A WORD MADE FLESH IS SELDOM:
A CONVERSATION BETWEEN CERTAIN POEMS OF
EMILY DICKINSON AND ANGELINA WELD GRIMKE
by Elaine Maria Upton
Page 1It is possible that I could write a neat little comparison-contrast essay on the lives/works of Emily Dickinson and Angelina Weld Grimke. Certainly the lives, and to a significant degree the poetry, of these two women offer themselves up to remarkable comparisons and revealing contrasts. What both have left for me are records of particular forms of what I will call disembodiment. And I find myself wondering what would these two women, so alike and yet so different, have said to each other had they been able to live at the same time and meet one another. I am reminded of an interview of contemporary poet, Adrienne Rich, with Audre Lorde, where they discuss issues of feeling, particularly pain, race, privilege, and poetry. Given what I see as the particular disembodiments of Grimke and Dickinson, I cannot imagine such a conversation as that between Rich and Lorde, but what I imagine is a conversation between certain poems of Dickinson and Grimke, since the poems are mainly what are left and what live out of their little known lives. Let, then, the brief comparison-contrast serve as introduction to the "conversation in poetry."
Dickinson, the older of the two, born in 1830, and Grimke, born half a century later in 1880, can both be seen as daughters of the nineteenth- century in the U.S.A. Both were born and grew up in Massachusetts, Emily in Amherst and Angelina in Boston. Although stories of these daughters' relationships to their mothers differ greatly, both had respectable, proud and stern fathers, who practiced law, and both girls grew up under the tutelage of these fathers in genteel, Protestant settings. They attended prestigious girls' schools, Emily for a short time, and Angelina until she graduated from the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics in 1902.
Emily, in her relationship with Susan Gilbert (Emily's sister-in-laws), and Angelina, in her relationship with a colleague in Washington, D.C. where she later went to teach, were both apparently sometimes unfulfilled lovers in a world that had little or no tolerance for lesbian relationships. In Washington, as in Boston, Angelina would have found it difficult to openly express her love for Mamie Burrill or perhaps other women. Both Dickinson and Grimke might be said to have had, to borrow Gloria Hull's term, "buried lives." So much of their intellects and of their heats' desires must have remained hidden from public and family view. Yet both found expression, in similar and different ways, in poetry writing, Dickinson in almost 1800 poems and Grimke in a much smaller but important number of as yet uncollected poems.
Grimke, being the younger of the two, would have had the opportunity to read Dickinson's poems, while the possibility did not exist during Dickinson's life (unless she were clairvoyant) for her to read or know Grimke. Generally speaking, Grimke's poems, like Dickinson's are filled with images of nature and the seasons, and with an attraction to death that some have said borders on obsession. It is quite possible that Dickinson's poetry influenced Grimke, even as Grimke seems influenced by English poets, Victorian and Romantic. One hundred sixteen of Dickinson's poems were first published in 1891 when Grimke was ten years old, and while I have not yet found evidence that Grimke read Dickinson as she grew up or even in her later life, it seems likely that her upbringing with her prideful father and her attendance at prestigious schools would have afforded her the opportunity, either at home or at school, to read Dickinson. At school, Grimke apparently had not learned of the differences facing her as a black child in a white world, although she does express some awareness of her alienation. Yet throughout her recorded life she continues to read and apparently admire white poets.
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