Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

A Note on Emily Dickinson*


 

Pending the coming in of "The Seven Seas," it is safe to say that the publication of a new volume of poems by Emily Dickinson is the literary event of the season. Six years ago when her first book was given to the public, it ran through several editions, achieving a larger sale, I believe, than any other first volume ever printed at the University Press, and that is saying a good deal, when one recalls the distinguished works that have issued from that excellent printing shop. Its author's name was entirely unknown, and she herself already passed beyond the confusion of renown; yet so distinctive was her note, so spiritual and intense and absolutely sincere, that she sprang at once into a posthumous fame, unadulterated and almost splendid. It was one more tribute to the New England ideal, the American interest in morality, the bent for transcendentalism inherited from Emerson; and, by the way, it was at the same time another evidence of the alertness of the American reading public, and its sensitiveness to excellent originality. For while there was novelty in the verse of Emily Dickinson, there was nothing sensational, hardly anything strange; no peculiarity on which a cult could batten. Those who admired her verse must admire it for its poetry alone.

I have just said that there is nothing sensational in Emily Dickinson's poetry; and yet there was, in a small way, a genuine sensation in the editorial rooms of one of the oldest journals in New York when our chief, with that tireless and impetuous enthusiasm of his, came rushing in with his bright discovery-like a whirl of October leaves. He is one of the two American editors who have the superfluous faculty of knowing poetry when they see it; he had fallen upon the immortal maid's first book, and the slumbering poet in him was awake. Nothing would suffice but we must share his youthful elation, listen to the strains of this original and accredited singer. The heat of New York, the routine of an office, the jaded mind of a reviewer, the vitiated habit of the professional manuscript-taster-it was not easy to shake off these at once; we were somewhat cold, perhaps, and a little sceptical of the chief's discovery. Still, we must listen. Hear this-

Belshazzar had a letter-
He never had but one;
Belshazzar's correspondent
Concluded and begun
In that immortal copy
The conscience of us all
Can read without its glasses
On revelation's wall."

Why, yes, certainly that is original enough. But can your wonderful prodigy turn off another verse like it?

"Can she? To be sure! Listen again!"

"I 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."

Well, 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.

Following 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.

For 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 valley.

It 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 seem:

"This 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."

That 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.

And 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 creatures.

Not 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 on cobwebs:

"The 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."

There 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."

Did 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.

There 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."

It 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.

"Who never wanted-maddest joy
    Remains to him unknown;
The banquet of abstemiousness
    Surpasses that of wine."

"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!


"A Note on Emily Dickinson," Boston Evening Transcript, Nov. 21, 1896 [back]