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Dickinsons in Love

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—would have peeked behind the façade. A niece said he rarely smiled. A visitor who saw him in old age found him “thin, dry and speechless,” and supposed that as a parent he had been not severe but remote. Commenting on the father-daughter connection, the visitor said, “I saw what her life has been.” Emily Dickinson said her father “never played.” (Elsewhere she said, “Blessed are they that play, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”)

A consequence of so much affection frozen into solicitude was mentioned by the young poet in a letter to her brother. After tea one day, she paid some visits, stayed too long, and returned home at nine, finding her father “in great agitation at my protracted stay—and mother and Vinnie in tears, for fear he would kill me.” The drama is deliberately overplayed, and meant to amuse, not scare, her brother; but the hint of Mr. Brontë and Mr. Browning remains. When she was older, Emily sometimes refused invitations on the pretext that her father was “in the habit of me.”

Austin’s Platonic mistress, who never knew his parents, opined that the father had discouraged the daughters’ suitors; and of course neither Emily nor Vinnie married. When Austin himself was young, he told his fiancée that he had never received tenderness “from anybody.” Emily wrote to him while he was a law student, “I do think it’s so funny—you and father do nothing but ‘fisticuff’ all the while you’re at home, and the minute you are separated, you become such devoted friends.” Austin thought of leaving home to settle with his bride in Chicago, but Mr. Dickinson overruled his objections to Amherst, made him a partner in the law practice, and built a handsome house for the young couple next to his own.

As for the mother, all accounts agree that though she (like Emily) was excellent in the kitchen, she was strong in neither body, character, nor intellect. Emily herself said she never had a mother. Cheerful loving-kindness does not seem to have been identified with membership in this family. Loyalty, duty, possessiveness, a serious concern for one another’s welfare—these are the attributes that joined the generations. But it is one thing to be accepted with anxious concern, and quite another to be cherished with delight. What was meant as devotion may have been felt as rejection.

As children, Emily and Austin paired themselves off against their father and sister. Austin was literary and moody. He loved to botanize and to contemplate landscapes; he wrote verse as well as elaborately composed letters. Emily once told him, “I think we miss each other more every day that we grow older, for we’re all unlike most everyone, and are therefore more dependent on each other for delight.” Austin may have succeeded his father as the Pericles of a provincial Athens, but his inner character was no compound of strength and force. According to a perceptive memorialist, “His nature was all gentleness and refinement, and there were a shyness and reserve in his composition, coupled with an intensity of feeling, that were almost pathetic at times.” This nature appeared in the furiously uncertain appeals he had made to the girl he finally married: “I love you Sue up to the very highest strain my nature can bear—the least tension would snap my life threads, as brittle glass more, you could not ask—more man could not give—Love me, Sue—Love me—for it’s my life.”

But she was not the sedative type, and his life threads endured more tension than he had thought possible. So far from acting motherly and protective, Sue (daughter of an innkeeper) became a brilliant hostess, competitive and demanding, who felt rapture when she took the “transcendental arm” of her guest, R.W. Emerson, as he walked her home after delivering a public lecture in Amherst. One professor at the college recalled her as a “really brilliant and highly cultivated woman of great taste and refinement, perhaps a little too aggressive, a little too sharp in wit and repartee, and a little too ambitious for social prestige.” Among the several articles the Dickinsons possessed in abundance was of course social prestige.

I suppose Emily Dickinson had the powers of genius in her observation of people, her understanding of them, her imaginative sympathy and responsiveness. I suppose the remoteness of her father and the weakness of her mother threw the children back on themselves; and Austin, whose sensibility matched her own, became Emily’s bulwark. I suppose that with others she veiled the boldness of her mind behind a disarming, childlike exterior. Secured by this screen, by her brother’s devotion and the family’s solidarity, she could let herself reflect searchingly upon the baffling elements of our difficult life: the impersonality of nature, the existence of pain and evil, the mysteries of death and immortality, the character of God. At the age of fifty she wrote to a family friend, “Austin and I were talking the other night about the extension of consciousness after death, and mother told Vinnie, afterward, she thought it was ‘very improper.’ … I don’t know what she would think if she knew that Austin told me confidentially ‘there was no such person as Elijah.”’

The poet required not only Austin but his wife and their children—as if she were trying to remedy in their generation what had gone wrong in her parents’. Years before Austin married Susan, Emily was infatuated with the bright, bookish, strong-willed girl, and wrote her love letters. After the marriage, Emily still clung to her sister-in-law; and though, as usual, immediacy produced difficulty, the overburdened filament never quite broke. Plain, little, and shy, the poet could not attract the kind of suitor whom she might take seriously, the kind whose charms would master her fear of sexuality. She retreated into pre-sexual roles, into elaborate fantasies about older, tutorial, inaccessible figures whom she pursued in letters and poems; their death would both terrify and free her, as she felt guilty for half-willing it but relieved from the pressure of imaginary duties. When the discord between Austin and Susan grew too loud to be ignored, she blamed herself (I think) for having encouraged the match against the vacillations of her brother. Cleaving to both sides, she was torn as they pulled apart.

Emily Dickinson always disliked to be away from home; her father, she claimed, “likes me to travel with him but objects that I visit.” But during her thirties she began to withdraw even from the streets of Amherst. As she saw fewer people, I suppose she expected more of those she met. Some must have bruised her by their failure to respond; a few who were tactful and sympathetic would have fed her fantasies; a few others, by their final candor, would have destroyed the web of reverie and shocked the poet. The drift toward seclusion seems to have quickened sharply after some lacerating emotional crisis, still unknown; and I assume that the savagery of the Civil War entered into casual conversations, making them harder to endure. There was also the hateful side of her dependent love. At the age of twenty-one she refused to spend a week with a friend and wrote, “I look at my father and mother and Vinnie, and all my friends, and I say no-no, can’t leave them, what if they die when I’m gone.”

Before she was forty, Emily Dickinson could declare that she never crossed the limits of her father’s land. It looks as if she were exaggerating his own influence and wounding herself to wound him. Eventually, she hardly left the house, and saw only her family, the Irish servants, a few children, and some chosen friends. She would fail to meet even persons she had encouraged to visit her. When she did appear, her conversation was riddling, witty, and aphoristic. Like her poetry it suggests a rhythm of hide-and-seek appropriate to someone who feared and courted rejection. “I never was with any one who drained my nerve power so much,” said Colonel Higginson. She would normally wear a white piqué dress and often carried a flower or two as a gift. Whether she struck one as a child or a nun, her feature was virginal innocence. Critics who pay great attention to her Puritan heritage might consider that she not only rejected every distinctively Calvinist doctrine but behaved like a Roman Catholic recluse, cherished her Roman Catholic servants, and asked that her pallbearers be Roman Catholic laborers who worked on her father’s grounds: all this when she certainly was not attracted by the religion of Rome.

To those who read her best poems with care, the mark of her literary style is not innocence but a constant acquaintance with the most profound experience. It is no paradox that such a woman should write such poems. Probably, the bitterness of her wisdom has the same ironic relation to the hymn form of her verses that it has to her disarming appearance. One thinks of Hardy, whose versification also plays against his meaning; he might almost have written this:

I shall know why when time is over
And I have ceased to wonder why.
Christ will explain each separate anguish
In the fair schoolroom of the sky.

He will tell me what “Peter” promised,
And I—for wonder at his woe—
I shall forget the drop of anguish
That scalds me now—that scalds me now.

The scrim of conventional form and language will mislead the superficial reader as the nunlike appearance and seclusion misled the villagers. Responding as powerfully as she did to the anxieties, illnesses, and deaths that threatened whomever she loved, the poet had to defend herself against fresh demands and save time to deal with the awesome questions that her trials provoked. Emily Dickinson wrote not about immortality but our hope of immortality, not about nature but our separation from nature, not about God but our belief in God. Those who imagine she was deeply troubled by the apparent clash between natural science and religious faith mislead us. It was the defeat of love by circumstance—by jealousy, egotism, illness, death—that drove her to doubt the existence of God and to yearn for a trust in immortality. She often quarreled with the language of Scripture; she never believed in hell and could not bear the linkage of godhead to punishment. The common suffering imposed on mankind is bleak enough; but the slow provocation of attachment and the wanton destruction of it give our evanescent lives their most monstrous aspect.

In The Life of Emily Dickinson Professor Sewall has really produced three studies, issuing from decades of painstaking scholarship. One is of Emily Dickinson’s connections with the people of most importance to her: relations, friends, and the men who became the vessels of her ambiguous affection. This study, based mainly on her letters, is sober, comprehensive, and elaborately documented from old and new sources. Much of the author’s energy goes into the analysis or disproof of doubtful anecdotes; much goes into the cautious reconstruction of backgrounds. The results have fundamental value for professional scholars, although non-specialists will find them less absorbing. The second study, scattered through the first, deals with the intricate story of the publication of the poems, many of which receive meticulous explications. Since few of the texts can be easily fixed, any serious critic must grasp the information surveyed by Professor Sewall if he is to know how to read them.

Finally, we are given an account of the way three households wore on one another: the Homestead, where the poet lived with her father, mother, and sister; the Evergreens next door, where her brother lived with his wife, sons, and daughter; and the family of David Todd, his wife Mabel, and their daughter. The hostility between Susan Dickinson and her in-laws; the scandalous intimacy of Austin Dickinson and Mabel Todd; the impact of the lurid affair upon their spouses and children—all make a history that easily breaks through the body of the book and overflows into appendices. Although Professor Sewall produces new material everywhere, it is in the account of the scandals that he has the most startling abundance, much of it in the form of primary documents. One may differ with him in the interpretation of the facts he has gathered for all three topics; but one must thank him for the fullness and impartiality of his presentation.

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