Tabernacle or Tomb?

One of the dilemmas I’m grappling with is that of an audience. Who am I writing for? It’s not that I write to be read – this would be foolhardy- but that the proposed reader influences how any text is constructed. It’s a question answered instinctively when you write for publication, even when that publication is simply your own blog. But I remain entirely at sea when it comes to writing as a graded exercise with defined guidelines. Partly, of course, it is that I carry it badly. Last semester I folded my words into my life, rather than the other way around, which is never a good idea for someone as chronically fickle as me.

The Dickinson essay below is a good example of the weird niche I currently occupy. I wrote it (and I admit this is dubious) for a “controversy” assignment, and while it was fun reading Dickinson for two weeks, I’m not sure where/how to pitch it, or indeed if I should pitch it. I’m leaning towards no: which self-respecting books blog would accept my solemn exegesis of her verse? (in less than fifty words!) Who else would care? Is this basically a blogpost pointing out that other people are writing blogposts? Is it only logical to expect my reader to know who Emily Dickinson is and why she is VITAL? If so, why bother writing it?

 Anyway. I fully expect y’all to consider this a purely rhetorical puzzle, so here’s another reason to read it. This essay has sentimental value: the first booksy thing I did in NYC was attend the launch of Paul Legault’s Emily Dickinson Reader. It was my first solo outing in DUMBO; I got spectacularly lost* and I kept circling this guy selling pretzels until eventually he took pity on a starving student and gave me one. It was a magic pretzel. I finally found my way down Water Street the next go-around and a great good time was had. I mingled. I sipped artisanal beer and made eye-contact and small lit-chat and was generally an urbane sophisticate** and a new din was born. All for the love of Emily Dickinson.***

 *Even google is stumped by Brooklyn.

** yeah, ok. I wore perfume and I scuffed my sneakers.

***tbh, I often find Dickinson fucking exhausting. So frenetic! So baroque! I know her well enough to misrepresent myself as a fangirl, but in most moods I’m.. conflicted.


All great poets spawn cottage industries of interpretation. Emily Dickinson, High Priestess of American Literature, is no exception. There is an Emily Dickinson museum, an International Society, and an academic journal dedicated entirely to explicating her riddling verse.  Several poets have written tributes to Dickinson, from William Carlos William’s “To An Elder Poet” to Adrienne Rich’s essay “Vesuvius at Home” to Lucie Brock-Broido’s The Master Letters.

 What is curious is the extent to which she survives in the popular imagination. There has been a novel written about her every year for the last five years, as well as six popular biographies, a parody, and a book inspired by her penchant for writing on envelopes.  In 2010, the New York Botanical Society held a Dickinson-themed flower exhibit. She was on Broadway in 1976, as the protagonist of The Belle of Amherst. She turns up as a larger-than-life puppet in the movie Being John Malkovich, a mockery of the Dickinson cult that Joyce Carol Oates expanded by writing a novella featuring a diminutive robotic Emily.  2013 will see a Dickinson biopic starring Cynthia Nixon, Sex and the City’s Miranda. Popstars, a certain barometer of the cultural temperature, have also invoked the spirit of Emily Dickinson: Pete Doherty admits to “nicking her lines” because she’s “fucking outrageous”; Carla Bruni went so far as to set an entire poem to music. As Paul Legault writes in the introduction to The Emily Dickinson Reader, “Emily Dickinson used to exist. Now she’s doing it again.” The question, then, is why. What’s the secret to Emily Dickinson’s immortality? The best vitality, she once said, cannot excel decay. But what of that? 

Emily Dickinson, scholars tell anyone who listens, was peerless. Unlike Poe or Whitman or Emerson, she left no legacy.  Writers venerate her, but they never emulate her. “Inimitable” is the adjective most used around Dickinson, with “paradoxical” a close second. “It’s true no one copies her these days,” Catherine Robson, a poetry professor at NYU argues, “but she inspired an entire genre. It’s only in the 19th century that the lyric- heavily confessional, lushly sentimental, with that almost hymnal structure- begins to dominate poetry. She certainly played a role in popularizing it, by capturing the profundity and power of the poetic object… She encapsulates anxiety.”

Dickinson wrote taut, violent verse; poems that condense agony into tattered syntax and images that collapse into one another under the strain of her vision. It was, she wrote herself, “a cavalry of woe.” Even her flippant poems have bite:

Fame is a bee.

It has a song —

It has a sting —

Ah, too, it has a 


Dickinson’s poetry exists in stark opposition to her life, which appears to have been perfectly tranquil. For generations, critics and biographers alike have perpetrated the myth of the Emily Dickinson, Reclusive Prodigy, and it isn’t hard to see why. She was most prolific during the Civil War, yet it finds no mention in her poetry. There is no evidence of a seething storm in the genteel New England within which she lived, and her bucolic Amherst lifestyle would’ve done Thoreau proud. Here, everyone said, was a poet determined to live by her claim that the soul selects its own society.

Dorothy Lathrop

This was impression the reading world had, anyway, until biographers began digging beneath the staid surface of her life. Suddenly, it’s as if a Dickinson doppelgänger has emerged: she was one of the first college-educated women in America, she was a naturalist, she was bisexual, she was well-connected to the literary circles of her time. If she was a recluse, as she undeniably was towards the end of her life, it was because she found company in letters and in Susan Dickinson, her brother’s wife. It’s possible her seclusion was involuntary and imposed by epilepsy. How does anyone reconcile this ardent and erudite woman with the “retiring quaintness” of the woman in white? In this, as so much else, the poet proves prophetic: ‘Biography’, she wrote, ‘first convinces us of the fleeing of the Biographied.’

Even more puzzling, the break between the world’s perception of Emily Dickinson and her reality was one constructed after the span of her life, for her correspondents had few illusions about her.  They knew her for a passionate and “partially cracked poetess”. Brenda Wineapple’s joint biography, White Heat, tracks the relationship between Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, her literary executor. Higginson was one of  Dickinson’s many epistolary courtships, and her letters to him reveal a skilled flirt. “I think you called me ‘Wayward,’” she teases him in one, “Will you help me improve?”  This was a woman, and a writer, at the height of her game.

Dickinson began writing to Higginson a few years after she wrote the “Master Letters,” three unsent letters that have raised scandal ever since they were published after her death. They were Dickinson’s first sustained writing, and they’re read by critics to discern the “early” Dickinson and by everyone else for hints into her sex life. There are, if anything, too many candidates for the Master: Was he a disguised Susan Dickinson? Was he Samuel Bowles, newspaper editor? Was he Reverend Wadsworth? Was he, as is most likely, a convenient device Dickinson used to frame her writing when she was a novice? Soon she would be calling poetry her “letter to the world,” and by the time she was writing to Higginson and Otis Lord- her last, great love- Dickinson was a consummate mistress herself.

Emily Dickinson only published seven poems during her lifetime, and her family was in such disarray when she died that their feuds have haunted her work ever since. Four years before her death, Emily’s brother Austin left Susan for another woman, Mabel Todd; Emily ignored Mabel and loved Susan, who was her first and most discerning reader, even as her sister Lavinia accepted Mabel and disliked Susan. When Lavinia found Emily’s poems after her death, it was Mabel and not Susan she entrusted with them. Mabel Todd, who had never seen Emily Dickinson until she was in her coffin, became her first editor. A decade later, Lavinia Dickinson and Mabel Todd would find themselves in court, facing off over Austin Dickinson’s will, and the two families have fought over the Dickinson estate – Emily’s papers as well as the land – ever since.


One consequence of this strife was that there wasn’t a definitive Dickinson anthology until the 1950s, and it is still impossible to find two editions that agree either chronologically or grammatically. Emily, a compulsive rewriter, left her work mired in variants, presumably intending for Susan to decode them based on their long intimacy. Mabel was a diligent but insensitive editor, excising Dickinson’s  idiosyncratic dashes and capitalization, and it would take a century for her peculiar punctuation to be restored. Mabel’s other choices were equally drastic: typesetting, word-choice, line-breaks. The result, Lyndall Gordon writes in Lives like Loaded Guns, her book about the Dickinson-Todd squabble, was an oeuvre that defies the finality of print. We will never know precisely what Emily Dickinson said.

Some of the ambivalence that stalks Emily Dickinson’s poems is, however, entirely of her own choosing. She was a private, enigmatic woman, and her love of the shadows saturates her verse:

Ourself behind ourself, concealed— 

Should startle most—

And, in another poem,

I felt a Cleaving in my Mind —

As if my Brain had split —

I tried to match it — Seam by Seam —

But could not make it fit.

Emily Dickinson’s secrecy might well be at the heart of her longevity. “She’s basically inexplicable” Professor Robson suggests. “She shouldn’t have happened, and yet she did, which always fascinates popular culture.”  Dickinson’s provisional poems bridge an important gap in our literary culture: from the stolidities of High Culture to the ephemerality of the internet. Like Shakespeare, another fabulous survivor, we adore Dickinson simply because she is so very improbable. She is a poet of ruptures, of the discontinuities between human understanding and the world it assimilates, and so she speaks across directly to us, undeterred by the 150 years between her time and ours. It doesn’t hurt that her poems are easily digested into 140 character tweets, but her real appeal isn’t her brevity. It is her fearless celebration of uncertainty. “Time” she warns us “is a test of trouble— but not a remedy.”

One response to “Tabernacle or Tomb?”

  1. Hey, I came across your profile on the NYU website. I would like to interact with u regarding your journey at NYU. I was particularly interested in ur profile bcoz I build identify with it,i am also from b bangalore pursuing Honours in English studies. I want to join NYU for my Masters. plz get in touch with me. It will be of huge help!

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