Sunday, August 02, 2015

In the Light of her Own Fire: Recap of the Meditation and Writing Group Visit to the Emily Dickinson Homestead

[Photo by Jacqueline Gens- Left to right, Brenda, Barbara, Terry, and Marilyn. 
Shari was there too but not in the picture]

On Saturday, August 1 some of our  meditation and poetry group visited the Emily Dickinson Homestead including Evergreens, next door -- the home of Emily’s brother Austin and sister-in-law, Susan.

It’s been about ten years since I visited the museum with a tour of Emily’s house. What a change and so much dynamic information to add to our knowledge. Since then, I've read a number of works including the letters between Sue Dickinson and Emily in Open Me Carefully and the correspondence between Emily’s parents--Edward and Emily Norcross.

So here’s a couple of high points for me: 
  • I was very interested in the coincidence of Emily’s first avowed episodes of withdrawal in her letters which coincided with her 27th year and the beginning of her intense dedication to poetry which, in that year alone, produced 300 plus poems. This proliferation also coincided with the Civil War. The docent attending us said that she read the newspaper daily for her entire life. That really interested me. I had an flash of her relaxing with her version of the NYTimes--The Springfield Republican eagerly reading the  news.
Here is a brief on the influence of the Springfield Republican, one of the 15 newspapers the Dickinson family subscribed to and edited by family friend, Samuel Bowles. IN terms of her other reading, I was also interested in the collection of 2000 library books owned by the Dickinson family. The collection of 600 books at the Houghton Library in Harvard were selected based on the premise these were the ones Emily read. So now I want to know what she actually read. Perhaps another field trip in the works.
  • Another huge inspiration I experienced was the introduction of Dickinson’s “Variants” in a display devoted to her poetry.  I had not paid much attention to this previously. Here the author of the essay below calls it “The Limitless Lyric”. There was even a kind of sliding apparatus on the wall to insert little cards with the variant words. I want to make one of these.
Here is a part of an essay:

In Choosing Not Choosing: Dickinson's Fascicles, Sharon Cameron suggests that Dickinson's "variants extend the text's identity in ways that make it seem potentially limitless" (6). Cameron points out that to "consider poems as individual lyrics is to suppose boundedness," and, therefore, Dickinson's "unbounded" or "limitless" lyric constitutes a new lyric form (5). Like Cameron, I see these variants as an integral part of a "limitless" lyric; however, I would add that because variants destabilize the exact thought or emotion, Dickinson's process of choosing (or not choosing) foregrounds the act of word choice itself and indicates that she was more interested in the process of creation and self-expression * than in editing her poetry for typographical publication.

[That is what we try to do in our writing group]

  • In her bedroom she had portraits of George Elliot and Elizabeth Browning, her heroines  [See below]. The bedroom was currently empty awaiting the new wallpaper reproduction but this photo shows the actual collection housed in her bedroom.  I somehow missed this detail the last time I visited the homestead.  I loved the docent’s quote from Mattie Dickinson about her Aunt Emily in her bedroom--say something like ....”Mattie turn the key, now that is freedom.”

  • We also visited the Evergreens, next door. A study in contrast, a bit haunted for my taste with deep burrows of unhappiness embedded in the very walls. Susan Gilbert Dickinson is interesting and I was,”blown away” as they say by the intense and brilliant correspondence between Sue and Emily in the publication, Open Me Carefully.  Not only were they entwined by deep bonds of affection but they were intellectual peers far beyond anything offered by their relations with their male family and friends. Sue’s obituary of Emily is unforgettable. 
These are just my initial impressions of the day. Perhaps more will surface and others from the writing group can offer their own impressions. 


  1. Rich thoughts, Jacq, beautiful. Thanks for linking Sue's eulogy, too. Maybe we can travel into the Houghton together to see her library?

    1. yes would love that sounds like an outing..Let’s do it

  2. Like most of us Emily Dickinson has dappled poems throughout my life, and through an article, play, or hearsay had an idea of whom I thought she was.... intelligent, fey, dreamy, reclusive...ect. The visit so impacted me on so many surprising levels, so overwhelmed I experienced almost an ethereal juggernaut as the day slowly went on. Driving home I knew I had to embrace and identify this energy that so impacted me! I came to the realization of what a complex and multidimensional person she actually was and to truly get a grasp of her genius, will definitely be a long time commitment on my part. There were a number of things presented in the tour that were revelations, and brought more sense of depth to her writing. The one for me that personally struck a major chord is the fact that she read the paper daily, and was quite politically savvy. She made her commitment to distant herself socially, and devote her time to her writing & poems as the Civil War began! I personally found this extremely telling, though one can only speculate. We can only imagine the experience of being such a sensitive, and well informed women in an Era when gender roles were extremely rigid. For now....thanks for letting me share!

  3. I agree with you Terry. I was astonished to find out from the museum docent that her household subscribed to 13 publications and that yes, she read the newspaper everyday.