The genius of Emily Dickinson persists in her poems' ability to suggest more than they describe--her words and dashes create a near-neurological link between the poet's language and the reader's emotion and thought. The effect of reading her poems is to feel your mind being sparked and expanded by Dickinson's mind, an effect which is both exhilarating and awe-inspiring, and also out of time--Dickinson's poetry does not decay.
The Poet Struts Upon a Stem
In a 2009 conversation about Dickinson with Entitled Opinions podcast host Robert Harrison, the poet and scholar Katie Peterson says that Emily Dickinson considered immortality "the Flood subject, the greatest subject" (Minute 18:30). Later in the podcast (Minutes 47-50) Peter extrapolates Dickinson's "decomposed self" philosophy of immortality from the poem that begins "Of bronze--and blaze--" and which contains the wonderful lines: "'Till I take vaster attitudes--/And strut upon my stem--". (Peterson reads a version of poem #319 from the R.W. Franklin edition of The Poems of Emily Dickinson--the daisies not the beetles version). This podcast is a delightful and illuminating hour of discussion of Dickinson's life and oeuvre, enriched by the eight years Peterson spent writing her award-winning doctoral thesis, "Emily Dickinson and the Selflessness of Poetry." I highly recommend it to any Dickinson fan. (Here's the online link to the Entitled Opinions Peterson/Dickinson podcast, and to the iTunes link here--download it and take it on a Ramble. FYI there's a longish intro; Harrison's conversation with Peterson begins at Minute 3:20.)
Enough With the White Dress (Grasshopper Enclosed)
Happily the reductiveness of Dickinson's literary persona as a timid spirit in a white dress is decomposing rapidly. The life of the mind is not defined by a room. The force and verve of the poetry itself dispels the notion that Dickinson was unworldly, and according to Lyndall Gordon's new biography, Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds (U.S. pub date June 2010), her family life contained plenty of intrigue, some of it conducted on the black horsehair sofa in the poet's own dining room. Gordon also posits that Dickinson may have suffered from epilepsy, based on documented cases in her extended family and local apothecary records. The stigma of the disease in those times could explain Dickinson's homebodiness, and in any case her extreme social selectivity allowed her to avoid meeting her brother's sofa-consort, Mabel Loomis Todd (the Bounder of Amherst) face-to-face, and she was savvy enough about the affair to fight Austin Dickinson's attempts to give his mistress a parcel of family land. A nice weirdness: in the podcast cited above, Peterson mentions that Dickinson kept sending Todd a poem, ultimately enclosing a grasshopper in the paper (Minute 17:45)--hardly a belle lettre.
Flowers Pressed by the Poet
As a teenager Emily Dickinson compiled a charming herbarium (circa 1839-1846) which now resides in climatic perfection in Harvard's Houghton Library. You can page through photographs of Emily Dickinson's actual herbarium online, starting with the beautiful tooled green leather cover, or for a reference librarian's ransom, you can purchase a facsimile. The flower at the top of this post, Nigella damascena, also known as "love-in-a-mist" (or as my Glasgwegian pal told me, "f***-in-a-fog"), was catalogued by young Emily and appears on the bottom right of this page (located via earlywomenmasters.net).