THE REAL HIDDEN SCANDAL OF EMILY DICKINSON'S LIFE
by Marilyn Hacker
It's a great pleasure to be here today and to see so many friendly and familiar and unfamiliar faces and, violet force or lavender menace, here I am. And it's also, I think, a very appropriate way to celebrate the centenary of Emily Dickinson, who would really have appreciated a gathering like this.
Ellen Moore said, when writing about Dickinson, that the real hidden scandal of Emily Dickinson's life was not the romances upon which biographers try vainly to speculate, but her embarrassing ignorance of mainstream American literature of the time, instead of which she read, and reread, every Anglo-American woman writer of her time: Helen Hunt Jackson, Lydia Maria Child, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Lady Georgina Fullerton, Diana Maria Craig, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Rebecca Harding Davis, Francesca Alexander, Matilde Macarnus, and of course everything that George Eliot and Mrs. Browning and every single one of the Bronte sisters wrote. "Mrs. Hunt's poems," Dickinson wrote, in an astonishing letter of 1871, "are stronger than any written by women since Mrs. Browning with the exception of Mrs. Lewes." Who but Emily Dickinson cared so much for rating women poets, or cared to read anything by Helen Hunt Jackson, other than Ramona, or cared for George Eliot's poetry, or took care to call her Mrs. Lewes, as she would have preferred?
Emily Dickinson knew, we now know, every stanza of Elizabeth Barrett's novel, Aurora Leigh, by heart, and many of Dickinson's most mysterious or enigmatic poems have proved to be arias on passages from Aurora Leigh. She wrote to the Norcross sisters in 1861 that Mrs. Browning "fainted, we need not read Aurora Leigh to know, and George Sand must make no noise in her grandmother's bedroom. Poor children, women now, queens now. At one in the Eden of God. I guess they both forget that now, so who knows but we, stars from the same night, stop twinkling at last. Take heart, sister. Twilight is but the short bridge, and the moon stands at the end. If we can only get to her. Yet if she sees us fainting she will put out her yellow hands. When did the war really begin?" So that was Emily Dickinson talking about her fellow poets, and here we all are together today in her honor and in each other's honor, and it is, as I said, a great pleasure.
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