There is a myth perpetuated by the editors and publishers of Emily Dickinson; a women in white, distant and reclusive, locked in her attic, lovelorn and slightly mad. Her poetry was edited to encourage this line of thought, as were the forwards published by those printing her work. But when one settles into her letters, one finds a vibrant, humorous women. She complains of the expectations of womanhood, the need to sew and clean and be presentable. She admits to finding excuses to not attend church, and talks of her wandering thoughts during the sermons she does attend. Her language is full of nature and emotion; she speaks of storms inside and out, of tears of frustration and misery, but also of robin song and violets, green grass and heat lightening.
“but come with me this morning to the church within our hearts, where the bells are always ringing, and the preacher whose name is Love – shall intercede there for us! “ (February, 1852)
Susan Huntington was her neighbor, friend and eventual sister-in-law, but the letters shared between her and Emily speak of so much more. There is a tenderness, a longing, expressed in Miss Dickinson’s writing that implies a passionate love.
“So sweet and still, and Thee, Oh Susie, what need I more, to make my heaven whole?
Sweet Hour, blessed Hour, to carry me to you, and to bring you back to me, long enough to snatch one kiss, and whisper Good bye, again. “ (Late April, 1852)
They remained close throughout the course of Emily’s life, and after her death Susan struggled to compile a collection of Emily’s work that would do justice to the scope of her intellectual ability; not only poetry, but essays and letters. Unfortunately she was unable to get such a work published, the houses of the time being more interested in perpetuating the Dickinson legend then in revealing this creature of flesh and blood.
“Susie – I shall think of you at sunset, and at sunrise, again; and at noon, and forenoon, and afternoon, and always, and evermore, till this little heart stops beating and is still.” (May, 1852)
I write from the Land of Violets, and from the Land of Spring,
this sweet and strange adoption wherein we can but look, and are not yet admitted
I am on my way through the green lane to meet you,
Oh my darling one, how long you wander from me,
sometimes I shut my eyes, and shut my heart towards you.
These days of heaven bring you nearer and nearer,
you and I would try to make a little destiny to have for our own.
our eyes would whisper for us, and your hand fast in mine, we would not ask for language
if years and years had trod their silent pathway, the time would seem less long.
among the woods and fields, and forget these many years, and these sorrowing cares
laugh as often and sing, for tears are plentier than smiles in this little world of our’s
write me of hope and love, and of hearts that endured,
of something faithful which “never slumbers nor sleeps”
I hardly know which falls fastest, the rain without, or within
There is a plethora of letters to read; over thirty, all filled to brimming with declarations of love and yearning. I found most of them Sappho.com and emilydickinson.it, and didn’t even begin to scratch the surface of her many correspondences with other family and friends. I had never learned to appreciate the simplicity of Emily Dickinson’s poetry as a student, unable to connect her writing with the myth. She seemed distant, a caricature of a poet. Now, knowing her passion and rage, I can look at them with new eyes, seeing the women beyond the words.
In a fortuitous turn of events, I began work on this Thanksgiving morning, before spending the afternoon at my grandmother’s house. The garage has been recently cleaned out, and in my inspection of the various relics I found a 1937 leather bound book of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. It felt as though she reached from the past to hand me the volume, a little smile teasing the corners of her mouth, “Here,” She said, “Now that we know each other a little better.”