Gamaliel Bradford.

Portraits of American women online

. (page 13 of 14)
Online LibraryGamaliel BradfordPortraits of American women → online text (page 13 of 14)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

them, they were gone, and you were never quite certain
whether they left love behind them or torment. " Perhaps
death gave me awe for friends, striking sharp and early,
for I held them since in a brittle love, of more alarm
than peace." 32

Then one wonders how it was with the greatest love
of all, the love of sex for sex. Did it help her or hurt
her or ever come near her ? That she was fitted to draw
the love of men is clear enough. She was strangely,
puzzlingly beautiful. It was not an every-day, peach and


cream, ballroom beauty. She teased and startled witH
her face as with her soul. Her piercing, disconcerting
eyes; her rich, gleaming, gold-auburn hair; her white,
fragile, ever-stirring, questioning hands; her move
ments, light and wafted as the movements of a dream,
all these must have tormented men s hearts as the
wild suggestion of her words did. We know that she
had lovers in the early days, when the world touched
her; and the memory of her fairy charm must have
haunted many who never thought of spoken love. But
how was she herself affected ? Did she return the love
that came to her, or long to return it, or have a girl s
visions of what it might be if it came in all its glory
and were returned? The record of these things is dim
and vague. In her early youth she looks forward, mock
ingly, to lovers, and expects to be the belle of Amherst
when she reaches her seventeenth year. " 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." 33 Later love calls her to a rapturous
hour, though duty forbids and she overcomes the tempta
tion, " not a glorious victory, where you hear the roll
ing drum, but a kind of helpless victory, where triumph
would come of itself, faintest music, weary soldiers, nor
a waving flag, nor a long, loud shout." 34 And through


the letters and through the poems there breathes often
the faint, poignant perfume of love, flickers the way
ward, purple flame of love, love questioning, love ex
ultant, love despairing, at once immortal and impossible.

But who could realize Emily at the head of a house
hold, a calm, buxom matron, providing her husband s
dinner and ordering the domestic duties ? As well yoke
a wood-nymph to the plough. And children doubt
less she loved children, the children of others, played
with them, laughed with them, wept with them. Per
haps children of her own would have been hardly envia
ble. She was made to dream of all these things, to step
for a moment into the tumult of others tears and
laughter, always with the protecting carpet daintily un
rolled before her feet, then to vanish quietly, visionlike,
back into the blue void, her own inner region, where
there was still that colossal, constant companion, God,
and the echoing silence of eternity.

And if love did not often tempt her out of this soli
tude, did conscience sometimes urge her out? Did she
feel that the world needed her, that there were deeds to
be done and fights to be won ? Did she suffer from that
restless, haunting desire of action which so many of us
misread and call by fine names, but which more or less
overrides almost all of us with its impetuous tyranny?


She perhaps as little as any. But I seem to catch at least
some understanding of it in the exquisite, tender solici
tation to a doubting heart : " All we are strangers, dear,
the world is not acquainted with us, because we are not
acquainted with her; and pilgrims. Do you hesitate?
And soldiers, oft some of us victors, but those I do
not see to-night, owing to the smoke. We are hungry,
and thirsty, sometimes, we are barefoot and cold
will you still come?" 38 But the smoke and the soldiers
and the fighting were mostly drowned in quiet for



Do not, however, for a moment suppose that because
her feet were quiet her mind was, that because she re
fused to live in the casual world herself she was not
interested in the casual life of others. On the contrary,
do we not know that these solitary, passionate recluses
live all life over iti their windowed cells, that it is the
wild abundance of other lives in their rioting imagina
tions that makes all possible adventures of their own
seem tame and frigid ? Do we not know old Burton, who
sucked strange melancholy from the confused chaos
that rumbled about him, whose dear delight was to turn
from his thumbed folios to the loud, profane quarreling
of bargemen by the riverside? Do we not know Flau-


bert, who shut himself up in his ivory tower, only to lean
from his window in the moonlight and hear the dim
revelry and causeless laughter of the children of men?
So Emily. The action she dreamed of was too vast for
the poor, trammeled limits of this world. But she found
an absorbed pleasure in watching this world s stumbling,
struggling labors, all the same. It was not so much con
crete facts, not the contemporary history which seems
all-important to those who are making it and mainly
dies when they do. Politics? Emily cannot fix her
thoughts on politics. "Won t you please tell me when
you answer my letter who the candidate for President
is ? ... I don t know anything more about affairs in the
world than if I were in a trance." 36 But human passion,
human love, human hope, and human despair, these ab
sorb her, these distract her, with an inexhaustible inter
est. She feels them in the touch of human hands and
reads them in human faces :

" I like a look of agony,
Because I know it s true ;
Men do not sham convulsion,
Nor simulate a throe." 87

The thrill of life, its glitter, its color, her eyes and her
thoughts were awake for them always : " Friday I tasted
life. It was a vast morsel. A circus passed the house


still I feel the red in my mind though the drums are

out" 38

This vivid sense of the intensity, the ardor, the emo
tional possibility of things, filled her with passion so
overwhelming that it could not be expressed directly.
Words were inadequate, and she was obliged to take
refuge in jest, mockery, fantastic whim, which merely
deepen the message of underlying feeling for those who
understand. She was own sister to Charles Lamb in
this, Lamb in whom tears were so close to laughter
and the most apparently wanton jesting the cover for a
tortured heart. It seems at moments as if Emily mocked
everything. She sits idly on the stile in the sunshine
and lets the great circus of the world pass by her,
riddling its vain parade with shafts of dainty laughter.
She is simple, she says, childish, she says, plays all day
with trifles, regardless of the mad doings of real men and
women. " As simple as you please, the simplest sort of
simple I 11 be a little ninny, a little pussy catty, a little
Red Riding Hood ; I 11 wear a bee in my bonnet, and a
rosebud in my hair, and what remains to do you shall be
told hereafter." 39

She carried the screen of whim not only into verbal
mockery, but into strange fancies of capricious action,
tricks of Puck and Ariel, which amazed and delighted


children and simple hearts, but annoyed an d discon
certed the grave, staid, older children who had never
grown up to real childishness. She would drop kittens
to drown in a pickle jar and shudder with scared glee
when they were served up on the hospitable table to a
visiting judge. 40 She would say to another grave judge,
as Falstaff might have, when the plum-pudding was
lighted : " Oh, sir, may one eat of hell fire with impunity
here? " 41 And in all these fantastic tricks there was no
affectation, though some thought so who did not under
stand, no affectation in the sense of a conscious effort to
impress or astonish. There was no vagary of the wit
less. It was simply the direct impression of a great,
strange world in a heart which could not grasp it and
strove to, and gave right back the bewitching oddities it

And if this surface of confusing eccentricity
might be thought to imply a callous or even cruel
indifference to what others took with enormous and
bewildered seriousness, it must be repeated and insisted
that, as with Lamb, the eccentricity was a mere mask
for the most complete and sensitive sympathy, extending
often to pity and tears. She was a sister of Lamb. She
was also a sister of those most delicate creatures of the
whole world s imagination, the clowns of Shakespeare;


and if Touchstone and Feste could not surpass her in
exquisite fooling, she was equally akin to the tragic
tenderness of the clown in " Lear." It needed all the
gayety and all the trifling and all the mad songs to keep
down the waves of sorrow that would surge upward in
her spirit, and at times not all would do. " If we can get
our hearts under/ I don t have much to fear I ve
got all but three feelings down, if I can only keep
them!" 42

So, in the effort to explain or forget she mocked at
all the grave and busy problems of the world. Love?
A divine, unrealizable dream, so tantalizing in its witch
ery that one could not but make a tender jest of it.
Money? Possessions? Oh, the solid, evanescent things !
The foundations of our souls rest on them and they
slip away and leave us weltering. We must make a
jest of them too. " You know I should expire of mor
tification to have our rye-field mortgaged, to say noth
ing of its falling into the merciless hands of a loco!" 43
And the busy people of the world, the grave, substan
tial, active, useful people. She is not useful, and she
knows it and deplores it. Yet, deploring her own in
activity, she cannot go without her jest at the others:

" L goes to Sunderland, Wednesday, for a minute

or two; leaves here at half-past six what a fitting


hour and will breakfast the night before; such a
smart atmosphere! The trees stand right up straight
when they hear her boots, and will bear crockery w r ares
instead of fruit, I fear." 44 And again she sums up this
mighty buzz and hum of the achieving world or the
world that dreams it is achieving with the image
of a circus, probably the most vivid form of vain
activity that came under her touch: "There is circus
here, and farmers Commencement, and boys and girls
from Tripoli, and governors and swords parade the
summer streets. They lean upon the fence that
guards the quiet church ground, and jar the grass row,
warm and soft as a tropic nest." 45 Or a briefer
word gives the same vast to staid souls how hor
rifying! lesson to a child: "I am glad it is your
birthday. It is this little bouquet s birthday too. Its
Father is a very old man by the name of Nature, whom
you never saw. Be sure to live in vain, dear. I wish
I had." 46

And if she could mock the most serious things of this
world, do not suppose that she had the slightest hesita
tion about mocking another. Eternity was so near her
always that she treated it as familiarly as her brothers
and sisters, and to step out of the wide-open door of
death seemed far less of an adventure than to step out


of the grim, closed front door into the streets of Am-
herst. Ill-health, whether as the prelude to death or
as the torment of life, she could touch lightly. In
strangers she could trifle with it: "Mrs. S. is very
feeble; can t bear allopathic treatment, can t have
homoeopathic, don t want hydropathic/ oh, what a pickle
she is in ! " 47 In her own family she takes it as easily :
" We are sick hardly ever at home, and don t know what
to do when it comes, wrinkle our little brows, and
stamp with our little feet, and our tiny souls get angry,
and command it to go away." 48 When the blow struck
herself, she may have writhed, but we have nothing to
show it. There is the same mockery to wave it aside:
"My head aches a little, and my heart a little more,
30 taking me collectively, I seem quite miserable; but
I 11 give you the sunny corners, and you must n t look
at the shade." 49

Religion, formal religion, Sunday religion, the reli
gion of staid worship and rock-bound creeds, she takes
as airily, with as astonishing whiffs of indifference, not
to say irreverence. If a phrase of scripture, even the
most sacred, fits a jest, she takes it. If a solemn piece
of starched emptiness in the pulpit ruffles her nice and
tender spirit, she does not hesitate to turn him into
delicate and cutting ridicule. Faith, she says, oh, yes,


faith, how august, how venerable! "We dignify our
faith when we can cross the ocean with it, though most
prefer ships." 50 A revival comes to town. I have no
doubt its deeper side stirred her whole soul. But this
she cannot put into adequate speech, and instead:
"There is that which is called an awakening in the
church, and I know of no choicer ecstasy than to see

Mrs. roll out in crape every morning, I suppose

to intimidate antichrist; at least it would have that
effect on me." 51

Even her most intimate friend, her comforter and
consoler, her everlasting solace, God, is treated with
such light ease as an intimate friend would be. We
have seen that every morning her family prayed to an
eclipse whom they called their Father. Elsewhere the
tone is just the same: "If prayers had any answers
to them, you were all here to-night, but I seek and I
don t find, and knock and it is not opened. Wonder if
God is just presume He is, however, and twas only
a blunder of Matthew s." 52 Or, take much the same
thing, in apparently more solemn form, but really as
daring as Omar Khayyam :

" Heavenly Father/ take to thee
The supreme iniquity,
Fashioned by thy candid hand
In a moment contraband.


Though to trust us seem to us
More respectful we are dust/
We apologize to thee
For thine own duplicity." 53

I quote verse here to show that every phase of
Emily s thought and character could be illustrated from
her poems as well as from her letters. Criticism of
the poems as such is not within the limits of my pur
pose. Yet even the most abstract literary criticism of
a writer s works usually serves to give some clue to
the writer s mind. And doubtless the puzzling inco-
herency and complexity of Emily s versicles, the wild
vagary of her rhythm and rhyme, express the inner
workings of her spirit, as Milton s majestic diction and
movement imply the ample grandeur of his soul. Com
mon words come from common lips and rare from
rare, and if the rareness verges on oddity in utterance
there is oddity in the spirit too. At any rate, it is in
disputable that every trait I have been working out in
Emily s letters could be found in the poems, also, only
more obscure, more veiled, more dubious, more mys
tical. The love of friends is there and the search for
them and the hopeless impossibility of touching them.
The longing for love is there, all its mystery, its ravish
ing revelations and its burden. The intense joy of life
is there; its vivid color, its movement, its sparkle, its


merriment, its absurdity. There, too, is the turning
away from it with vast relief, quiet, solitude, peace,
eternity, and God.

It will be asked whether, in writing her vast number
of little verses, Emily had any definite idea of literary
ambition, of success and glory. Certainly she made no
direct effort for anything of the kind. Only three or
four poems were printed during her lifetime, and those
with extreme reluctance on her part. Her verses were
scattered through brief letters, tossed off with apparent
indifference and 1 evident disregard of finish. In the
main, they must have been rather a form of intense,
instinctive expression than a conscious attempt to catch
the thoughts and admiration of men. She herself says :
"When a sudden light on orchards, or a new fashion
in the wind troubled my attention, I felt a palsy here,
the verses just relieve/ 54 It is true that there are
occasional suggestions of literary interest. This is
sometimes implied in her intercourse with Colonel
Higginson, though I cannot but feel that her corre
spondence with the good colonel contains more attitude
than her other letters, and she certainly played with
him a little. Further, the verses which introduce the
first volume of poems are definitely in the nature of
an author s apology:


" This is my letter to the world,
That never wrote to me."

Nevertheless, we are safe in saying that few authors
have left permanent work with so little conscious pre
occupation of authorship.


AND so we are brought back to her one great preoccu
pation with the inner life and God and eternity; for
eternity rings through every thought of her, like a deep
and solemn bell, monotonous, if its surface echoes were
not broken into such wild and varied music. Change?
She appreciates change, no one more keenly, its glory
and its horror. " No part of mind is permanent. This
startles the happy, but it assists the sad." 55 Rest? She
appreciates rest, if in this world there were such a
thing. Love "makes but one mistake, it tells us it is
rest perhaps its toil is rest, but what we have not
known we shall know again, that divine again for
which we are all breathless." 56 But change and toil
and love and agony, all she forgets in that divine per
manence, from which her soul cannot escape and does
not desire to.

" As all the heavens were a bell,

And Being but an ear,
And I and silence some strange race,
Wrecked, solitary, here/ 57


Or, again, in prose, even more simple and overwhelm
ing: "I cannot tell how Eternity seems. It sweeps
around me like a sea." 68

Let no one say that this inner absorption, this dwell
ing with God and with that which abideth, is selfish.
Many will say so. And what lives do they lead them
selves ? Lives of empty bustle, of greedy haste, of futile
activity and eagerness. Lives, no doubt, also of wide
usefulness and deep human sacrifice; but these are not
the most ready to accuse others. And too often broad
social contact and a constant movement out of doors
are but symptoms of emptiness, of hatred of solitude,
of an underlying fear of one s self and of being left
alone with God.

Who shall say that such a quiet, self-contained, self-
filling life as Emily Dickinson s, with its contagion
of eternity spreading ineffably from soul to soul, is
not in the end as useful for example and accomplish
ment as the buzz existence of Mrs. Stowe or Frances

It is true that some who watched her thought her
selfish in minor matters. She was exacting with her
family, made hard demands and expected to have them
satisfied. But this was a detail. In her larger life she
forgot self altogether, or rather, she made self as wide


as heaven, till all loves and all hates and all men and
all God were included in it. And note that she did not
fly the world for her own purposes. She had no aim
of long ambition to work out in solitude. She did not
trouble with self-culture, did not buttress thought upon
the vast security of books and learning, as did Mrs.
Ripley. She just sat quiet, with the doors of her spirit
open, and let God come to her. And even that celes
tial coming did not make her restless. She had not
Mary Lyon s longing to bring God to others. She did
not share Frances Willard s passionate cry, " tell every
one to be good." If God had desired men to be good,
He would have made them so. If God s world needed
mending, let Him mend it. She knew well enough He
could, if He wished. Why should she vex her soul
with trifles? For to her was not the real unreal and
the unreal real?

So I see her last as I saw her first, standing, all
white, at her balcony window, ready to float downward
upon her unrolled carpet into the wide garden of the
world, holding eternity clutched tight in one hand and
from the other dropping with idle grace those flower
joys of life which the grosser herd of us run after so
madly. And I hear her brothers, the clowns of Shake
speare, singing:


" When that I was and a little, tiny boy,

With heigh-ho, the wind and the rain,
A little thing was all my joy.

For the rain it raineth every day.

" When that I had and a little, tiny wit,

With heigh-ho, the wind and the rain,
I made content with my fortunes fit.
For the rain it raineth every day." 5d




Adams, Abigail Letters, 2 vols.

Adams, Abigail Familiar Letters^.

Bianchi, Martha Dickinson Selections from
the unpublished letters of Emily Dickin
son to her brother s family, in the Atlan
tic Monthly, vol. cxv, p. 35.

Cheney, Ednah Dow Reminiscences.

Cheney, Ednah Dow Louisa May Alcott,
Her Life, Letters, and Journals, edited by
Ednah D. Cheney.

Dickinson, Emily Letters of Emily Dick
inson, edited by Mabel Loomis Todd, in
2 vols.

Dickinson, Emily Poems, First, Second
and Third Series.

Dickinson, Emily The Single Hound.

Fields, Annie Life and Letters of Harriet
Beecher Stowe.

Fisk, Fidelia Recollections of Mary Lyon f
with Selections from her Instructions to
the Pupils in Mount Holyoke Female

Fuller, Sarah Margaret Love Letters.

Fuller, Sarah Margaret Memoirs, 2 vols.

Gilchrist, Beth Bradford Life of Mary

Gordon, Anna A. The Beautiful Life of
Frances E. Willard.

Higginson, Thomas Wentworth Margaret
Fuller Ossoli.

Hitchcock, Edward The Power of Chris
tian Benevolence illustrated in the Life
and Labors of Mary Lyon.

Manuscript in Boston Public Library.

Reminiscences of Mary Lyon by her Pupils
Manuscript in Mount Holyoke Library.

Familiar Letters.

Mrs. Bianchi.
Mrs.Cheney Rem.

Mrs. Cheney.


Poems, i, n, in.
The Single Hound.

Mrs. Fields.

Miss Fisk.
Love Letters.

Miss Gilchrist*



MS., B. P. E.



Stowe, Charles E. The Life of Harriet
Beecher Stowe. Stowe.

Stowe, Charles E. and Lyman B. Harriet
Beecher Stowe. Stowe and Stowe.

Willard, Frances E. Gimpses of Fifty

Years. Glimpses.



1. Letters, vol. n, p. 29. 31.

2. Familiar Letters, p. 182.

3. Familiar Letters, p. 126. 32.

4. Letters, vol. i, p. 187. 33.

5. Letters, vol. n, p. 269. 34.

6. Letters, vol. n, p. 265. 35.

7. Letters, vol. i, p. 185. 36.

8. Familiar Letters, p. 26. 37.

9. Letters, vol. n, p. 219. 38.

10. Familiar Letters, p. 159. 39.

11. Familiar Letters, p. 355. 40.

12. John Quincy Adams, Memoirs, 41.

vol. iv, p. 155. 42.

13. John Quincy Adams, Memoirs, 43.

vol. iv, p. 157. 44.

14. John Quincy Adams, Memoirs t 45.

vol. xi, p. 400.

15. Abigail Adams (Smith), Journal 46.

and Correspondence, p. 215. 47.

1 6. Letters, vol. n, p. 56. 48.

17. Letters, vol. n, p. 186. 49-

1 8. Familiar Letters, p. 64. 50.

19. Familiar Letters, p. 351. 51.

20. Familiar Letters, p. 253.

21. Familiar Letters, p. 368. 52.

22. Familiar Letters, p. 125. 53.

23. Familiar Letters, p. 179.

24. Familiar Letters, preface, p. 54.

xxvii. 55.

25. Familiar Letters, p. 244.

26. Warren-Adams Letters, vol. i, 56.

p. 19. 57-

27. Familiar Letters, p. 122.

28. Familiar Letters, p. 150. 58.

29. Letters, vol. n, p. 229. 59.

30. Letters, vol. n, p. 271. 60.

Abigail Adams ( Smith ), Journal

and Correspondence, p. 216.
Letters, vol. n, p. 16.
Letters, vol. 11, p. 5.
Familiar Letters, p. 310.
Familiar Letters, p. 10.
Familiar Letters, p. 130.
Familiar Letters, p. 361.
Letters, vol. n, p. 264.
Familiar Letters, p. 53.
Familiar Letters, p. 69.
Familiar Letters, p. 52.
Familiar Letters, p. 384.
Familiar Letters, p. 309.
Familiar Letters, p. 138.
Abigail Adams ( Smith ), Journal

and Correspondence, p. 223.
Familiar Letters, p. 42.
Familiar Letters, p. 91.
Familiar Letters, p. 229.
Familiar Letters, p. 47.
Familiar Letters, p. 214.
John Adams, Works, vol. x,

p. 220.

Familiar Letters, p. 397-
John Adams, Works, vol. in,

p. 418.

Familiar Letters, p. 121.
Abigail Adams (Smith), Journal

and Correspondence, p. 246.
Letters, vol. n, p. 235.
Abigail Adams ( Smith ), Journal

and Correspondence, p. 237.
Works (Ford), vol. v, p. 14.
Letters, voK n, p. 253.
Familiar Letters, p. 115.


61. Familiar Letters, p. 367.

62. Familiar Letters, p. 358.

63. Familiar Letters, p. 343.

64. Familiar Letters, p. 201.

65. Familiar Letters, p. 79.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 13

Online LibraryGamaliel BradfordPortraits of American women → online text (page 13 of 14)