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
∩ 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.