Content was never in question: I post A. E. Housman’s “Loveliest of Trees” nearly every year at bluebonnet time as a reminder to seize the day, to get out and see beauty while it’s here–while we’re here.
Be sure to read–or at least scroll–to the bottom of the page. There’s an unexpected treat–not just a bunch of blue flowers.
A light exists in spring
Not present on the year
At any other period.
When March is scarcely here
A color stands abroad
On solitary hills
That science cannot overtake,
But human nature feels.
It waits upon the lawn;
It shows the furthest tree
Upon the furthest slope we know;
It almost speaks to me.
Then, as horizons step,
Or noons report away,
Without the formula of sound,
It passes, and we stay:
A quality of loss
Affecting our content,
As trade had suddenly encroached
Upon a sacrament.
~ Emily Dickinson
This a picture of Emily Dickinson.
This is a “fabricated” picture of Emily Dickinson.
According to a docent at the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, Massachusetts, in the late 1990s, the photograph was probably altered after Dickinson’s death in 1886, as a tribute and a keepsake. At that time, families often had photographs “enhanced” after a loved one’s death.
I didn’t know Emily Dickinson personally, but judging from what I’ve read and heard about her, I think if she’d seen the enhanced version, she’d have hooted.
She was obviously depressive, but she also had a sense of humor.
The docent told the following story (documented in an LA Times review by Susan Reynolds):
‘Once, when Samuel Bowles, an old family friend and the subject of Dickinson’s Master poems, went to visit, he found himself yelling up the stairs: “Emily, you damned rascal. No more of this nonsense! I’ve traveled all the way from Springfield to see you. Come down at once!”‘
The detail that doesn’t appear in the article, but that the docent added, is that, at Bowles’ summons, Emily left her room and came down the stairs, laughing.
Try calling someone without a sense of humor a “damned rascal” and see what happens.
And she wasn’t quite as antisocial as she’s generally portrayed. Alix North, in a biographical sketch of the poet, writes that in her twenties, Dickinson had a “busy social life” but that by her thirties, she had become reclusive and withdrew when visitors came.
It’s been speculated that Dickinson pulled away from the public because she thought she wasn’t beautiful, or that she was mourning an unrequited love, or that she was agoraphobic. But perhaps Dickinson “became an isolata , creating a moat around herself to preserve the rarity of her soul and because she believed that isolation was critical to artistic expression.”
By the age of 35, Dickinson “had composed more than 1100 concise, powerful lyrics that astutely examine pain, grief, joy, love, nature, and art.”
In other words, she knew exactly what she was doing: Social butterflies rarely, if ever, compose more than 1100 poems by the time they’re 35, at least not concise, powerful ones.
[Sentiments expressed in the preceding paragraph are mine alone. I could be wrong, but I’m not. A 14-year-old boy once told me that anyone who stayed at home as much as Emily Dickinson did couldn’t know enough about life to write anything worthwhile. I refrained from replying that 14-year-old boys don’t know enough about anything to say what Emily Dickinson could or could not do. Now I wish I’d said it. But as I was saying before I interrupted myself . . .]
Edward Dickinson, the poet’s father, was described by contemporaries as “stern and unyielding”; “within his home his decisions and his word were law.” Emily wrote that she didn’t learn to tell time by the clock until she was fifteen because “[m]y father thought he had taught me but I did not understand & I was afraid to say I did not & afraid to ask anyone else lest he should know.”
The museum’s docent pointed out, however, that he was also kind. He could have required Emily to work and support herself or at least to contribute to family finances. Instead, he supported her until his death in 1874. Her sister, Lavinia, took care of most domestic tasks that would normally have been shared. Her family allowed Emily time and space in which to write.
Well, I’ve gone on about Emily Dickinson for a lot longer than I intended, and I hope you’re still with me. I’ll stop now, but not before saying this, which I’ve said before, but I’m going to say again:
A textbook I taught from in 1973, my first year in the Texas secondary school trenches, contained the statement that Emily Dickinson is one of America’s greatest women poets.
I’ve said before, and loudly, that my Tennessee ancestors must have rolled into Central Texas in April, when the wildflowers were in bloom. Otherwise, like General Philip Sheridan, they would have chosen to rent out Texas and live in Hell.
My friend from Cleveland disagrees. He says the Wallers and the Grahams settled here because, as far as they looked in any direction, they didn’t see snow. He might be right. Perspectives on weather are heavily influenced by experience. I’ve never had to shovel snow, so I feel free to whinge about the heat.
April is a special time here. It’s the month when the landscape explodes with color, and a mild madness descends. People go wildflower hunting. Purists cruise around just looking. Artists set up easels and canvases and palettes and paint en plein air. We all risk snakebite to capture shots of family and friends amongst the bluebonnets.
And I post A. E. Housman’s “Loveliest of Trees” as a reminder that April isn’t forever.
This year I’m starting early. My friend Mary googled “Texas Hill Country Wildflowers” and sent me one of the links: image after image of spring landscapes. I’m sharing it here. The site loads in stages, so patience is called for.
Austin’s Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, formerly the National Wildflower Research Center, seeks to “increase the sustainable use and conservation of native wildflowers, plants and landscapes.” According to her biographer, Mrs. Johnson’s legacy as First Lady “was to legitimize environmental issues as a national priority. The attitudes and policies she advanced have shaped the conservation and preservation policies of the environmental movement since then.” The Center’s comprehensive website addresses science, history, legislation, tourism, conservation, education–all areas Mrs. Johnson’s interest in the natural environment touched on.