In Re Emily Dickinson

— The English critic who said of Miss Emily Dickinson that she might have become a fifth-rate poet “ if she had only mastered the rudiments of grammar and gone into metrical training for about fifteen years,” — the rather candid English critic who said this somewhat overstated his case. He had, however, a fairly good case. If Miss Dickinson had undergone the austere curriculum indicated, she would, I am sure, have become an admirable lyric poet of the second magnitude. In the first volume of her poetical chaos is a little poem which needs only slight revision in the initial stanza in order to make it worthy of ranking with some of the odd swallow flights in Heine’s lyrical intermezzo. I have ventured to desecrate this stanza by tossing a rhyme into it, as the other stanzas happened to rhyme, and here print the lyric, hoping the reader will not accuse me of overvaluing it : —

“ I taste a liquor never brewed
In vats upon the Rhine ;
No tankard ever held a draught
Of alcohol like mine.
“ Inebriate of air am I,
And debauchee of dew,
Reeling, through endless summer days,
From inns of molten blue.
“When landlords turn the drunken bee
Out of the Foxglove’s door,
When butterflies renounce their drams,
I shall but drink the more !
“ Till seraphs swing their snowy caps
And saints to windows run,
To see the little tippler
Leaning against the sun !”

Certainly those inns of molten blue, and that disreputable honey-gatherer who got himself turned out-of-doors at the sign of the Foxglove, are very taking matters. I know of more important things that interest me less. There are three or four bits in this kind in Miss Dickinson’s book ; but for the most part the ideas totter and toddle, not having learned to walk. In spite of this, several of the quatrains are curiously touching, they have such a pathetic air of yearning to be poems.

It is plain that Miss Dickinson possessed an extremely unconventional and grotesque fancy. She was deeply tinged by the mysticism of Blak, and strongly influenced by the mannerism of Emerson. The very way she tied her bonnet-strings, preparatory to one of her nunlike walks in her claustral garden, must have been Emersonian. She had much fancy of a queer sort, but only, as it appears to me, intermittent flashes of imagination. I fail to detect in her work any of that profound thought which her editor professes to discover in it. The phenomenal insight, I am inclined to believe, exists only in his partiality ; for whenever a woman poet is in question Mr. Higginson always puts on his rose - colored spectacles. This is being chivalrous ; but the invariable result is not clear vision. That Miss Dickinson’s whimsical memoranda have a certain something which, for want of a more precise name, we term quality is not to be denied except by the unconvertible heathen who are not worth conversion. But the incoherence and formlessness of her — I don’t know how to designate them — versicles are fatal. Sydney Smith, or some other humorist, mentions a person whose bump of veneration was so inadequately developed as to permit him to damn the equator if he wanted to. This certainly established a precedent for independence ; but an eccentric, dreamy, half-educated recluse in an out-of-the-way New England village (or anywhere else) cannot with impunity set at defiance the laws of gravitation and grammar. In his charming preface to Miss Dickinson’s collection, Mr. Higginson insidiously remarks : “ After all, when a thought takes one’s breath away, a lesson on grammar seems an impertinence.” But an ungrammatical thought does not, as a general thing, takes one’s breath away, except in a sense the reverse of flattering. Touching this matter of mere technique Mr. Ruskin has a word to say (it appears that he said it “ in his earlier and better days ”), and Mr. Higginson quotes it : “ No weight, nor mass, nor beauty of execution can outweigh one grain or fragment of thought.” This is a proposition to which one would cordially subscribe, if it were not so intemperately stated. A suggestive commentary on Mr. Ruskin’s impressive dictum is furnished by the fact that Mr. Ruskin has lately published a volume of the most tedious verse that has been printed in this century. The substance of it is weighty enough, but the workmanship lacks just that touch which distinguishes the artist from the bungler, — the touch which Mr. Ruskin seems not to have much regarded either in his later or “in his earlier and better days.”

If Miss Dickinson’s disjecta membra are poems, then Shakespeare’s prolonged imposition should be exposed without further loss of time, and Lord Tennyson ought to be advised of the error of his ways before it is too late. But I do not hold the situation to be so desperate. Miss Dickinson’s versicles have a queerness and a quaintness that have stirred a momentary curiosity in emotional bosoms. Oblivion lingers in the immediate neighborhood.