By Nuala O’Connor
Nuala O’Connor’s novel Miss Emily vividly brings Emily Dickinson to life, depicting her reclusive days amongst her parents and sister at their estate, the Homestead in Amherst, Mass., in the 1860s, as well as through 18-year-old Irish maid Ada Concannon, a fictional confidant for Emily. O’Connor picks her favorite Dickinson poems. Links to the poems are provided.
Emily Dickinson did not leave any poetics or treatise to explain her life’s work, so we can come to her poetry with minds and hearts open, and unearth whatever it is we need to find. Her oeuvre is a large one and most of her work was done in secret – she didn’t share most of what she wrote. Ten or so poems were published in her lifetime, mostly without her consent. She often included poems with letters but, after her death, the poet’s sister Vinnie was surprised to find almost eighteen hundred individual poems in Dickinson’s bedroom, some of them bound into booklets by the poet.
In life and in art Emily Dickinson was idiosyncratic – she did not choose the prescribed life of a well to-do woman of her era (marriage etc.) rather she become an outsider. While ‘I taste a liquor never brewed –’ illustrates her devotion to rhyme, it also shows her maverick’s disregard for it – she often chose an apt image rather than a full rhyme. Dickinson sometimes wrote alternative lines for ‘finished’ poems. Here ‘Not all the Frankfort berries’ can be swapped out for ‘Not all the vats upon the Rhine’; we’re still in Germany but with a vastly different image. This poem illustrates how intoxicating the natural world was to Dickinson. Luckily the house she chose to sequester herself inside, in the latter part of her life, was set on large grounds. There she and her family grew an abundance of produce and flowers; all the better for this little tippler.
‘Success is counted sweetest’ is one of Dickinson’s many poems on the subject of fame. Dickinson is at her aphoristic best in poems like this, where she shines a light on the complexities of human desire. Interestingly, though Dickinson did not seek publication – her father disdained Women of Letters – this poem was published (anonymously) in an anthology called A Masque of Poets. ‘Success is counted sweetest’ brings to mind the four lines of ‘Fame is a Bee’, where Dickinson points out that fame has both song and sting, but also wings. By turning her back on notoriety Dickinson may have been trying to protect her good name. Or perhaps she feared editorial input because she had already been stung.
Dickinson’s posthumous editor and friend, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, worried about including this poem in the 1891 volume of her poetry ‘lest the malignant read into it more than that virgin recluse ever dreamed of putting there.’ Higginson seems very sure of Dickinson’s virginal state but seems to forget that she had a late romance with her father’s friend, Judge Otis Lord. Dickinson was seen sitting in Lord’s lap and wrote to him (in the third person): ‘I confess that I love him – I rejoice that I love him…’ Lord asked to marry her; apparently she refused. ‘Wild Nights – Wild Nights’ predates Dickinson’s romance with Lord but she had previous love-objects, like the mysterious ‘Master’ and also sister-in-law Sue, whom she loved ardently, as many Victorian women loved their dearest friends. So the abandon of this celebrated Dickinson love poem is not out of place and can be read for what it is: a passionate, exuberant and loving cry from the heart. It’s beautifully done.
‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain’ is one of Dickinson’s most well-known poems on mental health, using some of her favourite metaphors: death and the afterlife. The poem has the trademark up-note ending, so that the reader must guess where the breakdown leads to – the heaven of well-being, or the hell of continued mental anguish. There is a theory that Dickinson, like her nephew Ned, was epileptic; she definitely suffered eye trouble and, as we know, she had agoraphobic tendencies. Any of these, or just plain old depression, might have sparked this poem. The melding of the physical and the mental is deftly done with strong verbs – tread, break, beat, creak – that lead down to that final, breathless ‘plunge’.
Dickinson’s random use of capital letters throughout her work raises questions, but the practice comes into its own in this short poem. ‘I’m Nobody! Who are you?’ she wrote. The narrator may be nobody but she makes herself somebody with that capital N. Here is another poem about notoriety and the public eye. Perhaps it’s an apt mantra for the social media abstainers of today who prefer to revel in the luxury of anonymity, much as Dickinson did. This is one that appealed hugely to me as a child for its cheekiness and for that unexpected frog.
This is my favourite Emily Dickinson poem. Its warmth and positivity speak to my gut every time. I always pause on the inverted commas around the word ‘hope’ – and wonder why Dickinson felt the need for them. Was she qualifying hope in some private way? Dickinson was a fan of Emily Brontë – she chose the English writer’s ‘No coward soul is mine’ to be read at her funeral. Was ‘“Hope” is the thing with feathers’ influenced by Brontë’s poem ‘Hope’, within which hope ‘stretched her wings and soared to Heaven’? If so, Dickinson chose to make her poem life-affirming, a counterpoint to Brontë’s more downbeat verses on the same theme.
This is a poem I studied at school at about the age of ten. It is not as cryptic as many of Dickinson’s poems so it’s perfect for younger poetry readers. Dickinson valued the musicality of words and she loved a hymnal beat. The bird’s ‘frightened Beads’ for eyes and its ‘Velvet Head’ are the sort of recognisable, tactile images that children love. As a child who loved words, ‘plashless’ sang to me and gave me an understanding of the power of originality. I distinctly remember reciting this poem to my four sisters while acting out the part of the bird: hopping sidewise, glancing ‘with rapid eyes’ and finally unrolling my feathers to row away. Read this one to your young friends.
Perhaps the best known of Dickinson’s poems are the melancholic ones – those that deal with death and the afterlife. This may be tied in with the notion that because Dickinson was reclusive, she was also angsty and nun-like. It may also be linked to a general fascination with those who beat their own path, particularly if they seem to do it alone. The grim reaper in this poem is a civil gentleman who takes the narrator – already ghostlike in gossamer and tulle – gently towards death. It’s a hopeful, meditative poem about the promise of immortality.
Emily Dickinson excels at the explosive first line that draws the reader in; ‘My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun’ is one of her strongest openers. The poem is cryptic – it may be about the afterlife, or it may be about an actual lover; it may be a meditation on anger, helplessness and power. One reading holds that it is a Dickinson backlash against having to write her poetry in secret – gun as language, waiting to go off. Interestingly Lyndall Gordon adapted the first line for the title of her book about the Dickinson family feuds to Lives Like Loaded Guns.
Emily Dickinson loved riddles and this poem has an element of that playfulness. Ostensibly an instructional poem about how to be honest in a kindly way, it can also be read as a Dickinson poetics: Write the poem, but don’t spell it out. Decorate your message with imagery and let the reader slowly grasp the meaning. ‘Dazzle gradually.’