Writers & Company

The poet of solitude: How Emily Dickinson was fuelled by the light of her brilliant interior world 

American journalist and Dickinson scholar Martha Ackmann spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about the remarkable life and legacy of the influential 19th-century poet.
Martha Ackmann is an American journalist and author. (James Gehrt)

Recently described as the inventor of social isolation, poet Emily Dickinson was famously reclusive ⁠— and brilliant. 

The 19th-century writer created her intense, impassioned poetry from a life of relative seclusion in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she lived with her family in a large brick house, surrounded by trees and nature. Sightings of Emily Dickinson — often in her signature white dress — were so rare that she became known to the community as "the myth of Amherst." 

For Dickinson, who remained at home until her death in 1886, the world of thoughts, ideas and language ⁠— of consciousness itself ⁠— was where she felt most alive. 

Although Dickinson wrote nearly 2,000 poems, only a handful were published during her lifetime, all of them anonymously. Shortly after her death, her younger sister discovered a huge cache of poems. Within a few years, the first collection was published. It wasn't long before Emily Dickinson had a devoted following that continues in literary and popular culture to this day. 

In a new book, These Fevered Days: Ten Pivotal Moments in the Making of Emily Dickinson, journalist, author and Dickinson scholar Martha Ackmann captures significant episodes in the life and evolution of the poet. 

Ackmann spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from her home, just down the road from Dickinson's house in western Massachusetts.  

The world opened up for me

"I was in a high school English class the year before we graduated and the focus was on American lit. We opened up our big anthology that had Emerson and Thoreau and Hawthorne and all of those — and I'd never read Emily Dickinson. That day we were supposed to read Dickinson. A couple of poems were in the anthology, one of which was After great pain, a formal feeling comes. 

"It's one of Dickinson's most famous poems. It's also a pretty tough poem for a high school kid. I read it, and couldn't explicate a word. I did that thing that kids do: you slide down in your chair and hope that the teacher doesn't call on you. I couldn't explain it.

"But then something else happened. I understood it. It touched me on some level, even though this is a poem about pain and adult anguish — something I hadn't experienced as a 16-year-old kid. I still understood it on some level.

It touched me on some level, even though this is a poem about pain and adult anguish — something I hadn't experienced as a 16-year-old kid.

"The world cracked open for me. I know that sounds rather dramatic, but it's true. It was as though ideas and language and poetry opened up for me at that moment. I have spent the rest of my life trying to understand what happened in that moment.

"How can you understand Dickinson without being able to explain her, at least at first blush?"

A daguerreotype portrait of Emily Dickinson, circa 1846-1847. (Amherst College Archives & Special Collections)

A facility with words

"Dickinson always had a sense of herself, even when she was 14 and 15 years old. She knew she was good at language and that she had a way with words — and that she was smart and she was funny. 

"The first chapter of These Fevered Days is with Dickinson at 14, because I wanted to show that kind of smart-alecky kid who knows that she has this facility with words.

Dickinson always had a sense of herself, even when she was 14 and 15 years old.

"She has a sense that she is standing out and it's not something that she shies away from.

"It was unusual for a young girl to have the opportunity to further her education beyond a high school level. She attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, which was the equivalent of college in that day. She knew it was going to be a lot of work. She knew there were going to be expectations on her to be independent; it was her first time on her own at that young age. 

"She would have to figure out money, she would have to take care of her own clothing and she would have to work hard. She wrote a letter where she says, 'Mount Holyoke has been in my thoughts by day and my dreams by night and you can't imagine how much I am anticipating entering there.'" 

A question of faith

"Mount Holyoke, just like every other school of higher education in New England at that time, saw becoming a Christian as part and parcel of becoming an educated person. For Dickinson, it meant that, probably for the most intense period of her life, she was going to confront the question of religion, of faith, about her belief in God. 

She saw [the question of faith] as a lifelong struggle. There are poems that speak about God that identify him as a 'burglar, banker, father.'

She saw [the question of faith] as a lifelong struggle. There are poems that speak about God that identify him as a 'burglar, banker, father.'

"Those three words really get at what she thought about faith: how could she justify a God that would rob those that she loved from her. Other times, it was a sort of storehouse for all of her thoughts and hopes and wishes.

"She said, pretty late in life, that she believed and disbelieved a hundred times an hour. So she thought deeply on this subject. Questions of immortality, and a God who can stand by while people suffer, were subjects that interested her for all of her days."

A dress of Emily Dickinson's in her second-floor bedroom at the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, Mass. (Emily Dickinson Museum)

The inventor of social isolation

"My understanding [of how an artist like Emily Dickinson is formed in the United States is that it] has a lot to do with confidence in one's own mind. It has to do with appreciation of landscape and where we are and what we see.

"It also has something to do with pushing ourselves as far as we can. Dickinson wanted to write down what she saw and what she felt. The question was, did she have the ability and the language to do that? She was constantly pushing herself in pursuit of that personal destination.

She certainly knew what it was to live inside her home and inside her mind.

"She certainly knew what it was to live inside her home and inside her mind. Reading was so important to her. The natural world was so important to her.

"But she also knew that, while the mind was a rich terrain, it can also be terrifying. She wrote 'One need not be a chamber to be haunted.' And then goes on to say, 'the brain has corridors surpassing human space.'

"The mind could be a terrifying place to confront oneself as well. And I think all of us have seen edges of that during this time."

Martha Ackmann's comments have been edited for length and clarity. 

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

now