Sunday, August 3, 2008

Bandaged Moments

What better place to start than Emily Dickinson, the Vincent Van Gogh of literature where the intersection of psychopathology and genius is concerned? It is hard to think of many other writers of her stature who suffered such psychological impairment over such a long period of time. This is not to "pathologize" her or to detract from her very high rank, it is merely to state the obvious.

Of perennial interest, Dickinson is the subject of a new book by Brenda Wineapple, which chronicles the relationship between the poet and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, her literary mentor of sorts and at times reluctant correspondent over many years. It is hard to think of a more representative mid-19th century American figure than Higginson, who was an abolitionist and a liberal and literary clergyman. But he was utterly conventional in ways that must have placed him in a different experiential universe than Dickinson at times.

Dickinson wrote plenty of tortured lyrics, of course, but some are breathtakingly simple, straightforward, and lovely:

The earth has many keys.
Where melody is not
Is the unknown peninsula.
Beauty is nature's fact.

But witness for her land,
And witness for her sea,
The cricket is her utmost
Of elegy to me.

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