When writing my South African story, A Far Cry, I needed a poignant poem. My tale of a dead wife leaving a message for the next bride needed something that hinted at an afterlife. I found exactly what I was looking for in the work of Emily Dickinson. Her carefully crafted words brought the perfect dark and unsettling element I needed for a story where ‘Out of Africa’ meets ‘Rebecca’.
When I dug deeper, I discovered more of the reclusive Dickinson. The most remarkable thing about her life was her ability to write so profoundly when cloistered in her Amherst, New York home for a most of her adult life. Yet, she saw much from her bedroom window and penned words that hinted at something beyond the mortal realm.
“Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves
Why cloister herself in that small room? Some have suggested she had epilepsy and feared having an episode out in public. Instead of stepping beyond her front door, she roamed the corridors of her imagination, inking haunting passages that leave us wanting more. She never married, and something in her work hints at a rebellious nature. ‘woman is born, bridaled, shrouded’. The reason for her chosen solitude may lie in one of her poems.
“How happy is the little stone
That rambles in the road alone.”
Very little of her work was published during her lifetime. She did, however, write to friends, sometimes enclosing small objects such as dried flowers and even a dead cricket. Prolific in her lifetime and only famous posthumously, I wonder if it was always her intention to view it all from the safety of that veiled place beyond the grave.
Dickinson’s had a fascination with death and describes it in many ways throughout her work. Timid, bold, a lover, a murderer, and a kindly coachman. She lived at a time when death was more commonplace, and that close inevitability may have caused her to ponder its imminent arrival.
“I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm -“
“I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through.”
Some of her letters have survived the ravages of time and reveal a little more of this intriguing personality.
“I dwell in possibility…”
“Truth is so rare, it is delightful to tell it.”
“Saying nothing sometimes says the most”.
She had a vibrant imagination and may well have glimpsed something else from her window when she wrote “this world is not conclusion.”
I hope so!
Photograph: Daguerreotype of the poet Emily Dickinson, taken circa 1847. (Original version.) From the Todd-Bingham Picture Collection and Family Papers, Yale University Manuscripts & Archives Digital Images Database, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.