Selects Her Own

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
On Today’s Menu:
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
** Share some birthday cake
for a radical New England poet.
** Linger to ponder the power of being able to say ‘No.’
Savor a last ½ cup admiring the work of a talented amateur botanist.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


First Sip:

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!

– Emily Dickinson


Slice of Cake:

from the Herbarium of Emily Dickinson
Harvard University

The stereotype that was attached to her
very early on
was of this total recluse, of this woman in white,
who never left her bedroom,
who penned these amazing verses
in a vacuum, in total seclusion
has really stuck to her—we’re fighting that,
or to at least bringing it into context.

– Carolyn Vega, curator
The Morgan Library & Museum, NYC 1

As a girl, Emily Dickinson was quite social, with many friends, both male and female. There’s even some indication of a marriage proposal at one point.2

I am growing handsome very fast indeed!
I expect I shall be the belle of Amherst
when I reach my 17th year. I don’t doubt that I
shall have perfect crowds of admirers at that age.
Then how I shall delight to make them await my bidding,
and with what delight shall I
witness their suspense while I make my final decision.

But away with my nonsense….
– letter from Emily Dickinson 8
to her friend Abiah Root
7 May 1845

Yet as she got older, Dickinson did retreat from social interactions.
She never married, she wasn’t interested in sewing circles,
and, over time, she quit attending her sister-in-law’s parties.

She had her books, her garden, her poetry, her close family ties, and the letters she exchanged with friends—and that was enough.

When Dickinson was 25, her family moved back into Homestead, the house she was born in.
Since she was nine, the family had lived in another house in Amherst, where she had shared a bedroom with her sister Vinnie.
Now she had a room to herself, equipped with a writing desk.3

Over the next decade, she was at her most prolific
writing and revising hundreds of poems.2

In the midst of this quiet life, she created poetry that was adventurous and unusual—and nearly completely hidden away.

It’s an almost inverse relationship.
The absence of activity in her life is matched by the
phenomenal activity of her intellect…She experimented

with more innovations than almost anybody else…
The range of her interests and

experimentation was immense. She was bold.
…Her voice was explicitly female and explicitly empowered.

— Cynthia Wolff3

Of her 1800 poems, only 10 or so were published in her lifetime.
All anonymously. And some of those—if not all—were printed without her consent.2

From the beginning, editors ignored what was unique about her style.
Instead her poems were forced into a more conventional format and ‘cleaned up’ for publication:
Gone were her unique line breaks, her dashes, her startling word choices, her absence of titles.2

I reckon when I count it all
Poets Then the Sun
Then Summer
Then the Heaven of God
And then
the List is done

But, looking back
the First so seems
To Comprehend the Whole
The Others look a needless Show
So I write
Poets All
– Emily Dickinson

It would take 50 years for an editor to be brave enough
to begin to publish Emily Dickinson’s poems as written.2

Happy 190th Birthday
** Emily Dickinson

– born December 10, 1830
in Amherst, Massachusetts


Linger Awhile:

The soul selects her own society –
then – shuts the door –
to her divine majority –
present no more –
unmoved – she notes the chariots – pausing –
at her low gate –
unmoved – an emperor be kneeling
upon her mat –
I’ve known her – from an ample nation –
choose one –
then – close the valves of her attention –
like stone –

– Emily Dickinson

I’ve been thinking this week about the power of the word No.
How essential that word is to our agency, to our ability to direct our own lives.

It seems that even from a young age, Emily Dickinson was directing her own life.

At age 17, she began at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (now Mount Holyoke College, one of the Seven Sisters schools). Her letters home talked of the ‘many sweet girls’ and that she was ‘enjoying chemistry and physiology.’ 4

But she was having a hard time with the school’s religious education.
The principal had a habit of asking each student in turn if they had ‘assurance of hope’ in God.

Emily said no.

She then finished out the year at Holyoke, and didn’t return.4

Some keep the sabbath going to church –
I keep it, staying at home –
With a Bobolink for a Chorister –
And an Orchard, for a Dome –

– Emily Dickinson

Later in life,
when her reputation as an intellectual had gotten around,
People asked to come see her.

Emily said no.

When she was 32, she read a newspaper article called ‘Letter to a Young Contributor.’
It was written by Thomas Wentworth Higginson.
The article was remarkable for it’s practical guidance about writing—
and even more remarkable because it was addressed to young male and female writers.4

Dickinson decided she would write to the author, send him four of her poems, and ask for his advice…

15 April 1862 8
Mr Higginson,
Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?
The Mind is so near itself – it cannont see, distinctly –
and I have none to ask –
Should you think it breathed – and had you the leisure to tell me,
I should feel quick gratitude

Higginson wrote back immediately with many questions (how long had she been writing? what kind of education did she have? who were her companions? had she read Walt Whitman?) 4

He also gave her encouragement and several suggestions for changes to improve her poetry.

Emily did not say no to Higginson’s suggestions.
She simply ignored them.

But she did write back. And so began a 25-year-long correspondence.

In her letters, Dickinson could be as enigmatic as some of her poems.
In answer to the questions about who her companions were,
she wrote:

‘Hills, Sir – and the Sundown –
and a Dog
– large as myself, that my Father bought me –
They are better than Beings – because they know
– but do not tell.’

Eventually Higginson stopped suggesting changes for her poetry—
and began suggesting publication.

He wasn’t alone.

Dickinson also shared her poems with her friend Helen Hunt.
Helen insisted she should publish them. 4

Emily said no.

One time, Higginson asked her if she could send him a portrait of herself.
To that she definitely said no...

The only authenticated photograph of Emily Dickinson
1848 daguerreotype
(The original is now at Amherst College)

…Instead she gave him this description of herself:

I…am small, like the Wren,
and my Hair is bold, like the Chestnut Bur –
and my eyes like the Sherry
in the Glass, that the Guest leaves
– Would this do just as well?

– letter from Emily Dickinson 8
to T W Higginson
July 1862


“Half Cup More”

Sepal, petal, and a thorn
Upon a common summer’s morn,
A flash of dew, a bee or two,
A breeze
A caper in the trees, —
And I’m a rose!

– Emily Dickinson

Along with a love of poetry,
Emily Dickinson and I have something else in common:
A love of botany.

I am very busy picking up stems and stamens
as the hollyhocks leave their clothes around.

– letter from Emily Dickenson 8
to her friend Margaret Maher
October 1882

Emily Dickinson gardened throughout her life—
her mother loved gardening and taught both her daughters.
Once her father built a conservatory on their property, they were able garden year-round.

Emily also learned about plants in botany courses at both Amherst Academy and Mount Holyoke Female Seminary.2

My flowers are near and foreign,
and I have but to cross the floor
to stand in the Spice Isles.

– letter from Emily Dickinson 8
to her friend Elizabeth Holland
March 1866

When I was in high school, I created an herbarium.6
Turns out, so did Emily Dickinson.

The flowers in Dickinson’s herbarium were collected between 1839 and 1846.
Dickinson beautifully labeled each flower with its scientific Latin name.
The collection is now held at the Houghton Library at Harvard University.

Here are a few pages of Emily Dickinson’s 66-page herbarium.


Take-Away Box

Hope is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

– Emily Dickinson


Thank you for reading!
Kelly J Hardesty

Thoughts? Questions?
Scroll down to the endand you can leave me note!
Always so lovely to hear from you.

You Can Read More…


notes & footnotes

PBS NewsHour Video
Mar 8, 2017
featuring Carolyn Vega,
curator of the 2017 exhibit celebrating Emily Dickinson at
The Morgan Library & Museum, NYC

Emily Dickinson Museum
280 Main Street
Amherst, Massachusetts

American Women of Achievement
featuring Cynthia Wolff of MIT
video series directed by Kelly Wolfington
written by: Suzanne Hansberry & Rockwell Stensrud

These Fevered Days (2020)
by Martha Ackman
I am grateful for this fascinating,
hot-off-the-press book.
It’s not alone, though.
The amount of scholarship, popular depictions,
and new interpretations of Dickinson’s life & work
has been intense over the last few years.

As an adult, Emily Dickinson never did join the church.
She felt she could neither accept or reject a belief in God.
She joked to a friend, “I am one of the lingering bad ones”
But she also said, very late in life:
“I both believe and disbelieve a hundred times an hour.”

You can see some photos of my 1978 herbarium
in my April 2020 post called… To Plant a Tree

Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium
Houghton Library at Harvard University.$1i

All the letters I quote are from the
Emily Dickinson Archive
I am extremely grateful for this
on-line, searchable treasure trove
of Emily Dickinson manuscripts.


Please note:
Whenever you click on ‘Post Comment’ your comments always come to me first. Then I post them below.
If you’d rather they stay between us, just let me know.
© Kelly J Hardesty 2024


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