The Great Love in the Life of Emily Dickinson

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The extent to which Wadsworth realized the nature of her adoration can only be conjectured. He was a cosmopolitan minister of ready perceptions who long since had acquired the knowledge how to deal with exactly such problems. She certainly never made demands on him that were other than proper for a minister of the gospel to meet, though there was undoubtedly an affinitiveness in their emotional response to spiritual issues. Her eagerness after his death to learn from his lifelong friend, James D. Clark, details of his life and personality, is a measure of his reticences as a person, however responsive he must have been professionally. Though he himself wrote verses on occasion, one doubts that their communications touched upon poetry or that he was aware that her creative energies stemmed from the spell which he induced. One imagines that she gained her inspiration from the relationship that her imagination projected, but that her letters to him, however emotional they may have been in matters touching upon the soul’s affections, were somewhat disembodied. When she initiated her correspondence with T. W. Higginson in April, 1862, she turned to one who could in fact serve as a critic of her verse, which by that time she was writing as if she were pursued by Furies. She soon came to call Higginson her “preceptor” and her “safest friend,” and quite literally he became both to her. But he was never what Newton had once been, and Wadsworth overpoweringly became: the source of inspiration itself.

The crisis in Emily Dickinson’s life seems to have been precipitated by Wadsworth’s acceptance of a call to the Calvary Church in San Francisco in January, 1862. One can believe that he casually mentioned, as long before as September, 1861, that he was considering such a call. It is a plausible conjecture usually set forth to explain two sentences in her second letter to Higginson. Having spoken of losing the friend who taught her immortality, she goes on to say: “When I found one more—but he was not contented I be his scholar—so he left the Land.” And she gave as the primary reason for writing poetry at all: “I had a terror—since September—I could tell to none—and so I sing, as the Boy does by the Burying Ground—because I am afraid.”

To Emily Dickinson, Wadsworth’s removal was heart-rending. The distance was so appallingly vast that his absence—a permanent one so far as she knew —seemed to be a living entombment. It is at this time that she began to dress entirely in white, adopting, as she calls it, her “white election.” The name Calvary now first appears in her poems. In 1862 she used it nine times, always in verses charged with intense emotion. She speaks of herself as “Queen” of Calvary. In the poem “Title Divine is mine,” as “Empress ol Calvary” she is “Born—Bridalled—Shrouded—in a Day.” Once in 1863 it is introduced in the poem beginning “Where Thou art—that is Home/Cashmere or Calvary—the Same . . ./So I may Come.” No other place name is comparably used or anywhere nearly so often.

A mere listing of first lines of some of the highly emotional poems of “marriage” and renunciation, that were written late in 1861 or early 1862, shows the extent to which her overwrought feelings were poured out. None of them was ever sent to a correspondent: they remained her private poems.

I got so I could hear his name . . . What would f give to see his fare . . . Wild nights, wild nights . . . I dreaded that first robin so ... I had the glory that will do ... I felt my life with both my hands . . . The day that I was crowned . . . Although I put away his life . . . How sick to wait . . . I live with him, I see his face . . . Mine by the right of the white election . . . I cannot live with you—that would be life . . .

In one packet alone, written early in 1862, are these:

I know that he exists, somewhere in silence . . . I tend my flowers for thee, bright absentee . . . At least to pray is left, is left . . . Is bliss the such abyss . . . After great pain a formal feeling comes . . . It will be summer eventually . . . ‘Twas the old road through pain . . . I envy seas whereon he rides . . .

As far as eye could peer, Wadsworth’s function ;ts preceptor must perforce cease.

It is significant that in June, 1869, after Wadsworth’s return from San Francisco had been publicly announced, Emily Dickinson wrote to Higginson inviting him to Amherst. “You were not aware,” she-says, “that you saved my Life. To thank you in person has been since then one of my few requests.” Higginson could know part of what she meant—that lie had given her private audience for her poems. But he could not know, as she of course was aware that he could not, in just what way he had provided a release from the tensions and preserved her sanity.

By 1870 Wadsworth was again established in Philadelphia, in another church, where he continued as pastor until his death. The crisis in Emily Dickinson’s life was over. Though nothing again would wring from her the anguish and the fulfillment of the years 1861-65, she continued to write poems for the iesi of her life. Proportionately the number is sharply decreased, but among them are many that embody her art at its serenest.