The Great Love in the Life of Emily Dickinson

PrintPrintEmailEmailFor many years one of the most fascinating mysteries of American literature has been the personal Iife of Emily Dickinson. Of no other major American poet lias there been so little positive information. Thus far, indeed, there has not even been a wholly reliable text of her works, and the question of the great love-interest of her life and its connection with her poems lias remained a romantic enigma. In 1950 Harvard University became the owner of the Dickinson papers and pnl its collection in charge of Thomas H. Johnson, chairman of the English department of the Lawrenceville School, Lawrenceville, New Jersey. From his extensive study of this material Mr. Johnson has prepared the definitive text of Emily Dickinson’s poetry, to be published by the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press in September, 1955. He is now engaged in writing her biography, which will be issued by Ihr same press shortly thereafter. In the following article, which is an epitome of one of the chapters in that biography, Mr. Johnson traces her profound attachment for the Reverend Charles Wadsworth and shows how it affected her writing.

--The Editors

One of the unanswered questions is what happened to the poems that Emily Dickinson wrote in her youth. Aside from two valentines, there are only three verses that can be identified surely as having been written before 1858, when she was in her twenty-eighth year. At that time she began systematically to transcribe her verses onto sheets of stationery which she tied loosely into small packets and laid away.

In 1858 she gathered more than fifty poems into packets. The number increased in each of the three years following, and by 1862 the creative drive must have been overwhelming;. During; that year she transcribed into packets no fewer than 370 poems, t lie greater part of them complete and final texts. Whether this incredible number was all composed in that year or represents a transcription of earlier drafts can never be determined by direct evidence. But the pattern emerging during the preceding four years reveals a gathering momentum, and the quality of tenseness and prosodie skill in the poems of 1858-59 bears scant likeness to the conventionality of theme and treatment in the poems of 1858-59.

By 1861 the number of poems dealing sentimentally with nature and love are on the wane, supplanted by poems oï immediate, sometimes violent intensity: “I can wade grief,” “What would I give to see his face,” “I like a look of agony,” “I felt a funeral in my brain,” and “Wild nights, wild nights.” Poems beginning with the personal pronoun are conspicuous. A volcanic commotion is becoming apparent in her emotional life.


Though all evidence is circumstantial and will always remain so, the inescapable conclusion seems to be that about this time Emily Dickinson fell in love with the Reverend Charles Wadsworth. Not only do all known facts support the hypothesis, but the very nature of the poems written in 1861 and the years immediately following confirms the supposition. (In her later years she was for a time in love with Judge Otis P. Lord of Salem, but the attachment in no way affected her creative artistry, and was not significant in her development as poet.)

Returning for a moment to 1858, one may say that, though Emily Dickinson must certainly have written poems before she was 28, she came to feel that her earlier verses were spiritless. Some she destroyed. The rest she incorporated in the earliest packets, but there could not have been many. A pattern emerges in her life during the 1850’s that seems to have direct bearing on her function, first as a writer of verse, then as an artist.

In the late Forties Benjamin Franklin Newton was a law student in the office of Emily’s father, Edward Dickinson. In 1850 he set up a practice for himself in Worcester, and in the following year he married. Three vcars later he died. Ben Newton had been one of Emily Dickinson’s earliest “preceptors,” and his memory always remained with her. Newton awakened in her a response to intellectual independence and a delight in literature which later made her call him the “friend who taught me Immortality.” She told Colonel T. W. Higginson in 1862, after he had praised some verses she sent him: “Your letter gave no Drunkenness, because I tasted Rum before . . . My dying Tutor told me that he would like to live till I had been a poet, but Death was much of a Mob as I could master—then.”

It would thus appear that when Emily Dickinson was about twenty years old her latent talents were invigorated by a gentle, grave young man who taught her how to observe the world. Their friendship was cut off by his early death. She made the statement to Higginson that “lor several years” after her tutor’s death her lexicon was her only companion. Perhaps during the five years after Newton’s death she was trying to fashion verses in a desultory manner. Her muse had left the land and she must await the coming of another. That event occurred in 1858 or 1859 in the person of Charles Wadsworth.