Emily Elizabeth Dickinson


Note: Of course, Emily Dickinson never published any critical essays on her own or anyone else's poetry. However, she did clearly use her correspondence with T. W. Higginson as a kind of forum where she could talk about her reading, her ideas about language and poetry and her own work. The following is a selection of the most aesthetically revealing of her letters to Higginson. The texts are taken from Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward's The Letters of Emily Dickinson, 3 vols. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1958.


25 April, 1862

Mr Higginson, your kindness claimed earlier gratitude - but I was ill - and write today, from my pillow. Thank you for the surgery - it was not so painful as I supposed. I bring you others - as you ask - though they might not differ -. While my thought is undressed - I can make the distinction, but when I put them in the Gown - they look alike, and numb. You asked how old I was? I made no verse - but one or two - until this winter - Sir - 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 - You inquire my Books - For Poets - I have Keats - and Mr and Mrs Browning. For Prose - Mr Ruskin - Sir Thomas Browne - and the Revelations. I went to school - but in your manner of the phrase - had no education. When a little Girl, I had a friend, who taught me Immortality - but venturing too near, himself - he never returned - Soon after, my Tutor, died - and for several years, my Lexicon - was my only companion - Then I found one more - but he was not contented I be his scholar - so he left the Land. You ask of my Companions Hills - Sir - and the Sundown - and a Dog - large as myself, that my Father bought me - They are better than Beings - because they know - but do not tell - and the noise in the Pool, at Noon - excels my Piano. I have a Brother and Sister - My Mother does not care for thought - and Father, too busy with his Briefs - to notice what we do - He buys me many Books - but begs me not to read them - because he fears they joggle the Mind. They are religious - except me - and address an Eclipse, every morning - whom they call their "Father." But I fear my story fatigues you - I would like to learn - Could you tell me how to grow - or is it unconveyed - like Melody - or Witchcraft? You speak of Mr Whitman - I never read his Book - but was told that he was disgraceful - I read Miss Prescott's "Circumstance," but it followed me, in the Dark - so I avoided her - Two Editors of Journals came to my Father's House, this winter - and asked me for my Mind - and when I asked them "Why," they said I was penurious - and they, would use it for the World - I could not weigh myself - Myself - My size felt small - to me - I read your Chapters in the Atlantic - and experienced honor for you - I was sure you would not reject a confiding question - Is this - Sir - what you asked me to tell you?

Your friend, E-Dickinson.

This is her second letter to Higginson. The first, dated 15 April, 1862, asks him "to say if my Verse is alive?" and contained three poems: "There came a Day at Summer's full," "Of all the Sounds despatched abroad" and "South Winds jostle them." She had written to Higginson after reading his article "Letter to a Young Contributor," which gives advice to aspiring poets, in the April issue of Atlantic Monthly. There he cites both John Ruskin and Sir Thomas Browne as models of vigorous style. Harriet Prescott Spofford's "Circumstance" had been published in the Atlantic Monthly for May, 1860.



7 June 1862

Dear friend.

Your letter gave no Drunkenness, because I tasted Rum before - Domingo comes but once - yet I have had few pleasures so deep as your opinion, and if I tried to thank you, my tears would block my tongue - My dying Tutor told me that he would like to live till I had been a poet, but Death was much of Mob as I could master - then - And when far afterward - a sudden light on Orchards, or a new fashion in the wind troubled my attention - I felt a palsy, here - the Verses just relieve - Your second letter surprised me, and for a moment, swung - I had not supposed it. Your first - gave no dishonor, because the True - are not ashamed -I thanked you for your justice - but could not drop the Bells whose jingling cooled my Tramp - Perhaps the Balm, seemed better, because you bled me, first. I smile when you suggest that I delay "to publish" - that being foreign to my thought, as Firmament to Fin - If fame belonged to me, I could not escape her - if she did not, the longest day would pass me on the chase - and the approbation of my Dog, would forsake me -then - My Barefoot - Rank is better You think my gait "spasmodic" - I am in danger - Sir - You think me "uncontrolled" - I have no Tribunal. Would you have time to be the "friend" you should think I need? I have a little shape - it would not crowd your Desk - nor make much Racket as the Mouse, that dents your Galleries - If I might bring you what I do - not so frequent to trouble you - and ask you if I told it clear - 'twould be control, to me - The Sailor cannot see the North - but knows the Needle can - The "hand you stretch me in the Dark," I put mine in, and turn Away - I have no Saxon, now -

As if I asked a common Alms,
And in my wondering hand
A Stranger pressed a Kingdom,
And I, bewildered, stand -
As if I asked the Orient
Had it for me a Morn -
And it should lift it's purple Dikes,
And shatter me with Dawn!

But, will you be my Preceptor, Mr Higginson?

Your friend, E-Dickinson


July 1862

Could you believe me - without? I had no portrait, now, but am small, like the Wren, and my Hair is bold, like the Chestnut Bur - and my eyes, like the Sherry in the Glass, that the Guest leaves - Would this do just as well? It often alarms Father - He says Death might occur, and he has Molds of all the rest - but has no Mold of me, but I noticed the Quick wore off those things, in a few days, and forestall the dishonor - You will think no caprice of me. You said "Dark." I know the Butterfly - and the Lizard - and the Orchis - Are not those your Countrymen? I am happy to be your scholar, and will deserve the kindness, I cannot repay. If you truly consent, I recite, now - Will you tell me my fault, frankly as to yourself, for I had rather wince, than die. Men do not call the surgeon, to commend - the Bone, but to set it, Sir, and fracture within, is more critical. And for this, Preceptor, I shall bring you - Obedience - the Blossom from my Garden, and every gratitude I know. Perhaps you smile at me. I could not stop for that - My Business is Circumference - An ignorance, not of Customs, but if caught with the Dawn - or the Sunset see me - Myself the only Kangaroo among the Beauty, Sir, if you please, it afflicts me, and I thought that instruction would take it away. Because you have much business, beside the growth of me - you will appoint, yourself, how often I shall come - without your inconvenience. And if at any time - you regret you received me, or I prove a different fabric to that you supposed - you must banish me - When I state myself, as the Representative of the Verse - it does not mean - me - but a supposed person. You are true, about the "perfection." Today, makes Yesterday mean. You spoke of Pippa Passes - I never heard anybody speak of Pippa Passes - before. You see my posture is benighted. To thank you, baffles me. Are you perfectly powerful? Had I a pleasure you had not, I could delight to bring it.

Your Scholar

"Pippa Passes," by Robert Browning, had been published in 1841. The letter enclosed four poems: "Of Tribulation these are they," "Your Riches taught me poverty," "Some keep the Sabbath going to Church" and "Success is counted sweetest."


August 1862

Dear friend

Are these more orderly? I thank you for the Truth - I had no Monarch in my life, and cannot rule myself, and when I try to organize - my little Force explodes - and leaves me bare and Charred - I think you called me "Wayward." Will you help me improve? I suppose the pride that stops the Breath, in the Core of Woods, is not of Ourself - You say I confess the little mistake, and omit the large - Because I can see Orthography - but the Ignorance out of sight - is my Preceptor's charge - Of "shunning Men and Women" - they talk of Hallowed things, aloud - and embarrass my Dog - He and I dont object to them, if they'll exist their side. I think Carl[o] would please you - He is dumb, and brave - I think you would like the Chestnut Tree, I met in my walk. It hit my notice suddenly - and I thought the Skies were in Blossom - Then there's a noiseless noise in the Orchard - that I let persons hear - You told me in one letter, you could not come to see me, "now," and I made no answer, not because I had none, but did not think my¬self the price that you should come so far - I do not ask so large a pleasure, lest you might deny me - You say "Beyond your knowledge." You would not jest with me, because I believe you - but Preceptor - you cannot mean it? All men say "What" to me, but I thought it a fashion - When much in the Woods as a little Girl, I was told that the Snake would bite me, that I might pick a poisonous flower, or Goblins kidnap me, but I went along and met no one but Angels, who were far shyer of me, than I could be of them, so I hav'nt that confidence in fraud which many exercise. I shall observe your precept - though I dont understand it, always. I marked a line in One Verse - because I met it after I made it - and never consciously touch a paint, mixed by another person - I do not let go it, because it is mine. Have you the portrait of Mrs Browning? Persons sent me three - If you had none, will you have mine?

Your Scholar

With this letter she enclosed two poems: "Before I got my Eye put out," and "I cannot dance upon my Toes."


February 1863

Dear friend

I did not deem that Planetary forces annulled - but suffered an Exchange of Territory, or World - I should have liked to see you, before you became improbable. War feels to me an oblique place - Should there be other Summers, would you perhaps come? I found you were gone, by accident, as I find Systems are, or Seasons of the year, and obtain no cause - but suppose it a treason of Progress - that dissolves as it goes. Carlo - still remained - and I told him - Best Gains - must have the Losses' Test - To constitute them - Gains - My Shaggy Ally assented - Perhaps Death - gave me awe for friends - striking sharp and early, for I held them since - in a brittle love - of more alarm, than peace. I trust you may pass the limit of War, and though not reared to prayer - when service is had in Church, for Our Arms, I include yourself - I, too, have an "Island" - whose "Rose and Magnolia" are in the Egg, and it's "Black Berry" but a spicy prospective, yet as you say, "fascination" is absolute of Clime. I was thinking, today - as I noticed, that the "Supernatural," was only the Natural, disclosed - Not "Revelation" - 'tis - that waits, But our unfurnished eyes - But I fear I detain you - Should you, before this reaches you, experience immortality, who will inform me of the Exchange? Could you, with honor, avoid Death, I entreat you - Sir - It would bereave Your Gnome - I trust the "Procession of Flowers" was not a premonition -

Higginson had gone to South Carolina the previous November to command an African American regiment. Dickinson's references to flowers are probably in response to Higginson's poem, "Procession of Flowers," that appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in December, 1862.


early 1866

Dear friend.

Whom my Dog understood could not elude others. I should be glad to see you, but think it an apparitional pleasure - not to be fulfilled. I am uncertain of Boston. I had promised to visit my Physician for a few days in May, but Father objects because he is in the habit of me. Is it more far to Amherst? You would find a minute Host but a spacious Welcome - Lest you meet my Snake and suppose I deceive it was robbed of me - defeated too of the third line by the punctuation. The third and fourth were one - I had told you I did not print - I feared you might think me ostensible. If I still entreat you to teach me, are you much displeased? I will be patient - constant, never reject your knife and should my my [sic] slowness goad you, you knew before myself that

Except the smaller size
No lives are round -
These - hurry to a sphere
And show and end -
The larger - slower grow
And later hang -
The Summers of Hesperides
Are long.


Dickinson enclosed one poem in this letter: "A Death blow is a Life blow to some," along with a clipping of "The Snake" ("A narrow Fellow in the Grass") from the February17th issue of the Springfield Weekly Republican. She is complaining about the editorial manipulation of the poem.


 June 1866

Dear friend

Please to thank the Lady. She is very gentle to care. I must omit Boston. Father prefers so. He likes me to travel with him but objects that I visit. Might I entrust you, as my Guest to the Amherst Inn? When I have seen you, to improve will be better pleasure because I shall know which are the mistakes. Your opinion gives me a serious feeling. I would like to be what you deem me. Thank you I wish for Carlo.

Time is a test of trouble
But not a remedy -
If such it prove, it prove too
There was no malady.

Still I have the Hill, my Gibraltar remnant. Nature, seems it to myself, plays without a friend. You mention Immortality. That is the Flood subject. I was told that the Bank was the safest place for a Finless Mind. I explore but little since my mute Confed¬erate, yet the "infinite Beauty" - of which you speak comes too near to seek. To escape enchantment, one must always flee. Paradise is of the option. Whosoever will Own in Eden notwithstanding Adam and Repeal.


For the second time, she refuses an invitation to visit Higginson in Boston. Instead, she invites him to come to Amherst. In this letter she enclosed four poems: "Blazing in Gold," "Ample make this Bed," "To undertake is to achieve" and "As imperceptibly as Grief."


June 1869

Dear friend

A Letter always feels to me like immortality because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend. Indebted in our talk to attitude and accent, there seems a spectral power in thought that walks alone - I would like to thank you for your great kindness but never try to lift the words which I cannot hold. Should you come to Amherst, I might then succeed, though Gratitude is the timid wealth of those who have nothing. I am sure that you speak the truth, because the noble do, but your letters always surprise me. My life has been too simple and stern to embarrass any. "Seen of Angels" scarcely my responsibility. It is difficult not to be fictitious in so fair a place, but test's severe repairs are permitted all. When a little Girl I remember hearing that remarkable passage and preferring the "Power," not knowing at the time that "Kingdom" and "Glory" were included. You noticed my dwelling alone - To an Emigrant, Country is idle except it be his own. You speak kindly of seeing me. Could it please your convenience to come so far as Amherst I should be very glad, but I do not cross my Father's ground to any House or town. Of our greatest acts we are ignorant - You were not aware that you saved my Life. To thank you in person has been since then one of my few requests. The child that asks my flower "Will you," he says - "Will you" - and so to ask for what I want I know no other way. You will excuse each that I say, because no other taught me?



On the 16th of August, 1870, Higginson made his first visit to Dickinson in Amherst. That same evening he wrote a letter to his wife describing the day's events. In it he included the following comments that Dickinson made during their conversation:

"Women talk: men are silent: that is why I dread women. "My father only reads on Sunday - he reads lonely and rigorous books." "If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way." "How do most people live without any thoughts. There are many people in the world (you must have noticed them in the street) How do they live. How do they get strength to put on their clothes in the morning?" "When I lost the use of my Eyes it was a comfort to think there were so few real books that I could easily find some one to read me all of them." "Truth is such a rare thing it is delightful to tell it." "I find ecstasy in living - the mere sense of living is joy enough." I asked if she never felt want of employment, never going off the place & never seeing any visitor "I never thought of conceiving that I could ever have the slightest approach to such a want in all future time" (& added) "I feel that I have not expressed myself strongly enough."


November 1871

I did not read Mr Miller because I could not care about him - Transport is not urged - Mrs Hunt's Poems are stronger than any written by Women since Mrs - Browning, with the exception of Mrs Lewes - but truth like Ancestor's Brocades can stand alone - You speak of "Men and Women." That is a broad Book - "Bells and Pomegranates" I never saw but have Mrs Browning's endorsement. While Shakespeare remains Literature is firm - An Insect cannot run away with Achilles' Head. Thank you for having written the "Atlantic Essays." They are a fine Joy - though to possess the ingredient for Congratulation renders congratulation superfluous. Dear friend, I trust you as you ask - If I exceed permission, excuse the bleak simplicity that knew no tutor but the North. Would you but guide


Joaquin Miller (1841?-1913), although born in Indiana, was known as "The Byron of Oregon." His Song of the Sierras was published in 1871. Mrs. Hunt is Helen Hunt Jackson (1830-85). Mrs. Lewes is George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans, 1819-1880), who maintained a love affair with George Henry Lewes from the mid-1850s until his death in 1878. Men and Women (1855) and Bells and Pomegranates (1846) are by Robert Browning. Higginson's Atlantic Essays were published in 1871. Dickinson included four poems in this letter: "When I hoped I feared," "The Days that we can spare," "Step lightly on this narrow spot -" and "Remembrance has a Rear and Front -"-.


late May 1874

I thought that being a Poem one's self precluded the writing Poems, but perceive the Mistake. It seemed like going Home, to see your beautiful thought once more, now so long forbade it - Is It Intellect that the Patriot means when he speaks of his "Native Land"? I should have feared to "quote" to you what you "most valued." You have experienced sanctity. It is to me untried.

Of Life to own -
From Life to draw -
But never touch the Reservoir -

You kindly ask for my Blossoms and Books - I have read but a little recently - Existence has overpowered Books. Today, I slew a Mushroom-

I felt as if the Grass was pleased
To have it intermit.
This Surreptitious Scion
Of Summer's circumspect.

The broadest words are so narrow we can easily cross them - but there is water deeper than those which has no Bridge. My Brother and Sisters would love to see you. Twice, you have gone - Master - Would you but once come -

Dickinson is apparently referring here to Higginson's Memorial Day poem, "Decoration," which was published in the June issue of Scribner's Monthly.


February 1876

There is so much that is tenderly profane in even the sacredest Human Life - that perhaps it is instinct and not design, that dissuades us from it.

The Treason of an accent
Might Ecstasy transfer -
Of her effacing Fathom
Is no Recoverer -

It makes me happy to send you the Book. Thank you for accepting it, and please not to own "Daniel Deronda" till I bring it, when it is done. You ask me if I see any one - Judge Lord was with me a week in October and I talked with Father's Clergyman once, and once with Mr Bowles. Little - wayfaring acts - comprise my "pursuits" - and a few moments at night, for Books - after the rest sleep. Candor - my Preceptor - is the only wile. Did you not teach me that yourself, in the "Prelude" to "Malbone"? You once told me of "printing but a few Poems." I hoped it implied you possessed more --- Would you show me - one? You asked me if I liked the cold - but it is warm now. A mellow Rain is falling. It wont be ripe till April - How luscious is the dripping of February [sic] caves! It makes our thinking Pink - It antedates the Robin - Bereaving in prospective that Febuary [sic] leaves ---- Thank you for speaking kindly. I often go Home in thought to you.

Your Scholar

Daniel Deronda, by George Eliot, began running in installments in the March issue of Harper's Monthly, and this letter may well have been written after Dickinson had seen an announcement of its publication in book form later in the year.


Spring 1876

Dear friend.

Your thought is so serious and captivating, that it leaves one stronger and weaker too, the Fine of Delight. Of it's Bliss to yourself, we are ignorant, though you first teach us "that which is born of the Spirit is Spirit" - It is still as distinct as Paradise - the opening your first Book - It was Mansions - Nations - Kinsmen - too - to me -

I sued the News - yet feared - the News
That such a Realm could be -
"The House not made with Hands" it was -
Thrown open wide to me -

I had long heard of an Orchis before I found one, when a child, but the first clutch of the stem is as vivid now, as the Bog that bore it - so truthful is transport - Though inaudible to you, I have long thanked you. Silence' oblation to the Ear supersedes sound - Sweetest of Renowns to remain

Your Scholar

Is your friend better? And yourself, well?

Higginson's first book was Outdoor Papers (1863), containing "April Days," "My Outdoor Study," "Water Lilies," "The Life of Birds," and "The Procession of Flowers." The quotation in the second sentence is from John 3.6. The lines quoted in the poem are from 2, Corinthians 5.1.