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Lady in the Dark

Emily Dickinson

by Cynthia Griffin Wolff
Knopf, 641 pp., $25.00

The centenary of Emily Dickinson’s death last year was filled with celebratory conferences, lectures, and poetry readings—precisely the kind of public occasions that she despised. (She avoided groups of men and women because, as she once explained, “they talk of Hallowed things, aloud—and embarrass my Dog.”) A hundred years can reclaim a poet, as Whitman has been reclaimed. Dickinson herself was merely voicing the taste of the times when she wrote of her near contemporary, in 1862: “I never read his Book—but was told that he was disgraceful.” A century can also make a once-popular poet like Fanny Fern—who probably influenced both Whitman and Dickinson—seem impossibly remote. The year 1986—in this respect no different from many other recent years—also saw the publication of several new books on Dickinson’s life and work. By far the most ambitious of these, Emily Dickinson by Cynthia Griffin Wolff, raises the question where Dickinson stands now, one hundred years after her death.

Dickinson evidently puzzled her contemporaries—as she put it, “All men say ‘What’ to me”—and she puzzles us. Like Bartleby she seems to confront her chronicler with a series of enigmatic refusals: she preferred not to travel, not to publish, not to marry. Surely no other poet has been more inventive in saying no. She once declined an invitation with the words “I must omit Boston.” Asked if her social life wasn’t rather restricted in Amherst, Massachusetts, she replied, “I never thought of conceiving that I could ever have the slightest approach to such a want in all future time,” and added, “I feel that I have not expressed myself strongly enough.” She claimed that publication was “foreign to my thought, as Firmament to Fin.” But her refusals left her free for the truly puzzling thing she did do: with little encouragement from friends or family she wrote almost two thousand poems. She stowed most of them away in her bedroom bureau, where they remained until she died.

The story of how the poems were saved—and how the saviors published them piecemeal, in altered versions, then quarreled and passed on the quarrel to later generations—is a fascinating one, and we still live with the sequel. The poems were not published in a complete, undoctored edition until 1955; what other nineteenth-century poet of Dickinson’s stature is still protected by copyright? But this isn’t the story that Cynthia Wolff is concerned with. Nor is she particularly interested in what little we know of Dickinson’s daily life. Indeed, she often seems impatient with what she calls dismissively “the external life,” claiming that “the essential narrative can be told in a few sentences”—and she fits that narrative into an early paragraph as if to get it over with: “Born on December 10, 1830…the middle child of three…superb secondary-school education at the Amherst Academy…one year at the new Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley…sleigh rides, excursions in the countryside, and parties…. Neither she nor her sister married, and both lived all their lives in their parents’ home.”

My life has been too simple and stern to embarrass any,” Dickinson remarked in 1869, and Wolff takes her at her word. “The single extraordinary happening in Dickinson’s life,” she maintains, was a period of severe eye trouble in the early 1860s—a condition that she thinks was part cause, part excuse, for Dickinson’s gradual withdrawal from society in the last three decades of her life. What most readers want to know, Wolff concludes, “cannot be the external life…not the day-by-day round of events—but some dynamic of Dickinson’s interior life that infuses her poetry with power and passes through the verse to readers.”

These remarks are partly aimed at Richard Sewall’s detailed biography. 1 While admitting that much about Dickinson’s life remains obscure, Sewall examined the people who made up her “circle”—the members of her family, her school friends, her correspondents. Although Wolff’s publisher calls her book “the closest we are likely to come to a definitive life,” it in no way competes with, much less replaces, Sewall’s. It is more a series of linked essays on Dickinson’s interior life and its effect on the poetry, with highly selective attention to Dickinson’s biography and milieu. As in her earlier study of Edith Wharton,2 Wolff relies heavily on the insights of psychoanalysis, especially in her discussion of Dickinson’s early childhood. She is convinced that Dickinson, like Wharton, was a neglected child, and she’s tough on the poet’s parents.

Edward Dickinson, the leading lawyer in Amherst, pursued his career with such zeal that he was rarely at home. He was, his daughter wrote, “too busy with his Briefs, to notice what we do—He buys me many Books—but begs me not to read them—because he fears they joggle the Mind.” His success was not conspicuous. His lackluster term in the US Congress, between 1853 and 1855 (where he shared an office with T.S. Eliot’s great-uncle), was the high point of his life. He spent many months in Boston, before and after his stay in Washington, badgering the Massachusetts legislature to grant money to Amherst College (which his father had helped found, and which he himself served for almost forty years as treasurer), and to bring the railroad to town. He failed in the first but succeeded in the second; a locomotive was named in his honor. (In one respect Wolff gives him more credit than he deserves: he was not, as she claims, the valedictorian of his class at Yale.) He died in 1874 in a Boston hotel, “without,” Wolff notes, “any member of his family present.”

Dickinson’s mother, on the other hand, rarely left the house and, after “a series of illnesses, some identifiable and some vague and ephemeral,” rarely left her bed. “I never had a mother,” Dickinson told a friend, but she nursed her mother for many years; during the 1860s and 1870s this, apart from her writing, was her major occupation. Looking back, she mused, “We were never intimate Mother and Children while she was our Mother—but Mines in the same Ground meet by tunneling and when she became our Child, the Affection came.”

Wolff’s hypothesis, buttressed by the work of D. W. Winnicott and other psychoanalytic students of early childhood, is that Dickinson’s mother was incapable of real intimacy with her infant daughter, and failed specifically in the “eye/face communication” between mother and child that establishes “a strong and confident sense of self, an ability to interact gracefully with others, and the conviction that the world is a good place.” The clinical terms are somewhat jarring; throughout her book Wolff writes of Dickinson’s “identity” and “integrity of self.” Moreover, in view of Wolff’s own frequent warnings of the dangers of finding evidence providing clues to the life in the work her use of eye-and-face imagery in the poems and letters to support her suspicion of the lack of maternal affection seems questionable.

But Wolff finds other evidence as well. She explains the peculiar closeness of the Dickinson children—who in their shared fantasies sometimes resemble the Brontës—as a response to parental neglect. She also notes the extraordinary degree to which Dickinson “cathected”—became emotionally attached to—words. “There are [those],” Dickinson once observed, “to which I lift my hat when I see them sitting princelike among their peers on the page. Sometimes I write one, and look at his outlines till he glows as no sapphire.” Wolff thinks she came to rely on words as a compensatory language for the failure of an earlier nonverbal one. Meanwhile the poet’s relations with other people suffered, for

a sense of the integrity of self, insufficiently confirmed in this initial phase, may always remain weak. Intimate relationships with others may be difficult to sustain; separation from loved ones may always be fearsome. The world may even seem a dangerous place, governed by an indifferent or hostile God.

Wolff traces these themes through Dickinson’s life and work. While there is little documentation of Dickinson’s early years, Wolff’s hypothesis does handily explain much about her later life that has continued to puzzle Dickinson’s readers.

Wolff finds Dickinson particularly distrustful of love: she “consistently construed the Word not as a supplement to ordinary human relationships, but as an alternative to them.” She was a writer of beautiful love letters, but there is no evidence to suggest that she didn’t die a virgin. In her somewhat perfunctory treatment of the men in Dickinson’s life, Wolff shuffles the usual deck—Ben Newton the tutor, Charles Wadsworth the minister, Samuel Bowles the editor—and selects the Salem judge Otis Phillips Lord as the most likely candidate. Sewall favored Bowles, the clever and attractive editor of the Springfield Daily Republican, whose no-nonsense approach to Dickinson seemed to draw her out. Sewall describes how Bowles once visited the Dickinsons and Emily declined to see him, retreating to her upstairs bedroom. “Emily, you damned rascal!” he is reported to have said. “I’ve traveled all the way from Springfield to see you. Come down at once.” She did, and was particularly “brilliant and fascinating.” “Clearly,” Sewall concludes, “she needed more Bowleses in her life.”

Dickinson’s romance with “Phil” Lord, a friend and political crony of her father, is usually placed toward the end of her life, in the late 1870s and early 1880s, when they exchanged passionate letters. “My lovely Salem smiles at me,” she wrote him in 1878,

I confess that I love him—I rejoice that I love him—I thank the maker of Heaven and Earth—that gave him me to love—the exultation floods me. I cannot find my channel—the Creek turns Sea—at thought of thee—

Wolff thinks Dickinson’s attachment to the avuncular Lord may have begun much earlier—perhaps as early as the 1850s, when she was in her twenties—but there is little evidence for this view. In any case, we have to depend on Dickinson’s letters for details of the relationship. Lord seems to have proposed marriage, or at least, as Wolff puts it, “pressed for sexual union,” in the late 1870s, after the death of his wife, and Dickinson’s refusal again suggests she preferred the pleasure of words: “Dont you know you are happiest while I withhold and not confer—don’t you know that No is the wildest word we consign to Language?”

The man who meant most to her as a writer was probably Thomas Wentworth Higginson—former minister, abolitionist, secret supporter of John Brown and public supporter of women’s rights, and, as Colonel Higginson, the leader of a black regiment in the Civil War. In 1862, when she had already written a good deal of poetry, Dickinson wrote to Higginson to guide her in her writing. She had never met him, but as Wolff notes, while Dickinson was “personally shy in the company of strangers,” she “had few if any reservations about writing to famous men.” It is generally assumed that Higginson’s 1862 article in The Atlantic Monthly, giving advice to young contributors (e.g., “Use good pens, black ink, nice white paper and plenty of it”), provided the opening. But Wolff calls attention to an earlier essay he published in the same magazine in 1859, which Dickinson almost certainly read. Called “Ought Women to Learn the Alphabet?” it was a passionate defense of women intellectuals and women’s rights, and may well have drawn Dickinson to him as a potential literary adviser. (Dickinson’s own father, Wolff points out, was openly hostile to intellectual women, and published a series of tracts on the subject in the 1820s.)

Alice James once lamented that Dickinson was “sicklied o’er with Thomas Wentworth Higginson.” The judgment seems harsh, but it’s not clear precisely what Dickinson got from her long correspondence with this bland and, in his literary tastes, conservative man. While he took an interest in her work at a time when she needed encouragement, its offrhymes and wayward rhythms clashed with his own notions of literary propriety. (He once remarked, “It is no discredit to Walt Whitman that he wrote ‘Leaves of Grass,’ only that he did not burn it afterwards.”) Wolff is probably right that Dickinson misjudged him early on, and sent him pretentious introductory letters that were out of tune with his notions of literature as a respectable and profitable career. “You ask of my Companions,” she wrote him, “Hills—Sir—and the Sundown.” Wolff finds Higginson a typical mid-century man of letters, while “Emily Dickinson was a time traveler from an earlier epoch. She was determined to construe writing as an heroic undertaking.” By “heroic” Wolff means a willingness to engage in a private wrestling match with God—a kind of heroism she associates with the American Puritans, and opposes to Higginson’s modern notions of the literary marketplace.

Wolff sees Dickinson as a transitional figure in American literature, bridging an intensely religious Puritan inheritance with what she calls the “merely commercial, instrumental society” of modern times. This is not a new idea. In the 1920s and 1930s Dickinson was referred to as “the last flower of New England Puritanism,” and Allen Tate, in an influential essay of 1932, argued that it was an extraordinary piece of luck for Dickinson to be born during what Wolff calls (with barely concealed nostalgia) “those final years of New England’s supremacy.” Tate thought “the perfect literary situation” was when a “spiritual community is breaking up”; Dickinson thus had the advantage of a complex system of ideas, the Puritan system, but at a time when it was not so rigid as to blunt her perceptions of the natural world.

Wolff takes this argument a step further. She believes that Dickinson was conscious of her pivotal position in American literary history and “thought of herself as America’s ‘Representative’ Voice”—an ambition one usually associates with Whitman. Her evidence for this claim is a much-quoted sentence from one of Dickinson’s letters to Higginson: “When I state myself, as the Representative of the Verse—it does not mean—me—but a supposed person.” The usual gloss is that Dickinson is denying the assumption that her poetry is confessional. Wolff argues that in this sentence Dickinson ” ‘placed’ her own poetry quite explicitly by quoting from Emerson,” specifically from his essay, “The Poet.” The poet, according to Emerson, “is representative. He stands among partial men for the complete man.” Dickinson was aware of Emerson’s call for an American literature and Wolff thinks she was here clearly announcing her ambition “to become America’s ‘Representative Voice.’ ”

This argument would be more convincing if Dickinson had written, “it does not mean me but a representative person.” The most difficult word in the passage is not, in fact, “representative,” which seems to be a fancy word for speaker or voice, but “supposed”—a word that acknowledges the difficulty many readers have in deciding just what sort of hypothetical person or voice is speaking in her poems. To my knowledge, there is no further evidence in Dickinson’s letters or poetry that she aspired to be the national bard, nor is it clear just what the significance would be if she did. This poet who had almost nothing to say about the Civil War, or abolition, or women’s suffrage, or westward expansion, or politics, or industry, could only in some extremely limited sense be our “representative voice.”

Wolff reads Dickinson’s poetry in much the way she reads her life. She is partial to those poems in which (to quote again from her discussion of parental neglect) “the world seems a dangerous place governed by an indifferent or hostile God.” Her commentary on Dickinson’s nature poems reveals the strengths and limitations of this partiality. She maintains that Dickinson was “a new kind of ‘nature poet,’ one who could articulate the ambiguity and latent violence that mankind must constantly confront in the course of ordinary existence.” She contrasts two unrecognizable romantic writers called Wordsworth and Emerson, deluded optimists who were unaware of evil, with Dickinson, the lucid existentialist who saw “the twisted sadism of God’s nature.”

This view commits her to finding “latent violence” everywhere in Dickinson’s nature poetry. In the following quatrain,

The Day came slow—till Five o’clock—
Then sprang before the Hills—
Like Hindered Rubies—or the Light
A Sudden Musket—spills—

Wolff observes that sunrise is a “punctual reminder of God’s phallic brutality.” One might have thought that light, whether from gems or guns, was the point; but Wolff is after “latency.”

A more extended example, central to her discussion of the nature poems, is her reading of the lovely poem that begins,

The Angle of a Landscape—
That every time I wake—
Between my Curtain and the Wall
Upon an ample Crack—

Like a Venetian—waiting—
Accosts my open eye—
Is just a Bough of Apples—
Held slanting, in the Sky—

The Pattern of a Chimney—
The Forehead of a Hill—
Sometimes—a Vane’s Forefinger—
But that’s—Occasional—

then turns to conclude with these lines:

The Seasons—shift—my Picture—
Upon my Emerald Bough,
I wake—to find no—Emeralds—
Then—Diamonds—which the Snow

From Polar Caskets—fetched me—
The Chimney—and the Hill—
And just the Steeple’s finger—
These—never stir at all—

This landscape,” according to Wolff, “is little more than a Design of desolation”:

Behind the civilized locutions of the popular nineteenth-century essay still lurks a Divinity of Flood and Fire, the angry, jealous God of Jacob…. This poem still trails the accents of the verse of divine seduction and rape: the “landscape” pushes its way into the speaker’s bedroom and “Accosts [her] open eye.” “Ample” is surely intended as irony, for the range here is limited indeed; yet in one sense the space is as wide as a church door. It is enough to see the litter of the slaughterhouse.

Wolff’s dogged pursuit of any trace of violence blinds her to the artistry and wit and pleasure of this poem, and of many others. There is more to the poem than “civilized locutions.” Dickinson is certainly opposing permanence and change, what changes with the seasons and what doesn’t. “To shut our eyes is Travel,” she once noted. “The Seasons understand this.” But she twice stresses waking to this scene, as though she has been asleep to it. It has been there, like an actor who waits behind the curtain for the audience to be attentive. Wolff ignores the sense of surprise in the poem: “I thought it was a landscape, but it’s just a bough of apples.” Having skeptically reduced the scene to this bough, Dickinson sees in it a chimney, a hill, a weathervane (what Wolff calls “dismembered parts jumbled together…mutilated remnants”). Dickinson is saying that the awakened imagination can inhabit even something as ordinary as an apple bough, while the deadened imagination can kill it.

But there is another way to read the poem. We can assume that the chimney’s forehead and the steeple’s finger are really “there,” in the background behind the bough. Then the poem comes to resemble those paintings of Cézanne in which the curve of the bough so closely echoes the curve of the mountain that both seem on the same plane. Wolff discerns a slaughterhouse “behind” the scene, but Dickinson is questioning the notion that there’s anything at all behind what we see. The poem is more superficial than Wolff thinks, but its surfaces are more slippery.

The reader may often feel that Dickinson’s poems aren’t nearly as bleak as Wolff thinks they are; in Wallace Stevens’s phrase, her mind of winter finds nothing everywhere. But certainly no bleakness or brutality escapes her. Having found brutality wherever God appears in Dickinson’s poems, Wolff reverses the equation to find God in every brutal act. Surely she’s the only critic to assume that “Split the Lark—and you’ll find the Music” is addressed to God—merely another example of “God’s compulsion to maim and destroy.” Isn’t God precisely the one who would not have to split the lark to know what’s inside it?

Wolff’s major challenge to critics and readers of Emily Dickinson is not her discovery of some large theme—sadistic divinity vs. wounded humanity—throughout the poetry. Other critics have seen similar themes. The problem is that they are so abstract that they don’t help to explain what is really puzzling in Dickinson’s verse: her often bizarre use of language and poetic forms. Despite their apparent simplicity of structure, it’s hard to say just what certain poems are about. Northrop Frye once called attention to this verbal knot:

Endanger it, and the Demand
Of tickets for a sigh
Amazes the Humility
Of Credibility—

Recover it to Nature
And that dejected Fleet
Find Consternation’s Carnival
Divested of it’s Meat.

Wolff isn’t the first to suggest that Dickinson’s poems are often written in code, for which we need the key. But her claims in this respect are provocative. She argues that Dickinson’s symbolism is systematic: an image in one poem will mean the same thing in another. 3 She remarks, for example, “As always in Dickinson’s poetry, ‘Wine’ recalls the Lord’s Supper”; or “Just as throughout the verse Dickinson plays with the notions of feet and their usual activities as a way of alluding to poetry, so…she employs the figure of the bird to represent the poet.” When she finds “a quick tattoo of parataxis,” many short phrases connected with “and,” she informs us that this is “the syntax Dickinson so often employs to represent the drive toward death or dissolution.” One may venture a little skepticism here and there: Does every mention of feet refer to metrics (while, on the other hand, references to eyes and faces refer to the lost, preverbal language of mother and child)? And one’s skepticism may grow when Wolff assures us that Dickinson’s fondness for the word “noon” arises from the (seldom noted) fact that it “is the word ‘no’ placed ‘face to face’ ” and has “infinity at the core (∞).”

Yet, despite one’s hesitation about some of these assertions, it seems likely that Dickinson was the kind of poet—like Mallarmé, for example, or Hopkins—who cared about such verbal puzzles. The problem is that she left no record of this interest (as the critic David Porter notes, “she composed no ars poetica“). Her letters tell us nothing about her methods of composition or her aims. She nowhere indicates how she wished her poems to be read. So we must treat her poems the way a scientist treats the natural world: here is the data. What is the best theory to explain it? Wolff is a gifted theorist.

Dickinson’s verbal excesses are of a piece with her successes, but her apologists should not try to compete with her. Wolff writes, for the most part, cleanly and even elegantly, but too often one feels she is trying to match Dickinson’s pitch. Accounts of death bring out the worst abuses. When she is describing how several members of Dickinson’s mother’s family died of tuberculosis Wolff notes, “In the spring of 1829, death had once again begun to walk the halls of the family’s farm in Monson.” Later she reminds us of the “menacing shades of Monson.” She doesn’t just tell us that Sam Bowles died in 1878; she must add that “a bright star in Emily Dickinson’s firmament [fell] below the horizon into the black void of death.” Not even the poet herself is allowed to die simply: “Did Emily Dickinson glimpse fame and her own surpassing Power as she lay on the bed facing west and sundown in those last days during the spring of 1886?” When Wolff says of death that “none can return to tell the tale of passage,” we may wonder what she meant in also remarking that “it is important to dispel the melodramatic aura that has attended so many accounts of Emily Dickinson’s life.”

But perhaps some melodrama is unavoidable given Wolff’s approach, for she has succeeded as well as any other critic has in suggesting where to look for the sources of anxiety and obsession in Dickinson’s work. One can be impatient with her relentless interpretations of certain poems, and still feel that she has found more dark reserves in Dickinson’s life than we were aware of. Dickinson appears in these pages as a poète maudit—cursed by being a neglected child, a woman, a throwback to an earlier time—who turned her privations to great poetry. It is a different Dickinson from the sunnier, more sociable poet one meets, for example, in Sewall’s biography, the sly Yankee who could say, a few years before her death, “Unless we become as Rogues, we cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” But some of the best literary criticism is partial, and we are lucky to have this intensely argued reading of a difficult, mysterious, and often forbidding poet.

  1. 1

    Richard Sewall, The Life of Emily Dickinson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974).

  2. 2

    A Feast of Words: The Triumph of Edith Wharton (Oxford University Press, 1977).

  3. 3

    See Helen McNeil’s new book, Emily Dickinson (Pantheon, 1986), for a different approach to Dickinson’s symbolism. McNeil admits much more play in what she calls Dickinson’s “cross-referential image clusters”: “The same images enter other poems with different emphases.” She suggests that Dickinson’s model in her use of imagery was Shakespeare.

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