Died: May 15, 1886, Amherst, MA
Poor Emily Dickinson. She has been embraced by the worst sort; those who stereotype her into a shallow, shy, prim New England maid locked away in her father’s house for life. In point of fact, she has one of the richest, most daring minds of the 19th century. By turns she shows a wry humor about life around her, both in nature and in society. She is ever-sharp in her incisive observations about assumptions of men toward women. She stares death in the eye and explains nothing away, often opting for the dark and morbid conclusion. Philosophically, she seems to be equal of Emerson, raising questions about the nature of language and mind, about our concept of God, appraising even the progress of science in botany despite her limited education. Artistically she is one of our greatest American poets.
I have loved and studied her since high school, read her complete poems several times and studied academic insights and research on her writings. There are now so many options to do so on the internet, it is an embarrassment of riches. Two of the best places to start are:
You will find there a far better telling of her life and situation than I can touch on in this brief sampler, so I will point you to those other resources. Here is just a taste of what she has to offer, however, with one or two comments by yours truly.
A Bird, came down the Walk -
He did not know I saw -
He bit an Angle Worm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw,
And then, he drank a Dew
From a convenient Grass -
And then hopped sidewise to the Wall
To let a Beetle pass -
He glanced with rapid eyes,
That hurried all abroad -
They looked like frightened Beads, I thought,
He stirred his Velvet Head. -
Like one in danger, Cautious,
I offered him a Crumb,
And he unrolled his feathers,
And rowed him softer Home -
Than Oars divide the Ocean,
Too silver for a seam,
Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon,
Leap, plashless as they swim.
We have here one of the reasons for Dickinson’s enshrinement as a nature poet. Her capacity for almost scientific observation of this one bird should not be underestimated. She lets nothing escape her notice, and yet she puts it all into an everyday context of life in a small town. At least that is how it begins… a bite for breakfast [worm sushi], a little tipple from a ‘grass/glass’ as if sipping tea, and then politely stepping aside to let another pass by. So sweet. And yet, there is a deeper understanding here of how even these few moments are loaded with danger. The eyes are frightened beads, the offer of a crumb unwelcome, the exit immediate. And yet, how she describes the bird’s escape is remarkable: unrolling his feathers, rowing himself through the air as if in a lifeboat, a silver seam left in his wake. And that final couplet of butterflies swimming away can almost take one’s breath away.
Tell all the truth but tell it slant --
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind --
Here we have eight lines that are remarkable for their wisdom and, yes, even cynicism. Over the years I have applied its truth to all manner of endeavors, teaching, preaching, spiritual direction. I also believe this opening line “tell all the truth but tell it slant” was a way she found to deal with the male ego in her home and in society. She was without question, the sharpest and most observant of any in the household or even the entire town of Amherst. And yet, as many women must in societies that shut them off from opportunities and try to shut them up with menial tasks behind closed doors, this poem shows how to slowly, wisely, cynically, let others know that this woman knows and understands far, far more than others will ever realize.
I dreaded that first Robin, so,
But He is mastered, now,
I'm accustomed to Him grown,
He hurts a little, though--
I thought If I could only live
Till that first Shout got by--
Not all Pianos in the Woods
Had power to mangle me--
I dared not meet the Daffodils--
For fear their Yellow Gown
Would pierce me with a fashion
So foreign to my own--
I wished the Grass would hurry--
So—when 'twas time to see--
He'd be too tall, the tallest one
Could stretch—to look at me--
I could not bear the Bees should come,
I wished they'd stay away
In those dim countries where they go,
What word had they, for me?
They're here, though; not a creature failed--
No Blossom stayed away
In gentle deference to me--
The Queen of Calvary--
Each one salutes me, as he goes,
And I, my childish Plumes,
Lift, in bereaved acknowledgment
Of their unthinking Drums—
There are levels of fear here that most people never feel as they witness the coming of Spring. What is this all about? The first robin hurts her as he grows, the sound of the woods coming alive is like a great clash of pianos, she is pierced by daffodils. The never-ceasing return of Spring seems to be a grim reminder that it will all continue long after Emily Dickinson is dead and gone. Every new blade of grass is a memento mori, and the pain and piercings make her queen of Calvary. There seems to be no real message of renewal for her in this poem, but only “bereaved acknowledgement” that nature’s unthinking clamor is a message of mortality for her.
“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -
And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -
I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.
This poem needs no real unpacking by me, for it is a remarkable simile that applies to us all. I do note, however, the surprise some have expressed about this poem stating that she, the supposed quiet little maid of Amherst born there and died there, has needed and experienced that “Hope” in the storms of life, in the “chilliest land – on the strangest sea.” There are tempests and terrors in our own hearts of which no one knows. But Emily Dickinson knows, she knows indeed.
Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne'er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.
Not one of all the purple Host
Who took the Flag today
Can tell the definition
So clear of victory
As he defeated – dying –
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear!
I absolutely love this poem. It surely was counter-cultural for her then and it definitely is counter-cultural for us now. Only those who get the Olympic Gold really count in our society. Only those who have the deepest portfolio and greatest number of hotels in his or her holdings matter. Only the one who manipulates and maneuvers him or herself into tenure and holds the chair of the department should be listened to. Dickinson tells us that the one who truly knows the definition of victory and celebration is the one who lies wounded and dying on the battlefield. The wisest are often the most hidden and powerless in our world.
Dare you see a Soul at the White Heat? --
Then crouch within the door --
Red — is the Fire's common tint --
But when the vivid Ore
Has vanquished Flame's conditions,
It quivers from the Forge
Without a color, but the light
Of unanointed Blaze.
Least Village has its Blacksmith
Whose Anvil's even ring
Stands symbol for the finer Forge
That soundless tugs — within --
Refining these impatient Ores
With Hammer, and with Blaze
Until the Designated Light
Repudiate the Forge --
Here we have one of the great examples of the sacrifices made in order to create great art. Dickinson tells us that her time and effort and refining and forging of poetry is such that it can shock those who come to her work unprepared. It could blind them, for she does not hide what she feels, observes and creates. Every village has a blacksmith of poetry or creativity, and some of the results can be pretty indeed. But if it is not pure, made with white heat and self-sacrifice, resulting in the true light, then it must be repudiated. However, repudiation can also be achieved by creating, reading and accepting the finest of her poetry, where the soul is laid bare and reality perceived, and then a forge is no longer needed. The enlightenment has been achieved and the forge is left behind.