Lately I’ve been studying Emily Dickinson. I’ve read biographies and novels about her and spent days pouring over her poems. Like many who encounter Dickinson, I find her maddeningly enigmatic. She never married, spent all her life close to home, and in the second half became so reclusive she claimed she never stepped off the family property. Yet her poetry is universal in scope and displays such rare sophistication and insight it’s hard not to conclude it comes from wide-ranging experience. How is this possible?
Emily Dickinson is considered by many to be the greatest American poet. But during her lifetime only a handful of people knew she wrote poetry at all. In her later years she shared some of her poems in her correspondence. But she kept at least two-thirds of them – about 1,300 – completely secret even from family and friends. And near the end of her life she ordered her maid to burn them after her death.
Some of these secret poems are now her most frequently quoted, including “Because I could not stop for Death,” “Wild Nights – Wild Nights!” and “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain.” And – intriguingly – the poem “This is my letter to the World.”
Her Message is committed
To Hands I cannot see —
For love of Her — Sweet — countrymen —
Judge tenderly — of Me
This is one of the poems preserved in the forty booklets Dickinson made by copying selected poems onto folded sheets of paper and sewing them together with string. These packets – later called “fascicles” – have been the subject of extensive Dickinson scholarship since the early 20th century. Handwriting analysis has enabled scholars to order them chronologically. “This is my letter to the World” is the 14th poem in the 24th fascicle.
The first two lines can be read as the grief of a writer who was never recognized in her lifetime. But if Dickinson wanted recognition, why did she keep the bulk of her work secret? Why does the poet caution against judgement if she offered nothing to judge?
Maybe context will help. Some scholars who study this poem have looked at the poems surrounding it in the fascicle and suggest the secret “news” is ominous. In the poems before and after death is ever-present, and bliss is pierced by annihilation.
Did the poet intend a hidden, darker meaning? Is she commenting on the very nature of secrets? Is she writing about some specific event that happened to her or to someone she knew? Or is the whole scenario of the poem a work of her imagination? With Dickinson’s poems I’m always left with questions.
Part of Dickinson’s genius as a poet is the way she weaves paradox and contradictions and questions into the fabric of her work. Which shouldn’t surprise me since they also make up the fabric of her life.
From here, it looks like Dickinson’s letter to the world is one long and rapturous question.