I never saw a moor, I never saw the sea; Yet know I how the heather looks, And what a wave must be.
(Brave words, but I think that waves would have surprised her with their complexity and power and sensuousness.) There’s a newer suggestion that she lived so reclusively because she suffered from epilepsy, and wanted to hide it as much as possible out of a sense of shame.
Strange woman, strange life, strange little poems… but remarkably insightful, accessible, and word-for-word memorable.
Her thoughts were all inside her – Free from reality – Poor little cramped-up spider Who never saw the sea.
Much though I love her insightful and often wicked little poems, and deeply though I sympathise with her for (as I have heard) the traumatic and embarrassing seizures that restricted her life, I still have difficulty with this specific Emily Dickinson poem:
I never saw a Moor — I never saw the Sea — Yet know I how the Heather looks And what a Billow be.
I never spoke with God Nor visited in Heaven — Yet certain am I of the spot As if the Checks were given —
(There are two versions of this poem in circulation; but her poems were only edited and published after her death, and subsequently researched, de-edited and republished.) With all due respect, Miss Emily, if you had actually experienced the sea you would have realised that there is no way that a description and a couple of paintings can hope to capture the totality of waves: their warmth or chill, their taste, their sound, their movement against the body, the enjoyment, the danger, their feel in the water, their feel on a boat, their impact on a sandy beach or on a reef or against a cliff…
This also suggests to me that her understanding of God and Heaven is way too simplistic. She is making a good unwitting case for agnosticism. ‘White Recluse’ was published in The Asses of Parnassus, a suitable place for snippy little poems.
I’m reading ‘Modern Verse in English, 1900-1950‘, ed. David Cecil and Allen Tate, published in 1958. It provides a good look at a large number of poets from that time period–some have lasted, some haven’t. It is an extensive and useful volume, but it raises some concerns:
1. Lord David Cecil‘s introduction (to the English poems) includes “though during the twenties there was a fashion for free and rhymeless verse, it has passed. Most young poets today write in strictly regular forms.” This was published in 1958, remember. Not really prescient, unfortunately, so you question his insight. He regrets omitting “the work of writers who have made their reputation since 1950, for example, Miss Audrey Beecham, Mr. Philip Larkin and Mr. Thom Gunn.” Well, two out of three’s not bad.
2. The ‘1900-1950′ seems a bit misleading, given that the poets include Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins who both died in the 1880s. True, Hopkins’ poetry wasn’t published until the 1930s–but would we consider an unknown Shakespeare poem 21st century if it was only discovered and published today? And as for Dickinson, three Series of her poems were published in the 1890s.
3. Although a couple of poets born in Ireland and South Africa, and Kipling, are included, the volume contains nothing by Canadians (Bliss Carman, Robert Service and F.R. Scott would fit the time line), Australians, West Indians, etc; and nothing by any people of colour such as Langston Hughes or Gwendolyn Brooks (one of my absolute favourites). Any of these would be far more worthy of inclusion than, for example, Donald Davidson whose chief merit for the editor of the American poems, Allen Tate, must have been their shared support for racial segregation. The volume would be better titled ‘Modern White English and American Verse, from Emily Dickinson to Richard Wilbur‘. Still not perfectly accurate, but so it goes.
It is a useful book. But it is less complete than its title suggests, and it is tainted.