On Choosing the Poems and Letter
Selecting this week’s texts on the topic of mothers was tricky. Dickinson wrote very little about her mother until after her death in 1882, and even then, the writings are sparse. We also wanted to include texts that explore a range of approaches to the subject of Dickinson’s mothers, broadly conceived. As a result, the choices are eclectic, but also quite revealing.
We begin with a poem Dickinson sent in 1860 to the woman often identified as her “mother figure,” Elizabeth Luna Chapin Holland, in 1860, which reveals the subjects and questions Dickinson shared with a recipient who did not exhibit her biological mother’s timidity or narrowness, and who had a proven history of offering maternal comfort and emotional support. It is quite surprising.
We follow this with a letter Dickinson sent to both Dr. and Mrs. Holland, which has been variously dated 1859, 1861 and 1862. There is a curious five-year lull in their correspondence between 1860 and 1865, though no evidence of a break in cordial relations has been found. This letter is important because it reprises (or perhaps anticipates) several of the striking declarations Dickinson makes in letters written to Thomas Wentworth Higginson in the year 1862 about her “business.”
We follow this letter with several poems written during this period about mothers more generally, to get a sense of Dickinson’s feelings and approach to the broader subject, another poem she sent to Holland, and end with Dickinson’s tribute to her mother, written a year after her mother’s death in 1883. Although she wrote this quite late in her writing career, we thought it was important to include this poetic tribute to the woman who brought Dickinson into the world.
Though my destiny be fustian
Hers be damask fine –
Though she wear a +damask apron,
I, a less divine,
Still, my little gipsey being,
I would far prefer,
Still my little sunburnt bosom,
To her rosier.
For when frosts their punctual fingers
On her forehead lay,
You and I and Doctor Holland
Roses of a steadfast summer
In a steadfast land,
Where no autumn lifts her pencil,
And no reapers stand.
Link to EDA manuscript. Two copies (one lost), from about 1860 and 1861. The lost manuscript, sent to Elizabeth Holland about late summer 1860, was transcribed by Mabel Todd and used in the printer's copy for the 1894 edition of Letters (y-mssa mlt68-17, 288).
Dickinson sent many poems in letters to her friends, the Hollands, and shared with them a love of literature, poetry and music. “Dr. Holland,” as she calls him in this poem, was himself a respected author, poet, lecturer and literary editor of the Springfield Republican, who went on to found and edit Scribner’s Monthly. Susan Kornfeld reads this poem as “Emily being a bit catty” about an unnamed “she” who wears fine “damask,” a rich silk material, and has a “rosier” bosom than the speaker, whose “destiny” is, by contrast, “fustian,” a coarse heavy cotton material. The speaker further demeans herself (though this proves to be ironic) as a “little gipsey being” with a “little sunburnt bosom” from living out of doors.
While the governing trope in the first two stanzas is the quality of fabric, the underlying implication is one of writing. Kornfeld continues:
In the third and fourth stanzas Emily includes her friends with her as having enduring qualities, probably literary. I imagine the object of mild scorn here was a poet, perhaps a society lady who gave a poetry reading the Hollands and the Dickinsons attended (and I’m just speculating). While her verse will die when the “punctual fingers” of deathly frost extinguish her, the poetry of Dickinson and Holland (she probably includes Elizabeth out of courtesy) will endure, indeed “Bloom Eternally!” In fact, they will be “Roses” constantly in summer bloom as opposed to an Autumn poet who is sure to perish by winter.
This is a fascinating reading but misses the playful self-irony of the poem. Dickinson would have been sure to know, from her Webster’s Dictionary, that another meaning of “Fustian” was:
An inflated style of writing; … a swelling style; bombast. Fustian is thoughts ill sorted. Dryden.
Likewise, Dickinson’s preference for staying at home, already pronounced in 1860, made her the antithesis of a “gipsey,” except in her imagination. And why would Dickinson send a poem to Elizabeth Holland if her inclusion in the literary blooming of this poem were just a “courtesy”?
Rather, the operative word in describing the alternative trinity of “You and I and Doctor Holland” is “steadfast,” repeated twice in the last stanza. It also might help to note that roses were a particular favorite of Dickinson’s mother, who cultivated them assiduously at the Homestead. Though there is some gesture towards literary immortality here, it is also tied up with the steadfastness of friends who provide necessary support that feels like an eternal summer.
Hallen, Cynthia, ed. Emily Dickinson Lexicon. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 2007.
Kornfeld, Susan. The prowling Bee: Blogging all the poems of Emily Dickinson. 18 November 2011.
I write to you. I receive no letter.
I say “they dignify my trust.” I do not disbelieve. I go again. Cardinals wouldn’t do it. Cockneys wouldn't do it, but I can’t stop to strut, in a world where bells toll. I hear through visitor in town, that “Mrs. Holland is not strong.” The little peacock in me, tells me not to inquire again. Then I remember my tiny friend – how brief she is – how dear she is, and the peacock quite dies away. Now, you need not speak, for perhaps you are weary, and “Herod” requires all your thought, but if you are well – let Annie draw me a little picture of an erect flower; if you are ill, she can hang the flower a little on one side!
Then, I shall understand, and you need not stop to write me a letter. Perhaps you laugh at me! Perhaps the whole United States are laughing at me too! I can’t stop for that! My business is to love. I found a bird, this morning, down – down – on a little bush at the foot of the garden, and wherefore sing, I said, since nobody hears?
One sob in the throat, one flutter of my bosom – “My business is to sing” – and away she rose! How do I know but cherubim, once, themselves, as patient, listened, and applauded her unnoticed hymn?
Link to DEA manuscript. Thomas Johnson’s note: MANUSCRIPT: missing.
PUBLICATION: Letters (1894) 175-176; Letters (1931) 169; Letters to Dr. and Mrs. Holland (1951) 55-56: dated (presumably by ED): Friday. This letter is dated by conjecture only. Mrs. Ward, though placing it with a question mark in 1859 (in Letters to Dr. and Mrs. Holland), now feels that 1862 is perhaps more likely. The evidence for the later date is in the phrase “in a world where bells toll” – suggesting the war period, and especially in the sentences: “Perhaps you laugh at me! . . . I can't stop for that! My business is to love . . . My business is to sing.” The juxtaposition of the sentences closely follows that in the preceding letter to Higginson: “Perhaps you smile at me. I could not stop for that – My Business is Circumference.” It was in 1862 that ED indeed felt that her business was to sing. Bulwer-Lytton’s widely popular drama Richelieu (1839) might account for ED’s opinion of cardinals, and Emerson’s English Traits (1856) could be the source of her opinion of “cockney conceit.” In context, “Herod” seems to personify the persecution of illness. Annie was ten years old in the summer of 1862. This letter asking to hear from the Hollands, if it belongs here, is the only surviving message to them between 1860 and 1865 (see nos. 227 and 311).
Anxious to hear from her friends, especially in light of rumors that “Mrs. Holland is not strong,” Dickinson writes a chiding letter asking for some kind of signal from them, even a drawing from their young daughter of a flower, erect or drooping, to indicate her friend’s state of health. Part of the artistry in the letter is the way Dickinson manages the governing trope of birds and bird song. Johnson interprets “Cardinals” as clerics, but they also function as big, flashy birds, just as “Cockneys,” a term for natives of London, reminds Dickinson of “peacocks” and her own sense of entitlement, which eventually leads to the bird Dickinson finds and complains to far down in the morning garden.
This letter contains two striking phrases that connect it to Dickinson’s July 2 letter to Higginson and to the vocation of poetry. In joking defense of her persistence in caring about her friends, she protests that “My business is to love.” This loving gets connected to the question she asks the bird in the next paragraph: “and wherefore sing, I said, since nobody hears?” She is anxious about reception, because being heard confirms her existence and her vocation. Is it the bird who responds: “My business is to sing,” and flies off? Or is the bird a figure for Dickinson, so that loving and singing are inextricably linked and linked to these particular friends? Are they the “cherubim,” figures for appreciative audiences who listen and applaud, though the “I” characterizes her “hymn” as “unnoticed”?
He told a homely tale
And spotted it with tears –
Opon his infant face was
The Cicatrice of years –
All crumpled was the
No other kiss had known
Than flake of snow, +divided with
+ The Redbreast of the Barn –
If Mother – in the Grave –
Or Father – on the Sea –
Or Father in the Firmament –
Or Bretheren, had he –
If Commonwealth below,
Or Commonwealth above
Have + missed a Barefoot
+ I've ransomed it -alive –
+ imprinted swift + When hurrying to the town
+ lost + I've found it – 'tis alive –
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XXXI, Fascicle 23-8, Houghton Library – (167b). Includes 20 poems, written in ink, ca. 1862. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Bolts of Melody (1945), 90, from a transcript of A (a tr319), with the alternatives not adopted.
In this poem, an unnamed “he” tells his “homely tale” to the speaker, but his is a story about being “homeless” and bereft of human company, his crumpled cheek knowing “No other kiss … Than flake of snow.” This discrepancy is repeated in his description, an “infant face” marked by “The Cicatrice of years,” an arresting word that sounds to me like “Sycorax,” the vicious and powerful witch and mother of Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
Thus, mothers are on our mind as we read the third stanza that speculates on the causes of the unnamed man’s destitution, which begins with the primary loss: “If Mother – in the Grave.” Dickinson goes on to include father lost at sea, God the Father lost to doubt, community “below” and “above,” all means of comfort and support lost or missed by “a Barefoot Citizen,” the orphaned pilgrim of the poem. The last line reverses the whole sad story in its unexpected declaration: “I’ve ransomed it– alive,” with its variant: “I’ve found it– ‘tis alive.” How does the speaker find or ransom this bereft citizen, this motherless child? Is it by listening to and retelling his story? Is that one of the functions of mothers and mothering?
The Day undressed -
Her Garter – was of
Her Petticoat – of
Purple plain –
Her Dimities – as old
Exactly – as the
And yet the newest
Enrolled opon the
Be wrinkled – much
as Her –
Too near to God -
to pray –
Too near to Heaven -
to fear –
The Lady – of the
Retired without a
Her Candle so
The flickering be seen
On Ball of Mast
in Bosporus –
And Dome -
and Window Pane –
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Amherst Manuscript # 813. Courtesy of Amherst College,
Amherst, MA. First published in Unpublished Poems (1935), 45, from the fascicle (B), with the alternatives for lines 5 and 7 adopted and that for line 15 incorporated into line 16.
Dickinson sent this poem to Elizabeth Holland sometime in 1862 and copied it into Fascicle 23, like the above poem, in the 17th place. She also made several changes to it and added variants. We use this version to illustrate what Elizabeth Holland would have read. It is a beautifully detailed observation of the ending of the day and the setting sun, yet it feels deliciously empowering when this gorgeous depiction of autoeroticism—“The Day undresses – Herself—” is shared between two women.
Rebecca Patterson argues:
The viewpoint throughout is subtly, quite unconsciously, but passionately voyeuristic, and it is the strength of the poem.
But the viewpoint in this poem is neither salacious or dominating, which are the implications of "voyeurism" in our time; rather, they are admiring and even participatory. The poem gives the impression of and invites us to think about how Dickinson constructed a female gaze. Furthermore, the exquisitely rendered imagery of female accoutrements does not seem unconscious but absolutely deliberate.
“Dimities” refers to the Lady's petticoats of plain cotton cloth, often white but here referred to as “purple” to suggest the sunset and her royalty; nothing fancy but related to the stars . Dickinson reuses the word in a poem dated to 1863, “What soft Cherubic Creatures” (F675A, J401), to describe what she famously criticized as the “Dimity Convictions” of the Amherst's finicky “Gentlewomen.”
By contrast to Patterson’s approach, Daneen Wardrop reads this poem as an example of what she calls “lace theory,” based on “the tantalizing aesthetic of threadwork,” which the Victorian era manifested in veils. Imitating the use of veils and materials of various sheerness and revealing drape, the poet’s poetic diction creates
a teasing erotic tone … that allows Dickinson in the nineteenth century to broach the taboo subject of female presentation of the body.
But this is no strip-tease for a lascivious male audience. Dickinson’s unveiling “Lady of the Occident” is potent and complete in herself; she does not pray to God nor fear Heaven. She is as old as the world and yet the “newest star.” As Wardrop notes, the final stanza transports the reader—effectively, Elizabeth Holland—from staid New England to the Bosporus Strait in Turkey, as Dickinson’s “Lady of the Occident” or West becomes associated with the Orient/East, a place of sunrise, renewal and sensual delight in Dickinson’s canon of imagery. This poem is quite an astounding, revealing and luscious verbal gift.
Patterson, Rebecca. Emily Dickinson’s Imagery. Ed. Margaret H. Freeman. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1979, 41, 121, 192.
Wardrop, Daneen. Emily Dickinson and the Labor of Clothing. Hanover: University Press of New England, 2009, 189-95.
Nature – the Gentlest Mother is,
Impatient of no Child –
The feeblest – or the Wayward –
Her Admonition mild –
In Forest – and the Hill –
By Traveller – be heard –
Restraining Rampant Squirrel –
Or too impetuous Bird –
How fair Her Conversation –
A Summer Afternoon –
Her Household – Her Assembly –
And when the Sun go down –
Her Voice among the Aisles
Incite the timid prayer
Of the minutest Cricket –
The most unworthy Flower –
When all the Children sleep –
She turns as long away
As will suffice to light
Her lamps –
Then + bending from the Sky –
With infinite Affection –
And infiniter Care –
Her Golden finger on Her lip –
Wills Silence – Everywhere –
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XVIII, Fascicle 36-5, Houghton Library – (98b). Includes 22 poems, written in ink, dated ca. 1863. Courtesy of Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. First published in Poems (1891), 111-12, with the alternatives not adopted.
This is the kind of poem that gets Dickinson onto sugary greeting cards and threatens to reduce her to a cartoon—although some cartoons about her are totally cool. Check this one out:
The poem is one of a group of sentimental visions that describes nature and the local landscape in terms of family and household imagery. But we shouldn’t be fooled by this idyllic depiction of the Connecticut River Valley. Dickinson wrote many poems in which nature is a furious and uncontrollable power. From the perspective of our theme of mothers, it is notable that Dickinson puts Nature AS mother at the center of a powerful and complex world and gives prominence to the maternal force as elemental, if "gentle."
In her ecological reading of this poem, Christine Gerhardt notes that feminist critics have revalued poems like this one by emphasizing the importance of housekeeping as a metaphor for larger natural processes and using the conventional identification of women and nature to rewrite their exclusion from positions of public power and relegation to an occluded domestic realm. She also notes that the very term, “ecology,” comes from a Greek word that referred to the family household and its maintenance. She argues that Dickinson’s poem participates in these new ideas,
casting nature’s systems as worthy of moral consideration, while also destabilizing the conceptual control that these sentimental tropes seek to assert.
Gerhardt is building on the work of Rachel Stein, who contends that
the poem vindicates domesticity, inscribing maternal care as the principle of nature that insures survival of all creatures, the point that nineteenth century sciences, such as Darwinism, denied, to the detriment of female status within those systems.
Through her depiction of “Nature” as a model of the “gentlest” mothering, Dickinson promotes an ethic of “infinite Affection / And Infiniter Care” that stands in stark contrast to the Darwinian “Nature, red in tooth and claw.” Don’t forget to listen to Rebekah Schweitzer's rendition of Aaron Copland’s setting of this poem on our Youtube Channel.
Gerhardt, Christine. A Place for Humility: Whitman, Dickinson, and the Natural World. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press 2014, 111-13.
Stein, Rachel. Shifting the Ground: American Women Writers’ Revision of Nature, Gender, and Race. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997: 39-40.
To the bright east she flies,
Brothers of Paradise
Remit her home
Without a change of wings
Or Love's convenient things
Enticed to come.
Fashioning what she is,
Fathoming what she was,
We deem we dream –
And that dissolves the days
Through which existence strays
Homeless at home.
Link to EDA manuscript. Written about spring 1883, in pencil, in a letter to Maria Whitney (lost). The text derives from a Todd transcript used as printer's copy for the 1894 edition of Letters (y-mssa mlt69-21, 710). The poem follows a passage in memory of Dickinson's mother, who had died in November 1882. First published in Letters (1894), 340-41.
Dickinson prefaced this poem, which she sent in a letter to her friend Maria Whitney with these words:
All is faint indeed without our vanished mother, who achieved in sweetness what she lost in strength, though grief of wonder at her fate made the winter short, and each night I reach finds my lungs more breathless, seeking what it means. (L 524)
Her mother’s death seems to have taken her breath away, almost literally; Dickinson will die only four years later.
This tribute to her mother complicates the idea of “home,” and what and where it is. In the first stanza, “home” is “the bright east” and “Paradise” where the soul flies at death. The word “remit,” however, asks us to imagine that this flight east is a restoration or return to some originary source. “Remit” also means “reimburse; pay back,” adding an economic resonance to the notion of an afterlife that evokes Dickinson's father, an attorney, who asked her to witness and sign contracts. This choice of diction prefigures the very last letter Dickinson wrote in May 1886 before she died, addressed to her beloved Norcross cousins: “Called back./ Emily” (L1046). In his note, Thomas Johnson observes that in January 1885 (L962), Dickinson wrote to the Norcross cousins about having read Hugh Conway’s sensational mystery/romance Called Back (1883). The phrase is carved as epitaph on Dickinson’s headstone.
In the second stanza, the bereaved speaker walks through life in a daze of grief. She is in her literal “home” but feels “Homeless at home,” because what constituted the place as home (her mother) is gone to another, a former “home” in Heaven. The last line is striking in its expression of a sense of loss. Biographer Richard Sewall comments:
Oddly enough, although it is seldom seen in this way, the greatest tribute that Emily paid her mother lay perhaps in the fact that she never wanted to leave the home that Mrs. Dickinson helped create. … that she felt freest at home – free to live the kind of life and do the kind of work that suited her.
Sewall, Richard. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980, 89-90.
Dickinson, Emily. The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Eds. Thomas Johnson and Theodora Ward. 3 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958, 906.