Sunday, December 26, 2010

Emily Dickinson: Radically complex and cryptic

Emily Dickinson's house
Phil and I visited Emily Dickinson's home in Amherst, Massachusetts, on December 11. I had missed the New York Botanical Garden's exhibition Emily Dickinson:  The Poetry of Flowers, but I think I probably experienced more of the real Emily--the person Holland Cotter refers to in his New York Times review as a "radically complex, sometimes cryptic writer and a troubled and troubling thinker as familiar with despair as with exhilaration, who found in nature reminders of death as much as of life"--by visiting her house, standing in her bedroom (a poignant, deeply moving moment), and walking the small landscape where she chose to live her increasingly reclusive life.

Emily lived most of her life here in the house she and her family knew as the Homestead.

Her bedroom is in the upper left, and from it, she had a view of the small woods and path toward her brother's house. This small landscape and path was most of Emily's world. She sometimes would take her niece Maggie to her room, lock the door, and say to her, "This is freedom." National Public Radio has a very informative web page and podcast by Lynn Neary, which I recommend you visit for a perceptive view into Emily's world.

The woodland path between Emily's home and her brother's more stylish Italianate villa.

Emily's brother Austin was a prominent member of Amherst society, so his house was a center of social and intellectual life during that time. Emily was a frequent visitor there, and it was a center of her limited social life. Some of Emily's garden was probably in this area--we know the path was there during her lifetime--though there is also ample space for gardening around and behind the house, as well as a large lawn to the opposite side.

The large lawn on the opposite side of the Homestead
 Much is unknown about Emily's motivations and her life. You can find the answers to some questions here.

Austin's house
Almost none of Emily's poetry was published in her lifetime, though there is ample evidence she viewed it with great seriousness, and at times reached out for encouragement from others who's opinion she valued.

This is a disturbing and haunting story, and I've carried a picture of Emily's austere bedroom in my mind's eye since that visit. One of her poems:

I heard a fly buzz when I died;
The stillness round my form
Was like the stillness in the air
Between the heaves of storm.

The eyes beside had wrung them dry,
And breaths were gathering sure
For that last onset, when the king
Be witnessed in his power.

I willed my keepsakes, signed away
What portion of me I
Could make assignable,-and then
There interposed a fly,

With blue, uncertain, stumbling buzz,
Between the light and me;
And then the windows failed, and then
I could not see to see.


  1. Thank you for sharing. I studied Emily Dickinson briefly when I was studying for my English Literature degree so it is fascinating to see pictures of her home.

    Hope you had a good Christmas and best wishes for 2011

  2. Emily appeals to me in my black moods.

    Happy new year to you too. I'll think of this as the vita nuova, and banish those black thoughts.

  3. Nice post, James...Dickinson has always been one of my favorite authors...I always felt a sort of kinship with her in my lonelier years, and these pics show pretty much exactly the kind of place I imagined she lived in. I can practically see her wandering through there, poor dear.

  4. Scott, I imagine we all identify with Emily. Her universality must have a lot to do with her recognition as one of our great poets. Her life may seem sad in some ways, but I also imagine she experienced her share of happiness--on her own terms. She had a rather modern sensibility in Victorian times, and that accounts, to me, for much of the irony and power of her poetry. I wonder if she expressed that sensibility in her gardening.

  5. James I've been a reader of Emily Dickinson since I was at school. I'm glad you've put this piece in your blog, in part because we're getting an idea of a landscape that was integral to her. I've always liked her combination of fortitude and frailty, and her spiritual perception puts her words onto another level.
    All the best for the new year! Faisal.

  6. Faisal -
    Thanks for your good wishes. May you have a good 2001, and move forward on the garden at Saint Andrew's Bower. I think I agree with you. Emily must have been strong to live the way she chose in a time when most women were relegated to the domestic world. She remained very much behind the scenes, but with a power we can only see across many decades. The layers of meaning and irony in that little poem (A fly buzzed when I died) are extraordinary.

  7. I received this comment from Marcy, but had to delete her comment because her name links to a phishing site:

    I appreciate all your comments here and I'm glad to see people are still reading and enjoying her poetry but I would encourage you to read through all her letters, too, so you can see that she wasn't someone who wallowed in loneliness and despair. She really wasn't lonely, she chose to live her life as she did and surrounded herself with people she trusted. She loved her family and had some close friends who meant the world to her. Emily's writing about death and sadness is prevalent because Victorian life often meant one was prone to losing friends and loved ones, but she also found great joy in her world. What we love about her, I think, is that she gives voice to what we have trouble expressing ourselves. Do visit the letters, chronologically, and let yourself be transported into her life more than the poems allow. :)

  8. Such thoughtful words and I wonder, James, how she gardened as well.

    I read that it was just around the same time she lost her beloved dog that she became more reclusive. I wonder if the two are connected. Those of us who love our best friends know how earth-shattering it is when they leave.

    I hope you've had a wonderful holiday and that 2011 is happy and peaceful. Cheers!

  9. Thanks for the good wishes. I think it's time for me to read her letters, as Marcy suggested, or a biography. The best to you in the new year.

  10. James, you've ead The Gardens of Emily Dickinson by Judith Farr, right? It might interest you. She is right--closign the door is freedom. I feel it every time I set down for a mornign of writing, which isn't often these days.

  11. Benjamin,
    You should publish a reading list for gardeners. No, I haven't read it. Thanks for the suggestion.

  12. James, I came across this post on Emily via Facebook a few days ago, and then I viewed some of your awesome garden photos, and wanted to let you know that you inspired a Dickinsonesque poem out of me! I blogged it today, and just wanted to thank you. You never know what or who will become an inspiration!

  13. Thanks. It feels good to be told something I did prompted someone else to write a poem. It's an intriguing speculation on time (your poem, that is).

  14. I have neglected my reader lately...and the blogs in it. I found your post to be as enigmatic as Emily herself and because of that you have made me want to go and see this for myself. Thank you James.

  15. It would be interesting to see it on a warm summer day. We were there on a rather somber day, which I think may have changed the emotional quality of the visit.

  16. I like the design of Emily's Dickinson's home. I have never seen it except on the internet.

    The house seems well built - well built architecture will always "stand the test of time".

    1. It looks much larger than it is. But Emily's room is the special place in the house. Just imagine her living there in that austere, simple place with sunlight streaming through the corner windows. (Though in the Victorian age, there may well have been heavy draperies on the windows.) Her small writing desk was a delicate thing. It would have had to be used with much attention and care.



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