Emily and Me

Emily and Me

For Mondays this October (those past and a few more to come) I am traveling to Washington, Connecticut with Bruce to attend a lecture series about Emily Dickinson. Washington is in Litchfield County, a rural and beautiful part of the state of Connecticut. We leave our city full of commotion, noise and rush, and slowly, gradually become of a piece with another place and time: northward and sensate, set apart and reposed. The drive is our portal. At this time of year the leaves are changing. Week to week the landscape is newly beautiful, and yet again known, old. Occasional rain and fog and mist seep in and steady us, or the morning sun casts long, low shadows to sharpen our minds. When we arrive at Gunn Memorial Library we are transported to a Camelotian fortress, of rock and will and vision and strange, not unlike the one Emily Dickinson built for herself in Amherst.

The mesmerizing lecture series is given by Mark Scarbrough, who has many professional credits, from academia to the Today show. Mark is adroitly re-creating the context of Emily’s world, and situating a carefully curated selection of poems within it. Along with us, his audience. Mark is not an overly polished speaker; his is not a PowerPoint presentation. Rather, he satisfies with passion and marvel, brilliance and scholarship. Through gossipy asides, expert insight, and readings of her poems, he determines to convince us of Emily Dickinson’s existential oddity.

Last week’s lecture did just that, for me, in a particularly resonant way. Let me say first, that I don’t agree with all of Mark’s readings, or the meanings he derives from them. Nor does Bruce, who sees things differently again from me. But the picture of Emily herself that Mark reveals through her poetry, discovers within it, I recognize. Deeply. I want to take you on my path there.

I have been living and breathing Mark’s initial take-away idea since. Here it is: “The Romantic Movement was an attempt to heal temporal dislocation (that occurs) in a spatial setting.” He gave a contemporary example: Generations older than millennials feel displaced in time at family reunions and holidays (or in coffee shops), where everyone younger is on social media like Instagram and Twitter, and we/they aren’t. Or if we are, we are there differently. To mean, we have a moment that feels like we live in the past, that the present is not our time anymore – not the time anymore. In the Romantic era, people were dislocated by industrialization and other social upheavals – at a remove from Nature’s time. Writers, poets, painters, and philosophers attempted to reconcile the divide with concepts like transcendentalism. The sublime – an experience of great natural beauty while fearful or in pain – is another dislocation, similarly engendered. (From this derives the nontrivial meaning of awe.) It is crucial to both experiences of discordance that a setting, a physical situation, is the prompt.

I know what this means very personally. I have confronted Time as a geologist, and, as a matter of practice, reconciled scale in landscape and urban design. For the first part, I am not displaced anymore, no matter the setting, having come to terms with my (and my species) chrono-centrism long ago in the field.1 Four billion years of Earth’s history is insensible to most, but I am comfortable with it, unfazed, undismayed, unalarmed, undiminished. Endless time is my friend now, in the Buddhist sense: if nothing matters, everything does. Its long reach is always with me, even as I seemingly disavow it (rather, a pledge!) with the minutiae of a human-scaled life.

For the second, modeling any architectural design requires constant jumping in scale, which habituates you to it in nature too. The maxim of landscape design is to always look one scale up (region) and one down (architecture) when designing, to identify constraints and opportunities. In a sense, a design is a reconciliation, in that every good one works at all scales, including and especially Nature’s time. Design as a Romantic gesture?

So for reasons of both space and time I no longer have truly sublime experiences either. Instead I feel accepting awareness in places where I am naturally insignificant, like on a glacier, or while dogsledding in a never-inhabited landscape, watching an eclipse, or marking the tides of a vast ocean in winter. My experience is mostly observational, an aestheticized appreciation of process. I am un-Romantic, I guess.

Mark puts Emily outside the Romantic movement too. Her poems are not reconciliations of time and space, the grand and small, the natural and the spiritual. She has no need to do so – I daresay she is not dislocated, in time or otherwise. This defines her oddity, and mine. But Emily is even more strange, for while my comfort and presentness have been earned by relentless curiosity and learning, she comes to hers originally, and preserves it resolutely in her ivory tower. Whereas I traverse (apparently) conflicting worlds fluidly, she is holistic, simultaneous, integrated, omniscient. Mark thinks she jumps scale in her poems – “Pow! and then she blows it all up” but I disagree. I think it is we readers who notice, are startled by the juxtapositions. For Emily they are one and the same, wryly noted.

Here are two poems that revealed Emily to me.

i Of Bronze – and Blaze –
The North – tonight –
So adequate – it forms –
So preconcerted with itself –
So distant – to alarms –
An Unconcern so sovreign
To Universe, or me –
Infects my simple spirit
With Taints of Majesty –
Till I take vaster attitudes –
And Strut opon my stem –
Disdaining Men, and Oxygen,
For Arrogance of them –

My Splendors, are Menageries –
But their Competeless Show
Will entertain the Centuries
When I, am long ago,
An Island in dishonored Grass –
Whom none but Daisies, know –

ii There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference –
Where the Meanings, are –

None may teach it – Any –
‘Tis the Seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –

When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ‘tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –

It all makes me wonder, was she on the spectrum? Such good company, if so.


  1. see my piece Isolations of Space and Time for a deeper read.
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