Emily of Amherst

Visitors to the rambling mansion in Amherst, Massachusetts, caught only fleeting glimpses of a slight figure dressed in white, usually disappearing down a hallway. Her neighbors knew her as “gifted but queer,” and eccentric oddity who habitually frustrated her own impulses: She loved music but would not enter the parlor where it was played; she wrote letters but refused to send them; she spent most of her adult years in her second-story bedroom. Yet this brilliant, painfully shy woman wrote some of the most haunting lines of American poetry.

Several biographers believe that she suffered a psychotic episode following an aborted love affair (details of which remain highly speculative), and that her intensely personal verse became the sublimated focus of her emotional life. Life itself, to Emily Dickinson, was the inconvenient vestibule to eternity, and she anticipated the grave as the gateway to freedom. In the meantime, she composed hundreds of verses, including “The Soul Selects Her Own Society,” “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” and “Pain Has an Element of Blank.”

Only seven of her poems were published during her lifetime. Yet she seemed aware of her work’s value, for she kept her poems in boxes and bureau drawers.

After Emily’s death, her sister Lavinia enlisted two literary friends to edit and publish her work. They discovered that Emily had even supplied lists of alternate words to substitute to certain poems. The first collection of her poetry appeared in 1890. While some critics scoffed, her lines received immediate popular acclaim. Later editions followed, then interest faded until 1924, when she was enthusiastically rediscovered. Her work has been praised ever since. Today many critics would agree with Conrad Aiken that her poetry was “perhaps the finest by a woman in the English language.” Her last words were “… the fog is rising.”

IX

The heart asks pleasure first,

And then, excuse from pain;

And then, those little anodynes

That deaden suffering;

And then, to go to sleep;

And then, if it should be

The will of its Inquisitor,

The liberty to die.

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Published in: on December 10, 2009 at 1:36 PM  Leave a Comment  
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