My Emily Dickinson Pilgrimage

IMG_4457Amherst June 2017

Gentle Reader: I’ve been asked to tell about my pilgrimage to Amherst but I had to put that aside until I got a good start on the poems which immediately percolated from that seminal experience. Frankly, I also had to let the emotions subside so I wouldn’t blather on about it here. But I willingly admit that adrenalin was my frequent companion during that visit.

I call it a  pilgrimage because that is the best description in every sense of the word and my activities leading up to it–from planning the extra days tacked onto a business trip, picking up the rental car in downtown Boston amidst hundreds of pre-marathoners doing the same thing, trusting google maps to get me onto the turnpike under construction and enjoying winding roads in western Massachusetts where fast-driving locals did not share my interest in the countryside and historic homes along the way.

From a short 2-day perspective, Amherst is everything you might imagine nestled in the New England setting I’ve described. It’s a quaint small-college town with picturesque shops, and bookstores built around the campus which is seamlessly integrated into the neighboring area.

The Dickinson Homestead and Evergreens next door are not set off or protected in a way that many homes-turned-museums are. The grounds look largely the way they did when Emily lived there. Of course, some small modifications have been made to accommodate people moving about inside and for the museum shop—now in the kitchen.

While the house and grounds have a certain commanding presence due in part to the stately architecture and increased elevation above the street, one could unknowingly drive past because it also blends into the area. Although typical of the era, all the rooms in the house are slightly smaller than I imagined from seeing pictures—including Emily’s room. They’ve done remarkable work restoring and recreating it in her time—especially given the acrimonious split among those carrying on her legacy and the items now in Harvard’s possession.

Her bedroom is—again—smaller than I imagined but the aura there is palpable. Her writing desk is no bigger than 20 x 20 inches square with one tiny drawer underneath. That surface had to accommodate a lamp and an ink well plus pen/pencil and paper. She was known to carry that desk downstairs to the library and sometimes out into the yard to write. During the height of her most prolific writing, one must envision scraps of poems and pieces of paper strewn all around her room.

The cemetery where she and her family are buried (about half a mile cross-country to the north of the house) is also barely protected. There is a small fence around her immediate family’s graves but that is mostly decorative although it does deter people from trampling the area. She was quite clear in writing instructions about her wishes for final disposition: no funeral carriage and she wanted family servants as pallbearers. Her casket was to be carried out the back kitchen door and over land to the cemetery. She was also specific that her brother Austin’s directives were not to supersede her own.

In addition to 1,789 poems, she was a prolific letter writer and deeply expressive in them—hardly characteristic of reclusive behavior although in later life she avoided people and seldom left the house. Still she wrote letters right up until her death. In today’s high tech and truncated technology she still serves as a model for epistolary communication.

I was attracted first to her poetry but her world, her life and her letters are bottomless layers of complexity worthy of study to understand and learn from one of the world’s greatest poets.

Author: Bonnie Larson Staiger

Winner 'Voices of the Plains and Prairies Poetry Award' by NDSU Press. My chapbook, 'Destiny Manifested' is scheduled for release Nov 4, 2018. Fascinated with the fusion of the written word on the printed page. On my blog, North Dakota Roots, I share poetry and observations about life.

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