Tag Archives: poetry

Emily at 190!

December 10, 2020

There seems to be an Emily Dickinson poem for everything. So on this occasion marking 190 years since her birth, I thought I’d hunt around a bit for something she wrote that would be appropriate. Not surprisingly, there were a few somethings. It wasn’t an easy choice, but I did select something we don’t often read about.

There’s a line from a letter she wrote to her cousins in 1874 that’s often quoted: “We turn not older with years, but newer every day.” What’s not quoted as often is the passage that followed this:

Of all these things we tried to talk, but the time refused us. Longing, it may be, is the gift no other gift supplies. Do you remember what you said the night you came to me? I secure that sentence. If I should see your face no more it will be your portrait, and if I should, more vivid than your mortal face. We must be careful what we say. No bird resumes its egg.

What a prescient statement on the passage of time, on the marking of years! We can’t go back, only forward. We long for what we cannot have, and one of the things we can never retain is time past. No bird resumes its egg.

And then Emily followed these poetic sentences of prose with a poem:

A word left careless on a page

May consecrate an eye,

When folded in perpetual seam

The wrinkled author lie.

Mabel reproduced this letter and this poem in the second volume of her Letters of Emily Dickinson, published in 1894. Of course the poem was “Mabelized,” with words and punctuation altered. Here’s the version that is believed to be more accurately from Emily, as published by Thomas Johnson as Poem 1261:

A Word dropped careless on a Page
May stimulate an eye
When folded in perpetual seam
The Wrinkled Maker lie

Infection in the sentence breeds
We may inhale Despair
At distances of Centuries
From the Malaria —

Whichever version you select, Emily’s always amazing take on time remains.

Happy 190th!

Emily Dickinson at 188, endlessly young and fresh


As I have been giving talks about AFTER EMILY and fielding emails from people who’ve read the book, I find that one of the most asked questions is what might account for the continued fascination we all have with Emily Dickinson. The other related question is why her poems continue to be so compelling to us.

I have to start out this post with a caveat: I’m not an Emily Dickinson scholar, but I am a fan. And I have learned a few things about her life and work in the work I’ve done on Mabel and Millicent’s lives and work.

Why do so many people around the world love Emily’s poetry? I think it has something to do with how fresh it remains, how remarkable her combinations of words are, how her idiosyncratic use of punctuation and capitalization might give us clues about how to read the poems, even, perhaps, where to breathe.

And it has something to do with how nuanced it all is. So many poems take on a small moment in nature – a spider spinning a web, the leaves turning color in the fall – and yet manage to make us think more broadly of how miraculous these small moments are. Her subtle use of metaphor makes us realize the different levels on which she simultaneously wrote.

The unanswered questions about Emily Dickinson’s craft and her life might account for part of our ongoing fascination with her. For all of the hundreds of books and thousands of articles that have been written, there are still so many things we just don’t know. How is it possible that she wrote so many amazing poems during her lifetime and yet so few people had a clue that she did? Which of the many word choices she left behind did she truly intend? How much of her life story can we read into her poetry? Who were the people that inspired her passion? Why did she begin the retreat to her home and her room that characterized the latter years of her life? I think it’s the mystery surrounding so much of Emily’s life and work that partially accounts for why we continue to find her so compelling.

The other thing that has become clear to me in the correspondence I have received is that Emily Dickinson continues to inspire not only intrigue, but also creative expressions born of some kind of connection to her. People have sent me poems that they’ve composed a la Emily. One person sent me a song, and another, a link to music composed meant to go along with “Because I could not stop for death.” At book readings and events I’ve done I have heard from people hard at work on their own Emily Dickinson-related papers, books and projects.

One of my colleagues at Tufts, Madeleine Delpha, sent along some artistic renderings she’d created. She’s kindly allowed me to reproduce them here on my website, so that I can share them with you.

Happy birthday, Emily! You continue to amaze us, mystify us and inspire us, 188 years after you came into this world.

Artwork by Madeleine Delpha