Copyright
Gamaliel Bradford.

Portraits of American women online

. (page 12 of 14)
Online LibraryGamaliel BradfordPortraits of American women → online text (page 12 of 14)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


Thomas Bailey Aldrich, a printed article that I thought
tolerably good, that is for me, asking him if he believed
I could write anything the Atlantic would accept. I
received in reply a courteous note with the enigmatical



220 PORTRAITS OF AMERICAN WOMEN

statement that he was unable to say from the article
forwarded whether I could or not. The question in my
mind is now and ever shall be, Is that a compliment
to the article ? . . . But I give the cultured editor no
tice that though I may never be lifted to the Olympian
heights of his pages, I intend so to live that somebody
who is, shall yet write of me between those magic
yellow covers of the Queen of Monthlies!" 53 *

Though she wrote vastly, it is hardly to be supposed
that Miss Willard s literary reputation is likely to be
permanent. It was in the very different field of im
mediate personal public triumph that she won successes
huge enough to satisfy any ambition that could be satis
fied at all. It is of the nature of these triumphs that
they caress and excite and stimulate the soul more than
any others and the study of their effect upon Miss
Willard is everywhere extremely curious.

In other words, all through the immense length of
her " Autobiography " I think we may perceive, cannot
deny, a growing self-consciousness, which I would call
vanity, if the word were not misleading. Do not sup
pose that this is inconsistent with power. Cicero was
an enormous power in the world and was one of the
vainest of men. It would be folly to speak of Miss

* It may be worth noting that with the appearance of this portrait in the
Atlantic Miss Willard s wish was for the first time gratified.



FRANCES ELIZABETH WILLARD 221

Willard as vain in comparison with Cicero. Nor is the
vanity inconsistent with an almost childlike simplicity.
On the contrary, it seems to go with it naturally. It
did with Cicero. It did with Miss Willard. Simplicity
and a singular charm are not incompatible with vanity
at all. Nevertheless, by force of endeavoring to live
all one s life as an example one runs a little risk of
coming to regard one s life as exemplary, and this
danger Miss Willard did not altogether escape. This
it is which leads her to expose her soul in page after
page with such extraordinary frankness. She meant
to do good, no doubt she might do good, and did do
good; but one cannot wholly escape the impression of
a naturally modest lady undressing in public.

Of course through all the exposure and the stress
upon precept there is a constant insistence upon humil
ity. And no one can question for a moment that the
humility is genuine. When Miss Willard wrote in her
youth: "I think myself not good, not gifted in any
way. I cannot see why I should be loved, why I should
hope for myself a beautiful and useful life or a glori
ous immortality at its close," 54 she meant it. When
she wrote in age, "I love too well the good words of
the good concerning what I do ; I have not the control
of tongue and temper that I ought to have, . . . and



222 PORTRAITS OF AMERICAN WOMEN

the sweet south wind of love has not yet thawed out
the ice-cake of selfishness from my breast," 55 she meant
it also, even if she might have preferred saying it her
self to having any one else say it. Yet even in the
humility the subtle and pervading influence of the ex
emplary life does make itself felt. I know few things
more curious than Miss Willard s elaborate study of
her own faults for the benefit of the public. After the
most thorough and searching investigation, it would
appear that she practically finds but two, and of those
two one runs eminent risk of finally turning out to be
a virtue. 58

I do not mean, however, to overstress this element
of self-consciousness in Miss Willard, which was en
tirely natural and almost unavoidable in the life she led.
But, no matter what may have been the effects of that
life upon her character, there can be no question but
that she enjoyed it. She herself tells us so. She had
magnificent health, cherished by intelligent care and
enduring through a long course of years. " Painless,
in a world of pain/ 57 she says of herself, and what a
qualification that is for hearty enjoyment! She adds
further the notable sentence already quoted: "The chief
wonder of my life is that I dare to have so good a time,
both physically, mentally and religiously." 68 A good



FRANCES ELIZABETH WILLARD 223

time she certainly did have. All the excitement of the
ordinary public entertainer was hers, the actor, the
singer, the performer to huge audiences generally.
Everywhere she could count upon an attentive hearing,
usually upon an enthusiastic one; and if she had to
battle to make it so, the battle, to her temperament, was
almost as delightful as the victory. But to the general
excitement of the stage and the platform was added
the far greater excitement of conscious benevolent mo
tive. You were stirring all these crowds, winning all
these plaudits, not for yourself, not for your personal
glory, but for a great cause, for the advancement
of good in the world, to hasten the splendid coming of
the kingdom of God. Perhaps the psychology of the
philanthropist, of the reformer, of the evangelist has
yet to be written with minute and analytical care, and
he will never be the one to write it himself. But Miss
Willard has supplied more curious information on the
subject than any one else.

Take the impressive and delightful incident, described
by her and by others, of the attack on the Pittsburg
saloon by a group of women, all standing in earnest,
awed attention along the curbstone, while " a sorrowful
old lady, whose only son had gone to ruin through that
very deathtrap, knelt on the cold, moist pavement and



224 PORTRAITS OF AMERICAN WOMEN

offered a broken-hearted prayer." 59 No doubt these
are the things that move the world, but they also afford
an interest beyond any other for those who take part
in them. Miss Willard, with the best intentions, wished
to deny to everybody the excitement of alcohol. But
she herself lived on the fierce excitement of doing good,
beside which all other stimulants are pale and watery.

IV

I HAVE thus emphasized the vast and varied enjoy
ment of Miss Willard s life, because so many of her
admirers have called it a life of sacrifice. Of course
she made sacrifices. Who does not? When she chose
her philanthropic career, she gave up a prospect of
assured ease and assured usefulness for a wild and
stormy course which might lead nowhere. And at other
times she gave up other things which were hard to
relinquish. But to call her life a life of sacrifice in
comparison with some other lives would be absurd.
How many women go daily about city streets to relieve
suffering, to comfort misery, to cherish fainting hope,
without any thought of reward or any stimulus of glory,
worn, weary, and discouraged, sacrificing everything to
the sense of duty and the pressure of conscience ! How
many women in far country homes live long lives of



FRANCES ELIZABETH WILLARD 225

utter monotony, drudging over ugly cares, with nothing
but grumbling and faultfinding about them, their habit
of existence so in-woven with sacrifice that they cannot
even imagine the possibility of anything else! Beside
these how can any one talk of sacrifice in connection
with Frances Elizabeth Willard? If she could have
been convinced that she could bring the cause she served
to immediate triumph by changing places with one of
these women, I think so highly of her that I am sure
she would have done it. But what ingenuity she would
have shown in resisting the conviction!

Let me repeat, then, that she was a woman of noble
character, of splendid and enduring power, one who
left the world a legacy of accomplishment which is
to-day maturing into the widest and most fruitful re
sults; but she was neither a martyr nor a saint, and,
heavens, how she did enjoy herself !



VIII
EMILY DICKINSON



CHRONOLOGY

Emily Dickinson

Born in Amherst, Massachusetts, December 10, 1830.

Lived in Amherst.

Died in Amherst, May 15, 1886.




EMILY DICKINSON



VIII
EMILY DICKINSON

I

ONE who, as a child, knew Emily Dickinson well and
loved her much recollects her most vividly as a white,
ethereal vision, stepping from her cloistral solitude
onto the veranda, daintily unrolling a great length of
carpet before her with her foot, strolling down to where
the carpet ended among her flowers, then turning back
and shutting herself out of the world.

It is just so that we must think of her as coming into
the larger world of thought. In the grimmest, austerest
background of restrained New England habit and
tradition in the mid-nineteenth century there suddenly
opens a sunlit door and out steps, floats rather, this white
spirit of wonder and grace and fancy and mockery,
shakes folly s bells, swings worship s incense, and is gone
before we have time to understand her coming.

She, if any one, was in the world, but not of it, nof
even of the little world which was the only one she lived
in. The atmosphere of a New England college town like
Amherst is in itself secluded and peculiar with a clois-



230 PORTRAITS OF AMERICAN WOMEN

tered charm. Emily s family were secluded in their own
souls, even from those who knew them well. Their
home was secluded in quiet gravity and dignity. Out of
this home, in her years of womanhood, Emily rarely
stepped; out of Amherst more rarely still. So perfect
was her shy isolation that it seems almost profane to
disturb her in it. Yet I have a feeling that she would
have wished us to. The shyest, the most isolated, are
only waiting, even in their lives, for one to come whose
loved approach shall shatter the isolation forever. If
the isolation is never shattered, but grows closer and
thicker, still I believe that it nurses the hope of a sym
pathetic, understanding eye that shall see into the most
hidden corner of the soul. At any rate, Emily, from her
solitude, speaks out to us in puzzling, teasing, witching
accents, beckons us, dares us, as it were, to follow her,
to seek her, unravel her mystery, lay a searching finger
on her heart. Who can resist such a magical solicita
tion? She speaks to us in strange, chaotic verses, not
so much verses as clots of fire, shreds of heaven, snatches
of eternity. She speaks to us in letters, chaotic also, but
perhaps more fit and helpful for our purpose of ap
proaching her than the poems. We will use the letters
to advance with more humdrum steps and now and then
get a flash of sudden illumination from the verses.



EMILY DICKINSON 231

To begin with, let me re-emphasize the shyness and
isolation. She sought it, she loved it. Even in child
hood she left home with reluctance and returned with
ecstasy. It was not because her inner life was dull and
bounded, but because it was vast and wandering; and
loved, common things were all that anchored her to
herself. " Home," she says, " is the riddle of the wise
the booty of the dove." 1

She was well aware, of course, of the solitude she
lived in. "Nothing has happened but loneliness," she
writes to a friend, "perhaps too daily to relate." 2 But
you err much if you think the solitude was barren or
empty. Light, bright thoughts swarmed in it, quick and
eager fancies, wide desires, wider hopes, and endless
laughter.

She had books as companions.

" Unto my books so good to turn
Far ends of tired days." 3

To be sure, she was no student, no persistent, systematic
reader, as Mrs. Ripley was. She would pick up and
put down: a chapter or a page was enough for her,
enough to kindle hope or quench ennui, if she ever felt
any. But her immense capacity of being stimulated
could not resist a book. She loved words, says her niece,
Mrs. Bianchi; "the joy of mere words was to Aunt



232 PORTRAITS OF AMERICAN WOMEN

Emily like red and yellow balls to the juggler." 4 How
then could she fail to love the royal masters of words?
Her father liked " lonely and rigorous books," she told
Colonel Higginson, but she preferred them more grace
ful or touched with fire. After her first real one, she
said to herself, " This, then, is a book, and there are more
of them ? " 5 When she found Shakespeare, she thought
the world needed nothing else.

She had the piano as a companion; played upon it
gayly; turned common airs into wild, fantastic reveries,
" One improvisation which she called the Devil was, by
tradition, unparalleled." 6 We may assume that she
loved the other arts also, as well as music ; at least that
they fed her fancy, though her life did not bring her near
them.

And nature was the friend of her secluded spirit.
"You ask of my companions. Hills, sir, and the sun
down, and a dog as large as myself, that my father
bought me." 7 Flowers and trees and birds and insects
talked to her, and she to them, in that strange speech
which they perhaps understood better than her human
fellows. What the charm of this converse was she inti
mates to us in light, delicate touches : " We are having
such lovely weather the air is as sweet and still now
and then a gay leaf falling the crickets sing all day



EMILY DICKINSON 233

long high in the crimson tree a belated bird is sing
ing." 8 Or she can go behind this bare portrayal of the
surface and bring out wayward glimpses of hidden feel
ing, vague and subtle hints of dim emotion such as
flutter in all our spirits and are gone before we can
define them. She can do this in verse :

" There s a certain slant of light,

On winter afternoons,
That oppresses like the weight
Of cathedral tunes." 9

She can do it even better, to my feeling, in prose : " Noth
ing is gone, dear, or no one that you knew. The forests
are at home, the mountains intimate at night and arro
gant at noon. A lonesome fluency abroad, like sus
pended music." 10

From suggestions such as these it is evident that even
if outside adjuncts failed her wholly, she had sufficient
society in her own thoughts. She lived in a hurrying
swarm of them, a cloud and tumult of manifold reflec
tions, which made the gross, material contact of daily
human speech and gesture seem poor and common. She
shut herself off in this silent hurly-burly as in an aristo
cratic garment of her own. " How do most people live
without any thoughts?" she cried. "There are many
people of the world you must have noticed them in



234 PORTRAITS OF AMERICAN WOMEN

the street how they live? How do they get strength
to put on their clothes in the morning? " ll She herself
put on in the morning a garment of scintillating radiance
and only exchanged it at night for a lighter robe of
gleaming stars. "In a life that stopped guessing you
and I should not feel at home," 12 she says. She filled
the universe with her guesses and then made comments
on them that were more perplexing than the guesses
were. Not that she was in any way a systematic thinker
any more than reader. Heavens, no ! She could never
have labored with the slow and ordered speculations of
Mrs. Ripley. Sometimes she sets up a stable reign of
goodness in the world, believes that things will be well
with us and asserts it hopefully : " I m afraid we are all
unworthy, yet we shall enter in/" 13 Sometimes she
doubts, rebels even, wonders whether suffering has at
all its due complement of loving, murmurs in wayward
petulence, " It will never look kind to me that God, who
causes all, denies such little wishes." 14 And always, to
her probing guess, the world and life are veiled in mys
tery, and on the whole she is not ungrateful. " It is true
that the unknown is the largest need of the intellect,
though for it no one thinks to thank God." 15

It was perhaps, then, dreams that were her playfellows
rather than thoughts, at least thoughts broken, con-



EMILY DICKINSON 235

densed, abbreviated, intensified. No doubt she thought
as she spoke and wrote, in gleams and figures, and her
oddities of speech, though they may have been slightly
emphasized by too much Carlyle and Browning; were,
like her oddities of action, not affectations of manner,
but real oddities, quaintnesses, inspired flashes of soul.
She lived in a world of dreams, dreams above her,
dreams about her, dreams beneath her. Now and then,
as we all do in our rarer moments of half -conscious
somnolence, she rubs her eyes and asks herself of her
condition: "Sometimes I wonder if I ever dreamed
then if I m dreaming now, then if I always dreamed. 5 18
But the eyes close again, and the dreams press more
thickly, sweet phantoms that crowd and shudder into
one another in the strange, disordered way dreams have.
" The lawn is full of south and the odors tangle, and I
hear to-day for the first [time] the river in the tree." 1T
She tries to clutch them, to stay their dim and fluttering
passage : " I would eat evanescence slowly " ; 18 but they
quiver and fade and vanish,only to give place to others
as fantastic and enchanting as themselves.

Yet back of the dream playfellows there is one sub
stance that endures and never fails her, God, set solid
in the white, unchanging background of eternity. And
I do not say that she had any dry, mental conviction



236 PORTRAITS OF AMERICAN WOMEN

about these things. When mortal pangs come, they
rend and tear her hope as they do others :

" My life closed twice before its close ;

It yet remains to see
If immortality unveil

A third event to me,
So huge, so hopeless to conceive,

As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven,

And all we need of hell." 19

And I do not say that God was anything tangible to her,
like her father in the next room. If He had been, she
would not have found Him God, or loved Him when she
had her father. In her quaint, wild way she even indi
cates that she loved God because He shunned society as
she did. " They say that God is everywhere, and yet we
always think of Him as somewhat of a recluse." 20 But
God filled her solitude, God gave life and body to her
dreams, God made evanescence stay with her, or turned
evanescence into an all-sustaining, all-enfolding, all-
satisfying duration, which made the vague, unquiet
futility of common life not only bearable but lovely, even
to her restless and inquiring spirit.

Still, for all God and dreams, I would not wholly cut
off her image from humanities. " I often wonder how
the love of Christ is done when that below holds so." 21
That below held her. Let us see how.



EMILY DICKINSON 237

II

IN early life she would seem not to have avoided even
general society. There are records of social gatherings,
dances, varied merrymakings, in which she took a ready,
gay, and active part, without any marked indication of
undue withdrawal within herself. In her schooldays she
was attractive and, if not exactly popular, could always
use her wit and fun to draw listeners and lovers. As a
young woman in Amherst, she did not wholly refuse
herself to the conventional demands of social inter
course, though it is evident that she yielded with protest
and escaped with a sigh of relief : " We go out very little;
once in a month or two we both set sail in silks, touch at
the principal points and then put into port again. Vinnie
cruises about some to transact commerce, but coming to
anchor is most I can do." 22 The general kindness of the
world, its chilly and indifferent courtesy, its ready and
empty acceptance and circulation of cordial nothings
grated on her direct and poignant spirit. She would not
endure the haggard necessities of parlor conversation.
She was suspicious even of real sympathy from an un
authorized source: "Thank you for tenderness. I find
that is the only food the Will takes now, and that, not
from general fingers." 23



238 PORTRAITS OF AMERICAN WOMEN

But, on the other hand, she had her need of human
affection, like every one of us, hungered for it, starved
for it at times. She wanted those she loved when she
wanted them, wanted them as she wanted them, expected
their devotion to her bidding, though she was so coy
about doing theirs. When she said come, they were to
come, and go, to go. If they did not, it vexed her: "I
think I hemmed them faster for knowing you weren t

coming, my fingers had nothing else to do Odd, that I,

who say no so much, cannot bear it from others." 24
She well knew the bounds and limits of friendship; but
perhaps she prized it all the more on that account. Her
love was as abiding as it was elusive. Grasp it and it
flitted away from you. Then it flitted back, like a deli
cate butterfly, and teased and tantalized your heart with
quaint touches of tenderness, till you knew not whether
to laugh or weep. " I hold you few I love, till my heart
is red as February and purple as March," 25 she murmurs
in her strange idiom; and again she flings love wide
beyond even the permanence of her own soul, "To live
lasts always, but to love is finer than to live." 26

These things rather for outside friendship. As for
her family, she clung to them with the close persistence
of a warm burr, which pricks and sticks. She knew all
their foibles, of which that stern New England house-



EMILY DICKINSON 239

hold had enough. She sets them out with the calmest
realization, as a keen-sighted heart will, must : " Mother
and Margaret are so kind, father as gentle as he knows
how, and Vinnie good to me, but cannot see why I don t
get well "; 27 or in a more general, inimitable picture:
" I have a brother and sister ; my mother does not care
for thought, and father, too busy with his briefs to notice
what we do. He buys me many books, but begs me not
to read them, because he fears they joggle the mind.
They are religious, except me, and address an eclipse,
every morning, whom they call their Father. " 28 Yet
she loved them all, with a deep, devoted tenderness. Her
mother comes to us mainly as a shadow figure, to be
petted and spared and cared for. Her sister was a swift,,
practical personage, not too ready to enjoy Emily s
vagaries, but trained to accept them. She swept and
dusted and cooked, and tried sometimes to get a useful
hand from her dreaming sister, a useful hand, perhaps,
when she got it; but I fancy she often wished she had
not. Of the two brothers, Austen was Emily s favorite,
or at least she looked up to him as she did to her father,
a stern, august, impressive face and spirit. Intimate
communion with such a one must have been difficult for
anybody. Certainly Emily would not have looked for it
nor expected it. But to touch that granite soul and feel



240 PORTRAITS OF AMERICAN WOMEN

that it belonged to you, made life seem more solid and
death less terrible.

And the same was far truer of her father. Cer
tainly he never put his cheek or his heart against hers,
never fondled her or caressed her. She would not
have wished such things, would have resented them.
" Father s real life and mine sometimes come into col
lision," she says, "but as yet escape unhurt." 29 But she
looked up to him, how she looked up to him ! Or rather,
she was always looking up, and in doing so she found
her father s face a marked signpost on the way to God.

Yet she could not touch those she loved best, friends,
or near, dear kinsfolk. None of us can, you say. To be
sure ; but she knew it and most of us do not. She moved
among her family and through their house like the
ghostly shadow of a rare desire. The little needs and
calls of domestic duty she detested, though she some
times took her part in them. Hear her wayward fancy
describe that soul s pest, a household removal: "I can
not tell you how we moved. I had rather not remember.
I believe my effects were brought in a bandbox, and the
deathless me/ on foot, not many moments after. I
took at the time a memorandum of my several senses,
and also of my hat and coat, and my best shoes but
it was lost in the melee, and I am out with lanterns,



EMILY DICKINSON 241

looking for myself/ 30 The patient solicitude of nursing
tenderness she gave no doubt most deftly and de
votedly, yet one feels its burden: "Mother s dear little
wants so engross the time ... I hardly have said
Good-morning, mother/ when I hear myself saying,
Mother, good-night/" 31

But her isolation from these crying, crowding human
realities about her went deeper than the mere irksome-
ness of daily duty. The trouble was that they were not
realities but shadows, as she herself was, even more.
What was sure and reliable and eternal and beyond the
touch of trouble, was solitude and loneliness, where she
could forever regale herself with the infinite companion
ship of thought. These dear human perplexities flitted
in unaccountably. Before you could adjust yourself to


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 12 14

Online LibraryGamaliel BradfordPortraits of American women → online text (page 12 of 14)