Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Grave Robbers

Emily Dickinson with her friend Kate Turner. Amherst College Archives and Special Collections. See the article, with reasons for thinking the recently-surfaced daguerreotype authentic, here.

I have a double response to Dickinson: on the one hand admiration and empathy – admiration because she is probably the best American poet I have read, and empathy because I feel myself at a similar emotional & intellectual stand at this stage of my life, stymied in every generous endeavor – but on the other hand dismay: she is the most death-centered poet I have ever read. Keats, for all his self-indulgent “half in love with easeful death” turns, doesn't really want to die. Dickinson really does: she deliberately writes her way into the grave.

Or so it seems to me, at this moment of reading. I am no romantic: I don't believe in the redemptive power of poetry, or in its immortality. Clearly many people feel that Dickinson was somehow justified and translated by her posthumous fame. I feel, quite the contrary, that snuffling about in the private papers of an unhappy dead woman calls our own justification into question, and translates us into something like grave-robbers. Where is it written that being a great poet means you have no right to privacy? When we meet Dickinson, in the heaven she resolutely disbelieved in, will we be able to look her in the eye?
And Life is over there -
Behind the Shelf

The Sexton keep the key to -
Putting up
Our life - His porcelain -
Like a Cup -

Discarded of the Housewife -
Quaint - or Broke -


Anne said...

I wonder whether she might have wanted people to mess about in her papers. It's always difficult to know about a person as peculiar as she was. Perhaps she wanted to be noticed in death if not in life. Just a thought.

Dale said...

Yes, you may well be right! I don't really know much about her -- I've just started a biography. But I don't know how much anyone really knows :-)

marly youmans said...

It will be interesting to see what you think after the biography. Whose?

I do have some thoughts, which may or may not be helpful.

A borrowed thought:
“On subjects of which we know nothing, or should I say Beings--we both believe and disbelieve a hundred times an Hour—which keeps Believing nimble.”
--Emily Herself

Another thought:
Emily Dickinson is a Modern, and she plays with the clash between belief and disbelief.

And yet another:
What triggers a poem and brings it into being may express only a part of a poet's life.

She had an unusual life, but it was not so unusual as we think. Sophia Peabody before Hawthorne or Elizabeth Barrett before Browning lived lives that were quite parallel, and so did many other women who the times and the condition of women urged into home solitude and invalidism.

It's like the way people keep declaring that famous historical figures were gay just because they slept in the same bed together at home or on a journey, as people routinely did before the warmth and wealth of the 20th century. Sometimes a bed is just a bed. (And sometimes it isn't just a bed, of course!)

So I do think one has to take into consideration the times and the culture, neither of which are our own. The past is definitely another country.

Dale said...

:-) All points well taken, Marly! The Biography is rather old -- Sewall's. It had a deceptive 1994 in the call number, but when I got it home from the library I found that it was 1974, so it's missing a whole generation's worth of scholarship. Which these days, for a figure like Dickinson, must be immense. Do you have one to recommend?

marly youmans said...

Actually I believe the Sewall is still very well regarded by Dickinson devotees!

I guess the thing to do would be to read Sewall and then do an update on the critical view of her with Habegger's "My Wars are Laid Away in Books."

I hardly ever read biography, though I liked it as a child. My favorite way of looking at her would be to read her letters. They are also quite "slanted," but vivid.

Peter said...

Never thought of it that way, but you're right. Keats writes from life, and Dickinson writes from death.