Brain Pickings Love Letters
Brain Pickings Love Letters – Emily Dickinson’s Electric Love Letters to Susan Gilbert “Susie…come home…and be mine again, and kiss me like you used to…I hope for you so much, and feel so eager for you… that the anticipation… makes me feel warm and feverish, and my heart is beating so fast.” By Maria Popova
Four months before her twentieth birthday, Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830 – May 15, 1886) met the person who became her first love and remained her greatest: an orphaned mathematician in training named Susan Gilbert, nine days after her junior. Throughout the poet’s life, Susan would be her muse, her mentor, her foremost reader and editor, her fiercest lifelong attachment, her “only woman in the world.”
Brain Pickings Love Letters
I devote over a hundred pages of Figuring to their beautiful, heartbreaking, unclassifiable relationship that fueled some of the greatest, most original, and paradigm-shifting poetry mankind has ever produced. (This essay is taken from my book.)
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Emily Dickinson at age seventeen. The only authentic photograph of the poet. (Amherst College Archives & Special Collections, gift from Millicent Todd Bingham, 1956)
Susan Gilbert had settled in Amherst, near her sister, after graduating from the Utica Female Academy—one of the few academically rigorous educational institutions available to women at the time. She entered Dickinson’s life in the summer of 1850, what the poet would later remember as the season “when love first began, on the steps by the front door and under the Evergreens.”
At twenty, poised and serious, dressed in black for the sister who had just died in childbirth and who had been her mother figure since the death of their parents, Susan cast a double spell on Emily and Austin Dickinson. Both sister and brother were impressed by her well-balanced erudition and her Uranian beauty – her flat, full lips and dark eyes were not exactly masculine, her unchiselled oval face and low forehead not exactly feminine.
“Best Witchcraft is Geometry,” Emily Dickinson would later write. Now both she and her brother were in a strange spell of figures, with Susan being placed on a point of a triangle. But Emily’s was not a temporary crush. Nearly two decades after Susan entered her heart, she would write with unflappable desire:
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To have a Susan of my own is a bliss in itself—whatever realm I forfeit, Lord, continue me in this!
A storm of intimacy raged in the lives of the Dickinsons in the eighteen months after Susan’s arrival. The two young women took long walks together through the woods, exchanged books, read poetry to each other and began an intense, intimate correspondence that would evolve and change, but last a lifetime. “We’re the only poets,” Emily said to Susan, “and everyone else is…
Come with me this morning to the church in our hearts, where the bells are always ringing, and the preacher whose name is Love – will intercede for us!
When Susan accepted a ten-month position as a math teacher in Baltimore in the fall of 1851, Emily was devastated by the divorce, but she tried to maintain a cheerful heart. “I feel like you often come down to the classroom with a fat binomial theorem in your hand that you have to dissect and show to your uncomprehending people,” she teased in a letter. Susan was the personification of science, with a capital letter – she would haunt Dickinson’s poems as “Science” for decades to come.
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In a comet of a letter from the early spring of 1852, eight months after Susan’s absence, Emily hurls a grenade of contradictory self-disclosure:
Will you be nice to me, Susie? I’m naughty and angry this morning, and nobody here loves me; nor would you love me, if you saw me frown and hear how hard the door bangs as I pass through; and yet it’s not rage – I don’t believe so, ’cause if no one sees it, I’ll wipe big tears with the corner of my apron, then get to work – bitter tears, Susie – so hot they’re my cheeks, and almost sears my eyeballs, but you’ve cried a lot, and you know it’s less anger than sadness. And I like to run fast – and hide from them all; here in dear Susie’s bosom, I know it’s love and rest, and I’d never leave, wouldn’t the great world have called me, and beat me for not working… Your precious letter, Susie, it’s lying here now, and smiles so kindly at me, and gives me such sweet thoughts of the dear writer. When you get home, darling, I won’t have your letters, I will, but I’ll have yourself, which is more – Oh more, and better, than I can even imagine! I sit here with my whip, cracking the time, till there’s not an hour left – then here you are! And Joy is here – joy now and forever!
That year, in a Prussian laboratory, physician and physicist Hermann von Helmholtz measured the speed of nerve conduction at eighty feet per second. How inscrutable that sentiments so intense and emotions so explosive, launched from a mind that seems to move at light-years per second, can be reduced to mere electrical impulses. And yet that is what we are – biomechanical beings, all our creative powers, all our mathematical figures, all the wildness of our loves pulsating at eighty feet per second along neural infrastructure that has evolved over millennia. Even the penetrating power struggling to fathom this is a series of such electrical impulses.
The electricity of Dickinson’s love would endure and flow through her being for the rest of her life. Many years later she would channel it in this immortal verse:
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But now, in the budding fervor of early love, forever clashes with the immediacy of want. Midway through her spring outpouring, Emily suddenly casts Susan in third person, as if pleading with an all-powerful spectator to fulfill her desire in the drama of their impending reunion:
The moment she names her desire, she tempers the excitement with the lucid fear that it might be unspeakable:
Am I sorry, is it all mumbling, or am I sad and lonely, and can’t, can’t help? Sometimes when I feel this way I think maybe it’s wrong, and God will punish me by taking you away; because he is very kind to let me write to you and give me your sweet letters, but my heart wants more.
Here, as in her poetry, Dickinson’s words flow with multiple meanings beyond literal interpretation. Her invocation of “God” is not a cringe at a Puritan punishment for deviance, but an irreverent challenge to that same dogma. What kind of “God,” she seems to ask, would make a love of such infinite sweetness wrong?
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Four years earlier, while studying at Mount Holyoke—the “castle of science” where she made her stunning herbarium—Emily had begun to shape the amorphous doubt about the claims of religion that had feared her since childhood—doubt if she would. later immortalize in verse:
It troubled me as I once was – For I was once a child – Deciding how an atom fell – And yet the sky held up.
Faced with her longing for Susan, her deepest fear was not punishment from “God,” but that her wayward heart was her own retribution—as well as her own reward. She writes lamenting that heated summer:
Have you ever thought of it, Susie, and yet I know you have, how much these hearts claim; why I don’t believe in all the wide world are such hard little creditors – such real little miscreants, such as you and I carry with us every day in our bosom. I can’t help but think sometimes, when I hear of the incurable, Heart, keep very still – or someone will discover you! … I love it, Susie, that our hearts don’t break, every day … but I think I’m made with nothing but a hard heart of stone, ’cause it doesn’t break one, and dear Susie, if the mine is stony, yours is stone, upon stone, for you never give in, only one, where I seem to be all flooded. Are we always going to freeze, Susie say – what will it be like?
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There is palpable restlessness in Emily’s oscillation between resignation and demand, between love’s desire to be exposed and the fear of being discovered. Later that month, she exhorts Susan, “Beloved, thou knowest!” – an allusion to Julia’s speech in
When I look around and find myself alone, I sigh at you again; small sigh and vain sigh, which will not bring you home. I need you more and more, and the big world is getting bigger… every day you stay away – I miss my biggest heart; mine wanders calling Susie… Susie, forgive me baby, for every word I say – my heart is full of you… but if I want to say to you something that’s not for the world, words