Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Riddle that we guess

One of the fascinating things, to me, about Emily Dickinson is the fact that so little is actually known about her. She did not leave much besides her poetry and a great air of mystery and myth. Her family was prominent in Amherst, particularly her grandfather who founded Amherst College, as well as her father, both of whom were prominent figures in the community. And yet for the family's involvement in public affairs, Emily Dickinson chose a smaller audience. She did not completely seclude herself within the family homestead. She was a person of letters, and the sheer volume of mail that she put out shows she was not a recluse. She certainly selected her own society-- a quientessential Dickinson phrase often quoted in reference to her limited contact with others outside of her home.

Much speculation rests on her poetry, and it seems in her letters to Higginson, Dickinson warned against making her poetry autobiographical. It's a trap that many readers and scholars fall into-- wanting to make her writing a literal explanation for her life. And yet I'm about to do that same thing. Sometimes I wonder if the following poem wasn't her own little inside joke on everyone that may read her work:

The Riddle we can guess
We speedily despise--
Not anything is stale so long
As Yesterday's Surprise.
(F 1180)

Anything easily explained is quickly dismissed as common and menial. We crave mystery and riddles, wanting to understand or make up motivations and explanations for everything around us. Reality shows and "inside" celebrity exposes gain great ratings because we are extremely curious people (sometimes morbidly so). Great mysteries keep our attention-- what happened to the Russian princess Anastasia? Did Amelia Earhart disappear in the Bermuda triangle or was she killed or did she die? What is really kept in Area 51? Why did John F. Kennedy, Jr's plane crash? Who killed Jon Benet Ramsey? Did O.J. Simpson really kill Nicole Brown Simpson? And the list could go on and on. These things, along with other unknowns draw our attention to them because they are not easy.

There is great truth in the phrase "Not anything is stale so long / As Yesterday's surprise," and I wonder if maybe that was part of why Dickinson remained a mystery within even her neighborhood. Certainly I think she generated a lot of gossip simply by her notorious seclusion and unique dress (she dressed in white). I believe she chose her isolation to protect her insights and to keep herself in the space she needed to be able to nurture her poetry. After reading excerpts of Haebegger's biography of Dickinson, My Wars are Laid away in Books, it seems that she was a sensitive child and was highly influenced by events in her childhood. Some of her isolation was, I believe, because of her family's belief that she was, as a female, frail and fragile and to be protected.

At any rate, both Dickinson and her poetry remain a perpetual surprise-- a surprise that for someone limited to such an insular part of the world, she shows phenomenal awareness of human nature and insight into life and the human condition. That her poetry survived her instructions for her sister to destroy her papers is a surprise (although it's not completely clear to me if those instructions meant solely letters or included her poems). And it is a surprise that her poetry survived in its original form after the changes made to her work when published, words and even entire stanzas altered or deleted because her family who published her works felt some parts were not in line with accepted faith and religion.

Dickinson will always hold equal intrigue for me, because no matter how much I learn, I will still have more to learn and more to wonder or infer. As Brenda Wineapple writes in her book White Heat, "For all people, [Emily Dickinson] is the biographied par excellence: elusive, inexplicable, inscrutable, like the light that exsists in spring: 'It passes and we stay--' " (35).

No comments:

Post a Comment