“An outsider, intolerant of the rules,” says the writer Alena Smith about Emily Dickinson, a poet capable of seeing beyond reality, because she dwells in the infinite world of the imagination.
I met Emily Dickinson for the first time preparing a lesson: I was struck by it. His words entered my soul and released layers of truth that until that moment I didn’t even know I had intuited. I met her like this:
To make a prairie it takes a clover
and one bee,
One clover, and a bee,
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.
These verses have always excited me, with a common language, enhance the creative power of the imagination, the poet and divine gift.
On the surface
Emily Dickinson was born in 1830, died in 1885, the first of three brothers, she, Lavinia and Austin; lives in Amherst, a small town in Massachusetts.
He attended Amherst Academy, where he spent four years of middle school happily, together with his sister Lavinia.
She spends the rest of her life in her father’s home, the Homestead, within the confines of her garden, and then in her room, a privileged observation point on Life, on Mystery, above all on herself, a living filter of everyday life and the events of life.
Edward Dickinson is a lawyer and well-known public figure, often away on business; her mother, Emily Norcross, suffers from the lack and the weight of loneliness slowly withdraws into herself. Emily feels that she has detached and cold parents, (in a letter she writes that she never had a mother). Yet he will lovingly, and with sacrifice, take care of them to the end.
Edward Dickinson, who has already planned the lives of his children, rests his gaze on everything. The two sisters would have had a different fate than his brother, on whom he has all his hopes: Austin would have graduated in law.
Once Amherst Academy finished, Emily was to attend Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, one of the 19th-century Christian institutions for higher education for women.
In reality, there is very little time left, ten months, intolerant of the rigid moral and religious setting. The father decides to withdraw it, he considers Emily too sensitive, the numerous readings disturb her, she should cultivate them at home, with the right guidance.
However, Emily manages to attend a literature course at Amherst Academy, and, in her way, rivals her father: she will meet the first of her three great “Masters”, teachers: Leonard Humphrey. Leonard initiates her to the important readings that would mark her poetic and human path. Unfortunately, Humphrey dies young, and Emily suffers acutely. She writes in 1862: “I went to school — but in the way you understand it — I had no education. As a child, I had a friend who taught me about Immortality — but having risked getting too close to it, himself — he never returned. Immediately afterwards my Master died […] “.
Teenage Emily can enjoy the company of adult, cultured men, her three irreplaceable Masters. With them, he can discuss literature, philosophy, feed his natural intellectual curiosity.
Over time an excellent culture is built: among others, he meets Ralph Waldo Emerson, American poet and philosopher, William Wordsworth, English romantic poet, Lord George Gordon Byron, English romantic poet, known for his contemptuous attitude, inventor of the hero Byronian, Charlotte Brontë, one of the Brontë sisters, the others were Emily and Anne, author of the novel Jane Eyre , Charles Dickens, Victorian English writer, author of Oliver Twist and David Copperfield among others, and other classics; Shakespeare of course, but she eagerly reads everything, including contemporary literature and magazines. That’s all. On the surface of its existence, nothing else happens. It is elsewhere that we must seek, more deeply, beyond appearances.
The literary suggestions were combined with a particular character, passionate in all aspects of life, at the same time exceptionally sensitive, almost living undergoing on his soul every repercussion of external events and the most intimate ones. He experienced loves with transport and abandonment, for women and men, as he lived the feelings, without judging them. The sentimental impulses manifest themselves in a “quiet”, discreet tone, as she entrusts her spiritual restlessness to the silent reserve of her poem.
It is through it that Emily learns to know and deal with her impulses, thoughts, dreams, desires and fears of the inner life, from which flow, sometimes happily, others with pain and torment, meanings and senses, but even anguished questions, or wonders that intoxicate her.
The Mystery of life attracts and frightens her to everything. He questions himself, and questions himself, without finding answers or building them with the help of faith or myth.
When it comes to faith, Emily has doubts, vacillations. For her, the woods and meadows are the Church she loves to attend, not the one where her family goes every Sunday. Thus he stops going there, in a family and in an era when this was considered an impious act, which precluded participation in the ranks of the elect.
He starts writing at about twenty, and immediately his poetry shows original features: he has no messages to communicate, no theories to support, his poetry is uncompromising, language becomes a pure form of knowledge. A challenging road.
Intimately rebellious, he rejects the rules and impositions, be they compositional, or the rigid Victorian society in which he lived. In 1850 in August there was a great celebration for the adhesion of seventy members to the Congregationalist Church, which the Dickinsons adhered to. In that climate of strong religious revival, Emily writes: “I’m standing here, alone, rebellious”.
Austin and Lavinia barely knew about his poems, about his private “vice”, as Barbara Lanati says in her book Life of Emily Dickinson. The alphabet of ecstasy. For Amherst, Emily is just an ordinary woman, known for her admired garden; she has left a memory of it in her Herbarium: she grows nasturtiums, bluebells, primroses, geraniums, peonies, irises there. He wrote 1775 poems, plus numerous letters to various interlocutors.
From his words, we can detect the slight traces of his existence. She did not write diaries, they did not write about her, and when, after she died, her work came to light, the biographical traces were either non-existent, as Emily wanted to keep her private for herself, or they were destroyed, “censored”, as too intimate and unconventional. On the other hand, reading it, his soul opens up to the reader, timidly, and reveals depths of awareness.
Emily lived at night, through her verses. Quite naturally she thinks about what it would be like if she were to succeed, and she wishes to be published, for her verses to be heard.
Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.
Not one of all the purple Host
Who took the Flag today
Can tell the definition
So clear of Victory
As he defeated — dying –
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear!
Therefore, to those who have not known it, success seems very sweet, only those who have felt a strong need to know the flavour of that nectar. When he or she is excluded or excluded from it, she will always hear, as from a distance, the triumphal music of the winner that will tear her soul apart, exhausted by that painful sound. Little by little, however, the poet loses interest in the publishing world, she no longer cares about publishing; what matters is to make her most secret voice resound, which speaks freely with an exclusive grammar that illuminates, especially for her, the path she is taking. Writing for Emily is about finding herself.
An original personality was born: in the nineteenth century she dared, decidedly against the tide, to be a writer; in the same way, she never conformed, always her thinking was free and autonomous, in many ways a fighter for women’s rights. His verses concede nothing to ephemeral fashions but are expressed in a unique, precise, cutting language, where the choice of words is always very accurate, and where no detail — from punctuation to syntax — is left to chance, but bent to the need for the lyrical word.
Making poetry is talking with yourself
His poems are not easy: there is no logical thought that binds them, some construct or system; crowded with images that are often private conventions of the artist — such as the Circumference -, or seem to be thrown into the void, about elements of his everyday life, almost impossible to clarify.
In her everything is a metaphor, never usual, it is not possible to resort to a tradition to interpret and understand them. Emily was referring only to herself, and her attention is directed more and more towards herself as the years go by.
To penetrate the meaning of her poetry it is necessary to purify oneself from the layers of linguistic, social, personal and cultural prejudices and customs, to renounce the usual ways of thinking, to open up to the possible and immerse oneself with the being in what she says. Suddenly an image takes shape and illustrates the meaning. It is often destabilizing, it is necessary to go back to the origins of thought, proceed by associations, rely on intuition to understand it; at the same time, one is overwhelmed by strong feelings, by recognitions and similarities that seem to echo in the infinity of the collective and archetypal subconscious.
Emily indirectly expresses that mystery that she sees and hears, but that human language is unable to express. He has no other way, he faces it by getting as close as possible to the truth, and, like Icarus, he burns the wings of inspiration, yielding to the mystical vision. Proceeding over the years, his compositions become more and more elliptical, sparse, little remains to be said about the ineffable. Punctuation is also at the service of this language of the unspeakable, like the hyphen that replaces a meaning that cannot be said, or pauses, asks for silence, to put words and images in order, place them and better understand their meaning.
The meaning of Dickinsonian poetics takes shape, composition after composition as if they were the voices of an interior diary, its contradictory, the ultimate truth that it seeks and finds in the depths of itself.
The themes of her lyrical journey are Nature, the mystery of Life and Death (she calls it “Circumference”, the closed circle of existence), Death and the afterlife that she imagines in many different situations; the love. His style is the expression of his fertile interiority and faithfully follows every modulation, so that external and internal, macro and micro cosmos become one.
Death fascinates her in an almost morbid way if she figures it in different ways and attitudes: a ghost that flatters to reveal itself in its horror and capture… what? The soul? Being? The body? Or he is a gentleman who courteously accompanies him to Eternity.
The only Ghost I ever saw
Was dressed in Mechlin — so –
He had no sandal on his foot –
And stepped like flakes of snow –
His Gait — was soundless, like a Bird –
But rapid — like the Roe –
His fashions, quaint, Mosaic –
Or haply, Mistletoe –
His conversation — seldom –
His laughter, like the Breeze
That dies away in Dimples
Among the pensive Trees –
Our interview — was transient –
Of me, himself was shy –
And God forbid I look behind –
Since that appalling Day!
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
We slowly drove — He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –
We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess — in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –
Or rather — He passed Us –
The Dews drew quivering and Chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet — only Tulle –
We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice — in the Ground –
Since then — ’tis Centuries — and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity -–
Death is a gentleman (Emily invents a male Death!), The relationships between them are of extreme civilization. He takes her in the carriage, and she feels a little cold, as she is wearing a tulle dress. That journey seems to her to take a few days until she suspects that the steeds on that magical carriage will take her to eternity. In this poem Death is a friend, an encounter.
Flashes of sublime, ecstatic understanding are accompanied by metaphysical questions, lacking or overflowing with answers.
Emily is not only lost in her poetic world, but she is very attentive to what happens around her, she senses thoughts, understands behaviours, sees beyond mere appearance, reaching the essential reason that guides everyone’s life.
Encounters, lovers, abandonments
Who were the people Emily related to?
The family, of course, especially the father, who will want her next to him and whose favourite she was, Lavinia, Austin and her children.
Outside the family circle, there were people who Emily bonded viscerally, in mind, in spirit, in physical proximity.
Among them, Susan Gilbert met at the Amherst Academy, who later became Austin’s wife. Emily falls madly in love with her. It describes moments of intimacy, confessions, tells of long walks. Among them, many poems, many letters, mailed or carried by hand from Homestead to Evergreen, the mansion that Edward had built for Austin and Susan. Passion explodes in the verses, desire shatters on the banks of the beloved:
Come slowly — Eden!
Lips unused to Thee –
Bashful — sip thy Jessamines –
As the fainting Bee –
Reaching late his flower,
Round her chamber hums –
Counts his nectars –
Enters — and is lost in Balms.
Wild nights — Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Done with the Compass –
Done with the Chart!
Futile — the winds –
To a Heart in port –
Rowing in Eden — Ah, the Sea! –
Might I but moor –
Erotic images that express a total and true abandonment, when, for the composure of the day, the ardour of two souls is replaced.
Through the words, we walk the entire parable of their relationship: from the frantic assaults of the heart to the coldness (and pain) of estrangement to the disappointment in discovering that Susan is not the person Emily believed.
Married Austin, Susan gets what she really wants: a large, elegant house (Evergreen, divided from the Homestead by a garden), to receive distinguished guests, which will make Amherst a vibrant cultural centre. To Susan’s self-centeredness and desire for a prima donna, Emily responds with a sudden silence. On the other hand, Susan was unable or unwilling to respond with her own involvement. Emily will resume correspondence with her only in the last years of her life, about 30 years later.
Towards the three figures who had such an intense influence on Emily’s intellectual growth and personal maturation, the Masters, Emily felt intense spiritual impulses, nurtured by admiration and attraction.
The boundary between admiration and love for Dickinson is never clear, because Emily also inscribed in the circle of her feelings such a platonic affection of intellectual affinity, of gratitude, and the enthusiasm with which she immerses herself in it is no different from the torments. love.
Yet there was great love. His name was Otis Philip Lord, a judge.
In this poem Emily uses flirty words:
Go slow, my soul, to feed thyself
Upon his rare Approach –
Go rapid, lest Competing Death
Prevail upon the Coach –
Go timid, should his final eye –
Determine thee amiss –
Go boldly — for thou paid’st his price
Redemption — for to Kiss –
It describes the meeting of two hearts whose final prize is a kiss, as in the famous meeting between Romeo and Juliet, in the first act, scene fifth.
In a letter in 1884, she wrote to him: “It is strange that I miss you so much at night since I have never been with you — but love promptly asks you, as soon as I close my eyes — so I wake up warm from the desire that the sleep has almost satisfied […]. “
They meet at the dawn of 1860, Otis is Edward’s colleague and friend, but their relationship blossoms after the death of his wife, Elizabeth, in 1877 and will last until 1884, the year in which Otis dies.
They had a vivid epistolary relationship, which shows their affinity, especially intellectual. Dickinson wrote: “While others go to church, I go to mine. Maybe you are not my Church, maybe we don’t have a hymn that only we know? “ She called him “my beloved Salem” (Salem was the town of Otis), and they wrote to each other every Sunday, a day that Emily looked forward to, so much so that she said, “Tuesday is a very depressing day.” He asked her to marry her, but she declined.
Samuel Bowles, probably one of the Masters (Emily never reveals his names), was a journalist and editor-in-chief of the Springfield Daily Republican and very close to the Dickinson family; from 1858 they began an exchange of letters. For him Emily will feel great attraction, certain intellectual, personal, he was very cultured, brilliant, sensitive. It is Bowles who printed four of his poems between 1861 and 1866, including I taste a liquor:
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
From Manzanilla come!
Emily indulges in the euphoria of summer days, with the senses she enjoys their beauty, gets drunk with their liquors, perfumes, immerses herself in the sensuality of nature without caring for the limits between herself and that intoxicating world. Such drunkenness is a vital flow, even the angels, and the cherubs will want to see her insatiable joy, she, the “little drinker” so expert, coming from the very origin of the alcoholic beverage, Manzanillo, in Cuba, producer of rum.
Bowles will introduce Emily Thomas to Wentworth Higginson, author, critic, activist. He was a contributor to the “Atlantic Monthly” magazine, where he published an article “Letter to a young beginner”, to give advice on writing.
Dickinson reads it and decides to answer him, in 1862, including four of his poems.
Higginson is impressed by that girl but tells her that her poems are not yet mature and that they need corrections. In fact, Higginson doesn’t understand, those poems were rough for him. And he’ll never know who he’s met, even though Emily initially relates to him as the “pupil” and asks, “Are you too busy to tell me if my poem is alive?”
Higginson will never publish Emily, despite having the power, he prefers her more popular and successful writers, less embarrassing.
In life very few of Emily’s poems saw the light: they were too revolutionary, original, provocative; in time-honoured Victorian America, which was undergoing a profound religious renaissance, there was no public for those verses.
It is more difficult to live
The opposite of love is death, which Emily questions, imagines, tries to understand.
Death which is absence, abandonment, pain and suffering, is the centre of the mystery of life, and she is attracted to it, morbidly, like the bee that sucks the nectar of the flower. Emily meets many deaths that wound her: from the young fifteen-year-old in 1844 to that of Bowles, her father, in 1874, her mother, in 1882, Otis. He has invested so much of himself in those people; when she loves, she does it with all her being, she gives them her word, not being able to give her body, and she would like that medium never to break. To her father, who demanded so much of her, that he wanted her exclusively for himself, Emily was deeply attached, in that bond she had found the freedom to exist according to her nature. Edward Dickinson’s endless absence deprives her of references, and she falters no longer because she is drunk with life, but because she has lost her wholeness, and so she falls ill. She feels abandoned, more alone than ever.
Aunt Lavinia, whom Emily had loved as much as and more than her mother, had also died in 1860. The poet is dismayed, the Darkness of Death is impenetrable, terrifying because it deprives her forever of all those she loves.
Precisely in absence, he learns to tolerate pain, but also to live the joy of waiting and returning; confronting herself, she becomes aware of the difficulty of living. He says the opening words of one of his poems: “ ‘ Tis not that Dying hurts us so — ‘ Tis Living — hurts us more ‘, is more frightening to live than to die.
To understand pain, in the etymological sense to include it, contain it, and thus rearrange all experiences around it, she decides to live secluded, secluded, never to leave her room, to receive people from behind the door. Since 1861 she dresses exclusively in white, like a priestess, pure, virgin, untouched by Darkness and Evil.
There, in isolation, writing and reflecting, he makes peace with suffering.
In 1861 in a poem he imagines a dead person attending his funeral, in verses of extraordinary semantic and creative power:
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading — treading — till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through –
And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum –
Kept beating — beating — till I thought
My Mind was going numb –
And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space — began to toll,
As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race
Wrecked, solitary, here –
And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing — then –
So what is Death? What’s after it? The void, the emptiness, the eternal absence. The sense is perceptible, in a state of ecstasy, but it remains ineffable. As a mystic Emily, coming out of herself, she sees that the abyss that separates body and soul, death and life, the mysterious Circumference, is resolved in death.
In the last years of his life, he fell seriously ill and died on May 15, 1886. A few days earlier he had written a note for his cousins Norcross, the daughters of aunt Lavinia: “Called back” called back. Emily had also had her call, in fact, in the same year her father died. And now he feels he is “returning” to that place, incomprehensible to the human senses, which he now sees.
In a condition that is where there is no longer any difference between body and soul, between life and death, between thought and action, where the word is able to live in the fullness of meaning and inhabits the whole world. Where there is no solitude, but only Eternity, return, consolation.
In conclusion, having listened to her, and tried to understand, I see Emily Dickinson dancing in the imagination, free, light, drunk with the joy of life, in front of an immense audience, of living and dead, now equal, of which she does not care. He only worries, but for a while, of not knowing how to dance on pointe: I cannot dance on my toes, I cannot dance on my toes, says the paragraph of an extraordinary poem.
It doesn’t matter, in the dream, this is also possible.
I would like to add some bibliographical notes, which can also serve as a starting point for further reading.
- The original poems were taken by Emily Dickinson. The Complete Poems, edited by G. Ierolli, https://www.emilydickinson.it/poesie.html;
- For biography and criticism I used:
Barbara Lanati, Vita di Emily Dickinson. L’alfabeto dell’estasi, Feltrinelli,
Harold Bloom, Emily Dickinson, Chelsea House Pub
You can also watch “A Quiet Passion”, a beautiful directed by Terence Davies, starring Emma Bell.