Dickinson in Pandemic Days

Humanities5 min. read

As we stay close to home, Professor Elizabeth Sagaser reflects on a poet who did the same

By Elizabeth SagaserPhotography by Julia Sagaser
July 10, 2020

Associate Professor of English Elizabeth Sagaser reminds us of the lessons offered by the work of Emily Dickinson, whose poetry draws on close examination of the familiar that reveals simple and complex truths that are all around us, if we watch, read, and listen.

My recent essay about teaching Emily Dickinson and the presence of the past (last winter in the Emily Dickinson International Society Bulletin) might seem at first an elegy for the pre-pandemic world. In part it is, as I offer a play-by-play description of a particularly lively class unfolding in a unique on-campus space, the Robinson Room of Colby Special Collections. 

But the essay also illuminates other kinds of meeting and learning, kinds especially valuable—and available—during pandemic days. These are not dependent on physical proximity, nor travel, but on a willingness to explore how, in Dickinson’s words, “the Brain – is wider than the Sky -” (F593), and how even in changed circumstances, we might embrace “as much of Noon as [we can] take/Between [our] finite eyes -” (F336).

In other words, the essay evokes Dickinson’s ability to launch adventure in both the social and natural worlds, all while staying at home. The poet’s habit of physical distancing (arguably extreme later in her life) fostered prolific and intimate correspondences with friends and set the stage for sustained listening (that is, reading) and creative responding to past thinkers, as well as outreach to future ones. One of the assignments I highlight, the Table of Memory Project, follows Dickinson’s lead in bringing together minds far apart in space and time. 

Meanwhile, as my Environmental Science students could tell you, Dickinson’s immersion in smallest happenings of yard and garden yielded poems of nuance, discovery and unexpected perspective. “Our little Kinsmen – after Rain” she writes of worms; “the Steeples swam in Amethyst -/The news like squirrels ran -” she writes of a sunrise; “he stirred his velvet head” then “unrolled his feathers/ And rowed him softer home” she observes of bird who observes her (F932, F204B, F359). Another she captures thus:

A Route of Evanescence 

With a revolving Wheel 

A Resonance of Emerald 

A Rush of Cochineal              

Can you guess which bird this might be? Why not test Dickinson’s many poems representing New England birds against your own watching. Some are not only among the best naturalist accounts on the books, but also (a reason my Neuroscience and Psychology students find Dickinson particularly fascinating) a study of perception itself. 

Dickinson was also a philosophical and empathic poet of loss. “After great pain, a formal feeling comes -/The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs -” begins one testimonial. The poet’s most prolific years of writing were exactly those of the American Civil War. And through her life, infectious disease was a constant threat, particularly tuberculosis (consumption), an unending global epidemic that struck close to nearly everyone’s home in the United States. It counted among its victims Dickinson’s favorite aunt, a childhood friend, a cousin who was also her college roommate, and such role-model writers as the Bronte sisters. 

As the coronavirus pandemic rages on, Dickinson’s poems of loss and longing can be good company. 

“So we must meet apart -/You there – I – here – ” Dickinson writes toward the end of a poem about necessary separation, as I reminded students via email when they departed suddenly last March (F706). In another poem about separation, Dickinson experiments with the nature of patience and uncertainty. If she could reunite with a longed-for other in the fall, she’d “brush the Summer by/With half a smile, and half a spurn.” And she would still manage handily if she had to wait a year. She’d “wind the months in balls – /And put them each in separate Drawers/For fear the numbers fuse.” An even more extensive period of time would be tolerable, if a reunion were then assured. “But now,” she concludes,

        uncertain of the length

Of this, that is between,

It goads me, like the Goblin Bee –

That will not state – it’s sting.      

Read Elizabeth Sagaser’s essay “’Tis Centuries – and yet”: Teaching Dickinson and the Presence of the Past

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