ABOUT A BEGINNING, THE BOOK,
And EMILY DICKINSON
"I cautious scanned my little life"
My book in 1991 began with what had been unrecognized by me which was clearly, Emily Dickinson wrote about the pain and trauma of her childhood in the poem, (612) "It would have starved a Gnat - " in which a child suffers an inescapable lack of nurturance. The poet nearly setting in stone the kind of experience which rendered her vulnerable for a lifetime to further abuse by a predatory father and the accompanying life long shame and isolation. (Much to her young niece Martha's great bewilderment she could and would not come downstairs to her father's funeral conducted at the "Old Homestead".) Just as Emily Dickinson sought protection from this potential of pain, in merriment, solitude, and her solicitous poetry, she simultaneously braved, forging poems produced from it. The chapter Retrenchment and Recovery, XXXVIII, includes these poems containing difficult recollections of her earliest circumstances having an anxiously obsessive mother and a rigid, fixated father.
(613) "They shut me up in Prose - "
(612) "It would have starved a Gnat - "
(538)"'Tis true - They shut me in the Cold -"
(874) "They won't frown always - some sweet Day "
The last two poems are about parents trying to stop her lisping. In The Indices of Images and Ideas of The Rape and Recovery of Emily Dickinson are gathered seven poems that reference her speech impediment, obviously painful and punishing to daughter Emily in a family of orators. Her grandfather Samuel Fowler Dickinson and Edward Dickinson (with his narcissistic demands) put great store in enunciation, clarity of speech.
Mrs. Emily Norcross Dickinson, did have a capacity for love of home, her family and children, despite the fearful duress of her marriage. As she throughout its duration was cowed while being completely aware of the preferential primary relationship her husband had with their daughter, although not precisely aware of its sexual component. Mrs. Dickinson even with an impaired mentation, (a year to the day a "Tuesday" she suffered a stroke after her husband's death), could not understand why Emily didn't wait up at
night for him to return home. There is a poem reflective of this toxic union and family life which seems to be about the poet's adolescence: (486)"I was the slightest in the House - ", and is way more than mere teen-age angst reporting real dread, oppression, within the Dickinson home.
As I perused Johnson's The Complete Poems and finding those childhood poems, (numbering only a few), my thinking went farther ahead in her life and I ruminated on the "mystery lover" who is folkloric and lasting almost a century in our collective consciousness. This is when it came to me that there was the real possibility her father was this lover. Especially, as I then recollected a poem which exclaimed painfully and categorically of a burglar, banker, father, having as a message the inevitable double-edged outcome of loss and dependence. The grief and anger in this small poem possessed of a survivalist stature which was embodied by the fierce strain and tenor of the poet's own person. The chapter Rage and Recrimination, XXXVI, contains these feelings, primarily adult reactions that are almost polemical but for the dual essence of the bespoke betrayal and despair. (A defiance having a productive facet is illustrated in the first line of her poem depicting creation, "Dare you see
a Soul at the White Heat?"
I never hear the word "escape"
Without a quicker blood,
A sudden expectation,
A flying attitude!
I never hear of prison broad
By soldiers battered down,
But I tug childish at my bars
Only to fail again!
(This poem is in the public domain which means it can be reprinted
without the need of permission from a copyright holder. There are only seven Emily Dickinson poems that are in the public domain: nos. 59, 77, 185, 249, 254, 510, and 1078, each of these included on this website.)
A last note about the poet's mother Emily Norcross Dickinson: In an epistolary remark Emily Dickinson noted, "Mother is very fond of flowers and of recollection, that sweetest flower.".
(Emily Dickinson: Her Poetry, Prose and Personality, Ella Gilbert Ives, Boston Transcript, 1908)