A Loaded Gun Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century

Commentaries on her poems began 125 years ago, when Colonel Higginson’s little article, “An Open Portfolio,” appeared in The Christian Union on September 25, 1890, two months before Dickinson’s first batch of poems was published by Roberts Brothers of Boston. It was meant to give readers a pre-taste of the poems. Perhaps Higginson was a nervous impresario and worried that his name was attached to a book that might be mocked, and that he himself might be ridiculed as the presenter of Emily Dickinson.

Emerson, he said, had once talked about “The Poetry of the Portfolio,” the work of poets who never sought public acclaim, but “wrote for the relief of their own minds.” Higginson damned and blessed such primitive scratchings—“there will be wonderful strokes and felicities, and yet an incomplete and unsatisfactory whole.” And thus he presented his own “pupil,” whom he had reluctantly rescued from oblivion. “Such a sheaf of unpublished verses lies before me, the life-work of a woman so secluded that she lived literally indoors by choice for many years, and within the limits of her father’s estate for many more—who shrank from the tranquil society of a New England College town.” And yet he was startled by what she was able to dredge up from “this secluded inland life.” And he presented a few of his pupil’s poems, regularizing them as much as he could. The ellipsis was gone; so was every single dash.

Yet he was also a shrewd observer. “Her verses are in most cases like poetry plucked up by the roots; we have them with earth, stones, and dew adhering, and must accept them as they are. Wayward and unconventional in the last degree; defiant of form, measure, rhyme, and even grammar; she yet had an exacting standard of her own, and would wait many days for a word that satisfied.” He saw her wildness, and didn’t really know how to deal with it.

He must have assumed that these “wayward” poems would be buried overnight. But “An Open Portfolio” had helped create the legend of the recluse in her inland village who could weave her verses “out of the heart’s own atoms.” Higginson’s article succeeded in ways he couldn’t have imagined—the book went through printing after printing and sold eleven thousand copies. The village poet had come right out of the cupboard.

In October 1891, in the thick of all this flurry of sales, Higginson received a letter from a wealthy banker-writer, Samuel G. Ward, who revealed this wild poet to her coeditor.
My Dear Mr. Higginson, I am, with all the world, intensely interested in Emily Dickinson. No wonder six editions have been sold, every copy I should think to a New Englander. She may become world famous, or she may never get out of New England. She is the quintessence of that element we all have who are of Puritan descent pur sang. We came to this country to think our own thoughts with nobody to hinder. . . . We conversed with our own souls till we lost the art of communicating with other people. The typical family grew up strangers to each other, as in this case. It was awfully high, but awfully lonesome. Such prodigies of shyness do not exist elsewhere.
Ward goes on to describe Dickinson’s poetry in perfect pitch. “She was the articulate inarticulate,” that lone voice out of the Puritan wilderness. And we haven’t gotten much closer to Dickinson’s puzzling rhymes, even after more than a century of criticism. We’ve put back into order the little bound booklets—fascicles—that Mabel Loomis Todd ripped apart. We’ve studied the shifts in her handwriting. We have her secret stash of poems and whatever letters we could find— Jay Leyda, a man almost as cryptic as Dickinson herself, believed that we may have uncovered only a minuscule portion of her letters—as little as one tenth. And her letters are every bit as bewildering as the poems, perhaps even more so, because they pretend to give us a clearer picture of the poet. We soon come to realize that’s she’s wearing an assortment of masks—sometimes she’s Cleopatra and an insignificant mouse in the same letter.

It wasn’t always like that; in her earliest letters, she’s chatty and reliable; the voice is never disembodied, never drifts. She’s like a female Mark Twain, a teller of tall tales. Here’s Emily at eleven and a half, writing to her brother Austin:
—the other day Francis brought your Rooster home and the other 2 went to fighting him while I was gone to School—mother happened to look out of the window and she saw him laying on the ground—he was most dead—but she and Aunt Elizabeth went right out and took him up and put him in a Coop and he is nearly well now—while he is shut up the other Roosters—will come around and insult him in Every possible way by Crowing right in his Ears—and then they will jump up on the Coop and Crow there as if they—wanted to show that he was Completely in their power and they could treat him as they chose—Aunt Elizabeth said she wished their throats would split and then they could insult him no longer— [Letter 2, May 1, 1842]
With a bit more vernacular, Huck Finn could be talking here. And at fourteen, she writes to her friend Abiah Root: “I am growing handsome very fast indeed! I expect I shall be the belle of Amherst when I reach my 17th year.” [Letter 6, May 7, 1845]

But something happens to that chatty exuberance by the time she’s in her twenties. The letters grow shorter and shorter, have much more violent shifts. And when she first writes Higginson in 1862, seducing him with her poems, compelling him with her leaps, she’s like a huntress with poison arrows.

“I had a terror—since September—I could tell to none—and so I sing, as the Boy does by the Burying Ground—” [Letter 261, April 25, 1862]

Higginson didn’t have a chance. And neither do we. But it’s hard to grasp how and where that sudden mastery arose. It had to come from more than craft. It’s as if she had a storm inside her head, an illumination, like a wizard or a mathematical genius. Dickinson was reinventing the language of poetry, not by examining poets of the past, but by cannibalizing the words in her Lexicon. Jay Leyda was the only one who understood this. In his introduction to The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson (1960), he talked about the “omitted center” in her letters and poems—all the tiny ribs of language that were left out. But Leyda was much more optimistic than I am about where those ribs came from. She told riddles: “the deliberate skirting of the obvious— this was the means she used to increase the privacy of her communication; it has also increased our problems in piercing that privacy.” Leyda assumes she always had a reader in mind, that all the missing keys depended upon a specific audience, and that Sue or Austin would know what that “omitted center” was about. Hence he gives us the minutia surrounding Dickinson’s life. And The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson is a monumental book that reads like a musical composition or collage, filled with every sort of scrap. That sentimental legend of a lovelorn Emily “isolates her—and thus much of her poetry—from the real world. It shows her unaware of community and nation, never seeing anyone, never wearing any color but white, never doing any housework beyond baking batches of cookies for secret delivery to favorite children, and meditating majestically among her flowers.”

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