I was inspired to read Emily Dickinson’s poetry from another book itself, and perhaps many may think, quite unusually, ‘The Humans’ by Matt Haig. The book references the lines ‘How happy is the little stone/ which rambles in the alone’ – lines which filled my mind with thoughts, just as a little stone may accumulate layers of dust as it continues on its way. Forming thoughts is part of what it is to be human, what it is to live, and therefore it appears appropriate that I picked up Dickinson’s collection entitled ‘Life’.
Of course, ‘life’ is almost impossible to conceptualise and Dickinson does not attempt this with any kind of broad-brush philosophizing. What I find enchanting about her poetry is that is it abrupt yet honest – it is a collection which explores conceptions rather than seeks to define them. For example, ‘Life’ opens with ‘Success’ which she explores in terms of the negative – that it is valued most by those who do not often have it. It is the aim to succeed and ability to reorganise it which is important, just as Dickinson’s poetry provides a reorganisation of observance on the human condition.
A sensation Dickinson pays particular attention to is that of ‘pain’ – and like ‘success’, she defines it neither as explicitly positive or negative, but as a ‘mystery’. For me, as a child, the word ‘mystery’ always held a certain hope to it – that some improved identity could be assumed – and this is what Dickinson explored in relation to pain; that it can indeed make life, and our appreciation of it, more poignant. Although Dickinson uses what at the time would have been considered unusual largely untitled verse, often with slant rhyme, as a writer of 19th century America, her work offers allusion both to the domestic and the epic. Although Dickinson was born in 1830 and lived much of her life in isolation, maintaining friendships through correspondence, her poetry of ‘Life’ leaves a rich imprint – short lines yet enormous metaphors such as ‘the charge within the bosom’ which sorrow may make us feel. Dickinson appears able to cultivate the written word both as an individual, and as expression of the scale of emotions she felt which may well appeal to all of us – her particular half-fear, half-fascination of death is evident considering her experience of the loss of a close cousin when only a young girl.
In some lines the solitude of Dickinson’s position can be sensed profoundly. For example, ‘The Lonely house’ where ‘The moon slides down the stair’, reflects both the magic and melancholy of being alone. And that is perhaps what I find most profound about Dickinson’s poetry, that it faces the dualities and paradoxes of life, that situations do not always unfold as we would anticipate . she laments ‘I could have touched!’ – and therefore, there is hope, for even when things seem bleak, it does not mean they are definitely so, as the mind gives us the ability to think otherwise.
Hope is a human element engineered by the mind and the beauty if belief. Dickinson’s is a hope which extends to others, in terms of belief in human life itself. Perhaps most memorable for me in the collection entitled ‘Life’ are the lines ‘Here a mist, and there a mist/ Afterwards -- day!’- the affirmation in the natural world that despite the darkness, there can be light. This brings the topic back to the importance that I was inspired to read Dickinson from another book ‘The Humans’. It seems almost appropriate that I accessed Dickinson and her writing in this way, after all, it is her repeated emphasis of the liberty of reading and the gifts that a book can bring which has made myself determined to encourage others to do the same – go out and read.