Excerpt from Commentary by Ellen Reiss to TRO 1321— “Keenness, Care, & Emily Dickinson" and sections of Mr. Siegel’s lecture Poetry and Keenness published in TRO 1320 and TRO 1321 about Emily Dickinson:
Keenness, Care, & Emily Dickinson
by Ellen Reiss
Dear Unknown Friends:
...Among the poems Mr. Siegel discusses in Poetry and Keenness are five by Emily Dickinson. And so, to illustrate the principles of Aesthetic Realism, I have the pleasure now of commenting on passages from some letters of hers. This woman of Amherst, Massachusetts, who was in such notable ways so keen, also represents, in her confusion and hopes, men and women today. One of the most famous letters in American literature is the letter Emily Dickinson wrote on April 15, 1862 to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, after reading an article of his in the Atlantic Monthly. She wanted criticism from him about her poetry, and began her letter with this sentence: “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?”
That sentence is beautiful. And the reason for its beauty is in the following Aesthetic Realism principle, which describes too the largest need of Emily Dickinson’s life and everyone’s life: “All beauty,” Mr. Siegel wrote, “is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” Emily Dickinson’s opening question to Higginson has first, in the meaning of the words and their sound, a quality of pondering, of interior intricacy, of a self (the Higginson self) concerned with its own thoughts: “Are you too deeply occupied...” The three oo sounds seem to brood; the ps, formed with lips coming together, make for a feeling here of self involved with itself. And then, there is an emerging into something so different—that sharp, glowing, urgent, world—vital matter which makes the previous pondering look petty in comparison: “to say if my Verse is alive?” The vs cut, severely yet sweetly. The soaring i in the grandeur of that word alive continues the dimmer i in the questioned word occupied. The sentence is a swift thrust, critical; yet considerate too.
Throughout Emily Dickinson’s letters there are prose sentences that are poetic—good for the same reason her poems are largely good: they are a oneness of reality’s opposites. Her sentences poke and glow. And they often make a one of meditativeness and sharpness. Therefore they have that which Eli Siegel showed is the decisive thing in poetry: music.
The Desire for Criticism
The letter I quoted from—#260 in The Letters of Emily Dickinson (ed. T.H. Johnson, 1958)—represents an enormous desire of people: the desire for criticism. Though the criticism Emily Dickinson asks for is of her poetry, every person, Aesthetic Realism explains, is thirsty for criticism of ourselves: we long to learn what is good in us, so we can strengthen it; and to learn what in ourselves is unjust and weakens us so we can get rid of it. Though we may look for flattery and lap it up with terrific eagerness, the depths of us long for what Emily Dickinson pleads for in behalf of her poetry:
Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?
The Mind is so near itself—it cannot see, distinctly—and I have none to ask....
I enclose my name—asking you, if you please—Sir—to tell me what is true?
Higginson was unequipped, as nearly everyone would have been, to be the critic Emily Dickinson looked for. He couldn’t place her accurate non-symmetry, her musical jarringness. And while, in terms of life itself, people have acted as if they wanted anything but criticism, they have had huge, life-long disappointment because they knew no one with enough knowledge to criticize them authentically. And they have also felt enormous resentment because the people they knew did not have the good will steadily to try.
Eli Siegel was the true, courageous, faithful critic, of art and selves, for whom humanity has thirsted. He had both the great knowledge and kindness to “tell... what is true,” and I love him unboundedly for it—as Emily Dickinson would have. In another letter to Higginson, #268, dated July 1862, she writes these lovely words about criticism: “Will you tell me my fault, frankly..., for I had rather wince, than die. Men do not call the surgeon, to commend—the Bone, but to set it, Sir, and fracture within, is more critical. And for this, Preceptor, I shall bring you...every gratitude I know.”
The Fight in Us and Emily Dickinson
Aesthetic Realism has, forever, the critical knowledge people ache for, because it explains the fight going on in everyone. It is a fight between what Mr. Siegel showed to be the deepest desire of every human being, “to like the world on an honest or accurate basis”—and a terrific desire to have contempt, “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.”
Emily Dickinson was a poet because of the strength of her desire to like the world. This is the desire that impels art. We see it, for example, in the letter I have just quoted from. Higginson apparently asked for a picture of her, and the Amherst lady responds as follows: “I had no portrait, now, but am small, like the Wren, and my Hair is bold, like the Chestnut bur—and my eyes, like the Sherry in the Glass, that the Guest leaves—Would this do just as well?” The biggest opposites in our lives are Self and World; and to like the world is to feel its simultaneous difference from and kinship with ourselves. That is what Emily Dickinson does in this humorous, sincere, and logical statement.
But she also had contempt. Eli Siegel is the critic who identified contempt as both the biggest enemy to art and the constant crippler of life; the source of every brutality and the weakener of mind. Emily Dickinson did not know that it was contempt which weakened her own mind, made for her deep despondency and self-dislike. She did not know the difference between being a keen critic of people and having contempt for them. We see the two mingled—along with simply a bounding and rich care for things—in the following statement to Higginson, April 25, 1862:
You ask of my Companions. Hills—Sir—and the Sundown—and a Dog—large as myself, that my Father bought me—They are better than Beings...and the noise in the Pool, at Noon—excels my Piano....My Mother does not care for thought—and Father, too busy with his Briefs—to notice what we do....They are religious—except me—and address an Eclipse, every morning—whom they call their “Father.”
We see Ms. Dickinson in her first sentence noting, with rhythmic grandeur, things in the world she feels close to; it is a statement of great charm, surprisingness, rightness, music. Then we have her scorn for people: “They are better than Beings.” Then she unnecessarily plays off a pool against the piano. I’m quite sure the criticism of her mother and lawyer-father has truth; but that well-made sentence about her parents edges toward hurtful scorn, a relish in others’ inadequacies and one’s own superiority. As to the “Eclipse,” or God: Emily Dickinson noticed much religious hypocrisy, but there is a kind of pleasure in taking a profound poke at religion as such that I think was not deeply good for her life. The whole passage is lively and musical—but it hints at the sneer in Emily Dickinson which made her life painful to her.
In a letter of August 1862, she responds to a phrase of Higginson this way: “Of ‘shunning Men and Women’—they talk of Hallowed things, aloud—and embarrass my Dog—He and I don’t object to them, if they’ll exist their side.” So she and her dog don’t object to people as long as they keep away. And as time passed, Emily Dickinson did have to do with fewer and fewer people. She is an important American writer. But in her enjoying somewhere the finding of people hypocrites and herself superior, she is like millions of people who never wrote a line of good verse.
I’ll quote one more passage—from a letter (#233) to an unidentified person, a man whom she cared for: “Have you the Heart in your breast—Sir—is it set like mine—a little to the left—has it the misgiving—if it wake in the night?” This is part of a sentence and could be studied a long time for its fine style and its rhythm; but I have quoted it because Emily Dickinson is doing here what is necessary for real love and real civilization: asking with fervent sincerity, Is this person, different from me, like me too?...