Why is Emily Dickinson still important?
Sure, she’s a major American poet. In fact, along with Walt Whitman and Mark Twain, she created American literature, while before writers had been creating literature in American English. But she lived a long time ago, from 1830 – 1886, and while it’s always interesting to find out about accomplished people, what connection could she possibly have to us, right here, right now?
There is really only one reason–the poetry. Her poetry is so alive, so rich with meaning, that she could be living and writing down the street or in New York City or at one of the writing programs across the United States.
Emily Dickinson’s connection with us comes from her heart and her mind. Somehow this woman, who led an increasingly isolated life well over 100 years ago, had such insight and such depth that her sense of what it means to be human still rings true to us across all those years.
Here’s an example of one of her poems:
“Hope is the thing with feathers–
(I can’t include the entire poem because of copyright restrictions, so I urge you to get the Franklin edition of her poems.)
On the surface, this is a fairly straightforward poem, comparing hope to a bird. But look at what she does with this comparison. First the bird “perches” in the soul. Then it keeps singing in gales on on land and sea–“real” gales and land and sea or psychological? And then there’s that surprise at the end, where hope doesn’t ask for a crumb, not even in “Extremity.”
That’s the power of great poetry. The poet takes an idea or image–hope as a bird–and develops it in surprising and memorable ways.
Now here’s a longer and more mysterious poem:
My Life had stood–a Loaded Gun–
(Again, I can’t include the entire poem.)
One of the first things you may notice is the difference in spelling between the way ED wrote and the way we write. Some of that is due to changes over the years, but some is also because of her own quirkiness. And she does make references that were more common in her era than ours, especially the one to Vesuvius (“Vesuvian face”).
Still, the surface of the poem is pretty clear–she’d been waiting for someone to come and get her so they could “roam” and “hunt”. But what does she mean by these words? Did she really leave her home, at least in her mind, and go to the woods and mountains with this man? Or is she using the images of roaming and hunting to tell us something more?
That’s where the mystery comes in. Some people may think this is a love poem about a mystery man. After all, ED was a spinster living in her family home without even a boyfriend by the time she wrote it. But she did have relationships with men, especially through the mail. So could her “Master” be one of those men? Or could he/it be something else?
I think she was writing about her work, her poetry. I think she spent her early years waiting for something to grab her, to capture her heart and fill her life with purpose and fulfillment. And once she started writing poetry, she began the adventurous journey she’d been yearning for. And I think that explains the poem’s ending, that last stanza about needing her “Owner” to live longer, so she would always have her work to keep her feeling alive.
But who can know for sure? ED didn’t write out explanations of her poems. She wrote the poems and then put most of them in a drawer, and no one saw them until her sister, Lavinia, found them after ED died.
That’s one of the main reasons why she’s so interesting–we have these brilliant poems without explanations written by a woman who chose to hide most of them. And because she led such a quiet life, there aren’t a lot of records we can use to write her story.
And that’s what biography is, isn’t it? The story of a person’s life as interpreted by someone else. So let’s take a little time to talk about how a biography gets written.
Basically, there are two kinds of information a biographer can use–primary and secondary. Primary information is the nitty-gritty–official records and documents, plus anything written directly by the subject. Then there are the quasi-sources, like articles or, in our age, any kind of media reports made about the subject during her lifetime. These sources always need to be used carefully, because whenever one person reports about another, there’s going to be some bias and interpretation. And there are also first-hand accounts from people who knew the subject, and letters written to her or about her–anything that can be placed within the orbit of the subject’s life. But, again, all these things have to be used with awareness of the bias of the people who wrote them.
With writers, we usually have a lot of their writing, and with ED we not only have the poems, but the hundreds of letters she sent to friends and family. So while there aren’t all that many official pieces of paper, there are well over two thousand pieces in ED’s handwriting. And while the letters don’t often contain a lot of facts, they do express ED’s personality, which often changed depending on the person she was writing to.
Secondary sources are books like this, where a writer will develop an interpretation of a subject’s life and/or work and use primary and other secondary sources to back her up. They can also be scholarly articles about her life and work, literary criticism, psychological studies–any kind of thinking about another person.
In ED’s case, there are two main heroes of research. The first is Thomas H. Johnson, who organized all of her available handwritten poems into chronological order and printed them as ED had composed them. This was harder than it sounds. Before Johnson began his work, various “editors” often changed her spelling, punctuation, and sometimes even her words and rhyme scheme to make the poems more conventional. I’ll talk more about this later, but Johnson organized 1775 poems from two different collections by reading and dating ED’s changing handwriting, and thereby gave us the first accurate collection of her poems. And then he tackled her letters (!) and organized them into chronological order.
The second hero is Richard B. Sewall, who wrote a massive biography and gathered together so much of the available documentary evidence about ED and the members of her family. His book has its own bias, of course, but that’s also what makes it interesting to read.
I, too, have my own bias, although I’ll leave it to you, the reader, to figure out what that is. Since I’m not a formal scholar–I don’t teach at a college or university–I wrote this book for an audience who’s interested in a friendly introduction to ED and her poetry. I really do believe that once you get a taste of ED’s poems, you’ll be so captivated that you’ll feel compelled to read more of them.
Dickinson, Emily. The Poems of Emily Dickinson (Reading Edition), ed, R.W. Franklin. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1999.