Thursday, November 4, 2010

Lives Like Loaded Guns by Lyndall Gordon

'Abyss has no biographer - ', Emily Dickinson said. Truth is bottomless, and she herself almost invisible. After her death, letters from correspondents were burned according to her instructions and soon legend replaced living fact. The public learned to revere a harmless homebody who shut off from life to suffer and contemplate a disappointment in love. Who, then, is there if we pare away the sentimental story that sees the poet through one or other man in her life, or the counter-story that cuts out men in favor of sister-love? Only the poet herself can tell.

'Tell' is one of her words, playing around her flaunting of secrets. The 'I' of her poems leaps out at us with startling disclosures: “I'm Nobody! Who are you?', she asks. 'Nobody' she may be, but no innocuous nonentity, and the roles in her repertoire are many: the confrontational Nobody with a capital N', the tease speaking in riddles to those who would know her; the flirt who exults in the role of a 'Wife – without the Sign!'; and above all, the not-so-veiled boasts of volcanic power controlled by poetic form.

Yet for all the poems' confessional aplomb, a secret slips into silence even as the poet points to it in one of her most telling poems. “I tie my Hat' is about an explosive Existence coexisting with the speakers visible life as a nineteenth-century woman. Modest domesticity is her cover for the soul's immensity, breaking through her clockwork routines:

I tie my Hat – I crease my Shawl -
Life's little duties do – precisely -
As the very least
Were infinite – to me -

I put new Blossoms in the Glass -
And throw the Old – away -
I push a petal from my Gown
That anchored there – I weigh
The time 'twill be til six o'clock -
So much I have to do -
And yet – Existence – some way back -
Stopped – struck – my ticking – through...

A double life is not surprising: it's almost inevitable with intelligent women of Dickinson's homebound generation. She was drawn to Jane Eyre, and Maggie Tulliver, George Eliot's provincial girl whose 'eyes were full of unsatisfied intelligence and unsatisfied, beseeching affection'. All these aspiring nineteenth-century women struggle for self-control and contrive to do their duty. What's stranger in Dickinson's character are the silences surrounding almost every word in the climatic couplet about the nameless thing that 'struck' a tick-tock life.

Unanswered questions resonate in the wake of lives, and no one more elusive than Emily Dickinson.. the first responsible step was to map her social landscape... to track down verifiable facts has been an impressive achievement of the last half-century. A complementary venture lies ahead: to risk 'the Abyss', the biographic sources of creativity we can never fully explain. In that sense, the poet is right to warn us off, yet the enigma she presents beckons: its teasing insistence suggests something to be solved.

Early biographers got lost in the byways of fancy but there are two secure openings to the larger truth of her buried life: one explores- in poems, letters, diaries, journals, unfinished autobiographies, reminiscences, interviews and taped memoirs (the abundance of archival record makes it possible to know the actors close up)- about her 'sickness', how it strikes her and the strange lift it offers her work. A linked approach is though archival records of a different sort of disruption: a family feud in which she was interfused.

The feud began with adultery, Emily Dickinson became its focus after her death, each side battling for her unpublished papers. The issue was not so much money as the right to own the poet – the right to say who she was. Each side claimed to know, and fought to promote its legend. These legends still guard the entrance to the Abyss, for the feud persists even now.

[The lovers in this case were ED's older brother Austin- landowner, trustee and treasurer of Amherst College, sanctified pillar of the community and Mabel Loomis Todd, the remarkable (also married) woman who, after the death of the poet, brought the first collection of her work to the attention of the public: “What we did had a consecration of its own” (mostly in Emily's parlor), they said. Austin's wife was Susan, the poet's dearest friend and next door neighbor. This affair and its ramifications are the source of the principle drama in the book.]

[ The author makes a good circumstantial case that Emily's sickness was epilepsy, which in those days was also matter that 'had to be' carefully concealed from the public eye. By the standard of the day she might have been locked up in an asylum, she could surely never marry, but her father provided a sensible physician, support and independence in her own house with a garden, conservatory and library.]

At the age of sixteen Emily was allowed to attend Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley, the first women's college in the country, where a scene of religious revival was underway. She did not rise to the occasion and was assigned to the lowest social category of students: among the thirty out of 235 girls in 'the remnant of no-hopers.' 'Many are flocking to the ark of safety', she wrote in a letter, 'but I have not yet given up to the claims of Christ.. .I have neglected the one thing needful when all are obtaining it ( the desire to be good)... Oh how I wish I could say that with sincerity, but I fear I never can.”

' Have you said your prayers?' the headmistress asked in one confrontation.

'Yes, ' she answered, 'though it can't make much difference to the Creator.”

Dickinson later made her allegiance clear:

'Faith' is a fine invention
When Gentlemen can see -
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency.

Emily Dickinson became a model of Ralph Waldo Emerson's belief in the integrity of the private mind, self-reliance and spiritual independence, 'wicked' in the majority view of the people of Amherst at the time, though her opposition was muted, rueful and self-effacing. Privately she questioned her society's abasement before its image of a paternalistic Omnipotence who shames disobedience and prompts the polarizing of the saved and the sinner: 'bright halos' on one side; cast-down eyes on the other.

'Parting is all we know of heaven
And all we need of hell.”

[ Who can truly plumb 'The Abyss? The evidence of her writing suggests that, despite the dreadful anticipation and the exhaustion after, she experienced the onset of her seizures as a kind of ecstasy. The combination of this with her odd position in society, the early deaths of dear friends and siblings and a superb education are reflected in the disruptive ('volcanic') energy crucial to her art, its unconventional shifts and ungrammatical forms, particularly in the Shakespearean manner she turned nouns into verbs.]

The research is still at an early stage, but one idea is that nouns and verbs may be processed in different parts of our brain, which means that when the usual connection is challenged a new pathway opens up. A 'surge' in the brain registers on an electro-encephalogram one six-hundredth of a second after we hear a novelty of transformed grammar. This surge is said to be a kind of syncopation. In jazz, the jolt of syncopation interrupts the glide of musical pathways. This rhythm, as vital to jazz as to Dickinson's start-stop lines, has made her appealing to composers, from John Adam's Harmonium with its marvellously objective choral treatment of 'Because I could not stop for Death', to pop stars like Peter Doherty who adapt her lines.

“Actually, I nicked one or two of Dickinson's lines', he whispered to me, griping a Guinness in London's Boogaloo bar. “Aargh, she's outrageous man! She's fuckin' hardcore!'

What did he pinch?

'I took one Draught of Life, paid only the market price,' he quoted. I added, 'now I'm estranged”. He delivered each word with a point in the air, like an invisible karaoke ball. 'Bom,bom,bom, bom, bom, bom.' He saw his present-day life – estranged, imprisoned, finding solace in words – in what Dickinson had to tell of her life in 1862:

I took one Draught of Life —
I'll tell you what I paid —
Precisely an existence —
The market price, they said.

Curiously, Doherty expresses a Dickinsonian aversion to public eyes. To perform in public is a nightmare, like war, 'but to sit down and write in solitude is like a dream.'

An artist as original as Dickinson must create her audience. She would have chosen readers attuned to the inward life. While Julia Ward Howe was writing 'Battle Hymn of the Republic' and Whitman his Drum Taps, Dickinson demolished feats of heroism: no golden fleece, and Jason a sham. Her friends shared or tolerated her repudiation of dead words, especially sayings of unthinking faith: dull heaven, mindless obedience, meekness and blind belief in the resurrection were all targets. She told her first editor Higginson she shunned people 'because they talk of Hallowed things, aloud – and embarrass my Dog.”

Higginson, who thought he had been corresponding with an apologetic, self-effacing pupil, was puzzled to find himself 'drained' of 'nerve-power' after his first visit to her in 1970. He was unable to describe the creature he found beyond a few surface facts: her light steps had pattered as she approached; she had two smooth bands of auburn hair and no good features; she had been deferential and exquisitely clean in her pique dress and short light-blue cape (crotcheted with a drawstring neck); and after an initial hesitation she proved surprisingly articulate.

'Could you tell me what a home is?' she had asked. 'Is it oblivion or absorption when things pass from our minds?' She'd read Shakespeare and thought, 'why is any other book needed?'

It should have been exciting, but Higginson was trying to reach her through everyday talk.. Not easy, especially as he sensed that questions might make her withdraw. She, for her part, had no qualms. Without his touching her she drew from him, noting with concern how he tired.

'Gratitude is the only secret that cannot reveal itself,' was her parting flourish. Why complicate thanks with this insistence on her secret? It seemed of a piece with her wish and refusal to 'tell'. Poor Higginson was baffled. She had said a lot of strange things, from which he deduced an 'abnormal' life. He was relieved not to live near her.

When Higginson came face to face with Dickinson for the second and last time, in 1873, he asked her how she coped with lack of occupation, day by day within the same walls. She was astonished and gave him to understand that such a question had never occurred to her. Though by then Higginson had corresponded with her for twelve years and read a good many of her poems, he was unaware that her inward life was so active, and her attention to events of nature so constant, that she felt no lack of occupation. She gardened, kept a flourishing conservatory, made the household bread since her father preferred hers and, then too, she added dreamily, 'people must have puddings...'

Her main occupation, of course, was her work, starting before dawn. One poem “The Birds begun at Four o'clock' celebrates the 'multiplicity' of their music when there is no one to hear: “The Listener – was not -'. Patently untrue, because the poet, singing at the same hour, is awake and present. Nor was it true that her voice had no audience, her poems as ephemeral as birdsong. She ensured that five to six hundred fair copies were entrusted to her friends and, as a further precaution, half of her poems (presumably those she most wished to preserve) were in hand-sewn manuscript booklets tucked away at home, which would sing, she knew, in time to come.

At six o'clock the dawn chorus is over; the 'Band' has gone; the sun rises; day takes over. The poet, the unmentioned witness, is left to balance loss and achievement. This she does with perfect equanimity, closing with a neat full stop:

The Miracle that introduced
Forgotten, as fulfilled.

She tells us, generations on, exactly what we want to know: the Miracle of composition overrode public obliteration during her lifetime. Composition was not only an end in itself; it was 'Extasy':

Nor was it for applause -
That I could ascertain
But independent Extasy
Of Universe, and Men.


  1. Because I could not stop for Death,
    He kindly stopped for me;
    The carriage held but just ourselves
    And Immortality.

    We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
    And I had put away
    My labour, and my leisure too,
    For his civility.

    We passed the school where children played,
    Their lessons scarcely done;
    We passed the fields of gazing grain,
    We passed the setting sun.

    We paused before a house that seemed
    A swelling of the ground;
    The roof was scarcely visible,
    The cornice but a mound.

    Since then 'tis centuries; but each
    Feels shorter than the day
    I first surmised the horses' heads
    Were toward eternity.

  2. A doubt if it be us
    Assists the staggering mind
    In an extremer anguish
    Until it footing find;

    An unreality is lent,
    A merciful mirage,
    That makes the living possible
    While it suspends the lives.

  3. Behold this little bane,
    The boon of all alive,
    As common as it is unknown,
    The name of it is love.

    To lack of it is woe,
    To own of it is wound -
    Not elsewhere, if in paradise,
    Its tantamount be found.

  4. The fairest home I ever knew
    Was founded in an hour
    By parties also that I knew,
    A spider and a flower.

  5. Crumbling is not an instant's Act
    A fundamental pause
    Dilapidation's processes
    Are organized Decays.

    'Tis first a Cobweb on the Soul
    A Cuticle of Dust
    A Borer in the Axis
    An Elemental Rust —

    Ruin is formal — Devil's work
    Consecutive and slow —
    Fail in an instant, no man did
    Slipping — is Crash's law.

  6. Tell all the truth but tell it slant,
    Success in circuit lies,
    Too bright for our infirm delight
    The truth's superb surprise;

    As lightning to the children eased
    With explanation kind,
    The truth must dazzle gradually
    Or every man be blind.