Lives Like Loaded Guns

"Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul." -Emily Dickinson

I have this on a nature-themed  print from Hobby Lobby hanging in my bathroom.  The color of the eggs in the nest  match the paint color of the walls.  Besides, I'm  fascinated by Emily Dickinson's poetry, so it perches above the toilet.  Please don't analyze that any further.

A few years ago she was the  poet that I was to teach about in our Truth, Beauty, Goodness Co-op.  So, we read her poems each week, selected from Poetry for Young People, a delightful, beginning poetry series for children.  I also read aloud The Mouse from Amherst by Spires and had the students narrate.  Then they each choose a poem to memorize.  During the course of the semester, I sent home with each family the picture book  Emily by Bedard, which is illustrated by another favorite, Barbara Cooney.

When our session was through, a young lady (also called Emily!) in our co-op said, "My dad says Emily Dickinson was weird."  All righty, then.  Not what I was hoping for, but I went with it.  "Why did he think she was weird?" I asked.  We had a short discussion.

I suppose one would have to define "weird".  If it means "out of the ordinary", then I'd have to agree.  I recently read the book Lives Like Loaded Guns - Emily Dickinson and her Family's Feuds by Lyndall Gordon.*  Let me just say, I had NO idea...

This book is a well-researched tell-all tome.  If you read the reviews on Amazon, you might think that the main focus is Gordon's theory that Dickinson suffered from epilepsy, thus explaining her hermit-like existence and strange phrasing in her poetry.  This is fascinating enough and Gordon builds a great case for it and how it affects her poetry, but it is a minor issue as far as I can see.  It's the rest of her life that gives me pause, in particular her brother's extra-marital affair - the effects and consequences of which literally continue to this day.

But the part that is the most disturbing to me is her years at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary.  She spent ages 17 to 18 here at this college founded by donations from evangelicals who saw the school as a recruitment center for missionary work. Revivals were running through Massachusetts at the time she attended.  Her time there was marked by incessant evangelism from the teachers and fellow students.  At one time, her teacher asked all the girls who wished to be Christians to rise from their seats.  Emily said, "They thought it queer I didn't rise.  I though a lie would be queerer." (Gordon, p. 44.) Again and again, she writes of the pressure to be "saved", something she simply didn't feel or want.  Unfortunately, spying was required  and reports of the spiritual standing of roommates encouraged.

Gordon may have put her own spin on this series of events.  Nevertheless, the experience seems to have soured Emily towards any kind of evangelical Christianity. We can't be sure exactly how the events unfolded, but from Emily's point of view which we read from her letters and in her poetry, she was offended.

All these events, plus more are reflected in the poetry she produced.  I still find her fascinating and I have a much deeper appreciation for her work now.  Despite the immorality that invaded her life and eventually consumed it, I can't help feeling for that awkward, intelligent 17-year-old girl sitting in that classroom.  What was that teacher thinking?

*Listen to Lyndall Gordon's NPR interview on Fresh Air for more info on the book


  1. Nancy I too have taught Dickinson's poems to young children and was fascinated by her life. I read a biography that was so painful, it said much the same thing as Loaded Guns, So sad that she rejected the truth. I have all the books you mention except the mouse one. I tend not to like biographies that rely on anthropomorphism to tell their stories. Great blog post as always.

  2. Nancy,

    Lovely post. I have just had a couple of brushes with Dickinson and was struck as you were with her response to the pressure to respond to Christianity in this way. We should not respond to Christ because of an external pressure to conform and in a way I admired her for that, but the question remains - did she respond at all? Have you read a collection of her letters (is there one)? It was very helpful to me when I was asking the question if Van Gogh was a Christian or not - to read his own words.

    I have read with my little ones a recently published picture book "My Uncle Emily". It was very beautiful and we all enjoyed it.


  3. Amber,
    Thank you for that book recommendation! It does look lovely and I'm ordering it from my library right now!

    As far as Christianity goes, I don't think we'll ever know this side of heaven. Here is a good article on the topic:
    Meeting Her Maker - http://www.crosscurrents.org/ladinfall2006.htm

    Yes, you can read books of her letters, but I don't have a specific one to recommend. I have read some, though. They add to the mystery, I think.

  4. She did leave beautiful poetry!
    I haven't read that book. We did Emily last year as one of poets. Emma read a book that has her brother as the narrator. I will listen and read
    that article soon!

  5. Thank you for visiting my blog. I will be reading Emily Dickinson with my kids in another year.I look forward to reading that book.

  6. Good Morning Nancy~

    I've so enjoyed reading all of your poetry posts. Wonderful selections and poets to consider! I'm thinking we may read of Walt Whitman this year. I am wondering if you would have any suggestions on biography material for the teacher? I have been on Amazon -- there are many (one rather disturbing)--and since this is my first go of poetry , I'd like some good background info for myself and to pique these boys' interest. Thank you!

    Have a beauty-full day!

    1. Tina,
      Walt was an, ummm, interesting character. I can't remember a bio that I used for myself when we did him. In this case, I think that the bio info in Poetry for Young People - Walt Whitman would suffice. We read and narrated Walt Whitman: Words for America. It is excellent!
      Also, be careful of the videos out on him.

      I love it when young boys recite "O Captain, My Captain"!