Enigmatic Recluse or Sheltered Genius? A Tribute to Emily Dickinson
By Sultana Raza | On May 14, 2022 | Updated May 30, 2022 | Comments (0)
While scrolling through social media, it’s not usual for me to stop because a word or words grab my attention, but sometimes I simply had to go back and read the lines that had caught my eye. More often than not, it turned out to be one of Emily Dickinson’s poems.
They’re light in the sense that she tended to use simple, everyday words, often sparingly. Yet, vivid images spring out from them to capture one’s imagination. Or her deep concepts compressed into a few lines oblige one to delve deeper into her poems.
Her verses aren’t pretentious, though she was as well-read as any man of her era. Yet, it seems she didn’t choose grandiose words to impress anyone, especially as most of her poems went unpublished during her lifetime.
. . . . . . . . .
Paddling for meanings were critics’ boats.
Hero, or champion, for rebels, and misfits?
Decriers? Supporters? There were wide rifts.
Her words used in world in countless quotes.
Water-shed poet, was worthy; of note.
She died thinking was wasted rare gift.
Yet, on gold spirals her name’s been writ.
A thousand critiques her verse set afloat.
Does mystical sub-text peers from beneath?
With the widest palette, so finely she drew.
Colours abound in wisdom’s white sheath.
Fresh breezes, soft chills, a green so blue,
Broad issues, sweeping scenes, minute details,
For centuries they’ll uncover more veils.
(by Sultana Raza, inspired by Emily Dickinson)
. . . . . . . . .
More about Emily Dickinson
. . . . . . . . .
Discovering Emily Dickinson
My path crossed with Emily Dickinson’s verse when I was a teenager growing up in India, and I must confess that I wasn’t exactly taken in by her words. Perhaps because at that time we had to read her poems related to death and mortality at school, which aren’t the main pre-occupations of most teenagers.
Somehow, an image of an aging lady with one foot in the grave formed in my mind. One of my mentors tried to get me into her poems, but at that time I couldn’t understand why she used to admire Dickinson’s lines so much. On the other hand, I could understand Sylvia Plath’s works with frightening ease. Her words talked to me much more than those of Dickinson.
While I still appreciate Plath’s poems, my admiration for Dickinson has grown by leaps and bounds. It would be impossible to outline all the facets of her poems, since they’re so varied and deep at the same time. It’s amazing how much she could write about the vast canvas of life and beyond with so few words, while ensconced in her room.
Perhaps it’s ironic that someone so reclusive, who had traveled very little beyond her own State of Massachusetts could know so much about the evolution of humanity. Possibly, some writers and artists need to be outsiders to be able to observe all the layers of society critically from afar.
Are all women social animals?
Although plenty of authors or poets loved to be in the thick of things, even in the limelight, which helped to build their reputation. In stark contrast to Emily Dickinson, Colette (1873 –1954) preferred being on stage to scratching with her pen on an obstinate sheet of paper in an isolated room.
For another example, Edith Wharton (1862 – 1937) came into the world about thirty-two years after Emily and was able to distill her experiences of socializing in the upper-class circles of New York and travels in Europe in her insightful novels. However, Wharton wasn’t exactly a typical socialite. Both Wharton and Dickinson used to write in their bedrooms, except that the former wrote while sitting in bed in the morning. She used to drop her finished sheets of paper to the floor, which an employee would pick up and assemble later on.
Jane Austen (1775 – 1817) didn’t mingle all that much in society, especially when she was obliged to reside in Bath with her family. Though her keen wit and pithy observations were present from an early age, possibly she didn’t find inane rounds of socializing to be quite as interesting as it was for most young girls, unless they provided fodder for her novels.
The Brontë sisters led an even more secluded life at Haworth than Jane Austen, except for their forays in Brussels and in other households in England to work as governesses. Their novels focus on a slice of society different from that in Austen’s novels. At the same time, their works are often praised for their intensity.
Apparently, Emily Dickinson was interested in Charlotte Brontë’s (1816 – 1855) biography, according to biographer Alfred Habegger. It seems to denote that Emily was aware of, or sensible to the role a female writer could play in society.
She could have published using a male pseudonym, as was the case of the Brontë sisters who initially published under the names of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Or she could have followed the example of George Eliot (1819 – 1880), or the French writer George Sand (1804 –1876).
Why she chose to publish so little during her lifetime is one of the enduring mysteries surrounding Emily Dickinson. Only about ten or eleven poems managed to trickle onto the pages of newspapers while she was still wielding her plume. Unlike her, another genius, John Keats, died regretting that his works would never become well known.
Though Keats didn’t formulate the phrase inscribed on his grave, “Here lies One Whose Name was writ on Water,” it encapsulates his thoughts to a certain degree. Both Keats and Emily Dickinson found nature to be a great source of inspiration and penned numerous poems exploring it mysteries.
Through a bird’s eye
Curiously enough, Dickinson’s poem, “A Bird, came down the Walk –” is reminiscent of Keats’s letter #XXII, to Benjamin Bailey. written on November 22, 1817, where he wrote: “I scarcely remember counting upon any Happiness—I look not for it if it be not in the present hour, — nothing startles me beyond the moment. The Setting Sun will always set me to rights, or if a Sparrow come before my Window, I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel.”
Dickinson seems to be seeing the world through the existence of a bird in her poem as well:
A Bird, came down the Walk –
He did not know I saw –
He bit an Angle Worm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw,
And then, he drank a Dew
From a convenient Grass –
And then hopped sidewise to the Wall
To let a Beetle pass –
He glanced with rapid eyes,
That hurried all abroad –
They looked like frightened Beads, I thought,
He stirred his Velvet Head. –
Like one in danger, Cautious,
I offered him a Crumb,
And he unrolled his feathers,
And rowed him softer Home –
Than Oars divide the Ocean,
Too silver for a seam,
Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon,
Leap, plashless as they swim.
Both of these poets seem to become part of another sentient being, the better to live in its reality or experience existence through its mind, or lens. This merging of the self with an organic entity of nature is part of a mystical phenomena. It also represents a cutting off from human reality, an escape from the humdrum business of daily routines, or a foray into another dimension.
Dickinson may have locked herself in her room towards the end of her life, but the entire world was spilling out from her quill onto her pages. Keats did not travel to Italy or Greece when he was still composing poetry, but his explorations of antiquity through his surreal forays into dreamscapes could lead the readers to believe he knew of these places firsthand.
Dickinson may have had a limited social circle, yet her poems appeal to all sorts of people. Both these poets died thinking their work would be read by a limited number of people, yet their work grew deep roots and flourished all over the world. While Keats was quite ambitious, it’s not known how Dickinson intended for her poems to be treated after her demise.
It seems that Dickinson was writing as a way of self-expression. It’s rare for a writer of such skill to practice their craft without keeping an eye on potential readers. Many writers tend to scribble away for fame, riches, or glory.
After Oscar Wilde was exiled to France, he couldn’t come to terms with his notoriety and relative obscurity since he had enjoyed the limelight for many years in England and America. His literary output dwindled and his greatest works are those created while he was hobnobbing with well-known names in London. His most famous (though unverified) quote is “I have nothing to declare but my genius,” when questioned by a customs officer in New York in 1882.
In stark contrast, Emily Dickinson kept her genius hidden even from her own family for her entire life. It’s a pity that she didn’t feel that her immediate social circle would be receptive enough to share her oeuvres with them. But since she didn’t have any pressure from her peers, critics, or even friends, she was free to explore and experiment.
Though she may not have experimented consciously, she wrote what came naturally to her. Keats said in his letter (XXXIX) to John Taylor written on 27 February 1818, “Another axiom — That if poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all,” yet he revised his poems many times before sending them to friends or publishers.
It seems that Dickinson didn’t do a lot of revisions to her poems. Perhaps the sheer, staggering number of them— about 1800 — wouldn’t have allowed for extensive revisions. She composed about 800 poems in her most productive period from 1861 to 1865.
There’s a natural flow in her poems, punctuated by long dashes, giving the impression that they were written impulsively, or unrestrainedly, as opposed to deliberate crafting, which could have resulted in an interruption of that flow.
Her output can be seen as “pure,” since her motivations don’t seem to be affected by recognition from her peers, critics, the public, or monetary gain. She didn’t need to please anyone, nor was she afraid of any critical reception. In that sense, her poems can be seen as a rare expression of the authentic self.
Dickinson possessed a self that seemed to be detached from worldly concerns, while still living with her family in a civilized (and religious) town with intellectual leanings. However, she must have had some inkling of her own genius.
Her seclusion can also be interpreted in symbolic terms: she was conscious of the fact that she was different from the others. Her visions and mystical journeys set her apart, as did her acute observations about humanity, nature, and mortality. Some of her poems seem to be forays and explorations of her unconscious self, and inquiries into the mysteries of the universe.
The ties that bind
According to biographer Alfred Habegger, since her father discouraged women from expressing themselves in public, that may have curbed any impulse to publish, or at least share, her poems. However, even after he passed away in 1874, she still didn’t take any initiative to see them in print.
It’s ironic that her father and brother are now known in the world because they were her relatives, and not the other way around, though at that time, the men in the family were supposed to be the most important. Often, childless women were supposed to take care of their elderly parents, and even now, unless an artist/writer can make a living from their work, it’s not taken seriously by those around them.
It’s a pity that attitudes haven’t changed all that much. Few women are lucky to be supported by others at the beginning of their creative journey.
. . . . . . . . .
10 Well-Loved Poems by Emily Dickinson
. . . . . . . . .
Emily and Hilma
Could it be that Dickinson didn’t think the world was ready to receive her poems? This is reminiscent of the steps taken by Swedish artist Hilma Af Klint (1862 – 1944), who packed away her paintings because she believed that the Swedish society of her time wasn’t ready for her works.
Both Dickinson and Klint portray mystical ideas in their works, albeit in different mediums and ways. Klint was one of the first artists in the Western world to depict abstract, often geometrical forms as a way to channel spiritual concepts gleaned from her association with the Theosophical Society (a spiritual movement inspired by Eastern philosophy).
Though Dickinson grew distant from organized religion, however, her deeply spiritual and mystical side comes across in numerous poems, such as “You’ll know it — as you know ’tis Noon —,” or “One Blessing had I than the rest,” “As Watchers hang upon the East,” “A Tongue — to tell Him I am true!”
In her vast body of works, some of her verses seem to express Sufi ideas in the sense that the poem or the lyrics can be interpreted on at least two levels. For example, in “Fitter to see Him, I may be,” the poet could be referring to another mortal. At a deeper level, the person referred to could be the Creator of the universe. “I’ve nothing else — to bring, You know —” and “I think to Live — may be a Bliss” could be about the Creator as well.
Her Master poems, such as “The Master / He fumbles at your spirit” can be interpreted via the Sufi philosophy of expressing love for the Creator through romantic, mystical poetry. Rumi, Hafez, Sa’adi, Kabir, or Hazrat Inayat Khan are some well-known Sufi poets. A comparison of famous Sufi poems with those Dickinson’s verses would be an onerous research project yet would yield delightful and fruitful results.
While Rumi and Omar Khayyam are the best-known Sufi poets in the West, Sufi poetry has been written in many languages, including Persian, Arabic, Turkish, Urdu, and Punjabi. Its appeal is universal. The fact that Dickinson’s works can be compared to so many schools of thought is a testimony to the pervasiveness of her ideas across cultures.
A vast universe waiting to be explored
While Dickinson collected some of her poems into small hand-sewn books she called fascicles, the poems written later in life did not get this special treatment. Fortunately, she didn’t destroy her compositions; she simply left them hidden in her room.
That seemed to say that she’d given these poems to the world — now, what was the world going to do with them? Though it took a while for critical reception to warm up to her unconventional style, critics in the 1920s finally caught up with her avant-garde, experimental structures.
No matter how many research papers or books are published about Dickinson’s work, there’s still a vast universe waiting to be explored in her hand-sewn fascicles. More gems are waiting to surface, as readers are still grappling with her enormous output. For example, if a researcher started following her treatment, concept, and vision of birds which evolved in her poems, they would need to cover a lot of ground.
The pages on which Dickinson wrote could be compared to feathers that allowed her to fly. She painted each sheet with extraordinary ideas and images; examining each one in detail would require many lifetimes. Her work invites as wide a readership as possible, as it lends itself to multiple interpretations. No wonder she’s soared above so many poets, not only from her lifetime, but also ours.
Hilma Af Klint passed away in 1944, leaving instructions that the boxes containing her paintings should be opened twenty years after her death. It turned out she’d been a prolific painter and had left nearly 1,200 paintings as her legacy to an unappreciative world. It took another twenty years before her paintings gained some traction with an international audience.
Both Emily Dickinson and Hilma Af Klint were hugely productive, yet had to be secretive about their respective oeuvres for various reasons. Their works had mystical overtones, and both turned out to be ahead of their times.
While they can teach us innumerable concepts, perhaps one thing we can learn from them is to indulge in creative expression regardless of the circumstances, or the potential reception of the work. What would the world have been like if Emily had lived for many more fruitful years, rather than passing away at age fifty-five?
Contributed by Sultana Raza: Of Indian origin, Sultana Raza’s creative non-fiction has appeared in countercurrents.org, Litro, Gnarled Oak, Kashmir Times, and A Beautiful Space. Her 100+ articles (on art, theatre, film, and humanitarian issues) have appeared in English and French. An independent scholar, Sultana Raza has presented many papers related to Romanticism (Keats) and Fantasy (Tolkien & GRR Martin) in international conferences.
Her poems have appeared in numerous journals, including Columbia Journal, The New Verse News, London Grip, Classical Poetry Society, spillwords, Poetry24, Dissident Voice, and The Peacock Journal. Her fiction has received an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train Review (USA), and has been published in Coldnoon Journal, Szirine, apertura, Entropy, and ensemble (in French). She has read her fiction/poems in India, Switzerland, France, Luxembourg, England, Ireland, the U.S.
Essays on John Keats by Sultana Raza:
- Keatsian Mosaics 1817 – 2017. Introduction, Parts 1 and 2