Her homestead appeared on the left, on the genteel slope downhill from Amherst’s main street. The brick Federal Revival style house, painted a light ochre with deep mossy green shutters, stands dignified, but if it was not marked as a museum, we would have walked right past it. Standing in the bright rays of the August sun, I tried to imagine the days when Samuel Fowler Dickinson, Emily’s grandfather and a founder of Amherst College, built the house. Later, his granddaughter, who called herself a “belle of Amherst” as a teen, labored in the gardens with Irish workers. Hidden behind trees is Evergreens, the home of Emily’s older brother Austin and his wife Susan, who hosted many luminaries of their time including Ralph Waldo Emerson.
That summer, I had been working almost non-stop and semi-sequestered to finish the illumination of the Four Holy Gospels Project. In the face of the impending deadline, my family and I still chose to make our annual vacation up north, and, this year we decided to stop by the Emily Dickinson Homestead. It was, most likely, the last trip we would take before our children headed off to college. With images of illuminations dancing about in my mind, I convinced my teens that Emily Dickinson is worth learning more about, whose writings, I reasoned, seem to me as much illuminations as poetry.
Inside the “museum”, which is really a home turned into an archive of Emily Dickinson’s life, we were invited to take a tour. Our guide Ms. Hawthorne (she was, in fact, distantly related to Nathaniel) started by reciting one of Emily Dickinson’s poems. My two teens later told me that they rolled their eyes when she started, but by the end they found themselves intrigued. Ms. Hawthorne rather skillfully guided us through the house, telling many stories and reciting more poems. She also provided a look into the very spare, small, upstairs bedroom of Emily Dickinson, where her tiny square desk - only seventeen and a half inches across - still sat.
Emily Dickinson, a diminutive “chestnut haired” girl with amber eyes the color of “Sherry in the Glass,” stands quite unique in literary history. While in her lifetime she was often compared to both a porcupine and a ghost, she has since fascinated many as the “reclusive” poet of Amherst and her poems have engendered thousands of academic papers and a remarkable array of books from scholarly to botanical. And yet, when she died in 1886 at the age of 55, she was not known as a poet, but as a gardener, and a baker. Her lineage was well known; a granddaughter of Samuel Fowler Dickinson, and the daughter of Edward Dickinson, a successful lawyer, the Amherst College Treasurer and a one-term member of the House of Representatives. People remembered her for the flowers and baked goods that she sent to ill friends with a poem, though it seems her flowers and her gingerbread were more appreciated, and her poems only a curiousity piece - a reminder of her “strangeness”
She started out with a minority of female students allowed to attend Amherst Academy (which became Amherst College) and later Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (now Mount Holyoke College.) At Amherst Academy she studied “mental philosophy, Geology, Latin and Botany”, was introduced Darwinian concepts, and wrestled with her faith. Mary Lyons, the founder of Mount Holyoke Seminary, regularly divided her students into three categories: 1) Committed followers of Christ (“Christians”), 2) Seeking to become a Christian (“Hopers”), and 3) Those without hope (“No-Hopers”). Lyons placed Emily in the third category. Despite the waves of revivalism sweeping Amherst, in which Dickinson’s family members and friends found conversion, she refused to participate. Emily wrote to her friend Jane Humphrey:
Christ is calling everyone here, all my companions have answered, even my darling Vinnie believes she loves, and trusts him, and I am standing alone in rebellion.
That “rebellion” may have been awakened early, by the sudden death of Emily’s thirteen year old friend Sophia Holland; an event that affected her so deeply that she fell ill and had to take time off from school. She was then an exceptionally private but articulate young girl, whose early childhood letters demonstrate her enthusiasm for learning and writing through witty and verbose, run-on sentences. Reading her life’s letters is an ongoing encounter with death and one sees her run-on sentences replaced by many dashes. Each death drew Emily Dickinson toward deep, lifelong lament and isolation. Although each death encountered could have been an opportunity to exercise the Puritan teaching of seeking the eternal, Dickinson felt each loss so keenly that she began instead to deeply question God’s goodness. As she matured in her rejection of Calvinistic theology, her satirical language would only sharpen.
Emily Dickinson traveled fairly often as a young girl, but later in her life, she rarely left her home. She was never a “recluse,” however. It is more likely that she suffered from some type of illness, likely a mild form of epilepsy. She eventually exiled herself from marriage and social functions, choosing instead to live on the margins and, later in her life, care for her ill mother, Emily Norcross Dickinson. When her father died suddenly before her mother, an event of severe consequence to her psyche, she could not bear to attend the funeral and never, as far as the records show, even visited the grave site.
Unbeknownst to even her family, Emily Dickinson composed over 1800 poems over the span of six years - often late at night or during the early morning hours - on her small cherry wood desk. This generative period fell between 1858 and 1864, a time during which the Civil War escalated and her father, a Congressman and then later as a Governor’s Council, involved himself in the Union cause. Emily physically amassed her writings, creating what is now called her “fascicles,” by binding them by hand into bundles of poems. She then placed them in a small chest beneath her bed, where, after her death, they were discovered by her sister Lavinia. There were no notes attached and she left no instructions.
Emily Dickinson was, by all accounts, a first-rate gardener. She could even be called a botanist - an interest prompted by her studies at Amherst Academy and further developed through the cultivation of her garden. Hearing of the extraordinary biodiversity within the Dickinsons’ garden, even Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape designer of Central Park, paid a visit to the homestead (although the garden he heard of was the Evergreens - Emily’s brother’s next door property - so it’s unlikely Olmsted ever knew of Emily Dickinson’s labor). Wanting to encourage her botanical interests, perhaps more than her interest in poems, Emily’s father created a conservatory, or what Emily called “the garden off the dining room” (L 279).
A good gardener knows that a good bulb, properly planted, will eventually break ground, and appear to the world when the time is ripe. Emily Dickinson “buried” her poems beneath her body as she lay dying. They were planted beneath her as both a depository of her future grace and as her “letters to the world.” Given now that the soil of culture is stained with bloodshed, atrocities and de-humanization, it seems that her good bulbs were not only resilient, but tenaciously made for such a time as ours, waiting to blossom in our wretched days.
Even then as the Second Great Awakening spread to Amherst and beyond, and as the country saw the dark specters of bloodshed of the Civil War approach, Dickinson only became more prolific in her letter and poem writing. Perhaps her writing began in rebellion and avowed independence, but surely they did not end there. She was a generous, refractive poet who took her deep wrestling of doubt and faith, of death and gardens, into a deep, theological realm, stitching them together in acute but lyrical expressions with formidable intensity. Her liquid, nimble words spread scent of mystery into our fear-stricken days. Her incandescent words are a needed gift to us, given by a thoughtful, but private, neighbor of botanical renown, taking root deeply in our “Ground Zero” ashes.
In 1879, she wrote a poem called The Humming-bird:
A route of evanescence With a revolving wheel; A resonance of emerald, A rush of cochineal; And every blossom on the bush Adjusts its tumbled head, - The mail from Tunis, probably, An easy morning’s ride.*
This playful poem is an illumination. The mention of emerald and cochineal burgundy dye extracted from a little Indian beetle, a dye that I use in my work, only reinforces the pictorial quality of her poems. Her mention of Tunis, a North African city, connotes exotic adventure within a place where splendors of the past are hidden and revealed. Because she spent her life in Amherst, Tunis serves more as a mental than physical location. Her references to foreign cities are comparable to van Gogh’s perceptions of “Japan”—a foreign place of paradise inaccessible to the artist. The “route of evanescence” of a hummingbird lends such exotic splendor to a mail carrier’s ordinary “morning ride.” This is a good example of how the very structure of Dickinson’s writings seem to visually echo what she saw and observed in nature— the iambic rhythm of these verses, the slant rhymes (wheel/cochineal, head/ride) alternating between verses, and the alliterations (resonance/rush, tumbled/Tunis) weaving in and out of her poems, just like a hummingbird seeking nectar.
The slant rhymes and alliterations are delicately layered, acting as visual devises because they are not full rhymes. We are forced to examine the words visually and see the echos rather than settle on sounds perfectly rhymed. The reader can sense the poet’s childlike, playful exuberance she feels when she sees the tiny dash of a bird and its many sudden pauses. The fantastical allusion of “mail from Tunis” suggests a sense of anticipation, as if the bird is a letter from an unexpected source, even from a foreign country. Emily herself is the “blossom of the bush”, “[adjusting] its tumbled head” in anticipation. The poem is a painting, with many layers and colors of overlapping sounds, images, and meaning.
Emily Dickinson acutely observed a singular, momentary event, only seconds long, and she expanded the glimpse of that micro experience into a vast adventure. This is the nature of the poetic gift—the poet takes a quick glance, a moment most of us would not even see, and expands it to a cosmic level of significance. Dickinson’s ability to see the divine in nature is reminiscent of St. Francis. There is a certain Eucharistic reality to her words, or at least a longing toward that transport of the spirit into matter, a humble but profound mystery. Thus, it is not surprising that she might focus, or obsess, over a verse of scripture such as “consider the lilies” and consistently let that verse anchor her life and poems.
The first chapter of this series of Refractions online will focus on Emily Dickinson’s reading of Matthew six, in which Jesus addresses “consider the lilies.”
William Blake, a poet and engraver who lived a half century before Dickinson, wrote:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wildflower Hold Infinity in the Palm of your hand And Eternity in an Hour
Emily Dickinson saw “a Heaven in a Wildflower,” and seemed even from childhood to have the capacity to “hold infinity in the palm of [her] hand.” Her writings provoke in us an attentiveness, even obsessiveness, to the “minute particulars” of Reality. But then, as we pursue her words, we are drawn into a deeper mystery, a labyrinth beneath the particularity of her creation.
If her poems are illuminations, then the deeper question one can ask is, “What was she illumining.” Was it the Bible? My answer is “Yes - No - Yes.” Emily Dickinson did not exhibit a conventional faith that would count her as a follower of Jesus. Yet every poem, either directly or indirectly, whether by affirming or denying, alludes to her identity as a daughter of Calvinist Amherst. Her liquid faith took her to a liminal arena, an in-between space between faith and doubt, art and science, poetry and life. For such a liminal journey, the most significant symbol is the dash - ; the dash between words, in this case, between “yes,” “no” and at the end of her life a definitive “Yes.” Dashes became Dickinson’s most idiosyncratic poetic device as she matured as a poet. Even the letters she wrote at the end of her life are full of these interruptions and connectors. Just like the humming-bird that weaved in and out of her gardens, following her dashes into the unknown, let us move into the liminal edge of the indelible, illumined words of Emily Dickinson.
*from Thomas H. Johnson’s Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson
Thank you to Dr. Roger Lundin, the author of Emily Dickinson: the Art of Belief for serving as an invaluable advisor to this series of essays