Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Emily Dickinson

This quiet dust was gentlemen and ladies
And lads and girls; Was laughter
and ability and sighing,
And frocks and curls;

This passive place a
summer's nimble mansion,
Where bloom and bees
Fulfilled their oriental circuit,
Then ceased like these.

My friend over at Open Doors reminded me that Monday was the birthday of Emily Dickinson, who entered this world on December 10th, 1830. It's hard to express how I felt the first time I encountered Emily Dickinson, at around age 13. I recall that it was really the first poetry I could appreciate and understand, the first poetry that seemed resonant with my adolescent anxieties and longings. Miss Emily also proved an unknowing catalyst to my own angst-ridden poetry - unless that impulse was her sainted spirit nudging me from the eternity over which she so often puzzled.

As a depressed, death-obsessed teen it was easy to find the appeal in so many of her works. Even her correspondence underscored a curiosity with death and the hereafter. Given her ruminations on the subject, one wonders how she regarded her imminent mortality in 1886. That, of course, we can never know.

In my 20s I set her aside, favoring the edgier voices of Allen Ginsberg and his contemporaries. Just as they railed against the excesses and inequalities of post-war America, I found kindred voices in my own attempts to escape the homogeneity of suburbia and sprawl. More recently, however, I've begun reacquainting myself with the "Belle of Amherst," and I find that in my 40s I tend to approach her with a keener understanding of the emotions from which her verses sprang. Indeed, having spent most of my previous career as a historian immersed in 19th century American culture, I recognize now - which I didn't as a teen - that Dickinson was very much a product of her age, an era in which death punctuated one's years in the way birthdays, holidays, and the seasons demarcated one's passage from month to month. And, having focused a good deal of time on women's correspondence from this period, I realize now that Emily Dickinson's "voice" echoed the feminine experience of her time, with its obvious limitations and rigid expectations.

On the surface, it might seem odd that she lived what most of us would consider a reclusive life. (And one wonders how travel to more distant locales would have affected her poetic voice.) Yet it's obvious from her letters that her intellect and introspective character allowed her to exist in a world not defined by purely physical distance. A small part of me actually longs for that isolation - with the attendant opportunity to engage in the kind of thought and self-examination that doubtless served as a muse for Miss Emily. That realization reminds me that my happiest times as a scholar were spent surrounded by books, delving into a bit of research in the way the anchorite retreats to his cell, accompanied only by his thoughts, prayers, and religious texts. Being no St. Anthony, however, I doubt I'd survive for long as an academic ascetic, connected to the broader world in the way Emily Dickinson's spirit flourished through correspondence.

So happy birthday Emily. I hope your spirit found the answers it so earnestly sought.

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