Emily Dickinson - The Incorrigible Non-Conformist

Jan Vickery Knost

First Parish in Norwell
November 11, 2001

"The shore is safer . . . but I love to buffet the sea."

Julie Harris, the actress, is a quiet, perfectly detailed cameo of a wonderful stage lady. She exudes a sense of her professional charisma no matter where. I say this because it was once my privilege to meet Ms. Harris.

Lorna is related to Ms. Harris on her father's side of the family. The year following the death of her Dad, Lorna learned that the one-act play about Emily Dickinson was to be presented in Boston. So we purchased tickets to see The Belle of Amherst and invited Lorna's Mother to go with us. During the intermission, we sent a note backstage asking if we might have a chance to meet Ms. Harris, mentioning Lorna's father in the note. An usher came to us shortly before the third act to let us know that Ms. Harris would be happy to meet us.

Julie Harris's charm is instantaneous. Her eyes brightened when we spoke the name of her cousin, Bill Smith. She asked questions, listened as Lorna's Mom told of how the family had grown. The few minutes we spent with her were golden moments, indeed. So you need to understand that it was on that night, while in the presence of an actress I've always admired, that the my admiration and curiosity about Emily Dickinson truly began.

At the outset of this study I can tell you with assurance that no one no one will ever completely understand Emily Dickinson. That quiet, wonderful, enigmatic New England poet lived most of her life alone.

Emily's father was a distinguished lawyer as well as a United States Representative to Congress. This had little influence on Emily. She was seldom moved to spend time thinking about matters beyond the confines of "The Homestead" named so appropriately as her Amherst, Massachusetts home.

Apparently she enjoyed a rather buoyant youth. She took part in many activities both social and of the "fun" variety of those days. But the reasons for her total withdrawal from life and people in later years has never been adequately explained. Emily Dickinson chose, for whatever reasons were hers, to live alone with her memories, her thoughts and her poetry. This poignantly cloistered life is strongly reflected in her poetry.

In Belle of Amherst, the playwright creates an imaginary look into the privacy of what one might call "a solitary". I vividly recall Ms. Harris moving about the stage thinking out loud, stopping to scribble bits of verse on small pieces of paper or other manners of reflection.

It is probably true, as some of her biographers attest, that there were only a few close friends who realized her genius while she lived. Only seven of her poems were actually published during her lifetime. No wonder. She was stubborn. She was humble. She was shy. She was also adamant to share her poems with the larger world.

At the beginning of the play she talks about people who might have understood her. She says:

Father and Mother never understood me . . . Vinnie (Her nickname for her sister Lavinia) didn't know me either. Austin and I are unlike most everyone and are more dependent on each other for delight. But - I do think - sometimes - the stories about me distress him.

In a way the stories are true. Oh, I believe in truth But I thank it can be slanted just a little. Do you know what I am saying?

According to a recent article in the Boston Globe (11/8/01) it is not difficult to understand why she would say this. Though "she wore white dresses and remained innocent of the world's turmoil, the reality is different. She (actually) lived in an environment of lust, infidelity, financial problems and family members whose carefully cultivated images as pillars of the community were as much a veneer as the thin layer of dark mahogany that cover(ed) much of their ponderous furniture. Often, her explosive words reflect(ed) this charged atmosphere: "my life had stood–a Loaded Gun."

Her brother, Austin, had a terribly unhappy and tumultuous marriage and affair. So much so that it prompted Emily once to write:

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 (one) be blind.

What a precise and delicate use of words! "...the Truth must dazzle gradually...or every one be blind." Emily was able to express personal feelings, highs and lows of consciousness and mystical observations about the human condition that were like "cameos of the English language."

It has actually been said that Emily Dickinson, as much, if not more than any of the late 19th century American poets, influenced the styles of those who were to follow her in the 20th century, Edna St. Vincent Millay, to name but one.

The strangest part of all this, though, is how simply she lived; how secluded. All the while living such an uneventful life, she nevertheless carried on a lively correspondence with several prominent critics and authors. And there is no doubt that she was strongly influenced by the writing of Ralph Waldo Emerson. One only need consider Emerson's call for rugged individualism to see it borne out in figures such as Dickinson and Henry David Thoreau.

Emily Dickinson's world was one of emphatic Puritan values. Western Massachusetts at the time of her birth was coming into a new phase of religious change. Liberal religious views were beginning to hold sway in the urban New England centers. Since Emily's antecedents were instrumental in settling the Connecticut River valley, one can see how those robust people would typify independent thinking and robust action.

For instance, Emily's grandfather, Samuel Fowler Dickinson was one of the leaders in the founding of the Amherst Academy in 1814. This later became Amherst College. Her father carried on in the same tradition. Edward Dickinson and his wife, Emily Norcross, became parents of three children. Emily, Austin and Lavinia's lives were circumscribed by values of Christian piety. The congregation of the church the Dickinsons attended gave strong support to them. Only there was one important exception. Little Emily would have none of it.

Her father postponed joining a church until he was 47. This was not because he was indifferent. It was the acuteness with which Edward judged his unworthiness in the eyes of God. But this same characteristic had no place in her daughter.

Over the years Emily received a thorough education in the classics at Amherst Academy. It was then called Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary. Her years there, according to the records, were full and she enjoyed many friends. But the new England of that time, the time of fundamentalists Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards, was not a scenario young Emily found easy to embrace. It was a Calvinism that taught unending damnation and the fires of hell.

As an aside let me suggest to you that if you spend some time going through the church yards of New England you will witness this theology reflected in the words chiseled in ancient headstones. "...saved from the fires of eternal suffering..." "...resting in peace, hell's tortures avoided..." "Safe in the everlasting arms...".

The concept of deity held by people of that time and preached from pulpits everywhere was one of a wrathful, jealous God; a God who chose those who would be saved with little humans could do about it but hope and pray.

Into this world, a world where Unitarianism was only read about, came Emily, this shy, open-faced beauty. She had the mind of a patriot; of a saint; of a poetic genius. Her feelings were held mostly in confidence to the point where she was unable to accept membership in a church. Though she knew it would cause a scandal and would reflect badly on her family, she could do no other. Listen to a letter she once wrote to Lavinia and Austin:

"My dear Sister and Brother,
The feelings with which I address you this evening I cannot describe - my heart is full - when I reflect upon the love of Christ in laying down his life for sinners, submitting himself to death, the cruel death of the cross, Oh, I could entreat all within the reach of my voice to love this savior."

Judged from the independent spirit reflected in her poetry, it is difficult not to judge the words of her letter to her siblings as rueful and dishonest. And yet, that same free spirit raised up in her heart quite early on.

In the play, Emily talks about her first days at Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary where a woman by the name of Mary Lyon ran things. Emily describes this noble lady as "the dragon". She says that girls were classified into three categories: professed Christians; those with hope; those without hope. As Emily puts it, Naturally, I was in charge of the latter group."

One evening the impenitent girls are invited to a meeting in what is called "the dungeon". The office of Ms. Lyons, we must suppose. They are told to bring their Bibles. These are the lines that follow in the play:

I am sorry, Miss Lyon, but I can't rise.
I know that I am the only one left without hope...but the spirit hasn't moved me yet.
Yes, Ma'am, I desire to be good.
Yes, I do want to please my parents, but I am not yet persuaded to be a Christian.
Oh, I appreciate your offer of mercy, Ma'am, and I know the world is sinful and wicked, but the path of duty doesn't look - well - it doesn't look very attractive to me.
But I HAVE read the Bible, Miss Lyon, Old and New Testaments.
Well, I thought at first it was an arid book.
But then I found it wise...and a bit...merry.
Yes, merry.

Perhaps the "kingdom of heaven's" changed
I hope the "children" there
Won't be new-fashioned when I come
And laugh at me - and stare -

I hope the Father in the skies
Will lift his little girl
Old-fashioned - naughty - everything
Over the stile of "pearl".

In her letter to her friend she concludes by saying,

The path of duty looks very ugly indeed, and the place where I want to go more amiable, a quiet seat, it is so much easier to do wrong than right, so much pleasanter to be evil than good, I don't wonder that good angels weep, and bad ones sing songs.
Your sincere and wicked friend, E.

You see, then, we are dealing here with the ambivalence of a young woman put upon by the mores and standards of her time to conform; to conform in fear and humility to the over-arching zeal of the evangelists and the orthodoxies of her time.

We are confronted, as well, with a young woman of stately courage in whom some "imp" of independence of thought refused to release her to that dull, ignoble, selfless life as a servant. Emily Dickinson served one value for all her days and that value was - the Truth!

She was a liberal in every sense. She could not be persuaded to be a Christian in the classic sense of the term. In one letter to her friend Abiah Root, she wrote that ( I )

"...never enjoyed such perfect peace and happiness as the short time in which I felt that I had found my Savior, but I soon forgot my morning prayer or else it was irksome tome. One by one, my old habits returned and I cared less for religion than ever. . . I am continually putting off becoming a Christian. Evil voices lisp in my ear (that) `there is yet time enough'. I feel that every day I live in sin more and more closing my heart to the offers of mercy which are presented to me freely..."
(Johnson, T.H., E.D.an Interpreted Biography, p. 12)

Upon becoming sixteen, Emily began to understand the evangelical devoutness in the world around her. She accepted it as a fact and almost intuitively, realized how it had permeated the lives of those around her. Yet she continued to find it impossible to let it become a part of her own personal world.

Obviously people were concerned for her spiritual welfare. They would shake their heads in wonder and chagrin at how they had failed to convince her as the years passed. And Emily did, as well. She sort of transcended their world with a religious world of her own that was far more beautiful and full of joy.

Read her work. Her poetry contains a wholly different view than can be found in poets of her time. But once we understand her stubborn individuality then the enigma that is this "Belle of Amherst" becomes instantly more real.
One of her biographers stated that people are led to feel they own her because they are able to commit the lines of her poetry so easily to memory. But this is indulgent arrogance. It is folly to believe one can "own" a person of such independent means.

Let's try an experiment. Just for a moment close your eyes and imagine this young woman standing in the front window of that white clapboard Victorian house - in her white dress (which she usually chose to wear) - there she is - - standing and observing the world from the chosen privacy of her world. There are the birch trees and the mountains beyond and the quiet village down the street and the view of occasional people walking by. And she looks at the brightness of a new day and she writes:

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 - thro 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 tattler
Leaning against the sun.

What perfect symmetry of words written in praise of the natural world! Contrast them with the spiritual nature of the family lines you all have most likely heard:

I never saw a moor -
I never saw the sea -
Yet know I how the heather looks
And what a billow be.

I never spoke with god
Nor visited in heaven -
Yet certain am I of the spot -
As if the checks were given.

It must have been just a little irritating to the people who knew her to realize that she simply would not conform. Her complete disdain of the town's religious values were balanced by her letters and poems that indicated a wholly different spirit.

She was a friend, sister, soul-mate, mentor and lover who led a life of dialog on paper. There actually was a preacher named Charles Wadsworth whom she knew but only admired from a distance. There was also a publisher named Thomas Wentworth Higginson whom she admired, too, but showed little cooperation in parting with her verses. To quote her biographer, Saul Maloff, in his review of the most recent of her biographies:

She chose not to (share herself) and we won't have it. The world (apparently) rubbed her the wrong way - and we are the rubbing world. Asked incessantly "why?" her sister Vinnie, not quite understanding the world's bewilderment said it was "only a happen". Early on, Emily saw less and less of the world and by gradual stages over the whole of her adult life saw hardly anything of it. That's how Emily was. You prefer brown, she white; you bustle about, she stays indoors, which was world enough, "but the grounds were ample".

Invited to Boston to meet other writers, she said in her uppity way, "I never thought of conceiving that I could ever have the slightest approach to such a warmth in all future time. I don't care for roving." An impossible child woman! Completely impenetrable..."

No collection of poems by Emily Dickinson was published in her lifetime. But she reaches across the years and makes known to us her inner world of feelings, of warmth, of observation, of trenchant cynicism, and of joy. She was a true exemplar of the life she was given.

This was Emily Dickinson - the Incorrigible Non-conformist.