Emily Dickinson’s Muse: Human? Divine? Or both?

Emily Dickinson’s Muse: Human? Divine? Or both?

I have been intrigued by the sources of inspiration of our great poets (Dante’s Beatrice, for instance) and how their muses have been interpreted—and often distorted— by various accounts of historians who have their own agendas. The Emily Dickinson who has come down to us appears more as a nun than a woman, who must have written all of her great poems in solitude at her father’s home, unfiltered and untainted by human love.

I personally hold that the divine can be directly experienced through the human form as well as without it. What do you think?
What do you believe? What have you experienced?

The following was written by a Dickenson scholar, Christopher Benfey.

About Christopher Benfey:
He is an American literary critic and Emily Dickinson scholar. He is the Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke College.

“Emily Dickinson’s Secret Lover!
Why the big news is being ignored.”
By Christopher Benfey
Posted in The Slate, Thursday, Oct. 9, 2008

(An excerpt from Christopher Benfey’s post)

“. . . Genevieve Taggard . . . best known for her Depression-era populist verse, published a vividly written biography of Emily Dickinson in 1930 after teaching for a year at Mount Holyoke, Dickinson’s alma mater. Taggard discovered what she called the “purloined valentine,” sent by Dickinson in 1850, inviting a mysterious someone to “meet me at sunrise, or sunset, or the new moon.” Subsequent scholars have assumed [George] Gould was a likely recipient but left it at that. Taggard, however, built her narrative around the youthful love affair of Emily and George, blaming the breakup of the engagement on Dickinson’s father but ascribing a different motive, one more in line with her proto-feminist approach . . .

It’s startling to go back to Taggard’s nearly forgotten and rarely read book and find how much evidence she tracked down for her tale of star-crossed lovers. She quotes several sources, including a friend of Lavinia’s, all of whom requested anonymity but confirmed the basic details of the affair. So, why wasn’t her story believed?

Once again, it was the popular image of shade-seeking Dickinson holed up in her father’s house that prevailed. As [Carol Damon] Andrews argues, there was a concerted effort to suppress Taggard’s findings, led by Susan Dickinson’s daughter, Martha, and Amherst College professor and biographer George F. Whicher, who announced that he intended “to terminate the persistent search for Emily’s unknown love.” Whicher attacked Taggard’s book as “untrustworthy” and suggested that its plotline was derived from the “stale formula of Hollywood romance and Greenwich Village psychology”—a sly dig at Taggard’s bohemian and socialist convictions . . .

. . . It turns out that Emily Dickinson had the kind of early romantic entanglement and disappointment that so many young people have. They find someone congenial; they exchange gifts and promises; their parents intervene for various acknowledged and unacknowledged reasons. If such ordinariness seems somehow beneath the dignity of one of our supreme poets, that’s probably why even this latest challenge to the image of isolated Emily has gotten so little attention. Alas, there’s nothing mysterious or mystical here except what Emily Dickinson made, in her extraordinary poems, of her all-too-human disappointment.”

Selected Poems

You constituted Time
I deemed Eternity
A Revelation of Yourself
‘Twas therefore Deity
The Absolute removed
The Relative away
That I unto Himself adjust
My slow idolatry.

‘Twas my one Glory
Let it be
I was owned of Thee.

Featured Image:

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)
from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson.
Edited by Thomas H. Johnson
Emily Dickenson ~ Oil on Canvas
artist: Marjolein Vandersluis

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1 Comment
  • Joyce Falcon
    Posted at 14:37h, 01 September Reply

    i’ve always been inspired by Emily Dickinson and the simplicity of her life. With every reading of either one her poems or about her lifestyle, I was always fascinated of how someone who was portrayed as so isolated could have accomplished so much in her lifetime. I don’t think there is anything earth shattering if she did have an affair. It is just another example of how ordinary she was. Her persona has been confirmation for me over the years that I don’t have to perform extraordinary tasks in life to feel a sense of fulfillment. What I do in life is enough as long as I am feeling the joy of that moment and feeling good within myself. I think Emily Dickinson met her divine spirit in the comfort of her solitude, not really knowing how much she would touch the lives of others and how her words would live on through the ages of time.

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