What would Emily do?

Woman leaping into pool, drawing by William Eaton, Aug 2018 - 2A retirement poem? Or for Americans more generally?

After Dickinson wrote two thousand poems and that didn’t quite work –
Though, yes, it worked spectacularly for readers born after she died –
After she had baked so many loaves of bread and dried so
Many flowers and written carefully so many letters
And had tried falling in love with a woman and
Falling in love with a man and going crazy.
If you’ve done all that you can
Or must and are not inclined
To slit your wrists, what –
What can you do?

 – Poem and drawing by William Eaton

Dickinson facsimilie (a woman - white - blameless mystery)∩ In the beginning, this was not meant to be a poem about Emily Dickinson, but about all of us (see more below). As regards Dickinson, in 1884 (when she was in her 50s and two decades after her intensive poetry-writing phase) she wrote a friend: “The Physician says I have ‘Nervous prostration’. Possibly I have – I do not know the Names of Sickness.” In recent decades there have been plenty of theories, including epilepsy, manic-depression, etc. Frankly, the more I read in the poems and the secondary literature, the more I believe that, among other things, Dickinson had been involved in an incestuous sexual relationship with her father or brother, or both, and this – her “blameless mystery” – was a large psychological challenge throughout her life. Although there is a certain anachronism to the book’s approach, I do recommend Wendy K. Perriman’s A Wounded Deer: The Effects of Incest on the Life and Poetry of Emily Dickinson (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2006). One might see also Dickinson’s Dying Tiger (collected in Art, Sex, Politics and now also available online via Zeteo).

Returning to mental illness or nervous prostration and to the poetry, there is the poem most often cited in this context, the last verse of which begins “And then a Plank in Reason, broke, And I dropped down, and down – ” The first two verses of that poem:

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,

And Mourners to and fro

Kept treading – treading – till it seemed

That Sense was breaking through –


And when they all were seated,

A Service, like a Drum –

Kept beating – beating – till I thought

My mind was going numb –

From this perspective, the question of my poem might be: What would you do to keep your mind from going numb? I take this to be a question less specifically about incest (or, say, sexual repression) than about living more generally – and about living in the United States most particularly. And, certainly, living after retirement, too. (When Dickinson’s plank of reason breaks, she hits “a World, at every plunge”. Frightening, exciting, mind-expanding?)

“Blameless mystery” is from a Dickinson poem (facsimile above right) that begins “A solemn thing – it was”. The poem has become best known for its commenting on the fact that she habitually wore white, and this, the poem proposes, because God counted her suitably pure, her “blameless mystery  – a timid thing . . . Too plummetless” to matter.


  1. ED does sound depressed, which makes me sad that women of her era were so totally owned by their male relatives. Love the drawing!

    • Hmmm. Thinking. Yes, her father was a tyrant, and this in part because of his personality and in part because of their time and place. On the other hand, ED’s efforts to impress the tyrant or to have something to do while stuck inside and to wrestle with inner demons and intense experiences . . . produced some of our greatest literature. But I also think that, in a sense, nothing has changed or can. Here’s an odd image/idea: the fact of mortality, like a fisherman, snatches us out of the warm, flowing water, which we imagine our natural habitat, and we flounder, gasping — writing poems, drawing, baking bread, transgressing, falling in and out of love, writing letters or e-mails . . . Best, Bill

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