Dickinson’s Letter to the World

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.”

This is my letter to the World
That never wrote to Me —
The simple News that Nature told —
With tender Majesty

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.

 

 

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3 thoughts on “Dickinson’s Letter to the World

  1. Are you still working on a novel about Emily Dickinson? I hope so. I recently read a biography titled “Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief” and I found her life so fascinating. I am dense as they come with regards to understanding poetry but after reading the book I came to the conclusion that Emily’s poems may not have a specific meaning that we can ever discern but instead, the poems take on the meaning of the reader and the reader’s life experience at the time the poem is read. So thus, they mean different things to different readers and therein lies the universality and the genius.

    I have thought of trying my hand at poetry since I wrote song lyrics. When I read that Emily first learned about meter in poetry because of her exposure to church hymns, I realized I have that exposure too. I love the musical structure of hymns and how they tend to lead the singer to where the hymn wants the singer to go. They offer a wonderful outline to follow.

    Having lost myself for the last several weeks in Emily’s story, I would love to read your novel now that I have some context.

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    1. P.S. – You might find Kristin LeMay’s book, I Told My Soul to Sing: Finding God with Emily Dickinson, of interest. It’s less a scholarly treatment than a meditative one that explores Dickinson’s spirituality and her poetry as prayer.

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  2. Yes, I’m still working on a novel in which Dickinson is a character. In my research, I try to go both broad and deep. When it comes to Dickinson, I’ve found dozens of takes on her poetry – from biographical to imaginative and lots in between – that are in some way convincing. So I honestly don’t know how best to understand her work overall. (I do think she wanted the reader to feel something, but that’s what any good poet is aiming for.) But your take works as well as any.

    Of course all poetry is filtered through the reader’s eyes, and depends on experience and circumstance for meaning. But I think Dickinson’s poetry is especially hard to understand (with some exceptions), which also makes it ripe for multiple interpretations. My guess is that some was deeply personal, some imaginative, some based on novels and poems she’d read, some erotic, and some that can best be understood as religious mysticism. I do think she was exquisitely aware of her effect on people, both in her person and her use of words. Much of her poetry is opaque and I suspect intentionally so.

    The best advice I can give is to select one poem at a time and take your time, savoring it as you would a very expensive hand-made chocolate.

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