Rare Emily Dickinson Exhibit at the Morgan Museum

“Who has not found the heavens below will fail to find it above. God’s residence is next to mine. His furniture is love,” wrote America’s most enigmatic poet, Emily Dickinson. Lines, such as those, from her almost 1800 poems still draw our attention. They show that, though she spent much of her adulthood confined to her home in Amherst, Massachusetts, she found a near heaven, earthly existence in her lifetime. One of her acquaintances, Abby Wood Bliss, was appalled that Dickinson struggled with the accepted view of the Calvinist-based church of her father and the community she lived in, and wrote, “Let us pray for her that she may not grieve the Holy Spirit to depart from her.”Although scholars debate why she was such a recluse during much of her writing career, her poetry suggests that part of the reason was her disinterest in defending her spiritual views to the main religious leaders and influential people of her community. Rather than being disturbed by the guilt that Bliss and others attempted to lay on her for her unorthodox views, Dickinson embraced a more personal and universal view of a Supreme Being that was closely aligned with the to the philosophy of Transcendentalists. In a stanza of one of her poems, she proudly states:

Some keep the sabbath going to church.

Instead of going to Heaven at last,

I’m going all along.

 The Morgan Museum’s special show on the prolific poet, which is aptly titled, “I’m Nobody, Who Are You” also captures the writer’s lack of interest in bringing attention to herself:

                I’m Nobody! Who are you?

                Are you Nobody—too?

                Then there’s a pair of us!

                Are you—nobody—too?

                Don’t tell! They’d banish us—you know!

                How dreary to be somebody!

                How public—like a Frog—

                To tell your name—the livelong June

                To an admiring Bog!

 Dickinson, intentionally, did not even title name her poems, indicating perhaps that she never expected anyone to read them after she passed away. However, some anthologies have titled them by their first lines or categorized them by sequential numbers. The poet’s preference to remain anonymous to “an admiring Bog” strikes most modern artists as almost being inconceivable. Perhaps the poet who tried the least to attain social and artistic recognition in her lifetime (1830-1886) has become one of the top-recognized and appreciated writers in the world. The special Morgan show features twenty-four of Dickinson’s original poetic manuscripts, as well as many related drawings, daguerreotypes, and audio recordings of her most notable poems (recited by modern poet, Lee Ann Brown). The exhibit had been scheduled to run from January through April 2017  but was extended to May 28 due to its overwhelming public popularity. On my visit to the Museum last week, I concluded that more people came to look at her poems in a single day than considered them in her entire lifetime, as only ten of her poems were published. Besides not wanting to draw attention to herself, another discouraging reason for her to not publish her works was that women in her lifetime were not considered to be suited as poets. Other notable women writers of the nineteenth century, like the Bronte sisters and Louisa May Alcott, strongly commented on and confronted this form of literary discrimination. The Bronte’s and Alcott originally published their works under masculine sounding pseudonyms to avoid rejection. However, Emily was brave or naïve enough to try to submit several of her poems under her own name. They were later rejected because she was a woman and because she did not adhere to accepted poetic conventions of the times. Most less secure writers would have stopped writing after such rejections, but Emily continued to write-up to the end of her life.  It would take a major treatise to explain what was different and special about Dickinson’s poems. However, even a casual reader could see that they have different punctuation, rhythms, structures, and themes from other notable nineteenth-century poets. For example, visually comparing her writing style and poetic organization to her famous contemporaries, like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman, should permit most people to easily spot many stylistic differences.

Much of what we have read about Emily accepts the idea that she was anti-social. However, the many letters from her friends and associates that were on display at the Museum present the alternative view that she had a fulfilling and happy life. We see evidence in the exhibit that she was a fully engaged person who had a full social life as a young girl and as a student at Mt. Holyoke Female Seminar. In addition, she had an active life within the confines of her home as an adult. She enjoyed cooking, flower arranging, and preservation, and maintaining a garden. Her poem about snakes is fully featured in the exhibit and  illustrates, both her interest in gardening and her admiration of nature:

A narrow Fellow in the Grass

Occasionally rides –

You may have met him – did you not,

His notice sudden is –

The Grass divides us as with a Comb –

A Spotted shaft is seen –

And then it closes at your feet

And opens further on –

He likes a Boggy Acre

A floor too cool for Corn –

Yet when a Boy, and Barefoot –

I more than once have passed, I thought, a Whip lash

Unbraiding in the Sun

When stooping to secure it

It wrinkled and was gone –

Several of Nature’s People

I know, and they know me –

I feel for them a transport

Of cordiality –

But never met this Fellow

Attended, or alone

Without a tighter breathing

And Zzero at the Bone –

Also documented in the exhibit was that she was an avid reader who took an interest in literature and history. She followed current events through reading several newspapers that were delivered to her house and was particularly concerned about the Civil War. In one of her poems, she writes from the point of view of a soldier who was shot and killed during a battle. An excerpt from that poem was on display on a framed mat with an accompanying audio track:

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –

The Stillness of the Room

Was like the stillness in the Air –

Between the Heaves of Storm –

Though Emily seldom went outside of her Amherst Massachusetts home as an adult, she communicated with friends and acquaintances in over 1000 known letters. The most notable exceptions to her reclusive life were her contacts with her sister Lavinia and her brother Austin. Austin was one of the most important non-writing supporting relatives of any important writer. Contrast his support of  Emily to the Bronte sister’s lack of support from their brother. Austin not only encouraged Emily to write but supported her financially throughout her life. See reproduction below of a painting of Emily, Austin, and Lavinia Dickinson.

In addition, her brother married Susan Gilbert. The letters on display at the Morgan revealed that the two women had a deep and warm personal relationship, and confirmed that many of Emily’s poems were first sent through Susan for her review before the Emily” finalized” them. However, visitors to the Morgan could clearly see that Emily was continually revising her poems, as the original manuscripts had many cross-outs and word substitutions. Unfortunately, about 1100 hundred of her poems were never seen by anyone in her lifetime; they were discovered under her bed by her sister Lavinia after Emily died. Two of the first complete original versions of Dickinson’s almost 1800 poems were published in less than two years after Dickinson’s death by the Robert’s Brothers of Boston in 1890. Rare editions of both the first and second editions were also on display at the Morgan (see below):

A caption under those rare books noted that the Roberts Brothers were the same ones who refused to publish Emily’s works in her lifetime. However, after her death, their efforts (but not hers) were richly rewarded— as several editions needed to be reprinted to meet the growing demands of readers. As Emily concluded in one of her poems:

                Light is sufficient to itself—

                If Others want to see

                It can be had on Window Panes Some Hours of the Day.

Unfortunately, here isn’t much time left to see the Morgan’s Emily Dickinson Exhibit.  However, thanks to the Museum and Amherst College, ( the proprietor of most of Dickinson’s rare and original items), the public has been provided with, perhaps, a once in a lifetime glimpse of into the life of the most original American poet.  If you cannot go to New York in the next few days, you can still see a very nice exhibition of her life and works, anytime, at the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst Massachusetts (see my June 2016 blog on my visit there).

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Dr. Murray Ellison received a Master’s in Education from Temple University (1973), a Master’s Degree of Arts in English Literature from Virginia Commonwealth University (2015), and a Doctorate in Education at Virginia Tech (1988). He is married and has three adult daughters. He retired as the Virginia Director of Community Corrections for the Department of Correctional Education in 2009. He is the founder and chief editor of this literary blog and is an editor for the International Correctional Education Journal. He is the Co-Editor of the 2016 book of poetry, Mystic Verses, by Shambhushivananda. He also serves as a board member, volunteer tour guide, poetry judge, and Facilities Planning Committee Coordinator for the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond Virginia. He teaches literature classes at the OSHER, Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Richmond; is the organizer and coördinator of The First Fridays Classic Book Club; and is a co-organizer, along with Rebecca Elizabeth Jones, of the VCU Working Titles Book Club. Contact Murray at ellisonms2@vcu.edu, or leave a note at the bottom of the post.

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