Oak in Winter

Oak in Winter

For original image see link


I am re-publishing this in the light of my recent post on Charlotte Mew and the death of trees.

The only authenticated portrait of Emily Dickinson later than childhood. (For source of image see link)

The sacred or falling sickness was always unnameable when it struck a female.

(Lives like Loaded Guns– page 138)

Given my current sequence on Charlotte Mew it seems a good idea to republish this one on Emily Dickinson. As Fiona Sampson indicates in Two-Way Mirror, there is a strong link between them: ‘Among the many women readers Aurora Leigh will influence around the world and who subsequently become poets [are] Charlotte Mew… and Emily Dickinson.

So far in the sequence we have seen authors attribute Emily Dickinson’s withdrawal from society as an agoraphobic reaction to patriarchy (The Mad Woman in the Attic) or as a response to the intense pain of forbidden love (The Passion of Emily Dickinson).

Even the more recent book, published in 2004, A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson, is still backing the agoraphobic horse after quoting from Amy Lowell’s 1918 speculation (page 26): ‘There is a high probability that she suffered from agoraphobia. At the very least, she suffered from extreme social shyness.’

Is there an elephant in the room here that no one thought to mention until Lyndall Gordon came along in 2010 with her explosive potential myth-shaker, Lives like Loaded Guns.

Lives like Loaded Guns

Lyndall Gordon begins to build her case for a different explanation by reminding us (page 116) that Emily Dickinson always liked ‘to tell it slant.’

She asks us what explanation can we plausibly suggest for Emily Dickinson’s use of expressions such as ‘Throe’ and ‘a Cleaving in my Mind’? Is there a better fit than epilepsy? She adds other quotations into the mix (page 117): ‘it’s as though the body is a house haunted by an Assassin of the Brain, who prowls its corridors until the tormented Body “borrows a Revolver“ and prepares for a secret shoot-out behind a bolted door.’

There are, on page 125, six quotes including the word ‘fit.’ She feels that (page 126) ‘she never got over her fear of ‘it’ and in time her constant apprehension of “a fitting” turns out to be “terribler” than when it’s on – when she’s “wearing it.” The full text here is:

While we were fearing it, it came—
But came with less of fear
Because that fearing it so long
Had almost made it fair—

There is a Fitting—a Dismay—
A Fitting—a Despair
’Tis harder knowing it is Due
Than knowing it is Here.

The Trying on the Utmost
The Morning it is new
Is Terribler than wearing it
A whole existence through.

She spells out the implications (page 117):

If this, at least in part, is what was secret, the conditions of Dickinson‘s life make sense: sickness is a more sensible reason for seclusion than disappointed love. A seizure can happen with little warning: about a minute. Too short a time to take cover. This is why those who keep the condition secret would fear to go out, even to join callers in the parlour.… What seemed eccentric was simply dread.

Where else does she look for evidence to support this theory?

She agrees that anything conclusive is hard to come by because (page 119) ‘females especially provoked genteel aversion as they broke the rules of ladylike control. Families therefore colluded to keep the condition a lifelong secret. Dickinson’s poetry speaks of a “reticent“ volcano.’ And adds (page 123) ‘Because the diagnosis was rarely uttered, still less put on paper, there is little chance of explicit evidence.’

She refers to Emily Dickinson’s visit to Dr James Jackson in September 1851 (page121). Gordon argues that ‘it could have been Dr Jackson who persuaded Emily Dickinson to accept the prospect of seclusion and singleness in the hope of doing something with the intellectual and creative creative gifts that this doctor had the capacity to discern…’ She feels also that:

Dr Jackson’s authority would have weighed with Mr Dickinson, who agreed to relieve his daughter of the household tasks and empty social gatherings she loathed. . . He indulged the priority she wished to give to poetry and promoted mild exertion in the fresh air: daily walks with her dog Carlo… and her taste for gardening.

There is only one piece of tangible piece of evidence within her grasp (page 121) and it concerns the prescription he made out which has almost miraculously survived. Gordon feels this piece of paper ‘is a crucial clue to Dr Jackson‘s diagnosis. What he prescribed was half an ounce of glycerine diluted with two and a half ounces of water.’ She accepts that glycerine had many uses. However, one of the medical uses in Dickinson’s day was indeed for epilepsy, even though in today’s terms its past efficacy is seen (page 122) basically as a placebo. Apparently, Emily Dickinson used the prescription until 1853 with diminishing confidence.

What reasons do we have apart from the indirect hints in the poems and the possibly reputation-protecting seclusion, to justify thinking that glycerine was not being prescribed for something else other than epilepsy?

Gordon quotes Dr Hirschhorn as asking an extremely pertinent question (ibid.): ‘why did Dickinson persist in asking Austin to send her this medication from Boston even though there was an adequate drugstore at home in Amherst?’ She accepts that the ‘question of secrecy about her medication is… still open’ but adds that ‘the undeniable stigma of epilepsy could be the answer, given its shaming associations at that time…’

She finds at least one compensation for Dickinson’s not having been born when more powerful medications were used (page 123) ‘Since poetry was all important to Dickinson, it was in a sense fortunate that she lived before barbiturates came into use in 1912 for, in sedating the brain, the drugs dulled it.’

Gordon then turns to a more familiar theme, though still linking it with her diagnosis of epilepsy rather than agoraphobia (page 124):

‘I like the look of agony,’ [Dickinson] said, because agony opened up what lies beyond the limits of language: visionary states of mind she would not otherwise have comprehended and which became prime material for poems. We might guess that during the four years when she produced so much of her greatest work, her sickness was at its height. In later years it was less active, as was her poetic output. By her fifties, the ‘Torrid Noons’ [dates from 1884] of her early thirties had ‘lain there Missles by — .’

This explanation differs from Farr’s view that it was the putting to bed of the pain of her two unfulfilled romantic attachments, one to Sue, her sister-in-law, and the other to the Master, that led to the decline in her creativity. It also discounts the correlation we will be discussing between her peak creativity and the American Civil War described in A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson. However, the three possible explanations may be complementary rather than contradictory. All the factors could well have played a part.

Gordon has one more card up her sleeve. This relates to Dickinson’s well-documented supposed eye problem for which she went for treatment in 1864 and 1865. Gordon plausibly questions (page 127) whether her eye treatment alone could ‘necessitate such prolonged stays in Boston, when the distance from Amherst was not so great as to prevent her father is coming and going? Commonsense suggests a major disability, and a concerted attempt at a cure.’

Gordon finds plausible evidence for supposing this treatment might have ended her most creative period (page 130). Her lack of progress was attributed to her own lack of motivation and cooperation. ‘In the end Dr Williams’s cure was so ineffectual that he fell back on a standard defence: blame the victim,’ and ‘further subscribed to the current medical view that too much thinking could damage a woman.’ He forbad her to read! ‘His prohibitions put an end to the booklets,’ those mini-compilations of her poems, , knows as fascicles,that she stitched together. ‘She never resumed this alternative to publication, and though she did continue to write poems, the great surge of the early 1860s came to an end.’

She goes on to adduce evidence for their being two other members of the Dickinson family with epilepsy (page 132-138). As epilepsy has a ‘genetic component’ this perhaps strengthens her case.

I have come away persuaded that Gordon is right to raise the possibility of epilepsy, though conclusive proof will probably remain indefinitely elusive. Some are already hotly contesting the theory. For example, Hirschhorn et al. in Perspect Biol Med.(2013) consider they have refuted Gordon’s claims on ‘scientific, clinical, and biographical grounds.’ Time will tell.

Another Isolating Factor

Either way, the theory does not diminish the relevance of patriarchy, thwarted romance and the Civil War as other factors contributing to Dickinson’s power as a poet and her pain as an isolated human being. Rather it may enrich our understanding both of the possible source of the spiritually loaded poems, given, for example, the possibility of quasi-mystical states being induced by an epileptic fit, and of those particular poems that might have inspired directly by her more disturbing experiences of the fits themselves. I think this is one of those cases where biographical details can remove rather than create a veil between the reader and a full understanding of a poem.

There is one other possible factor contributing to her isolation and her suffering which needs to be added in here: her relationship with her father. Pollak and Moore draw into their account of her life some quotations from her letters, which, even allowing for her obvious ironic exaggeration at times, have potentially disturbing implications. For example (page 28):

Fathers (sic) real life and mine sometimes come into collision, but as yet, escape unhurt!

And more unsettling still (page 29):

[A]fter tea I went to see Sue – had a nice little visit with her – then went to see Emily Fowler, and arrived home at 9 – found Father in great agitation at my protracted stay – and mother and Vinny [her sister] in tears, for fear that he would kill me.

In the end, in terms of the basic tenor of this sequence of posts, notwithstanding the likely contribution made to her isolation and pain by patriarchy, cultural and personal, and by a possible anxiety problem, for me the epilepsy theory added a layer of richness to my understanding of her poetry. I’ll quote one poem that illustrates this to finish this post with, and before we move on next time to one last candidate waiting in the queue to explain her Everest of productivity in the Civil War years.

I have already referred to this poem once in this sequence. It is a favourite of mine. As a brilliant rendering of her inscape it is hard to match, so whatever facilitated the isolation that fostered it and which she shared with other writers – a repressive environment for women, agoraphobia, epilepsy, thwarted passion or war – the pain of it all engendered many poems like this. At times she celebrated that.

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 –

And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space – began to toll,

As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race,
Wrecked, solitary, here –

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing – then –

Mew Selected Poetry & Prose

We are what we are: when I was half a child I could not sit

Watching black shadows on green lawns and red carnations burning in the sun,

Without paying so heavily for it

That joy and pain, like any mother and her unborn child were almost one.

(From Madeleine in Church)

The critical consensus seems to be that by far the most significant body of her work is to be found in her use of the dramatic monologue. Even though that is probably true, I am still going to deal with her approach to nature first, partly because one of her poems about trees was the first of hers to make such a deep impression on me and also because the reason for its special attraction and power was so obvious to me. For that reason this poem will be the main focus of this post.

I have already referred in a previous post to her conviction (Copus – Page 331) that ‘– in the natural world at least – after death comes renewal.’ Death also comes strongly into the picture in another way. The nature poem of hers that impacts on me the most powerfully, and it may be one of her greatest poems, is The Trees Are Down.

There are two main sets of reasons why this resonates so strongly. One relates to the two poems by other poets that have haunted my imagination since I read them. The other relates to the value I place on trees and my experience of a loss in that context.

Mew This Rare SpiritFirst the tradition

I was probably still at primary school when I read the first poem on this theme. That’s what the memory feels like anyway. In the front room of our family home there was a tall book case with glass doors on its upper section. Amongst many other books, mostly novels of the Rider Haggard variety, there were two books of poems: Lyra Heroica and Palgrave’s Golden Treasury. I wasn’t particularly interested in boys on burning decks or Horatios at bridges – I think tales about my father and the First World War had well and truly scuppered Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori for me even by that stage (see my poem Unfinished Business later this week for my own take) – so the Golden Treasury tended to win every time. I still remember the sight and feel of the dull red and slightly roughened cover as I strained to slide it off its high shelf. The poem that concerns us now was CXLIII – The Poplar Field by William Cowper. (OK – so I checked the number on Google – my memory’s not that good). That he had serious mental health problems and attempted suicide three times was not known to me then, but whether the poem’s underlying melancholy resonated in some way with the background of grief in our home I can’t say for sure.

Anyway, this is the poem in full:

The Poplar Field

The lilting music of his lyric’s form is perhaps too cosy for the liking of a modern ear, but the strong sense of our mortality triggered by his remembered connection with the trees still gives the poem power, I think, to move us.

Much later – how much later I’m not quite sure, but almost certainly before I left secondary school  – came my encounter with a second poem of even greater power. Even though I cannot remember when I first read it, I’m sure that I knew of the poet while I was still at school. My mother was a devout Roman Catholic and knew of him as a Jesuit priest, so I’m sure I scouted the library fairly early for a copy of his poems. My own copy of Poems of Gerald Manley Hopkins was bought in 1963, when I was studying English Literature at university.

We’re dealing with poplars again, though in a more demanding style – it’s also more freely flowing, a sign of things to come with Mew.

Binsey Poplars

Hopkins conveys his sadness, discomfort and frustration as well as the beauty in his freer form. He also had his battles with depression, which he described in one poem as ‘[p]itched past pitch of grief.’ Even now, after all these years of knowing this poem, my heart hurts as I read it. That’s partly because I also experienced the loss of a dearly loved tree, an experience that hurts me still, along with other losses, but also because of the prescience of some of its most powerful lines, such as ‘O if we but knew what we do/When we delve or hew —/Hack and rack the growing green!’

I will be re-publishing two poems, one Oak in Winter and the other On the Death of Trees, as this sequence moves towards it end, just as a way of indicating how much this theme matters to me and possibly why. Some time back the so-called ‘light’ pollarding of the long line of lime trees down a road near our house disturbed me greatly, even after the workmen explained it would not seriously harm the trees: how much worse I would have felt if they had cut them completely down I can only imagine. The trees have recovered up to a point but I miss the thick branches stretching across the footpath and over the road. Running parallel on the grass is a line of poplars, still intact, thank goodness, apart from one storm casualty that crashed down on a neighbouring fence. No one was harmed.

Avenue of Limes

The Trees Are Down

Now, though it’s time to look at the poem Mew wrote that got me hooked, and I didn’t just have to imagine how it felt anymore (the exceptionally long lines dictated the use of a smaller font – a problem type-setters found it hard to solve in her lifetime without using strange page sizes).

The Trees Are Down 1

The Trees Are Down 2

Not poplars this time but plane trees, of which there were, and still are, many in London. They were planted in numbers at a time when their ability to shed their bark meant that the dark discoloration from the soot-laden atmosphere of the coal-burning city would be conveniently discarded and replaced so their beauty was never compromised for long.

The poem deals with (Copus – page 330)

. . . . a topic about which she had already written in prose form – the felling of trees to make way for new buildings – and once again, it has been occasioned by a recent memory. In the green, open-space of Endsleigh Gardens, very near the Gordon Street house, a number of mature London planes had been cut down in preparation for a large building that would serve as the new headquarters for the Quaker movement.:

The poem, I hope, speaks powerfully for itself.

I just want to focus on the particularly moving final lines. I am strongly attracted to her capacity for deep empathy, rooted I believe in her early experiences of death and her lifelong acquaintance with serious mental health problems in her family. Those lines capture a beautiful example.

This is not that tired old trope of the pathetic fallacy, where the poet, usually a man, projects their feelings onto the landscape. That’s always seemed more than a touch narcissistic to me. This is something different. Yes, she is intensely sad to see the trees killed. The ‘grate of the saw’ wounded her as much as the growling sound of our modern tree-felling machines offends me now. What she is doing though is projecting herself into the trees as they lie dying.

She is doing for trees essentially the same thing as Shakespeare did for the beetle when he wrote:[1]

And the poor beetle, that we tread upon,

In corporal sufferance finds a pang as great

As when a giant dies.

Or the snail ‘whose tender horns being hit,/Shrinks backward in his shelly cave with pain.’[2] However, it’s not pain that Mew attributes to the trees but connectedness.

And I do not experience this as a sentimental projection. All the evidence that has accrued over recent decades demonstrates that trees are tuned into their surroundings with a sensitivity that was previously discounted, even unimaginable perhaps except by poets like Mew. To imagine them hearing, even when they are cut off from the soil and dying, for me is a metaphoric representation of this sensitivity. If this seems improbable to you I can only suggest that you immerse yourself in Richard Powers’ The Overstorey, if novels are your thing, or Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard, if you prefer a more straightforwardly scientific approach.

The elastic nature of her lines, and the freedom with which she exploits it, adds to the power of the poem. Even the longest lines rhyme with far shorter ones so the music is never lost. And she does not resort to what I experience as the gratuitous obscurity of much modern poetry, which is not to say that everything she writes is crystal clear as we will see when I move on next time to her dramatic monologues. But I feel her poems are obscure only when the experience she is trying to convey is hard to decode, but she doesn’t write as though all life is ferociously encrypted.

There will be more on Mew in September. This is for two reasons. As always the footfall on my blog drops in August, and seems to have done so slightly earlier this year. As I want to share with as many people as possible the power of Mew’s poetry, it seems best to delay the rest of this sequence till the footfall picks up again. Also, though, I think I need more time to reflect if I am to do her poems justice.

Anyway, next time I’ll take a look at how her empathy empowers her poems about people rather than trees.

Mew Diagram


[1]. Measure for Measure – Act III, Scene 1, lines 84-86.

[2]. Venus and Adonis – line 1033-34.

In the wake of the next post on Charlotte Mew  I thought it appropriate to republish this poem. Because my father fought in the first world war, even though he never spoke of his experience its shadow hung over my childhood, mostly through my mother’s anxious ruminations about its impact on her life. The book I remember discovering as a child was a collection of black and white photographs of the ‘Great War.’

Unfinished Business

For source of image see link

The only authenticated portrait of Emily Dickinson later than childhood. (For source of image see link)

[I]n turning inward, Dickinson gained unique insights into the human psyche.

(Pollak and Noble in A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson,page 45)

Given my current sequence on Charlotte Mew it seems a good idea to republish this one on Emily Dickinson. As Fiona Sampson indicates in Two-Way Mirror, there is a strong link between them: ‘Among the many women readers Aurora Leigh will influence around the world and who subsequently become poets [are] Charlotte Mew… and Emily Dickinson.

The Passion of Emily Dickinson 

As I indicated at the end of the last post, I am looking at another book this time. Unlike Gilbert and Gubar, with their focus on patriarchy in The Mad Woman in the Attic, Judith Farr, in her book The Passion of Emily Dickinson,spends most of her time in the first two thirds of her book unpicking delicate strands of evidence to help us guestimate to whom some of Emily Dickinson’s poems were addressed.

Though fascinating from a biographical point of view, whether Emily Dickinson was writing a poem to Sue or to the Master doesn’t really matter to most of us as aficionados of her work. For us, what counts is to be able to allow the poem to impact as strongly as possible on our consciousness through the lens of our current understanding. Admittedly sometimes biographical details can shed light upon the meaning of poem: but all too often they constitute a veil between it and us. A great poem almost always transcends even the writer’s conscious intentions and understanding. That’s what makes it great. If anyone can capture all its meaning in words it might as well have been written in prose.

For these reasons, I am skipping over the whole of the first part of her book and homing in on where I feel most at home, with what Farr has to say about Emily Dickinson as poet of the interior in relation to time, nature and eternity.

The beginning of this exploration comes at page 247 when Farr writes:

She did have a poetic ‘project,’ and throughout her oeuvre it is perceptible. This was to depict ‘Eternity in Time.’

She continues (pages 247-48):

[H]er feelings result in a radiant conception of immortal life. . . . There is nothing morbid about this dream vision. … It is love, and the painful longing issuing from it, that gave Dickinson her vision of eternity. . . If Dickinson’s poetic productivity largely ceased after 1868, the reason had to do with the assimilation of her two great passions for Sue and for Master.

I will come on later in more details as to why I think this is yet another over-simplification of why she may have fallen away from her peak after the mid-1860s.[1]I’m not denying though that love and loss were part of the grit that helped form the pearls of her poetry. I concur with Farr when she writes (page 251):

[S]he had to grieve before she could continue to develop (and the grief was itself a means of developing).

Pollak refers (page 6) to ‘Dickinson’s incremental knowledge of the house of pain.’

Her love of poetry and her perception of its links with love, as we have already noted contrasted with her loathing of domestic chores (page 255):

Her prevailing conception of love inspiring art enables Dickinson to write her final sentences. There eternity is felt in time, and its sea is linked to her work.… Her vision was of the next world next to her as she did her housework, all that baking, canning, cleaning, and sewing so balefully recorded in her letters.

Nature was crucial to her, as it had been to the Brontës and to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, because for her (page 294) ‘nature offers clues about infinity.’ This was even to the extent that (page 302):

The horizon was a point of order for landscape painters like Church. For poets like Dickinson, it was the point of fusion of this world and the next.

Which finally brings me to two specific poems.

This is the first, an intensely powerful poem of sacrificial separation.

There came a Day at Summer’s full,
Entirely for me—
I thought that such were for the Saints,
Where Resurrections—be—

The Sun, as common, went abroad,
The flowers, accustomed, blew,
As if no soul the solstice passed
That maketh all things new

The time was scarce profaned, by speech—
The symbol of a word
Was needless, as at Sacrament,
The Wardrobe—of our Lord—

Each was to each The Sealed Church,
Permitted to commune this—time—
Lest we too awkward show
At Supper of the Lamb.

The Hours slid fast—as Hours will,
Clutched tight, by greedy hands—
So faces on two Decks, look back,
Bound to opposing lands—

And so when all the time had leaked,
Without external sound
Each bound the Other’s Crucifix—
We gave no other Bond—

Sufficient troth, that we shall rise—
Deposed—at length, the Grave—
To that new Marriage,
Justified—through Calvaries of Love—

Farr writes (pages 305-06) that, while being on the one hand plighting ‘troth on earth,’ it also records a quasi-religious ‘ceremony or compact of renunciation.’ She summarises it by saying:

This may have looked like an ‘accustomed’ sunny day when her flowers bloomed as usual, but it has marked her own movement from spring to summer: from girlhood to womanhood, from the old life to the sacred new one.

Nature is here contrasted with the spiritual by its ignorance of the day’s significance, its beauty notwithstanding. While her hope for her love’s fulfillment in the afterlife is its main theme, there is the implication that this separation is at least part of the crucible for her future poetry.

Before moving onto the next poem I want to quote in full, I need to refer briefly to two others: ‘I cannot live without You’ and ‘Behind Me – dips Eternity.’ As Farr explains (page 308) the first poem is important because it is describing ‘the surrender of a love that is morally forbidden.’ This is one of the sources of the grief referred to earlier. The second is important for present purposes because the opening stanza captures vividly her fusion of nature and eternity:

Behind Me– dips Eternity –
Before Me – Immortality –
Myself – the Term between –
Death but the Drift of Eastern Gray,
Dissolving into Dawn away,
Before the West begin –

Farr goes into much detail about how the Luminist paintings of Frederick Edwin Church and Thomas Cole, with which Emily Dickinson was deeply familiar, play on these tropes. I will shortly be coming onto how nature and women were similarly seen, and in my view still continue to be seen, as objects of exploitation during this period and beyond.

It’s probably also worth including here Eberwein’s view, expressed in A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson (page 79), that ‘For Emily Dickinson, then, the essence of religious experience remained in that haunting question, “Is immortality true?”’

Capturing the Inscape

I now need to illustrate the other powerful capacity her poems have: to capture inner states. It will also serve as a useful pointer towards the next book I’ll be considering: Lives like Loaded Guns.

A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things gives a powerful account, similar to the one in John Fitzgerald Medina’s Faith, Physics & Psychology, of the so-called Enlightenment’s rapacious attitude to nature, expressed all too often in sexual terms. Patel and Moore write (page 53):

The second law of capitalist ecology, domination over nature, owed much to Francis Bacon (1561–1626)… He argued that “science should as it were torture nature’s secrets out of her.’ Further, the ‘empire of man’ should penetrate and dominate the “womb of nature.“

For them, ‘The binaries of Man and Woman, Nature and Society, drank from the same cup.’ I think their meaning would have been more faithfully represented if they had written ‘Society and Nature’ in that order. Even so their point is reasonably clear.

They share Medina’s distrust for our Cartesian legacy (page 54):

[H]ere was an intellectual movement that shaped not only ways of thinking but also ways of conquering, commodifying and living. This Cartesian revolution accomplished four major transformations, each shaping our view of Nature and Society to this day. First, either–or binary thinking displaced both–and alternatives. Second, it privileged thinking about substances, things, before thinking about the relationships between those substances. Third, it installed the domination of nature through science as a social good.

Finally, the Cartesian revolution made thinkable, and doable, the colonial project of mapping and domination.

This maps onto McGilchrist’s thinking about left-brain and right-brain differences and how the holistic, intuitive and empathic processes of our minds, which were in the past sometimes dismissively referred to as ‘feminine,’ and which tune into the ambiguous subtlety of reality, have been misguidedly subordinated to those arrogantly over-confident, logical, serial and linguistic processes, which hopelessly oversimplify reality and are sometimes complacently referred to as ‘masculine.’

I agree that Emily Dickinson, though she ultimately transcended them, was shaped by these crude ideological forces within a capitalist nonegalitarian culture that sees nature and humanity (women and ‘natives’ particularly) instrumentally, as things to be exploited for some kind of purely material advantage, rather than as beings to be valued for their own sake and nurtured with love and respect. As the Universal House of Justice has pointed out in The Promise of World Peace, capitalism is as flawed as communism, because both are equally materialistic ideologies:

The time has come when those who preach the dogmas of materialism, whether of the east or the west, whether of capitalism or socialism, must give account of the moral stewardship they have presumed to exercise.

That Dickinson was able to retreat from these repressive pressures into Vesuvial creativity is both a blessing to her, that helped compensate for her pain, and a gift to us now as we confront our generation’s variants of a toxic culture. She can inspire us to also strive to turn our pain in the face of abuses into creativity.

Her social isolation, a characteristic that fascinates me as my Solitarios sequence testifies, may have brought at least one other crucial benefit, beyond giving her creativity space to flourish in a general sense. It may have made her more sensitively attuned to her inscape than most of us will ever be.

I heard a Fly buzz– when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –

The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –

I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –

With Blue – uncertain – stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –

Not only is this one of my favourite Emily Dickinson poems, but it is a significant one as we begin to transition to Lives like Loaded Guns. Farr pins down its crucial characteristic (page 310): ‘In such poems Emily Dickinson investigates the nature of consciousness by analysing its recession.’ As many people know it’s not the only one. Most famously there is also ‘I felt a funeral in my brain.’ More of that later.

Why she should be so interested in recessions of consciousness, Farr does not explain except in terms of her interest in death. She apparently called her poems (page 328) ‘bulletins from immortality.’

In the next post we will begin to close in on where all these ideas are leading.


[1]. Between 1861, the year the American Civil War started, and 1865, the year it ended, she wrote something in the region of 936 of her 1789 poems, ie 52%. She was writing at an approximate rate of 187 poems per year. After the war was over, her average rate was 32 poems per year. That may not, though, have been the only factor.

Mew This Rare Spirit

Then safe, safe are we? in the shelter of His everlasting wings—

I do not envy Him his victories, His arms are full of broken things.

(From Madeleine in Church)

In the previous post, after explaining how Julia Copus’ excellent biography of Charlotte Mew had opened my eyes to the power of a poet I had never heard of before, I tried to convey how death played a huge part in Mew’s life. Now I intend to look more closely at the meaning of death for Mew and its impact on her poetry, before moving on to at least beginning to consider the equally important issue of mental health.

Death and her Poetry

Copus points out that Mew[1] ‘would return to the staircase image over and over in her poems.’ It would often ‘denote a walkway to a longed-for silence; a hint, perhaps, at the respite that death might provide.’ In one of my favourite poems, Not for that City, for example, she writes:

. . . if for anything we greatly long,

It is for some remote and quiet stair

Which winds to silence and a space of sleep.

The image of the stair conveys also to me at least a sense of rising above the world.

Mew also toys with the question of whether consciousness survives death, and if so, in what way. The poem Requiescat[2]‘finishes by wondering whether the deceased might also… remember, in his or her turn, the things of the world; could it be that consciousness remains alive in the world, after the body has left?’ The closing stanza captures this vividly:

Beyond the line of naked trees

At the road’s end, your stretch of blue –

Strange if you should remember these

As we, ah! God! remember you!

There is, I feel, even more doubt about that possibility in Charlotte’s mind, than Copus’ wording suggests.

Mew Selected Poetry & ProseTo someone who came to believe in survival after death after two decades of dogmatic disbelief, I don’t agree with Copus’ sense that what she calls Mew’s ‘central premise’ in the poem is strange. What’s so odd about entertaining the idea that:[3]‘consciousness might continue its daily existence after death, might remember physical experience – and even go on engaging in some way with the earth’s seasonal rhythms’? A sense of this appears in other poems as well. In Here Lies a Prisoner Mew describes the dead man as ‘listening still to the magpie chatter/Over his grave.’ There are though moments when the opposite seems to be implied as in the last line of The Quiet House: ‘I do not care; some day I shall not think; I shall not be!’ Mew’s article on Emily Brontë conveys a similar perspective:[4] ‘[Death] was not a problem, because it was the end problems.’

According to Copus, Mew does repeat[5] the ‘conviction’ that ‘in the natural world at least – after death comes renewal.’  More of that when I look at the nature poems.

In the end, Copus is clear in her own mind that Mew holds onto something almost the opposite of a force for life as not just a destination but a welcome escape:[6] In ‘Moorland Night’ the Thing that is found . . . is the final, blissful cessation of all life’s human concerns, a melting away of boundaries, a yielding to the larger cycle of life.’ Our sense of a separate identity melts back into this cycle like drops of rain blend into a stream. For her, Copus feels[7]  ‘the only thing that mattered was the here and now.’ There is no gateway to an afterlife.

I am not sure I quite buy into something as simplistic. There are powerful lines that complicate the picture. For example, these from The Call:

                The world is cold without

And dark and hedged about

With mystery and enmity and doubt,

But we must go

Though yet we do not know

Who called, or what marks we shall leave upon the snow.

There are certainly strong reasons for believing that, for Mew, what she most values is transient. In Moorland Night she calls this ‘the Thing,’ which she doesn’t define but explains ‘Perhaps the earth will hold it, or the wind, or that bird’s cry,/But it is not for long in any life I know.’

Penelope Fitzgerald[8] feels that Mew’s take on death is similar to that of Alfred Noyes’s who ‘finds he is beginning to doubt doubt and disbelieve in disbelief.’

Whatever her beliefs about an afterlife or some kind of continuing consciousness, there is no doubt that Mew’s familiarity with the pain of loss often crept into her poems. Take To a Child in Death as an example, written 30 years after two deaths in 1897. As Penelope Fitzgerald describes it in her biography,[9] Mew poses a ‘wretched question from the suddenly left alone – “What shall we do with this strange summer, meant for you?”’ She spoke of her childhood as ‘a time of intense, but lost, happiness.’

Mental Health:

Death was not the only source of distress and loss in her life. As she saw it, her family was tainted with the stigma of mental illness, something which impacted on her life in more ways than one.

Her brother, Henry[10] ‘was experiencing full blown delusions’ by June 1884. He was admitted[11]  to ‘London’s most notorious asylum,’ the New Bethlem Hospital on 14 June that same year. Copus is clear that Charlotte would have seen herself as also tainted with the same genetic flaw. The diagnosis he was given[12] was of ‘acute mania with excitement and impulsiveness’.

In those days a family such as hers would have not wished this to be known to anyone else. Charlotte would have gone to great lengths to keep it quiet. There is no reference to him[13] ‘in any of her surviving letters,’ though ‘his presence haunts her poetry.’ She was also plagued by ‘the fear that the same thing might happen to her and to her sisters.’ Copus[14] describes her as ‘standing sentinel to a secret that was not to be carried outside its walls at any cost.’

Fitzgerald Mew biographyThere were other costs to the family. Instead of generating income[15] Henry ‘had become a steady drain on the family coffers.’ Copus is clear that[16] the family ‘were resentful of the amount of money’ their father spent on Henry’s care, ‘or became so as the years passed.’ After he died, they took steps[17] to arrange for Henry to be ‘discharged “uncured” from Holloway Sanatorium and transferred to Peckham House Lunatic Asylum, which took in both paupers and private patients, for whom the institution advertised ‘moderate terms’.” Instead of sending their sister, Freda,[18] ‘back to London, arrangements were made for her admission to a local nursing home called The Limes, on the High Street in nearby Newport [Isle of Wight].’ After a suicide attempt in January 1899,[19] Freda ‘was admitted to the private wing of the nearby county asylum, Whitecroft Hospital.’ Freda[20] ‘never did recover her sanity’ and she remained ‘in the asylum for the rest of her long life.’

Sadly,[21] on 22 March 1901, ‘just three and a half years after entering Peckham House Lunatic Asylum, Henry Herne Mew died there, of tuberculosis.’ It is likely that Charlotte, in particular, may have felt guilty ‘over the fact that Henry had caught the infection since his move to Peckham House, which took in paupers alongside private patients.’

An additional emotionally damaging cost in the longer term was Charlotte’s, and her sister Anne’s resolve[22] ‘that the door of marriage should be closed to them: given the severity of Henry’s illness, they believed it would be irresponsible to bring children of their own into the world.’ They feared ‘passing on the mental taint that was in their heredity.’

Fitzgerald clarifies exactly why this was:[23]

As ill-fortune would have it, the breakdown first of Henry, and then of Freda, coincided with the years when the science or apparent science of eugenics first took the field… Eugenics… [set] out to show that transmission of this inheritance led to the gradual degeneration of the whole society.… if any member of your family was different, no matter in what way, you were morally bound not to reproduce.

This seems a good place to pause and, using a diagram, give some pointers to where the sequence will be going from here.

As I see it, the impact of deaths and mental health problems in the family combined to give Charlotte a high degree of empathy, particularly with those on the edges of society – outsiders and misfits – with whom she strongly identified. Her empathy clearly extended to nature, though the reasons for that are less clear.

The results are on the one hand to create poems, written in the form of a dramatic monologue, giving powerful voice to those who are all too often ignored, and on the other moving testimony to her strong identification with aspects of the natural world, even to the extent of capturing, at times, what she conveys as a kind of consciousness.

More of that next time.

Mew Diagram


[1]. Page 151.

[2]. Copus – page 179.

[3]. Page 180.

[4]. Fitzgerald – page 94.

[5]. Copus – page 331.

[6]. Page 354.

[7]. Page 376.

[8]. Fitzgerald – page 100.

[9]. Page 10.

[10]. Copus – page 60.

[11]. Page 62.

[12]. Page 63.

[13]. Page 65.

[14]. Page 68.

[15]. Page 80.

[16]. Page 124.

[17]. Page 128.

[18]. Page 129.

[19]. Page 130.

[20]. Page 132.

[21]. Page 136.

[22]. Page 83.

[23]. Fitzgerald – page  41.