"Avenged Sorrow": The Poetic Genius of Emily Dickinsonby Kathryn Voorhees
"I thought that being a Poem one's self precluded the writing Poems, but perceive the Mistake" —Emily Dickinson to T.W. Higginson
iographer Richard Sewell observes in his award-winning biography of Emily Dickinson, "There may in fact be as many [Emily Dickinsons] as there are biographers" (2: 532), and in this assertion, he reveals the conundrum that is one of America's greatest poets. We can assert with authority the basic facts of her biography, but that recital of facts leaves us with much more we can never know with certainty: why did Dickinson eventually dress all in white and withdraw as a recluse into her father's house; what rupture with Susan Gilbert Dickinson resulted in her refusal to enter her brother Austin's house for 15 years; who was the mysterious "Master"; was Dickinson emotionally unstable or suffering from a long list of proposed illnesses; why did she refuse further publication of her poems; or, indeed, how many poems did she actually write? In the absence of evidence that might have been revealing had her sister Lavinia not scrupulously followed her sister's request and burned all Emily's papers and letters (but not her poems) at her death, much of what remains is conjecture—often well-argued but conjecture nonetheless—causing Anna Mary Wells to conclude: "biographers have fully demonstrated that Emily Dickinson's poems can be used to bolster flatly contradictory theories about her personal life" (320). What scholar, student, and reader are left with, then, is the "Dickinson Myth," the eccentric if not downright unbalanced and fragile shadow woman who haunts the edges of our American poetic consciousness.1 That the Myth obfuscates and demeans Dickinson's poetic achievement demands that we must move with caution and common sense to assess the life and achievement of the real Emily Dickinson as poet and person, accepting as inevitable the gaps we can never fill.
Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born December 10, 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts, the second child of Edward Dickinson and Emily Norcross Dickinson. Her older brother, William Austin Dickinson, had been born in 1829, and her younger sister, Lavinia Norcross Dickinson, followed in 1833. Edward Dickinson was of Puritan, New England lineage, a lawyer as well as an influential public figure who was treasurer of Amherst College for 37 years—an institution his own father had helped to found—whose many public accomplishments included multiple terms in the Massachusetts legislature and two years in the U.S. House of Representatives. He was instrumental in bringing both the telegraph and railroad to Amherst, and in 1873 was elected to serve on the General Court of Massachusetts, the post he occupied at the time of his death. Some Dickinson biographers emphasize his austere, perhaps tyrannical nature, aided by comments in Dickinson's own letters, such as an October 21, 1847 letter she sent Austin from Mt. Holyoke Seminary that directed her brother to "Tell father I thank him for his letter & will try to follow its precepts" (Johnson, Letters 1: 49), followed by a tongue-in-cheek comment in a March 24, 1852 letter to her brother: "and as you say, Austin, what father says, 'he means'" (Johnson, Letters 1: 190). An April 25, 1862 letter from Dickinson to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, literary editor of the Atlantic Monthly, describes her father as "too busy with his Briefs—to notice what we do—He buys me many Books—but begs me not to read them—because he fears they joggle the Mind" (Johnson, Letters 2: 404). Dickinson, however, was close to her father, feeling what Sewell defines as a "tender devotion" for him (1: 61) and grieving for him deeply after his death. Telling Higginson in a July 1874 letter that "[h]is Heart was pure and terrible and I think no other like it exists" (Johnson, Letters 2: 528), she writes to Higginson a year later (July 1865), "Home is so far from Home, since my Father died" (Johnson, Letters 2: 542).
Dickinson's relationship with her mother was, perhaps, even more complex. As Alfred Habegger writes, there are "hints of ambivalent feelings about her mother and a lack of solid information about the relationship" (28). Some of her harshest criticism is directed toward her mother, evident in two comments she makes to Higginson, one at their first meeting in August of 1870 and a second in a January 1874 letter: "I never had a mother. I suppose a mother is one to whom you hurry when you are troubled" (Johnson, Letters 2: 475) and "I always ran Home to Awe when a child, if anything befell me. He was an awful Mother, but I liked him better than none" (Johnson, Letters 2: 517-18). Such comments seem to belie ambivalence altogether and have become the basis of at least one study, a Freudian analysis of the effects of a distant, ineffectual mother on Dickinson's development.2 Yet to take those comments solely at face value ignores the pose that Dickinson adopted in her long relationship with Higginson; further, the sentiments she expressed to Higginson about her mother "do not at all square with her mature thoughts about her mother" (Sewell 2: 565). Dickinson nursed her mother through a series of illnesses, including her final one, and the care of her mother changed Dickinson's initial assessment, so much so that she claimed to her cousins Louise and Frances Norcross in a November 1882 letter that "mother's dying almost stunned my spirit" (Johnson, Letters 3: 749). In December of 1882 she wrote to her friend Mrs. J. G. Holland about her mother, "When we were Children and she journeyed, she always brought us something. Now, would she bring us but herself, what an only Gift—" (Johnson, Letters 3: 755), and in the same year wrote to Mary Ingersoll Cooper, "'Mother,' to me, is so sacred a Name, I take even that of the 'Seraphim' with less hallowed significance—" (Johnson, Letters 3: 752).
Dickinson's family is of vital importance because she spent her entire life with these four people, eventually seeing no one other than her sister, brother, and household servants. While a child, there is ample evidence that Dickinson was a member of a close-knit, loving family, and the existence of her extensive Herbarium—two collections in Dickinson's lifetime—attests to the fact that Dickinson spent much of her youth out of doors roaming the natural world surrounding her home and schools. Dickinson was close with her brother, Austin, a lawyer who also, like his father, served for long years as the treasurer of Amherst College and who married Susan Gilbert, Emily's school acquaintance and subject of much controversy in Dickinson's life.3 Sewell calls Austin "perhaps Emily's greatest resource. In temperament and tastes they were the closest in the family" (2: 428). Lavinia, called Vinnie, while not Austin's and Emily's equal in intellect or intellectual curiosity, was the practical caretaker of the family home after their parents' death, whose "loyalty to her family became her vocation" (Sewell 1: 142), eventually extending to her dogged determination to publish her sister's poetry that Emily had instructed Lavinia to burn, along with her letters and papers, after Emily's death. The relationship between Emily and her sister was intense, evident in Dickinson's comment to Charles H. Clark in a June 1883 letter: "Your bond to your brother reminds me of mine to my sister—early, earnest, indissoluble. Without her life were fear, and Paradise a cowardice, except for her inciting voice" (Johnson, Letters 3: 779).
Initially, Dickinson was a child of the outer world, collecting specimens for her Herbarium, attending receptions and graduations at Amherst College, and beginning her schooling with Lavinia in 1840 at the co-educational Amherst Academy. Emily followed her schooling at Amherst Academy with one year of study in September 1847 at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in nearby South Hadley; multiple conjectures exist for why Dickinson returned home after only one year of a three-year course of study (distaste for the religious fervor of the founder, Mary Lyon; heath concerns; homesickness; her father's desire for her to be at home), but the fact remains that once Dickinson returned from school, with the exception of one trip to Washington, D.C and Philadelphia and brief visits to Boston, particularly for care of an eye disorder, Dickinson spent the remainder of her life in Amherst, eventually never leaving the boundaries of her father's house, The Homestead,4 for the final 17 years of her life.
Dickinson's allegiance to her family and home was complete, and as she reminded Austin in an October 1851 letter, "Home is a holy thing—nothing of doubt or distrust can enter it's [sic] blessed portals" (Johnson, Letters 1: 150). Yet the fact that Dickinson became a virtual recluse in her father's house occupies much of the Dickinson scholarship, as biographers and scholars search for the reasons for her self-imposed confinement and, perhaps more important, the effect her seclusion had on her poetic craft. Dickinson's one major trip away from her home occurred February through March 1855, when Dickinson and her sister traveled to Washington D.C. while her father was representing the Tenth Congressional District of Massachusetts. After three weeks, Edward Dickinson and his two daughters travelled to Philadelphia to visit a family relative, Eliza Coleman. In Philadelphia, Dickinson supposedly was taken to the Arch Street Presbyterian Church to hear the Reverend Charles Wadsworth preach, although Habegger warns that "the sequence of events will no doubt always be obscure" (330). Thus begins the long-contested speculation concerning the "Dear Master" letters and poems and the cause of a period of pain, illness, and emotional exhaustion that marked her life during the years 1858 through 1865, years that were also, ironically, the years during which she produced poetry at a "blistering pace" (Habegger 498). The existence of a forbidden love that was both the cause of Dickinson's suffering and the impetus for some of her greatest poetry is a story that first appears after Dickinson's death through her niece, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, beginning a scholarly dispute that has yet to be resolved.5 This dispute, however, is only one of many that concern Dickinson's adult life, that through cause and effect addresses various illnesses Dickinson suffered, her emotional stability, and her eventual confinement in her father's house, dressed only in white, participating in behavior that Sewell claims "could hardly be called natural by any standard" (1: 154).6 As Dickinson wrote to her "Preceptor," Thomas Wentworth Higginson, in a June 1869 letter, "You speak kindly of seeing me. Could it please your convenience to come so far as Amherst I should be very glad, but I do not cross my Father's ground to any House or town" (Johnson, Letters 2: 460). However unusual we may see her behavior, however closeted within her home she may have chosen to become, there is substantial consensus that, first, her behavior may have been a conscious choice, and, second, that Dickinson's choice was predicated upon her own understanding of what she needed to pursue her art. As Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar argue, "Dickinson's life itself . . . became a kind of novel or narrative poem in which, through an extraordinarily complex series of maneuvers . . . this inventive poet enacted and eventually resolved both her anxieties about her art and her anger at female subordination" (583).
Dickinson's adult life can be seen in one way as isolated (as she wrote to Samuel Bowles in August 1860, "My friends are a very few. I can count them on my fingers—and besides, have fingers to spare" (Johnson, Letters 2: 366)), yet she remained a presence in the outer world through a varied and voluminous correspondence with family, neighbors, relatives, friends, mentors, and acquaintances.7 In her hands, letter writing was an art form, and many scholars argue that Dickinson's letters are a form of publication in themselves, for she included poems in many of her letters—or poems as the body of her letters. Thomas Johnson, who in 1955 published the first complete edition of Dickinson's poems and followed with her collected letters in 1958, observes that the style and rhythm of her letters are so nearly the style and rhythm of her poems "as on occasion to leave the reader in doubt where the letter leaves off and the poem begins" (xv). She clearly saw her correspondence as an important element of her life, evident in her assertion to Charles H. Clark in a January 1885 letter, "a Letter is a joy of Earth—it is denied the Gods" (Johnson, Letters 3: 857). The quality and sheer volume of her letters belie the assumption that Dickinson lived an isolated and lonely life, cut off from the nineteenth-century world around her. One thing is certain. Through all the speculation and theories, what remains is a woman committed to her craft, producing correspondence and poems the volume of which is almost unparalleled in literary history.
No one knows exactly when Dickinson began to write seriously, although she seems to have been aided in her intellectual and poetic development by two of her earliest male friends. The first, Benjamin Franklin Newton, was a law student nine years older than Dickinson, who spent two years in her father's law office and who, according to Sewell, "seems to be the only one who understood her poetic promise" at this early stage of her life (2: 403). Dickinson herself, in a letter to Edward Everett Hale on January 13, 1854, credited Newton with "teaching me what to read [and] what authors to admire" (Johnson, Letters 1: 282). Newton introduced Dickinson to the poems and prose of Ralph Waldo Emerson, while her second student friend, Henry Vaughan Emmons, who came to Amherst College to study in 1851, shared the poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning with her. Habegger claims that Emmons "produced a more solemn understanding of what it was to be a poet—a crystallization in her consciousness of self, now more distinct and singled out than ever" (321). While we can place, through the biographies of these two men, the genesis of Dickinson's interest in things poetic to be between 1850 to 1855, we cannot even speculate when she actually began writing her poems or how she decided upon her form, developed her syntax, or chose her diction. We do know that she was already an established poet in her own mind almost a decade before she sent her now-famous first query to Higginson.
Dickinson's poems are all short lyrics without titles, there is no method by which to date definitively any one poem's composition, and more than half of her poems exist with variants, some small and some substantial, with little indication of which variant represents Dickinson's final choice. Although iambic pentameter had been in "uninterrupted and nearly uncontested standard use for five hundred years" (Finch 168) by the time Emily Dickinson was writing her poetry, the form of Dickinson's poetry is based on the traditional design used for nursery rhymes, ballads, and church hymns. Dickinson used the form of the hymns she heard in church.8 Most commonly, her poems are groupings of rhymed four-line stanzas (most often two-stanza groupings) in the basic metrical pattern of ballad meter whose standard variations are: "common meter, in which two lines of four iambic feet alternate with two lines of three iambic feet (4-3-4-3); long meter, in which all the lines have four feet; and short meter, in which only the third line contains four feet (3-3-4-3)" (Finch 169). While Dickinson rarely (and, as Finch says, "unpredictably") used iambic pentameter, she "stayed near, or at least constantly returned to, the strict count of her hymn stanzas throughout her career" (168).9
This does not mean, however, that Dickinson is a conventional formal poet. Vendler points out that Dickinson's tetrameter is rarely consistent as well, and "[b]ecause of the near-omnipresence of Dickinson's hymn-meter, her ingenious and meaningful variations in rhythm and syntax within that frame have often passed unnoticed" (5). Dickinson's ingenuity lies in her preference for surprising slant and eye rhymes, oblique diction, startling metaphors, enjambment, syntactical fragments, and the use of dashes of varying lengths and directions. Dickinson never adopted conventional technique, never "appropriated the language of another poet and never used the characteristic diction of a school or movement" (Morris 28). In her deliberate originality, Dickinson made her quatrains "a new genre, one unique to her own poetry" (Morris 32) and thus became a pioneer of "a revolutionary verse-language of immediacy and power" (Vendler 7).
Sometime around 1858, Dickinson began to bind her verses in homemade packets or "fascicles" (called such by Mable Loomis Todd) while at the same time reviewing poems she had written previously and combining those with poems that were in current composition. She made clean copies of her poems on good stationery (her habit of destroying preliminary drafts after making clean copies contributes to the difficulty of assigning "compositional and biographical origins" (Habegger 355)), binding separate sheets into little booklets with her needle and thread. The creation of these packets spanned the period of her greatest productivity. Tellingly, Gilbert and Gubar observe that "[i]t is almost as if, in the absence of editor or printer, Dickinson had both edited and printed herself, like some late-blooming scribe" (641). There are several interesting issues that arise from these packets. First, these packets do not contain the totality of her verse. Habegger notes that by the 1870's, most of her verses "joined a large accumulation of drafts penciled on scraps of stationery, notepaper, or wrapping paper, on discarded letters, envelopes, Commencement programs for Massachusetts Agricultural College, advertising circulars, and the like" (526).10 Second, there is evidence that, although the packets were eventually disassembled during the earliest posthumous editing process, the 30 fascicles (or 43, as some scholars aver) suggest that Dickinson put the verses in some type of thematic or organizational order. Sewell agrees that the packets suggest "her private substitute for publication" and can provide for contemporary readers "her notion of the way her poems should be presented to the world when and if the world should be receptive" (2: 537). Finally, the fascicles stand as an important testament that Dickinson was already confident in her art before she wrote, at age 31, her first letter to Higginson, on April 15, 1862, that contains her question to him, "Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?" (Johnson, Letters 2: 403). Her question, suggesting her novice status as a poet, can be interpreted as a pose, reinforced by the fact that while Dickinson asks Higginson to become her "Preceptor" (Johnson, Letters 2: 409), she eventually came to understand that he did not attempt, ultimately, to facilitate the publication of her poetry while she was alive, calling her, instead, his "partially cracked poetess at Amherst" (Johnson, Letters 2: 570). While she sent him approximately 124 poems over the course of their correspondence, he never facilitated the publication of her poetry, remaining conventional in his approach to Dickinson's unique, innovative poetry. He wished her to "regularize" her poetry, by which he meant imposing on her poems exact rhyme, standard punctuation, and correct grammar, what Dickinson referred to in her second letter to him as his "surgery" (Johnson, Letters 2: 404). Calling her poems "effusions" (Miller n. pag.), Higginson found her craft, as Dickinson quotes in a June 7, 1862 letter to him, "spasmodic" and "uncontrolled" (Johnson, Letters 2: 409). Sewell observes that "as a literary adviser he failed her completely" (1: 6). Dickinson claimed in letters to her Preceptor that he played an important role for her, as in the June 1869 letter where she assures him, "You were not aware that you saved my Life" (Johnson, Letters 2: 460), and the number of letters she sent him and his two personal visits to Amherst suggest that, to some degree, he was a mainstay of her emotional well-being. Whatever her meaning for claiming that Higginson saved her life, however, it seems hard to believe that she was referring to his "help" in her craft and in opportunities to publish, for as Sewell points out, "she apparently paid no attention whatever" to his advice about her poetry (2: 549).
Two other men in Dickinson's life also failed to support her in her attempt to publish during her lifetime: Samuel Bowles, the owner and editor-in-chief of the Springfield Republican and Dr. Joshua Holland, editor of Scribners, both of whom nevertheless played a vital role in Dickinson's emotional and intellectual life. While Bowles did publish five of Dickinson's poems, he heavily edited them in the process, which may have ultimately discouraged Dickinson's attempts to keep trying to publish. All three men—Higginson, Bowles, and Holland—seem to have been deaf to the genius of her poetic voice and perhaps thwarted her plans to become a published poet, although Habegger warns that "[t]here is no firm evidence that Dickinson sanctioned the appearance of any of the ten poems published in her lifetime" (389; footnote 12). Here seems to have been an area of true ambivalence for her. Ironically, the one person who remained an unwavering supporter of Dickinson's poetry and desired to see Dickinson widely published was a woman: a fellow Amherst native and childhood acquaintance of Dickinson, Helen Hunt Jackson. Jackson had learned about Dickinson's poetry through Higginson and was eventually re-united with Dickinson through correspondence with her. Jackson believed Dickinson to be an authentic poet—without any qualifications concerning Dickinson's diction, syntax or grammar—evident in a March 20, 1876 letter from Jackson to Dickinson: "You are a great poet—and it is wrong to the day you live in, that you will not sing aloud. When you are what men call dead, you will be sorry you were so stingy" (qtd. in Johnson, Letters 2: 545). While only a handful of Dickinson's poetry was published during her lifetime,11 Jackson's analysis proved to be the correct one, and Lavinia's inability to follow her sister's orders and burn the packets of poetry she found after her sister's death allows readers now and for all future time to appreciate what Helen Hunt Jackson understood 100 years ago.12
Dickinson's poems return over and over again to a number of basic subjects: the tension between belief and unbelief; faith; mortality and immortality; death and suffering; eternity; requited and unrequited love; nature; and the act of poetic composition. Some scholars assert that she is not a confessional poet if one defines that designation as a poet who provides "straight autobiographical detail" of her life (Habegger 234). Dickinson seems to reinforce this assertion when in a July 1862 letter to Higginson she reminds him, "When I state myself, as the Representative of the Verse—it does not mean—me—but a supposed person" (Johnson, Letters 2: 412), and the reader can point to numerous poems where the persona is not Dickinson—indeed, is not even female (for example, poem 1096, "A narrow fellow in the Grass").13 Yet, it can be beyond doubt that many of her poems draw on her own emotional experiences. While Habegger warns the reader that "we mustn't presume to find her every time" (455), he also agrees that around 1860, poems about Dickinson's personal life became much more abundant, "implying a passionate inquiry into the writer's peculiar destiny" (405).
Such passionate inquiry is obvious in the poems and letters Dickinson wrote about her "quarrel with God," her life-long struggle to reconcile the faith she inherited from her Puritan past with her own philosophical and theological questioning. While Dickinson struggled to understand the prevalent religious beliefs of her time and place, she did not reject traditional Christianity without great struggle. The struggle was evident in two important areas of her young life: her family life and her school life, where there was constant pressure to conform to the tenants of the Christian religion and the outward behavior such commitment demanded. Emily's mother was always a believer, but during a number of evangelical awakenings in Amherst over a span of years, Edward, Austin, and Vinnie Dickinson and Susan Gilbert eventually converted, leaving only Emily "outside the fold." In an April 3, 1850 letter to Jane Humphrey, Dickinson wrote," 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 . . ." (Johnson, Letters 1: 94). For Dickinson, the central issues seem to have been the impossibility of evidence of another world ("I have now ceased my investigations, the Solution is insufficient" (Johnson, Letters 3: 756)), her desire to find meaning in this world rather than the next ("I dont [sic] know why it is but it does not seem to me that I shall ever cease to live on earth" (Johnson, Letters 1: 28)), and her "constant challenges to a patriarchal God whom she could believe in but never obey" (Juhasz n. pag.) ("Mr. S. preached in our church last Sabbath upon 'predestination,' but I do not respect 'doctrines,' and did not listen to him" (Johnson, Letters 2: 346)). Her comment in her 1876 letter to Eugenia Hall, "I am glad you love the Blossoms so well. I hope you love Birds too. It is economical. It saves going to Heaven" (Johnson, Letters 2: 550)), restates the themes of one of her early poems, one of the few that appeared in her lifetime, published in 1864 by her cousin Charles Sweetser in the New York Round Table (a poem Dickinson included in her first letter to Higginson):
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 –
Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice –
I, just wear my Wings –
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton – sings.
God preaches, a noted Clergyman –
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –
I'm going, all along.
First, we comprehend the obvious message of her poem—God is best apprehended in an Emersonian relationship with and appreciation of the natural world. (More than five hundred poems in the Dickinson canon focus on the subject of Nature (Ferlazzo 94)). Natural elements—the birds, the orchard—replace the conventional architecture of a New England Congregational Church, allowing the speaker to shun the obvious and unmistakable ecclesiastical vestments of her patriarchal religious tradition ("Surplice") and wear only her "Wings," an identification of the human speaker with the birds she loves but perhaps also an allusion to the innocence and simplicity of life without the outward trappings of civilization, including such encumbrances as the restricting nineteenth-century clothing for women, necessary in a communal meeting place. While this poem is written in the 4-3-4-3 ballad stanza meter, Helen Vendler observes that Dickinson's use of "smiling anapests" throughout the poem not only infuses the poem with the lilt of the iambic lines but also demonstrates Dickinson's ingenuity as she "of course is imitating her chorister, the Bobolink, whose very name has a bounce to it" (73).
There are other important motifs present. The poem's first two lines establish an all-important dichotomy: "Some" refers to the overwhelming majority of the citizens of Amherst, including her own family, who follow traditional forms of worship, while the "I" establishes the one standing against the many (the "standing alone in rebellion" of her letter to Jane Humphrey quoted above). In this way, the poem is a radical statement of difference and preference to a world for whom conformity—and especially religious conformity—is valued above imagination and self-actualization. Yet, while the poem is meant to be critical of the mindless adherence to conformity in religion as well as in community life, Dickinson's humor is also clearly evident, as she identifies God as "a noted Clergyman" who has enough sense not to drag out the didactic lesson of the day. Her humor reinforces the overall message of her poem: that a relationship with the natural world affords human beings the journey of Heaven rather than the journey to heaven. The speaker does not wrestle with the eternal questions that so often troubled Dickinson's mind and soul—Is there a God? Who is that God?—but rather finds an affirmation of belief in a spontaneous interaction with Nature.
Dickinson's tone alters significantly in a second poem that, while still speculating on the actual nature of God and the afterlife, focuses on another recurring Dickinson topic: the pain of unrequited love.
I cannot live with You –
It would be Life –
And Life is over there –
Behind the Shelf
The Sexton keeps the Key to –
Discarded of the Housewife –
Our Life – His Porcelain –
Like a Cup –
Quaint – or Broke –
A newer Sevres pleases –
Old Ones crack –
I could not die – with You –
For One must wait
To shut the Other's Gaze down –
You – could not –
And I – Could I stand by
And see You – freeze –
Without my Right of Frost –
Nor could I rise – with You –
Because Your Face
Would put out Jesus' –
That New Grace
Grow plain – and foreign
On my homesick eye –
Except that You than He
Shone closer by –
They'd judge Us – How –
For You – served Heaven – You know,
Or sought to –
I could not –
Because You saturated sight –
And I had no more eyes
For sordid excellence
And were You lost, I would be –
Though my name
On the Heavenly fame –
And were You – saved –
And I – condemned to be
Where You were not –
That self – were Hell to me –
So we must meet apart –
You there – I – here –
With just the Door ajar
That Oceans are – and Prayer –
And that White Sustenance –
Her longest poem, "I cannot live with You–" represents the category of her love verse that deals with loss, few more beautifully than this one. This poem, called by Vendler "a poem of torture" (303), also represents one of the "Dear Master" poems and thus becomes for some a puzzle they plumb for clues to the lover's identity. Far more important is the artful rendering of the despair and pain the speaker feels not only in not being with her loved one, but also in the implications that arise from their separation, including the way she responds to the God that the loved one has served ("For You – served Heaven – You know, / Or sought to –").
"Our little Sexton" of the previous poem, the chorister who so happily sings for the speaker, becomes in this poem in stanza two one of the impediments keeping the lovers apart, keeping the key that ultimately separates them (perhaps representing the morés of the Christian church that forbid their relationship, especially if we read line 30 as an indication that the lover had a ministerial calling). The broken porcelain that is discarded by the Housewife suggests a station the speaker has never achieved, which is why "Life is over there – / Behind the Shelf," life that would be sustaining and fulfilling for the speaker were she living with the loved one. Interestingly, in a letter tentatively dated August 1858 to Samuel Bowles, Dickinson writes, "In such a porcelain life, one likes to be sure that all is well, lest one stumble upon one's hopes in a pile of broken crockery" (Johnson, Letters 2: 338). Dickinson's poem is a beautiful yet despairing portrait of a speaker who has stumbled upon that broken crockery, rendered all the more painful because, for Dickinson, "[a] favorite fantasy is that of an eventual heavenly reunion. . . . In some of the poems that develop this thought, she speaks of herself as his waiting betrothed, or even 'wife'" (Habegger 410). In this poem, that is not even a consoling possibility, as the speaker states emphatically that not only can she not live with her lover on this earth, but immortality is barred to them, as well, especially because "Your Face / Would put out Jesus' – / . . . And I had no more eyes / For sordid excellence / As Paradise." The striking oxymoron of the phrase "sordid excellence" appears to the reader as simultaneously blasphemous and endearing. In a very early letter to her school friend, Abiah Root, on September 8, 1846, Dickinson confessed, "I do not feel that I could give up all for Christ, were I called to die" (Johnson, Letters 1: 38). In this poem, the cause for the speaker's retreat from Christ is his inability to outshine the Beloved, which denies the lovers eternity together, "for her idolatrous love would prevent her from acknowledging her true savior" (Ferlazzo 69). What is left is the speaker's temporal situation of existing behind the "Door ajar" (a striking reiteration of Dickinson's own behavior as her confinement deepened in the last decades of her life), an expanse of despair that even prayer cannot bridge. Gilbert and Gubar have commented on Dickinson's use of white, in general, as "the ultimate symbol of enigma, paradox, and irony" (614), here used by Dickinson not as the white Election but as "that White Sustenance – / Despair –," the pain on which the speaker feeds as a defining element of her life. The dichotomy of the first poem—society on one side and the speaker on the other—becomes in this poem the irrevocable dichotomy of the speaker and lover: "So we must meet apart – / You there – I – here –." The excessive use of dashes that gives each line its halting cadence, the broken lines, and the unorthodox syntax, especially of stanza two and three, convey the cost of that despair within the emotional life of the speaker.
Dickinson's greatest area of despair, however, and the subject of almost six hundred poems and a third of her creative output (Ferlazzo 22; 41), is loss on a permanent scale: the death of those she loved. Dickinson feared such loss, as death reinforced for her the fragility of life in the nineteenth century and the pain separation could bring. For Dickinson, the losses were many, a partial list including: Benjamin Franklin Newton in March 1853; her father in June 1874; Samuel Bowles in January 1878; the Reverend Charles Wadsworth (whom she called at his death "[m]y closest earthly friend" (Johnson, Letters 3: 737)) in April 1882; her mother in November 1882; her nephew, Gilbert, of typhoid fever at age 8 in October 188314; and her suitor, Otis Phillips Lord in March of 1884.15 That she suffered from these losses is undeniable, supported by an autumn 1884 letter to Mrs. Samuel E. Mack where she wrote, "The Dyings have been too deep for me, and before I could raise my Heart from one, another has come—" (Johnson, Letters 3: 843). Throughout the corpus of her work, including her letters, the subject of death is the most prevalent and the most consequential as it encompasses most of her major poetic topics: pain and despair; separation; love and loss; her quarrel with God, and the existence or fraudulence of eternity. A late poem illuminates beautifully Dickinson's wrestling with this most august of topics:
My life closed twice before it's [sic] close;
It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
A third event to me,
So huge, so hopeless to conceive
As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell.
This poem was transcribed by Mabel Loomis Todd when she was preparing the first manuscripts of Dickinson's poems for publication, and as there is no surviving original manuscript, it is difficult to ascertain the exact date of composition. It is equally difficult to assert with any certainty if the poem as transcribed by Loomis Todd follows Dickinson's original punctuation.16 While it is not possible, further, to ascertain with certainty which two deaths Dickinson is memorializing in this poem, what is clear in the lines is Dickinson's deep feeling of loss and, not surprisingly, her return to the closely-aligned subjects of God and immortality. In a June 1883 letter to Charles H. Clark concerning the death of her friend and (perhaps) lover, Charles Wadsworth, Dickinson wrote, "Are you certain there is another life? When overwhelmed to know, I fear that few are sure" (Johnson, Letters 3: 779). Here is the crux of the problem the poem forces us to face. The first stanza questions "If" [emphasis mine] Immortality unveil / A third event," putting into question the very existence of Immortality, the third event of which is perhaps the poet's own death or the death of another loved one. Just as in her school days at Mount Holyoke Academy, near the end of her own life Dickinson was still searching for the emotional security that absolute faith in a Christian Congregational afterlife could afford her. Calling dying "a wild Night and a new Road" in an October 1869 letter to Perez Cowan (Johnson, Letters 2: 463), Dickinson, even late in life, could not accept the easy assurance of a peaceful immortality, first because, as she hauntingly wrote in "I cannot live with You –," immortality would be closed to her unless she renounced her lover whose face would outshine the face of Jesus, and, second, because life after death cannot but remain a mystery to those left living. "Parting is all we know of heaven," Dickinson writes, underscoring her struggle with the unknown. In poem 236 ["Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –"], Dickinson reveals Heaven as the natural world that surrounds the poet, a world of affirmation and sustenance. Dickinson, herself, is aware of the dichotomy between the bucolic affirmation of the natural world that she explores in poem 236 and the inadequacy of that very affirmation in a letter tentatively dated August 1856 to Mrs. J.G. Holland in which she writes, "If roses had not faded, and frosts had never come, and one had not fallen here and there whom I could not waken, there were no need of other Heaven than the one below" (Johnson, Letters 2: 329). Here in poem 1773, however, Dickinson recognizes the inadequacy of the affirmative assertion that she is "going, all along" to Heaven. Heaven, instead, can only be revealed to humans through grief, as a promise of a better world to come or as a nagging reminder of a mystery we cannot solve. What is certain, however, is the poet's understanding of the loss of a loved one as commensurate to the pain of hell. Once referring to the "Ineffable Avarice of Jesus" in an 1884 letter to Martha Gilbert Smith (Johnson, Letters 3: 823), Dickinson's closing lines reveal not only the excruciating pain of loss for her but also anger at the Christian God the Father and God the Son who spirit away her loved ones to a mysterious unknown. While she may not be certain of what comes after her beloved life on earth, she can assert powerfully the emotional cost of loving nature and God's creatures, both animal and human, in this fragile life.
Ultimately, Dickinson leaves us with no assurances nor final explanations of her own life, lived large in the exquisite poetry she has left behind her. Dickinson was to struggle perpetually with these eternal questions until her own death on May 15, 1886 at age 55 of what some scholars claim was Bright's Disease (kidney disorder) but more recent scholars suggest was severe primary hypertension (Habegger 623). Her 1,800-odd poems reinforce the tension inherent in the epistemological search for what it means to be human. She provides us with no easy answers, with no easy poems. What she gives us, instead, is the "Circumference" of birth to death and everything in between—the questions, the love, the sorrow. In spite of all losses and sorrow, however, Dickinson ultimately affirmed life in her poetry and in her connection to the people in her immediate family circle as well as in her connection through her correspondence to her wide circle of friends. As she wrote Richard H. Mather in November 1877: "To have lived is a Bliss so powerful—we must die—to adjust it—but when you have strength to remember that Dying dispels nothing which was firm before, you have avenged sorrow—" (Johnson, Letters 2: 594-5).
1 There are multiple sources from which the myth has sprung and grown. Mentioning two here will suffice to illustrate the point. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, in a letter he wrote to his wife after his first meeting with Dickinson, describes:
A step like a pattering child's in entry & in glided a little plain woman with two smooth bands of reddish hair. . . . She came to me with two day lilies which she put in a sort of childlike way into my hand & said "These are my introduction" in a soft frightened breathless childlike voice— & added under her breath Forgive me if I am frightened; I never see strangers & hardly know what I say. . . . (Johnson, Letters 2: 473)
Admitting in a second letter that "I never was with any one who drained my nerve power so much" (Johnson, Letters 2: 476), Higginson also referred to her as "my partially cracked poetess at Amherst" (Johnson, Letters 2: 570). After a second visit with Dickinson on the occasion of his giving a lecture at Amherst College, Higginson repeated in a letter to his sisters his wife's comment, "'Oh why do the insane so cling to you?'" (Johnson, Letters 2: 519).
Second, much of the Dickinson Myth was promulgated by her earliest biographers, especially Martha Dickinson Bianchi, Austin Dickinson's daughter, who is the first who chronicles her aunt's supposed love affair with an unnamed married man that Paul Ferlazzo calls "[a]n intriguing though undocumented story" (14). He goes on to state that early biographers, novelists, and playwrights "have freely rendered an account of her life in semifictional forms" (14).
2 See psychiatrist John Cody's discussion in After Great Pain: The Inner Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1971.
3 Volumes have been written on the relationship between Emily Dickinson and her sister-in-law Susan Gilbert Dickinson. The relationship poses three unanswerable questions: was Emily's affection for Susan homoerotic; what caused the rift between the two women that resulted in Emily living next door but not entering her brother's house for 15 years; and what was the effect of Emily's devotion to Susan—however we define it—on her poetry? Susan and Emily were school friends, and Emily was delighted when Austin eventually married Susan in July of 1856 when he returned to Amherst after completing Harvard Law School. By all accounts it was an unhappy, unfulfilling marriage. Sewell, for one, suggests that Emily, herself, felt responsible for "an early mistake in judgment" (1: 233), in having encouraged her brother to marry her friend and her extreme disappointment that this "youthful affinity" between herself and Susan "came to nothing" (1: 233). Dickinson certainly hoped that Susan would become a second sister, fully engaged in the Dickinson family life and Dickinson's own emotional life as well. Dickinson's fervor for the relationship with her sister-in-law is evident in the inflated rhetoric of her letters to Susan:
Thank you for loving me, darling, and will you 'love me more if ever you come home'?—it is enough, dear Susie, I know I shall be satisfied. But what can I do towards you?—dearer you cannot be, for I love you so already, that it almost breaks my heart—perhaps I can love you anew every day of my life, every morning and evening—Oh if you will let me, how happy I shall be! (Johnson, Letters 1: 177)
Some scholars choose to read these letters as using commonly-occurring language between young women in the nineteenth century raised within the literary culture of, for example, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's novel Kavanagh, especially the friendship between the fictional characters Alice and Cecelia, a book that Dickinson knew well; some scholars choose to read these letters as "overstrained emotion resembling that of a schoolgirl crush, but surely abnormal in a young woman in her twenties addressing her brother's fiancée" (Wells 316); others read these letters as indicative of Dickinson's sexual orientation:
It is not my intention to prove . . . that Dickinson was homosexual in the sense that she engaged in genital contact with a woman. In fact, I do not believe she did (nor do I believe she ever engaged in genital contact with a man), but that is outside of my concerns. I believe that Emily Dickinson's love for women, and particularly for Sue Gilbert, was homosexual in the same sense that Dante's love for Beatrice is generally considered heterosexual. I believe further that only by understanding the homosexual nature of her involvements can we fully understand Dickinson's love poems which are specifically addressed to women, as well as many of her other love poems in which no gender is specified but which may well be addressed to women." (Faderman 200-01)
None of this, of course, can be proven, and Habegger warns that both approaches—the one that downplays Susan Gilbert's relationship with Dickinson or the one that stresses homoerotic attraction—"radically simplify the complex social and literary functions Sue performed for ED" (372; footnote 5). Neither can we assert with any authority the cause for the rift that developed between the two women, a rift that had its genesis before Austin and Susan had married, evidenced by Dickinson's letter to Susan in 1854, "Sue—you can go or stay—There is but one alternative—We differ often lately, and this must be the last" (Johnson, Letters 1: 305) and a poem sent in a letter twenty-three years later in 1877, one stanza reading:
To pity those who know her not
Is helped by the regret
That those who know her know her less
The nearer her they get – (Johnson, Letters 2: 598)
What can be asserted is that Susan remained "one of the controlling influences" in Dickinson's life, with 276 poems indicated in the 1955 Poems as having been sent to Susan for comment or keepsake (Sewell 1: 197; 207). While we can never be certain what kind of poet Dickinson would have become without her sister-in-law's presence in her life, or even how many poems she may have written in her lifetime, Habegger reminds us that, at the least, "Sue's elusive presence proved endlessly stimulating" (368).
4 Dickinson lived her entire life in her father's home, but this actually represents two separate structures. The Dickinson Homestead was Amherst's first brick house and was built by Dickinson's grandfather in 1813. When Samuel Dickinson fell on hard financial times, the house had to be sold, and Edward Dickinson and his family lived in a portion of the house until 1840, when his growing financial security and reputation allowed him to purchase a new home on North Pleasant [West] Street. Emily was nine years old when the family moved to North Pleasant, living there for fifteen years, significant years during which Dickinson attended school and began her poetic career. Edward Dickinson never gave up his desire to return to the Homestead, however, and when the opportunity arose for him to re-purchase his ancestral home, he re-modeled and then moved the family back in 1855, eventually building Austin and Susan their own house, The Evergreens, right next door. Habegger suggests that this was not an easy transition for Dickinson or her mother, representing a time of "confusion or collapse" (341) for the two women, although the Homestead is where Dickinson lived the remaining 31 years of her life.
5 The "Master" letters are three passionate love letters ("I want to see you more—Sir—than all I wish for in this world—" (Johnson, Letters 2: 375)), written by Dickinson to a recipient who has never been established authoritatively, for as Sewell notes, "[n]ot a single descriptive phrase identifies him unmistakably among the men in her life we know anything about" (2: 517). (R.W. Franklin assigns drafts of the "Dear Master" letters to the year 1861 "on the basis of paper and handwriting" (Habegger 416)). Neither is it known if the letters were actually sent to the recipient. A concurrent group of poems written from approximately 1861 through 1863, called the "pain poems" by Habegger, focus on a "first-person speaker's attachment to an unnamed man" (409). Here is another area of intense disagreement in Dickinson studies. Earlier biographers (Josephine Pollitt; Geneviere Taggard) posited Major Edward B. Hunt (husband of Helen Hunt Jackson) and George H. Gould. These choices have been disqualified (as have these biographies) due to the authors' reliance on hearsay or errors in fact. Some commentators (Wells; Gilbert and Gubar) admit the possibility that the "Master" was not an actual human being but, instead, the product of Dickinson's imagination. As Gilbert and Gubar write, "[t]he mental state . . . is surely in itself far more significant than the biographical enigma of the 'Master's' identity that has obsessed so many scholars" (602). Other critics suggest the Master is female, perhaps Susan Gilbert Dickinson or Kate Anton (Rebecca Patterson; Martha Nell Smith), although Habegger gives convincing evidence of the unlikelihood of this possibility (See p. 350, footnote 7). For those scholars who believe that the Master actually existed, however impossible it is for us at this late remove to identify him, the candidates remain Samuel Bowles, the editor of the Springfield Republican and Dickinson family friend (Sewell; Ferlazzo) or Charles Wadsworth (Johnson; Gelpi; Ferlazzo; Habegger). No one insists, however, that any of these choices can be proven. As with the other biographical disputes, what seems most important is not who the Master actually is, but the fact that his existence—imaginary or real—became one of the critical factors in her development as a poet (Ferlazzo 61), and, as 1862 represents the year of her greatest poetic output, the crisis in her life represented by the Master stood as "her life's transforming event" (Habegger 422).
6 Dickinson's seclusion took various forms: she stopped visiting her brother's home, although it was directly next door, choosing to send short letters and poems by messenger instead; she retreated to her bedroom or hovered at the top of stairs when guests—or even friends—called at the Homestead; she refused to allow doctors to examine her or dressmakers to touch her. Dickinson even remained in her bedroom, with her door slightly opened, during the funeral service for her father in 1874 that was conducted in the main hall below her. Theories at the time she was living and theories in today's scholarship follow similar themes: she was the victim of an unhappy love affair (although no one can agree with whom); mental illness (John Cody, After Great Pain: The Inner Life of Emily Dickinson (1971); Anna Mary Wells, "Was Emily Dickinson Psychotic?" The American Imago (1962)); agoraphobia (Maryanne M. Garbowsky, The House Without the Door: A Study of Emily Dickinson and the Illness of Agoraphobia (1989)); panic disorder (Seth Archer, "'I Had A Terror': Emily Dickinson's Demon," Southwest Review (2009)); anorexia nervosa (Heather Kirk Thomas, "Emily Dickinson's 'Renunciation' and Anorexia Nervosa," American Literature (1988)); tuberculosis (Alfred Habegger, My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson (2002) and Norbert Hirschhorn, "Was It Tuberculosis? Another Glimpse of Emily Dickinson's Health," The New England Quarterly (1999)); epilepsy (Lyndall Gordon, Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds, 2010)). That Dickinson did suffer from physical illness is indisputable, since in her letters she, herself, refers to fainting spells, eye trouble, and "'revenge of the nerves'" (Johnson, Letters 3: 827), but the exact causes of these conditions can never be known.
7 Sewell writes that "[i]t has been estimated that we have about a tenth of all the letters Emily Dickinson wrote, and probably less than a thousandth of those written to her" (2: 400).
8 Dickinson's three hymnbooks: The Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs of the Rev. Isaac Watts, edited by Samuel Worchester; Church Psalmody, Selected from Dr. Watts and Other Authors, edited by Lowell Mason and David Greene; Village Hymns, a Supplement to Dr. Watts's Psalms and Hymns, edited by Asahel Nettleton (Donoghue n. pag.).
9 A.R.C. Finch writes that "Dickinson is the only canonical female poet before the turn of the century who resisted the authority of [the iambic pentameter] meter" (169).
10 Her productivity, under any measure, was astounding, although there is no consensus on how many poems that actually means: variously 1,775; "nearly 1800"; "almost 2,000." R.W. Franklin asserts that there are "1,789 at present count" (4). Ruth Miller provides one version of the breakdown of the complete Dickinson oeuvre: Dickinson wrote over 1,500 poems that we have in manuscript of which 863 poems were tied together into 43 separate collections called fascicles, and 240 poems were not finished in terms of final word choice and final word order. Approximately 400 poems remain in various stages of completion "on scraps of paper, on the backs of grocery lists, bills, programs, flyers, and used envelopes" (n. pag.). Finally, there are 200 poems for which no original manuscripts have been found.
11 Ten of Dickinson's poems were published in her lifetime:
- February 20, 1852: "Sic transit gloria mundi" in the Springfield Republican
- May 4, 1861: "I taste a liquor never brewed" published under the title "The May Wine" in the Springfield Republican
- March 1, 1862 "Safe in their alabaster chambers" published under the title "The Sleeping" in the Springfield Republican
- February and March 1864: 3 poems published in Drum Beat, a Brooklyn paper designed to raise money for the medical care for Union soldiers
- 1864: "Some keep the Sabbath going to church" in the New York Round Table
- 1864: "Blazing in gold and quenching in purple" in the Springfield Republican
- February 14, 1866: "A narrow fellow in the grass" in the Springfield Republican
- 1878: "Success is counted Sweetest" in A Masque of Poets, submitted to editor Thomas Niles by Helen Hunt Jackson
Dickinson's decision not to publish more widely is clearly the result of editors, like Higginson, Niles, and Bowles, changing her poetry to fit their conventional concepts of poetic technique. There seems to be no doubt that Dickinson's fascicles, which she carefully formatted and sewed by hand, became for Dickinson her own form of publication in its purest form. Dickinson chose to remain true to her poetic vision; this is why she did not publish more, not because she was ambivalent about her talent. As Sewell writes, "We know that for years she had thought of herself as a poet, that she had discussed with her cousin the possibility of one day being great, and that she hoped to make Susan and Austin proud of her sometime—to walk on 'taller feet'" (2: 554).
12 Publication of Dickinson's poems after her death became a public circus given the nature of the family's divided houses with Susan Dickinson on one side and Mabel Loomis Todd on the other. Loomis Todd was Austin Dickinson's mistress, whom he first met when she was the 28 year-old wife of David Peck Todd, an astronomy professor at Amherst Academy. Emily Dickinson knew of the affair, which began in late summer 1881 and continued until Austin's death. Vinnie, following a promise Emily had extracted from her previous to her death, destroyed Dickinson's papers, including her letters. Rather than destroy her sister's poems, however, Vinnie approached Susan Dickinson to ask her to accept the task of editing and preparing the poems for publication. When Susan chose not to act on Vinnie's request, Vinnie turned to Mabel Loomis Todd who, in turn, enlisted the aid of Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Higginson, reluctant because "he had never become fully convinced that publishing [the poems] was a sound critical decision or assessment" (Ferlazzo 142), agreed to assist Loomis Todd if he could work only with fair copies, which Loomis Todd undertook to produce. Four years after Dickinson's death, Loomis Todd and Higginson published a first volume entitled Poems in 1890, eventually producing 11 additions. Loomis Todd and Higginson insisted on giving the poems titles, which Sewell calls "reductive, indicating a single meaning or message and ignoring important possibilities" (571). They went further than assigning titles, however, also changing words and regularizing punctuation and grammar. Further, Susan Dickinson had in her possession hundreds of poems and letters that she would not release to Vinnie, ostensibly because Vinnie and Emily knew of Mabel Loomis Todd's affair with Austin and tolerated it. These poems eventually appeared in print through the editorship of Martha Dickinson Bianchi, Susan and Austin's daughter. A quarrel in 1896 between Vinnie and Loomis Todd, however, resulted in Lavinia's papers also being passed to Susan Dickinson and then, eventually, to her daughter, Martha. Mabel Loomis Todd's life's work with Dickinson's papers and poems passed to her daughter, Millicent Todd Bingham. Bianchi issued several volumes of her aunt's poetry; Bingham published previously unpublished poems in her 1945 volume, Bolts of Melody. As Suzanne Juhasz notes, "[i]n this way the women who were her heirs competed to present their Emily Dickinson to the world that she had coveted as much as avoided" (n. pag.). Corrupt versions of Dickinson's poems continued to circulate for the 50 years after Dickinson's death until the publication of the first standard edition by Thomas H. Johnson in 1955. For an extended discussion of the publication history and the family divisions that influenced it, see Alfred Habegger, My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson (2002) and Lyndall Gordon, Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds (2010).
13 In 1955, Thomas H. Johnson published the first complete edition of Emily Dickinson's poetry, intent upon restoring the poems to the form in which Dickinson wrote them, including which poem variants were possibly Dickinson's final choices. Johnson attempted to put these poems in approximate chronological order based on manuscripts and letters, numbering the poems since Dickinson did not give her poems titles (those titles that exist are the product of magazine editors if the poem had been published in Dickinson's lifetime, or editions that appeared after Dickinson's death, initially edited by Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd). For many years, Johnson's edition was the standard. The newest numbering system is based on the three-volume variorum edition of Dickinson's works edited by R. W. Franklin, published in 1998, building on and correcting Johnson's earlier work. Habegger comments that "[e]ven though [Franklin's edition] fails to provide evidence or argument for most of its assigned dates (and, inevitably, makes mistakes), the edition is based on an exceptionally careful examination of original manuscripts and early transcriptions" (xvi). This article uses the later Franklin numbering system.
14 All scholars agree that the loss of Dickinson's nephew, Gilbert, hastened Dickinson's own death two years later. First, Gilbert represented for Emily and Lavinia an unspoken "settlement of differences" between the two Dickinson households (Ferlazzo 133), and second, Emily felt a particular closeness with her eight-year-old nephew, and the threat of his impending death brought her into her brother's house for the first time in 15 years. Her collapse there on that evening resulted in her being, in Vinnie's words, "alarmingly ill for weeks" (qtd. in Sewell 1: 146) from what the doctors called "nervous prostration." More to the point of this discussion, Dickinson's own recollection of the evening of Gilbert's death reinforces her anguish at the inability to know what comes after life—where Gilbert was going and if Dickinson could hope to see him again. In an 1883 letter to Mrs. J.G. Holland, Dickinson wrote: "'Open the Door, open the Door, they are waiting for me' was Gilbert's sweet command in delirium. Who were waiting for him, all we possess we would give to know—Anguish at last opened it, and he ran to the little Grave at his Grandparents' feet—All this and more, though is there more? More than Love and Death? Then tell me it's [sic] name!" (Johnson, Letters 3: 803).
15 Sewell calls Otis P. Lord the final and "by far the most securely documented of all Emily Dickinson's so called love affairs" (1: 642). Lord was a friend of Dickinson's father (Emily claimed he was her father's best friend), nineteen years older than Dickinson and a judge on the Massachusetts' Supreme Judicial Court. Drafts of love letters (that may or may not have been sent and may or may not have been altered before they were sent) from Dickinson to Lord exist, although no one can say with assurance when family friendship turned into a love affair, or, indeed, what the nature of that love affair was. Marriage was "very likely contemplated" (Ferlazzo 59), and while Dickinson's draft letters to Lord are openly amorous and happy ("I confess that I love him—I rejoice that I love him—I thank the maker of Heaven and Earth—that gave him me to love—the exultation floods me" (Johnson, Letters 2: 614-15), Dickinson seemed content with visits and weekly correspondence. As Habegger writes, "The two of them evidently had a glorious time writing and embracing, she made no commitments, and though she was grieved by his death on March 13, 1884, she wasn't shattered" (593).
16 See Vendler, Helen, Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 2010, pp. 22-3 for a provocative discussion of the punctuation in this poem and the thematic significance of a final "enigmatic" dash.
Archer, Seth. "'I Had a Terror': Emily Dickinson's Demon." Southwest Review 94 (May 2009): 255-73. Print.
Cody, John. After Great Pain: The Inner Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1971. Print.
Donoghue, Denis. "Emily (Elizabeth) Dickinson." American Writers: A Collection of Literary Biographies. Ed. Leonard Unger. Vol. 1: Henry Adams to T.S. Eliot. New York: Scribners, 1974. Scribner Writers Series. Literature Resource Center. Web. 12 Mar. 2012.
Ferlazzo, Paul. Emily Dickinson. Boston: Twayne P, 1976. Print. Twayne's United States Authors Series.
Franklin, R.W., ed. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Reading Edition. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1999. Print.
Habegger, Alfred. My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson. New York: Modern Library, 2002. Print.
Hirschhorn, Norbert. "Was It Tuberculosis? Another Glimpse of Emily Dickinson's Health." The New England Quarterly 72 (Mar. 1999): 102-118. Print.
Faderman, Lillian. "Emily Dickinson's Letters to Sue Gilbert." The Massachusetts Review 18 (Summer 1977): 197-225. Print.
Finch. A.R.C. "Dickinson and Patriarchal Meter: A Theory of Metrical Codes." PMLA 102 (March 1987): 166-76. Print.
Garbowsky, Maryanne M., The House Without the Door: A Study of Emily Dickinson and the Illness of Agoraphobia. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1989. Print.
Gelpi, Albert J. Emily Dickinson: The Mind of the Poet. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1965. Print.
Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the
Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. 2nd ed. New Haven: Yale UP, 2000. Print.
Gordon, Lyndall, Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds. New York: Viking, 2010. Print.
Johnson, Thomas H. Introduction. The Letters of Emily Dickinson. 3 vols. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1958: xv-xxii. Print.
---. The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. 3 vols. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1958. Print.
Juhasz, Suzanne. "Emily (Elizabeth) Dickinson." Modern American Women Writers. Ed. Elaine Showalter, Lea Baechler, and A. Walton Litz. New York: Scribners, 1991. Scribner Writers Series. Literature Resource Center. Web. 12 Mar. 2012.
Miller, Ruth. "Emily (Elizabeth) Dickinson." The American Renaissance in New England. Ed. Joel Myerson. Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale Research, 1978. Literature Resource Center. Web. 12 Mar. 2012.
Morris, Timothy. "The Development of Dickinson's Style." American Literature 60 (March 1988): 26-41. Print.
Patterson, Rebecca. The Riddle of Emily Dickinson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1951. Print.
Sewell, Richard B. The Life of Emily Dickinson. 2 vols. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1974. Print.
Smith, Martha Nell. Rowing in Eden: Rereading Emily Dickinson. Austin: U of Texas P, 1992. Print.
Thomas, Heather Kirk. "Emily Dickinson's 'Renunciation' and Anorexia Nervosa." American Literature 60 (May 1988): 205-25. Print.
Vendler, Helen. Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 2010. Print.
Wells, Anna Mary. "Was Emily Dickinson Psychotic?" The American Imago 19 (Winter 1962): 309-321. Print.
Works by Emily Dickinson
- Poems by Emily Dickinson, edited by Mabel Loomis Todd and T.W. Higginson (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1890)
- Poems by Emily Dickinson, second series, edited by Mabel Loomis Todd and T.W. Higginson (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1891)
- Poems by Emily Dickinson, third series, edited by Mabel Loomis Todd (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1896)
- The Single Hound: Poems of a Lifetime, edited by Martha Dickinson Bianchi (Boston: Little Brown, 1914)
- The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Martha Dickinson Bianchi and Alfred Leete Hampson (Boston: Little Brown, 1924)
- Further Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Martha Dickinson Bianchi and Alfred Leete Hampson (Boston: Little Brown, 1929)
- The Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Martha Dickinson Bianchi and Alfred Leete Hampson (Boston: Little Brown, 1930)
- Unpublished Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Martha Dickinson Bianchi and Alfred Leete Hampson (Boston: Little Brown, 1935)
- Poems by Emily Dickinson, edited by Martha Dickinson Bianchi and Alfred Leete Hampson, (Boston: Little Brown, 1937)
- Bolts of Memory: New Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Mabel Loomis Todd and Millicent Todd Bingham (New York: Harper, 1945)
- Poems of Emily Dickinson, Variorum edition, edited by Thomas H. Johnson, 3 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1955)
- The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson (Boston: Little Brown, 1957)
- Final Harvest: Emily Dickinson's Poems, edited by Thomas H. Johnson (Boston: Little Brown, 1961)
- The Poems of Emily Dickinson, Variorum edition, edited by R.W. Franklin, 3 vols. (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1998)
- The Poems of Emily Dickinson, Reading Edition, edited by R.W. Franklin (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1999)