The Lady in White: Thoughts on Emily Dickinson

A fraction of every poet’s heart longs to be Emily Dickinson. The eccentric woman of mystery, subsisting on words and blossoms and birdsong.  Caught by her craft into a life that was narrow but vivid, lonely but achingly alive. A Nobody, and yet a genius. A fraction of every poet’s heart also fears to be Emily Dickinson – fears living only the life upon the page, without the risk and tumult and beauty of the life beyond what is penned.

Emily was born in 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts, and there she passed most of her life. After her education at a local academy and a year of seminary, she slipped into a life of caring for her ailing mother, studying botany, and secretly writing hundreds of poems. Gradually she grew more solitary, until her only friendships were carried out through correspondence. She rarely left the seclusion of the family homestead, grew hesitant to greet guests, and eventually shied from even leaving her room. And she wore white. For reasons only she knew, the little figure was seen by her neighbors in snowy gowns, if seen at all. An unapproachable moonbeam of a woman, inexplicable and unconventional.

She tirelessly did what few could have the heart to do – she wrote for no one. She never knew anyone would see her efforts, yet she caught our wordless emotions like falling petals clutched and pressed and dried to hold their color and sweetness over time. How could she do it? Did it hurt her, to write a beautiful thought, only to hide it away?

I remember someone saying once that we write to encounter – to encounter ourselves, the world, people, and God. For Emily Dickinson, I rather think that the sense of encounter was heightened, for these were among the very few encounters she had. Her written words were where she met the world. And perhaps that was enough for her. Many attribute her behavior to depression, but I wonder… Even in her morbid poetry, so often focused around death, there is a lightness and hope within her words. I wonder if she merely grew so comfortable within her own thoughts that she forgot to leave them, forgot about the wide and wonderful world were the things she wrote of were lived and felt every day.

I pity Emily Dickinson. It is odd to pity someone who changed the face of poetry, and crafted some of the most unique and sparkling pieces of verse ever written. But still, I do – I think of the life she gave up, the friendships she never had, the places she never saw. And I see enough of myself in her to take warning, to step softly back from the slowly swallowing quicksand of a life that is turned tightly inward. And perhaps in doing so I lose the chance to be the next Emily… but people are too important to play second fiddle to words.

What does she teach me then, this lady in white? She teaches me not to fear writing for no one, writing only to express and to reflect. Some writing is not for an audience, it is only for the writer. And that is alright. And perhaps, perhaps, those hidden scraps of paper will find their time. She did not know that she really was writing for someone – for a whole host of people who would be effected by her.

While I want to, like Emily, be able to write for no one, I do not want to live for no one. Emily did have a few pen-friends and family members near, but I surmise that she did not let anyone near enough to hurt her. I don’t want to risk overgeneralizing a complex life, but it is true that she hid herself away. And I know that I could do the same – but I will not.

Connections and experiences, tears and laughter and loss and new beginnings… these bits of messy, nitty-gritty life are too beautiful not to live.