Emily Dickinson: The Poem of Ecstasy

Australian poet and author Peter Nicholson writes 3QD‘s Poetry and Culture column (see other columns here). There is an introduction to his work at peternicholson.com.au and at the NLA.

Very occasionally in art comes the miraculous, the words, music or paint that permanently transform the history of culture. On these mountains we slouch below, looking up at the brilliant slopes, the yawning abysses, wondering how such gigantism came about. For surely it would be the ultimate hubris to allow ourselves to think we could be like them, or understand where their greatness came from. It is not dead white male/female stuckism to say a Beethoven, a Goya or a Goethe went where we can not go. And such is Emily Dickinson, one of the most inexplicable examples of genius in the history of Western culture. 

Upstairs, alone in her bedroom, the world turned in Emily Dickinson’s head, the dash-filled poems stitched into packets, lying in wait for their eternity. Which was some time in coming, owing to the world’s usual decrepitude in recognising gifts of this dimension. A few poems, published in botched form, were all the fame she was allowed, and then kidney disease claimed her too early. Now she lies in her Amherst grave. ‘Called back’ reads the gnomic gravestone farewell to the earth, taken from a last letter, brilliantly elliptical to the last. Called back where? To whom? This poet forces you to ask questions about life and art that can leave you nonplussed.

And yet some people don’t see what the fuss is about. Maybe it’s a temperamental thing. Some find Finnegans Wake pretentious and unreadable, others greatness personified. In the gallery one person will go into a posture of awe before a Rothko where another will be scornful. Dickinson is not light reading. She is taking you under the wing of the whirlwind of her feelings, which can be savage indeed. Her metaphysical wit crushes together the most unlikely images. What might appear to be the dullest rhythmic enclosure for psychic swings and roundabouts—hymn tunes—turns out to be something casting forth atom-splitter ecstasies of pain, loneliness, battles with God, the flesh, and desire [texts Johnson]:

             Wild Nights—Wild Nights!
             Were I with thee
             Wild Nights should be
             Our luxury!

             Futile—the Winds—
             To a Heart in port—
             Done with the Compass—
             Done with the Chart!

             Rowing in Eden—
             Ah, the Sea!
             Might I but moor—Tonight—
             In Thee!                            #249

Well, she might be wishing to rendezvous with God, but I somehow doubt it. Yes, as Auden put it in another context, love made her weep her pints like you and me. But everyone weeps their pints. It is her memorability, the yoking together of such disparate elements, the passion leaping off the page, which is so amazing. Of course such a sensibility, with its skin less—or is it one skin more—was bound to get into the most appalling depressions, and the predations on her hypersensitive spirit were cruel. 

Dickinson commits the great literary virtue of taking her emotions seriously, and of taking her future readers’ emotions seriously too. Remember, she imagines her future readers. She only had a few in her lifetime. ‘ “Hope” is the thing with feathers.’ How simply put, and yet how true to human experience. Most poets never get around to writing a simple, memorable line like that. You can huff and puff as much as you like; in art, you cannot, as has been said elsewhere, make a person bigger, or smaller, than they are. Emily was sent to solitary confinement until well after her death, but nothing was going to stop the tidal wave of her influence once the stitched packets had evaded the bonfire that could so easily have claimed those precious manuscripts. One wonders what has been consumed, unknown, in the past, or now. There are bound to be Dickinsons we will never hear of.

How very odd it is that this writer turns out to be the epic voice of wounded Modernism, but with so much more behind it than just a Slough of Despond. Beckett, for example, seems enervated beside Dickinson’s waiting for God knows what. The lyric poems discharged their startling energies along with the New England autumn leaves, Amherst an omphalos as Emily lurched across thresholds of passion and despair. She enjoyed no benefit from the hootenanny critical prognostications that have echoed in her wake. Criticism can neither predict, control nor prevent work of this kind from coming into the world. Indeed it is something wonderful to know that such a thing is possible—to create this memorable expressive world virtually alone. What vision and tenacity! How remarkable the human qualities and character!

There is often an atmosphere of seizure, or rapture, in her poems, where life is held to be at stake. Clothed in a radiant white dress, the poet communes with harsh deities and brutal nature. Intimations of catastrophe are ever present:

              I should not dare to be so sad
              So many Years again—
              A Load is first impossible
              When we have put it down—

              The Superhuman then withdraws
              And we who never saw
              The Giant at the other side
              Begin to perish now.                 #1197

I am one of those strange people who think there is a difference between the Sistine Chapel ceiling and the pile of bricks left on the gallery floor. Dickinson makes short work of most of the claims made by those trying to second-guess literary history. At any rate, good work is going to survive once all the secondary support systems have been put away, isn’t it. With Dickinson the pearl of great price has been recognised as such for a long time now. However, Dickinson does not make it easy on her readers. You have to work to get some of the meaning of her poems. They come without titles, breathless and hard. You can feel the fire off the page, the ice at the window ledge. Just as Dickinson kept strangers at a distance in her household, so she keeps her readers at a distance too. If you put yourself into her work, she rewards with a peculiarly intense aesthetic pleasure.

One has to feel a bit sorry for Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the initial recipient of some of the poems Dickinson first sent forth. It isn’t given to many to stand before a psychic tsunami for the first time. He wasn’t up to the task, but who would have been? Emerson? Thoreau? Wilde, who did meet, and appreciate, Whitman? One can be especially thankful to Mabel Loomis Todd and those who followed after to get Dickinson’s extraordinary work out in printed form. Higginson did his best, but how disappointed the poet must have been with the response. Still, she knew her value:

              Mine—by the Right of the White Election!
              Mine—by the Royal Seal!
              Mine—by the Sign in the Scarlet prison—
              Bars—cannot conceal!

              Mine—here—in Vision—and in Veto!
              Mine—by the Grave’s Repeal—
              Delirious Charter!
              Mine—long as Ages steal!                        #528

Did her poetry live, she asked Higginson (‘Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?’). It lived then, and lives now, and will keep on living through the rest of time.


Now the Bride of poetry beckons
From her brutal sleep
With each part of truth protesting
At mortality.

She was lonelier than our suburbs
Yet as true and living
Though the same chimeras beckoned
With the same leave-taking.

On her Amherst springtime forehead
Set with laurel’s fire
She is hymning into being
Dazzled crests of time.

Bird of summer in her hair,
Wing of autumn on her breast,
Wedded to the winter snow
And each joy confessed.

Soldered with transcendences,
In her room a furnace,
Butterfly and bee contriving
Sceptre, crown and chalice.

Now your coronation’s given,
Entrance to imperium,
Veiled with stars and continents,
Your brocade delirium,

Each packet stitched and put away,
Ships of Asian spices,
Harboured to desuetude,
Daguerreotype left over.

For once a passion that will last
Past what rusts and buckles,
There with Walt in double grandeur,
Mystery’s odd couple.

Rushing to the sunlight’s shards,
Toppling to greatness,
Adoration in your nerve
And the bandaged fierceness

We thought closer to our time—
Yours was purer, truer,
With those words that cauterise
The mouthline’s wounded murmur.

There is wonder wide enough
To fold all things within it,
Intoxication offered up
With a goodness granted:

Yours—by right of the burden given,
Yours—by the White Election,
Yours—though centuries steal away,
Yet ours, at the end, your perfection.   

Written 1990 Published A Dwelling Place 1997 65–66
Published in Visiting Emily eds. Sheila Coghill, Thom Tammaro University of Iowa Press 2000 69–70