Isle of Lesbos : Letters & Journals : Emily Dickinson to Susan Gilbert


Emily Dickinson's Letters to Susan Gilbert

While most know Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) as an incredible poet, she was also one hot letter writer! For decades, she corresponded with Susan Gilbert, her dear friend who later became her sister-in-law.

Emily sent much of her poetry to Susan for review, and indeed Susan may have been the inspiration for many of Emily's poems. It's clear from Emily's letters that her love for Susan was deep and abiding. Some argue that it was a typical "romantic friendship" of the 19th century, full of flowery prose and innocence. But Emily's letters are more than effusive expressions of affection; many letters are erotic in nature. And her feelings for Susan were hardly transient; the two women corresponded for many years without Emily's passion fading.

Susan's letters were destroyed after Emily's death, so we only have Emily's side of the conversation. But what good reading it is!

For more biographical information on Emily Dickinson, as well as a selection of her poetry, see The Poetry of Emily Dickinson, also on the Isle of Lesbos website.

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Early June, 1852

They are cleaning house today, Susie, and I've made a flying retreat to my own little chamber, where with affection, and you, I will spend this my precious hour, most precious of all the hours which dot my flying days, and the one so dear, that for it I barter everything, and as soon as it is gone, I am sighing for it again.

I cannot believe, dear Susie, that I have stayed without you almost a whole year long; sometimes the time seems short, and the thought of you as warm as if you had gone but yesterday, and again if years and years ahd trod their silent pathway, the time would seem less long. And now how soon shall I have you, shall hold you in my arms; you will forgive the tears, Susie, they are so glad to come that it is not in my heart to reprove them and send them home. I don't know why it is -- buth there's something in your name, now you are taken from me, which fills my heart so full, and my eye, too. It is not that the mention grieves me, no, Susie, but I think of each "sunnyside" where we have sat together, and lest there be no more, I guess is what makes the tears come. Mattie was here last evening, and we sat on the front door stone, and talked about life and love, and whispered our childish fancies about such blissful things -- the evening was gone so soon, and I walked home with Mattie beneath the silent moon, and wished for you, and Heaven. You did not come, Darling, but a bit of Heaven did, or so it seemed to us, as we walked side by side and wondered if that great blessedness which may be our's sometime, is granted now, to some. Those unions, my dear Susie, by which two lives are one, this sweet and strange adoption wherein we can but look, and are not yet admitted, how it can fill the heart, and make it gang wildly beating, how it will take us one day, and make us all it's own, and we shall not run away from it, but lie still and be happy!

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June 11, 1852

I have but one thought, Susie, this afternoon of June, and that of you, and I have one prayer, only; dear Susie, that is for you. That you and I in hand as we e'en do in heart, might ramble away as children, among the woods and fields, and forget these many years, and these sorrowing cares, and each become a child again -- I would it were so, Susie, and when I look around me and find myself alone, I sigh for you again; little sigh, and vain sigh, which will not bring you home.

I need you more and more, and the great world grows wider, and dear ones fewer and fewer, every day that you stay away -- I miss my biggest heart; my own goes wandering round, and calls for Susie -- Friends are too dear to sunder, Oh they are far too few, and how soon they will go away where you and I cannot find them, don't let us forget these things, for their remembrance now will save us many an anguish when it is too late to love them! Susie, forgive me Darling, for every word I say -- my heart is full of you, none other than you is in my thoughts, yet when I seek to say to you something not for the world, words fail me. If you were here -- and Oh that you were, my Susie, we need not talk at all, our eyes would whisper for us, and your hand fast in mine, we would not ask for language -- I try to bring you nearer, I chase the weeks away till they are quite departed, and fancy you have come, and I am on my way through the green lane to meet you, and my heart goes scampering so, that I have much ado to bring it back again, and learn it to be patient, till that dear Susie comes. Three weeks -- they can't last always, for surely they must go with their little brothers and sisters to their long home in the west!

I shall grow more and more impatient until that dear day comes, for till now, I have only mourned for you; now I begin to hope for you.

Dear Susie, I have tried hard to think what you would love, of something I might send you -- I at last say my little Violets, they begged me to let them go, so here they are -- and with them as Instructor, a bit of knightly grass, who also begged the favor to accompany them -- they are but small, Susie, and I fear not fragrant now, but they will speak to you of warm hearts at home, and of something faithful which "never slumbers nor sleeps" -- Keep them 'neath your pillow, Susie, they will make you dream of blue-skies, and home, and the "blessed contrie"! You and I will have an hour with "Edward" and "Ellen Middleton", sometime when you get home -- we must find out if some things contained therein are true, and if they are, what you and me are coming to!

Now, farewell, Susie, and Vinnie sends her love, and mother her's, and I add a kiss, shyly, lest there is somebody there! Don't let them see, will you Susie?

Emilie --

Why can't I be the delegate to the great Whig Convention? -- don't I know all about Daniel Webster, and the Tariff, and the Law? Then, Susie I could see you, during a pause in the session -- but I don't like this country at all, and I shan't stay here any longer! "Delenda est" America, Massachusetts and all!

open me carefully

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You must let me
go first, Sue, because
I live in the Sea
always and know
the Road --
I would have drowned
twice to save you sinking, dear,
If I could only
have covered your
Eyes so you would'nt
have seen the Water--

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1876 or so

Susan--I dreamed
of you, last
night, and send
a Carnation to
indorse it--
Sister of Ophir --
Ah Peru --
Subtle the Sum
That purchase
you --

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Where to Learn More

  • Emily Dickinson, Selected Letters, Thomas H. Johnson, editor (Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1958, 1971, and 1986)

  • Emily Dickinson, Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson's Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson, Ellen Louise Hart & Martha Nell Smith, editors (Paris Press, 1998)

You can find more biographical and poetry resources on Emily Dickinson listed on the page The Poetry of Emily Dickinson

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