My Blue Peninsula, Part One

Soon after Emily Dickinson died, in May, 1886, at the age of 55, her younger sister Lavinia found a locked box in the second-floor bedroom of the house they shared in Amherst, Massachusetts.  Inside were more than 1,500 original manuscript poems, half of them neatly copied onto folded sheets of stationary and bound into small booklets, several hundred more copied onto sheets of stationary but left unbound, the rest a mass of individual poems, some fair copies, some rough drafts, many written on scraps of household paper.  Following orders, Lavinia burned her sister’s letters, but the cache of poems she saved.

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The Dickinson Homestead, Amherst, Massachusetts

On its surface, Emily Dickinson’s life had been uneventful.  She was raised in a close-knit, New England household, daughter of a strict, civic-minded attorney and an emotionally withdrawn mother.  The middle child (there was also a brother, Austin), Emily was deeply attached to and intensely involved in the world around her and yet was often in bold (if quiet) rebellion against it.  Although she knew the Bible practically by heart and thought deeply about faith, religion, and God her whole life, she was the only one in her family who never became a member of the local church.  And although she lived a rich interior life, reading widely and engaged intellectually, she spent nearly all her days in the small village of Amherst, rarely leaving her house, or even her bedroom, during the last quarter century of her life.

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The poet’s bedroom, southwest corner, second floor, the Dickinson Homestead

She was known locally, in fact, as a recluse, “the myth,” an enigmatic woman who always dressed in white and spoke to guests only through closed doors.  Even family and friends sometimes described her as “weird” and “wild.”  Yet she won prizes for her bread at the local Cattle Show, tended flowers in a small conservatory built by her father, was a devoted sister, daughter, niece, and cousin, a loyal correspondent to a wide circle of friends, a doting aunt, and a favorite of neighborhood children.  Despite her idiosyncrasies, she led, in many ways, a typical life for an unmarried woman of her time, place, and class.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1848.  Original daguerrotype at Amherst College

Emily Dickinson, c. 1848. Original daguerrotype at Amherst College

And yet there is a mystery at the heart of Emily Dickinson’s life that will perhaps never fully be explained.  Something happened in her late 20s or early 30s that left her shaken: “I had a terror since September, I could tell to none,” she wrote an acquaintance in 1862; and her poems of the period are infused with pain and hurt.  Did she fall in love with a married man – or woman? did she suffer an emotional, mental, or physical breakdown? was she overcome by grief from the deaths occurring all around her?  Did she feel blocked from the public life her talents seemed to warrant?  Whatever it was, a sense of loss attached itself to her for the rest of her days.  And yet, to the end, she baked the family bread, tended her flowers, read deeply, corresponded with friends.

As for her poetry, intimates knew she was a gifted writer, receiving poems in her letters and notes; yet no one knew the extent, or depth, of her artistic production until she died.  The little manuscript books she produced were apparently seen by no one until Lavinia found them in May, 1886.  Yet Dickinson was known by all around her as profoundly intellectual, and family and friends gave her privacy and freedom to pursue a life of mental toil.  As her sister put it after she died, “[Emily] had to think – she was the only one of us who had that to do.”

Evergreens-front-and-West

The Evergreens, home of Austin and Susan Dickinson, Amherst, Massachusetts

Yet as fascinating as the story of Emily Dickinson’s strange life is the story of her strange after-life.  It began with her sister’s discovery of those poems.  Lavinia must have read through the manuscripts with amazement.  She first showed them to sister-in-law Susan Dickinson, wife of brother Austin, who lived next-door to the Homestead in a large house called the Evergreens, both homes now open to the public as the Emily Dickinson Museum.  Susan was herself literary-minded and had been a close friend of Emily’s since childhood.  She began going through the manuscripts, thinking of magazines and journals she could send the poems to.

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Mabel Loomis Todd, c. 1886

But she made slow progress; and, sometime in 1887, Lavinia turned to Mabel Loomis Todd, another neighbor, wife of an Amherst College professor, also literary-minded, and, incidentally, mistress of Austin Dickinson.  Todd was resourceful in bringing Emily Dickinson’s poems to the attention of the world.  With the help of Boston literary figure Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a correspondent of Emily’s, she brought out the first volume of 115 poems in 1890.

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Emily Dickinson, Poems (1890); the painting of flowers on the front is by Mabel Loomis Todd

It was a stunning success, going through 11 printings in two years, and was followed by a second volume in 1891, also edited by Higginson and Todd.  The two books barely slaked the public’s thirst, however; one reviewer, in 1892, wrote: “The world will not rest satisfied till every scrap of [Emily Dickinson’s] writings, letters as well as literature, has been published.”  A collection of the poet’s letters, edited by Todd, came out in 1894; and a third volume of poetry, also edited by her, was published in 1896.  A decade after her death, Emily Dickinson had become an author.

Lavinia Dickinson, with one of her beloved cats

Lavinia Dickinson, c. 1890, with one of her cats

But what happened next would dramatically alter the subsequent history of Dickinson publication, reception, and scholarship.  When Austin died in 1896, a land dispute arose between Lavinia and Mabel, the mounting jealousies and grievances among the three women – the sister, the sister-in-law, and the brother’s mistress – fueling a veritable “war between the houses,” the implications of which are still being felt to this day.  At one point, Lavinia retrieved many of her sister’s manuscripts, including most of the poems originally bound in the hand-made books.  But Mabel retained nearly half of the collection; and, after Lavinia’s death in 1899, refused any further dealings with the Dickinson family.  For the next half century, the manuscripts were divided between the families.  Mabel’s only child, Millicent Todd Bingham, inherited her mother’s portion, while Susan’s only surviving child, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, inherited Lavinia’s portion, the two daughters devoting their lives to caring for their respective shares of the poet’s legacy.  The Emily Dickinson revival of the 1920s and ‘30s only heightened interest in the poet and her work, and Bianchi and Bingham competitively mined the manuscripts in their possession, publishing every few years, to a stunned literary world, more previously unpublished poems.

Even with the deaths of Martha Dickinson Bianchi and Millicent Todd Bingham, both childless, in 1943 and 1968, respectively, the feud persisted since the manuscript poems in their possession ended up in different places, Martha’s going to Harvard University, Millicent’s to Amherst College, where they remain, divided, to this day.  Only in the 1950s did the world enjoy something like a “complete” edition of the poet’s work when the first-ever scholarly editing of all 1,775 known poems was completed by Thomas H. Johnson.  But it would take the pioneering work of another scholar, Ralph W. Franklin, whose major contributions appeared in 1967, 1981, and 1998, to restore the sequences of the original manuscript books and to definitively establish the date and all other details for every known Dickinson poem, now totaling 1,789 separate works.  But even with Franklin’s three-volume “variorum” edition in 1998, the manuscripts themselves were not only still closely guarded, copyright-protected, and largely inaccessible to the public, they remained divided along the lines of the old family feud, half at Harvard and half at Amherst.

Perhaps only now, in late 2013, a century and a quarter after the poet’s death, with the unveiling of the online Emily Dickinson Archive, a joint production of Harvard, Amherst, and other repositories, are the poems of Emily Dickinson finally available to the world – freely, openly, completely, and in one place.

If all this seems like a literary tempest in a teapot, here in Amherst, everything about Emily is newsworthy.  We’re now in the midst of the second controversy in a decade about a recently discovered but unconfirmed daguerreotype of the poet.  Any renovation at the Homestead, down to changing the color of the wallpaper in the poet’s bedroom, is greeted with close scrutiny.  And the launching of the online archive in October seemed only to exacerbate the feeling that the Amherst half of the manuscript collection was still being “dissed” by Harvard.  Meanwhile, the poet herself is as present as ever: her second floor bedroom window still looks out on the old road to Boston: the Evergreens to the west, Mabel’s cottage to the south, the family Church to the southwest, much of Amherst center virtually unchanged since she lived here more than a century ago.

Emily Dickinson’s Amherst Today: A Map

Her grave, meanwhile, in the cemetery behind the Mobil station on Pleasant Street, attracts visitors (and mementoes) from all over the world.  Perhaps no other poet is associated so inextricably with such a well-bounded place; and perhaps no place so associated with a major poet still seems so trapped in that writer’s past.  “I see New Englandly,” Emily wrote in one of her poems (Fr256); and, in this corner of New England, we look back inquiringly into those eyes, which she once described as “like the sherry in the glass, that the guest leaves.”  She is ours, however baffled she leaves us.

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Emily Dickinson’s grave, West Cemetery, Amherst, Massachusetts

And yet, clearly, Emily Dickinson now belongs to the world, not only because, since 1890, her work has been widely available in print (and now online), but also because the very nature of her poetry – its extreme compression, its ineffable abstraction, its “gnomic astringency” (Habegger 468) – has always made it seem somehow “sceneless” (the word is Robert Weisbuch’s, as quoted by Sharon Cameron, 3), the poems excavating “a territory that lies past the range of all phenomenal sense” (Cameron quoting herself, 3).  Each poem, from this point of view, is like a well-wrought urn, its meaning and value available entirely from within its own bounds.  Indeed, since the “complete” editions of Johnson and Franklin, both printing every known poem Dickinson wrote, one after the other, in the presumed order of their composition, what we’ve had from the poet is nearly two thousand small but autonomous works of art, separated now from the time and place of their making, even from one another, each its own little world, to be dipped into and out of as we please.

The attraction of readers to those poems is as powerful as ever.  Why?  Perhaps, first and foremost, because they are so remarkably brief, many just 8-12 lines long, some even shorter.  Second, they are almost all written in “common meter,” the familiar lyric form of the Protestant hymn: four-line stanzas of iambic verse, alternating four and three beats, with the second and fourth lines rhyming.  This first verse of a famous Dickinson poem can serve as illustration of this familiar formal pattern:

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.

A third reason Dickinson’s poems continue to resonate so widely, and deeply, I believe, is that, as in the example above, they deal in universal, timeless themes: nature, love, death, etc

And yet, despite their brevity, their common meter, their universal themes, Dickinson’s poems are all, each in its own way, puzzling.  Their apparent simplicity turns out to be just that: apparent.  Underneath the “common” poetic surface is almost always a turn, a riddle, an unexpected phrase, a sign of struggle, complexity, even darkness.  One often begins an Emily Dickinson poem with delight . . . and ends a minute or two later with a furrowed brow.

Take this poem:

That it will never come again
Is what makes life so sweet.
Believing what we don’t believe
Does not exhilarate.

That if it be, it be at best
An ablative estate –
This instigates an appetite
Precisely opposite.

“Gnomic astringency” indeed!  If the first two lines of this astoundingly brief, tightly-packed poem lull us into thinking that we are inside a simple affirmation of life’s sweetness, by the third line we realize that we are instead in a paradox: unable by convention to admit this life’s singular value, we believe something we know, deep down, to be untrue.  By the fourth line, the oblique rhyme has bent us even further away from convention.  And by the second stanza, we are in the midst of a deep religious puzzle about immortality and candor, the after-life that we think we desire, that we are supposed to desire, paling next to the real life which religion teaches us to disparage.  Heaven, if we are honest with ourselves, does not appeal.  It’s a shocking little poem, really; when I read it, I often think of Austin’s line about his sister, that she abhorred sham.

Incredibly, there is no evidence that Emily Dickinson ever showed this poem, a well-wrought urn if ever there was one, to anyone.  Its original manuscript was lost at some point after her death, though not before being transcribed by Mabel Loomis Todd, who declined, however, to publish it.  It first appeared in print in daughter Millicent Todd Bingham’s Bolts of Melody, her 1945 collection of unpublished Emily Dickinson poems.

I came to such “difficult” works relatively late.  The first Dickinson poem I remember really appreciating was simpler, though no less elegant, and no less brief, than the one above.  I first encountered it in a television documentary about American poetry, which aired sometime in the late 1980s.  I remember a woman’s voice and a graveyard scene:

Ample make this Bed –
Make this Bed with Awe –
In it wait till Judgment break
Excellent and Fair.

Be it’s Mattrass straight –
Be it’s Pillow round –
Let no Sunrise’ yellow noise
Interrupt this Ground –

One of the few works Emily explicitly thematized with a title or paraphrase, this brief poem about a “country burial” struck me, when I first heard it, as nearly perfect in its compact loveliness.  Now, years later, I see that it harbors its own puzzles and complexities.  Written in the imperative mood but clearly an act of supplication, it is a poem infused with earthly love for someone dearly departed, yet it expresses the fervent wish that his or her repose be uninterrupted: dark, stopless, and silent.  It’s a poem that seems, in just eight lines, to invest the smallest possible compass with the longest possible time span.  I find it now chilling even as I remain seduced by its beauty.

"Ample make this Bed," (Fr804), from Emily Dickinson Archive.

“Ample make this Bed” (Fr804), from Emily Dickinson Archive.

I was older when I began to appreciate Emily’s poems about nature: the seasons, flowers, and birds she loved and was so attentive to.  Here’s one that, at a certain point in my life, I returned to again and again (I divide it here into four stanzas – in Franklin’s version of the poem, there are no breaks):

As imperceptibly as Grief
The Summer lapsed away –
Too imperceptible at last
To seem like Perfidy  –

A Quietness distilled
As Twilight long begun,
Or Nature spending with herself
Sequestered Afternoon –

The Dusk drew earlier in –
The Morning foreign shone –
A courteous, yet harrowing Grace,
As Guest, that would be gone –

And thus, without a Wing
Or service of a Keel
Our Summer made her light escape
Into the Beautiful –

Less morbid than the poems above, this is nonetheless a deeply moving elegy for something beloved that, the nearer it gets to passing, the more beautiful it appears, its departure as quiet and subdued as it is irreversible.  Has there ever been a more beautiful poem about summer’s sad, unavoidable, but supremely graceful end?

A page from Emily Dickinson's Herbarium

A page from Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium (original copy at Harvard University’s Houghton Library)

If “Ample make this Bed” and “As imperceptibly as Grief” are poems about external reality, about, respectively, a “country burial” and the end of summer, the Dickinson poems I find myself drawn to in middle age are more about the interior life, about experience, loss, struggle, doubt, despair, and growth.  Dickinson wrote hundreds of such poems during the intensely productive years of the early 1860s, as the bloody Civil War waged, a conflict she rarely acknowledged in her poetry but which seems to have been a constant, tacit background to her own “fighting years” (the phrase is Habegger’s).  In her poems of this period, one sees the poet again and again trying to come to terms with some kind of shattering event, searching for a language that can acknowledge, even affirm, the pain of being human, of living and losing, yet can also help the sufferer, bit by bit, plank by plank, endure such pain, learn to step “around – across – upon it,” gingerly at first, but, gradually, with boldness, even power.

But before such endurance, there is pain.  Many of the great poems of the late 1850s and early 1860s are raw with suffering.  According to Habegger, there are 21 instances of the word “hurt” in Dickinson’s poetry, and all date from 1860 to 1863 (408).  Some of her “suffering” poems are well known, like the one that begins “There is a pain – so utter –/It swallows being up –.”  Others are less well known, often nearly unbearable to read:

I shall know why – when Time is over –
And I have ceased to wonder why –
Christ will explain each separate anguish
In the fair schoolroom of the sky –

He will tell me what “Peter” promised –
And I – for wonder at his woe –
I shall forget the drop of anguish
That scalds me now – that scalds me now!

In one memorable poem, she wonders if she is losing her mind:

The first Day’s Night had come –
And grateful that a thing
So terrible – had been endured –
I told my Soul to sing –

She said her Strings were snapt –
Her Bow – to Atoms blown –
And so to mend her – gave me work
Until another Morn –

And then – a Day as huge
As Yesterdays in pairs,
Unrolled its horror in my face –
Until it blocked my eyes –

My Brain – begun to laugh –
I mumbled – like a fool –
And tho’ ‘tis Years ago – that Day –
My Brain keeps giggling – still.

And Something’s odd – within –
That person that I was –
And this One – do not feel the same –
Could it be Madness – this?

At other times, the anguish is given a metaphorical cast:

I felt a Cleaving in my Mind –
As if my Brain had split –
I tried to match it – Seam by Seam –
But could not make them fit.

The thought behind, I strove to join
Unto the thought before –
But Sequence raveled out of Sound
Like Balls – upon a Floor.

In some ways, this latter poem is more characteristic of Dickinson than the two before it – more compressed, abstract, indecipherable.  For the “I” here, we are less tempted to imagine Emily Dickinson herself, sitting in the second floor bedroom on Main Street in Amherst, than to hear ourselves in the speaker’s voice, feeling at first hand the momentary loss of meaning that we all so often experience.  As for the source of the pain, it too is abstract and unknowable.  We never get an actual exterior event – the rejection of a lover, a failed career, the death of a friend or relative; instead, we get the mind’s experience of that event: the breaking, drowning, falling feeling that we are all prone to.  No poet ever captured that experience so memorably, so truthfully.

"I felt a Cleaving in my Mind," (Fr867), from Emily Dickinson Archive.

“I felt a Cleaving in my Mind” (Fr867), from Emily Dickinson Archive.

But if, at her best, Emily’s articulations of pain, loss, and grief resonate universally, there are aspects of these poems that are hard to separate from her person, despite her famous claim to Higginson that, “When I state myself, as the representative of the verse, it does not mean me, but a supposed person.”  For one thing, Dickinson’s poetic “I” is often figured, revealingly, in terms of size or scale, the speaker almost always small, overlooked by others, slighted by them, and retreating afterwards to a safe space of her own making.  Here, it is difficult to displace our image of the reclusive poet, alone in her bedroom, using writing to, in a sense, “relieve the palsy.”  Here are the opening lines of two poems written in this vein:

“I was the slightest in the House –
I took the smallest Room –”

“It would have starved a Gnat –
To live so small as I –”

But – and this is, to me, one of the great revelations that come from reading Dickinson – if the feeling of being abandoned, forgotten, slighted is painful, it gives the poet, over time, an odd kind of power.  She is left alone; but that disregard, and the quiet and solitude that accompany it, give her the time, space, and freedom she needs to re-invent herself and her life – to become, in a sense, gigantic.

Her solitary struggle eventually leads to a question: is it possible that loss, while it marks the end of one period, is always also the beginning of another?  Does reflection on a searing pain provide, ironically, relief from other pains? (“The Missing All,” Emily wrote in one poem, “prevented Me/From missing minor Things.”)  Is the endurance of loss itself a kind of gain?  the acknowledgement of weakness, over time, a kind of strength?  And is the spasmodic attempt to find one’s poise after falling a kind of metaphor for living itself?

I took my Power in my Hand –
And went against the World –
‘Twas not so much as David – had –
But I – was twice as bold –

I aimed my Pebble – but Myself
Was all the one that fell –
Was it Goliath – was too large –
Or was myself – too small?

When one has such mental and linguistic gifts at one’s disposal – and the time, quiet, and solitude to practice them – the experience of loss leads ultimately not to despair but to thought, to wonder (which Emily defined as “not precisely knowing and not precisely knowing not”), and, eventually, to growth.  Pain and failure, Emily seems to suggest, beget uncertainty and doubt; and uncertainty and doubt, over time, open a space, if not for triumph, at least for possibility: “Whether they have forgotten/Or are forgetting now/Or never remembered –/Safer not to know –.”

Withdrawal, in other words, if well used, is less an escape from the world than an intense meditation on it.  Everything about Emily Dickinson, we might say, is proof against volubility and show, against cliché, against facile responses to life’s difficulties.  From her point of view, most people speak too quickly, too loudly, and too much.  To Higginson, she once complained that others “talk of hallowed things, aloud, and embarrass my dog.”  She was alive to the world, to both the pain and joy it inflicts – but her habitual response to the direct experience of life was to seek the solitude of her bedroom where she could think (and write) through what had happened and try to give it the sense that only comes with time, with candor, with struggle – and, yes, with art.  “Today,” she once wrote in a letter, “makes Yesterday mean.”

Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Thomas Wentworth Higginson

And yet, the great irony of Emily Dickinson – small, disregarded, alone in her room, unable to face guests, shamed by their glibness – is that her poetry was so fearless, so alive, almost violent in its power of thought and expression.  When she first wrote to Higginson in the spring of 1862, enclosing four poems on separate pieces of paper, and asking if her verse “breathed,” she didn’t even sign the letter, instead enclosing in a separate, smaller envelope, tucked inside the first, a small card with her name written lightly in pencil.  It was as if she couldn’t efface herself enough.  And yet, after meeting her for the first time several years later, Higginson wrote to his wife, “I never was with anyone who drained my nerve power so much . . . I am glad not to live near her” (qtd. in Johnson, Final Harvest, viii).

So, yes, she was the slightest in the house and took the smallest room; yes, it would have starved a gnat to live as small as she; yet the lesson of Emily Dickinson, to my mind, is that humility and reserve are not incompatible with nearly volcanic intellectual, emotional, and artistic power – that the brain is, in the end, our mightiest part.

And that brings me to the final movement of Emily Dickinson’s “fighting years,” the period in the early 1860s when she produced the greatest number of poems.  If the first step is the candid acknowledgment and expression of pain and suffering; and the second step, the realization that, with time and quiet, the questioning, wondering, thinking mind can survive such pain, even be strengthened by it; the third step is growing confidence in one’s ability to re-make oneself in the light of experience, a capacity or power made up of the purely human tactics of patience, candor, and work.

The power shows up most dramatically, perhaps, in Dickinson’s late poems about religion, which possess a fearlessness in the face of the Almighty that is practically sacrilegious.  Some of the poems are tinged with anger: “Of Course – I prayed –/And did God Care?”  Others are more slyly insinuating:

Of God we ask one favor,
That we may be forgiven –
For what, he is presumed to know –
The Crime, from us, is hidden –

Similarly, the poem which begins “’Heavenly Father ‘ – take to thee” concludes with the caustic lines, “We apologize to thee/For thine own Duplicity –.”  The poem that begins “I live with Him – I see His face –,” meanwhile, celebrates the life the speaker leads with her beloved, expressing nonchalance about what God thinks of such an existence: “That Life like This – is stopless –/Be Judgment – what it may –.”

Even when Dickenson is not writing about God or religion, there is a growing sense of power in the poems that come after the suffering of the late 1850s and early ‘60s.  It’s a fragile power, but it’s a power nonetheless, and it’s gained by struggle and work, not by divine gift or mystery.  In some poems, the power consists simply of a more clear-eyed view of what had before looked so awful:

We see – Comparatively –
The Thing so towering high
We could not grasp it’s segment
Unaided – Yesterday –

This Morning’s finer Verdict –
Makes scarcely worth the toil –
A furrow – Our Cordillera –
Our Appenine – a knoll –

Perhaps ‘tis kindly – done us –
The Anguish – and the loss –
The wrenching – for His Firmament
The Thing belonged to us –

To spare these striding spirits
Some Mornings of Chagrin –
The waking in a Gnat’s – embrace –
Our Giants – further on –

The power is not all-knowing or -seeing; and it is clearly chastened by earlier failures, even damaged irreparably by them.  But in some ways, it is all the stronger for that:

I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my Feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch –
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

"I stepped from Plank to Plank" (Fr926), from Emily Dickinson Archive.

“I stepped from Plank to Plank” (Fr926), from Emily Dickinson Archive.

The following poem perhaps articulates better than any others the fragile sense of poise Dickinson established by the end of her “fighting years.”  The recognition has nothing of triumph about it, yet there is nonetheless a candid sense of accomplishment.

Growth of Man – like Growth of Nature –
Gravitates within –
Atmosphere, and Sun endorse it –
But it stir – alone –

Each – its difficult Ideal
Must achieve – Itself –
Through the solitary prowess
Of a Silent Life –

Effort – is the sole condition –
Patience of itself –
Patience of opposing forces –
And intact Belief –

Looking on – is the Department
Of its Audience –
But transaction – is assisted
By no Countenance –

Across the poetry of the early 1860s, Emily Dickinson seems to evolve before our eyes.  From pain and loss, to questioning, to, finally, a kind of strength.  Alone, in her room, she learns to fashion meaning out of her life, resolving to see it through, even if she can’t quite see to the other side.  I may be investing these poems with a narrative that says more about me and my own life than it does about Dickinson and her poetry.  Still, it’s hard not to see the poet making a kind of peace with pain in her 30s, never completely vanquishing that pain, but learning nonetheless to step “around – across – upon it.”

Of course, just when we think we have got hold of Dickinson, that we have found a key to unlock her, she baffles us again – just as life must constantly have baffled her, even when she felt most steeled against it.  In the end, hers is a poetry of intense mental struggle – of trying to work things out – never quite succeeding but strengthening one’s intellectual muscles in the process – and that is a kind of growth, after all.  As Harold Bloom once wrote, we are “baffled  . . . by the power of her mind.  I do not believe any critic has been adequate to her intellectual demands” (292).  Helen Vendler  recently used the same word: Dickinson “baffles” our understanding: a poet of “implication rather than of statement,” she provokes us “into puzzled and active response” (1, 4).

So we keep coming back to her – we sense that she knows something, the answer hidden somewhere in her gnomic verse.  And yet we never quite find it.  Just as with the central mystery of her biography, her art is all riddle, a poetry of the “omitted center,” as Jay Leyda once put it (quoted in Cameron, 3).  The poems are so tantalizingly brief, the meter so “common,” the themes so universal . . . and yet the effect again and again is perplexity.

Perhaps that’s why Dickinson wrote so many poems and so self-consciously collected them in her strange way – because she herself knew that that there was no single, substantive, simple answer – that it was rather in process, over time, through activity, in work, that one grows and understands, the accumulated acts and events of living coinciding with the accumulated days, seasons, and years.  In the end, passage is all.

The secret to reading Dickinson, in other words, may be to just keep reading her – it’s the accumulation of readings that instructs, just as the accumulation of days teaches us how to survive life itself.  It’s not about one poem – or about a single, simple message from one or all the poems – but about the sequence of poems, one after the other, the line extending in one direction into the past, in another direction into the future, both lines hazy in the distance but going somewhere.  For Dickinson herself – writing, at her height, something on the order of one poem a day – it must have been that constant, daily experience – the sun rising and setting, the seasons slowly changing, the birds coming and going, each day a new line emerging on blank paper, a verse forming, to be crafted, polished, perfected – and then the next day to start all over again: the struggles of a thoughtful life.

For part two of “My Blue Peninsula,” click here.


For the Emily Dickinson Archive, click here.

For the Emily Dickinson Collection at Harvard University’s Houghton Library, click here.

For the Emily Dickinson Collection at Amherst College’s Frost Library, click here.

For the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, Massachusetts, click here.

For Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium (digital version), click here.

For the 1848 daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson, click here.

For Susan Dickinson’s obituary of Emily Dickinson (May 18, 1886), click here.

For Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s 1891 Atlantic  Monthly article about the letters Emily Dickinson wrote to him, click here.

For a map of Amherst that focuses on the lives of Maggie Maher and Tom Kelley, two Irish immigrants who long worked for the Dickinson (and Todd) families, click here.

For the Poetry Foundation’s biography of Emily Dickinson, click here.

For the Academy of American Poets’ Guide to Emily Dickinson, click here.

Other works consulted for this blog post include: Thomas H. Johnson (ed.), Final Harvest (1961); R. W. Franklin (ed.), The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson, 2 vols. (1981); Sharon Cameron, Choosing, Not Choosing (1992); Harold Bloom, The Western Canon (1994); R. W. Franklin (ed.), The Poems of Emily Dickinson (Variorum Edition), 3 vols. (1998);  Alfred Habegger, My Wars Are Laid Away in Books (2001); Elizabeth Horan’s 1996 and 2001 articles on the publication history of Dickinson’s poems in the Emily Dickinson Journal; Helen Vendler, Dickinson (2010); and Lyndall Gordon, Lives Like Loaded Guns (2010).

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