Dec 102015


Today is the birthday (1830) of poet Emily Elizabeth Dickinson. Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, and spent all of her life there. Although part of a prominent family with strong ties to its community, Dickinson lived much of her life in seclusion. After studying at the Amherst Academy for seven years in her youth, she briefly attended the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary before returning to her family’s house in Amherst. Considered an eccentric by locals, she developed a noted penchant for white clothing and became known for her reluctance to greet guests or, later in life, to even leave her bedroom. Dickinson never married, and most friendships between her and others depended entirely upon correspondence.


While Dickinson was a prolific private poet, fewer than a dozen of her nearly 1,800 poems were published during her lifetime. The work that was published during her lifetime was usually altered significantly by the publishers to fit the conventional poetic rules of the time. Dickinson’s poems are unique for the era in which she wrote; they contain short lines, typically lack titles, and often use slant rhyme (near rhyme) as well as unconventional capitalization and punctuation. Many of her poems deal with themes of death and immortality, two recurring topics in letters to her friends.

Although Dickinson’s acquaintances were most likely aware of her writing, it was not until after her death in 1886 — when Lavinia, Dickinson’s younger sister, discovered her cache of poems — that the breadth of her work became apparent to the public. Her first collection of poetry was published in 1890 by personal acquaintances Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd, though both heavily edited the content. A complete, and mostly unaltered, collection of her poetry became available for the first time when scholar Thomas H. Johnson published The Poems of Emily Dickinson in 1955. Despite some unfavorable reception and skepticism over the late 19th and early 20th centuries regarding her literary prowess, her work is more highly regarded nowadays.


When my son was 7 years old his teacher took his class on a field trip to Amherst, preceded by a lengthy series of talks about Dickinson and her poetry. He was captivated and learnt many of her poems by heart. Whilst in Amherst he visited famous sites and bought her complete works (which he pored over for months). I’ll have to find out if the love affair persists to this day. I, however, am less enthused. On the one hand I can see her place in the poetic world as transitional from classic Romanticism to modernism, and admire her for that. But, on the other, while her playfulness with rhyme, spelling, capitalization, and such, break the old rules, I don’t find it particularly interesting. Nor do her themes appeal much. I’m not enamored of Yankee culture in general, and don’t resonate in particular with the musings of a conscious social isolate. I can handle only so much first person poetry that seems largely devoid of human contact except when it comes to death. Its quirkiness seems almost entirely New England in spirit. I do readily admit that this is a matter of personal choice. You will at least, I hope, give me credit for celebrating her even though I care little for her work.

I’ll give you this sample to show I don’t dislike everything she wrote:

I MEANT to have but modest needs,    
Such as content, and heaven;    
Within my income these could lie,    
And life and I keep even.    
But since the last included both,            
It would suffice my prayer    
But just for one to stipulate,    
And grace would grant the pair.    
And so, upon this wise I prayed,—    
Great Spirit, give to me            
A heaven not so large as yours,    
But large enough for me.  

A smile suffused Jehovah’s face;    
The cherubim withdrew;    
Grave saints stole out to look at me,            
And showed their dimples, too.    
I left the place with all my might,—    
My prayer away I threw;    
The quiet ages picked it up,    
And Judgment twinkled, too,            
That one so honest be extant    
As take the tale for true    
That “Whatsoever you shall ask,    
Itself be given you.”    
But I, grown shrewder, scan the skies    
With a suspicious air,—    
As children, swindled for the first,    
All swindlers be, infer.


I am also given to like the fact that she loved to tend the flower garden at home. This is a solitary pleasure which I enjoyed for many decades. Judith Farr notes that Dickinson, during her lifetime, “was known more widely as a gardener, perhaps, than as a poet”. Dickinson studied botany from the age of nine and, along with her sister, tended the garden at Homestead. During her lifetime, she assembled a collection of pressed plants in a 66-page leather-bound herbarium. It contained 424 pressed flower specimens that she collected, classified, and labeled using the Linnaean system. The Homestead garden was well-known and admired locally in its time. It has not survived, and Dickinson kept no garden notebooks or plant lists, but a clear impression can be formed from the letters and recollections of friends and family. Her niece, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, remembered “carpets of lily-of-the-valley and pansies, platoons of sweetpeas, hyacinths, enough in May to give all the bees of summer dyspepsia. There were ribbons of peony hedges and drifts of daffodils in season, marigolds to distraction—a butterfly utopia”. In particular, Dickinson cultivated scented exotic flowers, writing that she “could inhabit the Spice Isles merely by crossing the dining room to the conservatory, where the plants hang in baskets”. Dickinson would often send her friends bunches of flowers with verses attached, but “they valued the posy more than the poetry”.


It is also known that Dickinson loved to bake, although precious little of that endeavor survives either. This blog gives a good description of her recipe for coconut cake.


The “recipe” is no more than a list of ingredients:

1 cup cocoanut

2 cups flour

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup butter

1/2 cup milk

2 eggs

1/2 teaspoonful soda

1 teaspoonful cream of tartar

This makes one half the rule–

I should hope that any competent baker can figure out the method. If not, consult the link above. This is not something I am ever likely to want to bake.