Page:The Cambridge History of American Literature, v3.djvu/52

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34
Later Poets

the relation of deed to thought and will. On such subjects she jotted down hundreds of little poems.

Though she had an Emersonian faith that fame, if it be longed to her, could not escape her, she cared nothing at all about having it; like not a few Transcendentalists, she might have written on the lintels of her door-post, Whim. That was her guiding divinity, Whim in a high sense: not unruliness, for all her impishness, but complete subjection to the inner dictate. She obeyed it in her mode of life, in her friendships, in her letters, in her poems. It makes her poetry eminently spontaneous—as fresh and artless as experience itself—in spite of the fact that she was not a spontaneous singer. The ringing bursts of melody that are characteristic of the born lyrical poet, such as Burns, she was incapable of; but she had insight, and intense, or rather tense, emotion, and expressed herself with an eye single to the truth. Something she derived from her reading, no doubt, from Emerson, the Brownings, Sir Thomas Browne; but rarely was poet less indebted. From her silent thought she derived what is essential in her work, and her whole effort was to state her findings precisely. She could not deliberately arrange her thoughts; "when I try to organize," she said, "my little force explodes and leaves me bare and charred." If she revised her work, as she did industriously, it was to render it not more attractive but truer.

Her poems are remarkable for their condensation, their vividness of image, their delicate or pungent satire and irony, their childlike responsiveness to experience, their subtle feeling for nature, their startling abruptness in dealing with themes commonly regarded as trite, their excellence in imaginative insight and still greater excellence in fancy. Typical is such a poem as that in which she celebrates the happiness of a little stone on the road, or that in which she remarks with gleeful irony upon the dignity that burial has in store for each of us—coach and footmen, bells in the village, "as we ride grand along." Emily Dickinson takes us to strange places; one never knows what is in store. But always she is penetrating and dainty, both intimate and aloof, challenging lively thought on our part while remaining, herself, a charmingly elfish mystery. Her place in American letters will be inconspicuous but secure.

Also born a New Englander, Thomas Bailey Aldrich re-