‘Would you rather I wrote you what I am doing here, or who I am loving there?’ asked Emily Dickinson in a letter from Washington, where, as a girl, she went with her father during his Congressional term. And we who knew her best wish that she could write us now what she is ‘doing there,’ confident of her unique fitness to be the scribe of immortality.
Her letters and notes to her brother’s family, sacredly hoarded by them and denied publication, contain numberless phrases of universal truth, written as they were a lifetime ago by this shy recluse in her retired New England home, intrenched by lilacs and guarded by bumble-bees.
Though she dwelt only ‘a hedge away,’ as she put it, form our own home, with but a grass lawn between, crossed by a ribbon path, ‘just wide enough for two who love,’ she had the habit of sending her thoughts to us as other people would have spoken them. The gambol of her mind on paper was her pastime. Though never an invalid until the last two years of her life, she did not care to go beyond her own door-yard and garden, finding infinity in the horizon of her own soul. But she had her finger on the pulse of events and noted chosen phenomena unerringly for us, with her own comment. Through the medium of these written messages she spoke across the grass to us, entrusting them to a servant, a friend, one of us or one of them, as might happen. Whenever stirred, by whatever cause, she trapper her mood, then waited for her messenger, as vigilant as any spider.
She never showed to her own family what she wrote. They never dared ask to see. Her timidity awed their love, and New England reserve completed the deadlock. Once and once only my mother published a poem of hers incognita, and when she showed it to Aunt Emily, in the darkness of entire privacy, she was terrified for the result of her experiment—the little white moth fluttering helplessly, all a-tremble, ready to die of the experience and be found on the floor next morning a mere hint of winged dust.
She seemed to know the world by intuition, but she shrank from its knowing her; not from any feeling of impotence, not because she was deprived of anything or at any disadvantage, but from a fierce unreasoning instinct like that which sends the soft bright-eyed wild things flying from us in the forest.
Yet her love for humanity was unfaltering, and she speaks for all lovers when she writes, ‘Twilight touches Amherst with his yellow glove. Miss me sometimes, dear, not on most occasions but in the seldoms of the mind.’ And again when she sums life up in her own terms thus: ‘The small heart cannot break. The ecstasy of its penalty solaces the large. Emerging from an abyss and reentering it, that is Life, dear, is it not?’ In the following lines does she not argue herself kin to the Bandit in Timon of Athens who claimed ‘no time so miserable but a man may be true’? ‘To do a magnanimous thing and take one’s self by surprise, if one is not in the habit of him, is precisely the finest of joys. Not to do a magnanimous thing, notwithstanding it never be known, notwithstanding it cost us existence, is rapture herself spurn.’
Aunt Emily differed from all the women letter-writers of France and England in her scorn of detail, — scarcely hitting the paper long enough to make her communication intelligible. How her fancy would have careened about the feat of wireless telegraphy, it is a revel to surmise! Sometimes her notes were a brief poem, a mere quatrain, like this, —
Opinion is a flitting thing
But truth outlasts the sun.
If then, we cannot own them both,
Possess the oldest one.
Or this one, —
When we have ceased to crave
The gift is given
For which we gave the earth
And mortgaged heaven,
But so declined in worth—
‘Tis ignominy now to look upon.
They were written, of course, apropos of universal or neighborhood events in their own epoch, but their application did not stop there. Who has not experienced the overtaking of fate as she has put it in these terse four lines?
It stole along so stealthy,
Suspicion it was done
Was dim as to the wealthy
Beginning not to own!
Life had for her an infinite and increasing fascination. ‘Are you sure we are making the most of it?’ she wrote on a slip of paper and sent over by hand, just because she was quick with the thrill of another day. Again she sent the following, —
A fresh morning of life and its impregnable chances, and the dew for you!
Again this single exclamation: ‘O matchless Earth, we underrate the chance to dwell in thee!’
Her devotion to those she loved was that of a knight for his lady. I quote a few of her letters for their depth of feeling and human appeal.
‘To miss you is power. The stimulus of loss makes most possessions mean. To live lasts always, but to love is finer than to live.’
‘To the faithful absence is condensed presence. To the others—but there are no others.’
‘We remind Sue that we love her. Unimportant fact; though Dante did not think so, or Swift or Mirabeau.’
‘Could pathos compete with that simple statement, “Not that we first loved Him, but that He first loved us”?’
Sometimes with the heart,
Seldom with the soul,
Scarcely once with the night—
Few love at all.
‘So busy missing you I have not tasted Spring. Should there be other Aprils we will perhaps dine.
‘I must wait a few days before seeing you. You are too momentous; but remember it is idolatry, not indifference.’
Once when she was deeply troubled and shrank from almost every one, she wrote, —
‘Thank you for tenderness. I find that is the only food the Will takes now, — and that, not from general fingers.’
Let me quote just one more, to show her trick of concluding herself in verse: —
‘I am glad you go.
‘I seek you first in Amherst, then turn my thoughts without a whip, so well they follow you.’
An hour is a sea
Between a few and me.
With them would harbor be!
Her notes to us as children were our keen delight. Who but our Aunt Emily would have written, ‘Emily knows a man who drives a coach like a thimble and turns the wheel all day with his heel. His name is Bumble-bee.’
At the close of a letter to my brother Ned, when away on a visit as a child, she says, ‘Dear Ned-bird, it will be good to hear you. Not a voice in the woods is so sweet as yours. The robins have gone, — all but a few infirm ones, — and the Crick and I keep house for the frost. Good-night, little brother, I would love to stay longer. Vinnie and Grandma and Maggie all give their love. Pussy her striped respects. Ned’s most little Aunt Emily.’
Once when he had been badly sung by a wasp she wrote to him, —
You know I never did like you in those yellow jackets.
Another time she wrote to him, —
You know that pie you stole? Well this is that pie’s brother. Mother told me, when I was a boy, that I must turn over a new leaf. I call that the foliage admonition. Shall I commend it to you?
To me, with a knot of her tenderly guarded flowers from her conservatory, she sent this: —
‘I am glad it is your birthday. It is this little bouquet’s birthday too. Its Father is a very old man by the name of Nature, whom you never saw. Be sure to live in vain, dear. I wish I had.’
The following communication I give just as she sent it to my mother, after the rescue of a favorite cat by my Aunt Lavinia from my brother Gilbert.
‘Memoirs of Little Boys that Live —
‘“Weren’t you chasing Pussy?’ said Vinnie to Gilbert.
‘“No, she was chasing herself.”
‘“But wasn’t she running pretty fast?’”
‘“Well, some fast and some slow,” said the beguiling Villain.
‘Pussy’s Nemesis quailed. Talk of hoary reprobates! Your urchin is more antique in wiles than the Egyptian Sphinx. Have you noticed Granville’s letter to Lowell?
‘“Her Majesty has contemplated you and reserved her decision!”’
* * *
In response to some dainty carried to her by my brother Gilbert, she writes, ‘What an Embassy! What an Ambassador! “And pays the heart for what his eyes eat only.” Excuse the bearded pronoun.’
It was but one of many illustrations of her familiarity with Shakespeare that kept us as children in excited research for her context. It was, as Colonel Higginson once remarked to me, ‘a pretty rarefied atmosphere for children not in their teens’; but we regarded Aunt Emily as a magical creature and were proud to be included among her grown-up friends and treated accordingly.MWe were borught up on her condensed forms and subtle epigram, her droll humor and stabbing pathos, until we felt a lively contempt for people who ‘could not understand’ Aunt Emily, when our other read out sentneces or poems of hers to guests who begged to hear something she had written. We felt she was alwys on our side, a nimble as well as loving ally. She never dulled our sunshine with grown-up apprehensions for our good, or hindered our imagination, but rather flew before us like the steeds of Aurora, — straight out into the ether of the Impossible, — as dear to her as to us.
The following she sent my brother Ned after some reputed indiscretion reported of him by harder hearts: —
The cat that in the corner sits
Her marital time forgot—
The rat but a tradition now
Of her desireless lot,
Another class reminds me of—
Who neither please nor play,
But—‘not to make a bit of noise’—
Adjure each little boy!
P. S. — Grandma characteristically hopes Neddy will be a good boy. Obtuse ambition of Grandma’s!
On returning the photograph of a child in Kate Greenaway costume she wrote, —
‘That is the little girl I always meant to be and wasn’t; the very hat I meant to wear and didn’t!’
One verse she sent us which particularly hit our fancy was the following:
The butterfly in honored dust
Assuredly will lie,
But none will pass his catacomb
So chastened as the fly.
Here is one she sent us at Christmas time, with one of her beautifully iced cakes: —
The Saviour must have been
A docile gentleman
To come so far, so cold a night,
For little fellow-men.
The road to Bethlehem—
Since he and I were boys—
Has leveled—but for that ‘twould be
A rugged billion miles.
The next one she sent to my brother Gilbert, a child in kindergarten, accompanied by a dead bumble-bee: —
For Gilbert to carry to his Teacher from Emily
The Bumble-Bee’s Religion
His little hearse-like figure
Unto itself a dirge,
To a delusive lilac
The vanity divulge
Of industry and morals
And every righteous thing,
For the divine perdition
Of idleness and Spring.
All liars shall have their part.
And let him that is athirst come.
She furthered our childish love of mystery and innocent intrigue on every occasion. With a box of maple sugar purloined for us from the family supply, she sent these laconic instructions, —
Omit to return to box. Omit to know you received box.
Brooks of Sheffield.
The drollery of Dickens was congenial to her own taste and she was much fascinated with David Copperfield, published when she was twenty-one; many quotations from it became household words. I have often heard her fling back over her shoulder, as she fled from unwelcome visitors, ‘Donkeys, Agnes!’ And ‘Barkis is willin’’ is a message that I have carried from her to my mother, before I was old enough to understand what it meant to them.
Again, with stolen sweets smuggled over to us, she wrote, ‘The joys of theft are two: first, theft; second, superiority to detection.’ Again, under the same piratical circumstances, ‘How inspiring to the clandestine mind those words of scripture, “We thank thee, Lord, that thou hast hid these things!”’
She did a deal of brilliant trifling in these notes of hers. Here is her comment on the death of the wife of a local doctor whom she disliked: —
I should think she would rather be the Bride of the Lamb than that old Pill-box!
After meeting a friend she had not seen for some years she wrote, —
I saw that the flake was upon it,
But plotted with Time to dispute,
‘Unchanged,’ I urged,
With a candor
That cost me my honest heart.
‘But you,’ she returned, with a valor
Sagacious of my mistake—
‘Have altered, —
Accept the pillage
For the progress’ sake!’
With a Cape jasmine sent to a guest of our inner circle, she wrote, —
‘M—— will place this little flower in her friend’s hand. Should she ask who sent it, tell her as Desdemona did when they asked who slew her—Nobody—Myself.’
After the death of a strictly dull acquaintance of no vital essence, she wrote, —
‘Now I lay thee down to sleep
I pray the Lord thy dust to keep,
If thou should live before thou wake,
I pray the Lord thy soul to make!’
This scrap is Emily at her most audacious: —
My Maker, let me be
Enamoured most of Thee—
But nearer this
I more should miss!
With the gift of a young chicken from the family poultry yard, she sends, —
Accept this Firstling of my flock, to whom also the Lastling is due. To broil our benefits perhaps is not the highest way?
In a panic lest some cherished plan fall through, she sends this. ‘Boast not myself of to-morrow, for “I knowest” not what a noon may bring forth.’
This too is Emily to the core: ‘Cherish power, dear; remember that it stands in the Bible between the kingdom and the glory because it is wilder than either.’
Her is her description of her social life as a girl: —
‘We go out very little; once in a month or two we both set sail in silks, touch at the principal points and then put into port again. Vinnie cruises about some to transact commerce, but coming to anchor is most I can do.’
But Aunt Emily’s intimacies were not confined to visible friends and family: her books and their authors were a vital part of her everyday life and happiness. On the walls of her own room hung framed portraits of Mrs. Browning, George Eliot, and Carlyle. I well remember the diffident question of an old American retainer assisting in the house at the time of Aunt Emily’s death, who asked me, after some hesitation, if those people were ‘relatives Norcross side,’ — adding hastily, ‘I knew they could not be Dickinsons, for I have seen all of them, and they are all good-looking.’
I was both glad and sorry to assure her that their greatness was beyond us to claim for either branch of our family tree.
One little not to my mother was simply this line: ‘Thank you, dear, for the Eliot. She is the lane to the Indies Columbus was trying to find.’
Again: ‘Dreamed of your meeting Tennyson at Ticknor and Fields last night. Where the treasure is there the brain is also.’
She was a fond reader of Ik Marvel; on receiving a copy of Dream Life, she wrote, ‘Dream Life is not nearly so great a book as the Reveries of a Bachelor, yet I think it full of the very sweetest fancies, and more exquisite language I defy any man to use. On the whole I enjoyed it very much, but I can’t help wishing that he had been translated like Enoch of old, after his bachelor reverie, and chariot of fire and the horsemen thereof were all that had been seen of him ever after.’
When Mr. Howells first appeared in the magazine of which Dr. Holland was then the editor, my mother asked Aunt Emily how it happened, the Hollands being intimate in my grandfather’s family. A few nights after, Aunt Emily sent over the following correspondence: —
How did you snare Howells?
Case of Bribery. Money did it.
When the Life and Letters of Samuel Bowles, her life-long friend, were all but published in 1885, she wrote, —
I can scarcely believe the wondrous book to be written at last, and it seems like a Memoir of the Sun when the Noon is gone. You remember his swift way of wringing and flinging away a theme, and others picking it up and gazing bewildered after him, and the prance that crossed his eye at such times was unrepeatable. Though the Great Waters sleep, that they are still the Deep we cannot doubt.
Then as if in postscript she adds, —
Unable are the dead to die
For love is immortality,
Nay it is Deity.
The joy of mere words was to Aunt Emily like red and yellow balls to the juggler. The animate verb for the inanimate thing, the ludicrous adjective that turned a sentence mountebank in an instant, the stringing of her meaning like a taut bow with just the economy of verbiage possible, the unusual phrase redeemed from usage by her single selected specimen of her vocabulary, — all this was part of her zestful preoccupation.
These instances are characteristic.
‘It was like a breath from Gibraltar to hear your voice again, Sue. Your impregnable syllables need no prop to stand.’
‘I dreamed of you last night and send a carnation to endorse it.’
‘Sister of Ophir. Ah, Peru! Subtle the sum that purchase you.’
‘No words ripple like Susan’s. Their silver genealogy is very sweet to trace: amalgams are abundant, but the lone student of the mines loves alloyless things.’
‘Emily is sorry for Susan’s day. To be singular under plural circumstances is a becoming heroism.’
‘Susan knows she is a Siren and at a word from her Emily would forfeit righteousness—
Birthday of but a single pang,
That there are less to come—
Afflictive is the adjective
Though affluent the doom.
‘Your little mental gallantries are sweet as chivalry, — which is to me a shining word though I don’t know what it means.’
Here are three of those Nature touches which are to be found in her every note or letter of more than a single phrase: —
‘It would be good to see the grass and hear the wind blow that wide way through the orchard. Are the apples ripe? Have the wild geese crossed? And did you save the seed of the pond-lily? Do not cease, dear. Should I turn in my long night I should murmur “Sue.”’
‘Nothing is gone, dear, or no one that you knew. The forests are at home, the mountains intimate at night and arrogant at noon. A lonesome fluency abroad, like suspended music.’
‘To take you away leaves but a lower world, your firmamental quality of our more familiar sky. It is not Nature, dear, but those who stand for Nature. The bird would be a soundless thing without expositor. Come home and see your weather; the hills are full of shawls. We have a new man whose name is “Tim,” Father calls him “Timothy” and the barn sounds like the Bible!’
Her passion for brevity deducted relentlessly. She refuses and invitation thus, —
Thank Sue, but not to-night. Further nights.
After some flash of pleasure, given her by my mother, she wrote, ‘Don’t do such things. The Arabian Nights unfits the heart for its arithmetic.’
I quote at random a few passages from her notes to us.
‘A spell cannot be tattered and mended like a coat.’
‘No message is the utmost mended like a coat.’
‘Trust is better than contract, for one is still, the other moves.’
‘The ignominy to receive is eased by the reflection that interchange of infamies is either’s antidote.’
‘To lose what we never owned might seem an eccentric bereavement, but Presumption has its own affliction as well as claim.’
‘Our own possessions, though our own, ‘t is well to hoard anew, remembering the dimensions of possibility.;
‘The things of which we want the proof are those we know the best.’
‘Where we owe but little we pay. Where we owe so much it defies money, we are blandly insolvent.’
‘Those that are worthy of life are of miracle, for life is miracle and death is harmless as a bee except to those who run.’
‘Has All a codicil?’
‘Adulation is inexpensive, except to him who accepts it. It costs him Himself.’\
‘There is no first nor last in Forever. It is Centre there all the time. To believe is enough and the right of supposing.’
‘In a life that stopped guessing you and I should not feel at home.’
‘Tasting the honey and the sting should have ceased with Eden. Pang is the past of peace.’
My brother Gilbert, idolized by Aunt Emily, died at the age of eight years. After days of stricken silence she sent this message to my mother: —
The vision of immortal life has been fulfilled. How simply at the last the fathom comes! The passenger, and not the sea, we find surprises us. Gilbert rejoiced in secrets. His life was panting with them. With what menace of light he cried, ‘Don’t tell Aunt Emily!’
My ascended playmate must instruct me now. Show us, prattling preceptor, but the way to thee! He knew no niggard moment. His life was full of boon. The playthings of Dervish were not so wild as his. No crescent was this creature—he traveled free from the Full. Such soar, but never set. I see him in the star and meet his sweet velocity in everything that flies.
His life was like a bugle
Which winds itself away,
His elegy and echo,
His requiem ecstasy.
Dawn and meridian in one, wherefore should he wait, wronged only of night which he left for us? Pass to thy rendez-vous of Light, pangless except for us who slowly ford the mystery which thou hast leapt across!
During the illness which was to prove her last, when unable to see any one, but still with devotion unabated, she wrote, ‘How tenderly I thank you, Sue, for every solace! Beneath the Alps the Danube runs.’
And the last line she sent, not long before her death, in response to an entreaty for assurance of her certainty of our love and continuance of her own, was this: ‘Remember, dear, that an unmitigated Yes is my only reply to your utmost question.’
After her death my mother wrote of her: —
‘A Damascus blade gleaming and glancing in the sun, was her wit; — her swift poetic rapture the long glistening note of the bird one hears in June woods at high noon. Like a magician she caught the shadowy apparitions of her brain and tossed them in startling picturesqueness to her friends. So intimate and passionate was her love of Nature, she seemed herself a part of the high March sky or the midsummer day. To her, Life was all aglow with God and Immortality. With no creed, no formulated faith, hardly knowing the names of dogmas, she walked this life with the gentleness and reverence of old Saints, with the firm step of Martyrs who sing while they suffer.’
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