On Choosing the Poems and Letter
As mentioned in the post for this week, Barrett Browning’s influence on Dickinson was extensive. Several scholars trace many echoes of Barrett Browning in Dickinson’s poetry, to the extent that John Walsh accused Dickinson of plagiarism! The texts we have selected for this week illustrate their special literary and personal relations.
The first text in this group is a letter Dickinson penned to a literary friend in 1854, thanking him for a gift. Some scholars believe the gift was a collection of poetry by Barrett Browning, and that this early letter is Dickinson’s first, delirious response to her work. We follow this with several poems whose major themes about the high vocation of the poet and the importance of beauty and truth borrow directly from Barrett Browning’s poetry. We end with three elegies Dickinson wrote on Barrett Browning that Thomas Johnson dates to 1862, but Franklin places in 1863. Taken together, they show her profound influence on Dickinson, but also Dickinson’s sense of difference and divergence from this bewitching precursor.
Walsh, John Evangelist. The Hidden Life of Emily Dickinson. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971.
Link to DEA manuscript. Originally in HCL (E 18). Pencil. Dated: Friday Evening. First published in New England Quarterly XVI (1943) 371.
Thomas Johnson’s appended the following note to the letter: Before leaving Amherst, Emmons [an Amherst undergraduate who had been corresponding with Dickinson about poetry] sent a farewell gift to ED, probably a book of poems. An interpretation is offered by Aurelia G. Scott in NEQ XVI (December 1943) 627-628, in which the writer points out that the initial letters of pearl, onyx, and emerald spell "Poe." The lines at the end form the conclusion of an essay by Emmons published in the Amherst Collegiate Magazine for July 1854, entitled "The Words of Rock Rimmon" : "And I arose and looked forth upon the broad plain with a strange earnestness thrilling in my heart."
The golden morning's open flowings,
Did sway the trees in murmurous bowings,
In metric chant of blessed poems."
Emmons (1832-1912) was the roommate of John Graves, a distant cousin of Dickinson and also a student at Amherst. Both became friendly with the Dickinson family during their time in Amherst. Emmons, who was from a particularly literary family, shared Dickinson’s literary passions.
As for the allusion to Poe, Vivian Pollak soundly rejects that theory and points out that the three lines of poetry quoted in the letter are lines 811-13 and the fourth paragraph in the letter alludes to lines 808-10 of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "A Vision of Poets," from Poems of 1844. Here is the passage:
He journeyed homeward through the wood
And prayed along the solitude
Betwixt the pines, 'O God, my God!'
The golden morning's open flowings
Did sway the trees to murmurous bowings,
In metric chant of blessed poems.
In a note to the poem, Barrett Browning explained that the theme of “A Vision of Poets” was “the necessary relations of genius to suffering and self-sacrifice,” an idea that may have influenced Dickinson. Pollak concludes that dating Dickinson’s reading of Barrett Browning to 1854 confirms her importance during the years of Dickinson’s literary apprenticeship before 1858, “when Dickinson’s style was open to ‘foreign’ influences.” But, Pollak asserts, Barrett Browning was also crucial as a role model:
For Victorian readers, she had proved that gender was no obstacle to poetic genius. Given the paucity of American examples, Dickinson looked to Mrs. Browning as, in effect, both a role model and a political ally; or, as she phrased it to Emmons, "My crown, indeed! I do not fear the king, attired in this grandeur."
“Friends: Henry Vaughan Emmons (1832-1912)” in All Things Dickinson: An Encyclopedia of Emily Dickinson’s World. Ed. Wendy Martin. 2 vols. Santa Barbara: Greenwood: 2014, 1:379.
Pollak, Vivian. “Dickinson, Poe and Barrett Browning: A Clarification.” New England Quarterly 54.1 (1981): 121-24.
I died for Beauty – but
Adjusted in the Tomb
When One who died for
Truth, was lain
In an adjoining Room –
He questioned softly "Why I
"For Beauty", I replied –
"And I – for Truth – Themself
are One –
We Bretheren, are", He said –
And so, as Kinsmen, met
a Night –
We talked between the Rooms –
Until the Moss had reached
our lips –
And covered up – Our names -
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XXXIV, Fascicle 21, Houghton Library – (183c). Includes 17 poems, written in ink, ca. 1862. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Higginson, Christian Union, 42 (25 September 1890), 393; Poems (1890), 119.
Many discussions of this poem focus on its characteristic depiction of the experience of death, a theme Dickinson explored in many poems. Here, as in other poems, she employs the gothic technique of having the dead speak after death about how they met their end. This poem is notable for its additional exploration of the relationship of Truth and Beauty, key elements in aesthetics. In fact, Dickinson copied this poem into Fascicle 21 in the 9th place, a gathering of poems whose narrative Eleanor Heginbotham’s identifies as a declaration of Dickinson’s “aesthetic principles,” in which Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ideas played a large role.
Beauty and Truth are important ideals in Dickinson’s canon that, according to scholars, are eternal and outside analysis. In later poems, Dickinson wrote, “The Definition of Beauty is / That Definition is none – / Of heaven, easing Analysis” (F797) and “Truth – is as old as God – / His Twin identity / And will endure as long as He / A Co-Eternity” (F795). Two intertexts are often given to which Dickinson may have been responding in this poem:
1) Lines from William Shakespeare’s untitled poem known as “The Phoenix and the Turtle” (1601), which concludes:
Truth may see, but cannot be:
Beauty brag, but ‘tis not she;
Truth and Beauty buried be.
and 2) John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1820), a poem about the relation of art and death, which famously concludes
Beauty is Truth, truth beauty, –– that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
Another source is Barrett Browning’s “A Vision of Poets,” which portrays poetry as a noble vocation requiring suffering and self-sacrifice and includes a long list of such poets that includes and finally echoes Keats:
these were poets true,
Who died for Beauty, as martyrs do
For Truth — the ends being scarcely two.
In "I died for Beauty," Dickinson’s speaker accepts his “kinsman’s” assessment of the indissolubility of Beauty and Truth and their “brotherhood,” but the poem talks of “failure” and at the end, moss silences the pair and obscures their names.
Heginbotham, Eleanor. “Unfastening the Fascicles: Dickinson’s Aesthetics and Fascicle 21.” Dickinson Electronic Archive
Leiter, Sharon. Critical Companion to Emily Dickinson: A Literary Reference to her Life and Work. New York: Facts on File, 2007, 93-94.
Myself was formed – a
An unpretending time
My Plane, and I, together
Before a Builder came –
To measure our attainments –
Had we the Art of
Sufficiently developed – He'd hire
At Halves –
My Tools took Human – Faces –
The Bench, where we had toiled –
Against the Man, persuaded –
We – Temples build – I said –
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XIX, Fascicle 22, Houghton Library – (108a). Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. Includes 23 poems, written in ink, dated ca. 1862. First published in Unpublished Poems (1935), 71, with the last three words of line 7 as the first of line 8.
This poem, like “I died for Beauty,” is in the common meter and was copied into Fascicle 22 in the 20th place. It is an allegory about a speaker who is a carpenter, speculating that if he or she had “the Art of Boards,” they would be hired by a Builder, but “only at Halves.” Something strange happens in this allegory, which we have seen in other Dickinson poems: the inanimate tools, the plane and bench, take on human faces and merge with the human who wields them. I am thinking of “My life had stood a loaded gun,” where the gun “speaks” for the owner as tool and also poetic voice.
It’s important to note that the archetypal carpenter is Jesus; to make this connection associates poetry with religion and spirituality at the outset. Domhnall Mitchell discovers another fascinating connection, that “specialist tool making, and particularly, the manufacture of highly sought-after planes, started in Amherst in 1835,” intensifying the tension between the everyday and the supernatural.
Melanie Hubbard reads this poem in the context of 19th century language theory, specifically On the Study of Words (1851) by the Anglican archbishop and poet Richard Trench (1807-1886), who, influenced by Coleridge and Emerson, declared that words
beat with the pulses of our life; they stir with our passions; we clothe them with light; we steep them in scorn; they receive from us the impressions of our good and of our evil, which again they are most active still further to propagate and diffuse.
In this light, Hubbard speculates that “the ‘Carpenter’ is confronted with the choice to use her tools for personal monetary gain. But she rejects the offer, in part, because” the tools “are not simply instruments” but “embody or externalize human consciousness – a human consciousness they serve and make. … The human speaker recedes into the other-than-human, even the oracular … her tools do not make a product that could be alienated from their making; reciprocating personhood, they make, in effect, the conditions of their existence.”
Dickinson articulates the connection to Barrett Browning in the final lines in which the oracular voice of the human-instrument resists the commercial “Builder” hiring for pittance and declares: "We – Temples build.” This echoes Barrett Browning’s notion of the sacred, spiritually-inflected vocation of poetry expressed in “A Vision of Poets” and championed by Aurora Leigh, who advances the “holy” work of poetry and “art’s pure temple,” and rejects the material work of reformers like Romney and the commodified poetry of the marketplace and the “poetess” tradition. Though her capitulation to marrying Romney, who goes blind at the end, somewhat dims the prospects of her success.
Erkkila, Betsy. The Wicked Sisters: Women Poets, Literary History, and Discord. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. 68-79, 74.
Mitchell, Domhnall. “Amherst.” Emily Dickinson in Context. Ed. Eliza Richards. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013, 13-24, 21.
Hubbard, Melanie. “Nineteenth-century Language Theory.” Emily Dickinson in Context. Ed. Eliza Richards. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013, 246-56, 251.
Her – "last Poems"!
Poets – ended –
Silver – perished – with her
Not on Record – bubbled
Flute – or Woman –
So divine –
Not unto it's Summer -
Robin – uttered Half the
Gushed too free for the
From the Anglo-Florentine –
Late – the Praise –
'Tis dull – Conferring
On the Head too High
to Crown –
Diadem – or Ducal Showing –
Be it's Grave – sufficient
Nought – that We – No
Poet's Kinsman –
Suffocate – with easy wo –
What, and if, Ourself
a Bridegroom –
Put Her down – in Italy?
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Amherst Manuscript # 688, Amherst – asc:2781 – p. 1. Courtesy of Amherst College, Amherst, MA. Publication history: First published in Single Hound (1914), 94, from the copy to Susan (A).
This is first of the three elegies Dickinson wrote about Barrett Browning, whose Last Poems appeared in 1862. She sent a fair copy, signed “Emily,” to Susan Dickinson, with whom she shared a love of the poet.
Páraic Finnerty reads all of Dickinson’s tributes to “her European female contemporaries,” specifically Charlotte Brontë, Barrett Browning and George Eliot, as “participating in a transnational network of women, valorizing, inspiring, and 'crowning' other women, while validating them as artists who were as serious and significant as their male equivalents.” In her tributes to Barrett Browning, he suspects she read and “emulated the strategies” of an 1861 obituary in the Atlantic Monthly by journalist Kate Field who dubs her the “‘world’s greatest poetess;’ ranked her alongside Galileo, Michelangelo, and Dante; stresses her erudition, genius, moral courage, powers of sympathy, and selflessness; and also notes that although Barrett Browning was ‘sinless in life,’ her political views were often controversial.”
But Dickinson's glowing poetic tribute, in which “the Anglo-Florentine” outdoes Dickinson’s cherished New England robins, is not without ambivalence. The final question, “What, and if, Ourself a Bridegroom – / Put Her down – in Italy? is intriguing and obscure. Why does the speaker refer to herself in the plural second person? What does “put Her down” mean? It was widely known that Barrett Browning died in her husband’s arms. Does the speaker imagine being in his place, having to bury her, suffocated by his grief? Or is there a hint of "humiliate" or "mercy killing" in the phrase? Vivian Pollak explores this tension in the poem, arguing: “This transformation of jealousy into grief is among the most fundamental gestures of Dickinson’s psyche. Consequently, hers is a grief with a vengeance.”
Finnerty, Páraic. “Transatlantic Women Writers.” Emily Dickinson in Context. Ed. Eliza Richards. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013, 109-18, 115.
Pollak, Vivian. Dickinson: The Anxiety of Gender. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984, 240-44.
I think I was enchanted
When first a sombre Girl –
I read that Foreign Lady –
The Dark – felt beautiful –
And whether it was noon
at night –
Or only Heaven – at noon –
For very Lunacy of Light
I had not power to tell –
The Bees – became as
The Butterflies – as Swans –
Approached – and spurned
the narrow Grass –
And just the +meanest Tunes
That Nature murmured to
To keep herself in Cheer –
I took for Giants – practising
Titanic Opera –
The Days – to Mighty Metres
The Homeliest – adorned
As if unto a +Jubilee
'Twere suddenly +confirmed –
I could not have defined the
Conversion of the Mind
Like Sanctifying in the Soul –
Is witnessed – not explained –
'Twas a Divine Insanity –
The +Danger to be sane
Should I again experience –
'Tis Antidote to turn –
To Tomes of Solid Witchcraft –
Magicians be asleep –
But Magic – hath an element
Like Deity – to keep –
+Common Tunes • faintest Tunes + Sacrament
+ ordained +Sorrow
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XXVIII, Fascicle 29, Houghton Library – (154a). Includes 20 poems, written in ink, dated ca. 1862. First published in Unpublished Poems (1935), 39-40, with the alternatives for lines 2, 10, 11, 12 ("common"), and 26 adopted.
Betsy Erkkila reads this poem as “what amounts to a poetic manifesto invoking and inviting Browning as her first specifically literary muse.” In it, we witness a “somber” girl transformed into a poet brimming with passion and courage. And indeed, as Erkkila points out, under this influence Dickinson’s poetic production increased from 50 poems in 1858 to around 300 in 1862.
The terms of this transformation are important to note because they invert the usual valences, turning to images of witchcraft, magic and insanity. Dickinson describes this influence as an “enchantment,” never a positive word in a Puritan culture with a history of witch trials, in which “The Dark,” usually a figure for blindness or ignorance, is transformed into something “beautiful.” It is a “Lunacy of Light,” an inversion of night and noon, and it is of gigantic, “Titanic” and “operatic” proportions. In stanza five, the variant of “Sacrament” for “Jubilee” confirms Erkkila’s argument that Dickinson is “appropriating and refiguring the terms of a Calvinist conversion experience,” comparing Barrett Browning’s influence to the reception of divine grace, which becomes “a Divine insanity” and one that means “death to the patriarchal design.”
Erkkila speculates that the “Tomes of solid witchcraft” the speaker turns to as “antidote” to the “sanity” that reigned before her “Conversion of the Mind” (not spirit), were probably the nine books of Aurora Leigh (1856), which Dickinson owned and read sometime before 1861. She notes that Dickinson did not identify Barrett Browning with the sentimental love poet of Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850), but rather with the author of an epic poem that championed the radical, and some would call, dangerous notion that women could resist the conventional roles of wife and mother to live independently and write ambitious poetry. Though immured in her aunt’s restrictive house, Aurora discovers her father’s library and finds the strength to find herself in books, thought and nature.
I had relations in the Unseen, and drew
The elemental nutriment and heat
From nature, as earth feels the sun at nights,
Or as a babe sucks surely in the dark.
I kept the life thrust on me, on the outside
Of the inner life with all its ample room
For heart and lungs, for will and intellect,
Inviolable by conventions. God,
thank thee for that grace of thine! (1: 473-81)
Romney, Aurora’s social reformer cousin and suitor, tells her there is “Witchcraft” in her poetry (2:78) when he comes upon her on her twentieth birthday “crowning” herself with a wreath of ivy, “In sport, not pride, to learn the feel of it” (2:34). Dickinson will adopt these images for her coded depictions of female self-empowerment.
Erkkila, Betsy. The Wicked Sisters: Women Poets, Literary History, and Discord. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. 68-79, 70-72.
Barrett Browning, Elizabeth. Aurora Leigh. EBB archive
I went to thank Her –
But She Slept –
Her Bed – a funneled
With Nosegays at the
Head and Foot –
That Travellers – had thrown –
Who went to thank Her –
But She Slept –
'Twas Short – to cross the
To look opon Her like – alive –
But turning back – 'twas
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet V, Mixed Fascicles, Houghton Library – (22d). Includes 15 poems, written in ink, dated ca. 1862. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Poems (1890), 123.
The last of the poems in tribute to Elizabeth Barrett Browning tells the story of an admirer who crosses the Atlantic to “thank” a poet but finds her dead and her grave covered with “Nosegays” left by other “Travellers.”
This scenario draws on the favor Dickinson requested of Samuel Bowles in her letter to him from June 1862, to visit Barrett Browning’s grave and represent Dickinson as her “unmentioned Mourner.” Dickinson deeply cared for Bowles, who was likewise an admirer of Barrett Browning’s poetry, so Dickinson’s imaginative inhabitation of his experience is not surprising. Through him and his detailed letters, many published in the Springfield Republican, she could vicariously travel to Europe and experience a delicious, and for women, unconventional, freedom of movement.
The poem, however, folds back on itself, repeating the shocking fact of the poet’s death and recording how this loss disfigures time and space. With the expectation of presence, of looking “opon Her like – alive,” the time and space of the Atlantic crossing seemed “short,” while “turning back” is “slow” and full of grief and emptiness.