Emily Dickinson: 175, Immortal

This commentary ran in the Hartford Courant on Sunday, December 11, 2005.

By Martha Ackmann

Poet Emily Dickinson was born 175 years ago Saturday in Amherst, Mass. "G" - for girl - was the scant description the town doctor noted in his record book.

Dickinson lived her 55 years quietly. At 16, she attended nearby Mount Holyoke Female Seminary for one year, then returned to her family's comfortable home, where she spent the rest of her life. She never held a job, never married, never traveled beyond Washington, D.C. By her 30s, Dickinson had begun the habit of her later years, declining social invitations and preferring to spend most of her hours writing letters and tending to her family's needs. Dickinson's eventual seclusion, her sister once remarked, was gradual - "just a happen."

On the surface, Dickinson's life was uneventful - "too simple and stern to embarrass any," she once remarked. Even the poet's own physical description of herself evoked the commonplace. "[I] am small, like the Wren, and my Hair is bold, like the Chestnut Bur - and my eyes, like Sherry in the Glass, that the Guest leaves." She published 10 poems in her lifetime - all anonymously.

But Emily Dickinson's interior life - the life of her mind - was extraordinary. When reams upon reams of poems were discovered after her death, the true nature of her seemingly modest life revealed itself.

The poetry was dazzling, uncompromising, eruptive, haunting. In her verse, she searched for the comfort that religion assured, then shook her fist at God when she often found none. Her love poetry was so exposed that editors paused for fear the "spinster poet" might be misunderstood. She found grace in slants of light, the nearly imperceptible movement of the seasons and the "sumptuous Despair" of art.

In nearly 1,800 poems, Dickinson confronted her most profound emotions: pain, passion, betrayal, loneliness, exultation, sorrow and wonder. And she came face-to-face with what she called her "flood subject" - immortality. Even the most homely of objects - a stumbling, buzzing fly - did not escape her attention.

The first lines of her poems were especially arresting.

"I can wade Grief
Whole Pools of it -
But the least push of joy
Breaks up my feet."

"One need not be a Chamber - to be Haunted -
One need not be a House -
The Brain has Corridors - surpassing
Material place"

"The only news I know
Is Bulletins all Day
From Immortality -"

"I'm Nobody! Who are you?
Are you - Nobody - too?

Writing in the preface to Dickinson's first edition of poems, published four years after her death, Thomas Wentworth Higginson noted the primeval power of the work. "These verses will seem to the reader like poetry torn up by the roots, with rain and dew and earth still clinging to them."

Today an anonymous admirer from who-knows-where will send to the Dickinson museum (as she or he does every year) 175 roses to mark the years since the poet's birth. In Bozeman, Mont., elementary students at the Emily Dickinson School may spend time in "Emily's Garden," a quiet place among fir trees where they might read or write or think.

Dickinson insisted on listening to her mind and taking her thoughts seriously. Her imaginative world - what the poet called her "undiscovered continent" - was a place as thrilling, terrifying and tangible as any spot on Earth. She wrote: "I never saw a Moor./I never saw the Sea-/Yet know I how the Heather looks/And what a Billow be - ."

Perhaps today in honor of the poet's birth, a 10-year-old in Bozeman may sit in the garden and read Emily Dickinson's work. Then put down her iPod and stare southeast to Rockies and consider - like Dickinson - a view of the sky that does not stop.

Martha Ackmann teaches a Mount Holyoke College seminar on Emily Dickinson every fall at the poet's home in Amherst, Mass.


Related Link:

Martha Ackmann - Faculty Profile