"How tame and manageable are the emotions of our bards, how placid and literary their allusions!" complained essayist T. W. Higginson in the Atlantic Monthly in 1870. "The American poet of passion is yet to come." He was, of course, unaware of the great erotic love poems such as "Wild Nights--Wild Nights!" and "Struck was I, nor yet by Lightning" being privately written by his reclusive friend Emily Dickinson.
In a profound new analysis of Dickinson's life and work, Judith Farr explores the desire, suffering, exultation, spiritual rapture, and intense dedication to art that characterize Dickinson's poems, and deciphers their many complex and witty references to texts and paintings of the day. In The Passion of Emily Dickinson the poet emerges, not as a cryptic proto-modern or a victim of female repression, but as a cultivated mid-Victorian in whom the romanticism of Emerson and the American landscape painters found bold expression.
Dickinson wrote two distinct cycles of love poetry, argues Farr, one for her sister-in-law Sue and one for the mysterious "Master," here convincingly identified as Samuel Bowles, a friend of the family. For each of these intimates, Dickinson crafted personalized metaphoric codes drawn from her reading. Calling books her "Kinsmen of the Shelf," she refracted elements of Jane Eyre, Antony and Cleopatra, Tennyson's Maud, De Quincey's Confessions, and key biblical passages into her writing. And, to a previously unexplored degree, Dickinson also quoted the strategies and subject matter of popular Hudson River, Luminist, and Pre-Raphaelite paintings, notably Thomas Cole's Voyage of Life and Frederic Edwin Church's Heart of the Andes. Involved in the delicate process of both expressing and disguising her passion, Dickinson incorporated these sources in an original and sophisticated manner.
Farr's superb readings of the poems and letters call on neglected archival material and on magazines, books, and paintings owned by the Dickinsons. Viewed as part of a finely articulated tradition of Victorian iconography, Dickinson's interest in the fate of the soul after death, her seclusion, her fascination with landscape's mystical content, her quest for honor and immortality through art, and most of all her very human passions become less enigmatic. Farr tells the story of a poet and her time.
Farr...is one of the most intelligent and authoritative guides to this extraordinary American poet.
Well-argued and eloquently written...Farr's study contributes essential cultural and historical contexts and offers superb readings of Dickinson's letters and lyrics. For these reasons, The Passion of Emily Dickinson enriches our understanding of one of the greatest and most enigmatic of American poets.
A richly revealing contribution...[with] eye-opening readings of' Dickinson's poems.
I admire [the book’s] even temperament… Farr admirably avoids ideological rigidity, even while acknowledging, and adopting, strengths of particular advocates. Her relating Dickinson to nineteenth-century American art is a major contribution.
Farr has opened new ground in our understanding of the poetry. I find entirely convincing her consideration of the relationships with Hudson River and Luminist painting in the period.
- 416 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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