Many poets have their work described as “musical.” But the work of Emily Dickinson took these associations to a whole new level. The lyrical nature of her poems has led to them being a popular subject for composers, but it all started with the hymns of her upbringing.
We often think of Dickinson in terms of her seclusion, but that was not always her lifestyle. It was only after several deaths of people close to her, especially Amherst Academy Principal Leonard Humphrey, that she sank into such a deep depression. This turned into what is now thought to be agoraphobia, with the illness of her mother in the late 1850s. A product of this period is a set of poems that observe the world with intense care, ignoring any loud noises, and magnifying simple and often mundane occurrences to profound levels.
An isolation full of anxiety is certainly a relatable concept at this moment in history, though our current habit of social distancing is a medically recommended procedure to fight an active virus. But one only needs to activate Twitter to find musings on the most minute and prosaic topics as we are all confined. In this, we can find companionship with the older, hidden-away Emily Dickinson.
But before her seclusion and her turn to poetry, Dickinson was an active musician. As young as age two, her Aunt Lavinia noted that she enjoyed the piano. When she was fourteen years old her father bought one for the family home, and she quickly became known around Amherst as a talented improviser. When a cousin stayed at their house, he said that he heard her playing overnight. The next morning she apologized, saying “I can improvise better at night.”
Bind me—I still can sing—
Strikes true within—
Slay—and my Soul shall rise
Chanting to Paradise—
Her training was not all classical. The Dickinson family did, as was common at the time, employ servants. And Emily reported to her brother Edward in a letter that the reading club she kept with several servants in Amherst often ended their meetings with a dance. Charles Thompson, who was a janitor at Amherst College, was a well-known fiddler in town as well. It’s likely that Dickinson heard “Professor Charlie” playing tunes of the time.
The Music in the Violin
Does not emerge alone
But Arm in Arm with Touch, yet Touch
Alone — is not a Tune –
The hymns of Isaac Watts had taken on a great deal of popularity in the United States during the so-called Great Awakening of the 1740s. One church that continued to embrace them a century later was the First Church in Amherst, Massachusetts, which Emily Dickinson attended with her family. New editions of these hymns were even published directly out of Amherst, by Samuel Worcester. Take, for example, the opening verse of Watts’s popular hymn, Oh God, Our Help In Ages Past.
Oh God, our help in ages past
Our hope for years to come
Our shelter from the stormy blast
And our eternal home.
Compare it – both metrically and rhyming, to the opening of one of Dickinson’s best-known poems:
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for Me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
While a popular exercise is to attempt to sing this poem to the tune of the Gilligan’s Island theme, that association came later. If you’re familiar with the melody of the Watts hymn, try singing Because I could not stop for Death to that tune.
Carlton Young, who served as editor of two editions of The United Methodist Hymnal, notes the straightforward nature of Watts’s texts – how “plain words of one syllable” afford a straightforward and relatable moment of “preaching” for the singers themselves. He said that Watts, for English hymnody, set up the connection between the word being the hymn and the message of the service.
“What is preached is sung and what is sung is preached.”
It would certainly stand to reason that Dickinson’s rhythm, and her use of plain language to make intense sensory observations, was at least somewhat influenced by the exposure to Watt’s hymns. This use of a simple vocabulary, irregular lines, and shortened phrases intensifies the surprising nature of her writing.
Perhaps a squirrel may remain –
My sentiments to share –
Grant me, Oh Lord, a sunny mind –
Thy windy will to bear!
In the 1860s, as the civil war broke out, Dickinson was home. In Amherst, she was seen as a local eccentric – a “ghost” in her own house, always in white. She had set her musical activities aside. At that moment, as she focused her attention on poetry, music was still a lens through which she perceived the world.
Musicians wrestle everywhere –
All day – among the crowded air
I hear the silver strife –
And – waking – long before the morn –
Such transport breaks upon the town
I think it that “New life”!
Was Dickinson opening herself to a “new life” in which she ignores the piano in the parlor? Just because she had stopped touching the keys doesn’t mean she wasn’t still surrounded with music. Local players, plus the Sunday morning hymns and tolling bells still punctuated her days – she could hear them through her window. And is the sound of “silver strife” that of trumpets and flutes and organ pipes? Or is it the coming of conflict?
It is not Bird – it has no nest –
Nor “Band” – in brass and scarlet – drest –
Nor Tamborin – nor Man –
It is not Hymn from pulpit read –
The “Morning Stars” the Treble led
On Time’s first afternoon!
These are musical experiences Dickinson would have seen in real life, in a great long list. But the music she’s hearing being “wrestled” with is none of these things from daily life.
Some – say – it is “the Spheres” – at play!
Some say – that bright Majority
Of vanished Dames – and Men!
Some – think it service in the place
Where we – with late – celestial face –
Please God – shall ascertain!
Is it the mathematically perfect movement of the planets? Or the saints in heaven? And here, a glimpse of Dickinson’s preoccupation with death, her “late – celestial face,” at the point where she can find release from a musical struggle.
But hopefully rather than herself feeling a struggle, her creative activities – her ease of improvisation at the piano, and later poetry writing, felt more like the aeolian lyre she kept in the front hallway of her house in Amherst. As she wrote to her brother, the instrument “plays beautifully, alone, whenever there is a breeze”
Fame is a bee.
It has a song—
It has a sting—
Ah, too, it has a wing.