Poetry: Emily Dickinson concealed her mind

in-nuce.com Emily Dickinson

A recluse by temperament and habit, Emily Dickinson literally spent years without setting her foot beyond the doorstep, and many more years during which her walks were strictly limited to her father’s grounds.

Dickinson habitually hid her mind,

like her person, from all but a very few friends; but she is revealed to us in her poetry.

From the preface by Thomas Wentworth Higginson to the 1892 edition of Poems by Emily Dickinson:

Dickinson’s work was

1. Poetry torn up by the roots

In many cases these verses will seem to the reader like poetry torn up by the roots, with rain and dew and earth still clinging to them, giving a freshness and a fragrance not otherwise to be conveyed.

2. Poetry of shipwreck

In other cases, as in the few poems of shipwreck or of mental conflict, we can only wonder at the gift of vivid imagination by which this recluse woman can delineate, by a few touches, the very crises of physical or mental struggle.

3. Poetry of lyric strain

And sometimes again we catch glimpses of a lyric strain, sustained perhaps but for a line or two at a time, and making the reader regret its sudden cessation.

4. Poetry of extraordinary grasp and insight

But the main quality of these poems is that of extraordinary grasp and insight, uttered with an uneven vigor sometimes exasperating, seemingly wayward, but really unsought and inevitable.
After all, when a thought takes one’s breath away, a lesson on grammar seems an impertinence. As Ruskin wrote,
“No weight nor mass nor beauty of execution can outweigh
one grain or fragment of thought.”

It was with great difficulty that she was persuaded to print, during her lifetime, three or four poems.

Yet she wrote verses in great abundance; and though curiously indifferent to all conventional rules, had yet a rigorous literary standard of her own, and often altered a word many times to suit an ear which had its own tenacious fastidiousness.
The verses of Emily Dickinson belong emphatically to what Emerson long since called “The Poetry of the Portfolio,” — something produced absolutely without the thought of publication, and solely by way of expression of the writer’s own mind.

In the case of Emily Dickinson, there was absolutely no choice in the matter; she must write thus, or not at all.

Miss Dickinson was born in Amherst, Mass., Dec. 10, 1830, and died there May 15, 1886. Her father, Hon. Edward Dickinson, was the leading lawyer of Amherst, and was treasurer of the well-known college there situated. It was his custom once a year to hold a large reception at his house, attended by all the families connected with the institution and by the leading people of the town.
On these occasions his daughter Emily emerged from her wonted retirement and did her part as gracious hostess; nor would any one have known from her manner, I have been told, that this was not a daily occurrence.
The annual occasion once past, she withdrew again into her seclusion, and except for a very few friends was as invisible to the world as if she had dwelt in a nunnery. For myself, although I had corresponded with her for many years, I saw her but twice face to face, and brought away the impression of something as unique and remote as Undine or Mignon or Thekla.

It is believed that the thoughtful reader will find in Dickinson’s poems a quality more suggestive of the poetry of William Blake than of anything to be elsewhere found,

—flashes of wholly original and profound insight into nature and life; words and phrases exhibiting an extraordinary vividness of descriptive and imaginative power, yet often set in a seemingly whimsical or even rugged frame.
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