Emily Dickinson: Perfect Reading for a Pandemic?

September 24, 2020 § 2 Comments

Not many people know this, but my daughter is named after Emily Dickinson. (Well, and the heroine of L.M. Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon.) I didn’t fall for Emily Dickinson’s poetry until I got to college, when I fell hard and fast and ended up featuring her poems in no fewer than seven essays, including my Senior Thesis. I had never been a big poetry lover, but there was something about the compactness of her poems which fascinated me. So much meaning was packed into such few words. And even then, the meaning was like an ever-shifting target, evolving with every reading.

To read Emily Dickinson is to contemplate universal truths.

Apart from reading Michael Bedard and Barbara Cooney’s 1992 picture book, Emily, I hadn’t had much occasion talk to my own Emily about her namesake. But that changed last spring, when my Emily started writing poetry of her own. Nothing about virtual learning was working for her, until her teachers started leading her and her classmates in poetry writing. Suddenly, my daughter couldn’t jot down poems fast enough, filling loose sheets of paper before designating an orange journal for the occasion. She wrote poems for school, for fun, and for birthday cards. It didn’t matter that they weren’t going to win awards for originality; what mattered was that she had found a means of self-expression during a stressful, beguiling time.

Jennifer Berne’s On Wings of Words: The Extraordinary Life of Emily Dickinson (Ages 7-10), stunningly illustrated by Becca Stadtlander, could not have entered the world at a more perfect time. It opens a dialogue, not only about Dickinson’s unconventional life, but about her poems themselves. At a time when a pandemic has prompted many of us and our children to turn inward, this picture book is less a traditional biography than an homage to the rich interior life developed by this extraordinary poet and showcased in her poetry.

Like its subject herself, On Wings of Words shifts between the historical realism of nineteenth-century New England and the abstract ideas explored in Dickinson’s poetry. The book begins with Emily’s birth, inside the iconic yellow house she called home for her entire life. From the first page, the author-illustrator team establish a pattern, juxtaposing lyrical biographical prose alongside hand-lettered excerpts of Dickinson’s poems. (I’ve followed this pattern, too, so when you see italics, they indicate Dickinson’s own words.)

As a child, Emily was drawn to exploring her world, particularly the one just outside her door. She delighted in small, simple pleasures and found intimacy in nature: “To little Emily, every bird, every flower, every bee or breeze or slant of light seemed to speak to her.” Readers of Dickinson’s poetry may recognize the allusion in “slant of light” to one of her most famous poems, though Berne has chosen to pair these observations with one more accessible to children: The bee is not afraid of me,/ I know the butterfly…/The brooks laugh louder when I come.

Readers will delight in watching Emily’s childhood unfold, relating to her fear of thunderstorms, her adoration for her older brother, and her idle days spent making daisy chains with classmates. Still, Emily’s highs were higher than most, her lows lower. She was an incredibly sensitive child who spent countless hours lost in her own ruminations. She found refuge in books, the strongest friends of the soul. “To Emily, every book was an adventure, a distant journey on a sea of words.” She read everything, including forbidden texts, which her brother smuggled into the house so she could read them in “delicious secrecy.”

Emily became particularly affected by the sadness of the period in which she lived, a time of “diseases incurable” and “accidents untreatable,” which filled her mind with questions about the fleetingness of life. She sought answers in church and school, but her questions were too often met with demands to “obey without asking, to believe without knowing why.” Her teachers found her manner dour and doubting, not understanding that, in fact, she carried hope with her in her own way. “Hope” is the thing with feathers—/ That perches in the soul—/ And sings the tune without the words—/ And never stops-at—all—

Emily recognized that if she was going to understand life, she needed first to discover herself, thereby setting into motion a quest towards self-understanding that would consume the rest of her life. For her, writing became her most valuable tool. Putting pen to paper was a way of working through her observations and questions, the good and the bad, the simple and the complex. I have been dreaming,/ dreaming a golden/ dream, with eyes all/ the while wide open.

Here, as Emily’s “inner world grew bigger” and “outer world grew smaller,” Stadtlander’s illustrations become increasingly abstract, giving visual expression to the metaphorical language of Dickinson’s poetry. The Brain—is wider than the sky—/For—put them side by side—/The one the other will contain/ With ease—and You—beside—  

Visual motifs of flowers, birds, and butterflies—images which recur in many of Dickinson’s poems—make frequent appearances in the art. Stadtlander even plays with scale, occasionally miniaturizing Emily to nestle within a rose’s petals or soar with butterfly wings.

Emily never lost her love for the natural world or her family and friends, but she spent increasingly more time inside her home, looking out at her gardens through a window by her writing desk. She rarely ventured beyond her garden and began dressing almost exclusively in white, something which has fascinated scholars forever. More and more, she chose to reside in the world of her poetry. “With every day and every poem—she saw more, discovered more, traveled deeper, soared higher.” My Country is Truth.

We can’t begin to understand all the ways this pandemic will change our children’s generation. Certainly, there will be scars from the multitude of losses they are having to bear. But I wonder if, on a positive note, just as it has nudged our children towards nature, it will also create more introspection. We are all working on becoming more comfortable with our solitude, sitting with our questions, worries, and hopes. And perhaps, just as Emily Dickinson’s sister discovered hundreds upon hundreds of poems tucked inside drawers and chests upon Emily’s death—my letter to the World that never wrote to Me–our own children will leave a trail as to what truths they puzzled out during this strangest of times.

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Review copy from Chronicle Books. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are used, although I prefer we all shop local and support our communities when we can.

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