual words and pairing of words. For her Nature was ever new, and she had to find NEW words, or at least, a new word ordering, to capture its eternal newness and pass it on to coming generations. 

KumKum & Joe at Emily Dickinson's grave

The poem I read at her grave in the cemetery (behind a Mobil gas station on Pleasant Street) was this:

I taste a liquor never brewed –
From Tankards scooped in Pearl –
Not all the Frankfort Berries
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!

A short round of applause ensued. While Joe was declaiming this in the presence of a handful of others visiting ED’s grave, his grandson, Gael, was standing twenty yards off. Later he confessed his embarrassment at the loud and public recitation, and said he saw a visitor shake his head and roll his eyes, as if to wonder at the brazen behavior of his Opa.

Grand-daughter Elsa reads two poems to Emily at her grave: 
'I'm a Nobody Who are you' and 'Tell all the truth but tell it slant'

Then Elsa, our grand-daughter wanted to read, so I pointed her to a poem in the small book I bought at the Museum shop:
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog – 
To tell one’s name – the livelong June – 
To an admiring Bog!
(‘livelong day’ is an alternate version given by ED)

I consider the second stanza to be her sending up of twitterati whom she’d foreseen 150 years in advance. Elsa recited another curious one:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

Grandson Gael before a huge mural in the cemetery with Emily Dickinson beaming over the proceedings

Useful Web References
The Emily Dickinson Museum includes The Homestead, where poet Emily Dickinson was born and lived most of her life, and the home of the poet’s brother and his family. The two houses share three acres of the original Dickinson property in the center of Amherst, Massachusetts.

The Emily Dickinson Collection at Harvard University, Houghton Library

Dickinson Electronic Archives
A creative and critical collaboratory and digital repository for reading Dickinson's material, featuring new critical and theoretical work about Emily Dickinson's writings, biography, reception, and influence. It is a scholarly resource exploring the potential of the digital environment to reveal new interpretive material, cultural, historical, and theoretical contexts
The Emily Dickinson Archive makes high-resolution images of Dickinson’s surviving manuscripts available in open access, and provides readers with a website through which they can view images of manuscripts held in multiple libraries and archives.
The story behind the Emily Dickinson Archive, a collaborative project of Harvard University Press and a growing number of repositories that own examples of Dickinson’s original work. The biggest are Houghton Library, Amherst College, and the Boston Public Library.

An extensive 10,000 word biography of Emily Dickinson

The informative Wikipedia entry for Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson's Life – short

The World of Emily Dickinson - A Visual Biography by Polly Longsworth (W.W. Norton & Company, 1997). Also on Google Books at

Video of a Talk
'The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson', book by author Jerome Charyn who creates the poet in her own voice, with all its characteristic modulations that he learned from her letters and poems. He says she had a mischievous, playful, sexual side, and did not hide her sexuality. 

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