Emily Dickinson—born on this day in 1830—is known for the startling violence of her poetry and the mythic quality of her life. One biography uncovers the secrets and feuds that made a great American poet
Poet Emily Dickinson was born on December 10th 1830
Sweeping up the heart
The secrets and feuds that made a great American poet
Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds. By Lyndall Gordon. Viking Press; 512 pages; $32.95. Virago; £20. Buy from Amazon.com,Amazon.co.uk
EMILY DICKINSON, who was born nearly 200 years ago, has long been an enigma. She was so reclusive that the townsfolk of Amherst, Massachusetts, where she spent her life, called her “the myth”, as if her very existence were in question. Few got so much as a glimpse of her white dress—as an adult she only wore white—and only ten of her poems were published in her lifetime. After her death in 1886, hundreds of others were discovered in a wooden chest, and a new legend grew up, sweet with pathos, of a woman too delicate for this world, disappointed in love.
Yet the mysterious poems were anything but sweet. Their startling violence and strange hiatuses—Dickinson's trademark dashes for punctuation—seem to hint at a secret both precise and unknowable. Something was happening in the mind of the poet, the “funeral in my brain”, the volcanic “throe”. In “Lives Like Loaded Guns”, which was published in Britain in February and has now also come out in America, Lyndall Gordon, a South African-born literary biographer and academic, presents new and compelling evidence that there was an unsentimental reason behind the poet's seclusion: the mysterious “It” to which Dickinson refers in her poetry was congenital epilepsy, a condition which also afflicted her cousin and nephew, and which was regarded as a stigma in the 19th century.
All agree that Dickinson suffered from some unnamed illness, but Ms Gordon shows that the drugs prescribed by her doctor were those which were then used in the treatment of epileptic fits. If the poet rarely went out it was because a seizure could come on at any time. Her nunlike renunciation of normal life should be seen in the context of a culture in which epileptics were forbidden—by law in some states—to marry.
There was, it seems, a medical reality behind the apparent mystical epiphanies and out-of-body experiences described in her work. Yet epilepsy was not the sole source of Dickinson's creativity and unconventional outlook. Her startling independence of mind was already formed before the onset of the disease, expressed in her youthful refusal to kowtow to the revivalist religion of her peers. Poetry became her way of controlling the uncontrollable, and of communicating her experience to the few readers with whom she shared her manuscripts.
If the poet's celebrated spirituality was in fact rooted in her physical body, her domestic life too, as Ms Gordon reveals, was rather more dominated by the carnal than has been supposed. The pious, respectable, intellectual Dickinsons were the leading family in Amherst. But behind locked doors, a story of sexual abandon and toxic adultery was unfolding which would impact on the poet's posthumous reputation.
Emily Dickinson lived with her unmarried sister Lavinia in an elegant house called The Homestead. Next door, at Evergreens, was the family home of her brother Austin; his wife, Sue, was Emily's intimate, and she addressed much of her poetry to her. But their comparative Eden was shattered by the arrival in Amherst of Mabel Loomis Todd, a young faculty wife. Musical, artistic and ambitious, the ruthless Mabel insinuated herself into the Dickinsons' lives. In 1882 she embarked on an affair with Emily's brother Austin, who ensured Mr Todd's compliance by promoting his academic career. The lovers thought their passion was so special that normal rules did not apply. The spurned wife, Sue, was devastated, and the resulting family feud would echo down the generations.
It was not enough for Mabel to possess Austin. She wanted the reclusive genius for her own. Amazingly, she never met Emily, who would slip away every time Mabel entered The Homestead. This was frequently, as the lovers used the dining-room there for their assignations, making love for two or three hours at a time on the black horsehair sofa. Forced out of the room where she was accustomed to write, Emily retreated to the floor above, from where the goings-on downstairs were clearly audible. Mabel's descendants would later propagate a view of her love for Austin as a beautiful romance, but to Emily's ears it can hardly have seemed elevated. She kept out of Mabel's way, but wrote her poems and notes replete with allusions to destructive sexual obsession in Shakespeare's tragedies.
Mabel effectively destroyed the Dickinson family. The irony is, however, that she was one of the only people to recognise Emily's originality and brilliance in her lifetime. After Emily died, Mabel determined that the public should read the poetry, and devoted herself to editing, publishing and promoting it. In doing so, she suppressed some of its originality, conventionalising Emily's odd punctuation. She also constructed the sentimental view of the mythic poetess and her milieu which Ms Gordon's biography has now so effectively dispelled.
It is a rare thing for a literary biographer to take on a well-known poet and completely rewrite history. This astonishing book, written with common sense and compassion, will do nothing less than revolutionise the way in which Dickinson is read for years to come.
"The Road Was Lit With Moon And Star" by Emily Dickinson, who was born 185 years ago today in 1830.
The Road was lit with Moon and star -
The Trees were bright and still -
Descried I - by the distant Light A Traveller on a Hill - To magic Perpendiculars Ascending, though Terrene - Unknown his shimmering ultimate - But he indorsed the sheen -
Poems: Dickinson contains poems from The Poet's Art, The Works of Love, and Death and Resurrection, as well as an index of first lines.
On the 185th anniversary of her birth, a selection of the remarkable letters of Emily Dickinson...
"God is sitting here, looking into my very soul to see if I think right thoughts. Yet I am not afraid, for I try to be right and good; and He knows every one of my struggles."
-- from a letter to Abiah Root (29 January 1850)
The same inimitable voice and dazzling insights that make Emily Dickinson’s poems immortal can be found in the whimsical, humorous, and often deeply moving letters she wrote to her family and friends throughout her life. The selection of letters presented here provides a fuller picture of the eccentric recluse of legend, showing how immersed in life she was: we see her tending her garden; baking bread; marking the marriages, births, and deaths of those she loved; reaching out for intellectual companionship; and confessing her personal joys and sorrows. These letters, invaluable for the light they shed on their author, are, as well, a pure pleasure to read. READ an excerpt here:http://knopfdoubleday.com/book/210077/letters/9780307597045/