Isle of Lesbos : Poetry : Historical : Emily Dickinson

 

Emily Dickinson
1830-1886

Emily Dickinson, one of America's most famous poets, was born in Amherst to a prominent family. She was educated at Amerherst Academy, the institution her grandfather helped found. She spent a year at the Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary, but left because she didn't like the religious environment and because her parents asked her home.

In her twenties, Emily led a busy social life, but she became more reclusive with each passing year. By her thirties, she stayed to her home and withdrew when visitors arrived. She developed a reputation as a myth, because almost never seen and, when people did catch sight of her, she was always wearing white.

But while she withdrew from physical contact with people, she did not withdraw from them mentally. Emily was an avid letter-writer who corresponded with a great number of friends and relatives. 1000 of these letters (a portion of what she wrote) survived her death, and they show her letter writing to be very similar to her poetic style--enigmatic and abstract, sometimes fragmented, and often forcefully sudden in emotion.

Emily often included poetry with her letters to friends. Her friends encouraged her to publish, but after an attempt to do so in 1860 (when the publisher suggested she hold off) Emily did not appear to try again. The eight poems that were published in her lifetime were primarily poems submitted by her friends without her permission. Her death revealed 1768 more poems.

The idea of finding out who inspired Emily to write so prolifically has intrigued literary researchers for decades. For a while, the popular assumption was that she had a male mentor encouraging her, and that this is perhaps the person she addressed in three letters written to "Master." Some have speculated she was in love with Samuel Bowles (editor of a prominent local newspaper) for a time, and others speculate that she had a relationship with Judge Otis Lorde, and either of these men could have been the mysterious "Master." She may have been in love with both or either of these men; it's hard to confirm or deny the nature of her involvements with them. But the evidence that is available seems to show that the person who most affected her life and her work was Susan Gilbert--friend, eventual sister-in-law, and Emily's passionate love. This is the woman about which Emily wrote hundreds of poems, and the person who received three times more poems of any of Emily's other friends.

Susan and Emily probably met at Amherst. They were close friends from the beginning, sharing similar interests and desires. Emily trusted Susan completely, and was very affectionate toward Susan in all their correspondence. While Susan seems to have responded initially, Emily's attention turned cloying when Susan became engaged to Austin Dickinson, Emily's brother. For two years, their correspondence stopped completely. When Susan and Austin moved next door, their correspondence resumed again, and Emily continued her expressions of worshipful love.

Feminist scholars who have examined Emily's letters from a lesbian viewpoint note that her letters move beyond romantic friendship to the blatantly passionate. It isn't possible to know how Susan responded to Emily's proclamations of love, her desires to hold and kiss Susan, or her sorrow at being without Susan. When Emily died, all of Susan's letters were destroyed. Reading Emily's letters reveal a woman intensely dependent upon Susan's love, as this letter shows:

It's a sorrowful morning Susie--the wind blows and it rains; "into each life some rain must fall," and I hardly know which falls fastest, the rain without, or within--Oh Susie, I would nestle close to your warm heart, and never hear the wind blow, or the storm beat, again. I sthere any room there for 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!

The precious billet, Susie, I am wearing the paper out, reading it over and o'er, but the dear thoughts cant wear out if they try, Thanks to Our Father, Susie! Vinnie and I talked of you all last evening long, and went to sleep mourning for you, and pretty soon I waked up saying "Precious treasure, thou art mine," and there you were all right, my Susie, and I hardly dared to sleep lest someone steal you away. Never mind the letter, Susie; you have so much to do; just write me every week one line, and let it be, "Emily, I love you," and I will be satisfied!

Your own Emily

Emily's poems and letters to Susan suggest an eroticism that could be intentional, subconscious, or merely coincidental. (See "Wild Nights - Wild Nights!") Much can be argued--Emily might have had a love affair with Susan, she might have been writing using a non-female persona, or she might have had perfectly innocent intentions for the imagery modern audiences consider sexually suggestive. (If you want to decide for yourself, I recemmend you read the collection of Emily's letters to Susan, published in 1998, entitled Open Me Carefully.)

After Emily died in 1886, her sister persuaded Mabel L. Todd to edit Emily's poems, and some feminist scholars believe that female pronouns to some of her poems were edited out at this time. Mabel happened to be Austin's mistress, and, as Susan's direct rival, she had every reason to play down Susan's involvement in Emily's work. Mabel Todd published a small portion of the poems in 1890, and her daughter and Emily's niece followed with more poems later on. But because of a fued in the family, the entire collection was not published until 1955.

Biography by Alix North

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Selected Works

Wild Nights - Wild Nights!
Were I with thee
Wild Nights should be
Our luxury!

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 -
In Thee!

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Her breast is fit for pearls,
But I was not a `Diver' -
Her brow is fit for thrones
But I have not a crest.
Her heart is fit for home -
I - a Sparrow - build there
Sweet twigs and twine
My perennial nest.

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Her sweet weight on my Heart a Night
Had scarcely deigned to lie -
When, stirring, for Beliefs delight,
My bride had slipped away - If `twas a Dream - made solid - just
The Heaven to confirm -
Or if Myself were dreamed of Her -
The power to presume - With Him remain - who unto Me -
Gave - even as to All -
A Fiction superseding Faith -
By so much - as `twas real -

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Where to Read More...

  • Emily Dickinson home page, an incredibly expansive page that includes links to over 490 of her Poems On-Line. Created by Paul E. Black.
  • Emily Dickinson, Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson's Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson, Ellen Louise Hart & Martha Nell Smith, editors (Paris Press, 1998)
  • Emily Dickinson, The Poems of Emily Dickinson, 3 vols, Thomas H. Johnson, Editor (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1955)
  • Emily Dickinson, The Letters of Emily Dickinson, 3 vols, Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward, Editors (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958)
  • Paula Bennett, Emily Dickinson: Woman Poet (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991)
  • John Cody, After Great Pain: The Inner Life of Emily Dickinson (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971)
  • Judith Farr, The Passion of Emily Dickinson (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992)
  • Jay Leyda, The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson, 2 volumes, (New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 1970)
  • Rebecca Patterson, The Riddle of Emily Dickinson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1951)
  • Vivian Pollak, Dickinson: The Anxiety of Gender (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1984)
  • Martha Nell Smith, Rowing in Eden: Rereading Emily Dickinson (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992)
  • Barton Levi St. Armand, The Soul's Society: Emily Dickinson and Her Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984)

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