Page:The Cambridge History of American Literature, v3.djvu/50

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32
Later Poets

Dickinson. Despite her defective sense of form, which makes her a better New Englander than Easterner, she has acquired a permanent following of discriminating readers through her extraordinary insight into the life of the mind and the soul. This insight is that of a latter-day Puritan, completely divorced from the outward stir of life, retiring, by preference, deeper and deeper within. Born in 1830 at Amherst, Massachusetts, she lived there all her life, and in 1886 died there. The inwardness and moral ruggedness of Puritanism she inherited mainly through her father, Edward Dickinson, lawyer and treasurer of Amherst College, a Puritan of the old type, whose heart, according to his daughter, was "pure and terrible." Her affection for him was so largely compounded with awe that in a sense they were strangers. I have a brother and sister, she wrote to her poetical preceptor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson[1]; "my mother does not care for thought, and father, too busy with his briefs to notice what we do. He buys me many books, but begs me not to read them, because he fears they jiggle the mind. They are religious, except me." Of course, she too was religious, and intensely so, breathing as she did the intoxicating air of Transcendentalism. In person she described herself as "small, like the wren; and my hair is bold like the chestnut burr; and my eyes, like the sherry in the glass that the guest leaves." "You ask of my companions. Hills, sir, and the sundown, and a dog large as myself." These, and not her family, were actually her companions, together with a few books and her own soul. She had an alert introspection that brought her more than the wealth of the Indies. There is no better example of the New England tendency to moral revery than this last pale Indian-summer flower of Puritanism. She is said literally to have spent years without passing the doorstep, and many more years without leaving her father s grounds. After the death of her parents, not to mention her dog Carlo, she retired still further within herself, till the sounds of the everyday world must have come to her as from a previous state of existence.

"I find ecstacy in living," she said to Higginson, and spoke truly, as her poems show. In an unexpected light on orchards, in a wistful mood of meadow or wood-border held secure for a

  1. See Book III, Chap. XIII.