How I met Emily Dickinson

June 27, 2010 at 3:49 pm (books, Poetry, Travel)

It happened at the Concord Colonial Inn in Concord, Massachusetts, some twenty years ago. My husband and I were having dinner. Emily Dickinson was wafting hither and thither through the dining room, clutching a shawl close against the cold. She was available, she informed us, for the purpose of reciting her poems.

Any requests?

My first thought: “Because I could not stop for death, / He kindly stopped for me.”

Second thought: “After great pain, a formal feeling comes– / The nerves sit ceremonious like tombs;”

Well, this just won’t do, said I to myself. Here we are, in this lovely old (supposedly haunted) hotel, partaking of this delicious New England repast. There may have been a fire going in the fireplace. At any rate, I felt the need to elicit from Miss Dickinson a lyric rather less doom laden than the above. I said to her  tentatively, “Isn’t there something about a ‘little tippler’…?”

There certainly was, and she forthwith launched into her recitation:

I taste a liquor never brewed,
From tankards scooped in pearl;
Not all the vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an alcohol!

Inebriate of air am I,
And debauchee of dew,
Reeling, through endless summer days,
From inns of molten blue.

When landlords turn the drunken bee
Out of the foxglove’s door,
When butterflies renounce their drams,
I shall but drink the more!

Till seraphs swing their snowy hats,
And saints to windows run,
To see the little tippler
Leaning against the sun!

I have visited Concord several times, and have waxed lyrical about that gem of a town in this space. Emily Dickinson, however, did not live in Concord but rather in Amherst, to the west. Her life was intimately bound up with the college, with Amherst Academy, where she received her secondary school education, and with the newly founded Mount Holyoke College in nearby South Hadley, which she also attended. I’m getting all this from a new biography of the poet by Lyndall Gordon. I first heard of this book some months ago and was at once struck by its title, which, considering the subject, seemed bizarre: . A book about Emily Dickinson entitled Lives Like Loaded Guns? what was that about? The subtitle pretty much explains it: “Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds.” It is Gordon’s contention that those feuds – one of them about a scandalous love affair – shaped the manner in which the poet’s legacy has come down to us. As for the title itself, it originates in this poem:

My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun –
In Corners – till a Day
The Owner passed – identified –
And carried Me away -And now We roam in Sovereign Woods –
And now We hunt the Doe –
And every time I speak for Him –
The Mountains straight reply –

And do I smile, such cordial light
Upon the Valley glow –
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let its pleasure through –

And when at Night – Our good Day done –
I guard My Master’s Head –
‘Tis better than the Eider-Duck’s
Deep Pillow – to have shared –

To foe of His – I’m deadly foe –
None stir the second time –
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye –
Or an emphatic Thumb –

Though I than He – may longer live
He longer must – than I –
For I have but the power to kill,
Without–the power to die–

I don’t completely understand these lines, but I feel their power nonetheless – especially where the final two lines are concerned. As for the book,  it weighs in at slightly over 400 pages (not counting notes & etc.), and at present I’m only fifty-six pages in. It is a slow but very compelling read.

As for the Emily Dickinson I encountered at the Concord Inn, she was, of course, an actress playing the part. But she was convincing, and she  knew much of the canon by heart. And as for her presence there in Concord, the town has so many distinguished ghosts, it didn’t seem all that odd to see her there.

Louisa May Alcott

Henry David Thoreau, whose family resided in what is now the Colonial Inn while he attended Harvard

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose thought and writings profoundly influenced Emily Dickinson.

As for the Dickinson poem that, for me, is the pure distillation of her genius, it is this one, which I alluded to above:

After great pain a formal feeling comes–
The nerves sit ceremonious like tombs;
The stiff Heart questions–was it He that bore?
And yesterday–or centuries before?The feet, mechanical, go round
A wooden way
Of ground, or air, or ought,
Regardless grown,
A quartz contentment, like a stone.

This is the hour of lead
Remembered if outlived,
As freezing persons recollect the snow–
First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.

2 Comments

  1. Pauline Cohen said,

    Roberta,

    After reading your comments on the new biography of Emily Dickinson and being intrigued by the author’s choice of title (“Lives Like Loaded Guns”), I was interested to see a review of the book in this week’s “The Nation” magazine. Based on his reading of Lyndall Gordon’s work, the reviewer gave a very different picture of Emily from the one I had imagined in my mind. She must have been quite fierce and difficult a lot of the time. I had thought of her as a very different type of personality–someone who was rather subdued and shy who expressed her hidden depths through her poetry–but I seem to be completely wrong. Anyway, this is yet another book I plan to read!

    Pauline

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