“Oftentimes a word shall speak what accumulated volumes have labored in vain to utter: there may be years of crowded passion in a word, and half a life in a sentence.”
By Maria Popova
“You can never be sure / you die without knowing / whether anything you wrote was any good / if you have to be sure don’t write,” W.S. Merwin wrote in his gorgeous poem encapsulating his greatest mentor’s advice. No one has embodied this ethos more fully than Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830–May 15, 1886), who lived and died a century earlier never knowing whether anything she wrote was any good, never knowing whether and how and that her body of work would revolutionize literature and rewrite the common record of human thought and feeling.
In her thirty-first year, on the pages of a national magazine, Dickinson — a central figure in Figuring, from which this essay is adapted — encountered the person who would become the closest thing she ever had to a literary mentor.
In the spring of 1862, exactly four decades ahead of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, The Atlantic Monthly published a twenty-page piece titled “A Letter to a Young Contributor” by the abolitionist and women’s rights advocate Thomas Wentworth Higginson (December 22, 1823–May 9, 1911).
Addressing young writers — primarily the many women who sent the Atlantic manuscripts for consideration under male pseudonyms — the thirty-nine-year-old Higginson writes:
No editor can ever afford the rejection of a good thing, and no author the publication of a bad one. The only difficulty lies in drawing the line.
A good editor, Higginson asserts, has learned to draw that line by having “educated his eye till it has become microscopic, like a naturalist’s, and can classify nine out of ten specimens by one glance at a scale or a feather.” He chooses a strangely morbid metaphor to illustrate the editorial challenge and thrill of finding that rare undiscovered genius among “the vast range of mediocrity”:
To take the lead in bringing forward a new genius is as fascinating a privilege as that of the physician who boasted to Sir Henry Halford of having been the first man to discover the Asiatic cholera and to communicate it to the public.
He goes on to offer a bundle of advice on how an aspiring writer is to court her prospective editor: Revise amply before sending in your manuscript; write legibly with “good pens, black ink, nice white paper and plenty of it”; develop a style of expression not “polite and prosaic” but “so saturated with warm life and delicious association that every sentence shall palpitate and thrill with the mere fascination of the syllables”; counterbalance profundity of sentiment with levity of style; know that “there is no severer test of literary training than in the power to prune out your most cherished sentence, when you find that the sacrifice will help the symmetry or vigor of the whole”; don’t show off your erudition but showcase its fruits; and remember that “a phrase may outweigh a library.” He writes:
There may be phrases which shall be palaces to dwell in, treasure-houses to explore; a single word may be a window from which one may perceive all the kingdoms of the earth and the glory of them. Oftentimes a word shall speak what accumulated volumes have labored in vain to utter: there may be years of crowded passion in a word, and half a life in a sentence… Labor, therefore, not in thought alone, but in utterance; clothe and reclothe your grand conception twenty times, if need be, until you find some phrase that with its grandeur shall be lucid also.
In a sun-filled bedroom fifty miles to the west, a woman who had crowded lifetimes of passion into her thirty-one years and corked it up in the volcanic bosom of her being devoured the piece—a woman who would boldly defy Higginson’s indictment that a writer should use dashes only in “short allowance” or else they “will lose all their proper power,” a woman whose reclusive genius would become his choleric discovery.
For more than a decade, Dickinson had been welding her words to her experience with white heat in the private furnace of her being, sharing her poems only with her intimates. Now she felt beckoned to step across the threshold of the door Higginson had set ajar with his open letter inviting unknown writers into the public life of literature.
On April 16, 1862, Emily Dickinson sent Thomas Wentworth Higginson four of her poems, along with a short, arresting note in the slanted swoop of her barely decipherable hand, stripped of the era’s epistolary etiquette. “Mr. Higginson,” she addressed him bluntly, with no formal salutation, “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?” She was likely making an allusion, whether conscious or not, to her revered Aurora Leigh, in which Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s heroine exults in her calling while struggling to become a published poet:
My heart’s life throbbing in my verse to show
And then Dickinson added:
The Mind is so near itself — it cannot see, distinctly — and I have none to ask. Should you think it breathed — and had you the leisure to tell me, I should feel quick gratitude.
She didn’t sign the letter, either, but instead enclosed a smaller sealed envelope with her name inscribed in pencil on a cream-colored notecard — a choice that would still puzzle Higginson thirty years later.
Two more letters followed shortly. Dickinson ended the third with the come-hither of a bespoke verse, then asked seductively: “Will you be my Preceptor, Mr. Higginson?” He would, and he did, commencing a correspondence that would last the poet’s lifetime.
But although Dickinson had so insistently enlisted Higginson as her “Preceptor,” again and again she would reject his efforts to tame and commercialize her poetry, to make it “more orderly,” buoyed by a quiet confidence in the integrity of her unorthodox verse. “Could you tell me how to grow,” she implored in her third letter to Higginson, “or is it unconveyed — like Melody — or Witchcraft?” When he offered criticism, then worried that he might have been too harsh, she assured him with humility and aplomb that it was all welcome: “Men do not call the surgeon, to commend—the Bone, but to set it, Sir, and fracture within, is more critical.” And then she promptly sent him four more poems, unheeding of his editorial suggestions.
Over the years, Dickinson would fracture Higginson’s stiff understanding of art, and through the cracks a new kind of light would flood his world. “There is always one thing to be grateful for — that one is one’s self & not somebody else,” she would tell him. Here stood a writer who was unassailably her own self. Between her unruly punctuation, Higginson would eventually find “flashes of wholly original and profound insight into nature and life,” language ablaze with “an extraordinary vividness of descriptive and imaginative power.” When her poems finally entered the world on November 12, 1890 — four years after her death — Higginson exulted in the preface:
In many cases these verses will seem to the reader like poetry torn up by the roots, with rain and dew and earth still clinging to them, giving a freshness and a fragrance not otherwise to be conveyed. In other cases, as in the few poems of shipwreck or of mental conflict, we can only wonder at the gift of vivid imagination by which this recluse woman can delineate, by a few touches, the very crises of physical or mental conflict… But the main quality of these poems is that of extraordinary grasp and insight, uttered with an uneven vigor sometimes exasperating, seemingly wayward, but really unsought and inevitable.
The volume was an astonishing success, much to the chagrin of Houghton Mifflin, who had originally rejected it. Five hundred copies vanished from the shelves on the first day of publication. Within the first year, the book had gone through eleven printings, and nearly eleven thousand copies had been absorbed into the body of culture.
That year, as the rapids of Dickinson’s verse sprang into the world, William James’s groundbreaking Principles of Psychology coined the notion of stream of consciousness. Soon, as English reviewers launched upon Dickinson attacks unequaled since those on Shelley and Keats a century earlier, Alice James — William James’s brilliant bedridden sister — would write wryly in her diary, itself an unheralded triumph of literature:
It is reassuring to hear the English pronouncement that Emily Dickinson is fifth-rate, they have such a capacity for missing quality; the robust evades them equally with the subtle… What tome of philosophy resumes the cheap farce or expresses the highest point of view of the aspiring soul more completely than the following —
How dreary to be somebody
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog.
For a different but intimately related side of Dickinson, savor her electric love letters to Susan Gilbert — her closest lifelong bond, who inspired the vast majority of her poetry — then take in some timeless advice on the craft from some of the greatest writers in the century and a half since: James Baldwin, Ernest Hemingway, Jeanette Winterson, Mary Oliver, Zadie Smith, Susan Sontag, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, John Steinbeck, and Rachel Carson, another heroine of Figuring.