What do you think of when you hear about Emily Dickinson? Maybe you picture a carriage populated by Death and Immortality. Or maybe you remember trying to piece together how a life could possibly be a loaded gun. Or maybe above all you think of a private life in the town of Amherst.
Emily Dickinson has become the image of poetic privacy. The imagined garret with its solitary writer may be easily populated by a half-remembered glimpse of her portrait where her elbow nonchalantly rests against a book as her eyes pierce the reader. The myth of Amherst overshadows our introduction to her most anthologized poems.
Perhaps readers identify with the eccentricity of her letters when she writes to Higgins, “I felt it shelter to speak to you.” I know I wish I could sometimes just meet people by handing them a few lilies and whispering, “These are my introduction.” That would be so much easier than small talk.
With all this, our imagination has grown to see her as private, reclusive, a literary hermit. And she was also a skeptical hermit, struggling with doubt about our ability to know the truth:
Sweet Skepticism of the Heart—
That knows—and does not know—
And tosses like a Fleet of Balm—
Affronted by the snow—
Invites and then retards the Truth
Lest Certainty be sere
Compared with the delicious throe
Of transport thrilled with Fear—
But what if Emily (if you’ll permit me to be a bit informal with her) isn’t quite what we expect? What if her privacy was the relational privacy of letter reading? What if her skepticism was synonymous with receptivity to the world? In Emily Dickinson and the Problem of Others, Christopher Benfrey argues just that.
Benfrey begins by proposing that Dickinson’s poetry is filled with skepticism, but in a different way than we might assume. We usually think of it in a negative sense in that we can’t have direct knowledge of the outside world, including the mind of others. There’s another way to look at it, however, that doesn’t focus on what we lack but on the potential we have. The fact that we can’t know what’s going on in other minds doesn’t mean we should deny that they exist. Rather, Dickinson’s poetry suggests that the inability to have certain knowledge of others prompts an attitude of acceptance. When reading “I thought that Nature was Enough,” Benfrey proposes that “a relation of reciprocity between container and contained” emerges. He invites us to pay special attention to the last few lines of the poem:
The power to contain
Is always as the contents
But give a Giant room
And you will lodge a Giant
And not a smaller man
To “give a Giant room” means that you “will lodge a Giant” rather than “a smaller man,” Dickinson is suggesting, according to Benfrey, that it is through receptivity to the outside world that we can build a relationship with it regardless of the incompleteness of our knowledge.
Let’s stay with that a moment. Maybe even scroll back up and look at the lines again, or linger with the whole poem here. We look at nature in a limited way and we get a limited world. We assume other people are shadows of themselves and that’s all we see, “but give a Giant room / And you will lodge a Giant.” And if we could bring Hopkins into the conversation, this is the moment when we can also “leave comfort root-room,” and “let joy size.”
But just because she has a line about being hospitable to giants doesn’t mean she’s more openhearted than Whitman. She still didn’t get out much. Benfrey acknowledges the social isolation that led to Dickinson’s reputation as the nun of Amherst, but he reads that very privacy as an “enabling condition” for reading and writing poetry. For Dickinson, poetry was not the result of eavesdropping, as though we had awkwardly walked in on her musing aloud to herself. Instead, it was what Northrop Frye called “a form of private correspondence.” Her poems are letters and letters are intended for a reader.
Dickinson writes about poetry as letters in a couple places. On the end of the writer, each poem is a letter to the world:
This is my letter
to the world,
That never wrote to me,–
The simple news that Nature told,
With tender majesty.
Her message is committed
To hands I cannot see;
For love of her, sweet countrymen,
Judge tenderly of me!
And in another poem, Dickinson gives us a window to who she is as a reader:
The Way I read a Letter’s—this—
‘Tis first—I lock the Door—
And push it with my fingers—next—
For transport it be sure—
And then I go the furthest off
To counteract a knock—
Then draw my little Letter forth
And slowly pick the lock—
Then—glancing narrow, at the Wall—
And narrow at the floor
For firm Conviction of a Mouse
Not exorcised before—
Peruse how infinite I am
To no one that You—know—
And sigh for lack of Heaven—but not
The Heaven God bestow—
Her reading is done privately. She locks the door to her room, but it is through that privacy that she can unlock the letter sent to her. If Dickinson sees her own poems as letters, then perhaps she envisions us reading them the way she reads letters. Here the solitary act of reading a poem is relational through its similarity to the intimacy-building experience of reading a letter. Rather than turning her back on her audience, Benfrey suggests that Dickinson “seems to turn toward her audience, though as it were from a distance.”
Through both the receptive intimacy of skepticism and mediation of poetry as private correspondence between writer and reader, Benfrey argues that Dickinson “is more a poet of other people than Whitman is.” Whereas the speaker of “Song of Myself” subsumes all other personalities as though a divinity in a relationship with mortal beings, the speaker of Dickinson’s poems highlights the unknowability, yet acceptance, of the other mind that “carries a circumference / In which I have no part.”