At school, our English curriculum comprised the classics - Joseph Conrad, Tom Stoppard, King Lear, Chaucer - but with a healthy sideline in eccentricity - Ivor Gurney, Edward Thomas - to keep our fevered teenage imaginations interested. None more so, of course, than Emily Dickinson, the white-clad, ghostlike, hermit of Amherst, with her elliptical fragments of dash-punctuated verse. Eagerly we took her to our puzzled hearts, perhaps because there is something adolescent about much of her work - intense, self-indulgent, romantic.
I can still remember my favourite:
Exultation is the going
Of an inland soul to sea,
Past the houses - past the headlands -
Into deep Eternity.
Bred as we, among the mountains,
Can the sailor understand
The divine intoxication
Of the first league out from land?
Born to a typical New England bourgeois family, Emily was a sickly teenager, but did well at Amherst Academy, where she was particularly interested in geology. At 16, she went to Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, the first women's college in America. Despite her recognized brilliance, she did not fit in, partly because she rejected the dominant Christian revivalist ethos. After periods of ill-health, she was removed from the college at the age of 17.
Emily spent the rest of her days in the family home, The Homestead, in the bedroom overlooking the graveyard. Although at first she would walk her dog Carlo, named after the dog in Jane Eyre, a book she particularly loved, she increasingly began to withdraw from society. For nearly thirty years she looked after her mother, herself an invalid. Her father created a conservatory for her, so she could experience nature without leaving the house: she was a great gardener and amateur botanist. In the last fifteen years of her life she became reclusive, and was protected and supported in her isolation by her father, by her sister Lavinia, and by her sister-in-law Susan "most beloved friend, influence, muse, and adviser" to whom many of the poems were addressed.
Solitary, but demanding of love and attention, Emily was a very active and demanding correspondent, sending her work out to friends for feedback. Her relationships with men were few, intense and conducted mainly through correspondence. Later in life, she had an intimate friendship with a local widower, Judge Otis Lord, reading Shakespeare together, flirting and even sitting on his lap, but when he asked her to marry him, she turned him down.
A recent account of the Dickinson family by Lyndall Gordon maintains that the secret of Emily's seclusion and spinsterdom might lie in epilepsy, a condition which is known to have affected other members of the extended family:
“Nature – sometimes sears a sapling
Sometimes - scalps a tree”
In 1851, aged 20, Emily had privately consulted Dr James Jackson of Boston. Gordon suggests that they spoke candidly about her condition, and that he advised a mode of existence that would mitigate her suffering, and offer her comfort and even fulfillment. Emily was prescribed a solution of glycerine-and-water, one of the nineteenth century nostrums for epilepsy, although at a concentration which suggests to Gordon that it was only ever intended as a placebo. Another doctor advised that it was better to avoid exposure to sunlight, which could exacerbate seizures:
“The Brain within its Groove
Until a “Splinter swerve”
The whole affair was kept secret, because epilepsy was at that time so highly stigmatized. The disease was associated with syphilis, masturbation, hysteria, even insanity, and it would have been shaming to the poet and her family had her disability been known. Because seizures might strike at any time with only a few minutes warning, it was better to hide from strangers. To avoid discovery or embarrassment, it was preferable to avoid close contact and never to marry - “by birth a Batchelor”. Becoming a reclusive writer was the ideal solution. Aged 43, she even remained in her bedroom during her father's funeral.
It was perhaps disability, then, which freed Emily Dickinson from the demands made on other late nineteenth century women - marriage, children, social obligations - and which enabled her to express and explore her unique voice. Certainly, many of the poems seem compatible with this suggestion:
"I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading - treading - till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through."
But retrospective diagnosis is always perilous, and we can never know for sure, as with many historical figures, whether we are justified in claiming them as disabled people.
The locked cherrywood chest against the wall of her bedroom began to fill up with poems, on scraps of paper, loose leaves, but also in 40 handmade booklets which were only discovered after her death, containing over 800 short poems. Poems about flowers, mysterious and passionate love poems, religious poems like demented hymns, and above all poem after poem about death:
"Because I could not stop for Death -
He kindly stopped for me -
The Carriage held but just Ourselves-
Among her influences - Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the Brontes, George Eliot - was the Book of Revelation. Independent in religion as in other areas of life, Emily was inclined to Ralph Waldo Emerson's transcendentalism, rather than conforming to local Protestant orthodoxy:
"Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –
I keep it, staying at Home"
Emily had made several efforts to get her work published, for example exchanging many letters with the critic Thomas Wentworth Higginson and with Samuel Bowles, the editor of The Springfield Republican, a local newspaper, but always with disappointing results. Higginson described the work to a friend as "remarkable, though odd... too delicate - not strong enough to publish." Her frank, obscure and passionate poetry was barely understood or appreciated by contemporaries, and only a dozen examples were published in her lifetime, and in toned-down versions.
After her death at age 55, probably from kidney disease, 1800 poems were discovered by her sister Lavinia. This extraordinary poetic legacy was fought over by her relatives, and particularly by her brother Austin's mistress, Mabel Loomis Todd, who was one of the few to recognise her genius. Todd co-edited a selected volume published in 1890, though with editorial changes to suit contemporary tastes. It took some years, together with much effort to restore the original versions of the work for the 1955 complete edition. By this time, Emily Dickinson had become recognized as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, of all American poets.
Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems, edited by TH Johnson, Faber and Faber 1975.
Lyndall Gordon, Lives like loaded guns: Emily Dickinson and her family’s feuds, Virago 2010.