Emily Dickinson's Letters
“‘Mr. Higginson, — Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive?’”
Few events in American literary history have been more curious than the sudden rise of Emily Dickinson into a posthumous fame only more accentuated by the utterly recluse character of her life and by her aversion to even a literary publicity. The lines which form a prelude to the published volume of her poems are the only ones that have come to light indicating even a temporary desire to come in contact with the great world of readers; she seems to have had no reference, in all the rest, to anything but her own thought and a few friends. But for her only sister it is very doubtful if her poems would ever have been printed at all; and when published, they were launched quietly and without any expectation of a wide audience; yet the outcome of it is that six editions of the volume have been sold within six months, a suddenness of success almost without a parallel in American literature.
One result of this glare of publicity has been a constant and earnest demand by her readers for further information in regard to her; and I have decided with much reluctance to give some extracts from her early correspondence with one whom she always persisted in regarding—with very little ground for it—as a literary counselor and confidant.
It seems to be the opinion of those who have examined her accessible correspondence most widely, that no other letters bring us quite so intimately near to the peculiar quality and aroma of her nature; and it has been urged upon me very strongly that her readers have the right to know something more of this gifted and most interesting woman.
On April 16, 1862, I took from the post office in Worcester, Mass., where I was then living, the following letter: —
MR. HIGGINSON, — 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.
Should you think it breathed, and had you the leisure to tell me, I should feel quick gratitude.
If I make the mistake, that you dared to tell me would give me sincerer honor toward you.
I inclose my name, asking you, if you please, sir, to tell me what is true?
That you will not betray me it is needless to ask, since honor is its own pawn.
The letter was postmarked “Amherst,” and it was in a handwriting so peculiar that it seemed as if the writer might have taken her first lessons by studying the famous fossil bird-tracks in the museum of that college town. Yet it was not in the slightest degree illiterate, but cultivated, quaint, and wholly unique. Of punctuation there was little; she used chiefly dashes, and it has been thought better, in printing these letters, as with her poems, to give them the benefit in this respect of the ordinary usages; and so with her habit as to capitalization, as the printers call it, in which she followed the Old English and present German method of thus distinguishing every noun substantive. But the most curious thing about the letter was the total absence of a signature. It proved, however, that she had written her name on a card, and put it under the shelter of a smaller envelope inclosed in the larger; and even this name was written—as if the shy writer wished to recede as far as possible from view—in pencil, not in ink. The name was Emily Dickinson. Inclosed with the letter were four poems, two of which have been already printed, — “Safe in their alabaster chambers” and “I’ll tell you how the sun rose,” together with the two that here follow. The first comprises in its eight lines a truth so searching that it seems a condensed summary of the whole experience of a long life: —
We play at paste
Till qualified for pearl;
Then drop the paste
And deem ourself a fool.
The shapes, though, were similar
And our new hands
Then came one which I have always classed among the most exquisite of her productions, with a singular felicity of phrase and an aerial lift that bears the ear upward with the bee it traces: —
The nearest dream recedes unrealized.
The heaven we chase,
Like the June bee
Before the schoolboy,
Invites the race,
Stoops to an easy clover,
Then to the royal clouds
Lifts his light pinnace,
Heedless of the boy
Staring, bewildered, at the mocking sky.
Homesick for steadfast honey, —
Ah! the bee flies not
Which brews that rare variety.
The impression of a wholly new and original poetic genius was as distinct on my mind at the first reading of these four poems as it is now, after thirty years of further knowledge; and with it came the problem never yet solved, what place ought to be assigned in literature to what is so remarkable, yet so elusive of criticism. The bee himself did not evade the schoolboy more than she evaded me; and even at this day I still stand somewhat bewildered, like the boy.
Circumstances, however, soon brought me in contact with an uncle of Emily Dickinson, a gentleman not now living; a prominent citizen of Worcester, a man of integrity and character, who shared her abruptness and impulsiveness but certainly not her poetic temperament, from which he was indeed singularly remote. He could tell but little of her, she being evidently an enigma to him, as to me. It is hard to tell what answer was made by me, under these circumstances, to this letter. It is probable that the adviser sought to gain time a little and find out with what strange creature he was dealing. I remember to have ventured on some criticism which she afterwards called “surgery,” and on some questions, part of which she evaded, as will be seen, with a naive skill such as the most experienced and worldly coquette might envy. Her second letter (received April 26, 1862), was as follows: —
MR. HIGGINSON, — Your kindness claimed earlier gratitude, but I was ill, and write to-day from my pillow.
Thank you for the surgery; it was not so painful as I supposed. I bring you others, as you ask, though they might not differ. While my thought is undressed, I can make the distinction; but when I put them in the gown, they look alike and numb.
You asked how old I was? I made no verse, but one or two, until this winter, sir.
I had a terror since September, I could tell to none; and so I sing, as the boy does by the burying ground, because I am afraid.
You inquire my books. For poets, I have Keats, and Mr. and Mrs. Browning. For prose, Mr. Ruskin, Sir Thomas Browne, and the Revelations. I went to school, but in your manner of the phrase had no education. When a little girl, I had a friend who taught me Immortality; but venturing too near, himself, he never returned. Soon after my tutor died, and for several years my lexicon was my only companion. Then I found one more, but he was not contented I be his scholar, so he left the land.
You ask of my companions. Hills, sir, and the sundown, and a dog large as myself, that my father bought me. They are better than beings because they know, but do not tell; and the noise in the pool at noon excels my piano.
I have a brother and sister; 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 joggle the mind. They are religious, except me, and address an eclipse, every morning, whom they call their “Father.”
But I fear my story fatigues you. I would like to learn. Could you tell me how to grow, or is it unconveyed, like melody or witchcraft?
You speak of Mr. Whitman. I never read his book, but was told that it was disgraceful.
I read Miss Prescott’s Circumstance, but it followed me in the dark, so I avoided her.
Two editors of journals came to my father’s house this winter, and asked me for my mind, and when I asked them “why” they said I was penurious, and they would use it for the world.
I could not weigh myself, myself. My size felt small to me. I read your chapters in the Atlantic, and experienced honor for you. I was sure you would not reject a confiding question.
Is this, sir, what you asked me to tell you? Your friend,
It will be seen that she had now drawn a step nearer, signing her name, and as my “friend.” It will also be noticed that I had sounded her about certain American authors, then much read; and that she knew how to put her own criticisms in a very trenchant way. With this letter came some more verses, still in the same birdlike script, as for instance the following: —
Your riches taught me poverty,
Myself a millionaire
In little wealths, as girls could boast,
Till, broad as Buenos Ayre,
You drifted your dominions
A different Peru,
And I esteemed all poverty
For life’s estate, with you.
Of mines, I little know, myself,
But just the names of gems,
The colors of the commonest,
And scarce of diadems
So much that, did I meet the queen
Her glory I should know;
But this must be a different wealth,
To miss it, beggars so.
I’m sure ’t is India, all day,
To those who look on you
Without a stint, without a blame,
Might I but be the Jew!
I’m sure it is Golconda
Beyond my power to deem,
To have a smile for mine, each day,
How better than a gem!
At least, it solaces to know
That there exists a gold
Although I prove it just in time
Its distance to behold;
Its far, far treasure to surmise
And estimate the pearl
That slipped my simple fingers through
While just a girl at school!
Here was already manifest that defiance of form, never through carelessness, and never precisely from whim, which so marked her. The slightest change in the order of word—thus, “While yet at school, a girl”—would have given her a rhyme for this last line; but no; she was intent upon her thought, and it would not have satisfied her to make the change. The other poem further showed, what had already been visible, a rare and delicate sympathy with the life of nature: —
A bird came down the walk;
He did not know I saw;
He bit an angle-worm in halves
And ate the fellow raw.
And then he drank a dew
From a convenient grass,
And then hopped sidewise to a wall,
To let a beetle pass.
He glanced with rapid eyes
That hurried all around;
They looked like frightened beads, I thought;
He stirred his velvet head
Like one in danger; cautious.
I offered him a crumb,
And he unrolled his feathers
And rowed him softer home
Than oars divide the ocean,
Too silver for a seam—
Or butterflies, off banks of noon,
Leap, plashless as they swim.
It is possible that in a second letter I gave more of distinct praise or encouragement, for her third is in a different mood. This was received June 8, 1862. There is something startling in its opening image; and in the yet stranger phrase that follows, where she apparently uses “mob” in the sense of chaos or bewilderment: —
DEAR FRIEND, — Your letter gave no drunkenness, because I tasted rum before. Domingo comes but once; yet I have had few pleasures so deep as your opinion, and if I tried to thank you, my tears would block my tongue.
My dying tutor told me that he would like to live till I had been a poet, but Death was much of mob as I could master, then. And when, far afterward, a sudden light on orchards, or a new fashion in the wind troubled my attention, I felt a palsy, here, the verses just relieve.
Your second letter surprised me, and for a moment, swung. I had not supposed it. Your first gave no dishonor, because the true are not ashamed. I thanked you for your justice, but could not drip the bells whose jingling cooled my tramp. Perhaps the balm seemed better, because you bled me first. I smile when you suggest that I delay “to publish,” that being foreign to my thought as firmament to fin.
If fame belonged to me, I could not escape her; if she did not, the longest day would pass me on the chase, and the approbation of my dog would forsake me then. My barefoot rank is better.
You think my gait “spasmodic.” I am in danger, sir. You think me “uncontrolled.” I have no tribunal.
Would you have time to be the “friend” you should think I need? I have a little shape: it would not crowd your desk, nor make much racket as the mouse that dents your galleries.
If I might bring you what I do—not so frequent to trouble you—and ask you if I told it clear, ’t would be control to me. The sailor cannot see the North, but knows the needle can. The “hand you stretch me in the dark” I put mine in, and turn away. I have no Saxon now: —But, will you be my preceptor, Mr. Higginson?
As if I asked a common alms,
And in my wondering hand
A stranger pressed a kingdom,
And I, bewildered, stand;
As if I asked the Orient
Had it for me a morn,
And it should lift its purple dikes
And shatter me with dawn!
With this came the poem already published in her volume and entitled Renunciation; and also that beginning “Of all the sounds dispatched abroad,” thus fixing approximately the date of those two. I must soon have written to ask her for her picture, that I might form some impression of my enigmatical correspondent. To this came the following reply, in July, 1862: —
Could you believe me without? I had no portrait, now, but am small, like the wren; and my hair is bold, like the chestnut bur; and my eyes, like the sherry in the glass, that the guest leaves. Would this do just as well?
It often alarms father. He says death might occur, and he has moulds of all the rest, but has no mould of me; but I noticed the quick wore off those things, in a few days, and forestall the dishonor. You will think no caprice of me.
You said “Dark.” I know the butterfly, and the lizard, and the orchis. Are not those your countrymen?
I am happy to be your scholar, and will deserve the kindness I cannot repay.
If you truly consent, I recite now. Will you tell me my fault, frankly as to yourself, for I had rather wince than die. Men do not call the surgeon to commend the bone, but to set it, sir, and fracture within is more critical. And for this, preceptor, I shall bring you obedience, the blossom from my garden, and every gratitude I know.
Perhaps you smile at me. I could not stop for that. My business is circumference. An ignorance, not of customs, but if caught with the dawn, or the sunset see me, myself the only kangaroo among the beauty, sir, if you please, it afflicts me, and I thought that instruction would take it away.
Because you have much business, beside the growth of me, you will appoint, yourself, how often I shall come, without your inconvenience.
And if at any time you regret you received me, or I prove a different fabric to that you supposed, you must banish me.
When I state myself, as the representative of the verse, it does not mean me, but a supposed person.
You are true about the “perfection.” To-day makes Yesterday mean.
You spoke of Pippa Passes. I never heard anybody speak of Pippa Passes before. You see my posture is benighted.
To thank you baffles me. Are you perfectly powerful? Had I a pleasure you had not, I could delight to bring it.
This was accompanied by this strong poem, with its breathless conclusion. The title is of my own giving: —
THE SAINTS’ REST.
Of tribulation, these are they,
Denoted by the white;
The spangled gowns, a lesser rank
Of victors designate.
All these did conquer; but the ones
Who overcame most times,
Wear nothing commoner than snow,
No ornaments but palms.
”Surrender” is a sort unknown
On this superior soil;
”Defeat” an outgrown anguish,
Remembered as the mile
Our panting ancle barely passed[Note by the writer of the verses: I spelled ankle wrong.]
When night devoured the road;
But we stood whispering in the house,
And all we said, was “Saved!”
It would seem that at first I tried a little, — a very little — to lead her in the direction of rules and traditions; but I fear it was only perfunctory, and that she interested me more in her—so to speak—unregenerate condition. Still, she recognizes the endeavor. In this case, as will be seen, I called her attention to the fact that while she took pains to correct the spelling of a word, she was utterly careless of greater irregularities. It will be seen by her answer that with her usual naive adroitness she turns my point: —
DEAR FRIEND, — Are these more orderly? I thank you for the truth.
I had no monarch in my life, and cannot rule myself; and when I try to organize, my little force explodes and leaves me bare and charred.
I think you called me “wayward.” Will you help me improve?
I suppose the pride that stops the breath, in the core of woods, is not of ourself.
You say I confess the little mistake, and omit the large. Because I can see orthography; but the ignorance out of sight is my preceptor’s charge.
Of “shunning men and women,” they talk of hallowed things, aloud, and embarrass my dog. He and I don’t object to them, if they’ll exist their side. I think Carl would please you. He is dumb, and brave. I think you would like the chestnut tree I met in my walk. It hit my notice suddenly, and I thought the skies were in blossom.
Then there’s a noiseless noise in the orchard that I let persons hear.
You told me in one letter you could not come to see me “now,” and I made no answer; not because I had none, but did not think myself the price that you should come so far.
I do not ask so large a pleasure, lest you might deny me.
You say, “Beyond your knowledge.” You would not jest with me, because I believe you; but, preceptor, you cannot mean it?
All men say “What” to me, but I thought it a fashion.
When much in the woods, as a little girl, I was told that the snake would bite me, that I might pick a poisonous flower, or goblins kidnap me; but I went along and met no one but angels, who were far shyer of me than I could be of them, so I haven’t that confidence in fraud which many exercise.
I shall observe your precept, though I don’t understand, always.
I marked a line in one verse, because I met it after I made it, and never consciously touch a paint mixed by another person.
I did not let go it, because it is mine. Have you the portrait of Mrs. Browning?
Persons sent me three. If you had none, will you have mine?
A month or two after this I entered the volunteer army of the civil war, and must have written to her during the winter of 1862-3 from South Carolina or Florida, for the following reached me in camp: —
DEAR FRIEND, — I did not deem that planetary forces annulled, but suffered an exchange of territory, or world.
I should have liked to see you before you became improbable. War feels to me an oblique place. Should there be other summers, would you perhaps come?
I found you were gone, by accident, as I find systems are, or seasons of the year, and obtain no cause, but suppose it a treason of progress that dissolves as it goes. Carlo still remained, and I told himMy shaggy ally assented.
Best gains must have the losses’ test,
To constitute them gains.
Perhaps death gave me awe for friends, striking sharp and early, for I held them since in a brittle love, of more alarm than peace. I trust you may pass the limit of war; and though not reared to prayer, when service is had in church for our arms, I include yourself. . . . I was thinking to-day, as I noticed, that the “Supernatural” was only the Natural disclosed.But I fear I detain you. Should you, before this reaches you, experience immortality, who will inform me of the exchange? Could you, with honor, avoid death, I entreat you sir. It would bereave
Not “Revelation” ’t is that waits,
But our unfurnished eyes.
I trust the “Procession of Flowers” was not a premonition.
I cannot explain this extraordinary signature, substituted for the now customary “Your Scholar,” unless she imagined her friend to be in some incredible and remote condition, imparting its strangeness to her. Mr. Howells reminds me that Swedenborg somewhere has an image akin to her “oblique place,” where he symbolizes evil as simply an oblique angle. With this letter came verses, most refreshing in that clime of jasmines and mocking-birds, on the familiar robin: —
The robin is the one
That interrupts the morn
With hurried, few, express reports
When March is scarcely on.
The robin is the one
That overflows the noon
With her cherubic quantity,
An April but begun.
The robin is the one
That, speechless from her nest,
Submits that home and certainty
And sanctity are best.
In the summer of 1863 I was wounded, and in hospital for a time, during which came this letter in pencil, written from what was practically a hospital for her, though only for weak eyes: —
DEAR FRIEND, — Are you in danger? I did not know that you were hurt. Will you tell me more? Mr. Hawthorne died.
I was ill since September, and since April in Boston for a physician’s care. He does not let me go, yet I work in my prison, and make guests for myself.
Carlo did not come, because that he would die in jail; and the mountains I could not hold now, so I brought but the Gods.
I wish to see you more than before I failed. Will you tell me your health? I am surprised and anxious since receiving your note.Can you render my pencil? The physician has taken away my pen.
The only news I know
Is bulletins all day
I inclose the address from a letter, lest my figures fail.
Knowledge of your recovery would excel my own.
Later this arrived: —
DEAR FRIEND, — I think of you so wholly that I cannot resist to write again, to ask if you are safe? Danger is not at first, for then we are unconscious, but in the after, slower days.
Do not try to be saved, but let redemption find you, as it certainly will. Love is its own rescue; for we, at our supremest, are but its trembling emblems.
These were my earliest letters from Emily Dickinson, in their order. From this time and up to her death (May 15, 1886) we corresponded at varying intervals, she always persistently keeping up this attitude of “Scholar,” and assuming on my part a preceptorship which it is almost needless to say did not exist. Always glad to hear her “recite,” as she called it , I soon abandoned all attempt to guide in the slightest degree this extraordinary nature, and simply accepted her confidences, giving as much as I could of what might interest her in return.
Sometimes there would be a long pause, on my part, after which would come a plaintive letter, always terse, like this: —
Did I displease you? But won’t you tell me how?
Or perhaps the announcement of some event, vast to her small sphere, as this:
Would you instruct me now?
Or sometimes there would arrive an exquisite little detached strain, every word a picture, like this: —
A route of evanescence
With a revolving wheel;
A resonance of emerald;
A rush of cochineal.
And every blossom on her bush
Adjusts its tumbled head; —
The mail from Tunis, probably,
An easy morning’s ride.
Nothing in literature, I am sure, so condenses into a few words that gorgeous atom of life and fire of which she here attempts the description. It is, however, needless to conceal that many of her brilliant fragments were less satisfying. She almost always grasped whatever she sought, but with some fracture of grammar and dictionary on the way. Often, too, she was obscure and sometimes inscrutable; and though obscurity is sometimes, in Coleridge’s phrase, a compliment to the reader, yet it is never safe to press this compliment too hard.
Sometimes, on the other hand, her verses found too much favor for her comfort, and she was urged to publish. In such cases I was sometimes put forward as a defense; and the following letter was the fruit of some such occasion: —
DEAR FRIEND, — Thank you for the advice. I shall implicitly follow it.
The one who asked me for the lines I had never seen.
He spoke of “a charity.” I refused, but did not inquire. He again earnestly urged, on the ground that in that way I might “aid unfortunate children.” The name of “child” was a snare to me, and I hesitated, choosing my most rudimentary, and without criterion.
I inquired of you. You can scarcely estimate the opinion to one utterly guideless. Again thank you.
Again came this, on a similar theme:
DEAR FRIEND, — Are you willing to tell me what is right? Mrs. Jackson, of Colorado [“H. H.,” her early schoolmate], was with me a few moments this week, and wished me to write for this. [A circular of the “No Name Series” was inclosed.] I told her I was unwilling, and she asked me why? I said I was incapable, and she seemed not to believe me and asked me not to decide for a few days. Meantime, she would write me. She was so sweetly noble, I would regret to estrange her, and if you would be willing to give me a note saying you disapproved it, and thought me unfit, she would believe you. I am sorry to flee so often to my safest friend, but hope he permits me.
In all this time—nearly eight years—we had never met, but she had sent invitations like the following: —
DEAR FRIEND, — Whom my dog understood could not elude others.
I should be so glad to see you, but think it an apparitional pleasure, not to be fulfilled. I am uncertain of Boston.
I had promised to visit my physician for a few days in May, but father objects because he is in the habit of me.
Is it more far to Amherst?
You will find a minute host, but a spacious welcome. . . .
If I still entreat you to teach me, are you much displeased? I will be patient, constant, never reject your knife, and should my slowness goad you, you knew before myself that
Except the smaller size
No lives are round.
These hurry to a sphere
And show and end.
The larger slower grow
And later hang;
The summers of Hesperides
Afterwards, came this: —
DEAR FRIEND, —
A letter always feels to me like immortality because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend. Indebted in our talk to attitude and accent, there seems a spectral power in thought that walks alone. I would like to thank you for your great kindness, but never try to lift the words which I cannot hold.
Should you come to Amherst, I might then succeed, though gratitude is the timid wealth of those who have nothing. I am sure that you speak the truth, because the noble do, but your letters always surprise me.
My life has been too simple and stern to embarrass any. “Seen of Angels,” scarcely my responsibility.
It is difficult not to be fictitious in so fair a place, but tests’ severe repairs are permitted all.
When a little girl I remember hearing that remarkable passage and preferring the “Power,” not knowing at the time that “Kingdom” and “Glory” were included.
You noticed my dwelling alone. To an emigrant, country is idle except it be his own. You speak kindly of seeing me; could it please your convenience to come so far as Amherst, I should be very glad, but I do not cross my father’s ground to any house or town.
Of our greatest acts we are ignorant. You were not aware that you saved my life. To thank you in person has been since then one of my few requests. . . . You will excuse each that I say, because no one taught me.
At last, after many postponements, on August 16, 1870, I found myself face to face with my hitherto unseen correspondent. It was at her father’s house, one of those large, square, brick mansions so familiar in our older New England towns, surrounded by trees and blossoming shrubs without, and within exquisitely neat, cool, spacious, and fragrant with flowers. After a little delay, I heard an extremely faint and pattering footstep like that of a child, in the hall, and in glided, almost noiselessly, a plain, shy little person, the face without a single good feature, but with eyes, as she herself said, “like the sherry the guest leaves in the glass,” and with smooth bands of reddish chestnut hair. She had a quaint and nun-like look, as if she might be a German canoness of some religious order, whose prescribed garb was white pique, with a blue net worsted shawl. She came toward me with two day-lilies, which she put in a childlike way into my hand, saying softly, under her breath, “These are my introduction,” and adding, also, under her breath, in childlike fashion, “Forgive me if I am frightened; I never see strangers, and hardly know what I say.” But soon she began to talk, and thenceforward continued almost constantly; pausing sometimes to beg that I would talk instead, but readily recommencing when I evaded. There was not a trace of affectation in all this; she seemed to speak absolutely for her own relief, and wholly without watching its effect on her hearer. Led on by me, she told much about her early life, in which her father was always the chief figure, — evidently a man of the old type, la vieille roche of Puritanism—a man who, as she said, read on Sunday “lonely and rigorous books;” and who had from childhood inspired her with such awe, that she never learned to tell time by the clock till she was fifteen, simply because he had tried to explain it to her when she was a little child, and she had been afraid to tell him that she did not understand, and also afraid to ask any one else lest he should hear of it. Yet she had never heard him speak a harsh word, and it needed only a glance at his photograph to see how truly the Puritan tradition was preserved in him. He did not wish his children, when little, to read anything but the Bible; and when, one day, her brother brought her home Longfellow’s Kavanagh, he put it secretly under the pianoforte cover, made signs to her, and they both afterwards read it. It may have been before this, however, that a student of her father’s was amazed to find that she and her brother had never heard of Lydia Maria Child, then much read, and he brought Letters from New York, and hid it in the great bush of old-fashioned tree-box beside the front door. After the first book she thought in ecstasy, “This, then, is a book, and there are more of them.” But she did not find so many as she expected, for she afterwards said to me, “When I lost the use of my eyes, it was a comfort to think that there were so few real books that I could easily find one to read me all of them.” Afterwards, when she regained her eyes, she read Shakespeare, and thought to herself, “Why is any other book needed?”
She went on talking constantly and saying, in the midst of narrative, things quaint and aphoristic. “Is it oblivion or absorption when things pass from our minds?” “Truth is such a rare thing, it is delightful to tell it.” “I find ecstacy in living; the mere sense of living is joy enough.” When I asked her if she never felt any want of employment, not going off the grounds and rarely seeing a visitor, she answered, “I never thought of conceiving that I could ever have the slightest approach to such a want in all future time;” and then added, after a pause, “I feel that I have not expressed myself strongly enough,” although it seemed to me that she had. She told me of her household occupations, that she made all their bread, because her father liked only hers; then saying shyly, “And people must have puddings,” this very timidly and suggestively, as if they were meteors or comets. Interspersed with these confidences came phrases so emphasized as to seem the very wantonness of over-statement, as if she pleased herself with putting into words what the most extravagant might possibly think without saying, as thus: “How do most people live without any thought? There are many people in the world, — you must have noticed them in the street, — how do they live? How do they get strength to put on their clothes in the morning?” Or this crowning extravaganza: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?”
I have tried to describe her just as she was, with the aid of notes taken at the time; but this interview left our relation very much what it was before; — on my side an interest that was strong and even affectionate, but not based on any thorough comprehension; and on her side a hope, always rather baffled, that I should afford some aid in solving her abstruse problem of life.
The impression undoubtedly made on me was that of an excess of tension, and of an abnormal life. Perhaps in time I could have got beyond that somewhat overstrained relation which not my will, but her needs, had forced upon us. Certainly I should have been most glad to bring it down to the level of simple truth and every-day comradeship; but it was not altogether easy. She was much too enigmatical a being for me to solve in an hour’s interview, and an instinct told me that the slightest attempt at direct cross-examination would make her withdraw into her shell; I could only sit still and watch, as one does in the woods; I must name my bird without a gun, as recommended by Emerson. Under this necessity I had not opportunity to see that human and humorous side of her which is strongly emphasized by her nearer friends, and which shows itself in her quaint and unique description of a rural burglary, contained in the volume of her poems. Hence, even her letters to me show her mainly on her exaltee side; and should a volume of her correspondence ever be printed, it is very desirable that it should contain some of her letters to friends of closer and more familiar intimacy.
After my visit came this letter: —
Enough is so vast a sweetness, I suppose it never occurs, only pathetic counterfeits.
Fabulous to me as the men of the Revelations who “shall not hunger any more.” Even the possible has its insoluble particle.
After you went, I took Macbeth and turned to “Birnam Wood.” Came twice “To Dunsinane.” I thought and went about my work. . . .
The vein cannot thank the artery, but her solemn indebtedness to him, even the stolidest admit, and so of me who try, whose effort leaves no sound.
You ask great questions accidentally. To answer them would be events. I trust that you are safe.
I ask you to forgive me for all the ignorance I had. I find no nomination sweet as your low opinion.
Speak, if but to blame your obedient child.
You told me of Mrs. Lowell’s poems. Would you tell me where I could find them, or are they not for sight? An article of yours, too, perhaps the only one you wrote that I never knew. It was about a “Latch.” Are you willing to tell me? [Perhaps “A Sketch.”]
If I ask too much, you could please refuse. Shortness to live has made me bold.
Abroad is close to-night and I have but to lift my hands to touch the “Heights of Abraham.”
When I said, at parting, that I would come again sometime, she replied, “Say, in a long time; that will be nearer. Some time is no time.” We met only once again, and I have no express record of the visit. We corresponded for years, at long intervals, her side of the intercourse being, I fear, better sustained; and she sometimes wrote also to my wife, inclosing flowers or fragrant leaves with a verse or two. Once she sent her one of George Eliot’s books, I think Middlemarch, and wrote, “I am bringing you a little granite book for you to lean upon.” At other times she would send a single poem, such as these: —
THE BLUE JAY.
No brigadier throughout the year
So civic as the jay.
A neighbor and a warrior too,
With shrill felicity
Pursuing winds that censure us
A February Day,
The brother of the universe
Was never blown away.
The snow and he are intimate;
I’ve often seen them play
When heaven looked upon us all
With such severity
I felt apology were due
To an insulted sky
Whose pompous frown was nutriment
To their temerity.
The pillow of this daring head
Is pungent evergreens;
His larder—terse and militant—
Unknown, refreshing things;
His character—a tonic;
His future—a dispute;
Unfair an immortality
That leaves this neighbor out.
THE WHITE HEAT.
Dare you see a soul at the white heat?
Then crouch within the door;
Red is the fire’s common tint,
But when the vivid ore
Has sated flame’s conditions,
Its quivering substance plays
Without a color, but the light
Of unanointed blaze.
Least village boasts its blacksmith,
Whose anvil’s even din
Stands symbol for the finer forge
That soundless tugs within,
Refining these impatient ores
With hammer and with blaze,
Until the designated light
Repudiated the forge.
Then came the death of her father, that strong Puritan father who had communicated to her so much of the vigor of his own nature, and who bought her many books, but begged her not to read them. Mr. Edward Dickinson, after service in the national House of Representatives and other public positions, had become a member of the lower house of the Massachusetts legislature. The session was unusually prolonged, and he was making a speech upon some railway question at noon, one very hot day (July 16, 1874), when he became suddenly faint and sat down. The house adjourned, and a friend walked with him to his lodgings at the Tremont House; where he began to pack his bag for home, after sending for a physician, but died within three hours. Soon afterwards, I received the following letter: —
That last afternoon that my father lived, though with no premonition, I preferred to be with him, and invented an absence for mother, Vinnie [her sister] being asleep. He seemed peculiarly pleased, as I oftenest stayed with myself; and remarked, as the afternoon withdrew, he “would like it not to end.”
His pleasure almost embarrassed me, and my brother coming, I suggested they walk. Next morning I woke him for the train, and saw him no more.
His heart was pure and terrible, and I think no other like it exists.
I am glad there is immortality, but would have tested it myself, before entrusting him. Mr. Bowles was with us. With that exception, I saw none. I have wished for you, since my father died, and had you an hour unengrossed, it would be almost priceless. Thank you for your kindness …
Later she wrote: —
When I think of my father’s lonely life and lonelier death, there is this redress—My earliest friend wrote me the week before he died, “If I live, I will go to Amherst; if I die, I certainly will.”
Take all away;
The only thing worth larceny
Is left—the immortality.
Is your house deeper off?
A year afterward came this; —
DEAR FRIEND, — Mother was paralyzed Tuesday, a year from the evening father died. I thought perhaps you would care.
With this came the following verse, having a curious seventeenth-century flavor: —
A death-blow is a life-blow to some,
Who, till they died, did not alive become;
Who, had they lived, had died, but when
They died, vitality begun.
And later came this kindred memorial of one of the oldest and most faithful friends of the family, Mr. Samuel Bowles of the Springfield Republican: —
DEAR FRIEND, — I felt it shelter to speak to you.
My brother and sister are with Mr. Bowles, who is buried this afternoon.
The last song that I heard—that was, since the birds—was “He leadeth me, he leadeth me; yea though I walk”—then the voices stooped, the arch was so low.
After this added bereavement the inward life of the diminished household became only more concentrated, and the world was held farther and farther away. Yet to this period belongs the following letter, written about 1880, which has more of what is commonly called the objective or external quality then any she ever wrote me; and shows how close might have been her observation and her sympathy, had her rare qualities taken a somewhat different channel: —
DEAR FRIEND, — I was touchingly reminded of [a child who had died] this morning by an Indian woman with gay baskets and a dazzling baby, at the kitchen door. Her little boy “once died” she said, death to her dispelling him. I asked her what the baby liked, and she said “to step.” The prairie before the door was gay with flowers of hay, and I led her in. She argued with the birds, she leaned on clover walls and they fell, and dropped her. With jargon sweater than a bell, she grappled buttercups, and they sank together, the buttercups the heaviest. What sweetest use of days! ’T was noting some such scene made Vaughan humbly say, “My days that are at best but dim and hoary.” I think it was Vaughan. …
And these few fragmentary memorials—closing, like every human biography, with funerals, yet with such as were to Emily Dickinson only the stately introduction to a higher life—may well end with her description of the death of the summer she so loved.
As imperceptibly as grief
The summer lapsed away,
Too imperceptibly to last
To feel like perfidy.
A quietness distilled,
As twilight long begun,
Or Nature spending with herself
The dusk drew earlier in,
The morning foreign shone,
A courteous yet harrowing grace
As guests that would be gone.
And thus without a wing
Or service of a keel
Our summer made her light escape
Into the Beautiful.