Emily Dickinson Writing a Poem

  Poetry Workshop

The record of "Safe in their Alabaster Chambers," the fact that Emily sent Sue poems in various stages of composition, and the fact that Sue appears to be responsible for almost all of the printings Emily saw of her poems during her lifetime all show that their relationship served as integral to Dickinson's poetry workshop. The writing of "Safe in their Alabaster Chambers" takes place in the early 1860s, when the poet has just turned thirty and is widely believed to have been at the height of her literary productivity (see Thomas Johnson's opening paragraphs introducing the variorum, P xvii-xviii). Late stages of Emily Dickinson's compositional techniques are interrogated in depth in Marta Werner's Radical Scatters: Emil y Dickinson's Fragments and Related Texts, 1870-1886.

Susan and Emily Dickinson's regular and intimate written exchanges constitute a literary dialogue that spanned four decades, and the better part of Emily's life. "In the 1850s, early in their relationship, Emily and Sue took long walks, baked cookies, sewed, talked about books and their dreams, and, according to Dickinson, pleased themselves with the fancy that we are the only poets, and everyone else is prose . . ." (L 56). In the late 1850s and early 1860s, after Sue and [Emily's brother] Austin married, Emily spent many a riotous evening next door at the Evergreens [Austin and Sue's mansion], and at least on one occasion was scolded by her father for staying too late (L 214, about 1859). According to Kate Anthon, on those celestial and blissful evenings . . . full of merriment, brilliant wit, and inexhaustible laughter, Austin and Sue's guests were sometimes treated to Emily 'at the piano playing weird and beautiful melodies, all from her own inspiration' (YH 1:366-367). Not only in these middle years, but over their more than thirty-five years of intercourse, Emily and Sue shared many cultural delights, exchanging food, recipes, writings, tips for reading, and enjoying a mutual passion for gardening. Like Emily, Sue read voraciously, and those around her were well aware of her intellectual" and literary pursuits . . . .

"In 1862, editor and friend Samuel Bowles writes Sue and implores her to 'tell Emily to give me one of her little gems!'" (YH 2:68). One of his 1864 letters even appears to substantiate Jean McClure Mudge's assertion that Emily and Sue were writing together: Speaking of writing, do you & Emily give us some gems for the "Springfield Market," & then come to the Fair. . . . Significantly, Dickinson's writing desire in missives to Sue evolves from 'wont that make a poem such as can ne'er be written?' (H L9; L 77) to actually writing poems. . . . That surely had something to do with her audience, for Sue actively encouraged, promoted, and critiqued the poet's work; . . . Dickinson sent Sue more than twice as many poems as letters, and many of the letters are in fact letter-poems. " . . .Susan Howe argues that Susan evoked a "libidinal freeing of the Imaginary in Dickinson's poetry." What cannot be denied is that Dickinson herself considered her correspondence with Sue to be a profound creative wellspring and that these early letters offer a glimpse at some of the writerly evolutions of the young poet" (Rowing in Eden 155-174).

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Maintained by Lara Vetter <lvetter@uncc.edu>
Last updated on March 10, 2008

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