The Great Love in the Life of Emily Dickinson


Wadsworth was pastor of the Arch Street Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia from 1850 until January, 1862. When Emily and her sister Lavinia returned from a three-week visit in Washington in April, 1854, after a visit with their father then serving as a member of Congress, they stopped over in Philadelphia for two weeks early in May as guests of their old school friend Eliza Coleman. Though there is no record of the event, one supposes that Emily went to hear Wadsworth, preach. A shy man, who gained his reputation as a pulpit orator from the sheer intensity of his utterance and the inner convictions of his Calvinistic beliefs, not from histrionics, he probably made an unforgettable impression on her. Perhaps she met him then. The only certain early fact is that he called on her some five years later.

That visit, and another he made briefly in the summer of 1880, are the only two known and quite possibly the only ones he ever made. But letters that she wrote after his death on April i, 1882, state much and imply more. Twice she calls Wadsworth her “closest” or “dearest earthlv friend.” She says that he was her “shepherd from ‘little girl’ hood” and that she cannot conjecture a world without him. A year later she wrote her close friend, Mrs. Josiah Gilhert Holland: “All other Surprise is at last monotonous, but the Death of the Loves is all moments—HOW. Love has but one Date—'The first of April/ ‘Today, Yesterday, and Forever.’ ”

Over the years she had come to envision him as a “Man of Sorrow,” and “a dusk gem, born of troubled waters.” Both visits were probably made at her request on occasions when he happened to be traveling nearby. The letters they exchanged did not survhe her death. Those that she wrote him, sent in covcrinsr notes to be forwarded by Mrs. Holland, were not so handled to mask a surreptitious romance. Neither Dr. nor Mrs. Holland would have cared to be party to such dealings. The process was one that Emily Dickinson adopted lor many of her later transactions witli the outside world. Except to her sister Lavinia, who never saw Wadsworth, she talked to no one about him. That fact alone establishes the place \Vadsworth filled in the structure of her emotion. To name Jahveh is to reveal the unmentionable. The curtains of the Ark of the Covenant must remain drawn.


Whether the poems in the earliest packets were in 1'act created in 1858 or in some instances earlier, the truth is that all are written by a person not yet inspired. They are uniformly sentimental, set down by a poet in love with the idea of being in love. Only one poem among them is animated by that catch in the breath which suggests that Emily herself is part of the destiny she seeks to embody in her verses. The enigmatic lines “I never lost as much but twice” speaks of being bereft by death of two important friendships, and concludes:

Angels—twice descending Reimbursed my store— Burglar! Banker—Father! I am poor once more!

Leonard Humphrey, a teacher at Amherst Academy whom she had admired, died in 1850. "I am always in love with my teachers,” she wrote in her school days. The death of Xewton certainly was a loss. The third could well have been Wadsworth.

By 1860 there is an increasing proportion of poems written with firm texture and a deepened purpose: ”|ust lost, when I was saved,” “I shall know why—when Time is over,” and “At last, to be identified.” It is in the two years following that the floodgates opened and she wrote with daemonic energy and creativeness. Whereas Newton as muse had awakened her to a sense of her talents, Wadsworth as muse made her a poet.

The emotion she was coming to feel was the more devastating because it was as genuine as it was hopeless. Wadsworth, now ^y, was at the zenith of his mature influence, fifteen years married and the head of a family, an established man of God whose rectitude was unquestioned. To her it was a basic necessity that he continue in all ways to be exactly the image of him that she had created. For her he must be both immediate and afar, acutely desired yet renounced, a preceptor to be longed for and reached by letter.

The fantasy that Wadsworth proposed an elopement has no basis in fact, and controverts all that is known of the psychology of either. The “bridal” and renunciation poems have meaning when interpreted as a part of Emily Dickinson’s lifelong need for a preceptor, a muse whom she could adore with physical passion in her imagination. Viewed otherwise they make no sense at all.