Fragments From Emily Dickinson

THE letters which follow, together with the shy, tentative fragments of verse, were written to my father, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, between the years 1879 and 1882. Dealing as they do with things intimate and precious, as his marriage, the birth and death of a loved child, and later the birth of a child who was ‘willing to stay,’ they were held back from the collection of Emily Dickinson’s letters to Colonel Higginson now in possession of the Boston Public Library. Rereading them after many years, I was struck by their exceeding beauty of thought, and wondered if it were fair to shut such thoughts within the bounds of my own library. As I questioned whether to publish them, I came by chance on this sentence in an earlier letter: ’The name of “ child” was a snare to me, and I hesitated, choosing my most rudimentary, and without criterion.’1 That decided me, and if one person who has lost a child is helped by the thoughts of this luminous creature, the publishing is justified.

If I can stop one heart from breaking
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching.
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.

Poems, First Series

As was Emily Dickinson’s custom, there is in these letters neither date nor name of the person addressed, nor, save once, a signature, other than the customary ‘Your Scholar’ which she used in signing her letters to Colonel Higginson during a period of over twenty years. Written on small, neat sheets of thin white paper, of uniform size, these letters were punctuated only with dashes, with an occasional fleet comma, as if not to be confined within conventional limits. Her handwriting ran clear and straight as the script of a mediæval missal, and had something of the same quality of the cloister, in its purity, its other-worldliness, its wistfulness. Yet it was fearless, boldly original, a thing of itself and like no other. Ink was not used, but rather the more direct and intimate medium of the lead pencil, her thought seeming to skim along on wings, as if it never touched the paper.

Contrary to the policy followed in the previous publishing of her letters and poems, I have retained her own form precisely, including her habit of capitalization, which was the Old English method of distinguishing every noun substantive. At the risk, by this means, of distracting the mind of the reader from the flowing cadence of her thought, it has seemed keenly interesting and vivid to give to the words the values which she gave them. To change this would be like scratching out the purple and blue and gold with which the capital letters of missals were made beautiful.

The first letter was written on the occasion of Colonel Higginson s marriage, in the spring of 1879, to a niece of Longfellow’s ‘Being Beauteous.’

DEAR FRIEND,
To congratulate the Redeemed is perhaps superfluous for Redemption leaves nothing for earth to add — It is very sweet and serious to suppose you at Home, and reverence I cannot express is all that remains, I have read of Home in the Revelations — ‘Neither thirst any more’ — You speak very sweetly of the Stranger — I trust the phantom Love that enrolls the ‘Sparrow,’ enfolds her softer than a Child —

DEAR FRIEND,
I am tenderly happy that you are happy — Thank you for the Whisper — If I dared to give the Madonna my love —
The thoughtfulness I may not accept is among my Balms — Grateful for the kindness, I enclose those you allow — Adding a fourth, lest one of them you might think profane —
They are Christ’s Birthday — Cupid’s Sermon — A Humming-Bird — and My Country’s Wardrobe — Reprove them as your own — To punish them would please me, because the fine conviction I had so true a friend —
YOUR SCHOLAR

Of the poems mentioned I have been unable to find the first two, under these titles or any other. The last two appeared in the second series of poems, published in 1891.

[February 1880]
DEAR FRIEND,
I am very glad of the Little Life, and hope it may make no farther flight than its Father’s Arms — Home and Roam in one—I know but little of Little Ones, but love them very softly — They seem to me like a Plush Nation or a Race of Down —
If she will accept a vicarious kiss, please confide it to her — Does she coo with ' discraytion’? I am very grateful for the delight to you and Mrs. Higginson — I had thought of your Future with soft fear — I am glad it has come —

‘Go travelling with us!’
Her Travels daily be
By routes of Ecstasy
To Evening’s Sea.

YOUR SCHOLAR

The reference to 4 discray tion ’ is from a story of Carlyle which Colonel Higginson always told with delight. He was once walking with Carlyle and James Anthony Froude in Kensington Gardens, when some small boys who were turning somersaults on a piece of greensward hard by asked Carlyle somewhat fearsomely if they might continue.

‘Yes, my little fellow,’ said Carlyle, with his fine Scotch burr, ‘you may r-r-roll with discr-r-raytion!’

The following letter was written on the death of the beloved child for whom, for almost forty years, my father had hungered. (His first marriage was in 1847.)

DEAR FRIEND, Most of our Moments are Moments of Preface — ‘Seven weeks’ is a long life — if it is all lived —
The little Memoir was very touching — I am sorry she was not willing to stay — The flight of such a fraction takes all our Numbers Home —
‘Room for One More’2 was a plea for Heaven — I misunderstood —Heaven must be a lone Exchange for such a parentage — These sudden intimacies with Immortality, are Expanse — not Peace — as Lightening at our feet, instills a foreign Landscape. Thank you for the Portrait — it is beautiful, but intimidating — I shall pick ‘Mayflowers’ more furtively, and feel new awe of ' Moonlight.’
The route of your little Fugitive must be a tender wonder — and yet

A Dimple in the Tomb
Makes that ferocious Room
A Home —

YOUR SCHOLAR

This paragraph, omitted from a letter previously published, is here given for the startling beauty of the last lines: —

It reminded me too of ‘Little Annie,’ of whom you feared to make the mistake in saying ‘Shoulder Arms’ to the ‘Colored Regiment’3 but which was the Child of Fiction, the Child of Fiction or of Fact, and is ‘Come unto Me’ for Father or Child, when the Child precedes?

The following letter was written when a second little daughter had come to fill the aching void left by the death of the first-born. With the letter came a turquoise brooch, lost — alas — these many years ago by a careless nursemaid. But the box in which it came, a square white wooden box with roses painted on the lid, is now used by a little girl of a later generation in which to keep her treasures.

DEAR FRIEND,
Perhaps ‘Baby’ will pin her Apron or her Shoe with this? It was sent to me a few Moment’s since, but I never wear Jewels — How I would love to see her!

Come show thy Durham Breast
To her who loves thee best —
Delicious Robin,
And if it be not me,
At least within my tree
Do thy crowing —

I am glad you are better, and if to cherish the Cherubim be not too intrepid, desire my love to Baby’s Mama — I am glad you are with ‘The Elms’ — That is a gracious place —

Here follows a poem, published in the second series of the collected verse, which begins ‘How happy is the little Stone.’ But instead of ending with ‘In Casual Simplicity,’ as does the published poem, there follow four lines of such power, of such profound and fearless thought, that it is difficult to understand why they were not included.

Obtaining but our own Extent
In whatsoever Realm —
’T was Christ’s own personal Expanse
That bore him from the Tomb —

YOUR SCHOLAR

This little note came evidently with some shy offering of which, sad to say, there is no manner of recollection.

DEAR FRIEND,
Briefly, in Boston, please accept the delayed Valentine for your Little Girl —
It would please me that she take her first walk in Literature with One so often guided on that great route by her Father —
E DICKINSON

The last fragment is written on a half page without preface or signature, as if struck hot from the anvil of her soul.

Spurn the temerity —
Rashness of Calvary —
Gay were Gethsemane
Knew we of thee —

In the lower corner of the page is written in another hand, ‘Wonderful twelve words! H. J.’ [Helen Hunt Jackson].

  1. Published in an article entitled ‘Emily Dickinson’s Letters,’ by Thomas Wentworth Higginson, in the Atlantic Monthly of October 1891.
  2. The title of a book published by Mrs. Higginson shortly after her marriage.
  3. See ‘The Baby of the Regiment’ in Colonel Higginson’s Army Life in a Black Regiment.