XIX. Emily DickinsonFew events in American literary history have been more curious than the sudden rise of Emily Dickinson many years since into a posthumous fame only more accentuated by the utterly recluse character of her life. The lines which formed a prelude to the first volume of her poems are the only ones that have yet come to light which indicate even a temporary desire to come in contact with the great world of readers; for she seems to have had no reference, in all the rest, to anything but her own thought and a few friends. But for her only sister, it is very doubtful if her poems would ever have been printed at all; and when published, they were launched quietly and without any expectation of a wide audience. Yet the outcome of it was that six editions of the volume were sold within six months, a suddenness of success almost without a parallel in American literature. On April 16, 1862, I took from the post-office the following letter:--
The letter was postmarked “Amherst,” and it was in a handwriting so peculiar that it seemed as if the writer might.have taken her first lessons by studying the famous fossil bird-tracks in the museum of that college town. Yet it was not in the slightest degree illiterate, but cultivated, quaint, and wholly unique. Of punctuation there was little; she used chiefly dashes, and it has been thought better, in printing these letters, as with her poems, to give them the benefit in this respect of the ordinary usages; and so with her habit as to capitalization, as the printers call it, in which she followed the Old English and present German method of thus distinguishing every noun substantive. But the most curious thing about the letter was the total absence of a signature. It proved, however, that she had written her name on a card, and put it under the shelter of a smaller  envelope inclosed in the larger; and even this name was written — as if the shy writer wished to recede as far as possible from view --in pencil, not in ink. The name was Emily Dickinson. Inclosed with the letter were four poems, two of which have since been separately printed,--“Safe in their alabaster chambers” and “I'll tell you how the sun rose,” besides the two that here follow. The first comprises in its eight lines a truth so searching that it seems a condensed summary of the whole experience of a long life:--
We play at pasteThen came one which I have always classed among the most exquisite of her productions, with a singular felicity of phrase and an aerial lift that bears the ear upward with the bee it traces:--
Till qualified for pearl;
Then drop the paste
And deem ourself a fool.
The shapes, though, were similar
And our new hands
The nearest dream recedes unrealized.The impression of a wholly new and original poetic genius was as distinct on my mind at the first reading of these four poems as it is now, after half a century of further knowledge; and with it came the problem never yet solved, what place ought to be assigned in literature to what is so remarkable, yet so elusive of criticism. The bee himself did not evade the schoolboy more than she evaded me; and even at this day I still stand somewhat bewildered, like the boy. Circumstances, however, soon brought me in contact with an uncle of Emily Dickinson, a gentleman not now living: a prominent citizen of Worcester, Massachusetts, a man of integrity and character, who shared her abruptness and impulsiveness, but certainly not her poetic temperament, from which he was indeed singularly  remote. He could tell but little of her, she being evidently an enigma to him, as to me. It is hard to say what answer was made by me, under these circumstances, to this letter. It is probable that the adviser sought to gain time a little and find out with what strange creature he was dealing. I remember to have ventured on some criticism which she afterwards called “surgery,” and on some questions, part of which she evaded, as will be seen, with a naive skill such as the most experienced and worldly coquette might envy. Her second letter (received April 26, 1862) was as follows:--
The heaven we chase,
Like the June bee 
Before the schoolboy,
Invites the race,
Stoops to an easy clover,
Dips — evades — teases — deploys--
Then to the royal clouds
Lifts his light pinnace,
Heedless of the boy
Staring, bewildered, at the mocking sky.
Homesick for steadfast honey,--
Ah! the bee flies not
Which brews that rare variety.
It will be seen that she had now drawn a step nearer, signing her name, and as my “friend.” It will also be noticed that I had sounded her about certain American authors, then much read; and that she knew how to put her own criticisms in a very trenchant way. With this letter came some more verses, still in the same birdlike script, as for instance the following:--
Your riches taught me poverty,Here was already manifest that defiance of form, never through carelessness, and never precisely from whim, which so marked her. The slightest change in the order of words thus, “While yet at school, a girl” --would have given her a rhyme for this last line; but no; she was intent upon her thought, and it would not have satisfied her to make the change. The other poem further showed, what had already been visible, a rare and delicate sympathy with the life of nature:-- 
Myself a millionaire
In little wealths, as girls could boast,
Till, broad as Buenos Ayre,
You drifted your dominions
A different Peru,
And I esteemed all poverty
For life's estate, with you.
Of mines, I little know, myself,
But just the names of gems,
The colors of the commonest,
And scarce of diadems
So much that, did I meet the queen,
Her glory I should know; 
But this must be a different wealth,
To miss it, beggars so.
I'm sure 't is India, all day,
To those who look on you
Without a stint, without a blame,
Might I but be the Jew!
I'm sure it is Golconda
Beyond my power to deem,
To have a smile for mine, each day,
How better than a gem!
At least, it solaces to know
That there exists a gold
Although I prove it just in time
Its distance to behold;
Its far, far treasure to surmise
And estimate the pearl
That slipped my simple fingers through
While just a girl at school!
A bird came down the walk;It is possible that in a second letter I gave more of distinct praise or encouragement, as her third is in a different mood. This was received June 8, 1862. There is something startling in its opening image; and in the yet stranger phrase that follows, where she apparently uses “mob” in the sense of chaos or bewilderment: 
He did not know I saw;
He bit an angle-worm in halves
And ate the fellow raw.
And then he drank a dew
From a convenient grass,
And then hopped sidewise to a wall,
To let a beetle pass.
He glanced with rapid eyes
That hurried all around;
They looked like frightened beads, I thought;
He stirred his velvet head
Like one in danger, cautious.
I offered him a crumb,
And he unrolled his feathers
And rowed him softer home
Than oars divide the ocean,
Too silver for a seam-
Or butterflies, off banks of noon,
Leap, plashless as they swim.
With this came the poem since published in one of her volumes and entitled “Renunciation” ; and also that beginning “Of all the sounds dispatched abroad,” thus fixing approximately the date of those two. I must soon have written to ask her for her picture, that I might form some impression of my enigmatical correspondent. To this came the following reply, in July, 1862:--
This was accompanied by this strong poem, with its breathless conclusion. The title is of my own giving--
 It would seem that at first I tried a little-a very little — to lead her in the direction of rules and traditions; but I fear it was only perfunctory, and that she interested me more in herso to speak — unregenerate condition. Still, she recognizes the endeavor. In this case, as will be seen, I called her attention to the fact that while she took pains to correct the spelling of a word, she was utterly careless of greater irregularities. It will be seen by her answer that with her usual naive adroitness she turns my point:--
A month or two after this I entered the volunteer army of the Civil War, and must have  written to her during the,winter of 1862-63 from South Carolina or Florida, for the following reached me in camp :--
I trust the “Procession of flowers” was not a premonition. I cannot explain this extraordinary signature, substituted for the now customary “Your scholar,” unless she imagined her friend to be in some incredible and remote condition, imparting its strangeness to her. Swedenborg somewhere has an image akin to her “oblique place,” where he symbolizes evil as simply an oblique angle. With this letter came verses, most refreshing in that clime of jasmines and mockingbirds, on the familiar robin:--
 In the summer of 1863 I was wounded, and in hospital for a time, during which came this letter in pencil, written from what was practically a hospital for her, though only for weak eyes:--
Later this arrived:-- 
These were my earliest letters from Emily Dickinson, in their order. From this time and up to her death (May 15, 1886) we corresponded at varying intervals, she always persistently keeping up this attitude of “Scholar,” and assuming on my part a preceptorship which it is almost needless to say did not exist. Always glad to hear her “recite,” as she called it, I soon abandoned all attempt to guide in the slightest degree this extraordinary nature, and simply accepted her confidences, giving as much as I could of what might interest her in return. Sometimes there would be a long pause, on my part, after which would come a plaintive letter, always terse, like this :-- “ Did I displease you? But won't you tell me how?” Or perhaps the announcement of some event, vast in her small sphere, as this:-- 
Or sometimes there would arrive an exquisite little detached strain, every word a picture, like this--
Nothing in literature, I am sure, so condenses into a few words that gorgeous atom of life and fire of which she here attempts the description. It is, however, needless to conceal that many of her brilliant fragments were less satisfying. She almost always grasped whatever she sought, but with some fracture of grammar and dictionary on the way. Often, too, she was obscure, and sometimes inscrutable; and though obscurity is sometimes, in Coleridge's phrase, a compliment to the reader, yet it is never safe to press this compliment too hard. Sometimes, on the other hand, her verses found too much favor for her comfort, and she  was urged to publish. In such cases I was sometimes put forward as a defense; and the following letter was the fruit of some such occasion:
Again came this, on a similar theme:
In all this time — nearly eight years-we had never met, but she had sent invitations like the following:
Afterwards, came this:-- 
At last, after many postponements, on August 16, 1870, I found myself face to face with my hitherto unseen correspondent. It was at her father's house, one of those large, square, brick mansions so familiar in our older New England towns, surrounded by trees and blossoming shrubs without, and within exquisitely neat, cool, spacious, and fragrant with flowers. After a little delay, I heard an extremely faint and pattering footstep like that of a child, in the hall, and in glided, almost noiselessly, a plain, shy little person, the face without a single good feature, but with eyes, as she herself said, “like the sherry the guest leaves in the glass,” and with smooth bands of reddish chestnut hair. She had a quaint and nun-like look, as if she might be a German canoness of some religious order, whose prescribed garb was white pique, with a blue net worsted shawl. She came toward me with two day-lilies, which she put in a childlike way into my hand, saying softly, under her breath, “These are my introduction,” and adding, also under her breath, in childlike fashion, “Forgive me if I am frightened; I never see strangers, and hardly know what I say.” But soon she began to talk, and thenceforward continued  almost constantly; pausing sometimes to beg that I would talk instead, bet readily recommencing when I evaded. There was not a trace of affectation in all this; she seemed to speak absolutely for her own relief, and wholly without watching its effect on her hearer. Led on by me, she told much about her early life, in which her father was always the chief figure, --evidently a man of the old type, la vieille roche of Puritanism,--a man who, as she said, read on Sunday “lonely and rigorous books” ; and who had from childhood inspired her with such awe, that she never learned to tell time by the clock till she was fifteen, simply because he had tried to explain it to her when she was a little child, and she had been afraid to tell him that she did not understand, and also afraid to ask any one else lest he should hear of it. Yet she had never heard him speak a harsh word, and it needed only a glance at his photograph to see how truly the Puritan tradition was preserved in him. He did not wish his children, when little, to read anything but the Bible; and when, one day, her brother brought her home Longfellow's “Kavanagh,” he put it secretly under the pianoforte cover, made signs to her, and they both afterwards read it. It may have been before this, however, that a student of her father's was amazed to find that she and her  brother had never heard of Lydia Maria Child, then much read, and he brought “Letters from New York,” and hid it in the great bush of old-fashioned tree-box beside the front door. After the first book, she thought in ecstasy, “This, then, is a book, and there are more of them.” But she did not find so many as she expected, for she afterwards said to me, “When I lost the use of my eyes, it was a comfort to think that there were so few real books that I could easily find one to read me all of them.” Afterwards, when she regained her eyes, she read Shakespeare, and thought to herself, “Why is any other book needed?” She went on talking constantly and saying, in the midst of narrative, things quaint and aphoristic. “Is it oblivion or absorption when things pass from our minds?” “Truth is such a rare thing, it is delightful to tell it.” “I find ecstasy in living; the mere sense of living is joy enough.” When I asked her if she never felt any want of employment, not going off the grounds and rarely seeing a visitor, she answered, “I never thought of conceiving that I could ever have the slightest approach to such a want in all future time” ; and then added, after a pause, “I feel that I have not expressed myself strongly enough,” although it seemed to me that she had. She told me of her household  occupations, that she made all their bread, because her father liked only hers; then saying shyly, “And people must have puddings,” this very timidly and suggestively, as if they were meteors or comets. Interspersed with these confidences came phrases so emphasized as to seem the very wantonness of over-statement, as if she pleased herself with putting into words what the most extravagant might possibly think without saying, as thus : “How do most people live without any thoughts? There are many people in the world,--you must have noticed them in the street,--how do they live? How do they get strength to put on their clothes in the morning?” Or this crowning extravaganza: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?” I have tried to describe her just as she was, with the aid of notes taken at the time; but this interview left our relation very much what it was before ;--on my side an interest that was strong and even affectionate, but not based on any thorough comprehension; and on her side a hope, always rather baffled, that I should afford some aid in solving her abstruse problem of life.  The impression undoubtedly made on me was that of an excess of tension, and of something abnormal. Perhaps in time I could have got beyond that somewhat overstrained relation which not my will, but her needs, had forced upon us. Certainly I should have been most glad to bring it down to the level of simple truth and every-day comradeship; but it was not altogether easy. She was much too enigmatical a being for me to solve in an hour's interview, and an instinct told me that the slightest attempt at direct cross-examination would make her withdraw into her shell; I could only sit still and watch, as one does in the woods; I must name my bird without a gun, as recommended by Emerson. After my visit came this letter:
When I said, at parting, that I would come again some time, she replied, “Say, in a long time; that will be nearer. Some time is no time.” We met only once again, and I have no express record of the visit. We corresponded for years, at long intervals, her side of the intercourse being, I fear, better sustained; and she sometimes wrote also to my wife, inclosing flowers or fragrant leaves with a verse or two. Once she sent her one of George Eliot's books, I think “Middlemarch,” and wrote, “I am bringing you a little granite book for you to lean upon.” At other times she would send single poems, such as these:-- 
Then came the death of her father, that strong Puritan father who had communicated to her so much of the vigor of his own nature, and who bought her many books, but begged her not to read them. Mr. Edward Dickinson, after service in the national House--of Representatives and other public positions, had become a member of the lower house of the Massachusetts legislature. The session was unusually prolonged, and he was making a speech upon some railway question at noon, one very hot day (July 16, 1874), when he became suddenly faint and sat down. The house adjourned, and a friend walked with him to his lodgings at the Tremont House, where he began to pack his bag for home, after sending for a physician,  but died within three hours. Soon afterwards, I received the following letter:--
Later she wrote:--
A year afterwards came this:--
With this came the following verse, having a curious seventeenth-century flavor:--
A death-blow is a life-blow to some,And later came this kindred memorial of one of the oldest and most faithful friends of the family, Mr. Samuel Bowles, of the Springfield Republican :--
Who, till they died, did not alive become;
Who, had they lived, had died, but when
They died, vitality begun.
After this added bereavement the inward life of the diminished household became only more  concentrated, and the world was held farther and farther away. Yet to this period belongs the following letter, written about 1880, which has more of what is commonly called the objective or external quality than any she ever wrote me; and shows how close might have been her observation and her sympathy, had her rare qualities taken a somewhat different channel:--
And these few fragmentary memorials — closing, like every human biography, with funerals, yet with such as were to Emily Dickinson only the stately introduction to a  higher life — may well end with her description of the death of the very summer she so loved.
As imperceptibly as grief
The summer lapsed away,
Too imperceptible at last
To feel like perfidy.
A quietness distilled,
As twilight long begun,
Or Nature spending with herself
The dusk drew earlier in,
The morning foreign shone,
A courteous yet harrowing grace
As guest that would be gone.
And thus without a wing
Or service of a keel
Our summer made her light escape
Into the Beautiful.