February 26-March 4: Sue Poems

On Choosing the Poems

As mentioned in the post for this week exploring the relationship of Emily Dickinson and Susan Dickinson, her life-long correspondent and sister-in-law, we have chosen poems that scholar Judith Farr includes in what she calls the “Sue cycle.” These are a series of “poems for and about a beloved and inaccessible woman,” which Farr argues are the result of “the narrative of Sue” she extracts from letters, biographies and poetry from the years 1858-1863 related to the Dickinson-Sue relationship. This narrative, Farr notes:

cost Dickinson a great deal. It also gave her much: an experience of privation and sublimation that become one of her chief poetic themes.

Basically, Farr finds that in the 1850’s, Dickinson developed a grand passion for Susan, which Susan did not always or fully reciprocate, and which had cooled by 1861 after Susan married Dickinson’s brother Austin, moved next door to the Evergreens, began having children and building a busy and ambitious social life for herself. Also around this time, as other scholars confirm, Dickinson became focused on a male figure she calls “Master,” whose identity is unclear and whose significance to the poet we explored in an earlier post.  As Farr explains,

Emily’s love for Sue is important, because it helps to explain consistent images and tropes in her art … and resulted in a body of poems and letters that is as eloquent and complex as any written to “Master.”

Farr also speculates that “As Sue’s character and personality became clearer to her over the years, Dickinson tried to become her opposite:”

If Sue were given to frivolity, snobbery, and ruthlessness, Dickinson became increasingly gentle and private. While Sue grew into a proud “cosmopolite,” Emily became the intimate of birds, plants, and children. As Sue became more and more busy “with scintillation,” Emily Dickinson busied herself with thought. … Nevertheless, while (as Dickinson said) the tie between them became very “fine,” it was “a Hair” that never dissolved.

Farr identifies a “cult of fond sentimentality among Victorian girls” tinged with “an ambiguous eroticism,” exemplified by the photography of Lady Hawarden, in which she reads the poems in the “Sue cycle.”

Isabella Grace and Clementina Hawarden (1865) by Lady Hawarden, Victoria and Albert Museum

She finds they draw on works like Lord Alfred Tennyson’s Maud (1855), on a courtly tradition that associated women with birds and flowers, and on the sensuous imagery of the Biblical “Song of Solomon.”

Dickinson also came to associate Sue with Cleopatra from Shakespeare’s play, Anthony and Cleopatra, with his sonnet sequence, with eastern and oriental imagery of exoticism and luminous pearls (that slip through her fingers), as well as dangerous volcanoes­­ – a nickname for Sue was “Vesuvius.” Sue also became associated with heaven and the imagination, and prison and deprivation. We have chosen poems this week that illustrate several of these patterns of imagery and will return to the theme of Sue again, near her birthday in December.

This week’s poems:


Farr, Judith. The Passion of Emily Dickinson. Harvard University Press, 2004, especially pp. 100-177.

Smith, Martha Nell. Rowing in Eden: Rereading Emily Dickinson. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992.