While recently reading some of Emily Dickinson's poems and letters, I uncovered some beautiful and ambivalent reflections on her family life. As a mother and new grandmother, I found that Dickinson's keen insights gave me fresh ways to think about my role in my expanding and extended family. For a supposedly emotionally restrained author, Dickinson writes lavishly about the world of intimate relationships and the mixed emotions inherent in those delicate roles. Her observations of her mother are particularly interesting, both as a way to understand the complexities of motherhood and to learn more about Dickinson's fascinating life.
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) influenced generations of American poets by intuitively writing in her unique syntax and style. She broke all the rules of poetry and evaded the literary formalities of her time. Her writing was an outpouring of her philosophical thoughts and eccentric observations. The "envelope poems," her hand-sewn fascicles of poetry, and deeply emotional letters to friends and perhaps lovers, are still enigmatic puzzles to decipher.
Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, the granddaughter of one of the founders of Amherst College. Most of her life was spent at the Homestead, her family home with extensive gardens, which is now a lovely museum. Her contemporaries sometimes referred to her as "the Myth" for her reclusive ways. But this seems an undeserved moniker, since her poems about families and relationships reveal a deep desire for companionship and affection. She lived with her sister, Lavinia and was deeply connected to her sister-in-law, Susan Dickinson.
Dickinson's poetry is easily recognizable by its unconventional slashes and shocking metaphors. Her perspective is always fresh and different. Her intent is to uncover the searing truth, but "The Truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind—" (Tell all the truth but tell it slant— 1263). She understood how the unfettered look at a situation can be blinding in its sheer honesty and boldness. At the same time, she knew that then, as today, "Truth is such a rare thing it is delightful to tell it" (Letter 342). We often dance around the truth of things to protect ourselves.
Dickinson never married or had children, but her interest in families and motherhood ran deep. Her love of home and family was the springboard for her writing. She saw home as a sacred place and wrote, "Some keep the Sabbath going to Church— / I keep it staying at home—" (236). By age 40, Dickinson rarely left the Homestead and was discriminating about which visitors to receive there. Dickinson controlled these visits, and famously expressed this in writing: "The Soul selects her own Society— / Then—shuts the Door—" (303). Children were her favored guests. She delighted in their presence. Her beloved poems for children are evidence of her comfort with and interest in them. Schoolchildren still love reading her "Nobody" poem in which she whimsically writes about privacy and avoiding the limelight:
How dreary—to be—Somebody!
How public—like a Frog—
To tell your name—the livelong June—
To an admiring Bog! (I'm Nobody! Who are you? 260)
Her niece, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, wrote that her aunt's "heart leaped up over children,—radiant phenomena to her, akin to stars fallen among the daffodils in the orchard" (Introduction to Bartleby's The Poetry of Emily Dickinson. Complete Poems of 1924. Boston: Little, Brown, 1924). Dickinson was especially fond of her younger nephew, Thomas Gilbert, nicknamed Gib. She would invite him and neighborhood children into her garden while she worked. She would also send down baskets of flowers and treats from her upstairs window to the children waiting below. When the children grew up, they remembered these visits and baskets with fondness.
Sadly, her nephew Gib died of typhoid when he was eight years old, after only a few days of sickness. Dickinson sat by his bedside on the night of his death, and grieved deeply for him until she died less than three years later. Right after his death, she wrote to his mother, " I see him in the Star, and meet his sweet velocity in everything that flies—" (Letter 868).
Dickinson's own childhood was overshadowed by an authoritarian father who was a well-known attorney and politician. Her mother, Emily Norcross Dickinson, suffered frequent bouts of depression and was sometimes emotionally distant from her children. Mother Emily was an avid gardener who found some freedom and peace in her flowers and meandering paths. Dickinson and her younger sister, Lavinia, were close, and they also found comfort in the family gardens. Dickinson studied botany in her one year at the female seminary that later became Mount Holyoke College. Dickinson and Lavinia lived together as adults at the Homestead, and later in life, they spent many years as caregivers to their mother during her bouts of "melancholy" and her physical recovery from a stroke. Throughout all of this, Dickinson was carefully observing and writing about both motherhood and the garden.
In her poetry, Dickinson equated motherhood with the bounty and fertility of nature. It is an interesting paradox: the reclusive woman who wrote extensively about the world outside her window. The metaphors and symbols of the garden pervade her poetry. On some occasions, she viewed motherhood through the lens of earth and its munificence. For instance, she wrote about the benevolent mother who "smiles" at the eccentricities of her family:
If Nature smiles—the Mother must
I'm sure, at many a whim
Of Her eccentric Family—
Is She so much to blame? (If Nature smiles—the Mother must 1101)
On the other hand, her "Truth" on motherhood was also bittersweet and complex. Dickinson's relationship to her mother was conflicted, yet close. In a letter to a friend, she thanked her for her kindness to her sister, Lavinia, acknowledging that, "She has no Father and Mother but me and I have no Parents, but her" (Letter 391). This is a stark statement that Dickinson and Lavinia were bereft of parental emotional support. In another letter, she again stated, "I never had a mother. I suppose a mother is one to whom you hurry when you are troubled" (Letter 342b).
Yet, the bonds between mothers and daughters are strong, deep, and multi-faceted. When her mother died in 1882, Dickinson found a new appreciation for her, coming out of her loss and grief. After the death, she wrote to her friend:
"The dear Mother that could not walk, has flown… That the one we have cherished so softly so long, should be in that great Eternity without our simple Counsels, seems frightened and foreign, but we hope that our Sparrow has ceased to fall…" (Letter 779)
Dickinson now saw her mother as a beautiful "Sparrow" who had taken flight, and she continued to lament her death. Around Christmastime of that year, she wished for the gift of her mother's return. She poignantly wrote in another of her many letters to friends, "When we were Children and she journeyed, she always brought us something. Now, would she bring us but herself, what an only Gift—" (Letter 792). The love shines through these letters, and Dickinson tells us that this mother-daughter relationship was profound and meaningful.
Throughout her writing, Dickinson wrote about the beauty and refuge of home and family, particularly the garden that represented the life of her mother. In one such poem, she reflected:
I learned—at least—what Home could be— / How ignorant I had been …
What Mornings in our Garden—guessed—
What Bees—for us—to hum—
With only Birds to interrupt
The Ripple of our Theme— (I learned—at least—what Home could be— 891)
This beautiful poem suggests the sanctity of her home and the warm feeling for her mother in the garden. What a wonderful and unique way to view her homelife—such a gift for the reader of her writing.
The death of loved ones was a common theme for Dickinson, but she also gave the hope of a legacy that lingers on earthly and spiritual levels:
The Bustle in a House
The Morning after Death
is solemnest of industries
Enacted opon Earth—
The Sweeping up the Heart
And putting Love away
We shall not want to use again
Until Eternity— (The bustle in a house 1108)
The house is swept clean, but the love is just temporarily put away until it will be accessed again in eternal memories. This is a wonderful ode to the power and legacy of family.
Dickinson wrote, "If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry" (Letter 342). Dickinson's writing dazzles my brain and leaves me a better person for reading it. She never moved from her childhood home and always lived next to her family and loved ones. Her writing reflects these powerful family connections. I sometimes envy this proximity to extended family, where everyone stays close to their birthplace. Yet, I am happy that my children and young grandchildren are living independent and vibrant lives of their own. Dickinson's poetry helps me more deeply appreciate and observe those times that we come together to enjoy our new roles as grandparents, parents, great-aunts, and great-uncles, and to enjoy these bonds even when they are stretched by distance.