Emily Dickinson, born Emily Elizabeth Dickinson, December 10, 1830, in Amherst, Massachusetts, U.S.A., is the lyric poet who lived in seclusion, and commanded a singular brilliance of style and integrity of vision. With Walt Whitman, Dickinson is widely considered to be one of the two leading 19th-century American poets.
Only 10 of Emily Dickinson’s nearly 1,800 poems are known to have been published in her lifetime. Devoted to private pursuits, she sent hundreds of poems to friends and correspondents while apparently keeping the greater number to herself. She habitually worked in verse forms suggestive of hymns and ballads, with lines of three or four stresses. Her unusual off-rhymes have been seen as both experimental and influenced by the 18th-century hymnist Isaac Watts. She freely ignored the usual rules of versification and even of grammar, and in the intellectual content of her work she likewise proved exceptionally bold and original. Her verse is distinguished by its epigrammatic compression, haunting personal voice, enigmatic brilliance, and lack of high polish.
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The second of three children, Dickinson grew up in moderate privilege and with strong local and religious attachments. For her first nine years she resided in a mansion built by her paternal grandfather, Samuel Fowler Dickinson, who had helped found Amherst College but then went bankrupt shortly before her birth. Her father, Edward Dickinson, was a forceful and prosperous Whig lawyer who served as treasurer of the college and was elected to one term in Congress. Her mother, Emily Norcross Dickinson, from the leading family in nearby Monson, was an introverted wife and hardworking housekeeper; her letters seem equally inexpressive and quirky. Both parents were loving but austere, and Emily became closely attached to her brother, Austin, and sister, Lavinia. Never marrying, the two sisters remained at home, and when their brother married, he and his wife established their own household next door. The highly distinct and even eccentric personalities developed by the three siblings seem to have mandated strict limits to their intimacy. “If we had come up for the first time from two wells,” Emily once said of Lavinia, “her astonishment would not be greater at some things I say.” Only after the poet’s death did Lavinia and Austin realize how dedicated she was to her art.
As a girl, Emily was seen as frail by her parents and others and was often kept home from school. She attended the coeducational Amherst Academy, where she was recognized by teachers and students alike for her prodigious abilities in composition. She also excelled in other subjects emphasized by the school, most notably Latin and the sciences. A class in botany inspired her to assemble an herbarium containing a large number of pressed plants identified by their Latin names. She was fond of her teachers, but when she left home to attend Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (now Mount Holyoke College) in nearby South Hadley, she found the school’s institutional tone uncongenial. Mount Holyoke’s strict rules and invasive religious practices, along with her own homesickness and growing rebelliousness, help explain why she did not return for a second year.
At home as well as at school and church, the religious faith that ruled the poet’s early years was evangelical Calvinism, a faith centred on the belief that humans are born totally depraved and can be saved only if they undergo a life-altering conversion in which they accept the vicarious sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Questioning this tradition soon after leaving Mount Holyoke, Dickinson was to be the only member of her family who did not experience conversion or join Amherst’s First Congregational Church. Yet she seems to have retained a belief in the soul’s immortality or at least to have transmuted it into a Romantic quest for the transcendent and absolute. One reason her mature religious views elude specification is that she took no interest in creedal or doctrinal definition. In this she was influenced by both the Transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson and the mid-century tendencies of liberal Protestant orthodoxy. These influences pushed her toward a more symbolic understanding of religious truth and helped shape her vocation as poet.
Although Dickinson had begun composing verse by her late teens, few of her early poems are extant. Among them are two of the burlesque “Valentines”—the exuberantly inventive expressions of affection and esteem she sent to friends of her youth. Two other poems dating from the first half of the 1850s draw a contrast between the world as it is and a more peaceful alternative, variously eternity or a serene imaginative order. All her known juvenilia were sent to friends and engage in a striking play of visionary fancies, a direction in which she was encouraged by the popular, sentimental book of essays Reveries of a Bachelor: Or a Book of the Heart by Ik. Marvel (the pseudonym of Donald Grant Mitchell). Dickinson’s acts of fancy and reverie, however, were more intricately social than those of Marvel’s bachelor, uniting the pleasures of solitary mental play, performance for an audience, and intimate communion with another. It may be because her writing began with a strong social impetus that her later solitude did not lead to a meaningless hermeticism.
Until Dickinson was in her mid-20s, her writing mostly took the form of letters, and a surprising number of those that she wrote from age 11 onward have been preserved. Sent to her brother, Austin, or to friends of her own sex, especially Abiah Root, Jane Humphrey, and Susan Gilbert (who would marry Austin), these generous communications overflow with humour, anecdote, invention, and sombre reflection. In general, Dickinson seems to have given and demanded more from her correspondents than she received. On occasion she interpreted her correspondents’ laxity in replying as evidence of neglect or even betrayal. Indeed, the loss of friends, whether through death or cooling interest, became a basic pattern for Dickinson. Much of her writing, both poetic and epistolary, seems premised on a feeling of abandonment and a matching effort to deny, overcome, or reflect on a sense of solitude.
Dickinson’s closest friendships usually had a literary flavour. She was introduced to the poetry of Ralph Waldo Emerson by one of her father’s law students, Benjamin F. Newton, and to that of Elizabeth Barrett Browning by Susan Gilbert and Henry Vaughan Emmons, a gifted college student. Two of Barrett Browning’s works, “A Vision of Poets,” describing the pantheon of poets, and Aurora Leigh, on the development of a female poet, seem to have played a formative role for Dickinson, validating the idea of female greatness and stimulating her ambition. Though she also corresponded with Josiah G. Holland, a popular writer of the time, he counted for less with her than his appealing wife, Elizabeth, a lifelong friend and the recipient of many affectionate letters.
In 1855 Dickinson traveled to Washington, D.C., with her sister and father, who was then ending his term as U.S. representative. On the return trip the sisters made an extended stay in Philadelphia, where it is thought the poet heard the preaching of Charles Wadsworth, a fascinating Presbyterian minister whose pulpit oratory suggested (as a colleague put it) “years of conflict and agony.” Seventy years later, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, the poet’s niece, claimed that Emily had fallen in love with Wadsworth, who was married, and then grandly renounced him. The story is too highly coloured for its details to be credited; certainly, there is no evidence the minister returned the poet’s love. Yet it is true that a correspondence arose between the two and that Wadsworth visited her in Amherst about 1860 and again in 1880. After his death in 1882, Dickinson remembered him as “my Philadelphia,” “my dearest earthly friend,” and “my Shepherd from ‘Little Girl’hood.”
Always fastidious, Dickinson began to restrict her social activity in her early 20s, staying home from communal functions and cultivating intense epistolary relationships with a reduced number of correspondents. In 1855, leaving the large and much-loved house (since razed) in which she had lived for 15 years, the 25-year-old woman and her family moved back to the dwelling associated with her first decade: the Dickinson mansion on Main Street in Amherst. Her home for the rest of her life, this large brick house, still standing, has become a favourite destination for her admirers. She found the return profoundly disturbing, and when her mother became incapacitated by a mysterious illness that lasted from 1855 to 1859, both daughters were compelled to give more of themselves to domestic pursuits. Various events outside the home—a bitter Norcross family lawsuit, the financial collapse of the local railroad that had been promoted by the poet’s father, and a powerful religious revival that renewed the pressure to “convert”—made the years 1857 and 1858 deeply troubling for Dickinson and promoted her further withdrawal.
Music: Gloria Coates
Rooted in the poetry of Emily Dickinson
Piano Quintet: A Personal View
In the summer of 2015, the Kreutzer Quartet and Roderick Chadwick premiered Gloria Coates’ Piano Quintet at the Gasteig in Munich—a commission from the Siemens Stiftung, mfm, and the Munich Ministry of Culture. This was the latest step on a journey which began in 1992, when I met Gloria in that city, and our friendship and collaboration began.
Gloria’s music is instantly recognizable, a feat which very few composers have achieved. The key to playing and understanding it is to enter fully into her world, which is like no other. Her music looks very simple on the page, but takes years to learn how to play, to inhabit.
In this work, as in a number of others, one half of the quartet is tuned a quarter-tone higher than the other, which means unisons and chords bear halos of beats and harmonics. Talking about the relationship between this microtonally tuned quartet and the conventionally tuned piano, Coates has noted: “The overtones of the piano are very important for the chordal elements of the harmony in the strings which is microtonal.” This offers a glimpse into her harmonic imagination, where the ever-more-intricate interweave of high partials from diatonic chords offers rainbows of microtones—the very pattern of the music. Not for nothing was Gloria’s earlier Piano Trio subtitled Split the Lark – and you’ll find the Music, a quote from Emily Dickinson, so important here.
The Piano Quintet is rooted in the poetry of fellow American pioneer, Emily Dickinson. Coates has a profound affinity to Dickinson’s work, and an uncanny knack of finding her way to its core. The overall work is inspired by the poem, After great pain, a formal feeling comes—, which Dickinson wrote early in 1862. Interestingly, in conversation, the line which Gloria pulled out as this poem’s title (of course the poems are not named) was, “The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs.” However, the quintet’s movements bear titles drawn from other Dickinson poems. Gloria insists that these phrases were “taken for their meaning for the music and for no other reason.” There is no contradiction here; this offers insight into Coates’ “layered” approach to the many meanings that she finds in Emily Dickinson. She, naturally, writes music which counterpoints with the poetry on many levels.
The first movement title, Invisible, as Music, is drawn from Dickinson’s This World is not Conclusion. I suspect that one inspiration for the movement’s ritualistic feel is the fourth line of the poem: “It beckons, and it baffles.” The bulk of the movement is a concertante for the first violin, who sings away, while the four colleagues erect implacable defiles of sound all around. By the end of the movement, there is reconciliation among the quartet, and the solo line is resolved into hard-won, but wavering, unison. Perhaps this echoes the poem’s peroration “Much Gesture, from the Pulpit—/ Strong Hallelujahs roll—/ Narcotics cannot still the Tooth / That nibbles at the soul—.” But, the deeper meaning of the movement, seems to spring from the first stanza of After great pain, a formal feeling comes—, which concludes:
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore’,
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?
The second movement, entitled The wizard-fingers never rest, is large scale and discursive. It is the only section written in 5/4, the most common time signature in Coates’ nine string quartets. The title is drawn from Dickinson’s poem A something in a summer’s Day (as is the last). The “wizard-fingers” inspired the opening cascading figures in the cello, piano and violin. For any quartet that knows the whole trajectory of this composer’s output, which the Kreutzers do, these gestures recall the cello harmonics of String Quartet No. 1, while the tolling and knocking gestures of the rest of the movement echo the more recent String Quartet No. 9. In the centre of this movement, the first violin uncouples from this gigantic mechanism, to return the throbbing lyric of the first movement, this time in artificial harmonics.
The end of this movement, the turning point of the quintet, is a perfect counterweight to Dickinson’s central stanza:
The Feet, mechanical, go round –
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –
A Quartz contentment, like a stone –
Movement three, The Torrents of Eternity is framed by piano glissandi, “on the white keys” to start, and, inside the piano, circling the strings, to finish. We find ourselves in a glacial landscape of slow sliding and subduction—perhaps Dickinson’s “Torrents of Eternity”, which “Do all but inundate”—but these torrents and inundations are now frozen. As always Coates’ use of glissando, is tightly organized. This is strict counterpoint, beginning with a mirror canon split between high and low instruments, which re-emerges as inverted vertical counterpoint in four, then five parts. The string players end at maximum distance from each other, pianissimo, verticality achieved by the most painstaking, and sometimes, painful, steps. The centrepiece of the movement, its dark heart, is a piano outburst of “nails inside piano”, “pound fists on low strings”, leading to tectonic clusters struck with the whole arm. Gloria’s vision of how this should sound, and its expressive and emotional impact, is very precise. Like the music of György Kurtág, the apparent simplicity of her notation belies the exactitude, technical and conceptual, which it, and she, demand.
The fourth and final movement, A something so transporting bright, offers a radiant realization of A something in a summer’s Day. The end achieves Dickinson’s “shimmering grace” by the quartet playing in “unison/octaves”. The “shimmer”, results from the use of microtones. For the whole duration of this movement, the quartet plays the melody, in “unison” while the piano underpins, and eventually overwhelms the music with a ladder of slowly ascending chords. For me, this is the perfect reflection of the end of After great pain, a formal feeling comes:
This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –
By Peter Sheppard Skærved / Source: Naxos