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Shelf life: Sarah Hampson on reading the poetry of Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson is shown in this undated portrait courtesy of the Amherst College Library.


Is there a book you return to again and again, a work that would make life on a desert island bearable? Each weekend, between Canada Day and Labour Day, Globe and Mail writers share their go-to tomes – be it novel, poetry collection, cookbook – and why the world is just a little better for them.

Some people I know have favourite movies that they watch when they're sick: a kind of alternative medicine. But for me, that sort of emotional fix comes in other ways. One of them is reading the poetry of Emily Dickinson.

But I don't turn to her just when I'm unwell, having one of those days when my mind or my body can't or doesn't want to function happily in the world. I often take her with me on holidays, no matter the season. Even if I don't carry a copy of some of her poems, I carry certain favourites in my head.

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There's a certain Slant of Light,

Winter Afternoons –

That oppresses, like the Heft

Of Cathedral Tunes –

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us

We can find no scar,

But internal difference,

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Where the Meanings, are -

I first sat down with Emily when I was a student at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., in the late seventies. I was an English literature major, and a friend of mine and I were in a class on 19th-century American literature. As with many people who have favourite writers, I remember the moment of encounter with the words as much as the words themselves. So, when I read the verse, That Love is all there is/ Is all we know of Love/ It is enough, the freight should be/ Proportioned to the groove, I see my brilliant friend, Molly, bent over her manual typewriter in her room under the eaves of a Victorian dormitory, bashing out her analysis of Dickinson's work in her Lanz nightie when I was trying to do the same – and not so brilliantly. I remember sitting on her bed, talking about the freight being proportioned to the groove.

We were young women – 18 perhaps – interested in love, of course, and completely ignorant of it. Love – only the romantic kind got our attention – was a big, swoony phenomenon; obvious and unavoidable as a storm that would knock you over. Or so we thought. But here was Dickinson writing about it in a puzzling, serious way as it if were a scientific or mechanical equation. Freights and grooves? What we know of love is limited to our individual capacity to understand it? We will only have to bear the amount of love we can withstand?

I write that, and I realize that I'm still pondering and appreciating the meaning of those lines, all these years later. And how beautiful is that – to have words travel with you through time, like a patient, loyal friend, waiting for you to catch up, to experience enough of life as a woman, a wife, a mother, a human for you to fully appreciate their wisdom?

That Dickinson lived in Amherst, Mass., down the valley road from Northampton made our student fascination with her all the more acute. She was born in 1830 to Edward Dickinson, an ambitious lawyer who was involved in state and national politics, and Emily (née Norcross) Dickinson, about whom little is known. As a girl, she was full of comic wit and originality, but by 1860, she had largely withdrawn from the world, remaining at the family homestead, with her father, her brother, Austin, who lived next door, and sister, Lavinia, as intellectual companions.

Molly and I would imagine her, a meek-looking and slight woman, sharply reporting all that existential angst and terror and beauty behind closed doors. It suggested something rebellious and cool – exactly what we wanted to be, I think. She didn't succumb to the expectations of being female – never marrying, never being defined by her domestic life. She was meek and fierce; a lesson in how to be. And if you thought, as a young person, that you needed to get out in the world in order to be mature, to be fully living, well, Emily showed us that it was more a matter of examining the depths of your own soul and mind.

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Poet Ted Hughes once wrote of Dickinson that she was "one of the oddest and most intriguing personalities in literary history." And this, too, this desire of many, different people to explain her; deconstruct her, her life, her poetry, also makes her feel perennially present in my bookshelf and in my mind. (Hughes's selected poems of hers, a slim volume first published in 1968, always struck me as creepily intriguing, given that he was the husband of Sylvia Plath, a brilliant poet, Smith student – and later a professor there – who killed herself in 1963, one year after separating from him. Was his attention to Dickinson an expression of regret and guilt over Plath?)

Academics have speculated that Dickinson secretly pined after Rev. Charles Wadsworth, who left for the West Coast after a visit to her in 1860, setting off a flow of heartsick verses. Other possible love interests are thought to be have been Otis P. Lord, a Supreme Court judge, and Samuel Bowles, editor of the Springfield Republican. When she died in 1886, her sister discovered 40 hand-bound volumes of nearly 1,800 poems, tucked away in her drawers. Think of Emily – I waver between thinking of her by her first name, as an intimate, and by her surname, as a prodigious, untouchable writer – sitting in her room, folding and sewing together sheets of stationary paper and copying the latest versions of her poems on the pages. It wasn't until 1890 – four years after her death – that her work was first published.

Reading (and rereading) her poems provokes fresh thoughts about her personality. Emily is a friend you can never get to fully know even though you want to and will keep trying. The ultimate anti-celebrity, she remains largely inscrutable, which in today's world seems like a perfect aspiration. Write beautifully. Leave people guessing about who you really are. That feels like a good motto.

And when you're sitting on a beach or on a wharf looking at "a certain slant of light," feel that "Heavenly Hurt" and say a little prayer of gratitude for the beauty and big, unfathomable love of the world.

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