Emily Dickinson

Novelist, playwright, and teacher, THORNTON WILDER combines the creative fire with the cool, objective delight of a critic. He began teaching at Lawrenceville after his graduation from Yale in 1920; he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for his second novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey; his play Our Town (which non the Pulitzer Prize for 1938) is in production in some part of the globe almost every day of the year; and he richly deserved the Gold Medal for Fiction presented to him by the American Academy of Arts and Letters last spring. He is now working on a book which grew out of his Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard and which will be published next year by the Harvard University Press under the title American Characteristics.



GERARD MANLEY HOPKINS wrote to Robert Bridges: “To return to composition for a moment: what I want there to be more intelligible, smoother, and less singular, is an audience.” And again: “There is a point with me in matters of any size when I must absolutely have encouragement as much as crops rain; afterwards I am independent.” Father Hopkins’s verses first reached print twenty-six years affter his death.

Emily Dickinson’s closest friends included two men, each of whom, as editor, read hundreds, perhaps thousands, of poems a year with a view toward publication in periodicals; and a third, her mentor Colonel Higginson, was in a position strongly to urge their publication; yet none ventured to publish one of hers. Dr. Holland felt that her verses were “too ethereal,” Colonel Higginson that they were too irregular. The Colonel could be very severe; she quotes back to him — with an air of docile gratitude and contrition — some words he had written: “Such being the majesty of the art you presume to practise, you can at least take time before you dishonor it.”

Had she been accorded an audience, would her verses have been “more intelligible, smoother, and less singular”? Not only did she write some two thousand poems, the greater part of which were seen by no other eyes than her own, but she so arranged it that most of these poems — if they were some day to be read by others — would not appear to lay claim to literary evaluation. She left them ostentatiously “unfinished,” unready for print. From time to time she seems to have started upon the task of preparing definitive copies, only to have flagged in the endeavor or to have shrunk from the presumption.

I find a relation between an aspect of Emily Dickinson’s home life as a girl and her practice as a writer. This relation has its parallel in her attitude to literary fame, to the doctrine of personal immortality, and to the greater number of her friends. This recurrent pattern in her thought and behavior can be described as the movement of “five steps forward and two steps back.”

So much for the lecture which I delivered in the series and which I shall not attempt to reproduce here. I am of such a naturebeing neither scholar, biographer, nor criticthat I cannot listen for long to a discussion of a great poet without being filled with impatience to hear or read one or more of the subject’s poems. Great poetry, like comparable painting and music, architecture and drama, cannot be described; in a certain sense it cannot be remembered. It comes into being only when we are confronting itand confronting it in a state of concentration. In my lecture, then, I took good care to read a number of Emily Dickinson s poems, surrounding each one with moments of silence for self-collection.

It is unsuitable, however, that I present a selection from her poetry here. So, instead of the lecture, I submit a series of reflections which came to me as I prepared for that occasion. They have the character of a progression, for they are based upon a series of questions which I put to myself, and are the answers I assembled to them. I was later to find that many of my studentsand not only my students —felt little sympathy for Emily Dickinson’s poetry. Some whose opinion I valued dismissed it with faint praise, some with impatience, some with contempt. It is a pleasure to remember, however, that the antipathy of the students never sprang (as it so often did in the case oftheir elders) from a disapproval of the irregularities in her versification. Young people are seldom moved to dictate to a writer how a poem or book should be written; they regard it—for a few years, alas—as self-evident that every person would wish to do a thing in his own way and that original thought would wear an original dress.

The tone of Emily Dickinson’s letters and of many of her poems — where have I heard that before? This effusive affection combined with ostentatious humility; this presentation of the self as a little being easily overlooked, asking only a crumb, yet somehow urging strong egotistical claims; above all, the practice of alluding to great matters, to love and loss and death and God, in elliptical jokes and mannered periphrases — where have we heard that before?

Within the space of one letter to the Hollands (of “Mid-May 1854”) she manages to say: “. . . if you have not all forgotten us . . . darling friends, for whom I would not count my life too great a sacrifice ... if you won’t forget me . . .”That is to say, she shall have the honors of love; she shall love most and best: she shall enjoy stoically nourishing an unrequited passion. Mr. Bowles is going away on a trip; she writes to Mrs. Bowles: “I’ll remember you, if you like me to, while Mr. Bowles is gone, and that will stop the lonesome, some, but I cannot agree to stop when he gets home from Washington.”Does that not practically dictate an answer on Mrs. Bowles’s part, and an effusive one? In a letter of condolence — and to a clergyman!— on the death of a child, she writes: “I hope Heaven is warm, there are so many barefoot ones.”On such great subjects bathos is ever lying in wait for those who are not content to say a thing simply.

We have heard this tone before. It belongs to women who in childhood have received too heavy an impress from their relation to their fathers. It may be called the tone of a misplaced coquetry. Its general character is that of archness. It is perfectly in order (and arises from profound natural springs) when it is exhibited by a young woman as a response to a young man who is showing deep interest in her. It has certainly no place in mature friendship.


IT IS not difficult to trace the steps of this mental formation. The growing child wishes to get its way; it wishes to be succeeding and (note the word) winning. It tests out the relationships of the family toward this end. There are certain forms of appeal and persuasion that are successful with the father but have no effect whatever on the mother. The growing girl exercises her coquetry (as kittens scratch trees) on every man she meets, but particularly on those whose eyes rest attentively upon her. It is a game in which a girl concedes that she is somewhat attracted but, advancing provocatively and retreating provocatively, refuses to declare the extent. It is played with the most calculated dissimulation, and its enactment between daughter and father is mere harmless dress-rehearsal for later encounters — in most cases. From time to time, however, the game has been, as it were, surprised by inappropriate intensities.

Squire Dickinson was a very grim patriarch indeed. Study his photograph. His daughter was to say of him that “his soul was pure and terrible,”that “he never learned to play,”and to speak of his “lonely life and lonelier death.”Yet he was a complex man. Startling is the story that he set the church bells of Amherst ringing to call the attention of the town to a particularly fine sunset. At Jenny Lind’s concert, “Father sat all evening looking mad, and yet so much amused that you [his son] would have died a-laughing . . . it wasn’t sarcasm exactly, nor it wasn’t disdain, it was infinitely funnier than either of those virtues, as if old Abraham had come to see the show, and thought it was all very well, but a little excess of monkey.” The wife of this Abraham seems to have been a nonentity (“I never had a mother”) who gradually lapsed into invalidism. Two facts should be sufficient (by the play of opposites) to reveal the extent to which the Squire was a strong and frustrated man with a compelling effect upon his children: one, it appears that he had never kissed his son or daughters; and two, his son was later to dye his blond hair red and later still to wear a red wig — the color of his father’s hair.

What was it that Emily Dickinson wished to win from this man? The same thing that he wished to win from her and which he could find nowhere else — love, attentive love, and the sense of one’s identity rebounding from some intelligent and admired being. Oh, he watched her, and naturally in his case the watchfulness could chiefly express itself only in rebuke. Of her reading: “Father was very severe to me . . . he gave me quite a trimming about ‘Uncle Tom’ and ‘Charles Dickens’ and those ‘modern literati’ . . . we do not have much poetry, father having made up his mind that it’s pretty much all real life. Father’s real life and mine sometimes come into collision but as yet escape unhurt.”Of her gardening: “I got down before father this morning, and spent a few minutes profitably with the South Sea rose. Father detecting me, advised wiser employments, and read at devotions the chapter of the gentleman with one talent. I think he thought my conscience would adjust the gender.” And she watched him.

Many a patriarchal father has misjudged his role in this game, particularly when he has long since quenched any spontaneous femininity in his wife. (Unquestionable authority is an offense against love, as it is against anything else, and it is ever seeking new territories to overwhelm.) This game can be played by the eyes alone, even in the grimmest face. New England was formerly filled with women whose imaginations had been thus overswayed. Their growth in the affective life had been arrested — some had even been frozen, as by shock or trauma — and they must continue to repeat the mechanisms of that phase forever.

Such I feel to have been Emily Dickinson’s story, but Emily Dickinson was a genius — that is to say, was charged with extraordinary resources of the life-force which could break through dams and repair ravage. The die, however, had been cast. The forms of speech that are characteristic of a winning child will constantly reappear, the bright remarks that set the dinner table laughing and bring a slight smile even to the most dignified father’s face. Above all, the expressions of affection will be drolly indirect: “I’m lonely since you went away, kind of ship-wrecked like! Perhaps I miss you!" This infantile note may recur at any moment right up to her death, and it was against this that the reparative force of her genius had to struggle. She has left us a large amount of mature poetry, and it is with something like awe that we can see the operation of genius fashioning great verse even in this tone which elsewhere can so often distress us.

One other aspect of her letters will show us how deeply her affective life had been troubled. Emily Dickinson constantly indulges in the fantasy that her loved ones are dead.

Much has been written about her preoccupation with mortality and graves, and with the promise of a beatific hereafter. Certain authorities have directed us to pay no particular attention to this strain, saying that it did not exceed the measure indulged in by many of her contemporaries. Emily Dickinson, however, was individual in her treatment of other aspects of thought and life — in love and friendship, in the description of nature, in philosophical speculation — and I am prepared to find that both in amount and in kind her allusions to these matters were also unusual. At all events this recurring vision of her friends as “repealed” is certainly an idiosyncrasy.

Among her first letters to Samuel Bowles—she hopes the family is well: “I hope your cups are full. I hope your vintage is untouched. In such a porcelain life one likes to be sure that all is well lest one stumble upon one’s hopes in a pile of broken crockery.”And later, to Mrs. Bowles: “We are all human, Mary, until we are divine, and to some of us that is far off, and to some as near as the lady ringing at the door; perhaps that’s what alarms.”(There is the old inconsistency of the pietistic convention: it is very alarming that one’s friends may at any moment become divine.) There are scores of these anticipated farewells; what is strange and disquieting about them is that she almost never includes herself among the disappearing. To Mrs. Holland: “I’m so glad you are not a blossom, for those in my garden fade, and then a ‘reaper whose name is Death’ has come to get a few to help him make a bouquet for himself, so I’m glad you’re not a rose. ...” And several years later: “Death! Ah! democratic Death! . . . Say, is he everywhere? Where shall I hide my things? Who is alive? The woods are dead. Is Mrs. H. alive? Annie and Katie — are they below, or received to nowhere?" And to Mrs. Holland twenty-one years later: “God’s little Blond Blessing— we have long deemed you, and hope that his so-called ‘Will’ — will not compel him to revoke you.”

She explained this idiosyncrasy to Colonel Higginson (who had gone off to war and received the foreboding message in his camp) saying: “Perhaps death gave me awe for friends, striking sharp and early, for I held them since in brittle love, of more alarm than peace. I trust you may pass the limit of war . . ."; but the explanation is insufficient. No long experience of life is necessary to alert us to the fact that there is an element of latent cruelty in these manifestations. They confirm our sense of how deep a wound she had received.

These are the characteristic expressions of the envious and of those who feel themselves to have been “shut out” from life’s major prizes. (I once heard a woman say to another: “What darling little boys you have! We all hope — don’t we? — that there’ll be none of these dreadful wars fifteen years from now.”) One last example: What was Mrs. Holland to make of the following effusion, received at a time when she was occupied with three children and with furthering the career of her husband, who, after long struggles, was beginning to be regarded as one of the most popular writers and lecturers in the country? “How kind of some to die, adding impatience to the rapture of our thought of Heaven!” Here she inserts a poem beginning “As by the dead we love to sit,” and continues: “I had rather you lived nearer — I would like to touch you. Pointed attentions from the Angels, to two or three I love, make me sadly jealous.” The inappropriateness here is so great that we may well ask ourselves whether this is love at all or rather a dangerous self-indulgence in purely subjective emotion, perhaps an effort to ignite a real affection within herself—a phenomenon we occasionally find in those whose love has suffered shipwreck or been frozen with fright early in life. That she could and did love maturely we have ample evidence in the poetry and we turn there to see how she made her escape from this perilous situation.


As a poet Emily Dickinson started out with two great disadvantages — an enormous facility for versifying and an infatuation with bad models. Later she was to read absorbedly Shakespeare, Milton, Herbert, and the great English poets of her century, and one is aware of the influence they had upon her language, but one is also aware of how little an affect they had upon the verse forms she employed. Her point of departure was the lyric of the keepsake and the Christmas Annual and the newspaper and the genteel periodical — the avocation of clergymen and of ladies of refinement and sensibility. Even the better poets of the hymnbooks do not seem to have greatly influenced her. Although she was to make some startling innovations within this form, it is no less startling that she made no attempts to depart from the half-dozen stanzaic patterns with which she began. I choose to see in this fact an additional illustration of that arrest in her development which we have discovered elsewhere. She was extraordinarily bold in what she did within these patterns (she soon burst their seams), but the form of the poem and to some extent the kind of poem she admired as a girl continued to be the poem she wrote to the end.

She wrote to Colonel Higginson in April, 1862 (she was then thirty-one years old): “I made no verse, but one or two, until last winter, sir.”So far, very few poems have been, with assurance, dated prior to that time; but it seems to me that she here intended the qualification: no verse of the highest conscious intention. There are numbers of poems of about this time, and certainly early (hence, naturally, the darlings of the anthologists), such as “If I Can Stop One Heart from Breaking" and “I Taste a Liquor Never Brewed" and “To Fight Aloud Is Very Brave,” which show evidence of having been preceded by a long experience in versifying. The passage from one stanza to the next is very accomplished indeed, and presupposes an extended practice, in public or in private. It appears certain to me that when, toward 1861, Emily Dickinson collected herself to write verse of the most earnest intention, she had to struggle not only against the pitfalls of a native facility, but against those of a facility already long exercised in a superficial effectiveness— in the easy pathos and in the easy epigram.

Even before she sent the first examples of her work to Colonel Higginson she had won a critical battle over her facility. She had found the courage to write poetry which “insulted the intelligence" of her contemporaries. What shocked Colonel Higginson was not that she occasionally employed “bad” rhymes (such abounded in the poetry of Mrs. Browning); nor that she substituted assonance for rhyme; nor even that she occasionally failed to rhyme at all (that practice he had accepted in Walt Whitman, whose work he recommended to her reading); but that all these irregularities were combined and deeply embedded in the most conventional of all verse forms.

At this distance we can venture to reconstruct her struggles. A new tide had entered her being; she now wished to say with passion what she had been hitherto saying playfully, saying with coquetry. New intensities — particularly in new countries— call for new forms. A childhood fixation, however, prevented her from abandoning the stanzaic patterns of her early reading. She revolted from the regular rhyme, the eternal “my-die” and “God-rod,” not because she was too lazy to impose it, but because the regular rhyme seemed the outer expression of an inner conventionality. She called the regular rhyme “prose”— “they shut me up in prose” — and in the same poem she calls it “captivity.”

One of her devices shows us how conscious she was of what she was doing. She artfully offers us rhymes of increasing regularity so that our ear will be waiting for another, and then in a concluding verse refuses any rhyme whatever. The poem “Of Tribulation These Are They” gives us “whitedesignate, “times palms,” “soil-mile,”“road— Saved!” (The italics are hers.) The effect is as of a ceiling being removed from above our heads. The incommensurable invades the poem. In “I’ll Tell Thee All— How Blank It Grew” she flings all the windows open in closing with the words “out visions paradise,” rhymeless after three stanzas of unusually regular rhymes.

Her “teacher” rebuked her for these audacities, but she persisted in them. She did not stoop to explain or defend them. The Colonel’s unwillingness to publish the work showed her that he did not consider her a poet, however much he may have been struck by individual phrases. She continued to enclose an occasional poem in her letters to friends, but they seem not to have asked to see “lots of them.” The hope of encouragement and the thought of a contemporary audience grew more and more remote. Yet the possibility of a literary fame, of an ultimate glory, never ceased to trouble her. In poem after poem she derided renown; she compared it to an auction and to the croaking of frogs; but at the same time she hailed it as this consecration of the poet’s “vital light.”what did she do about it? She took five steps forward and two steps back. It is no inconsiderable advance toward literary pretension to write two thousand poems; yet the condition in which she left them is a no less conspicuous retreat. She called on posterity to witness that she was indifferent to its approval, but she did not destroy her work. She did not even destroy the “ sweepings of the studio,” the tentative sketches at the margin of the table. Had she left fair copies, the movement would have been five steps forward and one step back; had she directed that the work be burned by others, it would have been three steps back.

I am convinced that she went even further in her wish to appear indifferent to our good opinion; she deliberately marred many a poem; she did not so much insult our intelligence as flout it. As we read the more authentic work we are astonished to find that poem after poem concludes with some lapse into banality, or begins flatly and mounts to splendor. No one would claim that she was free of lapses of judgment and of taste, but the last three words of “How Many Times These Low Feet Staggered" or the last verse of “They Put Us Far Apart" are, poetically speaking, of an almost insolent cynicism the first for flatness, the second for cacophony.

That is to say, Emily Dickinson frequently wrote badly on purpose. She did not aspire to your praise and mine, if we were the kind of persons who cannot distinguish the incidental from the essential. She had withdrawn a long way from our human, human, human, discriminations and judgments. As we have seen, she was singed, if not scorched, in early life by the all-too-human in her family relationships. Thereafter she was abandoned—"betrayed" she called it by the person (or as I prefer to see it, by the succession of persons) whom most she loved. She withdrew from us: into her house: and even in her house she withdrew —the few old friends who came to call were required to converse with her through a half-open door. She became more and more abstract in her view of people. She did not repudiate us entirely, but she increasingly cherished the thought that we would all be more estimable when we were dead. She was capable of envisaging the fact that there may be no life hereafter: “ Their Height in Heaven Comforts Not" acknowledges that the whole matter is a “house of supposition . . . that skirts the acres of perhaps.”But only such a company, unencumbered with earthly things, would understand what she was saying, and she took ample pains to discourage all others. The poem that begins “Some work for Immortality, the chiefer part for Time,”is not primarily about books sold in bookstores.


IN other words, those who dwell in “immensity” are not finicking literary critics.

It is very difficult to be certain what Emily Dickinson meant by “God, though there are innumerable references to Him. Her relation to Him is marked by alteranting advance and retreat. He is occasionally warued not to be presumptnous; that all the gifts He may have to show hereafter (the single work from which she quoles most often is the Book of Revelation) are not likely to exceed certain occasions of bliss she has known on earth. God, a supreme intelligence, was not a stable concept in her mind. On the other hand, she lived constantly close to another world she called Infinity, Immensity, Eternity, and the Absolute. For her these concepts were not merely greater in degree from the dimensions of earth: they were different in kind; they were altogether other; they were non-sense. There dwelt her audience. If you set yourself to write verses for people down here on earth, in time, you were bound to miss the tunc— the tone that is current in immensity. Immensity does not niggle at off-rhymes and at untidy verse-endings. Immensity is capable of smiling and probably enjoys those things which insult the intelligence of men. Walt Whitman wrote: “I round and finish little, if anything; and could not, consistently with my scheme....”It would be difficult to assemble five of the maturer poems of Emily Dickinson which one could place before an antagonistic reader and say that they were “finished poems.”For those two poets that word “finish" would smack strongly of poems servilely submitted for the approval of judges, princes, and connoisseurs. Art—the work of art—was slow in presenting itself as the project of a continentconscious American. Hawthorne strove for it, but Hawthorne was not caught up into the realization of the New World’s boundlessness; he even averled his face from it, and consciously. Poe’s mind knew both the boundlessness and the work of art, and the double knowledge was among the elements that destroyed him. The work of art is the recognition of order, of limits, of shared tacit assumptions and, above all, of agreed-upon conventions. Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson seemed to be at every moment advancing into new territories in relation to writing: the time for them had not come to consolidate what they had acquired, to establish their limits and to construct their conventions.

I have said before that Americans can find no support for their identity in place, in time, or in community — that they are really in relation only to Everywhere, Always, and Everybody. Emily Dickinson is a signal illustration of this assertion. The imagination of this spinster withdrawn into a few rooms in Amherst was constantly aware that the universe surrounded every detail of life. “I take no less than skies,”she wrote, “for earths grow thick as berries, in my native town.” Her tireless observation of the animals and plants about her has none ol that appropriative feeling that we found in the Concord writers; she knows well that they are living their life engaging in no tender or instruetive dialogue with man, and that their life is part of a millennial chain. She “gives them back" to the universe. In this constant recognition of the immensity of dimensions of time and place, she is the least parochial of American poets and exceeds even Walt Whitman in imaginative sweep. She could have rejoined Poe in the preoccupations that lay behind his Eureka.

And can we say of her that she wrote for Everybody? Yes; for when one has overcome the “low” desire to write for anybody in particular — the cultivated, the chosen souls, one’s closest friends; when one has graduated from all desire to impress the judicious or to appeal to the like-minded — then and only then is one released to write for Everybody—only then released from the notion that literature is a specialized activity, an elegant occupation, or a guild secret. For those who live in “immensity” it is merely (and supremely) tho human voice at its purest, and it is accessible to Everybody, not at the literary level, but at the human. It is Everybody’s fault, not hers, if Everybody is not ready to recognize it. Perhaps only when Everybody is dead will Everybody be in a condition to understand authentic human speech. “Some work for Immortality, the chiefer part for Time.” In Emily Dickinson we have reached a very high point in American abstraction. (It is characteristic of her that her thought turned often to the Alps and the Andes.) She was, as we have seen in the letters, the least confiding of women, the shut-up, the self-concealing; yet if the audience was large enough, if she was certain that Everybody would attend, her lips could unlock to floods of impassioned confession and uninhibited assertion.

The problem of the American loneliness which we discussed in relation to Thoreau is the problem of “belonging.” He was a lonely man because the elements to which he tried to belong were near and few; Emily Dickinson, in all appearance the loneliest of beings, solved the problem in a way which is of importance to every American: by loving the particular while living in the universal.