If you were coming in the fall.

This is a touching poem about the increasing anguish of waiting during an indefinite period of separation from the person you deeply love.

There is a traditional image of Emily Dickinson as a reclusive, eccentric spinster.  Modern commentators reject this as a complete travesty.  We see in this poem the intensity and passion that she feels towards some-one, from whom she is separated.


 Emily Dickinson’s text

The ideas in prose

If you were coming in the Fall,

I'd brush the Summer by

With half a smile, and half a spurn,(1)

As Housewives do, a Fly.(2)

If you were away from me only until the autumn, I would be able to brush off your absence quite lightly, just as a housewife swats away a fly.  And I could be reasonably happy throughout that lonely summer although also feeling a bit peeved.

If I could see you in a year,

I'd wind the months in balls --

And put them each in separate Drawers,

For fear the numbers fuse --

If it should turn out that you were away from me for a full year, I would use a trick to make the wait bearable.  I would find wool to wind in twelve balls and keep them in separate drawers, counting off the months one by one.  By this, I would make sure I don’t see them joined together in one long block of time.

If only Centuries, (3)delayed,

I'd count them on my Hand,

Subtracting, till my fingers dropped

Into Van Dieman's Land.(4)

In the third verse, she creates a wild fantasy about how long she would wait for her loved one.  She says that if she had to wait hundreds and hundreds of year, she would faithfully keep counting their number off on her hands, until her fingers fell off, landing at the other side of the earth.

If certain, when this life was out --

That yours and mine, should be

I'd toss it yonder, like a Rind,(5)

And take Eternity

If she became convinced that they could only be reunited in the world to come, then she would wish her life away, like a redundant leftover, and embrace their life together in eternity.

 

But, now, uncertain of the length

Of this, that is between,

It goads me, like the Goblin Bee –(6)

That will not state -- its sting(7)

But, now, as she is not sure of how long the period of their separation will be, the torment is like having a big, evil stinging bee hovering over her that could strike any time

 

 

 

 

TRANSLATION NOTES

(1)   A spurn – a gesture or expression of rejection or disagreement

(2)   As housewives do, a fly. - The simile is domestic and realistic.

(3)   If only Centuries delayed – In this verse the poet’s imagery leaves the real world and goes to the world of fantastic imagination – counting hundreds of years on her fingers until they fall off into Van Dieman’s Land.  As no human life is so long, she is making her point by by the use of exaggeration -  or in the terminology of of poetry critics "by the use of hyperbole."

(4)   Van Dieman's Land - Van Dieman’s Land was an early name for Tasmania. Children in England, when imagining the exact opposite side of the globe, talk of Australia.  According to Emily Dickinson, the people of  Massachussetts must calculate much the same location.

(5)   Rind – This is the covering of meat, cheese and fruit that finally gets thrown away as it has no use once it has served its purpose.

(6)   Like the Goblin Bee – this seems to be a giant malignant bee from Emily Dickinson’s vivid imagination.

(7)   That will not state -- its sting(7)-  As she is totally uncertain of the length of the separation, she cannot calculate the hurt that lies in store for her. From experience, no doubt, Emily Dickinson is talking of the special torture of prolonged suspense. 

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BIOGRAPHICAL NOTES

THE DELAYED REALISATION OF THE LITERARY STATURE OF 

EMILY DICKINSON.

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, U.S.A.  on December 10, 1830 and she died there in the town of her birth on May 15, 1886 at the age of 55.  She had been writing poetry from her earliest years, but by the time of her death only seven of her poems had been published, some of these by a gentleman friend, Samuel Bowles, who was editor of the Springfield Republican. 

Emily had instructed her younger sister, Lavinia to burn all her papers on her death, but aware of her sister’s skills as a writer, Lavinia disobeyed.  There was a mass of material stacked in Emily’s room containing poems and fragments of verse,.  There were also poems and letters  in the hands of the many friends she had written to.

Friends of the Dickinson family then set about collating these documents and they published the first volume of her poetry in 1890.  This was an immediate success and her poems became ever more popular across the United States and across the world as the 20th century progressed.  However her output was so vast (1,775 poems) and so complex that the earlier volumes were not only incomplete but at times inaccurate.  As a result, it was not until 1955 that an authoritative edition of her complete works was published.  A complete edition of her poetry, which restored her original idiosyncratic punctuation and  her typographic style, was published in 1960. A three-volume edition of the distinctive letters that she wrote to her friends appeared in 1958.   

The full genius of Emily Dickinson has now been recognised and her reputation has been universally established as one of the very greatest poets in the English language.

 

 
A daguerreotype photo of Emily Dickinson at the age of sixteen.  She was aware that her sister  and many of the girls with whom she enjoyed close friendships were beautiful in comparison with her.  With her usual, engaging sense of humour, she said that she was "the only kangaroo" in the company. This was no impediment in her winning the love of many people.
(The earliest method of photography was the achievement of a Frenchman, Louis Daguerre in 1839.  It rapidly became popular internationally until it was replaced by a faster less expensive process after the 1860s)
Those who think of Emily Dickinson as loveless should read her short and witty poem about the importance of love in her life:
I had no time to hate, because
The grave would hinder me,
And life was not so ample I
Could finish enmity.

Nor had I time to love; but since
Some industry must be,
The little toil of love, I thought,
Was large enough for me.

 Why the myth surrounding Emily Dickinson needs to be discredited

 

As Emily Dickinson chose to spend her life shut off from the outside world, with face to face contact only with those of her household, there is a caricature of her that intrudes on the appreciation of her and her literary works.  At its most cruel, she is the New England nun, a strange most eccentric recluse.  Even in her lifetime, she was known as the “Myth of Amherst” - but, in those days, no-one outside knew her secret.  Now that we have her voluminous personal writings and now that the facts of her life have been disclosed, we are in position to fill in the details – or should be able to.  Yet scholars remain hesitant about attributing a specific cause for her choice of lifestyle.  Usually they confine themselves to saying that there were a number of factors contributing to Emily’s reclusiveness, one of which could have been a medical problem.   In fact, the medical problem was very much the sufficient reason and the recent book, , “Lives Like Loaded Guns” ,  by Lyndall Gordon, fellow of St Hilda’s College, Oxford University gives a vivid and comprehensive account of the shattering  impact of this illness on Emily and on close family and friends who cared for her and kept her secret.   On the final page of the book, Lyndall Gordon states unequivocally that it was this sickness that determined Emily’s housebound life.

The sickness was some form of epilepsy and it was in the genes of her family. Two close family members were also sufferers in Emily’s lifetime.  The story of how her father, elder brother and younger sister protected her, sought treatment for her and tended her makes very touching reading.  Although Emily would not speak the name of her problem, in her poems are detailed references to the symptoms of seizures.

The secrecy is understandable as, at that time, there was a stigma associated with epilepsy.  Once we are freed from this reticence, however, her so called “highly eccentric” behaviour is fully explained.  Her “mania” for wearing white was dictated by the need for total cleanliness and her anxiety about staying more than the briefest time in company was wholly rational.  As Lyndall Gordon says: “A seizure can happen with little warning: in about a minute. Too short a time to take cover. This is why those who keep the condition secret would fear to go out, even to join callers in the parlour.”

The facts of her epilepsy are not just important for truth in her biography but also for an understanding of her poetic  genius.  Some famous figures in history were epileptic. From literature Lyndall Gordon quotes  Dostoevsky whose epilepsy, she says, made him a visionary as well as led him into the depths.   Emily believed these frightening experiences sharpened her vision and the period of years when she was victim of them the most was the period most richly productive of poetry.

My loss, by sickness - Was it Loss?

Or that Etherial Gain

One earns by measuring the Grave –

Then - measuring the Sun -

She wrote this 'As One does Sickness over' when she was recovering from another attack of her illness in early 1865.  She thinks that it could prove to have been to her benefit, giving the opportunity for the emergence of a new identity as a poet and visionary, which health (blessed health) would have obscured

Lyndall Gordon describes how Emily Dickinson’s affliction played its part in her genius:

So it was that art and life converge at this point, when poetic immortality is certain. Poetry is not only celebrated for its explosiveness; it's also the protective gun that guards the `head' by night (art's ability to protect against outbreaks of sickness), and this guardianship is preferable to the shared pillow of matrimony….. Contained further in her own domestic order, propped up by her protective father and sister, Emily Dickinson saved herself from the anarchy of her condition and put it to use.

 

 

The following is for my personal reference.  They are the notes that I made from the fifth chapter of Lyndall Gordon’s “Lives like loaded guns”- the chapter entitled “Snarl in the brain”.  They are the notes I used for the summary above and I am keeping them, while I study the other two poems by Emily Dickinson on Carla Bruni’s album.

 SNARL IN THE BRAIN' Pages 114- 136 (Lyndall Gordon)

The sickness was some form of epilepsy

Lyndall Gordon tells us it was Epilepsy

Bottom of 116 Allowing for the poet's resolve to `tell it slant', through metaphor, are we not looking at epilepsy? The word, from the Greek, means seizure

In childhood Emily had mild symptoms of epilepsy

135 para 3 The mildest manifestations are absences. A friend of Dickinson's youth, Emily Fowler (later Mrs Ford), recalled that she dropped crockery. Plates and cups seemed to slide out of her hands and lay in pieces on the floor. The story was designed to bring out her eccentricity for, it was said, she hid the fragments in the fireplace behind a fireboard, forgetting they were bound to be discovered in winter. This memory is more important than Mrs Ford realised because it suggests absences, either accompanying the condition or the condition itself.

No real treatment for epilepsy in Emily’s time

Page 131 2nd para- If the guess about epilepsy is right, then the reason Emily's treatment failed is because epilepsy was not curable. Drugs, developed later, merely suppress seizures which often happen with the depression of consciousness at night

Epilepsy was in the genes of her family. Two close family members were also sufferers

top 132 - Epilepsy has a genetic component, and two others in Emily's family were subject to seizures. Cousin Zebina Montague, immured at home - he, too - across the road into town from the Homestead was a son of Irenc Dickinson ('Aunt Montague'), sister to Emily's grandfather Samuel Fowler Dickinson.  …. He became engaged at the age of twenty-nine. His blue-eyed fiancée, aged nineteen, came from a family of wealth and social standing.

In his letter, he says that he will draw a veil over what happened next,  for it was then, in 1839, that 'dreadful disease' struck: he was disabled and the marriage was off. The veil consists of one inadequate word of explanation: he was 'paralysed'. Whatever actually happened, it left him 'blank', and when he could not recover, a devoted slave (whom he'd taught to read and write) undertook to convey the sick man a distance of some fifteen hundred miles-an interminable journey in bumping coaches - to a sick and ageing mother in the Montague homestead in Amherst.

…this supposedly sick man went on living for a very long time - another forty years. His paralysis was said to be 'partial', without indicating, as people usually do, what (if any) part of his body was visibly affected

133 2nd para - From his late twenties until his seventies Zebina rarely left home, and t herefore needed that sort of support in which one member of family puts her life at the service of another. Zebina's sister Harriet did this. He didn't marry and neither did his sister.

The second member afflicted

Then another member of the family turned out to be afflicted: young r Edward (Ned) Dickinson, born to Austin and Sue in 1861. At the age of fifteen, in mid-February 1877, Ned had a fit, to his family's dismay. 'It seems he went to bed as well as usual Sunday night,' a caller was told, '- in the night was taken with a fit, followed by another on Monday morning' while the doctor was present.

135 1st para - Austin kept a record of Ned's seizures in a diary of 1880 when his son was nineteen and a student at Amherst College. The eight seizures that year happened at night, about one hour into sleep. At the sound of Ned's awakening cry, Austin would leap over the rails at the bottom of the bed he shared with Sue and rush upstairs. It was always Austin who went and he never got used to the groans from Ned's room, the foaming mouth, the spasms of mouth, neck and chest, and the strained breathing that followed convulsions `distressing to see'

How her father, elder brother and younger sister protected her,  sought treatment for her and tended her

114 Sickness is always there, unnamed, shielded by cover stories. In youth, a cough is mentioned

Para3 119 From her schooldays, when Emily was not well, she stayed for long periods in Boston with her Aunt Lavinia and little cousins Loo and Fanny Norcross. Between 4 and 22 September 1851, when Emily was twenty and staying with her aunt, she consulted Dr James Jackson, a man of seventyfour,

Para 3 120 Dr Jackson … warned against experiment. Once the disease had begun, there was no stopping its course. The best practice was to avoid whatever might aggravate or prolong attacks: agitation, fright, fatigue and excitement.

Top page 121 It could have been Dr Jackson who persuaded Emily Dickinson to accept the prospect of seclusion and singleness in the hope of doing something with the intellectual and creative gifts that this doctor had the capacity to discern. Here was just the person to help this young woman devise the way of life to which she adapted with such extraordinary results.

Dr Jackson's authority would have weighed with Mr Dickinson, who agreed to relieve his daughter of the household tasks and empty social gatherings she loathed. Instead, he indulged the priority she wished to give to poetry and promoted mild exertion in the fresh air: daily walks with her dog Carlo (named after St John Rivers's dog in Jane Eyre) and her taste for gardening. For her sake Mr Dickinson added a conservatory in a corner between the dining room and the library, with indoor access through the library, so that she might continue to garden during the winter.

123 3rd para Epileptics are often attached to a member of family, who makes it their lifelong task to care for them. In the Dickinson Homestead, Lavinia took this on.

Top 125 - She was fortunate in her father. Traditional and formidable though he was, he supported her, we might guess from the respect and security she enjoyed in a home she always called `my father's house'.

 Detailed references to the symptoms of seizures in her poems.

115 1st para - Collectively, in her poems, there's a history of a mechanism breaking down, a body dropping, in one of her clock poems, when the ticking stops. It `will not stir for Doctors'. In 'A Clock stopped' it's a clock with miniature figures that appear on the hour. The figures dangle, hunched in pain, like puppets bowing. Not the clock on the mantel, Dickinson says, pressing her point: it's the body that seizes up.

115 2nd para `Agony' is her truth in a poem about telling the truth:

`Men do not sham Convulsion,

 Nor simulate, a Throe -'.

Could her volcanoes and earthquakes, the unexploded Bomb in her Bosom and her life as Loaded Gun, repeat this truth?

116 Dickinson's poetry is replete with information about dysfunction and recovery. Here is what she has to tell: `I felt a Funeral, in my Brain'. A plank in reason broke, she says, and 'I dropped down, and down -'. She feels a `Cleaving' in her brain, as though the lid of the brain gets `off my head' and can't re-attach. Logic and its sequential language are disrupted.

 I felt a Cleaving in my Mind -

As if my Brain had split -

I tried to match it - Seam by Seam –

But could not make them fit

The thought behind, I strove to join

Unto the thought before -

But Sequence ravelled out of Sound –

Like Balls upon a Floor -

116 One poem records what seems like a Throe: its slow but relentless onset, its drumming in the head, its deceptive pause before, again, a full-on bolt `scalps' its victim.

Bottom 117-118 In the poems that recount the various stages of `Dying in the night', the horror lies in the onset and aftermath. The Throe itself is brief - `The Maddest - quickest - by -', and in its course the body sheds the flesh and becomes an immortal soul. A sign of divine favour, she would not wish to exchange this for what we call normality.

Afterwards, the brain sinks into a `Fog'. A dimness envelopes consciousness, she says, as mists obliterate a crag. In this state, the soul seems to abandon the body to a death-in-life she calls `Languor' or `the Hour of Lead'. Languor and visions, Throe and art co-exist in ways understanding of the brain can't, as yet, follow.

Fits! 

Top 133 When Emily, aged eleven, heard that her male cousin, Zebina, aged thirty-two, had bitten his tongue in the course of a fit, secrecy was not preserved – not at least within the family. The word `fit' was in the air in 1842, and an alert child picked it up

125 2nd para . Emily turns over this word-'fit'- in her mind, trying to adapt herself to the diagnosis:

It don’t  sound so terrible -quite - as it did –

 I run it over -'Dead', Brain -'Dead' .. .

How like `a fit'-.

She plays on the ambiguity of `fit' in the context of wearing an outfit. `Murder -wear!' She will `fit' herself to `Murder', another code word for `dying in the night'. In a later poem, `I fit for them', she again draws on the double entendre of fitting herself to certain conditions, as though she had chosen them. At thirty-five, helplessness becomes agency: `I fit for them - I seek the Dark Till I am thorough fit.'

Page 126 top - And yet she never got over her fear of `it' and in time her constant apprehension of `a Fitting' turns out to be 'terribler' than when it's on - when she's `wearing it'. She was forty-three when she set this down in the first person; the fair copy shields `I' with `we':     

 

While we were fearing it, it came-          

But came with less of fear          

Because that fearing it so long 

 Had almost made it fair -

There is a Fitting -a Dismay-                      

 A Fitting-a Despair

'Tis harder knowing it is Due

Than knowing it is here

 The Trying on the Utmost           

The Morning it is New  

Is terribler than wearing it         

 A whole existence through

The stigma associated with epilepsy

117    Marriage for epileptics was discouraged and some American states prohibited it by law.* She saw herself `by birth a Bachelor'.

Top 119 Traditionally, epilepsy had carried a stigma. In the Middle Ages it was seen as a form of demonic possession and seizures played a part in convicting witches. In the nineteenth century, epileptics were sometimes incarcerated in asylums, and the more advanced asylums segregated them: too disturbing for the mentally ill. Females especially provoked genteel aversion as they broke the rules of ladylike control. Families therefore colluded to keep the condition a lifelong secret. Dickinson's poetry speaks of a `reticent' volcano: although its explosiveness would be relevant to her condition, the volcano's still,

Last para page 121 There is a bit of paper with a prescription which survives that is a crucial clue to Dr. Jackson's diagnosis. What he prescribed was half an ounce of glycerine diluted with two and a half ounces of water. Glycerine has many uses, but one of the medical uses in those days was for epilepsy

Page 122 Dr Hirschhorn asks an extremely pertinent question: why did Emily persist in asking Austin to send her this medication from Boston even though there was an adequate drugstore at home in Amherst? This practice was sanctioned by her father, who carried the prescription to Boston on at least one occasion.

The undeniable stigma of epilepsy could be the answer, given its shaming associations at that time with `hysteria', masturbation, syphilis and impairment of the intellect leading to `epileptic insanity'.*

134 para2 - . It was nineteenth-century practice to conceal shaming diseases: madness (in Jane Eyre) and syphilis (in Ibsen's Ghosts) as well as epilepsy

 Emily’s so-called “eccentric” behaviour is fully explained

117 If Epilepsy, at least in part, was the secret illness, the conditions of Dickinson's life make sense: sickness is a more sensible reason for seclusion than disappointed love. A seizure can happen with little warning: in about a minute. Too short a time to take cover. This is why those who keep the condition secret would fear to go out, even to join callers in the parlour.

Her permanent white dress – Bottom 122 - The main regimen recommended by authorities was what they called hygiene, and central to this was cleanliness

Famous epileptics in history

118 - In “Julius Caesar” it's called `the falling sickness', as Emily, a constant reader of Shakespeare, would have known:

 CASCA: He fell down in the market-place, and foam'd at the mouth, and was speechless.

BRUTUS: 'Tis very like, he hath the falling sickness.

CASCA:... And so he fell. When he came to himself, again, he said, if he had done or said any thing amiss, he desir'd their worships to think it was his infirmity.

Bottom 123 Whatever Dickinson may have endured in loss of control before, during and after a Throe, some part of her brain remained, as she said, alert.

Sufferers like Dostoyevsky can be visionary, as well as plumbing hellish depths.

 These frightening experiences sharpened her vision.  She regarded the epileptic throe as a privilege

116 To faint, she says, is to look deep into the darkness where things shape themselves. A jolt projects her from an abyss into an uncharted region of the mind, a purified alertness

Top 118 see above: ….in its course the body sheds the flesh and becomes an immortal soul. A sign of divine favour, she would not wish to exchange this for what we call normality.

114 DNA can be a form of tragedy. Yet during these blazing years of the early 1860s, Emily Dickinson transformed sickness into a story of promise:

 

My loss, by sickness - Was it Loss?

Or that Etherial Gain

One earns by measuring the Grave –

Then - measuring the Sun -

 Convalescing after another bout of sickness early in 1865, she mulls it over ('As One does Sickness over'), still open to Gain: the 'Chances' of an emergent 'Identity' (as poet and visionary) which health ('blessed health') would have obscured.

Bottom 123 – (Partly quoted above) - Whatever Emily may have endured in loss of control before, during and after a Throe, some part of her brain remained, as she said, alert. Sufferers like Dostoyevsky can be visionary, as well as plumbing hellish depths. The range of experience opened to the gifted can't he tabulated.* Dickinson's oxymorons defy definition: calm bomb; quiet earthquake; reticent volcano. Still, if she did suffer from epilepsy it would explain her claim that Existence struck through the daily ticking of her life. `Struck, was I, nor yet by Lightning-/ ... Maimed-was I

We might guess that during the four years when she produced so much of her greatest work, her sickness was at its height. In later years it was less active, as was her poetic output. By her fifties, the `Torrid Noons' of her early thirties had `lain their Missiles by-', though the Thunder that once brought 'the bolt' did rumble still.

135-136 - What's clear, on the evidence of Dickinson's writing and the sheer volume of her output, is that she coped inventively with gunshots from the brain into her body. In 'My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun -', the `power to kill' makes the gun a `deadly foe', but since this gun outlives its

Master it's no ordinary gun. Can it be the poet's art?

 

By late 1863, when this poem was probably written, the poetic force is sure of itself, exultant when it dares to expose its 'Vesuvian face'. To write this kind of poetry is a form of action, an act of pleasure `every time I speak for Him' - `Him' (the owner or Master) being the mortal self.

 

 

My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun -
In Corners - till a Day
The Owner passed - identified -
And carried Me away -

And now We roam in Sovereign Woods -
And now We hunt the Doe -
And every time I speak for Him -
The Mountains straight reply -

And do I smile, such cordial light
Upon the Valley glow -
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let its pleasure through -

And when at Night - Our good Day done -
I guard My Master's Head -
'Tis better than the Eider-Duck's
Deep Pillow - to have shared -

To foe of His - I'm deadly foe -
None stir the second time -
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye -
Or an emphatic Thumb -

Though I than He - may longer live
He longer must - than I -
For I have but the power to kill,
Without--the power to die--

 

 

So it was that art and life converge at this point, when poetic immortality is certain. Poetry is not only celebrated for its explosiveness; it's also the protective gun that guards the `head' by night (art's ability to protect against outbreaks of sickness), and this guardianship is preferable to the shared pillow of matrimony.

 

In this way, `My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun -'turns an explosive sickness, its recurrent dramas of `Revolver' and `Gun', into well-aimed art. I f t for them ... The secret is on her lips or it's kept like a bomb in her breast- a timebomb ticking softly in some of her poems, yet `calm'.

Art is made at the interface of abandon and decorum: the abandon of mind and feeling under the control of form, a tight form like Dickinson's four-line stanza, the beat of hymns thrumming in the veins of her forebears. Contained further in her own domestic order, propped up by her protective father and sister, Emily Dickinson saved herself from the anarchy of her condition and put it to use.

 

 

 

 

 
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