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Her Nature Was Future: Emily Dickinson's White Heat | The Nation

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Her Nature Was Future: Emily Dickinson's White Heat

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Wineapple's Dickinson is a spinster seductress--white heat itself. She flattered and cajoled her epistolary conquests while retaining the upper hand, almost never leaving the realm of the Homestead, the Dickinson family's mansion and grounds. From her first letter to Higginson, when he was 38 and she 31, Dickinson was wily: "Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?" she wrote, without signing her name, but enclosing four poems amounting to a self-addressed stamped envelope to ensure his reply. When he made a few editorial suggestions, she thanked him but incorporated none of them. She said she had begun writing poetry only recently--untrue. She said she avoided Walt Whitman--untrue. (Higginson loathed him.) She hid her few publications and her attempts to engage other editors. In 1866 she insisted falsely that her poem "A narrow Fellow in the Grass," which appeared in the Springfield Republican, was stolen. (She published fewer than a dozen poems during her life, anonymously.) Higginson was, she said, her "Preceptor." But the outrageous pupil would declare things like "If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire could ever warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry." They met only twice in the course of their lives, possibly because after their first encounter Higginson confessed he had never met anyone "who drained my nerve power so much. Without touching her, she drew from me. I am glad not to live near her."

About the Author

Ange Mlinko
Ange Mlinko
Ange Mlinko is poetry editor of The Nation. The recipient of the Randall Jarrell Award in Poetry Criticism from the...

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Saving the venerable NYPL… cooperation, not capitalism… a jewel in the dross… you could look it up…

How was Emily Dickinson able to be frugal and fruitful in her art?

Dickinson's sexual paradox stands in for a greater one: her belief that one could have victory without success--not only seduction without sex but immortality without fame. As she got older she hardened in her resolve not to publish, but she worked feverishly toward an oeuvre:

Success--is counted sweetest
By those who ne'er succeed--
To Comprehend a Nectar--
Requires sorest need--
Not one of all the Purple Host
Who took the Flag--today--
Can tell the Definition--so clear--of Victory--
As He--defeated--dying--
On whose forbidden ear--
The distant strains of Triumph
Burst--agonized--and Clear!

Despite Wineapple's sympathetic grasp of Higginson's life and works, his contradictions aren't nearly as electric. Yes, he too had a vigorous and complicated sexuality. The renowned essayist had thrived on the routines of military life: he championed virility and admired the male body. Women found him attractive, and he made himself their chivalrous knight as a suffragist. Also chivalrously, he remained devoted to his invalid first wife until she died. Then, rather than fall for one of the intellectual women he admired, he hastily married a young, pretty society girl. (It's less of a contradiction when we read that his first wife, Mary Elizabeth Channing, was something of a thwarted intellectual herself. She was prickly and anti-child. Higginson desperately wanted children; his second wife obliged.) Wineapple's accounts of Higginson's involvement in the Secret Six and of his military exploits are riveting. They serve to underscore her point that he was a sort of inverse Dickinson: fiery radical in the realm of action. Late in life he ruefully admitted that he had internalized Emerson's dictum "Better that the book should not be quite so good, and the bookmaker abler and better, and not himself often a ludicrous contrast to all that he has written." But Emerson was wrong. Higginson's scruples, and Dickinson's lack of them, confirm the old Faulkner saw about "Ode on a Grecian Urn" being "worth any number of old ladies." Collateral damage indeed.

Higginson knew what the stakes were. In 1862, the year Dickinson initiated their correspondence, he published an essay in The Atlantic, "Procession of the Flowers":

There is no conceivable beauty of blossom so beautiful as words,--none so graceful, none so perfumed. It is possible to dream of combinations of syllables so delicious that all the dawning and decay of summer cannot rival their perfection, nor winter's stainless white and azure match their purity and their charm.

It's a rare voluptuary who loves "combinations of syllables," yet Dickinson surpassed him as a fundamentalist surpasses a mere evangelical. When, in 1883, Higginson declared Shakespeare's "Since Cleopatra died" one of the supreme emotional phrases in literature, Dickinson did him one better: "That engulfing 'Since'--." Gertrude Stein said, "A sentence is not emotional a paragraph is." But for Dickinson, there was agony and ecstasy in morphemes. The poems, of course, bear this out, but perhaps it's even clearer in the letters, with their direct address, that for Dickinson thought and emotion were one flashing thing, fused in the heat of a rhyme:

Love is its own rescue, for we--at our supremest, are but it's trembling Emblems.

I felt it shelter to speak to you.

His nature was Future.

Even at the death of her 8-year-old nephew, Gib, in 1882--a blow from which she never recovered--she could write to her sister-in-law, in crescendoing phrases: "His Life was like the Bugle, which winds itself always, his Elegy an echo--his Requiem ecstasy." Her metaphors were dictated by the ear; her cerebrum seemed to have grown right out of her cochlear nerve.

Dickinson's more famous contemporary Helen Hunt Jackson once chided her: "You are a great poet--and it is a wrong to deny to the day you live in, that you will not sing aloud. When you are what men call dead, you will be sorry you were so stingy." When Dickinson died in 1886, her nearly 2,000 poems bore witness to a soul that was anything but stingy. But their discovery prompted feuds among her survivors--Lavinia, her sister; Sue Dickinson, her socially prominent sister-in-law; and Mabel Loomis Todd, her brother Austin's mistress and a writer and painter in her own right. Lavinia and Mabel teamed up against Sue, enlisting Higginson's editorial help in assembling a collection of poems; later, Lavinia would vengefully sue Mabel on a separate property issue and demand that Higginson leave Todd's name off the book (he refused, but on the property matter, Oliver Wendell Holmes ruled in Lavinia's favor). Higginson was just a bystander to these machinations, but blame fell heavily on him when scholars uncovered the extent to which grammar had been corrected, punctuation and titles added, dashes disappeared.

The truth is complicated, as Wineapple's scrupulous account of the preparation of Dickinson's Poems shows. For one thing, those changes were made at the behest of the only publisher who would consider issuing a volume. For another, the manuscripts were riddled with indeterminacies. Though Dickinson famously sewed up poems in fastidious booklike packets (Todd dubbed them "fascicles," and it stuck), she also composed on scraps of paper, the backs of recipe cards and in the midst of letters to her correspondents. Her handwriting was difficult to decipher: Higginson compared it to "the famous fossil bird-tracks" in the Amherst museum. Most important, as Wineapple reports, "She kept variants and appears not to have chosen among them, sometimes toying with as many as eight possibilities for words, line arrangement, rhyme, enjambment; nor did she choose among alternate endings." Short of a facsimile reproduction, Dickinson's work will always require editorial interpretation. It just so happens that the twentieth century was far better prepared to read Dickinson's poems on their own terms--variants and all--than was the nineteenth century. ("Her true Flaubert was Penelope," Richard Howard once quipped, simultaneously rewriting that other famous reviser Ezra Pound and writing Dickinson into high Modernism.) Benfey relates how Jay Leyda, a mid-twentieth-century Dickinson scholar with a background in avant-garde photography and film, was the first to recognize "a manuscript about a bird formed of two parts of an envelope pinned together to resemble a bird...a poem about a house written beneath the rooflike arc of another envelope."

Yet the first edition of Poems sold out--as did the second and the third and the fourth--suggesting that the nineteenth century was ready for Dickinson in some form. Wineapple writes, "Fed for years on Tennyson, Patmore, and Longfellow or, more recently, on the folksy verse of James Whitcomb Riley and the jingles of Rudyard Kipling, to say nothing of the verse of Thomas Bailey Aldrich, they were evidently tired of the didacticism and overrefinement of poetry without heat." They were weary, in other words, of hummingbirds.

Higginson lived out his later years in physical, if not mental, comfort. He championed women's writing. He translated Epictetus, the freed slave turned Stoic philosopher. The influence of Transcendentalism, in which his soul was minted, had faded from American life, and in the waning days of the nineteenth century he deplored the excesses of the Gilded Age, scoffing: "Everything which does not tend to money is thought to be wasted." He felt that Dickinson was posthumously keeping the flame of spirit alive with her "irresistible needle-touch" (as he wrote, in 1890, in this magazine). She still is. Are words not actions? "Of our greatest acts we are ignorant--You were not aware that you saved my Life." When Dickinson wrote this to Higginson in 1868, she must have known that the events they set in motion together would, for others, do the same.

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