Wild Nights-Wild Nights!
Were I with thee
Wild Nights should be
To a heart in port-
Done with the Compass-
Done with the Chart!
Rowing in Eden-
Ah, the Sea!
Might I but moor--Tonight-
The only daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson was taken when she was 17. Stare at it for hours, and nothing breathes off the page but a faint wistfulness, a primness that seems more the fetish of the era than the character of the subject and the slightest shadow of a real Mona Lisa smile--the passion of Emily Dickinson.
Many people read her easily, a poem a night; the exquisite precision of her descriptions of nature and the seasons are sweet and soothing portraits of a quieter time. But other readers cannot climb the Mona Lisa smile, behind which lies an unmerciful emotional intensity. How to read her? How to read poetry so full of autobiographical riddles?
“A Book,” Dickinson wrote, “is only the heart’s portrait.” Partly because of her style, and partly because of the need to conceal her subjects’ identities, Dickinson’s poetry is so rich and enigmatic that her more troubled readers need a guide.
Judith Farr has read and taught the poems of Emily Dickinson for more than 25 years. “Wild Nights: The Passion of Emily Dickinson” is an attempt to understand Dickinson’s “passion to lead a life in and through art--her own and that of others.” It is both biography and academic analysis of the poems, a guide to Dickinson’s inner life and a description of the context she wrote in, particularly the visual arts of the mid- to late 1800s. The combination is awkward at times, if only because the context pales so visibly in comparison to the inner life.
In the early 1860s, Dickinson became an isolata , creating a moat around herself to preserve the rarity of her soul and because she believed that isolation was critical to artistic expression.
Until her death in 1886, Dickinson obeyed this dictum, sometimes to the point of absurdity. (Once, when Samuel Bowles, an old family friend and the subject of Dickinson’s Master poems, went to visit, he found himself yelling up the stairs: “Emily, you damned rascal. No more of this nonsense! I’ve traveled all the way from Springfield to see you. Come down at once!”)
Dickinson’s seclusion was most definitely not, as her brother Austin claimed, because she was not beautiful, and it is equally hard to believe that with so courageous a heart, Dickinson collapsed into seclusion over unrequited love, a more common hypothesis.
The heart of the book lies in its two central chapters: “The Narrative of Sue,” and “The Narrative of Master.” These chapters shed light on Dickinson’s relationships with Susan Gilbert (Susan Dickinson after her marriage to Austin), whom Farr calls “the central radiance” of Emily’s emotional life, and with Bowles, a married man and the editor of the Springfield Republican.
Emily met Sue in 1847. They were both 17; Sue attended Amherst Academy, and Emily Mount Holyoke, both in Massachusetts. Sue was dark, handsome and aloof; orphaned at the age of 11, she was a lover of books, lively and impetuous. Throughout the 40 years of their correspondence, Emily never referred to her directly, writing instead in a code that included the image of a bird to indicate the object of her affections. One could, conceivably, read several of these poems without knowing that a real person lay behind the image, imagining perhaps only some divine, inspirational presence.
Bowles was Austin’s closest friend until his death in 1878. He was, Farr writes, “vigorous, earthy, and dashing” and resembled “his friend Charles Dickens in liking the hurly-burly and broad theater of public life.” As in the Sue poems, the subject of the Master poems is highly idealized, but more as a heroic and inspiring figure, a guiding light, a redeemer, rather than as a rare and kindred spirit. Both passions are characterized, Farr writes, by awe, humility and grief that physical union will never be possible.
Indeed, Dickinson harbored few illusions about this impossibility. The woman who once described marriage as a “force for the subjugation of women” usually described her own passion as divine and unattainable. So much of her life was characterized by impossibility, including the very fact of being a poet when it was, by her own admission, “not feminine to publish.” But she was not, Farr concludes, in it for fame; Dickinson wrote for love and honor:
Fame of Myself to lack-Although
My Name be else Supreme-
This were an Honor honorless-
A futile Diadem-
The language of these poems contains repeated imagery, and Farr proves herself an indispensable guide. Dickinson’s fastidious recording of daily life captures the infinite, as Farr writes, “perceiving eternity in the actual.” “The Passion of Emily Dickinson” reveals the rarity, the “quick” of the poet. It is a vehicle to the “eternity” that Dickinson wrote of so often, that place “where beyond these voices there is peace.”