(c) Copyright 2013, Margaret Langstaff, All Rights Reserved.
For all the critical and popular acclaim she receives today, the poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) passed her life in the obscure rounds of a reclusive spinster in her father’s home in Amherst, Mass. And for all her early intellectual promise, native talent and the fine education she received, she was dismissed as a nervous eccentric by the literati of her day and died an unpublished author.
Yet today no American student escapes grade school without a classroom encounter with a handful of her poems, and since her death and the discovery of her hidden cache of the thousand plus poems she had written during her lifetime by her sister Vinny, several publishing fortunes and countless academic careers have been built upon her corpus. Each new year sees hundreds of new academic articles and books published on Dickinson and her achievement, and thousands of copies of her Complete Poems are sold like clockwork. Greeting card companies use her verses with abandon and her very life story has become mythic and has been transmuted through the lens of many years’ distance into “the solitary misunderstood poet” or “the Mystic of Amherst.” Tourists swarm to the family home in Amherst to visit her sparse bedroom and to gawk at the tiny spectral white dress she wore exclusively after her moment of “white renunciation” from a world all too happy to ignore her and her poems while she lived. A stern legion of passionate women in sensible shoes patrols the grounds like a sorority wholly devoted to preserving the sanctity and purity of the temple of her genius.
Truly, from this vantage point in the twenty-first century, her life seems one long ironical yarn, a stem-winder of frustration, thwarted hopes, insult, loneliness and hopeless misunderstanding and mistreatment by her contemporaries and peers. Her story is supremely poignant, in fact painful to contemplate at some junctures, and yet shines with the light of transcendence and triumph ultimately. For her bequest to readers whom she would never know has born such bounteous fruit and people the world over of all stripes know and appreciate her distinctive pithy and insightful lyrics while the work of her more popular contemporaries, poets and novelists much in vogue during her lifetime, has been long forgotten.
Certainly nothing is more bitter-sweet than contemplating the earliest surviving poem we have from Dickinson, one written when she was but a girl of nineteen, still in school, and with reference to a gaggle of her girlfriend-schoolmates. Naïve, full of innocence and the swelling expectation of a fulfilling life according to the norms of her time, it was a “Valentine” and was dated Valentine Week, 1850. In Emily’s time the “feast of St Valentine” was celebrated for a whole week with just about everyone of marriageable age sending bushels of Valentines off to everyone else and receiving the same in kind. This particular Valentine she sent to Elbridge Bowdoin, her father’s law partner, who kept it for forty years. Though it has wordplay and a flirtatious coyness aplenty, poetically it does little to indicate the sophistication and style of her mature poems, the ones critics and scholars now denote as “great.” It is written in long thumping rhyming lines, shot through with Shakespearean image and allusion and the standard metaphorical shorthand of popular 19th century verse as found in contemporary magazines and newspapers.
But what is really striking and arresting to me about this otherwise “slight” girlish versifying at the outset of a great poet’s life is the implicit optimism, the trust that exists in all little girls’ hearts until it’s dashed and destroyed, that she would eventually like most women find a soul-mate, a sweetheart companion with whom to pass her life and share her dreams. In the poem she mentions her school chums by name and playfully summons “swains” to follow nature’s rule and claim one of them for their own. In a sense, the poem is a tease, not only to the recipient, but also to those girlfriends. Yet it is also a blessing as well, a promise that they—one and all—would one day find the love of their lives.
Oh the Earth was made for lovers, for damsel, and hopeless swain,
For sighing, and gentle whispering, and unity made of twain. (ll.3-4)
It’s sad to read it today knowing what ensued from the date of writing for Emily herself, apart from her happier schoolmates, but what better time than Valentine’s Day to appreciate her for the gift she gave to future readers with the brilliant wholly original lyrics that were to follow this tender adolescent effort?
As early as 1862 Dickinson, disappointed in love and perhaps even more damaged from receiving much rejection at the hands of editors, had resigned herself to living not only unmarried but wholly unrecognized and unappreciated as a poet. Even so, she intuited her gift would not molder in the grave with her, sensed that her work would not be in vain, but had in fact a life of its own. She captured these sentiments in this oft quoted and prescient little poem from that year—
This is my letter to the World
That never wrote to Me—
The simple news that Nature told—
In simple Majesty
Her Message is committed
To Hands I cannot see—
For love of Her—Sweet—countrymen—
Judge tenderly—of Me
She consigned the fruit of her life’s work to our eyes and hands and, frankly, if she’s watching now, I am certain she feels vindicated, if not exultant at the love and appreciation she has finally found.