The best way to pay homage to deceased authors is by reading their work. The second best way is to embark on a literary pilgrimage and situate yourself in the same space where creativity once flowed. I enjoy immersing myself in the world of authors- treading on the sacred ground where their footsteps once tread, establishing instant intimacy with them by stepping into the rooms where they lived, ate, worked and slept and developing inspiration for my own writing. The most humbling realization is that in spite of the fame and success they were ordinary mortals like us caught up in the drudgery of life.
Last month I had the opportunity of visiting Emily Dickinson’s stately home in Amherst, MA. She is a kindred spirit from another era as along with a passion for poetry, I share her interests in baking and gardening and her love of nature. Emily ( Yes, I am on first -name basis with her! ) wrote exquisitely beautiful pithy poems on nature, love, longing, life, death and immortality. Her life was shrouded in mystery as she deliberately sought to be a recluse and hardly left her home. Only a handful of her poems were published during her lifetime. I’m grateful to her sister Lavinia who published the rest of her work comprising of nearly 1800 poems after she left this world. Emily never knew that one day she would be regarded as one of the greatest American poets. Her eccentricities along with the image of a reclusive poet add to her mystique. Although I’m a frequent visitor of her poetic abode, I couldn’t help feeling a little like an unwelcome guest in the home of the poet who lived in self-imposed solitude.
The Emily Dickinson museum comprises 2 historic houses on a 3 acre property in college town Amherst, MA – The Homestead and The Evergreens. The Homestead house where Emily’s grandparents lived was built in 1813. It is the house where she was born and raised in a upper class Calvinist upbringing and it is the same house where she died. She lived there with her parents and her two siblings. The family temporarily moved to Pleasant Street in Amherst where a pedestrian Mobil station now stands and then moved back to the Homestead in 1855 and converted it to the Italianate style in vogue then with a yellow exterior and green shutters and a cupola on the roof. I was shocked to hear that the house was almost razed to the ground after the last inhabitants passed away but thankfully it was eventually bought by Amherst College and restored to its present state.
The house was a very important space as she spent most of her time there. While touring the property, you notice prints of poems scattered throughout the house and the docent herself recited some of them to us. At every step, I was reminded of my own favorite poems that seemed relevant to the moment and experience.
I dwell in possibility- ( 466)
I dwell in Possibility–
A fairer House than Prose–
More numerous of Windows–
Of Chambers as the Cedars–
Impregnable of Eye–
And for an Everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky–
Of Visitors–the fairest–
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise—
Even though she lived sequestered in a house with doors and windows that physically confined her, they were not impenetrable for poetry was her true dwelling which enabled her to give free rein to her limitless imagination and access the expanse of the infinite universe.
The house has been restored to look the way it looked till Dickinson’s death in 1886. Most of the furniture pieces are reproductions with the original pieces owned by Harvard University. The main floor has an exhibit area with a gift shop, a parlor and a study. In the parlor is a replica of the original piano that Emily played and a portrait of
the three Dickinson children. You also see a copy of the only daguerreotype that exists of the poet when she was sixteen years old. On this floor you also see the conservatory attached to the house and built especially for Emily to grow native and exotic plants.
The most exciting rooms are on the second floor. Across from the hall is a little poetry room where we had a discussion about Dickinson’s poems with the tour guide. She was a prolific poet who wrote, on average, a poem a day. She wrote them on scraps of papers, on envelopes, newspaper clippings and in letters to friends. She would make copies on sheets of paper and sew them together into booklets or ‘fascicles’ as they are now called. We saw the reproduction of one of the ‘fascicles’ where she wrote alternate words in the margin if she needed to substitute words or phrases in a poem. Often her poems revealed unusual vocabulary and syntax and unconventional use of punctuation in keeping with her rebellious nature. She is especially known for her daring use of dashes.
Finally we entered the hallowed territory- the poet’s small bedroom which has replicas of her bureau and her writing desk and floral wallpaper similar in design to the room of the nineteenth century. Portraits of George Sand and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, both, authors she undoubtedly admired, grace the walls. Apparently many visitors get emotional in this small and serene room. It was a contemplative and moving experience for me too as I stood within the confines of that tiny space which produced a staggering number of poems. This was a room of her own where along with spending many productive hours, she gazed out to the hills and meadows from her window and on occasion lowered baskets of cookies and sweets to children who waited below.
Outside the bedroom in a glass case is the replica of one of the long white dresses she wore which reveals a very slender frame. The fact that she only wore white dresses once she retreated into her solitude adds to the aura of mystery surrounding her. It’s easy to imagine a white phantom moving stealthily through the house.
Next I proceeded to visit ‘The Evergreens’, the second house on the property built in 1856 for Emily’s brother Austin who married Susan Gilbert, Emily’s best friend. Emily took part in parties and musical soirées at this house ‘a hedge away’ when younger but avoided them later when she cut herself off from society. The comings and goings between the two houses made for some fascinating encounters and anecdotes.
This house is interesting both from an architectural standpoint and a historic perspective. Unlike the house next door, the subsequent owners of the property retained the original features and the furniture. Virtually every piece is intact- oil paintings, curios, books, lithographs, carpets, wallpaper and an adorable cradle. The kitchen has retained pots and pans and other equipment from the nineteenth century including call bells for servants. You feel like you’ve stepped back in time. To me the most charming room is the nursery – there are toys on the floor and clothes on the bed made more poignant by the fact that Austin and Susan Dickinson had lost their eight year old son to typhoid.
Emily was plagued with health issues. She was losing vision and was prone to epileptic fits. She could have suffered from a mood disorder which seems to fit with her outbursts of joyous creativity and her poems that suggest both euphoria and despondency. She never married but her personal life has aroused a lot of curiosity. She wrote letters addressed to an unknown ‘Master’ who people speculate could have been any of the following: George Gould, a close friend, Otis Lord, a prominent judge and a family friend, Samuel Bowles, a local newspaper editor, Rev.Charles Wadsworth or even her sister- in law Sue- her friend, the reader and recipient of her poems and a trusted critic to whom she had written intensely passionate letters. There is no way of knowing for sure if she was a lesbian or bisexual although many of her poems have homoerotic overtones.
I stepped into the garden and was quite disappointed. It was early spring and a few crocuses were blooming here and there. But for a woman who was a botany expert, an avid gardener and a high priestess of nature, the museum could have done a better job preserving it. What a travesty considering the poet burned incense on the altar of nature! She decried organized religion but was immensely spiritual. Nature was her religion as we can see from the parody of the trinitarian formula in this poem:
The Gentian weaves her fringes- ( 47)
The Gentian weaves her fringes-
The maple’s loom is red.
My departing blossoms
A brief, but patient illness,
An hour to prepare;
And one, below this morning,
Is where the angels are.
It was a short procession, —
The bobolink was there,
An aged bee addressed us,
And then we knelt in prayer.
We trust that she was willing, —
We ask that we may be.
Summer, sister, seraph,
Let us go with thee!
In the name of the bee,
And of the butterfly,
And of the breeze, amen!
As I was about to leave the property, I was struck by the realization that it is ironical that a woman who shunned fame and eschewed company is now swarmed with visitors.
I’m nobody! Who are you? ( 260)
I’m nobody! Who are you?Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us — don’t tell!
They’d banish — you know!
How dreary to be somebody!
How public like a frog
To tell one’s name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!
I felt like an intruder invading into this very private woman’s space and thoughts. But then on my way out, I noticed the giant oak tree in her garden which was barely leafing out at the time. I hugged the tree absorbing its vital life force energy with the thought that perhaps Emily had once spread her arms around it too for it is the same oak from her time that still stands tall. I hope by connecting with the natural world so dear to her, I atoned a little for the transgression of trespassing.