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The Great Love in the Life of Emily Dickinson

May 2024
9min read

For 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.

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.

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.


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