had a letter-
He never had but one;
Concluded and begun
In that immortal copy
The conscience of us all
Can read without its glasses
On revelation's wall."
yes, certainly that is original enough. But can your
wonderful prodigy turn off another verse like it?
she? To be sure! Listen again!"
taste a liquor never brewed,
From tankards scooped in pearl;
Not all the vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an alcohol.
Inebriate of air am I,
And debauchee of dew,
Reeling through endless summer days,
From inns of molten blue.
When landlords turn the drunken bee
Out of the foxglove's door,
When butterflies renounce their drams,
I shall but drink the more!
Til seraphs wing their snowy hats,
And saints to windows run,
To see the little tippler
Leaning against the sun."
we are convinced, indeed. There can be no doubt of the
genuineness of this writer. Such work is fresh from
the mint; not immediately current without some scrutiny;
yet stamped plainly enough with the hall-mark of genius.
We could but give unqualified assent; put the new book
on the old shelf at once, with its peers, the acknowledged
classics of American literature.
this first venture, there has been a second collection
of poems, two volumes of letters and now this third
book is verse. And allowing one's judgement time to
cool, I must say the conviction remains that Emily Dickinson's
contribution to English poetry (or American poetry,
if you prefer to say so) is by far the most important
made by any woman west of the Atlantic. It is so by
reason of its thought, its piquancy, its untarnished
expression. She borrowed from no one; she was never
commonplace; always imaginative and stimulating; and
finally, the region of her brooding was that sequestered
domain where our profoundest convictions have origin,
and whence we trace the Puritan strain within us.
this New England woman was a type of her race. A life-long
recluse, musing on the mysteries of life and death,
she yet had that stability of character, that strong
sanity of mind, which could hold out against the perils
of seclusion, unshaken by solitude, undethroned by doubt.
The very fibre of New England must have been there,
founded of granite, nourished by an exhilarating air.
We are permitted, through Colonel Higginson's introduction
to the first series of poems, the merest glimpse into
the story of her life, in that beautiful college town
in the lovely valley of the Connecticut. We imagine
her in the old-fashioned house with its stately decency,
its air of breeding and reserve, set a little back from
the street, ambushed behind a generous hedge, and flanked
by an ample garden on the side-a garden full of roses
and tall elms and the scent of new-mown hay. There among
her own, she chose an unaustere and voluntary monasticism
for her daily course, far indeed removed from the average
life of our towns, yet not so untypical of that strain
of Puritan blood which besets us all. It would never,
I feel sure, occur to anyone with the least insight
into the New England character, or the remotest inheritance
of the New England conscience (with its capacity for
abstemiousness, its instinct for being always aloof
and restrained, rather than social and blithe), to think
of Emily Dickinson as peculiar, or her mode of life
as queer. Somewhat strange as the record of it may show
to foreign eyes, it was natural enough in its own time
and place, though sufficiently unusual to claim something
of distinction even of itself. Illumined and revealed
in her poems, the life and character of this original
nature make a fit study for the subtlest criticism-such
a criticism, indeed, as I know not where they will receive.
And all the while, as we speak of Emily Dickinson's
secluded life, and her individual habit of isolation,
her parsimony in friendship and human intercourse, I
have a conviction that we should guard against the fancy
that she was tinged with any shadow of sadness, or any
touch of misanthropy or gloom. It seems rather that
she must have had the sunniest of dispositions, as she
certainly had the most sensitive and exquisite organization.
It was not that the persons or affections of her fellows
seemed to her superfluous or harsh or unnecessary, but
rather that in one so finely organized as she must have
been, the event of meeting another was too exquisite
and portentous to be borne. For there are some natures
so shy and quick, so undulled by the life of the senses,
that they never quite acquire the easy part of the world.
You will hear of them shunning the most delightful acquaintance,
turning a corner sharply to avoid an encounter, hesitating
at the very threshold of welcome, out of some dim, inherited,
instinctive dread of casual intercourse. They are like
timorous elusive spirits, gone astray, perhaps, and
landed on the rough planet Earth by a slight mischance;
and when they are compelled by circumstance to share
in the world's work, their part in it is likely to be
an unhappy one. Theirs is the bent for solitude, the
custom of silence. And once that fleeing sense of self-protection
arises within them, the chances are they will indulge
it to the end. And fortunate, indeed, it is, if that
end be not disaster. But in Emily Dickinson's case,
the stray health of genius came to the support of this
hermits's instinct, and preserved her to the end of
life sweet and blithe and contented in the innocent
nun-like existence in which she chose to be immured.
Her own room served her for native land, and in the
paintedd garden beyond her window-sill was foreign travel
enough for her. For that frugal soul, the universe of
experience was bounded by the blue hills of a New England
was, of course, part of the inheritance of such a woman
to have the religious sense strongly marked. She came
of a race that never was at ease in Zion, yet never
was content out of sight of the promised land. It best
suited their strenuous and warlike nature always to
be looking down on the delectable Canaan from the Pisgah
of their own unworthiness. Yet, however severe a face
life wore to them, and unlovely as their asperity often
was, they were still making, though unwittingly, for
the liberation of humanity. They were laying a substructure
of honesty and seriousness, on which their intellectual
inheritors might build, whether in art or politics.
And their occupation with religion, with the affairs
of the inward life and all its needs, has left an impress
on ourselves, given us a trend from which we swerve
in vain. And on every page of Emily Dickinson's poetry
this ethical tendency, this awful environment of spirituality,
is evident. Meditations of Psyche in the House of Clay;
epigrams of an immortal guest, left behind on the chamber
wall on the eve of silent departure, these brief lyrics
world is not conclusion;
A sequel stands beyond,
Invisible as music,
But positive as sound.
It beckons and it baffles;
Philosophies don't know,
And through a riddle, at the last,
Sagacity must go.
To guess it puzzles scholars;
To gain it, men have shown
Contempt of generations,
And crucifixion known."
is an orphic utterance, no doubt; and such is all of
this poet's work. She is, like Emerson, a companion
for solitude, a stimulating comrade in the arduous intellectual
ways. A symbolist of the symbolists, she is with them
a reviver and establisher of the religious sentiment.
Full of scepticism, and the gentle irony of formal unbelief,
putting aside the accepted and narrowing creed, she
brings us, as Emerson did, face to face with new objects
of worship. In their guidance we come a step nearer
the great veil. For it is quite true that he who was
hailed as a sceptic and destroyer in his early career,
was in reality a prophet and a founder.
it was inevitable, too, that one so much at home in
spiritual matters should be deeply versed in nature-should
be on intimate terms of friendship with all Nature's
that her knowledge of them was wide; it could hardly
be that. But her sympathy with them was deep. She had
ever a word of interpretation for the humblest of the
mute dwellers in her garden world, clover or bee or
blade. Often in these verses on the natural world there
is a touch of whimsical humor that shows her character
in very delightful color; as, for instance, in the lines
spider as an artist
Has never been employed,
Though his surpassing merit
Is freely certified
By every broom and Bridget
Throughout a Christian land.
Neglected son of genius,
I take thee by the hand."
is the touch of intimacy, of fellowship, of kinship
with all creation, which is so characteristic of modern
poetry, and which is to become characteristic of modern
religion. It is the tolerant, gay, debonair note of
blameless joy which has been banished so long from the
world, coming back to claim its own again. The same
chord is struck, though struck much more richly and
with added significance in Miss Gertrude Hall's poem
"To a Weed."
I say that Emily Dickinson's contribution to poetry
was more important than that of any other woman in America?
Perhaps it is. Yet it has its faults, so hard a thing
is perfection in any art, and so perfect the balance
of fine qualities necessary to attain it. For while
this poet was so eminent in wit, so keen in epigram,
so rare and startling in phrase, the extended laborious
architecture of an impressive poetic creation was beyond
her. So that one has to keep her at hand as a stimulus
and refreshment rather than as a solace. She must not
be read long at a sitting. She will not bear that sort
of treatment any more than Mr. Swinburne will; and for
the very opposite reason. In Swinburne there is such
a richness of sound, and often such a paucity of thought
that one's even mental poise is sadly strained in trying
to keep an equilibrium. He is like those garrulous persons,
enamored of their own voice, who talk one to death so
pleasingly. While in Emily Dickinson there is a lack
of sensuousness, just as there was in Emerson. So that,
like him, she never could have risen into the first
rank of poets. And it was a sure critical instinct that
led her never to venture beyond the range where her
success was sure.
is one thing to be remembered in considering her poetry,
if we are to allow ourselves the full enjoyment of it;
and that is her peculiar rhymes. As Colonel Higginson
well remarks, "though curiously indifferent to
all conventional rules, she had a rigorous literary
standard of her own, and often altered a word many times
to suit an ear which had its own tenacious fastidiousness."
is usual in verse to call those sounds perfect rhymes
in which the final consonants (if there be any) and
the final vowels are identical, but the consonants preceding
these final vowels, different. So that we call "hand"
and "land" perfect rhymes. But this is only
a conventional custom among poets. It is consonant with
laws of poetry, of course; but it is not in itself a
law. It is merely one means at the writer's disposal
for marking off his lines for the reader's ear. And
when Emily Dickinson chose to use in her own work another
slightly different convention, she was at perfect liberty
to do so. She violated no law of poetry. The laws of
art are as inviolable as the laws of nature.
never wanted-maddest joy
Remains to him unknown;
The banquet of abstemiousness
Surpasses that of wine."
and "unknown" are not perfect rhymes. No more
are "ground" and "mind," "done"
and "man"; yet they serve to mark her lines
for her reader quite well. Why? Because she has made
a new rule for herself, and has followed it carefully.
It is simply this-that the final vowels need not be
identical; only the final consonants need be identical.
The vowels may vary. It is wrong to say that she disregarded
any law here. The question is rather: Did her new usage
tend to beautiful results? For my part I confess that
I like that falling rhyme very much. There is a haunting
gypsy accent about it, quite in keeping with the tenor
of that wilding music. What a strange and gnomelike
presence lurks in all her lines!