Emily Dickinson’s Banquet of Abstemiousness

Forbidden knowledge—for example the closed door boldly lettered “keep out”—usually arouses our curiosity. Other forms of forbidden knowledge may provoke self-restraint and withdrawal. In the latter context, eight lines of a single poem by Emily Dickinson, because they describe the rewards of renunciation, bear comparison with Madame de Lafayette’s 200-page novel, La Princesse de Clèves, about which I wrote in the last issue.1 We must approach Dickinson’s poem unhurriedly and without disturbance, as we would approach a brook trout lurking in a pool.

In 1862 at age thirty-two Dickinson learned that the celebrated Philadelphia pastor Charles Wadsworth had been called to a new church in San Francisco. There is strong evidence that seven years earlier, when she had heard him preach and had met him in Philadelphia, Dickinson fell deeply in love with the eloquent clergyman. They corresponded. She may have addressed and even sent to Wadsworth the three astonishing “master” letters of which drafts were found among her papers. He called on her in Amherst in 1860 while visiting another friend in the vicinity. Apparently the happily married clergyman sixteen years her senior did not reciprocate her intense feelings.

After his departure by sea for California via Cape Horn, Dickinson assumed the life of a recluse in a white gown, entered the most productive period of her poetic career (a poem a day for over a year), and took the uncharacteristic step of sending out a few of her poems to a stranger. She chose as her mentor Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a young Unitarian clergyman and abolitionist agitator who had just contributed to The Atlantic Monthly an article of encouragement to young American writers.

Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?” So ran her opening sentence to Higginson. This first letter in tiny birdlike writing with four poems enclosed carried no signature. She had printed her name faintly in pencil on a card sealed inside a separate envelope also enclosed. Higginson, who had the force of character to take command of the first Negro regiment in the Union army a few months later, accepted the mysterious woman’s challenge and ventured to make a few criticisms along with some inquiries of his own. Dickinson’s second letter to him blends coquettishness, literary unorthodoxy, wicked wit, and sheer hallucination into a document so subtle and so blunt that it must be read complete. Every sentence is drawn up out of a deep cistern of accumulated experience.

Mr. Higginson,—Your kindness claimed earlier gratitude, but I was ill, and write to-day from my pillow.

Thank you for the surgery; it was not so painful as I supposed.2 I bring you others, as you ask, though they might not differ. While my thought is undressed, I can make the distinction; but when I put them in the gown, they look alike and numb.3

You asked how old I was? I made no verse, but one or two, until this winter, sir.4

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