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Emily Dickinson’s Secret Lives

Among the 295 poems that Emily Dickinson is believed to have written during 1863, at the height of the Civil War, are several arresting short lyrics that address the subject of art as a response to inflicted pain. “Essential Oils—are wrung—,” she writes in one poem. “The Attar from the Rose/Be not expressed by Suns—alone—/It is the gift of Screws.” And in another, less frequently quoted:

Must be a Wo—
A loss or so—
To bend the eye
Best Beauty’s way—

But—once aslant
It notes Delight
As difficult
As Stalactite—

Here the form of the poem—stalac- tite-thin iambic dimeter, dangling downward from the opening line, from which a lopped-off “It” or “There” still sticks to the roof of the cave—mirrors its subject of “difficult delight.” So do the rhymes, “aslant” like their subject: the “eye” bent toward Beauty’s “way.” In “Must be a Wo,” we see Dickinson working out an idea best expressed in one of her most familiar poems, “After great pain, a formal feeling comes,” where “formal” refers not only to the need for ceremony in response to pain (“the Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs—“) but also to the satisfactions of aesthetic form. As Robert Frost, her fellow poet of Amherst, put it: “Anyone who has achieved the least form to be sure of it, is lost to the larger excruciations.”

As biographical “evidence,” reliable documentation of a life lived, a poem like “Must be a Wo” is both everything and nothing. Everything, because what possible events in Emily Dickinson’s life could matter more to us than the roughly two thousand poems she wrote and then carefully placed, most of them unread by anyone but herself, in her bedroom drawer? Nothing, because the poem is silent about what specific “loss or so” (deaths in the Civil War? disappointments in love? eye troubles?) this speaker is talking about, let alone whether we are meant to identify the speaker as Emily Dickinson at age thirty-two. In one of her rare directives on how her poems were to be read, Dickinson echoed many other poets in warning that “when I state myself, as the Representative of the Verse—it does not mean—me—but a supposed person.” This statement would seem to “dissolve any linkage,” as Alfred Habegger notes in his new life of Dickinson, between her first-person speakers and herself.

Emily Dickinson is better known for her privations—her “woes” real or imagined—than for her advantages, and it is partly to right the balance that Habegger has written My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson. Neither the wars nor the books are what Walt Whitman had in mind when he claimed that “the real war will never get in the books.” Although Dickinson wrote nearly half of her 1,789 known poems during the Civil War, and stitched many of these into little manuscript booklets for safekeeping, she had little to say about the war in her poems nor did she publish books. (Only ten of her poems, none at her instigation, were published during her lifetime.) What Habegger’s title, drawn from a late poem of Dickinson’s, means is that the real conflicts in Dickinson’s life were internal—what she called “that Campaign inscrutable/Of the Interior”—and that she worked them out in her poetry. “Dickinson’s ultimate purpose in writing was something other than communication,” he writes.

Poetry functioned, in Habegger’s view, “as a kind of self-therapy” for Dickinson, corresponding to a progression in her writing from “the voicing of present, extreme, and exclamatory feeling” during the early 1860s (when Dickinson was in her early thirties) to a mature equanimity late in life that Habegger calls “repose.” Whether the known facts of Dickinson’s life support this view depends on how one interprets several key events—events that remain, for all Habegger’s energetic digging, obscure.


The main outlines of Emily Dickinson’s life are of a piece with her spare and austere poetry—“My life has been too simple and stern to embarrass any,” she once wrote. The restrained Connecticut River Valley society into which she was born, on December 10, 1830, in Amherst, Massachusetts, was self-consciously opposed to the liberal religious—especially Unitarian—tendencies of Boston. It was specifically to provide an alternative to wayward Harvard that Amherst College, which figures so prominently in Dickinson’s life, was founded—by her grandfather, among others—in 1820. “We have seen error attempting to roll its desolating flood through our churches,” Noah Webster, another founder of the college and neighbor of the Dickinsons, proclaimed at the ceremonial laying of the cornerstone. “We have seen prostituted to the vile purpose of disseminating false doctrines, funds that were consecrated to the interests of truth.”

Emily Dickinson’s father, Edward, the leading lawyer in Amherst and a Whig representative in the state legislature, served for many years as treasurer (after his death, his son, Austin, took over the management of the “consecrated funds”) and public advocate of the college. The schools and churches that Dickinson, along with her brother and her younger sister, Lavinia, attended as a child were dedicated to rolling back the “error” of any departure from the strict doctrines of the Reformation.

Rebellion against these reactionary tendencies, first reluctant and then increasingly avid and heartfelt, is the pattern of Dickinson’s childhood and adolescence. “Unless we become as Rogues,” she later wrote, “we cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” Her strict father was an outspoken opponent of “literary women” (Dickinson’s mother was barely literate, her spelling and punctuation more wayward than her daughter’s) and a grudging supporter of women’s education as preparation for a quiet and domestic Christian life. But he clearly adored his quick-witted and mercilessly articulate elder daughter. Contrary to feminist accounts of her patriarchal imprisonment, Emily Dickinson’s objec-tions to her father’s strictures had an affectionate tone: “He buys me many Books—but begs me not to read them—because he fears they joggle the Mind.” Dickinson attended a loosely organized preparatory school called the Amherst Academy, where she read Virgil and was allowed to attend lectures in geology and botany at all-male Amherst College.

Beginning during the fall of 1847, Dickinson spent a miserable year at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, a school even stricter than Amherst in upholding Christian doctrine and in seeking, through public revivals and intense private prayer meetings, the conversion of its students. No visitors were allowed on Sundays nor were students allowed to go home for the weekend: “The excitement of visiting, of meeting friends and of home scenes,” as the catalog explained, “will prevent in great measure the improvement.” Habegger has discovered evidence that the pressures brought to bear on Dickinson were even stronger than had been thought, with hectoring guests invited to campus to raise the number of converts. When one of the pious girls died in May, those “without hope” were strongly encouraged to “look at the corpse” and think about the hereafter. At first, Dickinson’s failure to feel that inward surge of certainty that would place her among the “saved” distressed her. By the end of the long year, she seems to have felt relief to be leaving this scene of “religious brainwashing,” as Habegger calls it. “I believe the love of God may be taught not to seem like bears,” she later wrote.

By 1855 the Dickinsons were sufficiently well-off to buy outright the conspicuous large brick house on Main Street known as the Mansion (only later did it acquire its more modest nickname of the Homestead)—half of which they had owned at the time of Dickinson’s birth. She entertained undergraduates from Amherst College at the Homestead; and it was assumed that one of these would eventually marry her. What she got from such early “preceptors” as Benjamin Newton (like others in her inner circle a Unitarian) was encouragement in writing her remarkable letters and, apparently, her first attempts at poetry. In her first published work, a valentine in verse that appeared in the Springfield Republican in early 1852, the pleasures invoked are more verbal than romantic (“Mortality is fatal—/Gentility is fine,/Rascality, heroic,/Insolvency, sublime!“). Of this relatively sociable period in her life she later said that, aside from her dog Carlo, “my Lexicon—was my only companion.”

What turned her life inward from flirtatious exchanges with young men and intense friendships with girlfriends like Susan Gilbert, who married Dickinson’s brother and moved next door into the Italianate villa called the Evergreens, remains unclear. For several months of every year she was too sick to attend school, and probably, as Habegger suggests, tubercular. (He believes that the famous 1848 daguerreotype of Dickinson, the only known photographic image of her, shows the emaciating effects of the “wasting” disease.) Long walks in the woods were prescribed, and Dickinson became a passionate collector of wildflowers, carefully preserved in her capacious herbarium and, in a different way, in the many references to specific flowers in her poems. She remembered fondly this “barefoot life” when she no longer ventured outside the confines of her father’s yard, continuing, however, to be an enthusiastic gardener and less enthusiastic keeper of the house. “I prefer pestilence,” she wrote.

Sometime around 1861 there was a crisis in Dickinson’s life, though scholars have disagreed about its nature. She had trouble with her eyes—an eye-bending woe?—of sufficient seriousness for her twice to seek help, and eventually surgery, in Boston in 1864 and 1865. But whether this (as Cynthia Griffin Wolff has suggested) or some other trauma was the “terror—since September” that she spoke of in 1862 remains unclear. A romantic crisis of some kind has also been repeatedly suggested; the drafts of three impassioned love letters addressed to someone she identified only as “Master” have, since their first appearance in 1924, posed a puzzle as yet unsolved. Habegger dismisses recent claims by Martha Nell Smith that Master might be Susan Dickinson, arguing persuasively that Dickinson’s sometimes heated epistolary exchange with her “near-but-distant” sister-in-law was a way to preserve the distance between the two houses while seeming to bridge it. Other candidates for “Master” are Samuel Bowles, the dashing editor of the Springfield Republican and a close friend of Austin and Susan Dickinson, and the Reverend Charles Wadsworth, a Presbyterian minister whom Dickinson met briefly during a visit to Philadelphia in 1855, and who, in 1862, moved to San Francisco. Whatever its cause, or causes (Habegger believes there was “no discrete event”), Dickinson’s response to the crisis was an outpouring of poems—including many love poems in the same key as the “Master” letters—that lasted through the Civil War, only to dissipate during the period between 1865 and 1870.1

It was toward the onset of this productive period that Dickinson sought the advice of the kindly Boston man of letters Thomas Wentworth Higginson, asking him if he was “too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive.” Higginson had published an article in the Atlantic Monthly during the spring of 1862 offering advice to “young contributors”; he was also known to encourage women writers. Higginson, whose letters to Dickinson have not survived, apparently discouraged publication after reading the four poems she enclosed, to which she archly replied that publication was as foreign to her mind “as Firmament to Fin.” That Dickinson twice credited Higginson with saving her life—“The Vein cannot thank the Artery,” she told him—presents yet another puzzle. It seems likely that he was the only man she knew who lived, however tepidly and conventionally, the life of the imagination.

  1. 1

    In her recently published A Vice for Voices: Reading Emily Dickinson’s Correspondence (University of Massachusetts Press, 2001), the German scholar Marietta Messmer skirts the issue of the Master’s identity, arguing that Dickinson’s letters are “textual performances” that “blur the boundaries between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction.’” Messmer nonetheless accepts Martha Nell Smith’s claim that when Dickinson writes to Master, “but if I had the Beard on my cheek—like you,” the last two words are interpolated from a “much different time” and perhaps by another hand, and thus can-not be taken as proof that Master was male. Habegger, by contrast, finds “no basis” in Dickinson’s manuscript for these claims. On Martha Nell Smith, see also Christopher Benfey, “The Mystery of Emily Dickinson,” The New York Review, April 8, 1999.

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