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The Letter-Poems and Prose of Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

Her notes to us as children were our keen delight. Who but our Aunt Emily would have written, "Emily knows a man who drives a coach like a thimble and turns the wheel all day with his heel. His name is Bumble-bee."

The following are excerpts from the letters of Emily Dickinson to her brother's family, edited by Martha Dickinson Bianchi, who was Emily Dickinson's niece. The Susan addressed so tenderly is Susan Dickinson, the wife of Emily Dickinson's brother. The boy mentioned in the two elegies toward the bottom of the page is Gilbert, the son of Susan Dickinson, who died at age eight. As I read her letters for the first time, I quickly understood that I had misapprehended Emily Dickinson. I had always thought of her as a recluse who probably didn't reveal her intimacies and feelings to anyone, saving them for poems which even her immediate family was not allowed to read (this is what I have read in my studies; of course I don't know if it is true or not). But whether she shared her poems with her family or not, it seems apparent from her letters that Emily Dickinson had a soul mate in Susan Dickinson, and a wellspring of affection for her young nephew Gilbert. I was very touched reading her letters, and I feel that I know and understand her a little better for having read them.—MRB

Unable are the dead to die
For love is immortality,
Nay it is Deity.

The butterfly in honored dust
Assuredly will lie,
But none will pass his catacomb
So chastened as the fly.

Opinion is a flitting thing
But, truth outlasts the sun,
If then, we cannot own them both,
Possess the oldest one.

The Bumble-Bee's Religion

His little hearse-like figure
Unto itself a dirge,
To a delusive lilac
The vanity divulge
Of industry and morals
And every righteous thing.
For the divine perdition
Of idleness and Spring.

When we have ceased to crave
The gift is given
For which we gave the earth
And mortgaged heaven,
But so declined in worth—
'Tis ignominy now to look upon.

Sometimes with the heart,
Seldom with the soul,
Scarcely once with the night—
Few love at all.

Though the Great Waters sleep,
That they are still the Deep,
We cannot doubt—
No vacillating God
Ignited this Abode
To put it out.

Birthday of but a single pang,
That there are less to come—
Afflictive is the adjective
Though affluent the doom.

Of so divine a loss
We enter but the gain,
Indemnity for loneliness
That such a bliss has been.

No words ripple like Susan's. Their silver genealogy is very sweet to trace: amalgams are abundant, but the lone student of the mines loves alloyless things.

Susan knows she is a Siren and at a word from her Emily would forfeit righteousness—

I dreamed of you last night and send a carnation to endorse it.

Sister of Ophir—
Ah, Peru—
Subtle the Sum
That purchase you—

Your little mental gallantries are sweet as chivalry,—which is to me a shining word though I don't know what it means.

It would be good to see the grass and hear the wind blow that wide way through the orchard. Are the apples ripe? Have the wild geese crossed? And did you save the seed of the pond-lily? Do not cease, dear. Should I turn in my long night I should murmur "Sue" . . .

Nothing is gone, dear, or no one that you knew. The forests are at home, the mountains intimate at night and arrogant at noon. A lonesome fluency abroad, like suspended music.

To take you away leaves but a lower world, your firmamental quality our more familiar sky. It is not Nature, dear, but those who stand for Nature. The bird would be a soundless thing without expositor. Come home and see your weather; the hills are full of shawls. . . . We have a new man whose name is "Tim," Father calls him "Timothy" and the barn sounds like the Bible!

How tenderly I thank you, Sue, for every solace! . . . Beneath the Alps the Danube runs.

There is no first nor last in Forever. It is Centre there all the time. To believe is enough and the right of supposing.

Dear Sue,
      The vision of immortal life has been fulfilled. How simply at the last the fathom comes! The passenger, and not the sea, we find surprises us. Gilbert rejoiced in secrets. His life was panting with them. With what menace of light he cried, "Don't tell, Aunt Emily!"
      My ascended playmate must instruct me now. Show us, prattling preceptor, but the way to thee! He knew no niggard moment. His life was full of boon. The playthings of Dervish were not so wild as his. No crescent was this creature—he traveled free from the Full. Such soar, but never set. I see him in the star and meet his sweet velocity in everything that flies.

His life was like a bugle
Which winds itself away,
His elegy and echo,
His requiem ecstasy.

Pass to thy rendez-vous of Light,
pangless except for us
who slowly ford the mystery
which thou hast leapt across!

The last line Emily Dickinson sent, not long before her death, "in response to an entreaty for an assurance of her certainty of our love and continuance of her own" was: "Remember, dear, that an unmitigated Yes is my only reply to your utmost question."

The following is an excerpt from an elegy penned for Emily Dickinson by Sue Dickinson: "A Damascus blade gleaming and glancing in the sun, was her wit;—her swift poetic rapture the long glistening note of the bird one hears in June woods at high noon. Like a magician she caught the shadowy apparitions of her brain and tossed them in startling picturesqueness to her friends. So intimate and passionate was her love of Nature, she seemed herself part of the high March sky or the midsummer day. To her, Life was all aglow with God and immortality. With no creed, no formulated faith, hardly knowing the names of dogmas, she walked this life with the gentleness and reverence of old Saints, with the firm step of Martyrs who sing while they suffer."

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