The Life and Letters of Emily Dickinson/Chapter 2

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The Life and Letters of Emily Dickinson  (1924)  by Martha Dickinson Bianchi
Chapter II



Emily Norcross Dickinson, named for her mother, was born December 11, 1830, in Amherst, Massachusetts, in the old house said to have been the first erected of brick in Amherst.

Her brother Austin and her younger sister Lavinia were the other children of the home, both possessed of marked ability and varied temperament.

Austin grew up to manhood with much of Emily's poetic quality, fiercely suppressed—a lover of trees and beauty, one with Nature—like her, a hero-worshipper, a partisan, and a lover of all the rare and noble books whose faded brown Ticknor and Fields first editions still stand in deserted ranks on the bookshelves of his own library in his former home at Amherst. He graduated from Amherst College in 1850, and in 1854 from the Harvard Law School, and was admitted to the Hampshire County Bar. When he was about to leave Amherst to accept a legal partnership in Detroit, his father, overcome by the impending separation, offered to build him a home if he would remain. So all the adventurous hopes were stifled, and immediately upon his marriage he took up the practice of law as his father's partner in the old office, since burned, which held many treasures of local history as well as a remarkably fine law library consulted far and wide throughout the region.

His marriage to the "Sister Sue" of Emily's lifelong adoration brought an outside element into the family, which bred some critical hours. Brought up by a Knickerbocker great-aunt in a more cosmopolitan atmosphere, Susan Gilbert's first celebration of Christmas in Amherst with wreaths of laurel in the windows almost upset the family apple cart, and Emily's brother was accused by the scandalized Puritan neighbors of having married a Catholic.

But in all and for all his father was on her side, and came regularly all his life each Sabbath morning for a surreptitious cup of stronger coffee than home thought wise. It was just this freer aspect of life in "Sister Sue" that fascinated Emily and cast such a spell over her from the first. The old house under the tall pines, rebuilt in 1813, and the new house built after a whim of Austin's in the style of an Italian villa, advertised the abyss that lay between the two generations.

The sister, Lavinia, was hardly less brilliant than Emily, but upon her, very early, depended the real solidarity of the family. A coquette from her cradle, very pretty, with a piercing wit and a rather bandit tongue, it became her lot to cover Emily's delinquencies and support her mother's gentle reign, increasingly enfeebled in spite of herself by the dominating daughter, and the powerful family maidservant who grew old along with them for almost forty years of unbroken service. It was Lavinia who knew where everything was, from a lost quotation to a last year's muffler. It was she who remembered to have the fruit picked for canning, or the seeds kept for next year's planting, or the perfunctory letters written to the aunts. It was Lavinia who leaped into the breach, when those unexpected guests drove up at nightfall—tearing her hair over a discrepant larder behind the scenes, but advancing all smiles and self-congratulation to receive the unwelcome invaders as they came up the double set of stone steps and into the front hall.

If Emily had been less Emily, Lavinia might have been more Lavinia. As it was, Lavinia carried the family honor to her grave as a sacred but rather acrid burden, and a few angels may have wept over her load when she laid it down, for sake of the self-renunciation its integrity implied. It was Lavinia who was thrown to the lions of every phase of dreary social duty, as she threw herself to those same beasts of anxious household routine. Always a brilliant mimic, a wit and wag, none could surpass her in her representations of the family circle, and in imitating the bass viol of the country choir her skill was supreme. She was said to be able to make her nose turn up at will, if her caricature demanded it, and when nothing aroused her animosity there was no one more amusing—not even Emily herself, whose bodyguard she became in their early thirties. Each had her own inner intimacies, and her own admirers in due time, and many they shared, but there is loving tribute due to the younger sister who must have always felt Emily's peculiar genius as distinguishing her apart and above, and who proudly stood aside for her while many, many sought her out. They were so vividly Martha and Mary that it seems trite to call up the parallel: Lavinia with her wearing rectitude in household affairs, Emily with her sublime disregard of all detail; one living in the seen, the other in the unseen and scarcely to be imagined; both in adoring subjection to their parents, both jealously involved in their only brother's success and happiness. And among them an outsider, differing in tradition and upbringing, Austin's wife, with her broader youth and fulfilled happiness.

There is an artless painting of the three children, done by some itinerant painter, that gives them all three, at about the time their father's letters began to mention them by name as little individuals; hoping "Emily took care of her baby sister"—a hope faintly to be justified, perhaps—and "that Austin filled the wood box as he was told."

In the portrait Emily holds a book, but if her gaze was sibylline, it was beyond the vagrant artist's power to portray, and she stares out as frankly as her younger sister, who clutches a stiff rose, and leans against her rather indifferent red-lipped brother with his jaunty air of superior pleasure in being the boy of the trio. Just the real New England family, one sees them, a young father and mother, with perhaps a degree more of prosperity and education and noble ideals to bless themselves with than the majority of those about them, and an endowment of native refinement deeply engrained.

The children went to the public schools like all the other children of their time in New England towns. Helen Fisk, the daughter of Professor Fisk, and later to be known as "H. H." ("Helen Hunt"), so familiar in American literature, was their favorite playmate. There is a note still extant from Mrs. Fisk, in reply to one from Emily's mother, begging that Helen may play with Emily and Vinnie under the syringas. It reads:

Professor Fisk will lead Helen over to play with Emily beneath the syringas, this afternoon. In case it prove not convenient to send her home, he will call for her in the chaise toward nightfall, before the dew falls. What a picture of innocent pastime it leaves—little girls playing house under the sweet flowering syringa, to the hum of the bees, and safely restored to the family fold before the dew falls.

They went berrying and chestnutting; on grand occasions they drove in the pompous family cabriolet, lined with cream-colored broadcloth, with high doors and oval windows at the sides and back and framing in unexpected sections of horse and sky, as they moved, and from which the old-fashioned landscape looked formal and strange. Usually it was to spend the day with a relative at some distance or to attend a family funeral. There is no record of any less sedate amusement, but the child Emily got thrill enough out of the orioles nesting in the cherry tree, or the exploits of her pets, or the dark excitement of the great barn where in the afternoon the sunbeams piercing through a crack in the roof observed her as she hunted for the eggs hidden so skilfully from her deep eyes. The robins came back and the crows in the tall pines called to her almost by name. She was so truly one of Nature's children herself that the daffodils dancing immemorial under the apple trees on the eastern slope of the dooryard every spring were as her own little guests returning. Except for her quickened sense of all beings, all creatures, all beauty, she differed little from other little girls of her time and town.

When she was sixteen the girl who was later to become her "Sister Sue" came to visit in Amherst, and then began the life that never ceased, of budding poetry and letters, affection and art, sympathy and love that surpassed the love real sisterhood often carelessly overlooks. Henceforth in all their girlish banditry, their secret frolics, their confidences, their love-affairs, their griefs and illnesses and disappointments, it was she of whom Emily always spoke as "Sister Sue," who shared the overflow of the real hidden life of that unique genius in her stiff, clean, God-fearing New England home. When her mother's astonishment and amazed concern summed itself up in a shrill cry, "Why, Emily! How can you talk so!"—or when her father evidenced displeasure by taking his hat and cane and passing out the door in silence, leaving an emptiness indicative of reproof, a wordless censure more devastating to her than any judgment day—it was to Sister Sue she fled for safety. Her timid imaginings were horrors worse than any actual event or punishment could ascribe.

There is no legend in the family that her father ever reproved her or called her to account in her various mishaps with duty. Probably his habitual dealing with culprits was after his own wisdom of criminals, and he knew her nature well enough to administer only his stern silence in her case.

Up to the time of her going away to school she was of rather precocious mentality, somewhat sentimental and given to girlish outpourings written in the accepted verbosity of the style of the mid-century (1845). Her flowers already claim a distinct part in her life. It is interesting to note also that at fourteen she announces herself as a Whig. She is interested in all the village happenings and when her father gives her a piano her life becomes crowded. She goes to singing school quite rapturously, and makes an herbarium of great variety and beauty, spending many afternoons off on the hillsides for her wild specimens. In one of her earliest letters preserved she makes fun of the future, saying, "I am growing handsome. I expect I shall be the belle of Amherst when I reach my seventeenth year. I don't doubt but that I shall have perfect crowds of admirers at that age—but away with my nonsense." All of which shows her a natural, silly, happy girl.

She has her garden and her house plants now and delights in her first real music lessons. She also is embroidering a book mark, which she admires. "It is an arrow with a wreath about it—very beautiful." She does her hair up now and admits "it makes me look different." The pieces she learns are "The Grave of Bonaparte," "Lancers Quickstep," and "Maiden, Weep No More." She learns to make bread and stays out of school, as she is not strong, and needs more physical exercise. The winter of 1846 finds her out of school, but reciting German, "as Mr. C., has a large class and Father thought I might never have another opportunity to study it." Her Christmas presents interest her vividly and she describes them at length in her letters to her friends. She says:

I had a perfume bag and a bottle of attar of rose to go with it, a sheet of music, a china mug, with forget-me-not on it, a toilet cushion, a watch case, a fortune teller, and an amaranthine stock of pin cushions and needle books which in ingenuity and art would rival the works of Scripture Dorcas. Also an abundance of candy.

In September of 1846 she made her first visit to Boston, alone. The ride in the cars she found delightful and the visit upon her aunt full of excitement. She went to Mount Auburn, Bunker Hill, the Chinese museum, attended two concerts and a horticultural exhibition; was taken, as she herself declares, "On top of the State House and almost everywhere else you can imagine!"

All the next spring she was fitting to go to South Hadley Seminary, studying algebra, Euclid, ecclesiastical history, and reviewing arithmetic. She was always in love with her teachers at that time, quite regardless of their being men or women, but whatever there was fanciful or romantic in her girl imagination she was surely grounded as firmly in the uncompromising fundamentals of education as her Puritan father saw fit to have her. Her anticipations were boundless and she only feared the sky would fall before the plan was realized. It had been in her dreams for a long time, yet she felt that it was part of her own nature always to anticipate more than to realize; a curious instinct in one so entirely normal with life just opening before her.

Her brother Austin had entered Amherst College the year before, and at his first commencement she describes herself as "now very tall and wearing long dresses." One of her quaintest sentences slips in here between childhood and girlhood: "I have perfect confidence in God and His promises—and yet I know not why, I feel the world has a predominant place in my affections."

The sweet secluded pleasures she shared—those pensive yet wistful glances at life, with shy though resolute eyes—may best be understood from one of her letters just a few days before she went to South Hadley in the fall of 1847. A picture this, scarcely to be reproduced:

Mattie Gilbert was here last evening and we sat on the front door steps and talked about life and love and whispered our childish fancies about such blissful things, the evening was gone so soon—and I walked home with Mattie beneath the silent moon and wished for you and heaven. You did not come darling, but a bit of heaven did—or so it seemed to me. As we walked silently side by side and wondered if that great blessedness which may be ours sometime is granted now to some. Those unions, dear Susie, by which two are one, this sweet and strange miracle.

A perfectly normal young heart responding to the natural wondering of impending maturity.

She is perfectly natural, too, in her religious emotions, with all the literal childishness about heaven, reminding her Susie enviously in another letter, that while she has parents and a sister in heaven, Emily's are on earth, until, carried away by her imagination, she exclaims—"Oh, I wish I had so many dear friends as you in heaven!"—a naïve cry, quickly amended, "I could not spare them now, but to know they had got there safely and should suffer no more!" she explains, in a mood that was always her own in later years, longing to spare those she loved.

Of course at this stage she sentimentalizes as all young girls do and should, and pours out her soul to her girl friend:

I know I was naughty to write such things, and I know I could have helped it if I had tried hard enough, but I thought my heart would break and I knew of nobody here that cared anything about it—so I said to myself—we will tell Susie. You don't know what a comfort it was. Susie can count the big true hearts by clusters—full of bloom and blossoms amaranthine, because eternal.

At the close she adds:

I send you a kiss shyly—if there's anybody around, don't let them see.

Yet even these simplest outpourings have each some flash redeeming from mere commonplace of her age.

One such glimpse of her variability of expression occurs in the following:

I have thought of you all day and I fear of but little else and when I was gone to Meeting you filled up my mind so full I couldn't find a chink to put the worthy pastor in, when he said "Our Heavenly Father," I said "O darling Sue!" When he read the One Hundredth psalm I kept saying your precious letter over to myself, and Susie, when they sang it would have made you laugh to hear one little voice piping to the departed. I made up words and kept singing how I loved you—and you had gone away—while all the rest of the choir were singing the Halleluyah! I presume nobody heard me because I am so small, but it was a comfort to feel I might put them all out singing of you. I am not there though this afternoon, because I am here, writing this letter to you.

What a darling vision she makes of herself, shy and small and heart-broken for her idol, singing against the volume of the established order of worship at the top of her little chirp, intrepid of consequences if overheard. Something of the later dissenting Emily is foreshadowed in every gesture of her early mind.

The daily four-horse stage that ran between Amherst and Northampton left quite early in the morning, and brought up with much cracking of the whip before the post-office at exactly five in the afternoon. There were no trains or trolleys or motors in those days, so she was driven to South Hadley in state, by her father, and left there alone for the first time in her life out in the strange, wide world; the Holyoke range shutting her away from all the geography of her previous existence more obdurately than any remote distance of modem latitude and longitude could devise.