Portraits of American Women: Vi. Emily Dickinson



Born in Amherst, Massachusetts, December 10, 1830;

Lived in Amherst;

Died in Amherst, May 15, 1886.


ONE who, as a child, knew Emily Dickinson well and loved her much recollects her most vividly as a white, ethereal vision, stepping from her cloistral solitude on to the verandah, daintily unrolling a great length of carpet before her with her foot, strolling down to where the carpet ended among her flowers, then turning back and shutting herself out of the world.

It is just so that we must imagine her as coming into the larger world of thought. In the grimmest, austerest background of restrained New England habit and tradition in the mid-nineteenth century, there suddenly opens a sunlit door and out steps, floats rather, this white spirit of wonder and grace and fancy and mockery, shakes folly’s bells, swings worship’s incense, and is gone before we have time to understand her coming.

She, if anyone, was in the world, but not of it, not even of the little world which was the only one she lived in. The atmosphere of a New England college town like Amherst is in itself secluded and peculiar with a cloistered charm. Emily’s family were secluded in their own souls, even from those who knew them well. Their home was secluded in quiet gravity and dignity. Out of this home, in her years of womanhood, Emily rarely stepped. Out of Amherst more rarely still. So perfect was her shy isolation that it seems almost profane to disturb her in it. Yet I have a feeling that she would have wished us to. The shyest, the most isolated, are only waiting, even in their lives, for one to come whose loved approach shall shatter the isolation forever. If the isolation is never shattered, but grows closer and thicker, still I believe that it nurses the hope of a sympathetic, understanding eye, that shall see into the most hidden corner of the soul. At any rate, Emily, from her solitude, speaks out to us in puzzling, teasing, witching accents, beckons us, dares us, as it were, to follow her, seek her, unravel her mystery, lay a searching finger on her heart. Who can resist such a magical solicitation? She speaks to us in strange, chaotic verses, not so much verses as clots of fire, shreds of heaven, snatches of eternity. She speaks to us in letters, chaotic also, but perhaps more fit and helpful for our purpose of approaching her than the poems. We will use the letters to advance with more humdrum steps, and now and then get a flash of sudden illumination from the verses.

To begin with, let me reëmphasize the shyness and isolation. She sought it, she loved it. Even in childhood she left home with reluctance and returned with ecstasy. It was not because her inner life was dull and bounded, but because it was vast and wandering; and loved, common things were all that anchored her to herself. ‘Home,’ she says, ‘is the riddle of the wise — the booty of the dove.’

She was well aware, of course, of the solitude she lived in. ‘Nothing has happened but loneliness,’ she writes to a friend, ’perhaps too daily to relate.’ But you err much, if you think the solitude was barren or empty. Light, bright thoughts swarmed in it, quick and eager fancies, wide desires, wider hopes, and endless laughter.

She had books as companions.

Unto my books so good to turn
Far ends of tired days.

To be sure, she was no student, no persistent, systematic reader, as Mrs. Ripley was. She would pick up and put down: a chapter, or a page, was enough for her, enough to kindle hope or quench ennui, if she ever felt any. But her immense capacity for being stimulated could not resist a book. She loved words, says her niece, Mrs. Bianchi; ‘the joy of mere words was to Aunt Emily like red and yellow balls to the juggler.’ How then could she fail to love the royal masters of words? Her father liked ‘lonely and rigorous books,’ she told Colonel Higginson, but she preferred them more graceful or touched with fire. After her first real one, she said to herself, ‘This, then, is a book, and there are more of them?’ When she found Shakespeare, she thought the world needed nothing else.

She had the piano as a companion, played upon it gayly, turned common airs into wild, fantastic reveries. One improvisation, which she called The Devil was, by tradition, unparalleled. We may assume that she loved the other arts, also, as well as music; at least, that they fed her fancy, though she could not much come near them.

And nature was the friend of her secluded spirit. ‘You ask of my companions. Hills, sir, and the sundown, and a dog as large as myself, that my father bought me.’ Flowers and trees and birds and insects talked to her and she to them, in that strange speech which they perhaps understood better than her human fellows. What the charm of this converse was she intimates to us in light, delicate touches. ‘We are having such lovely weather — the air is as sweet and still — now and then a gay leaf falling — the crickets sing all day long — high in a crimson tree a belated bird is singing.’ Or she can go behind this bare portrayal of the surface and bring out wayward glimpses of hidden feeling, vague and subtle hints of dim emotion, such as flutter in all our spirits and are gone before we can define them. She can do this in verse, —

There’s a certain slant of light,
On winter afternoons,
That oppresses like the weight
Of cathedral tunes.

She can do it even better, to my feeling, in prose. ‘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.’

From suggestions such as these it is evident that, even if outside adjuncts failed her wholly, she had sufficient society in her owm thoughts. She lived in a hurrying swarm of them, a cloud and tumult of manifold reflections, which made the gross, material contact of daily human speech and gesture seem poor and common. She shut herself off in this silent hurly-burly as in an aristocratic garment of her own. ‘How do most people live without any thoughts?’ she cried. ‘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?’ She herself put on in the morning a garment of scintillating radiance and only exchanged it at night for a lighter robe of gleaming stars. ‘In a life that stopped guessing you and I should not feel at home,’ she says. She filled the universe with her guesses, and then made comments on them that were more intriguing than the guesses were. Not that she was in any way a systematic thinker, any more than reader. Heavens, no! She never could have labored with the slow and ordered speculations of Mrs. Ripley or of Margaret Fuller. Sometimes she sets up a stable reign of goodness in the world, believes that things will be well with us, and asserts it hopefully. ‘I’m afraid we are all unworthy, yet we shall “enter in.”’ Sometimes she doubts, rebels even, wonders whether suffering has at all its due complement of loving, murmurs in wayward petulance, ’It will never look kind to me that God, who causes all, denies such little wishes.’ And always, to her probing guess, the world and life are veiled in mystery, and on the whole she is not. ungrateful. ‘It is true that the unknown is the largest need of the intellect, though for it no one thinks to thank God.’

It was perhaps, then, dreams rather than thoughts, that were her playfellows, at least, thoughts condensed, broken, abbreviated, intensified. No doubt she spoke and wrote, in gleams and figures, and her oddities of speech, though they may have been slightly emphasized by too much Carlyle and Browning, were, like her oddities of action, not affectations of manner, but real oddities, quaintnesses, inspired flashes of soul. She lived in a world of dreams, dreams above her, dreams about her, dreams beneath her. Now and then, as we all do, in our rarer moments of half-conscious somnolence, she rubs her eyes and asks herself ofher condition, ‘Sometimes I wonder if I ever dreamed — then if I’m dreaming now, then if I always dreamed.’ But the eyes close again, and the dreams press more thickly, sweet phantoms that crowd and shudder into one another in the strange, disordered way dreams have. ‘The lawn is full of south and the odors tangle, and I hear to-day for the first time the river in the tree.’ She tries to clutch them, to stay their dim and fluttering passage: ‘I would eat evanescence slowly’; but they quiver and fade and vanish, only to give place to others as fantastic and enchanting as themselves.

Yet back of the dream playfellows there is one substance that endures and never fails her — God, set solid in the white, unchanging background of eternity. And I do not say that she had any dry, mental certainty about these things. When mortal pangs come, they rend and tear her hope as they do others: —

My life closed twice before its close;
It yet remains to see
If immortality unveil
A third event to me,
So huge, so hopeless to conceive,
As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell.

And I do not say that God was anything tangible to her, like her father in the next room. If he had been, she would not have found Him God, or loved Him when she had her father. In her quaint, wild way she even indicates that she loved God because He shunned society as she did. ‘They say that God is everywhere, and yet we always think of Him as somewhat of a recluse.’ But God filled her solitude, God gave life and body to her dreams, God bade evanescence stay with her, or turned evanescence into an all-sustaining, all-enfolding, all-satisfying duration, which made the vague, unquiet futility of common life not only bearable but lovely, even to her restless and inquiring spirit.

Still, for all God and dreams, I would not wholly cut off her image from human ties. ‘I often wonder how the love Christ is done when that below holds so,’ she writes. That below held her. Let us see how.


In early life she would seem not to have avoided even general society. There are records of social gatherings, dances, varied merrymakings, in which she took a ready, gay, and active part, without any marked indication of undue withdrawal within herself. In her schooldays she was liked and, if not exactly popular, could always use her wit and fun to draw listeners and lovers. As a young woman in Amherst, she did not wholly refuse herself to the conventional demands of social intercourse, though it is evident that she yielded with protest and escaped with a sigh of relief. ‘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.’ The general kindness of the world, its chilly and indifferent courtesy, its ready and empty acceptance and circulation of cordial nothings, grated on her direct and poignant spirit. She would not endure the haggard necessities of parlor conversation. She was suspicious even of real sympathy from an unauthorized source. ‘Thank you for tenderness. I find that is the only food the Will takes now — and that, not from general fingers.’

But, on the other hand, she had her need of human affection, like every one of us — hungered for it, starved for it at times. She wanted those she loved when she wanted them; wanted them as she wanted them; expected their devotion to her bidding, though she was so coy about doing theirs. When she said, ‘come,’ they were to come, and ‘go,’ to go. If they did not come, it vexed her. ‘I think I hemmed faster for knowing you were n’t coming, my fingers had nothing else to do. . . . Odd, that I, who say “no,” so much, cannot bear it from others.’ She well knew the bounds and limits of friendship; but perhaps she prized it all the more on that account. Her love was as abiding as it was elusive. Grasp at it and it flitted away from you; then flitted back, like a delicate butterfly, teasing and tantalizing your heart with quaint touches of tenderness, till you knew not whether to laugh or weep. ’I hold you few I love, till my heart is red as February and purple as March,’ she murmurs in her strange idiom; and, again, she flings love wide beyond even the permanence of her own soul: ‘To live lasts always, but to love is finer than to live.’

These things rather for outside friendship. As for her family, she clung to them with the close persistence of a warm burr, which pricks and sticks. She knew all their foibles, of which that stern New England household had enough. She sets them out with the calmest realization, as a keen-sighted heart will, must. ‘Mother and Margaret are so kind, father as gentle as he knows how, and Vinnie good to me, but “cannot see why I don’t get well.”’ Or, in a more general, inimitable picture, ‘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.” ’

Yet she loved them all, with a deep, devoted tenderness. Her mother comes to us mainly as a shadow figure, to be petted and spared and cared for. Her sister was a swift, practical personage, not too ready to enjoy Emily’s vagaries, but trained to accept them. She swept and dusted and cooked and tried sometimes to get a useful hand from her dreaming sister; a useful hand, perhaps, when she got it; but I fancy she often wished she had not. Of the two brothers, Austen was Emily’s favorite, or at least she looked up to him, as she did to her father: a stern, august, impressive face and spirit. Intimate communion with such a one must have been difficult for anybody. Emily would have been the last to look for it, or to expect it. But to touch that granite soul and to feel that it belonged to you made life seem more solid and death less terrible.

And the same was far truer of her father. Certainly he never put his cheek or his heart against hers, never fondled her or caressed her. She never would have wished such things, would have resented them. ‘Father’s real life and mine sometimes come into collision,’ she says; ‘but as yet escape unhurt.’ But she looked up to him, how she looked up to him! Or, rather, she was always looking up, and, in doing so, she found her father’s face a marked sign-post on the way to God.

Yet she could not touch those she loved best — friends or near, dear kinsfolk. None of us can, you say. To be sure; but she knew it, and most of us do not. She moved among her family and through their house, like the ghostly shadow of a rare desire. The little needs and calls of domestic duty she detested, though she sometimes took her part in them. Hear her wayward fancy describe that soul’s pest, a household removal. ‘I cannot tell you how we moved. I had rather not remember. I believe my “effects" were brought in a bandbox, and the “deathless me,” on foot, not many moments after. I took at the time a memorandum of my several senses, and also of my hat and coat, and my best shoes — but it was lost in the mêlée, and I am out with lanterns, looking for myself.’ The patient solicitude of nursing tenderness she gave, no doubt, most deftly and devotedly. Yet one feels its burden: ‘Mother’s dear little wants so engross the time . . . I have hardly said “Good-morning, mother,” when I hear myself saying, “Mother, good-night.’”

But her isolation from these crying, crowding human realities about her went deeper than the mere irksomeness of daily duty. The trouble was that they were not realities but shadows, as she herself was, even more. What was sure and reliable and eternal and beyond the touch of trouble, was solitude and loneliness, where she could forever regale herself wdth the infinite companionship of thought. These dear human perplexities flitted in unaccountably. Before you could adjust yourself to them, they were gone, and you were never quite certain whether they left love behind them or torment. ‘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.’

Then one wonders how it was with the greatest love of all, the love of sex for sex. Did it help her or hurt her or ever come near her? That she was fitted to draw the love of men is clear enough. She was strangely, puzzlingly beautiful. It was not an everyday, peaches-and-cream, ballroom beauty. She teased and startled with her face as with her soul. Her piercing, disconcerting eyes, her rich, gleaming, gold-auburn hair, her white, fragile, ever-stirring, questioning hands, her movements, light and wafted as the movements of a dream — all these must have tormented mens’ hearts as the wild suggestion of her words did. We know that she had lovers in the early days, when the world touched her; and the memory of her fairy charm must have haunted many who never thought of declaring love. But how was she herself affected? Did she return the love that came to her, or long to return it, or have a girl’s visions of what it might be, if it came in all its glory and were returned? The record of these things is dim and vague. In her early youth she looks forward, mockingly, to lovers, and expects to be the belle of Amherst when she reaches her seventeenth year.

’Then how I shall delight to make them await my bidding, and with what delight shall I witness their suspense while I make my final decision.’ Later, love calls her to a rapturous hour, though duty forbids, and she overcomes the temptation, ‘not a glorious victory, where triumph would come of itself, faintest music, weary soldiers, not a waving flag, nor a long, loud shout.’ And through the letters and through the poems there breathes often the faint, poignant perfume of love, flickers the wayward, purple flame of love, love questioning, love exultant, love despairing, at once immortal and impossible.

But who could realize Emily at the head of a household, a calm, buxom matron, providing her husband’s dinner and ordering the household duties? As well yoke a wood-nymph to the plough. And children — doubtless she loved children, the children of others, played with them, laughed with them, wept with them. Perhaps children of her own would have been hardly enviable. She was made to dream of all these things, to step for a moment into the tumult of others’ tears and laughter, always with the protecting carpet daintily unrolled before her feet, then to vanish quietly, visionlike, back into the blue void, her own inner region, where there was still that colossal, constant companion, God, and the echoing silence of eternity.

And if love did not often tempt her out of this solitude, did conscience sometimes urge her out? Did she feel that the world needed her, that there were deeds to be done and fights to be won? Did she suffer from that restless, haunting desire of action which so many of us misread and call by fine names, but which more or less overrides almost all of us with its impetuous tyranny? She, perhaps, as little as any. But I seem to catch at least some understanding of it in the exquisite, tender solicitation to a doubting heart. ‘All we are strangers, dear, the world is not acquainted with us, because we are not acquainted with her; and pilgrims. Do you hesitate? And soldiers, oft — some of us victors, but those I do not see to-night, owing to the smoke. We are hungry, and thirsty, sometimes, we are barefoot and cold — will you still come?’ But the smoke and the soldiers and the fighting were mostly drowned in quiet — for her.


Do not, however, for a moment suppose that, because her feet were quiet, her mind was; that, because she refused to live in the casual world herself, she was not interested in the casual life of others. On the contrary, do we not know that these solitary, passionate recluses live all life over in their windowed cells; that it is the wild abundance of other lives in their rioting imaginations that makes all possible adventures of their own seem tame and frigid? Do we not know old Burton, who sucked strange melancholy from the confused chaos that rumbled about him, whose dear delight was to turn from his thumbed folios to the loud, profane quarreling of bargemen by the riverside? Do we not know Flaubert, who shut himself up in his ivory tower, only to lean from his window in the moonlight and hear the dim revelry and causeless laughter of the children of men? So Emily. The action she dreamed of was too vast for the poor, trammeled limits of this world. But she found an absorbed pleasure in watching this world’s stumbling, struggling labors all the same. It was not so much concrete facts, not the contemporary history, which seems all-important to those who are making it and mainly dies when they do. Politics? Emily cannot fix her thoughts on politics. ‘Won’t you please tell me when you answer my letter, who the candidate for President is. ... I don’t know anything more about affairs in the world than if I were in a trance.’ But human passion, human love, human hope, and human despair, these absorb her, these distract her with an inexhaustible interest. She feels them in the touch of human hands and reads them in human faces.

I like a look of agony,
Because I know it’s true;
Men do not sham convulsion.
Nor simulate a throe.

The thrill of life, its glow, its color — her eyes and her thoughts were awake for them always. ‘Friday I tasted life. It was a vast morsel. A circus passed the house — still I feel the red in my mind though the drums are out.’

This vivid sense of the intensity, the ardor, the emotional possibility of things, filled her with passion so overwhelming that it could not be expressed directly. Words were inadequate, and she was obliged to take refuge in jest, mockery, fantastic whim, which merely deepen the message of underlying feeling for those who understand. She was own sister to Charles Lamb in this, Lamb in whom tears were so close to laughter and the most apparently wanton jesting the cover for a tortured heart. It seems at moments as if Emily mocked everything. She sits idly on the stile in the sunshine and lets the great circus of the world pass by her, riddling its vain parade with shafts of dainty laughter. She is simple, she says, childish, she says, plays all day with trifles, regardless of the mad doings of real men and women. ‘As simple as you please, the simplest sort of simple — I’ll be a little ninny, a little pussy-catty, a little Red Riding Hood; I’ll wear a bee in my bonnet, and a rose-bud in my hair, and what remains to do you shall be told hereafter.’

She carried the screen of whim, not only into verbal mockery, but into strange fancies of capricious action, tricks of Puck and Ariel, which amazed and delighted children and simple hearts, but annoyed and disconcerted the grave, staid, older children who had never grown up to real childishness. She would drop kittens to drown in the pickle-jar, and shudder with scared glee when they were served up on the hospitable table to a visiting judge. She would say to another grave judge, as Falstaff might have, when the plum pudding was lighted, ‘Oh, sir, may one eat of hell fire with impunity here?' And in all these fantastic tricks there was no affectation, — though some thought so who did not understand, — no affectation in the sense of a vulgar, conscious effort to impress or astonish. There was no vagary of the witless. It was simply the direct impression of a great, strange world in a heart which could not grasp it and strove to, and gave right back the bewitching oddities it found.

And if in this surface of confusing eccentricity it might be thought that there was callous, or even cruel, indifference to what others took with enormous and bewildered seriousness, it must be repeated and insisted that, as with Lamb, the eccentricity was a mere mask for the most complete and sensitive sympathy, extending often to pity and tears. If she was a sister of Lamb, she was also a sister of those most delicate creatures of the whole world’s imagination, the clowns of Shakespeare; and as Touchstone and Feste could not surpass her in exquisite fooling, so she was equally akin to the tragic tenderness of the fool in Lear. It needed all the gayety and all the trifling and all the mad songs to keep down the waves of sorrow that would surge upward in her spirit, and at times not all would do. ‘If we can get our hearts “under,” I don’t have much to fear — I’ve got all but three feelings down, if I can only keep them!’

So, in the effort to explain or forget, she mocked at all the grave and busy problems of the world. Love? A divine, unrealizable dream, so tantalizing in its witchery that one could not but make a tender jest of it. Money? Possessions? Oh, the solid, evanescent things! The foundations of our souls rest on them, and they slip away and leave us weltering. We must make a jest of them, too. ‘You know I should expire of mortification to have our ryefield mortgaged, to say nothing of its falling into the merciless hands of a loco!’ And the busy people of the world, the grave, substantial, active, useful people. She is not useful, and she knows it and deplores it. Yet, deploring her own inactivity, she cannot go without her jest at the others. ‘L—goes to Sunderland, Wednesday, for a minute or two; leaves here at half-past six — what a fitting hour — and will breakfast the night before; such a smart atmosphere. The trees stand right up straight when they hear her boots, and will bear crockery wares instead of fruit, I fear.’

And again she sums up this mighty buzz and hum of the achieving world — or the world that dreams it is achieving — with the image of a circus, probably the most vivid form of vain activity that came under her touch. ‘There is circus here, and farmers’ Commencement, and boys and girls from Tripoli, and governors and swords parade the summer streets. They lean upon the fence that guards the quiet church ground, and jar the grass row warm and soft as a tropic nest.’ Or a briefer word gives the same vast — to staid souls how horrifying — lesson to a child: ’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.’

And if she could mock the most serious things of this world, do not suppose that she had the slightest hesitation about mocking another. Eternity was so near her always that she treated it as familiarly as her brothers and sisters; and to pass through the wide-open door of death seemed far less of an adventure than to pass through the grim, closed front door into the streets of Amherst. Ill health, whether as the prelude to death or as the torment of life, she could touch lightly. In strangers she could trifle with it. ‘ Mrs. S—is very feeble; “can’t bear allopathic treatment, can’t have homœopathic, don’t want hydropathic”; oh, what a pickle she is in!’ In her own family she takes it as easily: ‘We are sick hardly ever at home, and don’t know what to do when it comes — wrinkle our little brows, and stamp with our little feet, and our tiny souls get angry, and command it to go away.’ When the blow struck herself, she may have writhed, but we have nothing to show it. There is the same mockery to wave it aside:

‘My head aches a little, and my heart a little more, so, taking me collectively, I seem quite miserable, but I’ll give you the sunny corners, and you must n’t look at the shade.’

Religion, formal religion, Sunday religion, the religion of staid worship and rockbound creeds, she takes as airily, with as astonishing whiffs of indifference, not to say irreverence. If a phrase of scripture, even the most sacred, fits a jest, she uses it. If a solemn piece of starched emptiness in the pulpit ruffles her nice and tender spirit, she does not hesitate to turn him into delicate and cutting ridicule. Faith, she says, oh, yes, faith, how august, how venerable! ‘We dignify our faith when we can cross the ocean with it, though most prefer ships.’ A revival comes to town. I have no doubt its deeper side stirred her whole soul. But this she cannot put into adequate speech, and instead, ‘There is that which is called an “awakening” in the church, and I know of no choicer ecstasy than to see Mrs.—roll out in crape every morning, I suppose to intimidate antichrist; at least it would have that effect on me.’

Even her most intimate friend, her comforter and consoler, her everlasting solace, God, is treated with such light ease as an intimate friend would be. We have seen that every morning her family prayed to an eclipse whom they called their Father. Elsewhere the tone is just the same. ‘If prayers had any answers to them, you were all here tonight, but I seek and I don’t find, and knock and it is not opened. Wonder if God is just — presume He is, however, and’t was only a blunder of Matthew ’s. And again, in apparently more solemn form, but really with daring like Omar Khayyam’s, —

‘Heavenly Father,’ take to thee
The supreme iniquity,
Fashioned by thy candid hand
In a moment contraband.
Though to trust us seem to us
More respectful — ‘we are dust.'
We apologize to thee
For thine own duplicity.

I quote verse here to show that every phase of Emily’s thought and character could be illustrated from her poems as well as from her letters. Criticism of the poems as such is not within the limits of my purpose. Yet even the most abstract literary criticism of a writer’s works usually serves to give some clue to the writer’s mind. And doubtless the puzzling incoherency and complexity of Emily’s versicles, the wild vagary of her rhythm and rhyme, express the inner workings of her spirit, as Milton’s majestic diction and movement imply the ample grandeur of his soul. Common words come from common lips and rare from rare, and if the rareness verges on oddity in utterance, there is oddity in the spirit, too. At any rate, it is indisputable that every trait I have been working out in Emily’s letters could be found in the poems also, only more obscure, more veiled, more dubious, more mystical. The love of friends is there and the search for them and the hopeless impossibility of touching them. The longing for love is there, all its mystery, its ravishing revelations, and its burden. The intense joy of life is there, its vivid color, its movement, its sparkle, its merriment, its absurdity. There, too, is the turning away from it with vast relief to quiet, solitude, peace, eternity, and God.

It will be asked whether, in writing her swarms of little verses, Emily had any definite idea of literary ambition, of success and glory. Certainly she made no direct effort for anything of the kind. Only three or four poems were printed during her lifetime, and those with extreme reluctance on her part. Her verses were scattered through brief letters, tossed off with apparent indifference and evident disregard of finish. In the main, they must have been rather a form of intense, instinctive expression than a conscious attempt to catch the thoughts and admiration of men. She herself says, ‘When a sudden light on orchards, or a new fashion in the wind troubled my attention, I felt a palsy, here, the verses just relieve.’

It is true that there are occasional intimations of literary interest. This is sometimes suggested in her intercourse with Colonel Higginson, though I cannot but feel that her correspondence with the good Colonel contains more attitude than her other letters, and she certainly played with him a little. Further, the verses which introduce the first published volume of her poems are definitely in the nature of an author’s apology: —

This is ray letter to the world,
That never wrote to me.

Nevertheless, we are safe in saying that few authors have left behind them permanent work with so little conscious preoccupation of authorship.


And so we are brought back to her one great preoccupation with the inner life and God and eternity. For eternity rings through every thought of her, like a deep and solemn bell, monotonous, if its surface echoes were not broken into such a wild and varied music. Change? She appreciates change, no one more keenly, its glory and its horror. ‘No part of mind is permanent. This startles the happy, but it assists the sad.’ Rest? She appreciates rest, if in this world there were such a thing. Love ‘makes but one mistake, it tells us it is “rest” — perhaps its toil is rest, but what we have not known we shall know again, that divine “again” for which we are all breathless.’ Yet change and toil and love and agony, all she forgets in that divine permanence, from which her soul cannot escape and does not desire to.

As all the heavens were a bell,
And being but an ear,
And I and silence some strange race,
Wrecked, solitary, here.

Or again in prose, even more simple and overwhelming, ‘I cannot tell how Eternity seems. It sweeps around me like a sea.’

Let no one say that this inner absorption, this dwelling with God and with that which abideth, is selfish. Many will say so. And what lives do they lead themselves? Lives of empty bustle, of greedy haste, of futile activity and eagerness. Lives no doubt also of wide benevolence and deep human sacrifice; but these are not the most ready to accuse others. And too often broad social contact and a constant movement out of doors are but symptoms of emptiness, of hatred of solitude, of an underlying fear of one’s self, and of being left alone with God. Who shall say that such a quiet, self-contained, self-filling life as Emily Dickinson’s, with its contagion of eternity spreading ineffably from soul to soul, is not in the end as useful for both example and accomplishment as the buzz existence of Frances Willard?

It is true that some who watched her thought her selfish in minor matters. She was exacting with her family, made hard demands, and expected to have them satisfied. But this was a detail. In her larger life she forgot self altogether, or rather, she made self as wide as heaven, till all loves and all hates and all men and all God were included in it. And note that she did not fly the world for her own purposes. She had no aim of long ambition to work out in solitude. She did not trouble with self-culture, did not buttress thought upon the vast security of books and learning, as did Mrs. Ripley. She just sat quiet, with the doors of her spirit open, and let God come to her. And even that celestial coming did not make her restless.

She had not Mary Lyon’s longing to bring God to others. She did not share Frances Willard’s passionate cry, ‘Tell everyone to be good.’ If God had desired men to be good, He would have made them so. If God’s world needed mending, let Him mend it. She knew well enough that He could, if He wished. Why should she vex her soul with trifles? For to her was not the real unreal and the unreal real?

So I see her last as I saw her first, standing, all white, at her balcony window, ready to float downward on her unrolled carpet into the wide garden of the world, holding eternity clutched tight in one hand, and from the other dropping with idle grace those flowers — joys of life which the grosser herd of us run after so madly. And I hear her brothers, the clowns of Shakespeare, singing, —

When that I was and a little, tiny boy,
With heigh-ho, the wind and the rain,
A little thing was but a toy,
For the rain it raineth every day.
‘He that has and a little, tiny wit,
With heigh-ho, the wind and the rain,
Must make content with his fortunes fit.
For the rain it raineth every day.’