So did she or didn’t she and do we care? Travis Nichols is right to question the misguided investment made in how a poet goes about things and what they were wearing at the time, although there is sometimes something to be gained from putting the books down and going there.
I lived in Amherst for five months and failed (quite unconsciously) to visit the Dickinson home. I sat in an apartment belonging to the college founded by her grandfather, and read her poems and letters instead. It helped to be there under her sky (what could be seen of it through all those trees) and to get a sense of life in the kind of place you felt yourself entering or leaving, but I had no curiosity about her chairs and tables, let alone what action might have been seen by her sofa.
Some years later, I went back to make a radio programme about her and so had to get over myself and go inside.

The replica portraits and furniture, the stagings of Dickinson family life, left me cold, but the physics did say something about her metaphysics. Her room surprised me. It is more lighthouse than attic – spacious and with large windows from which she could have seen everything going on in the centre of town.
It seems to me that in several ways she made the most she could of the space available, and that one of the things she depended on from space was containment. If you follow Don Share’s link to Dickinson’s snood, you can see just above it a sampler she sewed as a child. With each line, she runs out of room, bringing to mind something she said in a letter to Higginson: ‘When I try to organise, my little force explodes.’ She has to squeeze words in above and to the side, like the variants in her manuscripts. She neither measured the space nor unstitched and corrected her work (and as the Houghton curator, Betsy Falsey, pointed out to me, no one made her: perhaps her first reason not to leave home).
Dickinson wrote on whatever came to hand and left her poems in roughly sewn bundles. It was in her town, however, that I first encountered the notebook as fetish object. Does anyone really believe that if they write on pages containing gold thread or pressed leaves, their words will emerge all golden and pressed? You need to be able to make a mess of a page and how can you do that when the page is so pretty and so expensive? And why bother with notebooks when all you really need to do is lock your door, pour a glass of sherry, part your hair dead centre and climb into a white dress? And a snood. I was forgetting the snood.

Originally Published: October 19th, 2008

Lavinia Greenlaw has published three books of poems, most recently Minsk. Her two novels are Mary George of Allnorthover and An Irresponsible Age and she has also published a memoir, The Importance of Music to Girls. Her work for BBC radio includes programs about the Arctic, the Baltic, the solstices...

  1. October 25, 2008
     Mary Meriam

    I've been reading this poem. Would anyone like to discuss it? I've been wondering who "You" is. Should I not wonder? The last stanza makes me think "You" had to be Sue. "For You - served Heaven - You know," makes me think "You" might be Rev. Wadsworth. Is "You" an amalgam that represents marriage? I feel this poem is one of ED's greatest.
    I cannot live with You -
    It would be Life -
    And Life is over there -
    Behind the Shelf
    The Sexton keeps the Key to -
    Putting up
    Our Life - His Porcelain -
    Like a Cup -
    Discarded of the Housewife -
    Quaint - or Broke -
    A newer Sevres pleases -
    Old Ones crack -
    I could not die - with You -
    For One must wait
    To shut the Other's Gaze down -
    You - could not -
    And I - Could I stand by
    And see You - freeze -
    Without my Right of Frost -
    Death's privilege?
    Nor could I rise - with You -
    Because Your Face
    Would put out Jesus' -
    That New Grace
    Glow plain - and foreign
    On my homesick Eye -
    Except that You than He
    Shone closer by -
    They'd judge Us - How -
    For You - served Heaven - You know,
    Or sought to -
    I could not -
    Because You saturated Sight --
    And I had no more Eyes
    For sordid excellence
    As Paradise
    And were You lost, I would be -
    Though My Name
    Rang loudest
    On the Heavenly fame -
    And were You - saved -
    And I - condemned to be
    Where You were not -
    That self - were Hell to Me -
    So We must meet apart -
    You there - I - here -
    With just the Door ajar
    That Oceans are - and Prayer -
    And that White Sustenance -
    Despair -
    - Emily Dickinson