August 5, 2010
Emily Dickison, who was born nearly 200 years ago, has long been an enigma. She was so reclusive that the townsfolk of Amherst, Massachusetts, where she spent her life, called her “the myth”, as if her very existence were in question. Few got so much as a glimpse of her white dress—as an adult she only wore white—and only ten of her poems were published in her lifetime. After her death in 1886, hundreds of others were discovered in a wooden chest, and a new legend grew up, sweet with pathos, of a woman too delicate for this world, disappointed in love.
Yet the mysterious poems were anything but sweet. Their startling violence and strange hiatuses—Dickinson’s trademark dashes for punctuation—seem to hint at a secret both precise and unknowable. Something was happening in the mind of the poet, the “funeral in my brain”, the volcanic “throe”. In “Lives Like Loaded Guns”, which was published in Britain in February and has now also come out in America, Lyndall Gordon, a South African-born literary biographer and academic, presents new and compelling evidence that there was an unsentimental reason behind the poet’s seclusion: the mysterious “It” to which Dickinson refers in her poetry was congenital epilepsy, a condition which also afflicted her cousin and nephew, and which was regarded as a stigma in the 19th century.