Emily Dickinson - Madness and Wild Nights

Emily Dickinson - Madness and Wild Nights - cw EMILY...

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Unformatted text preview: cw EMILY DICKINSON _, _BI. UNITED STATES, 1830—1886 Stylistically, Emily Dickinson’s poems may not havehad much influence on succeeding generations of writers; it is hard to name a single poet Whose poems look or sound like Dickinson’s crafted miniaturesstill, her legacy has been vast in that she has taught writers audacity. The female voicesthat speak in Emily Dickinson’s poems are daring, subversive, and uncompromising; they'weigh old assumptionsand find them 'LWanting, speak of [desires deemed improper by society, defy convention, and invite cataclysm. Dickinson’s work reminds us that the Romantic hero, theper: son who tests the limits of God’s and society’s tolerance, who always thirstsfor something beyond,th experiences suicidal despair and shat— tering joy, can, be a woman writing in an upstairs bedroom. A Secluded Life.: In some ways, we'know a fair amount about-Emily Dickinson. But we know little of her inner. life except that it was intense. We do not know the name or even the sex of the persons to whom in the early 18603 shewrote a series of anguished and openly erotic love letters, nor do we know whether those-letters were ever sent. And we do not know why, after a rather lively childhood and adolescence, she sought a more and more secluded life. v , - I ' ~ Dickinson was born on December 10, 1830, in Amherst, Massachu- setts, a beautiful village in the Berkshire hills whose vigorous intellectual life centered around Amherst College, forvwhich her father and later her brother Austin served as treasurer. ThevDickinson children were in awe all their lives of their sternvbut affectionate father, rananickinson was exceptionally close to her brother, Austin, and her sister, Lavinia. Dickin— son herself had an excellent education at Amherst Academy, and later, a single year at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. Dickinson’s was not the typical watered—down “female curriculum” of her day; her basic knowledge of botany, astronomy, physics, theology, and. other subjects is evident throughout her poems. At Mount Holyoke, Dickinson revealed her independent turn of mind. When Mary Lyon, the revered founder, asked the assembled students to rise if they hoped to becomeChristians, only Dickinson “remained seated. As is abundantly evident from her poems, Dickinson balked atconventional pieties and at easy answers to theological questions. r; . * _, v The beginning of Dickinson’s gradual withdrawal from society can probably be :dated from her leaving Mount Holyoke. As many have pointed out, her isolation may have been strategic. The amount of house- work, child care, and social obligation visited uponeven anunmarried daughter in a large family allowedlittle time for poetry. Later in her life, in the upstairs bedroom where she did most of her writing, Dickinson once pantomimed for her niece the act of locking herself in her room, saying “It’s just a turn—and freedom, Mattie!” - ’ / For more information about Dickinson and-a - . quiz on her poems, see bedford stm artins.com/L worldlitcompact.. , 1141 "E 1142 EMILY DICKINSON When we read Dick- inson the nerves tighten in sympathy and wonder. Frag- ments yleaplout at us as powerfully as fully realized poems. . . . -JOYCE CAROL OATES, (Woman) Writer: Occasions and Opportunities Worldly Contact. After Dickinson’s departure from Mount Holyoke, she made a few trips with her family. In 1855, she Visited Washington and Philadelphia with her father, then serving a 'term in Congress. In Philadelphia she met the married minister Charles Wadsworth; perhaps the person to Whom, in the late 1850s and early 18608, she addressed the “Master letters,” painful expressions of hopeless longing that'may never have been mailed. ' f I I / Dickinson had written poems from adolescence on, but'in the early 186os—the time of the emotional crises hinted at in the Master letters—— he: creativity burgeoned. In 1862, in response to an essay by Thomas Wéntworth Higginson in The Atlantic Monthly giving advice to young would-be writers, Dickinson sent him fOur poems, asking him in, an unsigned letter to tell her whether he thought they “breathed”; she pen- ciled her name lightly on a card,which she enclosed in a separate enve- lope. Higginson Was too conventional to appreciate fully Dickinson’s work—he often objected to the unorthodoxy of her grammar and vocabulary—but he was a generous lifelong mentor. Her childhood friend Helen Hunt Jackson (1830—1885), author of the popular romance Ramona, also respected Dickinson’s work and kept urging her to publish, but her pleas were largely in vain. Dickinson cringed at the way her few published poems were altered and regularized by editors, and her reluc- tance to have her Work tampered with may partially explain Why she didn’t send more of it out into the world. Certainly, even those closest to her did? not guess how prolifically she Wrote.‘At times during the 18605, Dickinson seems to have written one or more poems a day. ‘ Last Years. Death was never far from any nineteenth-century house- hold, but particular deaths were especially painful for Dickinson— several young men she had known died during the Civil War; her father, in 1874; her favorite nephew,-Gilbert, in 1883; her beloved friend Judge Otis Lord, the following year. Not only death, but the slow process of dying, was a very present reality for Dickinson. Her mother, no brilliant intellectual but :a pleasant and nurturing woman when she was well, became essentially an invalid in 1855, and until her death in. 1882 the responsibility of nursing her fell mOStly to Emily and Lavinia, the unmar- ried daughters. ». i ' r ' E In 1882, Dickinson’s adored elder brother Austin embarked on a pass sionate, adulterous affair with Mabel Loomis Todd, the artistic young wife of an Amherst professor, a relationship that would endure until Austin’s death in 1895. The lovers did not seek to divorce their partners, although everyone in both families knew what was, going on, and the affair seems to have been an Open secret throughout the scandalized community. Emily and Lavinia, at whose house the lovers often trysted, were apparently caught in the crossfire of family loyalties, but neither sis— ter recorded a word about the situatiOn‘: r f i ’ ‘ In her last years, Dickinson saw no one face—to—face except certain family members and household servants, allowing her rare guests-to sit in an adjacent room and speak to her through a door left slightly ajar. She w Emily Dickinson, 1830—1886 1143 died on May 15,1886, of Bright’s disease, a chronic inflammation of the kidneys. Shortly afterward, Lavinia discovered nearly eighteen-hundred poems in various drawers and initially gave them to Austin’s wife, Susan, withthe thought. that Susan might oversee their publication. Two years later, when Susan had made no effort to. do so, Lavinia took the poems back and gave them to Dickinson’s old mentOr, Higginson, and Mabel LoomisTodd, herself something of apoet. The two jointly oversaw two small editions ofselected poems in, 1890 and 1891;vin 1896, Todd brought out a third selection. These editions did exactly what Dickinson had dis- approved'of previously with theirsmoothing—out and normalizing of her distinctive voice. Thomas Johnson’sedition of 1955, nearly seventy years after Dickinson’s death, was the first to attempt to reproduce the poems as Dickinson had recorded them. V ‘ ' V * ' ' The Poet’syVoice. Dickinson once claimed to Higginson that her major influences were Keats,l the Brownings,2' and the Bible; elsewhere,vshe would name Shakespeare and her lexicon as the books she depended On. She disavowed knowing her greatest poetic contemporary, Walt Whit— man, whose work she had been told was “disgraceful.” But the style of her verse was shaped by very homely influences indeed—principally, the “common meter” of hymn books. Her poems were also influenced by valentines and memorial verses for the dead, both aVidly written and col— lected by genteel Amherst residents. ‘ _ With these conventional pieces for reading material and music, Emily Dickinson somehow forged her extraordinary poems, theflmore extraordinary because the revolutionary things they say occur within such everyday structures. In hymn meter, she wonders whether God is not playing a game‘of hide-and—seek with his children, one‘that might end, horribly, with the major player having goneaway, leaving people staring at their deaths into a nothingness; She takes the supposedly com- forting phrase “the Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away” and pushes it to its logical extreme, envisioning a God who is at once a stingy banker, a sneaky burglar, and overall a father to whose capricious principles of spiritual economy we are subjected as he gives us people to love and then snatches them away. Elsewhere, she envisions ecstatic erotic unions with a figure who may be a mortal lover, a version of Christ, or both; in either case, these are poems that defy and demand more and harder answers 7 than churches or preachers may provide. Dickinson prefers painful truth, however discouraging, to anything less. Her eye for natural subjects is matchless; like Whitman, she is able to see beyond the usual pretty -. 1 Keats (1795—1821): John Keats, the most symbolic of the English Romantic poets; his work suggested ways of handling symbolism to Dickinson. See p. 778. _ _ I V i 2the Brownings: Robert Browning (1812—1889) and his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (18(06—i1861), two renowned British Victorian poets who married in 1846 and moved to Florence, Italy. Elizabeth was an invalid most of her life due to a youthful riding accident. Their precarious relationship and passionate poetry made them popular favorites in both England and America. 1144 EMILY DICKINSON subject. Her poems deal with rats, frogs, snakes, and bats as well as blue— birds, and she looks steadily at nature’s :darker side. I . Perhaps most compelling of all-is Dickinson’s exploration of female power and powerlessness. She unflinchingly records a dream: in which a flaccid worm she’d thoughtlessly let stay in her bedroom turns intoa menacing-male snake “ringed with power”; she pictures a spirited girl child who inwardly thwarts all adult efforts to repress her; she envisions standing in relation to some master, whether God or a human lover; as a gun to its owner, with its explosive power to kill directed at fellow:female : creatures. In a poem that for many modern readers seems to evoke expe— L rience of repeated sexual abuse, Dickinson asserts that a woman’s life amounts to brief moments of feverish freedom bracketed by long periods of helpless oppression. ‘ r " In addressing such subjects Dickinson defied nineteenth-century theology,. patriarchy,and the ideal of the woman as “the angel-in the house.” Comingfrom a woman in small—town New England in the nine— teenth century, that was heroismindeed. F» I” FURTHER RESEARCH Editions W Johnson, Thomas H., ed. The Poems ofEmily Dickinson. 3 vols. I95I, I955. Johnson, Thomas H., and Theodora ward, eds. The Letters ofEmi/y Dickinson. 3 vols. I958. Biography SeWall, Richard. The Lifiz of Emily Dickinson. 2 vols. I974. Criticism Dobson,J. Dickinson and the Strategies ofReticence: The Woman Writer in Nineteenth ' CentaIyAmerica. I989. L i ' ' Farr, J udlth. The Passion of Emily Dickinson. I992. Ferlazzo, PaulJ., ed. Critical Essays‘on Emily Dickinson. I984. Howe;Susan; My Emily Dickinson. I985. 5 ‘ ' ‘ “ Juhasz, Suzanne, ed. Feminist Critics Read Emily Dickinson. I983. Smith, Martha Nell. Rowing in Eden: Rereaa’ing Emily Dickinson. I992. W I know that He exists, I know that He. exists. Somewhere — in Silence— He has hid his rare life From our gross eyes. ’Tis an instant’s play. ’Tis a'fond Ambush...— Iust: tomake Bliss Earn her own surprise! 10 W Much'Madness is divinest Sense—’ Much Madness is divinest Sense—— To a discerning Eye—— Much Sense — the starkest Madness — ’Tis the Majority In this, as All, prevail— Assent— and you are sane— Demur —~you’re straightway dangerous — And handled with a Chain— C‘w I like a look of Agony ' I like a look of Agony, Because I know it’s true— Men do not sham Convulsion, Nor simulate, a Throe— The Eyes glaze once—and that is Death—— Impossible to feign The Beads upon the Forehead By homely Anguish strung. v Wild Nights — Wild Nights! 0w Wild Nights—Wild Nights! ‘ 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! V1151 ...
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Emily Dickinson - Madness and Wild Nights - cw EMILY...

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