Another gem from Ira Maine – this time with Emily Dickinson.
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) American poet.
Uncounted reams of impenetrable tripe has been written about this poet. I grew up thinking Ms Dickinson was some sort of demented hermit who walled herself up in the family home in Amherst, Massachusetts and churned out endless quantities of poetry which she mostly filed away and occasionally published. She was, I was told, a weird woman who stayed at home most of the time and baked bread. Alternatively she was a lonely old spinster who had rejected her one true love and regretted that decision for the rest of her life. She was also seen as a mad woman, pure and simple, who wrote poetry of little consequence which was instantly dismissed by important people who’d never read it.
It turns out that most of this nonsense was created by warring factions in her own family. After her death and as her reputation grew, the various groups each took ‘possession’ and ‘responsibility’ for whatever of Emily’s poems happened to be in their possession.
Susan Dickinson, wife to Emily’s brother Austin, received at least a hundred poems from Emily during her lifetime for either editing, approval or discussion. They spent many hours together reading the poems and emending them.
Then, scandalously, at the age of almost fifty, Emily’s brother Austin initiated a long time affair with a married woman of almost half his age. In the strange way of things, and having rejected his wife Susan, Austin’s mistress, a Mrs Mabel Loomis Todd, now became not only a close friend of Emily’s but the second recipient of voluminous quantities of poetry.
In this way, two opposed factions were created, that of the wife and that of the mistress.
It wasn’t just the poetry; both of these factions had something else in common: They both had, it would appear, deliberately set out to create a smokescreen around Emily Dickinson. The mad woman, the recluse, the baking lady etc. were all part of an attempt to justify why Ms Emily Dickinson lived as she did and did as she did. Both parties, independently of each other, built differing smokescreens which might explain why there are so many legends about this woman who spurned local ‘society’ and lived almost exclusively within the family home.
Modern scholars suspect that perhaps all of this flim-flam, all of this ‘eccentricity’ of Emily’s was an attempt, on the family’s side, to hide a condition which, in the mid 19th century, if barely tolerated in men, was considered absolutely unacceptable, indeed, anathema, in women.
Emily Dickinson may very well have suffered from a mild form of epilepsy.
All over early 19th century America, the re-discovery of religion gave powerful clout to a newly moneyed middle class who majored in ignorance, stupidity and greed. One example of this new and enlightened thinking was the belief that epilepsy was unquestionably associated with hysteria, masturbation, syphilis and mental derangement. An epileptic man interfering with himself, or indeed becoming syphilitic or suffering from any of the aforementioned, was barely tolerated. He was, after all, a man. But a woman interfering with herself? Even hysterically? To the self-appointed guardians of 19thcentury morality this represented the absolute depths of pagan depravity, a depravity which, taken at the flood, inevitably leads on to syphilis, mental derangement and perhaps even epilepsy itself!
Emily Dickinson, as a child lived across the road from her cousin, Zebina.
Zebina, a permanent invalid, was epileptic.
Emily’s brother Austin and his wife Susan produced a boy child who, by the age of fifteen, was regularly suffering devastating epileptic seizures.
It is not unreasonable then to deduce from this that perhaps Emily Dickinson, throughout her life, suffered from an inherited family condition which precluded her venturing far from home lest an unexpected bout occur. Can you imagine how devastating that might be to a young girl should even a mild seizure occur whilst in the company of her friends? And how, given the prevailing view of epilepsy, how her friends might come to regard her having witnessed a seizure? Too awful to contemplate…
A friend of mine, years ago, suffered a mild form of epilepsy. There was nothing dramatic about his condition. There were no paroxysms or seizures. He would simply come to a stop. He’d stand, not moving, as if someone had switched him off. These attacks would last from a few seconds to several minutes, Then, just as abruptly, he’d be restored to his normal, though somewhat shaken self. Perhaps poor Emily suffered this way and found that the best way to avoid public humiliation, or indeed likely social ostracism, was to keep herself generally out of the public eye.
But enough of all this: God knows why this extraordinary poet behaved as she did but I do feel that the epilepsy possibility must be considered. It is, I feel, a much more reasonable explanation for Emily’s behaviour than the endlessly embroidered, ‘mad woman’ inventions visited on us over the years. Huzzah, in the end, for modern, less hysterical, scholarship.
Emily Dickinson is nowadays recognised as probably the finest American poet of the 19th century. This is quite an accolade when you think that she is now considered to be at least on a par, if not considerably better, than poets of the calibre of Longfellow, Walt Whitman, Emerson and Thoreau.
And now, at last, a poem.
Being little connected with the outside world, and allowing herself little of the luxury of friends, Emily retreated into herself, for weeks at a time whenever a death occurred around her. She found herself, considering how few friends she had, quite understandably overwhelmed by this death.
Her poem, ‘The Bustle in the House’ discusses the solemn business of tidying up, of restoring a house to how it was before the possibility of death first entered, then occupied the house and its occupants until the death itself occurred. In a strange and stunned way those who are left distract themselves from this death by a necessary but almost ritualistic cleansing, by bustling about busily, by avoiding, not seeing the huge hole left by the dead person’s absence.
With the house tidied and the dead tidied away we must then, of necessity, attempt to adjust ourselves to this person’s absence. We must begin to tidy away all of the clutter that person’s presence created in our lives, in our souls and in our hearts. This cannot be achieved in a morning.
‘…putting Love away…’ as Emily Dickinson observes, will take the rest of our life.
The Bustle in a House
The Morning after Death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon Earth—
The Sweeping up the Heart
And putting Love away
We shall not want to use again