Page:The Cambridge History of American Literature, v3.djvu/51

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33
Emily Dickinson

moment before it vanished; in the few books that she read— her Keats, her Shakespeare, her Revelation; in the echoes, obscure in origin, that stirred within her own mind and soul, now a tenuous melody, now a deep harmony, a haunting question, or a memorable affirmation; everywhere she displayed some thing of the mystic s insight and joy. And she expressed her experience in her poems, forgetting the world altogether, intent only on the satisfaction of giving her fluid life lasting form, her verse being her journal. Yet the impulse to expression was probably not strong, because she wrote no poems, save one or two, as she herself asserts, until the winter 1861-62, when she was over thirty years old. In the spring of 1862 she wrote a letter to Higginson beginning, "Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive? The mind is so near itself it cannot see distinctly, and I have none to ask." Discerning the divine spark in her shapeless verse, he welcomed her advances, and became her "preceptor," loyally listened to but, as was in evitable, mainly unheeded. Soon perceiving this, Higginson continued to encourage her, for many years, without trying to divert her lightning-flashes. In "H. H."—Helen Hunt Jackson,[1] herself a poetess of some distinction, and her early school mate at Amherst she had another sympathetic friend, who, suspecting the extent of her production, asked for the post of literary executor. At length, in 1890, a volume edited by Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd was published, Poems by Emily Dickinson, arranged under various heads according to subject. The book succeeded at once, six editions being sold in the first six months; so that a second series, and later a third, seemed to be justified. From the first selection to the third, however, there is a perceptible declension.

The subject division adopted by her editors serves well enough: Life, Love, Nature, Time and Eternity. A mystical poetess sequestered in a Berkshire village, she naturally concerned herself with neither past nor present, but with the things that are timeless. Apparently deriving no inspiration from the war to which Massachusetts, including her preceptorial colonel, gave itself so freely, she spent her days in brooding over the mystery of pain, the true nature of success, the refuge of the tomb, the witchcraft of the bee s murmur, the election of love,

  1. See also Book III, Chaps, VI and XI. VOL. Ill—3