Emily Dickinson's Correspondences
Correspondence with Susan Dickinson

H B168

JL 484

OMC 180


ink, two leaves

watermark/embossment: N, no symbol

20 x 13 cm.

folded in thirds

FF 255. Pinholes. Johnson admits that there is no way of knowing what prompted its writing but nevertheless conjectures that perhaps the "message followed an angry outbreak of feeling on the part of someone" and fleshs out the Shakespeare reference:

His heart's his mouth:
What his breast forges, that his tongue must vent;
And, being angry, does forget that ever
He heard the name of death.
          Coriolanus (III, i, 256-258)

Johnson elaborates his story of reading by pointing out that this speech is "by Menenius Agrippa, Coriolanus's friend, in defense of Coriolanus" and that such "context strongly suggests that ED wrote this as a tender note of apology for one whose heart was frequently her mouth, perhaps for Lavinia." However, he gives no further evidence to support the scene he imagines.

In fact, readers can never be sure if these passages allude to real events and invoke Shakespeare as psychological authority or, if they do, to what incidents or circumstances, public or private, Dickinson referred. For example, several critics have recently argued that "Egypt - thou / knew'st - " is Emily speaking directly to Susan, proclaiming her continuing devotion and calling Susan her "Cleopatra" (Hart, Susan Howe, Judith Farr, Paula Bennett, Camille Paglia). However, the notes could be from a game "concocted because of their mutual love for Shakespeare, perhaps around quotations from 'a daily Shakespeare calendar' (FF 29)" (Rowing in Eden 148-151); evidence of the daily Shakespeare calendar is not only through Bianchi's testimony but also through the witness of Sue's pasting to a card the daily entry for Friday July 1, 1881 [check date], "Come, madam, wife, sit by my side, and let the world slip. We shall ne'er be younger" (Induc, Taming of the Shrew); on the card Sue has written "Calendar for the 25" anniversary of our wedding (see H Box 9). As editors, we are not in agreement about the writings' identities. For readers like ourselves, whose present study takes as its primary goal analysis of Dickinson's correspondence with Susan and argue that their emotional ties can be characterized as "lesbian," such autobiographical interepretations are tempting, and one would reasonably assume that we concur with one another.

Yet while Hart concludes that "Egypt - thou / knew'st - " is an expression of Emily's passion for Susan, Smith believes that though the context of the correspondence supports such an interpretation, there is insufficient evidence for that story of reading alone. Such a story depends on readers assuming that the "thou" in the quotation is "just - 'Sue'-" (p. 131). But it is not clear that such an interpretation is the only way this note resonates with the patterns of the many effusive and devoted declarations plainly referring to her. With these lines torn from Shakespeare, Dickinson may or may not (or may and may not) be addressing Susan directly. What is plain is that she assumed Susan would understand their gist, and that simple fact reflects intimacy and trust.

The identities of these notes, like the identity of the note about "The Music of the Spheres" at the beginning of the Early Middle Writings, and like that of so many other Dickinson writings, cannot be absolutely determined.

See also Susan Dickinson's poem "Minstrel of the Passing Days."

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Image reproduced by permission of the Houghton Library, Harvard University. Not to be reproduced in whole or in part without permission.
Transcription and commentary copyright 1996 by Martha Nell Smith, all rights reserved
Last updated on May 7, 2001
Maintained by Tanya Clement <tclement@umd.edu>