For Emily Dickinson



I have written elsewhere on Virginia Woolf’s theories about a woman writer needing a “room of one’s own” in which to write, as well as my own experiences writing and working from home. Another writer known for working, or just being, at home, is the nineteenth-century poet, Emily Dickinson. I wanted to know more about her. I had found some books about her and her poetry and put them on hold at the local library, but the library had been closed due to icy weather. Instead of waiting for the ice to melt, I used the resource available to me— the internet. First I read this article about the “10 Best Emily Dickinson Poems” from Publisher’s Weekly:

http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/tip-sheet/article/67591-the-10-best-emily-dickinson-poems.html (accessed 1.9.17)


The author of this article, Nuala O’Connor, has written a novel about Emily Dickinson, Miss Emily (2015). In this article, O’Connor notes that Dickinson is popularly known as a recluse and hermit. Many of her critics have wondered if she had epilepsy, or one of various forms of mental conditions, as they have tried to diagnose her. I wasn’t interested in pinpointing what was so-called “wrong” with Dickinson, but I was interested in what I learned about her biography from this source, as well as from the online resource, The Poetry Foundation:

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/emily-dickinson (accessed 1.9.17)


Dickinson attended the Amhurst Academy as a young girl, whose curriculum, in the nineteenth century, emphasized science and theories based on the natural world, such as Transcendentalism. This academy required full day attendance, by both its male and female students, providing them intellectual challenges, and for the females particularly, a freedom from domestic duties. Dickinson attended Amhurst Academy until she was fifteen, and then studied at the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary for a year. Critics have suggested that she did not complete the full two years of education of the Seminary on the wishes, or I should say, the demands of her father, whereas others have speculated it was because the education there duplicated the education she already had at Amherst. In my opinion, “others” may have their theories, but Dickinson herself never stated her reasons. When her schooling ended, and after the death of their mother, Dickinson served as advisor and confidant to her brother and sister, while continuing to read and write on her own time. She was greatly influenced by several of her contemporaries, such as the poet Ralph Waldo Emmerson. Scholars of Dickinson’s poetry note her shared themes with Emerson, such that their poems often have elements of transformation, specifically and perhaps metaphorically operating in systems of nature.


In my opinion, Dickinson was a rebel. She didn’t pursue marriage, as was expected of women of her time, and she also refused to commit herself to a religion, despite pressures of her family and her society—New England in the nineteenth-century—which was strongly Calvinist Christian. She may have been a “recluse,” in the sense that her strongest relationships existed within her family circle, as well as in letters, most prolifically addressed to her sister in law, Susan Gilbert. Sources state that Dickinson shared a powerful and tumultuous relationship with Gilbert, to whom Dickinson sent over 250 of her poems. There has been speculation about whether they had a sexual relationship, too, although others say it was common for nineteenth-century women to form close friendships, because of the patriarchal nature of their society.


O’Connor’s novel about Emily Dickinson, Miss Emily, likewise paints a richly detailed portrait of Dickenson as a committed writer, friend, and mentor. O’Connor foregrounds Emily’s powerful relationships with other women. Here, Susan Gilbert is Miss Emily’s dear friend, “Sue,” who marries Emily’s brother and gives birth to her niece and nephew. The novel centers, however, on Emily’s interactions with a fiction character, Ada, a young Irish woman who joins the Dickinson homestead as a servant and who becomes Emily’s comrade. In a conversation between Emily as and Sue, they characterize Ada as a “scamp” who has “a loose tongue” (p. 28). In other words, Ada’s a non-conformist. O’Connor writes in the style of her nineteenth-century subject matter, in short chapters with romantic titles that alternate between the perspectives of Emily and Ada. The two women’s symbiotic friendship challenge both of their traditional backgrounds and inspire their futures. I don’t want to give away the climax of the novel, but I will just say that Emily leaves her comfort zone to defend Ada and to release Ada from domestic servitude. O’Conner is astute and knows well what others have thought of, and written about, Emily Dickinson, but she does not bother to directly dispel all the bullshit.


Clearly, many individuals have gossiped about Dickinson, but, for me, she is a powerful figure for her nineteenth-century refusal of convention, as well as a fascinating poet. None of her poems were published during her lifetime. She did them for and kept them to herself and her loved ones. The first section of her poems was published in 1890, yet a complete volume was not released until 1955. I tried to put all the information and conjecture I had read about Dickinson to the side and view her poetry with my own eyes. I found some examples on this site: http://www.emilydickinson.org/ (accessed 1.9.17)


Three poems stood out for me, because of their notations of intense color, as well as their ability to stage a tangible scene: “A lane of Yellow led the eye,” “If I should die,” and “Wild Nights—Wild Nights.” Based on these three poems, I painted one of my characteristic, 12 x 12 in square flower portraits, in honor of Dickinson:

(Image Above)


In “a lane of Yellow led the eye,” Dickinson writes of a yellow lane, which made me think of the yellow brick road, but not the same one from the popular film, “The Wizard of Oz.” Rather, I pictured a dirt, or Autumn leaf-covered road leading into, as she terms it “a Purple Wood.” This was a pleasing image, for yellow and purple complement one another well. In Dickinson’s poem, “If I should die,” she imagines herself lying with daisies, while the world above her is alive with birds, bees, and butterflies. This poem made me again imagine the yellow of these creatures and the brightness of the sun. When I did image searches online for daisies, I found all kinds of colorful varieties, but one strand captured my attention—the African daisy, because of its sparkling purple and orange center, as well as its subtly blended yellow and pearly white petals. I also chose this design because of its exploding and almost pulsating colors and textures. I feel such sensual vibration from Dickinson’s poem “Wild Nights—Wild Night.” The title itself is suggestive, and the verse includes several exclamation marks, creating short phrases that are exuberant, and perhaps even orgasmic. This flower represents Dickinson for me, because I believe she was full of life and desire that she channeled into her passionate writing.


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© 2017 by Ann Millett-Gallant • Published by Wisdom House Books