With love to Emily Dickinson

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Wednesday 22 December 2010
Ron Brownson

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The American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) was already a recluse by 1870. Perhaps even as early as 1860, according to some accounts. She really did not like to leave the house much. She travelled in her head.

During her lifetime, she only published seven of her 1775 documented poems. Arguably, America’s greatest 19th century poet, Emily is also that period’s most mystical, lyric maverick.

She writes way beyond Walt Whitman’s taut sport of muscled and sinewy transcendentalism. Her closest ally in poetry is England’s/Ireland’s Gerard Manly Hopkins, another visionary outsider.

Emily is a wrenched out thinker with an agonisingly imaginative motor powering her mind. Her work is filled with tautology and shock-filled fear. Her poetry has a groaning need to reach way beneath surface to declaim the spectacular promises born out of love.

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!

When the first edition of Dickinson's poems was being prepared in 1891, Thomas Higginson sent a letter to Mabel Todd, the book’s co-editor, “One poem only I dread a little to print--that wonderful 'Wild Nights,'--lest the malignant read into it more than that virgin recluse ever dreamed of putting there. Has Miss Lavinia [Emily Dickinson's sister] any shrinking about it? You will understand & pardon my solicitude. Yet what a loss to omit it! Indeed it is not to be omitted.”

This remarkable poem has been transcribed and printed in another version, whose meaning is consequently altered by the typography and punctuation differences:

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!

Emily Dickinson’s poetry raises that old notion of genius, again. For me, she is way beyond the genius label. This is not because her work, like that of Diane Arbus, is never boring. She puts out an age defying challenge that does not say, “Is this good?” but asks “Are you up to this work, it carries tumult within itself.”

Much commentary on Emily Dickinson’s poetry ignores how deeply she was influenced by the metrical character of the Psalms and their contrast of images, line by line. Here’s one such pairing:

He trusted in God that He would deliver Him
Let Him deliver Him, if He delight in Him
Psalm 22:8-9

Emily Dickinson’s apocalyptic writing often uses out of the body experiences as a focus:

I reckon - when I count
At all -
First - Poets - Then the Sun -
Then Summer - Then the
Heaven of God -
And then - the List is done-

But - looking back - the
First so seems
To Comprehend the Whole -
The Others look a needless Show -
So I write - Poets - All -

Their Summer - lasts a Solid
Year -
They can afford a Sun
The East - would deem
Extravagant -
And if the Further Heaven -

Be Beautiful as they prepare
For Those who worship Them -
It is too difficult a Grace -
To justify the Dream -

Ted Hughes was fascinated with Dickinson’s work and edited a selection that Faber and Faber published in 1968. He wrote about her images as being constructed from “the slow, small metre, a device for hanging up each syllable into close-up, as under a microscope;…there is a mosaic pictogram concentration of ideas into which she codes a volcanic elemental imagination…the riddling, oblique artistic strategies…solid with metaphors, saturated with the homeliest imagery and experience, the freakish blood-and-nerve paradoxical vitality of the latinisms.”