Monday, May 15, 2017

Emily Dickinson - R.I.P.

First there is this from The Writer's Almanac:

The American poet Emily Dickinson died in Amherst, Massachusetts, on this date in 1886 (books by this author). She had been in ill health for about two and a half years, and was confined to her bed for the last seven months of her life. Medical historians now believe that she was suffering from severe high blood pressure - she complained of headaches and nausea, and near the end of her life she struggled to breathe, eventually lapsing into a coma. She would not allow her doctor, Otis Bigelow, to come to her bedside, but would only consent to walk past the doorway. "Now, what besides mumps could be diagnosed that way!" he is said to have exclaimed. He listed her cause of death as "Bright's disease," which was a catchall diagnosis that included kidney disease as well as hypertension. Besides her physical ailments, she suffered greatly from the deaths of several close friends over the last years of her life; the most traumatic appears to have been that of her eight-year-old nephew in 1883.

Emily's friend and sister-in-law Susan Gilbert Dickinson wrote the poet's obituary for The Springfield Republican: "A Damascus blade gleaming and glancing in the sun was her wit. Her swift poetic rapture was like the long glistening note of a bird one hears in the June woods at high noon, but can never see." Dickinson had left specific instructions for her burial. Her casket was carried by the family's six Irish hired men, on a route that wound its way past her flower garden, through the barn in back of the house, and through a field of buttercups.

Very few of her nearly 1,800 poems were published during her lifetime, and what was published was done so anonymously. After her death, Dickinson's sister, Lavinia, discovered hundreds of poems that she had written over the years. The first volume, The Poems of Emily Dickinson, was published in 1890.


And as a personal postscript, here is one of my favorite Dickinson poems.

Much Madness is divinest Sense -
To a discerning Eye -
Much Sense - the starkest Madness -
’Tis the Majority
In this, as all, prevail -
Assent - and you are sane -
Demur - you’re straightway dangerous -
And handled with a Chain -

    I hesitate to offer my own explication, especially as Dickinson with her singular diction, syntax, and style often confuses me, so I often misunderstand her. Thus, I turn to you for your interpretation. Let's discuss this interesting poem.


  1. I like the way she handles those last three lines, Tim. I don't know if this was her intent, but it strikes me as a criticism of too much conformity.

  2. Yes, Margot! I am also intrigued by the intended (multiple?) meaniings of "madness" and "sane." And who has the "discerning eye"? She packs so many puzzles in very few words!

  3. And the first three lines are warnings that it is easy to make a mistake in judging whether something is sane or madness. It is not ALL or MOST but MUCH, which is a very ambiguous quantity.

    Perhaps silence is the best wisdom.

    1. Fred, I like your emphasis on "much." But who should be silent? Poet? Reader? Yours truly?

    2. Tim,


      There have been times when I felt that I should be silent, but I didn't listen to that inner voice.

    3. Oh, I know that exi, Fred! But I seem unable to learn from my mistakes.

  4. Tim,

    I am proud to announce that I am improving in that respect. Now I realize the day after that I should have remained silent when it used to be days or even weeks later. I hope that by the end of the year, I will realize that I should have remained silent that same day!

  5. Haha, Fred and Tim." I value both of your instantaneous reactions: truth doesn't need a disguise, reading opinions is like looking through a kaleidoscope; the scintillation is what makes it all so interesting

  6. I think maybe she is saying that people are willing to believe the worst sort of madness is really sane if it is believed among the majority.

    And if you choose to think differently? You're dangerous!

    I am currently contemptuous of people who spout like water filled trumpets that what they are saying is "brave" and "daring" while they know all along that they are perfectly conforming to popular opinion and will receive all due accolades for it.

    1. Good observations, Sharon. As for myself and my exposition challenges, i think I err when I try to determine what the poet means; I should be content to accept what the poem means to me.