What makes a human being make a poem? Why does the language we employ every day—language suited equally as well to thank-you notes or parking tickets—ask to be liberated from its more workaday chores, its rhythmic vitality threatening to overpower its capacity for plain sense? Why do readers enjoy the feeling of being overpowered? We don’t reread great novels or poems because we can’t remember the story; we reread because we want to feel our familiar world becoming strange again.
A friend of your brother sends you a gift, a painting of Indian Pipes, which is your favorite flower. You write a thank-you note: "I know not how to thank you." Because your brother’s wife is your closest friend, you have refused to meet the bearer of the gift: you know, as most people do not, that your brother’s friend is in fact his mistress. You know this because their assignations have taken place in your own house, in the dining room, on a black horse-hair sofa in front of the fire. The assignations have been facilitated by your sister, with whom you share the house your grandfather built. Your brother, his wife and their three children live next door in a house your father built for them.
Another gift arrives: a yellow jug painted with red trumpet-vine flowers. You are being wooed by your brother’s mistress, but unlike your sister, whose primary allegiance is to your brother, you remain steadfastly devoted to your brother’s wife and children, from whom your brother has withdrawn his daily affection; there will be "no treason," you tell the oldest child. To the mistress you write a second note:
Nature forgot—The Circus reminded her—
Thanks for the Ethiopian Face.
The Orient is in the West.
"You knew, Oh Egypt" said the entangled Antony—
For all intents and purposes, this is a thank-you note, but because its language fails so aggressively to embody those intents and purposes, it feels like a poem. The writer does not mean merely to refer to the occasion at hand, the receipt of a gift, but to force the giver to attend to a new and more pressing occasion: the reality of the language itself. Does the writer mean to compare the giver to the Ethiopian Queen of Sheba, making herself King Solomon, recipient of the queen’s gifts? Does she mean to compare the giver to Shakespeare’s luxuriously two-faced Cleopatra? To a circus? The recipient of this thank-you note would be baffled, threatened or enraged by these provocative metaphors. The reader of this poem would be thrilled—not simply by the metaphors but by the speed with which one provocation is superseded by another.
"This is the only drama in Dickinson’s life that’s not of her making," says Lyndall Gordon in Lives Like Loaded Guns, her account not only of the life but of the afterlife of Emily Dickinson, an afterlife that continues to be shaped to this day by the internecine warfare within her immediate family, their progeny and their associates. The writer of the thank-you notes is Dickinson, infamous recluse, the author of some 1,775 poems, almost all of which remained unpublished until after her death. The adulterers are Austin Dickinson, her brother, and Mabel Loomis Todd, who first laid eyes on Dickinson only when she was lying in her coffin but who became the first editor of Dickinson’s poems. Austin’s spurned wife is Susan Gilbert Dickinson, with whom Dickinson shared 276 of her poems, including many of her greatest.
"With the exception of Shakespeare," wrote Dickinson to Sue, "you have told me of more knowledge than any one living." Sue would eventually publish some of the poems in her possession, and her daughter Mattie would continue until her death in 1943 to exert her mother’s right to do so. Until her death in 1968, Mabel Loomis Todd’s daughter Millicent would exert her mother’s right to do the same thing, a right that was perhaps unintentionally bequeathed to her by Dickinson’s sister, Vinnie, who asked Mabel to transcribe the hundreds of poems found in Dickinson’s bedroom after her death. Lies, vendettas and lawsuits proliferated: a drama of marital infidelity was played out over the dead poet’s manuscripts with an intricacy that Henry James could not have imagined. The last major player in this drama, Mary Hampson (the wife of Mattie’s companion, Alfred Leete Hampson), died in 1988. Until the end, she lived in the house that Dickinson’s father built for Austin and Sue, the Evergreens, and the house has remained basically unchanged since the poet’s lifetime. Dickinson last entered the Evergreens on the night of October 4, 1883, when she came to sit beside her dying nephew, Gib. Today, Gib’s rocking horse still stands in a shroud of dust beside his bed.
When Gordon says that Austin’s betrayal of Sue was "the only drama in Dickinson’s life that’s not of her making," she means to emphasize that Emily Dickinson was an extraordinarily powerful woman, an artist who was intimidated by nothing—the opposite of a fear-driven recluse, the opposite of the lovelorn spinster that some of her family members were driven to concoct for the world. The drama of her brother’s marriage is familiar, but the Dickinson family happened to include among its members one of the most brilliant poets in the English language. Shakespeare, Blake—who else is as rivetingly inexplicable yet as charismatically inviting? The great virtue of Gordon’s biography is that it makes Dickinson the person—sister, friend, seducer, adversary—seem as scary as her poems. The inevitable liability is that Dickinson the maker of poems remains as elusive to us as she was to the people who knew her best.
Gordon is the author of biographies of T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Brontë, Henry James and Mary Wollstonecraft—biographies that are distinguished by their sharpness of focus and economy of scale. Rather than competing for our attention with the author in question, Gordon tells the whole life by concentrating on what she judges to be the most potent aspect of it. For instance, her biography of Eliot is in essence an account of his relationships with four women (Emily Hale, Vivienne Haigh-Wood, Mary Trevelyan and Valerie Fletcher), two of whom he married, two of whom he spurned. A notoriously elusive poet emerges from Gordon’s book as never before, reflected in the anguished lives of the women surrounding him.
Gordon’s strategy in Lives Like Loaded Guns is similar. Most of the details of Dickinson’s family life are well-known, but because Dickinson scholars (as well as the curators of her manuscripts and the publishers of her poems) have inevitably maintained relationships with one or another faction of the Dickinson family, the story has almost always been told in partisan terms. Neither has it been possible to imagine those factions themselves as the most revealing lens through which to imagine the daily life of a poet even more elusive than Eliot. The people to whom Dickinson was most closely related or most passionately attracted were rampant, larger-than-life figures, and as Gordon demonstrates, "Emily was not an oddity amongst them." More than that, her power dwarfed theirs. When Austin wanted to give his mistress a parcel of Dickinson land, his sister Vinnie consented. But Emily refused to sign the deed: she controlled that narrative. Her refusal to meet the mistress was similarly no act of reticence but, like her thank-you note, an act of withering aggression. People were scared of Emily Dickinson, and rightly so.
"We do not have much poetry," said the young Dickinson of her household, "father having made up his mind that its pretty much all real life. Fathers real life and mine sometimes come into collision, but as yet, escape unhurt!" The collision was between the everyday language of thank-you notes and the disruptive language of poetry, of which Dickinson was a native speaker. Once, when her mother was trying to make a houseguest comfortable, Dickinson couldn’t help but transform her mother’s solicitous questions into provocations: "Wouldn’t you like to have the Declaration of Independence to read? Or the Lord’s Prayer repeated?" It’s hard to imagine how such biting repartee would be received, and neither did Dickinson hold back when the stakes were higher. "Have you said your prayers?" demanded her teacher at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. "Yes," answered Dickinson, "though it can’t make much difference to the Creator." Notoriously, when Dickinson refused to be "saved," she was relegated to the lowest category of human beings—the "no-hopers."
The stakes were even higher when Dickinson was dealing not with figures of authority but with her peers—people with whom she hoped to share the intensity that distinguished her. "I have dared to do strange things—bold things," she confided to her friend Jane Humphrey, "and have asked no advice from any—I have heeded beautiful tempters, yet do not think I am wrong…. Oh Jennie, it would relieve me to tell you all, to sit down at your feet, and look in your eyes, and confess what you only shall know." Jane Humphrey did not respond to this letter. "No day goes by, little One, but has its thought of you, and its wish to see you," Dickinson wrote to Jane five years later. Again there was no response. It’s tempting to speculate about the revelation Dickinson longed to make, but all speculation inevitably feels inadequate. "I have dared to do strange things": this is the language of poetry, not the language of what Dickinson’s father called real life. If Jane could have imagined what Dickinson was talking about, she wouldn’t have run away, and her inability to imagine makes Dickinson’s ardor seem all the more threatening.
The young Dickinson was so volatile, so volcanic in her intuitions that she could clear a room. Mental and emotional acuity of that level is frightening because people have no way of explaining its source. It requires no nurturing. It expands not only without the intervention of other people but without the effort of the person who possesses it—or is possessed by it. It simply happens. Not many people want to have tea with the Delphic Oracle, however mesmerizing her speech. So, by a very early age, Dickinson learned that if she was going to have any friends, she needed to prevaricate. She also learned how little she gained from such prevarication. The few people to whom she truly made herself available were able to withstand the onslaught. Sue welcomed it. In contrast, after receiving just a couple of well-aimed gusts, Mabel Loomis Todd was shaken to the root—driven to own the poet who would not countenance her, much as she had been driven to possess the poet’s brother.
Dickinson’s reclusiveness was not a way of protecting herself from the world but a way of protecting the world from herself. Jane Humphrey was the first in a long list of people Dickinson frightened simply by existing, and frightening people became a demoralizing occupation. Even more demoralizing was the effort to speak the language of real life: poetry was Dickinson’s native tongue—not a transparent sentence like "I know not how to thank you" but elusive sentences like "I have dared to do strange things" or "Thanks for the Ethiopian Face." By the time she sent that sentence to Mabel Loomis Todd, nominally in thanks for the painted jug, Dickinson knew what she was doing, and she knew that it would work. Dickinson constructed her true self in her poetry, which had to be kept secret from almost everyone, since even the slightest release of it into the real world could be explosive.
But what makes Dickinson’s greatest poems even more threatening is that they blur the difference between the language of everyday life and the language of poetry, making our own lives feel explosive:
I cannot live with You—
It would be Life—
And Life is over there—
Behind the Shelf
The Sexton keeps the key to—
The language is not complicated here. Only four of these twenty-three words have more than one syllable, and the syllables are arranged in a meter and rhyme scheme familiar to us from innumerable ballads and hymns. But at the same time, Dickinson’s idiosyncratic punctuation keeps those syllables from settling too happily into those familiar forms, and the poem’s relationship to those forms is as edgy as its professed relationship to the restricting terms of everyday life: to live with another person, however beloved, is to be a pretty piece of porcelain, locked forever behind the sexton’s shelf. The prospects of dying together or rising together after death are no less problematic, and the poem’s final stanza is both witheringly stern and wildly metaphorical in acceptance of human solitude:
So we must meet apart—
With just the Door ajar
That Oceans are—and Prayer—
And that White Sustenance—
Solitude is not a state merely to be chosen. The space between any two human beings, however proximate, is as astonishing as an ocean, and Dickinson lived and wrote in order to honor that astonishment.
As was often her practice, Dickinson offered several choices for certain words in this poem: the "White Sustenance" of despair might be a "White exercise" or a "White privilege." Dickinson couldn’t choose between these alternatives, and she doesn’t want us to choose, either; the existential dilemma embodied by the poem cannot be locked up in words too easily. This is why her poems are so endlessly unsettling—they threaten constantly to exceed themselves. And this is why Dickinson the person was similarly so unnerving, not only to other people but to herself. To capitulate to the terms of the everyday world of human congress, to pretend that an ocean doesn’t separate us all, was paradoxically to alienate herself. The despair of isolation might be a sustenance, and it might be an exercise, but it is also a privilege.
Yet Lyndall Gordon believes there is a "simpler reason" for Dickinson’s seclusion, and here Lives Like Loaded Guns takes a peculiar turn. One of Dickinson’s most famous poems describes a state of psychological disorientation that invokes, among other things, one of the most essential pleasures of poetry—its propensity to turn swiftly against itself, the sound of language seducing us through a discontinuity of sense:
The thought behind, I strove to join
Unto the thought before—
But Sequence ravelled out of Sound—
Like Balls—opon a Floor—
This is the feeling aroused by Dickinson’s gnomic thank-you note to Mabel Loomis Todd, and while the feeling of radical discontinuity can be scary, poems exist to make that feeling enjoyable: by shirking our everyday notions of usefulness, they allow us to take pleasure in an utterance that we may not yet fully comprehend. Gordon recognizes this, and she cautions against the urge to read the language of poetry as a transparent vehicle for the poet’s life. Yet Gordon is at the same time willing to ask this question about Dickinson’s poem: "are we not looking at epilepsy?"
However efficient its means, Lives Like Loaded Guns ultimately feels divided in its ends. This is not because half the book is given over to events that occur after Dickinson’s death; the documented passion with which Dickinson’s heirs battled one another helps us to imagine more clearly the undocumented passion of Dickinson’s life. The book feels divided against itself because Gordon becomes seduced by a posthumous medical diagnosis as the key to all Dickinson mythologies. Evidence is available; two of Dickinson’s close relatives were epileptic, including Sue and Austin’s older son, and medical records show that Dickinson was sometimes prescribed drugs associated with the treatment of epilepsy (though Gordon is always careful to point out that these drugs were prescribed for a variety of reasons). Inconclusive in itself, evidence breeds speculation. "Sickness is a more sensible reason for [Dickinson’s] seclusion than disappointed love," argues Gordon logically enough, but who believes any longer that this intimidating woman, an artist with the power to create the world in which she walked, was driven into seclusion by a broken heart? Speculation becomes assertion: "To keep epilepsy the secret it had to be, she must remain at home as long as she lived." I can imagine this reclusive woman as the author of the sentence "I know not how to thank you" but not of "Thanks for the Ethiopian Face" or "the Door ajar/That Oceans are."
Even if it could be proved that Dickinson was epileptic, the revelation would explain almost nothing about her and even less about her poems. A variety of factors may well have determined Dickinson’s decision to seclude herself, but to champion illness as the single most determining factor is to disregard what is otherwise so bracing about Lives Like Loaded Guns: its portrayal of Emily Dickinson as an artist who was, during her lifetime, the victim of nothing. While the posthumous legend constructed by Sue’s daughter Mattie "built up a pitiful Emily bereft, for life, of the one and only man she loved," says Gordon, the legend constructed by Mabel’s daughter Millicent offers "a pitiful Emily ‘hurt,’ for life, by her ‘cruel’ sister-in-law from whom she withdrew into disillusioned seclusion." Having so deftly analyzed the various and pernicious ways in which Dickinson’s life has been packaged at the expense of her poems, why does Gordon offer one more solution? A "solution" is precisely what her publisher proclaims that Lives Like Loaded Guns offers, and it’s hard not to feel discouraged by the assertion, which does both Dickinson and Gordon the disservice of enlisting them in one more mercantile gambit. Fortunately, the solution is unconvincing, and the otherwise brilliant pages of Lives Like Loaded Guns float free of it.
"Abyss has no Biographer," wrote Dickinson, who even among poets had an extraordinarily high appetite for the abyss. "An initiation in infinitude was the gift Dickinson offered to the few she admitted to intimacy," says Gordon. "Contrary to the usual view that people changed her, it was she who operated on others for the brief periods they could bear it." Gordon has made this person vivid, and by doing so, she reminds us that the few people who could bear Dickinson’s true company were as bewildered as the majority of people who could not. Those few were the kinds of people who also like to read poems, the kinds of people who perhaps also want to make them. Dickinson’s father was no such person, but at least in one regard he did come to see his daughter truly: as head of the household, he relieved her of morning duties so that she might begin her reading and writing at 3 am.
Such privacy is crucial for any writer, but Dickinson had the inevitable misfortune, especially after her death, of being surrounded by people for whom the act of writing was not private enough, or for whom the act of privacy took on warped and astonishing forms. The companion of Dickinson’s niece Mattie, Alfred Leete Hampson, didn’t want to leave Dickinson’s manuscripts in the Evergreens while he traveled to Europe, so every winter he packed up almost 1,000 poems and 200 letters in a suitcase and took "Emily" along. It’s because of the efforts of such people, however complex their motives, that we are now able to read Dickinson at all, but of the many fascinating characters surrounding the poet in Lives Like Loaded Guns, my favorite is Dickinson’s cousin Loo Norcross, who enraged Mabel Loomis Todd by refusing to hand over the letters Dickinson had written to her. It’s impossible not to imagine the poet’s approval.
The Soul selects her own Society—
Then—shuts the Door—
Loo kept the letters with her in a nursing home until she died in 1919; then the letters were burned.