The Life of Emily Dickinson
by Richard B. Sewall
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2 vols., 821 pp., $30.00
Looking at the Dickinsons in love, one gets some useful insights into the meaning and power of a difficult poet. Emily Dickinson was a reticent woman with a habit of passionate attachment to married men. She called the Reverend Charles Wadsworth her “closest earthly friend” although she could have met him only two or three times, and may never have heard him preach. For the last of her recorded fixations, she settled upon an old justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court. “The air is soft as Italy, but when it touches me, I spurn it with a sigh, because it is not you,” she wrote to him when he was a recent widower of seventy and she was fifty-two. A few years earlier, she had told him, “I am but a restive sleeper and often should journey from your arms through the happy night, but you will lift me back, won’t you, for only there I ask to be.”
Meanwhile, her brother Austin was diving into the magic fire of concupiscence. “I love you, love you, love you with all my mind and heart and strength!” he wrote to Mabel Todd, wife of an astronomer. She was born the year Austin was married. He was treasurer of the college in which her husband held a professorship. Both lovers were parents. “Oh! my love, my king! My star and guide and heavensent light,” Mrs. Todd wrote to Mr. Dickinson as he neared sixty. “Do you not know that my soul is knit to yours by an almighty hand?” Professor Todd used to whistle a tune from Martha on his way home, so he should not embarrass everyone by surprising his wife and her guest behind closed doors. (Yet when the elderly admirer died, the husband wrote in his diary, “My best friend died tonight, and I seem stranded.”)
These are deceptive fragments, torn from their ground, but they do not misrepresent the noisy power of the feelings that produced them. Neither the poet nor her brother was so simple as to follow passion with action. They kept their bodies out of their romantic adventures: the flames burned on words alone for the sister; on secret walks, drives, and domestic conversations for the brother.
The sire of these improbable siblings was the first citizen of Amherst, Massachusetts, a very small town thronged with descendants of the primordial Dickinson, who reached our country two hundred years before the poet was born. When Mr. Dickinson senior wooed his bride, he described himself to her as “quick and ardent in my feelings … decided in my opinions … hard to be persuaded that I am wrong … have a little personal irritability in my constitution.” Underneath, he was obviously gentle and devoted; during at least one period when he was away from home, we have a letter from his wife thanking him for writing to her daily.
But I doubt that the three small children—Austin, Emily, and Lavinia, all born within a span of four years …