The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.X. Later Poets
§ 2. New England; Emily Dickinson
None of these has gained more with time than has Emily Dickinson. Despite her defective sense of form, which makes her a better New Englander than Easterner, she has acquired a permanent following of discriminating readers through her extraordinary insight into the life of the mind and the soul. This insight is that of a latter-day Puritan, completely divorced from the outward stir of life, retiring, by preference, deeper and deeper within. Born in 1830 at Amherst, Massachusetts, she lived there all her life, and in 1886 died there. The inwardness and moral ruggedness of Puritanism she inherited mainly through her father, Edward Dickinson, lawyer and treasurer of Amherst College, a Puritan of the old type, whose heart, according to his daughter, was “pure and terrible.” Her affection for him was so largely compounded with awe that in a sense they were strangers. “I have a brother and sister,” she wrote to her poetical preceptor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson; “my mother does not care for thought, and father, too busy with his briefs to notice what we do. He buys me many books, but begs me not to read them, because he fears they jiggle the mind. They are religious, except me.” Of course, she too was religious, and intensely so, breathing as she did the intoxicating air of Transcendentalism. In person she described herself as “small, like the wren; and my hair is bold like the chestnut burr; and my eyes, like the sherry in the glass that the guest leaves.” “You ask of my companions. Hills, sir, and the sundown, and a dog large as myself.” These, and not her family, were actually her companions, together with a few books and her own soul. She had an alert introspection that brought her more than the wealth of the Indies. There is no better example of the New England tendency to moral revery than this last pale Indian-summer flower of Puritanism. She is said literally to have spent years without passing the doorstep, and many more years without leaving her father’s grounds. After the death of her parents, not to mention her dog Carlo, she retired still further within herself, till the sounds of the everyday world must have come to her as from a previous state of existence.
“I find ecstacy in living,” she said to Higginson, and spoke truly, as her poems show. In an unexpected light on orchards, in a wistful mood of meadow or wood-border held secure for a moment before it vanished; in the few books that she read—her Keats, her Shakespeare, her Revelation; in the echoes, obscure in origin, that stirred within her own mind and soul, now a tenuous melody, now a deep harmony, a haunting question, or a memorable affirmation;—everywhere she displayed something of the mystic’s insight and joy. And she expressed her experience in her poems, forgetting the world altogether, intent only on the satisfaction of giving her fluid life lasting form, her verse being her journal. Yet the impulse to expression was probably not strong, because she wrote no poems, save one or two, as she herself asserts, until the winter 1861–62, when she was over thirty years old. In the spring of 1862 she wrote a letter to Higginson beginning, “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive? The mind is so near itself it cannot see distinctly, and I have none to ask.” Discerning the divine spark in her shapeless verse, he welcomed her advances, and became her “preceptor,” loyally listened to but, as was inevitable, mainly unheeded. Soon perceiving this, Higginson continued to encourage her, for many years, without trying to divert her lightning-flashes. In “H. H.”—Helen Hunt Jackson,herself a poetess of some distinction, and her early schoolmate at Amherst—she had another sympathetic friend, who, suspecting the extent of her production, asked for the post of literary executor. At length, in 1890, a volume edited by Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd was published, Poems by Emily Dickinson, arranged under various heads according to subject. The book succeeded at once, six editions being sold in the first six months; so that a second series, and later a third, seemed to be justified. From the first selection to the third, however, there is a perceptible declension.
The subject division adopted by her editors serves well enough: Life, Love, Nature, Time and Eternity. A mystical poetess sequestered in a Berkshire village, she naturally concerned herself with neither past nor present, but with the things that are timeless. Apparently deriving no inspiration from the war to which Massachusetts, including her preceptorial colonel, gave itself so freely, she spent her days in brooding over the mystery of pain, the true nature of success, the refuge of the tomb, the witchcraft of the bee’s murmur, the election of love, the relation of deed to thought and will. On such subjects she jotted down hundreds of little poems.
Though she had an Emersonian faith that fame, if it belonged to her, could not escape her, she cared nothing at all about having it; like not a few Transcendentalists, she might have written on the lintels of her door-post, Whim. That was her guiding divinity, Whim in a high sense: not unruliness, for all her impishness, but complete subjection to the inner dictate. She obeyed it in her mode of life, in her friendships, in her letters, in her poems. It makes her poetry eminently spontaneous—as fresh and artless as experience itself—in spite of the fact that she was not a spontaneous singer. The ringing bursts of melody that are characteristic of the born lyrical poet, such as Burns, she was incapable of; but she had insight, and intense, or rather tense, emotion, and expressed herself with an eye single to the truth. Something she derived from her reading, no doubt, from Emerson, the Brownings, Sir Thomas Browne; but rarely was poet less indebted. From her silent thought she derived what is essential in her work, and her whole effort was to state her thoughts; “when I try to organize,” she said, “my little force explodes and leaves me bare and charred.” If she revised her work, as she did industriously, it was to render it not more attractive but truer.
Her poems are remarkable for their condensation, their vividness of image, their delicate or pungent satire and irony, their childlike responsiveness to experience, their subtle feeling for nature, their startling abruptness in dealing with themes commonly regarded as trite, their excellence in imaginative insight and still greater excellence in fancy. Typical is such a poem as that in which she celebrates the happiness of a little stone on the road, or that in which she remarks with gleeful irony upon the dignity that burial has in store for each of us—coach and footmen, bells in the village, “as we ride grand along.” Emily Dickinson takes us to strange places; one never knows what is in store. But always she is penetrating and dainty, both intimate and aloof, challenging lively thought on our part while remaining, herself, a charmingly elfish mystery. Her place in American letters will be inconspicuous but secure.