Emily Enamored

On this day in 1929, Further Poems of Emily Dickinson: Withheld from Publication by Her Sister Lavinia was published. This was the seventh volume of Dickinson’s poems to appear, and the provocative subtitle gives some indication of the forty-year tug-of-war over manuscripts that had consumed the Dickinson family since Emily’s death. Further Poems is edited by a niece, Martha Dickinson Bianchi; in her introduction, Bianchi suggests that some of the poems were withheld because other family members did not want the world to get a glimpse of Emily’s romantic attachment to Reverend Charles Wadsworth — sixteen years older, married, and perhaps the inspiration for some of Emily’s most intriguing lines:          

Where Thou art — that is Home,
Cashmere or Calvary — the same
Degree — or shame,
I scarce esteem location’s name
So I may come.

What Thou do’st is delight,
Bondage as play be sweet,
Imprisonment content
And sentence sacrament,
Just we two meet!

In his forthcoming Emily Dickinson in Love, John Evangelist Walsh makes the case for family friend Judge Otis Lord being Emily’s secret romance. In Lives like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds (2010), Lyndall Gordon also backs the Lord theory and ties the multi-generational family squabbles to double-barreled passion: the possible or fantasized affair Dickinson was having with her widowed, much older “Master,” and the very real affair Dickinson’s married brother was having with a woman twenty-seven years younger. But Gordon’s Emily is a loaded gun aimed in many directions:

There are other explosions, if we turn our eyes from her tame visible life, flitting about the Homestead, or kneeling on a blanket outside while she tended her plants, or sending timely notes, flowers and goodies to friends and neighbours.… There is the velocity of letters aimed at correspondents she marked out for her own, a gunman’s “yellow eye” narrowing at the target. There is the explosive image-cluster in her poetry: the earthquakes, the rumbling volcanoes, Vesuvius, Etna, the poet’s voice like lava, coming in spurts through the “buckled lips” of a crater.

Gordon sets off another explosion in her book, building a theory that Emily had epilepsy.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.